Weighing expectations versus reality for Matthew Wolff, Viktor Hovland and the tour pro class of 2019
Golf’s next big thing began in earnest in Cromwell, Conn. The quartet sat at a spartan table on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, but the conversation that surrounded them was far from hushed. "This group that's here before us today, what a bright future they have," said a moderator at last week's Travelers Championship.
That group comprised four All-Americans in NCAA champ Matthew Wolff, U.S. Amateur champ Viktor Hovland and former World Am No. 1s Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa. In principle, it was an introduction to the sport's newest faces: Wolff and Hovland making their professional debuts, Suh in just his second such start, Morikawa his third. Halfway through, it sounded like the siren song of conquerors.
Would any of you guys be surprised if you won this week? What kind of mark is this class going to leave on tour, and how good can you guys be out here? How much have you considered your brand, the marketing, in the same way Rickie Fowler has nearly successfully done it?
The group was not incendiary or brash, trying its best to downplay the proceedings. But the tenor of the press conference was clear: A lot is envisioned from this bunch, an outlook drilled into Morikawa by one of the game’s top names, Justin Thomas, at a recent dinner.
"What he offered was, you have so many expectations out there," Morikawa said. "[But] you don't know how it's going to start."
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Though Morikawa and Suh are not short on fanfare—Morikawa has made the cut in all three pro starts, including at the U.S. Open—the bulk of attention has centered on Oklahoma State's Wolff and Hovland.
The Wolff Train has been steaming down the tracks for some time. His viral swing—part baseball stance, part piñata cut—length and bravado are the trappings of a marketable star. He's backed it up on the course, sinking the NCAA-clinching putt as a freshman at the 2018 team championship and winning six times as a sophomore in the 2019 season—a program record, which included the NCAA individual title—while posting a 68.69 scoring average, the lowest in NCAA history.
"Obviously I believe that we can be the best players in the world," Wolff said at the Travelers. "I believe that in myself, and I think that's the most important thing."
That his coach, George Gankas, has become a social-media sensation hasn't hurt Wolff's popularity. As Gankas has told anyone who will listen, they are "disruptors," and few would debate this nom-de-guerre.
“Here comes Wolff, here comes Gankas, here comes a bunch of golfers who are going to change the game," Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said to PGATour.com. "They’re going to hit it 20 to 30 yards past what we thought were the longest players, and they’re going to have an advantage.”
Until recently, Hovland's profile was dwarfed by Wolff's shadow. The past few months have shown that Hovland's future looks just as bright, if not brighter, than his Stillwater teammate. After winning the U.S. Am at Pebble Beach last August, the 21-year-old grabbed low-amateur honors at the Masters (T-32) and U.S. Open (T-12), breaking Jack Nicklaus’ 59-year-old record for the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur at the national championship. At Pebble, Hovland was second in strokes gained/off-the-tee; at TPC River Highlands, he led the field.
How good is Hovland? Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington said the Norwegian, who is bypassing his senior season in college, can make the 2020 European team at Whistling Straits.
"It's given me a lot of the confidence that I can play out here, and to compete in majors is really, really fun," Hovland said. "It's the highest stage, and to perform at that level was really cool."
Coupled with the fact that Wolff and Hovland were part of arguably the greatest college team in four decades, well … Jon Rahm's talent was undeniable, and Bryson DeChambeau had plenty of intrigue, but in terms of raw enthusiasm, excitement and expectation—from fans, media and fellow players—golf hasn't seen hype like this since Rory McIlroy.
One problem: History says it will likely be short-lived.
Norman Xiong (above) is golf’s next big thing. At least he was, this time last year.
The hype was justified. In just 17 months at the University of Oregon, Xiong captured awards as the nation’s best freshman and top collegiate golfer, won the prestigious Western Amateur and helped guide the United States Walker Cup team to victory with a 3-0-1 record. He was incredibly long with surprising soft touch around the greens. His college coach, Casey Martin, a man not prone to hyperbole in a profession full of car salesmen, was adamant that Xiong was the real deal.
“I think Tiger is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman,” Martin said to Golf Channel last spring. “I haven’t seen much better than him at that age. He’s really that good.”
But Tiger never spent time in the minors, where Xiong resides after failing to make a cut in a PGA Tour event after turning pro last May. Or more specifically, languishes: He has missed the weekend in 10 of 14 starts on the Korn Ferry circuit this season, 152nd on the points list.
If you’re wondering why Xiong’s struggle is not a bigger story, it’s because his is far from singular.
Braden Thornberry, the 2017 NCAA champion out of Ole Miss, has just one top-25 finish since turning pro in December and is 116th in the Korn Ferry standings (the top 25 earn promotion, with the top 75 retaining full status on the KF Tour). Decorated Stanford product Maverick McNealy, currently on the fence in the KF’s top 25, labored in his first full pro season in 2018. One of just five players to win the NCAA and U.S. Am in the same year, DeChambeau had to go to the then-Web Tour Finals to secure his card and proceeded to miss 14 of 24 cuts in his rookie season before his breakthrough at the 2017 John Deere Classic.
