When the Masters returned to its traditional dates in April, with the azaleas in full bloom and (a few) spectators providing golf’s version of a new normal, history was made—Hideki Matsuyama became the first male Japanese player to win a major golf tournament. But the runner up was equally fascinating. Will Zalatoris, skinny as a 2-iron, only 24 years old with a blond mop-top, grabbed his share of the Masters’ laser-like spotlight. He was in the hunt all week, finishing top five in each round, hitting it long and high and putting Augusta’s notorious greens with confidence. In the end, he fell one stroke shy of the man who won the green jacket.
Zalatoris’ performance was part of what has become the new normal on the PGA Tour. It seems that every year the gap between the generations of Tour-level players gets narrower and narrower. The amount of talent emerging from the collegiate ranks and rising through the Korn Ferry Tour has gotten ever stronger. Ever since the class of 2011—Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele—burst on the scene with games honed to win right from the get-go, young players who fight their way on to the PGA Tour seem ready to compete from their opening tee shot, with no shaky hands, no wobbly knees, no gremlins between the ears. Collin Morikawa’s performance during the pandemic is a perfect example. The 24-year-old, who was tipped in this magazine two years ago as a player to watch, won three times between July 2020 and this spring. That includes the 2020 PGA Championship, where he hit one of the more memorable shots in championship history, driving the par 4 16th green on Sunday and making a seven-footer for eagle.
There are a whole slew of players coming along who have won, who are about to win and who are challenging the established corps of the PGA Tour. Here are 10 players who are climbing the ladder and getting close to golf’s promised land.
At the 2018 Honda Classic, Sam Burns was trying to earn full-time status on the PGA Tour when he got paired with Tiger Woods on Sunday. “I don’t even remember feeling the club in my hands,” said Burns back then of his opening tee shot. “I knew it was going to be chaotic with all the people. It’s something I always wanted to do since I was a kid.”
Burns bested Woods for the round, 68 to 70, portending a bright future for the 2017 collegiate player of the year who left LSU after two years to turn pro. Twice during the season the 24-year-old had held 54-hole leads and didn’t convert, but you knew it was coming. Burns won the Valspar Championship in May, showing a steady hand in battling veteran Keegan Bradley in the final round. As a winner he received an invitation to the PGA Championship and the Masters and the winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions.
After an emotional celebration on the 18th green with his wife, parents and in-laws, the usually laconic Burns opened up about the victory that came after some heart-wrenching near misses.
“You have a better understanding of what it takes,” Burns said of his near misses. “And I think having those past chances that I wasn’t able to convert, I think it got me ready for this moment.”
At the end of 2018, Will Zalatoris was ranked No. 2006 in the world. At the end of 2020, he was 59. The week before the Masters, he was 46 and after his second-place finish at Augusta, he was 27. That is what is called a meteoric rise.
“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said after shooting scores of 70-68-71-70 at Augusta National. “I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years. I thought I did a really good job this week of just enjoying the moment, but not letting it get to me.”
Zalatoris’ impressive game is bolstered by a hefty dose of determination. The Wake Forest golf team graduate missed qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 and went the difficult, and often demeaning Monday qualifying route. By 2020, he became a force on the Korn Ferry Tour, at one point posting seven consecutive top-15 finishes and a victory at the TPC Colorado Championship. His play earned him a spot in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot (the USGA had abandoned the qualifying process because of the pandemic) and he took full advantage by finishing sixth.
By rising inside the top 50 in the week before the Masters, he was extended golf’s most coveted invitation and took the occasion to announce himself to the world. The young Californian (somewhat of a young Johnny Miller doppelganger) didn’t back down on the course playing with Matsuyama in the final group. His attitude is already that of a winner.
“I’ve wanted to be in this position my entire life,” said Zalatoris after his final round. “I don’t need to shy away from it now.”
Max Homa grew up in Valencia, California, 30 miles from the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. His idol, no surprise, was Tiger Woods. In 2019, he won the Wells Fargo Championship, a pretty stellar achievement, though his results since had been a bit spotty. But in February, he found himself in contention for the Genesis Invitational at Riviera (Tiger’s tournament) and on the iconic 18th hole, he stuck his approach shot to three feet. Tied with Tony Finau, who had shot a brilliant 64, the birdie would give Homa the title. He missed.
Disappointed but not deflated, Homa went to a playoff with Finau, where he managed to save par from next to a tree on the devilish par 4 10th while Finau missed a seven-footer for birdie. When Finau failed to get up and down for a par on the 14th, Homa had won his hometown major.
“I’ve been watching this tournament my whole life,” said the clearly emotional Homa. “Wow. I didn’t think it would be like this.”
Homa looked like a prospect back in 2013 when he won the NCAA individual championship playing for Cal-Berkeley. But it took him a few seasons to percolate, mostly overcoming a certain negativity that he sometimes released on social media. Take this Twitter nugget from 2017: “Had a few caddies hit me up recently hoping to team up. They heard they usually get weekends off which is apparently a great selling point.”
Now 30, Homa has largely overcome his negativity, largely made his presence known on the leaderboard and his tweets have turned more positive. More importantly, his attitude toward the game has trended upward. “Missed cuts in all 3 prior Valspar appearances for @maxhoma23 with all 6 rounds over par. Now a co-leader after rounds of 66-68. What’s the difference?” he Tweeted in May. “I’m just better at golf now.”
The experts and pundits agree: Abraham Ancer is going to be a PGA winner. He’s been close—his fifth-place finish at the Valspar Championship on May 2 was his 16th top 10 on the Tour, and he’s won off tour (the 2018 Australian Open), so he knows what it takes to lift a trophy. Despite his small size (5’ 7” and 140 pounds) he’s huge with talent.
