New Kids on the Block

by Jim McCabe 

Norwegian Viktor Hovland joins Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa as the newest PGA Tour stars and the trio is drawing comparisons to the great Tour rookies of the past.

Viktor Hovland 

courtesy of Getty Images

What remains the most captivating topic on the PGA Tour is a long-running story – the well-seasoned icon named Tiger Woods. Headed to the home stretch of his 45th birthday, Woods continues to generate enthusiasm amongst fans, curiosity with colleagues, and ratings for TV producers.

But if we turn to other discussions that ignite interest with serious golf fans, a leading topic involves a trio of youngsters who were either in diapers or not even born when Woods first turned the golf world upside down with his incomparable 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters.

Truly, we have welcomed another generation of professional golfers when we’re talking about kids who got serious about golf when Woods was on the back nine of his brilliant career, but we can point specifically to a most brilliant trio – Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff. 

By now, their meteoric rise on The Tour has been well documented, although we need to remind ourselves of the excessive speed at which they have notched up notable achievements, just to offer due respect. Up until late spring in 2019, they were three of the best amateur golfers in the world, collegiate stars in the United States at the University of Oklahoma (Hovland and Wolff) and the University of California (Morikawa). Hovland set the tone for his inevitable professional career by winning the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

“I’ve kind of always naturally doubted myself a little bit,” says Hovland, “but I think when I won that, it really gave me the belief that I had something to do in this game.”

Before summer 2019 would come to an end, the trio would become the latest hotshot collegians getting Tour tee times at the back of the field as sponsors’ exemptions. But by the fall, they were charging up the world rankings, consistently grabbing headlines, opening eyes, and generating massive interest. 

“I think, honestly when (the three of us) were in college and looking forward to turning pro, that was definitely our plan, if you will, that we were obviously dreaming about (winning together),” Hovland said back in March. “But for all of us to have won within a year, I mean, it’s fairly remarkable. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s a pretty crazy ride.

Matthew Wolff enjoys a laugh on the course

Courtesy of Getty Images

Collin Morikawa lifts the Wanamaker Trophy following his victory at this year’s PGA Championship
Courtesy of OMEGA

Their legions of fans can recite the fast-track in numbers:

After Morikawa, who was 22, played his first Tour event as a pro, he was ranked No. 1,039 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He won in his sixth start and one year later, with only 29 tournaments under his belt, he has three wins to his name including a Major championship and stands at No. 5 in the world (for the record, that means he has passed 1,034 players in just 13 months).

Hovland, a personable young man from Norway, turned professional at the age of 21, a week after Morikawa made the cut, and was ranked 340th in the OWGR. It took him until his 12th start to post a victory and now, just 20 tournaments into his pro career, he stands 30th in the OWGR, as of August 10, 2020.

Wolff was 20 when he made his debut alongside Hovland in June 2019 and when that tournament was over, he sat 1,641st in the world. His third start was a victory and now, just 24 tournaments in, Wolff is 36th in the OWGR.

OK, so it’s not quite as fast as Bryson DeChambeau’s ball speed, but you’ve got to hand it to these youngsters. 

“I think we had a lot of people watching us knowing, yeah, they could be the ‘next guys’, and who knew if we were or we weren’t going to be,” Morikawa said recently. “So we had that entire summer to go and make something happen. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my game and everything about how to be a professional out there. It’s been a lot of fun and I love every part of it, so I’m excited to keep it going.”

World Golf Hall of Fame member Curtis Strange, although by no means being dismissive of any of these three youngsters, has his own words of caution. “Whoa, let’s not crown them so quickly; let’s see how they handle the stage, what continues to work for them.”

Strange does praise Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff for the way in which they have exploded into view and especially loves how “they each own their swing, and that’s key for any player in being able to perform under pressure, which is why I think they will continue to have success.”

Strange is  clearly not a big fan of this constant rush to anoint players, or groups of players, as “the best”. For one, a PGA Tour career is a marathon, not a sprint, and every serious competitor is focused on being successful for 15 or 20 years, not just 10 months. And secondly, this fascination with constantly judging everything to be better today than yesterday is a by-product of having very little feel for history.

For instance, Strange is like a lot of observers; he admires how quickly Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff have established a PGA Tour presence. But he cautions against calling them “the best” group of rookies arriving at the same time. For those with short-term capabilities, Strange asks, “Wasn’t it just a few years ago that we were touting another group of kids as ‘the best?’”

He is of course referring to the amount of attention heaped upon the high school ‘Class of ’11’ - kids named Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers and Daniel Berger. They all made their PGA Tour debuts in 2014-15, with Berger, who played at Florida State, eventually earning the Rookie of the Year honour over Thomas, a standout at the University of Alabama.

What adds even more flavour to this note is that Jordan Spieth and Emiliano Grillo – others from that 2011 class – copped Rookie of the Year honours, in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

As much as Strange gives high marks to the four combined wins for Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff, he again emphasises the “marathon, not a sprint” mantra and points out that Thomas already owns a Major championship among his 13 wins and that he has had at least one win in each of his five seasons, that Berger has won three times, and that if you extend the “group” to include Spieth, you can add three Majors and 11 wins.

Indeed, Thomas, Spieth and Berger – all born in 1993 – are used by Strange to support his notion that you need to let players season and not get overly excited by what they do right away. There was reason to be impressed with them early, but even more so by how they have maintained their level of excellence.

“A lot of talented kids win early, and then hit a comfort zone,” notes Strange. “It’s like they’ve played beyond their abilities.”

Hovland and his caddie in celebratory mode
Courtesy of Getty Images

Should you feel the need to affix the term “greatest ever” to the trio of Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff, don’t look for Strange to back you up. He knows that the greatest triumvirate of them all – Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson – all of whom were born in 1912 - and while their full entry onto that era’s PGA Tour came in different years (Nelson, 1935; Snead, 1937; Hogan, 1938) it remains a big part of folklore how they are intertwined.

“The fact that those three guys have won already is unbelievable,” says Thomas. “They probably don’t even realise how impressive it is. They also understand how talented they are, and we do too; they’re going to be out there for a long time.”

Wolff appears to be in accord with Thomas.

“What we did is pretty unbelievable,” he said earlier this year. “You’ve seen it happen before, but to have three guys come (out) and use their sponsor exemptions in the same year to get their PGA Tour card right off the bat, is pretty exceptional.”

Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff are just the latest. But we need to let them play on for years to come before we offer a complete assessment

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