About a dozen years ago, during the Heritage Classic pro-am, a big kid caddying for one of the amateurs claimed that he was a pretty good stick. So Nick Price, the professional in the group, surprised the boy when they reached Harbour Town's 4th hole, a 200-yard par-3. "O.K., let's see what you've got," Price said, handing him a club and a ball. The youngster calmly teed up the ball, made a smooth, professional-looking swing and knocked the ball on the green. That boy was D.J. Trahan, who is now a rookie on the PGA Tour. He finished 38th at last week's Colonial. "I was 12 or 13, and it was really cool," Trahan says, recalling Price's challenge. "It was something you wouldn't expect."
Everyone expects big things from Trahan, who after he was done caddying went on to win the 2000 U.S. Public Links and lead Clemson to the 2003 NCAA championship. He is also one of the answers to a question that's been a hot topic on the PGA Tour the past few years: Where are the great young American golfers? The answer: As with Trahan, they're right under our noses. Witness Sean O'Hair, the lean 22-year-old who turned pro while still in high school. He officially arrived two weeks ago when he shot a 14-under 266 to finish second to Ted Purdy at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.
"We have tons of young talent out here, players who will have massive careers," says veteran pro Paul Azinger. "I had lunch with Trahan two weeks ago and asked how old he was. He said, 'Twenty-four.' I said, 'Wow, I've played the Tour for 24 years.'"
There was a dearth of homegrown twentysomething talent for a while, although as fortysomething pro John Cook says, "There's one guy in his late 20s who's still pretty good," referring to his pal Tiger Woods, who'll turn 30 in December. But who will replace Woods as the best U.S. player in his 20s? There is no shortage of candidates. Nine of the top 40 players on the 2005 PGA Tour money list are Americans in their 20s. So are 17 of the top 100 and 21 of the top 125. Call them Generation Z, because apparently we were snoozing as they were coming into their own. Trahan, who had back-to-back top 10 finishes this month in New Orleans and Charlotte, and O'Hair are simply the latest in a wave of young Americans to blindside the Tour in recent months. Consider:
May 29, 2005
•Kevin Na, the youngest player on Tour at 21, has had two runner-up finishes, including a playoff loss to Geoff Ogilvy in Tucson.
•Lucas Glover, 25, is fourth on Tour in top 10 finishes this year, with five.
•James Driscoll, 27, the runner-up in the 2000 U.S. Amateur, lost a playoff to Tim Petrovic in New Orleans.
•Charles Warren, 29, has earned more than $527,000 this year, nearly enough to guarantee his card for 2006.
Any discussion about young Americans starts with Charles Howell who, at 25, has won nearly $10 million, and Jonathan Byrd, a two-time Tour winner. Then there's Ryan Palmer, the 2004 Disney winner; Zach Johnson, the '04 BellSouth Classic champion who was 19th on last year's money list; Vaughn Taylor, the survivor of a wild playoff in the '04 Reno-Tahoe Open; Ben Curtis, the '03 British Open champion; and Hunter Mahan, who had a strong second half in '04, a year in which he won more than $800,000.
Another foursome of young U.S. players with star potential--none older than 26--awaits its chance to make a mark. Bill Haas, the son of Jay and an All-America golfer at Wake Forest, is considered a can't-miss prospect, as is Bryce Molder, a former Georgia Tech standout who is playing on the Nationwide tour. Boy wonder Casey Wittenberg, the 2003 U.S. Amateur runner-up who turned pro after a season at Oklahoma State, is playing the Tour on sponsors' exemptions. The best of them all may be Ryan Moore, the UNLV senior who was named the 2005 Ben Hogan Award winner this month after dominating last year's amateur scene with victories in the U.S. and Western Amateurs and in the NCAAs.
Suddenly, despite concern that no young Americans recently had come to the fore, the future of U.S. golf doesn't look so bleak. "The Ryder Cup skewed everything," says Howell, disputing the notion that the cupboard was bare. "When Europe beat us last year, [the public] saw some young guys on the European team who can really play. Without the Ryder Cup none of those comments would've been made." In fact, the Ryder Cup was something of a battle of the ages. The Euros had five players in their 20s (Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Sergio García, David Howell and Ian Poulter) while the U.S. had only one (Woods) but had three in their 40s (Fred Funk, Davis Love III and Kenny Perry) and one in his 50s (Haas).
Patience doesn't come easily to members of Generation Z. Na was tested when he made bogey and lost the playoff in Tucson in February. "Tucson still pops into my head once in a while, and I'll think, What an idiot!" he says.
Like O'Hair, Na skipped college and turned pro right after high school. He won more than $900,000 last year and is 34th on the '05 money list. He has the game and the ambition to be a top player, as Azinger tried to explain at the pro-am draw party at this year's Houston Open. "I told those guys, 'The future of the game is on the board, and [none of the amateurs] is picking him [as a partner],'" Azinger says. "Kevin went, like, fourth from last. I couldn't believe it."
Clearly the Generation Z era is upon us. Says Azinger, "There's a bigger question than, Are any of the Americans in their 20s going to be stars? That is: Does anyone have the ability to beat Tiger when he's in his 30s?"
While we wait for Generation Z's response, we promise not to doze off.
TOP 10 GEN Z
Call them Generation Z, the American twentysomethings who are so talented that it's only a matter of time before they blossom. Jim Suttie, who teaches at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill., and is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, ranked the top 10 Gen Z players based on their potential, and he offered insight into their games.
|Rank||Age||Tour Starts||Top 10||W (Best Finish)||'05 Money||Suttie's Skinny|
|23||18||1||0 (T9th, '04 Deutsche Bank)||$148,531||Of all the young guys, he has the best chance to make a mark. A mature talent with a beautiful swing, he's a feel, not a mechanical, player.|
|24||145||27||1 ('02 Michelob)||$1,073,463||Long and straight with a great swing, but hasn't come into his own. Has trouble controlling distance with irons and needs to work on putting.|
|22||4||0||0 (13th, '05 Masters)||Amateur||Independent--a trait of a winner--and mentally strong. Has a homemade swing with lots of angles, but he knows it will repeat. A long hitter.|
|29||49||8||1 ('04 BellSouth)||$992,084||A winning combination: an accurate driver and deft iron player who hits high, soft approaches. Zach's also a fighter who will never choke.|
|22||12||1||0 (2nd, '05 Byron Nelson)||$946,494||Mature for age. Fairly long, but needs to work on accuracy. Short game can also be below average. Plays like Stewart Cink--extremely consistent.|
|24||20||2||0 (9th, '05 Zurich Classic, Wachovia)||$430,881||Very strong and long off the tee--he can fly most trouble. Also hits lots of greens in regulation. Potentially, that adds up to superstardom.|
|27||104||12||2 ('02 Buick Challenge, '04 B.C. Open)||$270,318||Like Howell, in great physical shape--very flexible. Long, but sometimes inaccurate. Intense. Flattish swing. Ben Hogan influence is evident.|
|25||49||7||0 (T3rd, '05 Zurich Classic)||$808,273||Another bomber who hits lots of greens. A great talent who should be higher on money list. Needs to work on pitching and putting.|
|23||55||4||0 (T2nd, '04 Reno-Tahoe)||$259,958||Best swing of the young guys--always on plane with no excessive movement. Short game needs work. Laid back. Must adjust to life on Tour.|
|21||51||4||0 (2nd, '05 FBR Open, Chrysler Classic)||$962,981||Lots of Tour experience for his age. Short hitter, needs more accuracy with driver. Greens-hit percentage not so hot, either. Putter saves him.|