The finish to the 3M Open in early July couldn’t have been a more revealing look at the way young players are taking their place on today’s PGA Tour. Matthew Wolff, all of 20, and Collin Morikawa, a ripe old 22, were both fresh out of college and playing on sponsor exemptions at the 3M. They had competed against each other for years, now they were in the last group on Sunday vying for the title.
Each golfer smashed drives of 300-yards-plus on the final par 5, a 531-yard hole defended by water at the TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minnesota. They followed that by lofting 5-irons toward the green, giving each of them a shot at an eagle. Wolff, calm, cool and collected, drained his 26-footer. Morikawa just missed his 23-footer for the tie. Wolff won $1.152 million with his first PGA victory, nipping Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau by one stroke. It was a sign that the newest flight of bright lights in golf were ready to take their place on the big stage.
“Who could have scripted having two of the youngest kids on tour battling for it?” Hollis Cavner, 3M Open executive director, says. “We called the Tour and asked them had they ever seen this, with two sponsor’s exemptions in the final group, and they said there’s no way. And then the way it unfolded. Unbelievable.”
Every season brings new players who were battle-hardened in the college ranks or through the Korn Ferry Tour, the training grounds for the PGA Tour. The players—most of them youngsters—are ready to win from the opening tee shot, ready to compete with the Koepkas, the McIlroys, the Johnsons, the elite of professional golf. And there just might be a journeyman or two who suddenly finds the secret, the spark, the belief that translates into a win and a steady job on the Tour.
There’s no question that young players coming to the Tour are ready to be there. The high school graduating class of 2011— Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, among others—stormed onto the Tour and claimed its riches and fame in short order, and now find themselves playing alongside the legends like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. With the new wraparound season underway, Cigar Aficionado takes a look at the host of new faces—as well as a couple of older ones—that are worth watching as we enter 2020. Some are proven winners, others are on the cusp of a victory, and all are eager to join the pantheon of champions who fans eagerly watch on Sunday.
If you don’t know Matthew Wolff’s face by now, there’s a good chance you know his swing, an extreme outside-in move with a distinct pre-shot waggle and leg kick. It makes Jim Furyk’s move look textbook.
Wolff won the NCAA individual championship while playing for Oklahoma State this year after leading the school to the team championship in 2018. In his third start as a professional he won the 3M Open in Minneapolis, giving him a two-year exemption on the Tour and also getting him into the first round of the PGA Tour playoffs.
He posted a video soon after his 3M win without his signature trigger move that got his fans, known as the Wolffpack, concerned that he had abandoned his unique twist. “There’s a lot of people out here that thought I wouldn’t make it or thought that my swing wouldn’t hold up,” Wolff said. “It was kind of just a little joke to all those people. It was kind of cool to throw the world for a little spin, but I’m definitely sticking with what works and what’s gotten me to this point.”
Wolff is long and accurate, and deft with the putter. During the 2018 season, he had a scoring average of 68.36, the best single-season mark in college golf history.
Collin Morikawa was a 19-year-old sophomore at Cal-Berkeley when he played in his first professional event, the Air Capital Classic on the Web.com Tour, and lost in a playoff. His talent and competitive prowess—he rose to the No. 1 world amateur ranking—seemed to indicate that leaving school early would be the best career move.
Instead, Morikawa decided to stick it out for four years of college, and upon graduating this spring his game had earned him a slew of sponsor exemptions. He made the cut in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and his second-place finish at the 3M was a harbinger of things to come. When he tied for fourth at the John Deere Classic in July, it guaranteed he would get a PGA Tour card for 2020. In his sixth start as a pro he won the PGA Tour’s Barracuda Championship. With the two-year exemption that comes with the victory, he’s locked and loaded for the coming season.
“One big thing for me was having goals and putting aside expectations,” Morikawa says. “I think when guys come out of college, they think they just want to beat everyone in their class. And if you beat them, that means you’re one step ahead. We want to beat everyone.”
Since he graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2016, Matthew NeSmith had toiled on the mini tours until he qualified for the Korn Ferry Tour last season. He had only three top 10 finishes until the Albertson’s Boise Open playoff event in August. And there, he proved he was doing the right thing.
A 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole gave him a seven-under-par 64 to rally from a four-stroke deficit, edging Viktor Hovland (more on him later) and Brandon Hagy. He pocketed $180,000 after having earned just $111,261 previously in his career. More importantly, he earned his PGA Tour card.
