It's a testament to just how strong the crop of young, up-and-coming PGA Tour players is when they can collectively make last year's hot player in the early season—super-long-hitting Cameron Champ—seem both old (at 24!) and old news.
The five players at the top of our 2020 heat index are 22 or younger, and three of them have already won on tour. We asked Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Brian Manzella to put on his color commentating hat and offer his prognostication about what makes their games special, and how he would rank them for career potential. "This is a fun game, because every one of these guys has shown special stuff already," says Manzella, who is based at English Turn Golf & Country Club in New Orleans. "The other part that has to get you excited about the future of the sport is that all of these players have games with different flavors. They all came to the tour more ready than players did even 10 or 15 years ago, and when you mix them in with the young players who are already here, like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, you've got the ingredients for a fascinating season."
What makes Collin Morikawa's game the best all-around
Age: 22 Key Result: Won Barracuda Championship Key Stat: Total Strokes Gained—1.232 (would have been 14th with enough rounds to qualify)
Scout's Take: "Need more proof that players come to the tour a little more ready than they did even 10 years ago? Morikawa was competitive right from the start—as all these players were—and when he had a chance to close the deal, he did. Of the five players on this list, Morikawa has the purest swing from a mechanics standpoint. He's one of those guys where even though he isn't very big, he gets plenty of distance and height, like Rickie Fowler or Jason Day. The statistical profile is like peak Jason Day, too. A guy who hits it far and straight, and has a terrific game on and around the green. You can win money on the PGA Tour as a one-dimensional player who has one awesome skill. That's not something he's going to have to worry about. He can do everything well. I think he's going to be a star. I especially like his flexed left wrist at the top, which keeps him from over flexing in transition. It's a new trend on Tour.
Why Viktor Hovland's heart is as important as his swing
Age: 22 Key Result: 6th, Korn Ferry Tour Finals Key Stat: Proximity—30'1" (would have been first on Tour if he had enough rounds to qualify)
Scout's Take: "As good as Morikawa looks, Hovland is right there with him or maybe just a touch behind him in terms of the way his swing looks. What stands out to me is his dynamic hip action and how fast he can extend his left wrist after having it flexed pre-impact—which is pure speed. And it never looks like he's going to hit in anywhere but where he wants. The ball-striking numbers are just crazy good. But what Hovland really has something nobody has ever figured out how to teach. When it's time to earn the money and grab the trophies in the final round, he has a different gear. It's hard to bet against a guy who can ratchet it up like that. He's like Jordan Spieth from a couple years ago in that respect. He's also totally fearless. When was the last time you saw a guy actually do a drill in the real swing he uses in a tournament and feel totally comfortable going with it when it matters—like he does with that pump-drill-driver thing? The guy doesn't care what it looks like to anybody else, and he's totally confident in his own approach. When you can mix that together with athleticism, talent and strong technique—all of which he has—the sky is the limit.”
Why you should enjoy Joaquin Niemann's swing while it lasts
Age: 20 Key Result: Won Military Tribute at The Greenbrier Key Stat: Strokes Gained Putting: -0.170 (141st)
Scout's Take: "Putting Niemann third on this list isn't any kind of slam. The other two guys are really good—and so is he. But Morikawa and Hovland have swings that look like they can hold up through the years. Look at video of Phil Mickelson when he was in college, and you immediately recognize what's going on because it hasn't changed much. Niemann's swing is one that is very, very tough on the body—with that dramatic upper body tilt and lower body movement. There's a famous video of Johnny Miller teeing off on the first hole at the Olympic Club at the U.S. Open as an amateur, and you just stop and say, whoa...Fast forward to Miller years later, when he was an established pro, and he had calmed it down. And that's probably what you're going to get with Niemann. When you're 20, you can do that kind of stuff, but he's going to have to make some changes as he gets older. It's unsustainable for a career. The other thing that stands out dramatically is the putting stats. If he gets just a little better there—and you saw it during the week he just had at The Greenbriar—you're talking about a guy who is only 20 years old with multiple PGA Tour wins. That's Tiger-Rory-Jordan territory."
How Matthew Wolff's game is feast or famine
Age: 20 Key Result: Won 3M Championship Key Stat: Birdie Average: 4.34 (would have been 7th with enough rounds)
Scout's Take: "What does the modern tour player have to be able to do now? You have to be able to hit a 7-iron 200 yards over the water to a tight pin. You have to rip it. You just can't smooth it there. And there's no "smoothing it" in what Wolff does. He's doing whatever he can to hit it high and hard. Some guys might hit their 7-iron better at 180 yards, but today’s game says you have to rip it. He's taking a club and a half less for a shot than players did even three years ago, and just destroying it high and far. If you were introducing athletic kids to the game and trying to get them to hit it as far as possible, you’d do a lot of what he does—wide right arm, club across the line, unrestricted hips. There's no compactness. No restriction. He's essentially going out there and smashing it and playing for the three or four weeks a year when it's all working and the putter is hot. That's not a criticism. It's a viable strategy. Where he's doing some catch up to these other players is with the shorter clubs, where you're hitting something off-speed. I don't know that it's necessarily his technique, because once you get past the way he starts and the angle of the club on the backswing, it's really tour stock down by the ball when it matters. I think that's just the element of his game he's going to work on. Everyone out there knows the realities of their stats, and where they need to go to shave those fractions of shots."
How Sungjae Im proves nobody will outwork him
Age: 21 Key Result: PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Key Stat: Strokes Gained Around the Green: .285 (23rd)
With all the players coming out over the last few years, it's easy to forget just how good Im has been for a player so young. He was dominant on the Korn Ferry Tour two years ago as a teenager, shooting 60 in qualifying and becoming the youngest winner on that tour's history. What's different about him is that his game is more based on relentlessness than explosiveness. He's got a fantastic short game, but his stats show more consistency than dominance. His swing has a lot of what I call a “push-and-roll chase" going on in it. He looks like he's really trying to steer or shove the clubhead down the target line. We're in a world now where 295 off the tee is pretty much middle of the pack, which is where he is. What he's proven is that he will grind it out more than anybody. He played 35 times last year, and what he's going to find out over the next few years is how the body handles so much more golf—more rounds, more practice, more everything. Plenty of players have made a career out of simply outworking everybody else."
Kevin C. Cox