On PGA Tour, the kids are all-in already
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.