The fall series has been a nice downtime for older, more established stars for a while now. Since the FedEx Cup moved the Tour Championship from November to September back in 2007, many veterans have taken a month or two (or more) off after that to decompress from a lengthy golf season.
This has always allowed some young guns to sneak in and steal PGA Tour tournament trophies, but even then you still had older non-stars winning tournaments.
Consider the fall event winners in 2007: Stephen Ames, Daniel Chopra, Mike Weir, Justin Leonard, George McNeill, Chad Campbell and Steve Flesch. Average age at the time: 36.1 years old.
A quick blast through the seven fall events on the PGA Tour last year reveals an average age among the winners of 27.6. This year’s average so far between Hideki Matsuyama, Brendan Steele, Justin Thomas and Cody Gribble is just over 26.
Winners are seemingly getting younger and younger. Golfers are getting better and better at a younger age because there is more money to play for. There is a greater incentive to be elite at golf early in your life than there ever has been in the history of the sport. It should be no surprise that the winning circle is trending towards youth.
Incentives change for young players, too. For example, a golfer like Cody Gribble (age 26) who won the Sanderson Farms Championship on Sunday is probably motivated by money, locking up his PGA Tour card and simply proving to himself he can contend on the PGA Tour.
But the incentive for a Justin Thomas (age 23, won CIMB Classic) and Hideki Matsuyama (age 24, won HSBC Champions) is different. Both of them are ranked in the top 25 in the world. They have already made nearly $23 million combined in their careers. They are playing for world rankings points, to rack up wins and to prepare for major championships. Not so much for money.
Matsuyama even insinuated this after his monstrous win in China over Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy.
“And then today’s win proves to me I can compete with everyone,” Matsuyama told the Associated Press after winning the HSBC Champions on Sunday. “It will give me great confidence going forward, especially in the majors.”
All of this goes back, of course, to Tiger Woods. As most narratives in golf do. As I noted earlier, there is a great incentive [mostly monetarily] to be great at golf at a young age. There might be an even greater one to win and prepare properly for major championships. He ushered all of that in.
“I still think we have Tiger and the superstars of a few years — several years ago to thank for this youth movement because Tiger is the guy that — I guarantee you Justin Thomas was probably, what, how old was he in 2002? Anyone know? Doesn’t matter. He was watching Tiger fist pump and dominate and he said, ‘I want to do that,'” explained Peter Malnati, who was 28 when he won in the fall last year at the Sanderson Farms Championship.
“I was a little older than Justin Thomas when Tiger was doing that, but I was still playing baseball and other sports at the time but I thought Tiger Woods was the coolest thing, and I wanted to do that,” added Malnati. “So I think we have Tiger and the good players to thank for this youth movement, but it definitely is, man, it’s pervasive. It’s crazy to see. There are so many good young players.”
Young, great golfers are nothing new, but an overabundance of them is. That average age of fall winners (and probably winners overall) is not going up. This jives with the idea that the PGA Tour season has never been more of a slog. Staying mentally engaged for nine months is taxing, and more superstars are going to take more time off in the fall because they don’t need the money like stars of yesteryear.
Because of this you’re going to continue to see golf’s youth rise up and take over the sport. That’s a great thing for the present because it allows us a glimpse into the sport’s future. A future, might I add, that has never looked brighter.