News & Opinion

Rookies win early, but will they repeat?

The Puerto Rico Open at The Trump International Golf Club
The Puerto Rico Open at The Trump International Golf Club in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Lost in all the hullabaloo of Tiger Woods' resurgence in 2018 was the remarkable rise of Martin Trainer from thinking it might be time to get a real job to having a full-time gig on the PGA Tour.

A year ago, Trainer advanced from having to Monday qualify into the Web.com Tour's El Bosque Mexico Championship to winning that week and finishing fourth on the regular-season money list to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 season. It gave every struggling wannabe pro hope to keep hanging on, because the game could click at any time. Trainer is the current poster boy for those who believe that any given week in professional golf can change a life.

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Martin Trainer

Last week, Trainer climbed another rung on the professional-golf ladder with his first Tour victory, at the Puerto Rico Open. When media official Doug Milne ticked off the perks of the victory – a two-year exemption and invites to the Players Championship in March, the PGA Championship in May and the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January – Trainer told him to continue.

"And so forth," Milne said.

"No, not 'and so forth,' " Trainer said. "Tell me everything else. I don't even know what I'm going to be getting into."

"You'll not have much down time,” Milne said. “We'll leave it at that.”

Ah, youthful exuberance. It's hard not to feel good for Trainer, who didn't get to the PGA Tour until age 27 and then needed just nine starts to reach the winner's circle. He joins fellow rookie Adam Long, 31, who pipped Phil Mickelson with a birdie at 18 to win the Desert Classic in his sixth career Tour start, and Cameron Champ, 23, who claimed the Sanderson Farms Championship in his ninth career start as rookie champions.

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Winning on the PGA Tour came quickly to rookie Cameron Champ.

Three rookie winners in the first 16 Tour events may not be earth-shattering news, but it does support a belief of mine that winning on Tour never has been easier. Kevin Tway, who took 90 starts before hoisting a trophy at the season-opening Safeway Open, and Charles Howell III, who ended a nearly 12-year victory drought at the RSM Classic, might beg to differ.

It wasn't that long ago when Adam Scott and Dustin Johnson were the only players with multiple victories among players in their 20s. But Woods, besides winning eight to 10 times a year and preventing a generation from winning enough for World Golf Hall of Fame consideration, also gave rise to an influx of young, athletic talent. Talk to a Champions Tour pro and he’ll tell you that in his day, he had to learn to shape shots and to flight the ball at different trajectories.

"You were almost serving an apprenticeship," Woody Austin told me at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf during the pro-am. "You had to cut your teeth and get experience on Tour before you were ready to go win, and if you were any good, you'd do so in your 30s. Now, they come out of the box and they're ready to go."

Austin went on a lengthy rant about equipment, and he's not wrong. The biggest factor, he says, is that the golf ball doesn't curve anymore, and the penalty for hitting it crooked is less severe. So, newly minted pros don't have to learn to work the ball both ways; just grip it and rip it. Another factor is that the equipment is so much easier to match. It used to take months of trial and error to find the right shaft and driver. If it used to take a player three months to determine that his driver is spinning the ball too much, it is now revealed in three shots. Now a player sets up his TrackMan, it spews out numbers and the whole bag can be reconfigured in an afternoon. Game-changer.

The reason "these guys are good" is less of a secret. Players are being groomed like future pros well before they arrive at college. And when they turn pro, they travel with an entourage of swing, fitness and mental coaches. Take up-and-comer Joaquin Niemann, 20, who has Carlos Rodriguez, longtime manager of Sergio Garcia, to show him the ropes and had the watchful eye of short-game guru Stan Utley at his disposal ahead of the Honda Classic.

"Is it less scary because they are better equipped?" former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell mused. "These kids all just seem to have a general belief level that we didn't have when we were their age."

Seamless transitions by rookies Champ, Long and Trainer continue a recent trend. In 2017-18, it didn't take long for rookies Austin Cook (RSM Classic) and 21-year-old Aaron Wise (AT&T Byron Nelson) to break through. A year earlier, it was Cody Gribble (Sanderson Farms), Mackenzie Hughes (RSM Classic), Wesley Bryan (RBC Heritage) and Grayson Murray (Barbasol Championship). Let's go back one more year. In 2015-16, Emiliano Grillo (Frys.com Open) and Smylie Kaufman (Shriners Hospitals for Children Open) won the first two events out of the gate as rookies. But here's the rub: the maiden win came quickly, but none of these golfers has won since.

Who said winning is easy?

"I don't think it is ever easy to win out here," said another former U.S. Open champ, Lucas Glover. "The guys who've won early just prove the depth out here and how ready guys are now."

Why is the second victory the hardest? Blame it on rising expectations. They've won before, so surely they can do it again. But one sandwich doesn't make for a picnic. The pressure to validate mounts. The one-hit-wonder talk rises, as do the questions: Are we watching the first act of a Hall of Fame career for Champ, or is the burden of expectation starting to weigh on him already (two missed cuts and no top-25s in his past five starts)?

"That is the hurdle. Winning seems to be easier to do nowadays, but what do you do after you win?" McDowell said. "Everyone tells you how to get to the top of the mountain, but no one tells you what to do once you get there or how to get down the other side or what the next mountain is."

That is the great challenge that Trainer, Long and Champ must face. May their first Tour victory not be their last.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak