News & Opinion

Get ready for GenNext on PGA Tour

CROMWELL, Conn. – U.S. Amateur finalist Doug Ghim was in the Augusta National locker room at the Masters in April when he couldn't resist stopping Jason Day to tell him a story about the time when Ghim watched Day play at the Nationwide Tour's 2007 LaSalle Open. 

"It was the final round, and he hit this driver off the deck to like 15 feet and made 3," said Ghim, as if it happened yesterday, of the incident at The Glen Club in Glenview, Ill. "He threw the ball over to me. Nobody knew who he was at the time. He was 19 and from Australia, and the whole crowd was following the guy who won the tournament [John Riegger], and I found him on the putting green and got him to sign the ball. When I told him that story, he said, 'That's crazy. That's the kind of stuff that makes me love what I do.' He was so gracious and gave me advice on how to play the Masters."

As for the autographed ball, it's still in Ghim's bedroom, tucked away for safekeeping on the bookshelf at his childhood home in Arlington Heights, Ill. At last week's U.S. Open, it was Day who stopped Ghim in the locker room and congratulated him on winning the Ben Hogan Award given to golf's best college player.

Doug Ghim (right), with his father, Jeff, on the bag last week at the U.S. Open, helps lead the next generation of talent into professional golf at the Travelers Championship.

Doug Ghim (right), with his father, Jeff, on the bag last week at the U.S. Open, helps lead the next generation of talent into professional golf at the Travelers Championship.

"It's wild to think I'll be playing against him this week," Ghim, 22, said.

It's that time of year when a new crop of college players, fresh off the NCAAs – and in Ghim's case, a final amateur start at last week's U.S. Open, in which he missed the cut – make the leap to the play-for-pay ranks. Ghim is making his pro debut and is joined this week in the field at the Travelers Championship by Illinois teammates Dylan Meyer, who finished T-20 in his pro debut a week earlier at the Open, and Nick Hardy, who teed it up as a pro at the Tour's Rust-Oleum Championship (tee times).

“There are no guarantees out there,” Illini coach Mike Small told the Pioneer Press’ Steve Sadin. “You have to make your own way. It’s the purest form of American capitalism there is. It’s no 9-to-5 job.”

But if it seems as if the pros are getting younger, you're right. A record 49 of the PGA Tour's top 125 on the 2017 FedEx Cup points standings were in their 20s, and the average age on Tour has dipped more than 2½ years in the past decade, to 32.2. The youth movement is more pronounced at the top, where eight of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking are 20-somethings, as are all four holders of the men's major championships.

Si Woo Kim, at 21, was barely legal to celebrate with a glass of champagne when he won the 2017 Players Championship, and Aaron Wise, 21, visited the winner's circle for the first at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May. Both are chasing the remarkable achievements of Spieth, the defending champion at the Travelers and whose eight Tour victories at age 22 and younger was one more than Tiger Woods and second only to Horton Smith's 14 back in the hickory-stick days of 1928-30.  

Spieth, who won three majors before his 25th birthday, says he isn't quite feeling old yet, but marveled that Ghim, his practice-round partner in a match against Ryan Palmer and Chad Campbell on Tuesday, already has exhausted his college eligibility at Texas. 

"Like, did he graduate in three years?" said Spieth, who spent three semesters at Texas. "I thought it has to be. There's no way he's already done with school, but time kind of flies." 

Why are college kids and top-ranked amateurs making such a seamless transition to the PGA Tour these days? Spieth credits the comfort level to their already having played the equivalent of a miniature version of a Tour schedule.

"These tournaments we're playing in the AJGA, the college events, they are structured like PGA Tour events," Spieth said. "You've had better competition on tougher golf courses, and you take the next step."

Ghim and his fellow newbies will attempt to take advantage of up to seven sponsor exemptions and follow in the footsteps of Chile's Joaquin Niemann, a 19-year-old still wearing braces, who since turning pro after the Masters has recorded three top 10s in his first six starts to earn special temporary membership through the rest of the season. (The backup plan is to earn enough to qualify for the Tour Finals, obtain a card there and bypass golf's minor leagues.)

"They look like pups," Day, 30, said last month at the Memorial, where Niemann held a share of the lead on Sunday before settling for a tie for sixth. "These guys are just coming out with a boatload of confidence. They're not scared to shoot low numbers, and they're not scared to play against the best players in the world."

At the Memorial, Woods was asked about this latest teen sensation and said Niemann reminded him of when Spain's Sergio Garcia first was nipping at Woods’ heels. Day won the Legend Financial Group Classic two weeks after he signed that ball for Ghim to become the youngest winner on the Nationwide Tour, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Nowadays, it seems as if some Diaper Dandy with a mouthful of metal is in contention every week.

"These guys are coming out with all the confidence and the power,” Day said, “and you've just got to keep working hard to try and stay ahead.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force.; Twitter: @adamschupak