On PGA Tour, the kids are all-in al­ready

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JA­COB FELD­MAN

With­out con­text, the pic­ture might ap­pear to cap­ture three 21year-olds cel­e­brat­ing a once-in-al­ife­time en­counter with star golfer Jor­dan Spi­eth as he pre­pared for the Valspar Cham­pi­onship in March. One stands to Spi­eth’s right, lean­ing in, while two are on his left, smil­ing through squints for the cam­era. Spi­eth, now ranked No. 2 in the world, went on to win that tour­na­ment.

But then the cap­tion gives it away, writ­ten by Justin Thomason In­sta­gram.

“Ju­nior golf re­union,” he wrote. “Fun [prac­tice] round with the boys #clas­sof2011.”

Thomas, Daniel Berger and Ol­lie Schniederjans have known Spi­eth for years. They com­peted against each other in Ju­nior PGA tour­na­ments, U.S. Am­a­teur events and NCAA cham­pi­onships. Now

they all com­pete on the PGA Tour.

Though Spi­eth will be ab­sent this time, the other three will re­unite this week at at the Quicken Loans Na­tional at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., where they will com­pete with de­fend­ing tour­na­ment cham­pion Justin Rose, top-10 golfer Rickie Fowler, host Tiger Woods and oth­ers.

Thomas beat out Spi­eth for the 2012 Hask­ins Award, col­lege golf’s equiv­a­lent of the Heis­man Tro­phy. At the Valspar Cham­pi­onship, Thomas tied for 10th, one of six top-10 re­sults for the PGA Tour rookie this sea­son.

Berger ad­mits he de­vel­oped more slowly than Spi­eth or Thomas, but he blos­somed all the same. Also a rookie, Berger fin­ished sec­ond at the 2013 NCAA cham­pi­onships and ranks higher than Thomas in FedEx Cup points, though both are in the top 50.

And then there is Schniederjans, who chose to stay in col­lege for four years, where he be­came the No. 1 am­a­teur in the world. He turned pro last week af­ter fin­ish­ing tied for 12th at the Bri­tish Open and was tied for 11th through Satur­day’s third round of the Cana­dian Open.

There are other young play­ers com­ing up, too, even other mem­bers of the hyped high school class of 2011 ref­er­enced in Thomas’s cap­tion, but for now, these four rep­re­sent some of the big­gest young names in golf.

“This group of kids is a spe­cial petri dish of in­di­vid­u­als,” said Sean Fo­ley, Schniederjans’s swing coach. “We might not see one like it for another decade.”

There are two com­mon ex­pla­na­tions for to­day’s ex­plo­sion in young golf­ing tal­ent, and both in­volve Tiger Woods.

Schniederjans was not yet in first grade when Woods erupted onto the scene at the 1997 Mas­ters, win­ning his first ma­jor by 12 strokes and set­ting tele­vi­sion rat­ings records for golf along the way.

By the time the young golfers were de­cid­ing which sport to spe­cial­ize in, Woods was win­ning his sixth PGA Tour player of the year award in seven sea­sons.

Schniederjans said he was “fas­ci­nated” by Woods in those years. Fo­ley, who worked with Woods from 2010 to 2014, said those his­toric week­ends when Woods was “a fan­tas­tic hu­man be­ing in a red shirt and black pants” turned ath­letic teens into golfers, pre­vent­ing Schniederjans from po­ten­tially be­com­ing a short­stop or Spi­eth from pos­si­bly turn­ing into a quar­ter­back.

That Tiger Ef­fect led to another one: an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive Amer­i­can ju­nior field. Schniederjans said his re­cent suc­cess as an am­a­teur can be cred­ited to a highly com­pet­i­tive NCAA cir­cuit and tough matches be­fore that.

“We’ve played against other top play­ers, and it’s very com­pet­i­tive,” he said. “Ev­ery­one is do­ing ev­ery­thing they can with fit­ness and with their golf swing. I don’t think it was like that be­fore Tiger.”

Schniederjans added that see­ing how quickly Spi­eth and his peers ad­justed to PGA Tour play helps set the stan­dard for him and oth­ers, al­low­ing them to suc­ceed more quickly.

Fo­ley com­pared it to Roger Ban­nis­ter break­ing the four-minute mile. Nine years passed af­ter the stan­dard was set at 4 min­utes 1.4 sec­onds un­til Ban­nis­ter’s ground­break­ing time of 3:59.4 in 1954, but his record was bro­ken less than two months later.

“When you see peo­ple who were re­ally di­rect peers do­ing things you didn’t think were pos­si­ble, it changes your per­cep­tion,” he said. “More than any­thing, it’s, ‘I beat that guy half the time in ju­nior golf, so the world is my oys­ter.’ ”

Even if the young golfers are start­ing to feel like they be­long on tour, both Berger and Schniederjans ex­pressed ex­cite­ment about play­ing with Woods in his tour­na­ment. Berger, who shares the same sports man­age­ment firm as Woods, said they have got­ten lunch a cou­ple times, but it is still “pretty cool” to play in the same events as Woods af­ter watch­ing him from afar while grow­ing up.

Schniederjans, mean­while, said he has not met Woods be­fore and is hop­ing to this week.

With the tour­na­ment be­ing played at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club for the first time, Berger said his peer group will not be at the same disad­van­tage they are at other events, where vet­er­ans have years of ex­pe­ri­ence with each unique lay­out.

Berger, Thomas, and Schniederjans also will not have to worry about outscor­ing Spi­eth, who chal­lenged them for years and forced them to im­prove con­stantly. Now is their time to shine.

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