Everyone seems to hit it 300 yards off the tee, but putting always is the difference maker among the game’s best players. NeSmith, who is 26, started working with putting instructors Robert Merrill and Marcus Potter and that advice paid the most handsome of dividends at Boise. “I knew with the way I was hitting it I just needed to putt a little bit better,” said NeSmith, who was leading the Korn Ferry Tour in greens in regulation but was ranked 133rd in strokes-gained/putting. “Finally this week it all clicked together.” He couldn’t have clicked at a better time.
If you had looked at Corey Conners’ PGA Tour profile at the end of March, you would have seen goose eggs: zero victories. He had qualified for the Tour through the Korn Ferry Tour, and had a second- and third-place finish, but still wasn’t high enough on the FedEx points list to gain direct entry into the Valero Texas Open, held the week before the Masters. So the 27-year-old took a chance on Monday qualifying, and won a six-man playoff for the final spot in the field. Then, he just happened to win the tournament—the first player in nine years to win after qualifying on Monday. That gave him not only a two-year PGA Tour exemption, but a trip to Augusta the following week.
You could call Conners a streak-player extraordinaire. He grew up in Listowel, Ontario, Canada, where he played junior hockey, but his dad was a golfer and he eventually settled on golf as a possible career. At Kent State University (which isn’t a golf hotbed) he qualified for the 2014 U.S. Amateur and was runner-up to Gunn Yang. That earned him his first trip to the Masters in 2015, where he missed the cut. He turned pro right after.
This year, on the Sunday morning in San Antonio, before the final round of the Valspar, Conners and his wife were in their hotel. They had plans to fly home the next day. “My wife got the email to check in for our flight home,” Conners says. “I was like, ‘Don’t check in for that quite yet. I’ve got different plans.’ ”
Those plans turned into a flight to Augusta, a trip so unexpected that he ran out of clothes, sending him shopping in Georgia. He shot a 70 in the opening round, and made the cut, ending up tied for 46th.
Nate Lashley’s victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in June is one of the great feel-good stories in all of sports. At the time he was the 353rd ranked player in the world and just trying to eke out a living. He was also living with a tragic history.
When Lashley was a 21-year-old junior at the University of Arizona in 2004, he was playing in the NCAA West Regional in Oregon. His parents, Charlene and Rod, along with his girlfriend, Leslie Hofmeister, came out to see him. Rod flew his Mooney M20 plane there, a four seater powered by a propeller. On the way home to Kearney, in western Nebraska, their plane crashed near a mountain in Wyoming. It took nearly three days to find the wreckage. All had perished.
Golf is a mental game, and the challenges this tragedy presented were enormous. Lashley had been an All-American in college, but playing on the Nationwide Tour (now known as Korn Ferry) in 2006, he made only two cuts. He slid down to the mini tours and gave up the game in 2012 for a while, getting into real estate and flipping houses.
But he just couldn’t quit. He qualified for the PGA Tour Latinoamérica in 2015 and the next year, he won three times on that developmental circuit. That got him a Web.com Tour card for 2017, and from there he went on to win the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic, which ultimately earned him a PGA Tour card. He didn’t do much with it.
Lashley was 36, and had to qualify on Monday to get into the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He didn’t, finishing two strokes out of making the field. But he decided to hang around the tournament, and when a player withdrew on Wednesday, Lashley got in.
Remarkably, he won by six strokes—his first PGA Tour win.
He was understandably filled with emotion after the victory, likely more so than any other player. “It took me a long time to get over my parents’ death,” Lashley says. “Mentally, it was holding me back for a long time.”
That tragedy will always be with him, but so, too, will this victory.
Cameron Champ isn’t exactly a new face on Tour. He won the Sanderson Farms Championship in 2018 with an extraordinary power game that made him a TV darling until an early season back injury sent him to the sideline. When he returned, his distance couldn’t make up for all the little things that go into playing winning golf. Being No. 1 on Tour in driving yardage at 317.9 yards didn’t mean he was getting the ball in the hole regularly.
But boy, did he come back in late September, winning the Safeway Open in an immensely emotional victory, with his beloved grandfather “PaPa” gravely ill from stomach cancer. When he dropped the winning putt on Sunday, there were tears in his eyes by the time he picked the ball out of the hole. “I don’t know if it was meant to be, but to win here, no matter if I win one more tournament, 10 more tournaments or whatever it may be, this will be the greatest win of my golfing career, for sure,” said Champ. The media world latched on to the compelling story, just as they latched on to his Hollywood looks and his Herculean strength when he first won.