In short: It’s really, really hard for young players at the start of their careers.
“Going through it last summer and being in that moment, it didn’t feel like much at all, but looking back, it was such a whirlwind,” Xiong said earlier this year. “You just have to keep your head down.”
This struggle is more than a recent trend. There have been 36 players to hold the No. 1 amateur ranking since its introduction in 2007. Only two of those players—Joaquin Niemann and Rahm—were able to secure their PGA Tour card without going through the old Qualifying School or the Web Tour Finals. (McIlroy became the youngest to secure European Tour membership, and Jordan Spieth went to Q school as an amateur. Hideki Matsuyama also merits mention, winning his second professional start on the Japan Tour.)
That's a better success rate than the Haskins Award winners. Given to the most outstanding collegiate golfer—past recipients of the award include Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Graeme McDowell, Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan—only Ryan Moore has accomplished this feat in this century.
In fact, prior to the world amateur ranking, since 1980, just six collegiate players—Moore, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Scott Verplank and Gary Hallberg—were able to attain full tour status in the same year without going to Q school. Bud Cauley, an All-American at Alabama, also bypassed Q school in 2011.
Combined, that equates to roughly one player every five years making the jump. Considering Niemann did it last season, the odds of any of the Wolff-Hovland-Morikawa-Suh gang making it are against them.
That improbability makes sense when understanding the task at hand. Though the rules have changed throughout the years—Charles Howell III was able to play 13 events in the summer when he turned pro—current non-members have a limit of seven starts per season. A player can be granted special temporary status, and unlimited starts, should he earn as many FedEx Cup points as the No. 150 player in last year's FEC standings. But to earn their card, they must meet or exceed the No. 125 player's points. It's a gauntlet considering a non-member gets just a third, even a fourth, of the starts. Case in point: Harris English, No. 125 on the 2018 FedEx Cup list, made 31 appearances last campaign. Niemann, with four top-10s, reached this figure in eight professional outings.
So what is the likely short-term future for the class of 2019?
Should these players fail to meet the top-125 benchmark, but make it inside the top 200, there is the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. It is another chance to secure status, if not for the PGA Tour (as one of the top 25 earners in the playoffs) then the Korn Ferry (top 50). For those outside that range—a large contingent; in our research, about 87 percent of collegiate golfers since 2012 with four or more starts fall in this category—it's off to the "new" Q school, where the top 40 and ties can receive eight guaranteed starts on the Korn Ferry Tour the next season, with only the medalist becoming fully exempt. Should they fall short here, players then must begin preparing an itinerary featuring Canada, South America and various Monday qualifiers.
Mind you, this all takes place in a five-month span (end of college to Q school). It is golf's meritocracy in a microwave.
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Sponsors understand these odds as well. Gone are the days of Ty Tryon banking $1 million before he teed it up. Despite what companies' announcements convey, endorsement deals aren't big-line items if the players never get to the PGA Tour, and they stay smallish until they get there. It is a sport sans bonus babies. Rahm, who already had two top-10s as an amateur on tour, was reportedly one of the few exceptions.
And one can't bank on more PGA Tour sponsor exemptions the following year. Xiong, that can't-miss, Tiger-comp prospect, has made all of one PGA Tour start in 2019. McNealy, whose family ties confer more connections than anyone, hasn't played since the alternate event Sanderson Farms Championship in the fall. This is not to pick on Xiong or McNealy; their games are solid. Ditto Thornberry. They are also a combined 65 years old. Despite the youth movement on tour, the transition from the amateur to professional ranks remains an endeavor.
Conversely, there's an unfortunate meat-market mentality when it comes to rising talents. They are given the opportunity only so long before the next up-and-comer gets his chance. Even now, high school phenom Akshay Bhatia and University of Texas All-American Cole Hammer are waiting for their turn.
Essentially, before expecting Wolff (below), Hovland and their ilk to conquer the game, they need to ensure they have a spot in the contest.
That can be a lot to put on a young 20-something, weight that has sunk countless should-have-been stars. To the class of 2019's credit, they seem up for the challenge: Morikawa is off an to auspicious start, Hovland not too far behind.
But it's Wolff, who made the cut but didn't finish at TPC River Highlands, who articulated the mind-set best:
"One of the best things I've heard is not from a player but from an agent," Wolff said. "He kind of told me, it's not a one-year career; it's a 20-career career, 30-year career. You're going to be playing this game for the rest of your life because that's what you love to do. I'm sure all these guys do as well.
"It's something that you don't feel added pressure, don't put expectations on the first five or six events that you play to get your tour card, because you know you're good enough. You know you're going to be out here eventually."
That is certainly the expectation for golf's next big thing. The next few weeks will show how close that is to reality.