Ed. note: GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck is counting down the six most impactful and enduring stories from a golf year that was at once weird and wonderful, unnerving and uplifting. Previously: The PGA Tour plays on.
How young has the PGA Tour gotten? Justin Thomas, 27, now counts as a wily veteran and Rory McIlory, 31, an actual old-timer. John Rahm just turned 26 and you can have a robust debate as to whether he has already aged out of the ongoing youth movement.
What changed the calculus is the stunning success in 2020 of a trio of youngsters: Collin Morikawa, 23, won the PGA Championship and made a strong bid for Player of the Year in his first full year on Tour; Matt Wolff, 21, contended to the bitter end at the PGA and U.S. Open — the first two major championship appearances of his nascent career; and Viktor Hovland, 23, won twice and joined his Class of ’19 mates in the top 15 in the World Ranking.
“The talent level of those guys is impressive,” says former young gun Paul Azinger, “but what’s scary is how prepared and professional and unafraid they are at such a young age. They showed up guns blazing.”
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There are even more precocious headliners. Sungjae Im, 22, won the Honda Classic and made a stirring debut at the Masters, finishing tied for second. Joaquín Niemann, 22, broke through for his first victory last year and has remained a consistent contender. (And special shout-out to the great Dane Rasmus Højgaard, 19, who in December 2019 became the first player born in the 2000s to win on the European Tour and then took his second title nine months later.)
Together, these young players are testament to the varied paths to stardom: Morikawa, Wolff and Hovland (a native of Norway) all came out of big-time college golf factories and took various short-cuts to the PGA Tour, putting to good use sponsor’s exemptions or, in the case of Hovland, roaring through the Web.com Finals; Im cut his teeth on the Japan Tour; Niemann (the pride of Chile) won amateur events all over the world, including the Latin-America Amateur Championship in 2018, which gave him a chance to study Augusta National while raising his profile dramatically. Despite their different journeys, these youngsters consider themselves brothers in arms.
“There is definitely a little rivalry but in a good way,” Im says. “We watch what the other ones are doing. It motivates me to keep working harder.”
So where do they go from here? Morikawa is the most precise player of the bunch, Wolff the most explosive, Hovland the best driver — and Im has the most ardent cult following, especially after the world watched him shape shots so adroitly during a gutty performance at Royal Melbourne during the 2019 Presidents Cup.
They all have the tools and fortitude for superstardom. But plenty of baby-faced players have arrived on the world stage propelled by hype and seemingly immense talent only to fizzle. Who among us remembers Ty Tryon or Matteo Manassero or Ryo Ishikawa? Or Bobby Clampett? Or David Gossett? Can’t-miss kids who have had all the tools but never quite became the players they were widely expected to be.
Will this new crop of skilled and charismatic youngsters continue to deliver on their collective promise? Stay tuned.