Back in August, when the wins weren’t coming, his coach Sean Foley was asked what was going on with Champ. “What you call struggling I call growing,” he said. Clearly this 24-year-old, shouldering an extremely heavy burden on the way to winning, has grown beyond his years.
Southern Cal alum Martin Trainer was born in Marseille to a French mother and an American father. He went from nowhere to Nirvana in a year, winning his first PGA Tour victory in February with a three-stroke win at the Puerto Rico Open. As an alternate event, victory there didn’t come with the same benefit of other wins, but it was good enough to earn him a Tour exemption for two years.
Raised in Palo Alto and a resident of San Francisco, Trainer is a friend of NBA star Steph Curry, a pretty deft golfer who texted him right after his win. “That was pretty sweet,” says Trainer. The 28-year-old golfer suffered a neck injury in May of 2019 and did not play well for the remainder of the season. But if he’s healthy, look for him to stand tall again.
Known as “The Smiling Assassin,” Norway’s Viktor Hovland has had his eyes on the PGA Tour prize for a long time. He’s the 2018 U.S. Amateur champion at Pebble Beach, the first player from Norway to ever win the title. The 22-year-old was an All-American at Oklahoma State, and teammate of Matthew Wolff.
He became a big story at the U.S. Open in June, when he was among the early leaders and finished tied for 12th. He broke Jack Nicklaus’ record by two strokes for low total score by an amateur in the U.S. Open.
That finish, plus his tie for 32nd at the Masters, produced a lot of expectation, but he still had work to do after turning pro following the Open. He fell just short on the FedEx Cup points list, but earned his Tour card by playing well during the Korn Ferry Playoffs. He did it in unusual fashion, using at least four different sets of Ping irons after signing a deal with the company following the U.S. Open. (He sometimes showed up with a different set of irons from round to round in the same tournament.) He also stands out due to his combination of accuracy and length off the tee. At Pebble Beach, he picked up 8.4 strokes off the tee. That’s two more than anyone else in the field, nearly three more than Rory McIlroy and five more than Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
South African Dylan Frittelli won the 2012 NCAA championship while playing for the University of Texas with Jordan Spieth. But unlike his teammate, fame eluded him, and he was unable to gain access to the lower tiers of PGA Tour golf. He went to Europe for awhile, and in 2017 he finally scored a win and enough high finishes to break into the top 100 in the world. That brought him to the PGA Tour.
That brings us to July and the John Deere Classic, where the six-foot-two, 29-year-old won by two strokes, earning just over $1 million. It was the site of Spieth’s first PGA Tour victory back in 2013.
Spieth and Frittelli may share a nameplate on the John Deere trophy, but that’s about it. “He’s probably the antithesis of me in terms of mental, I don’t know what you want to call it, but mental focus,” says Frittelli. If Frittelli would beat Spieth at Ping-Pong, Spieth would ask for rematch after rematch. “He wouldn’t let me leave until he beat me. He has had a burning desire. I don’t really have that. I’m more methodical and I’m more thoughtful in what I do.”
Frittelli plays with black-rimmed eyeglasses, making him stand out in a crowd. He jokes that he and his caddy have trouble finding the ball. “He’s pretty blind and I’m like half-blind,” he says. “We don’t know where it is.”
He’s proven that if you keep the ball in front of you, you can find it. If you find it in the hole enough, you win.
Here’s a player who doesn’t have to make a name for himself. He’s already got a pretty cool one, and there’s also the distinct possibility that this 23-year-old will make that name a household word in the golf world if he lives up to his potential. His father Scott was a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, which was sold in 2010 to Oracle for $7.4 billion. Let’s just say Scott’s son doesn’t have as heavy a bag as so many of the sport’s dreamers.
While playing at Stanford University, McNealy was a first-team All-American and the world’s No. 1 ranked amateur, winning every award in college golf, including the 2017 Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s best player. Not only did he follow in Tiger Woods’ footsteps at Stanford, he tied Tiger with 11 individual titles, though he did this over four years and Woods left after two.
McNealy chose to blaze his own trail in the golf world even though his dad pointed out all reasons not to be a pro golfer. “Dad is the best devil’s advocate,” says McNealy, who earned a PGA Tour card for the coming season through the Korn Ferry Tour playoffs. “That turned my world upside down. I thought about it really hard and I eventually decided this is still something I want to do. And my dad said, ‘That’s all I wanted, was for you to think hard and really make a fully thought-out decision.’ ”
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.