Ancer was born in McAllen, Texas, and raised in Reynosa, Mexico, and has dual citizenship. He played golf at Odessa College and the University of Oklahoma, from which he graduated in 2013, but he’s never had a swing coach, instead learning on his own. He and a friend bought Dead Solid Perfect, a San Antonio driving range, where he works on his own golf swing. He’s also a founder of the Flecha Azul Tequila brand.
Ancer was 3-1-1 at the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in Australia, losing in singles to playing captain Tiger Woods, who was the one player he wanted to face. “I’ve always said that experience in Melbourne definitely prepared me,” Ancer said.
It’s been a stealthy climb up the leaderboards for Carlos Ortiz, who lived up to his own expectations by winning the Vivint Houston Open last year, beating out Dustin Johnson (ranked No. 1 in the world) and former No. 1 Jason Day, his playing partner in the final round. “I wasn’t really thinking about the other guys,’’ Ortiz said. “I knew if I played good I was going to be hard to beat.”
Ortiz grew up in Guadalajara, and his victory was the first by a Mexican-born player in 42 years on the PGA Tour. Winning in Texas was extra special. “This is like my second home. There was a bunch of people cheering for me, Latinos and Texans,” he said. “I’m thankful for all of them.’
Watch out for Scottie Scheffler—he’s knocking on the winner’s door. The Korn Ferry Tour player of the year in 2019, he earned full-time playing privileges on the PGA Tour in 2020. That August, he finished fourth in the PGA Championship and followed that up by shooting a 59 in the Northern Trust where he eventually finished fourth. He lost in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play this year to Billy Horschel.
The 2018 University of Texas grad has an unusual mix in his golf bag, sometimes playing clubs from up to six different makers, and he’s making the transition after cracking a Nike 3-wood he had used for a decade. There’s something old-fashioned about his play—he’s a shot-maker and not just a bomber. Key to the success of any tour golfer is consistent presence on the leaderboards and Scheffler had worked his way inside the top 30 in the world through the end of April, guaranteeing entry into all major events and boding well for a breakthrough victory.
You likely haven’t heard much about Joaquin Niemann, even though he was one heck of an amateur golfer. He’s from Chile, and didn’t play college golf in the U.S., but was No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for 44 weeks (May 2017 to April 2018), when he won the 2018 Latin America Amateur Championship. That victory got him into the 2018 Masters, and right after he turned pro, and he played the following week at the Texas Valero Open where he finished sixth. His tour status was solidified when he won A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier in September 2019 at age 20, becoming the first Tour winner from Chile and the youngest international PGA Tour winner since 1923.
With a unique swing that evokes the famed and very successful shoulder-dip of Lee Trevino, Niemann has worked his way in the top 30 in the world. Consistent form has a way of making a player a consistent winner. He’s also worked his way into the hearts of golfers near and far. In the fall of 2020, he revealed that his one-month-old cousin, Rafita Calderon, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare neuromuscular disease that is usually fatal. Niemann led a campaign to raise $2 million for a drug treatment.
There is a championship pedigree to Cameron Smith, the 27-year-old Australian who is making a bigger and bigger mark on the Tour. He’s a two-time winner of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans team event. He won in 2017 with Jonas Blixt, and this year he and Marc Leishman beat Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff. He also won the 2020 Sony Open.
Smith tied with Sungjae Im for second place in the 2020 Masters, five strokes off Dustin Johnson’s championship score. Smith became the first golfer in Masters history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s (67-68-69-69), a pretty good indicator of not just talent, but of a good golfing mindset. What also bodes well for him is his scrambling ability, which was on display in the Players Championship this year. He was all over the place but managed to post a 65 on Saturday, highlighted by a par on the 18th after driving his ball inches from a tree and hitting a sawed-off approach that risked breaking his club, or his wrist.
Smith has somehow made more noise with his mullet hairstyle than with his style of play. He’s embraced the attention. “It makes people laugh. I love it,” Smith said. It’s not going away—and he isn’t going away from the leaderboards either.
Could Garrick Higgo become the next Ernie Els? Given what this 22-year-old South African has done from April to June, he seems on track to be the next great player from a small country with a huge golf legacy. The lefty won the Palmetto Championship on June 13—his first win on the PGA Tour—giving him two years of Tour status and an invitation to the 2022 Masters. He’s riding a rocket that began with two landslide European Tour wins, and Higgo has won three times in his first 27 European Tour starts and once in his first two PGA Tour starts.
Higgo combines immense power with deft touch and cool demeanor (a lot like the Big Easy himself). He had a so-so amateur career in South Africa and turned pro after two years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Higgo has been mentored since he was a child by Gary Player, who reached out to him after Higgo’s father died in a car crash. Player gave Higgo an encouraging call before the Sunday round at the Palmetto, where he trailed by six. “He just said don’t think too much about what the other guys are doing, just kind of do your thing and stay up there, and you never know what could happen,” said Higgo after his win.
Player raved about Higgo on Twitter. “Seeing @garrick_higgo win his first PGA Tour event in only his second start has been one of the most enjoyable things for me to witness in my career. He is without a doubt the most humble, well mannered young man that you could wish to meet. Watch this space, big things to come!”
Sungjae Im is determined. The 23-year-old South Korean, who won the 2020 Honda Classic, is the most prolific player on Tour. He played 35 tournaments in his 2019 season when he was rookie of the year and made the Tour Championship. As of this writing, he still didn’t even have a residence in the U.S., living hotel to hotel and staying with a friend in Tampa.
As nomadic as he might be, he does have a solid residence on the PGA Tour. He took second in the 2020 Masters, but his results this year have not been outstanding. Still, his ball striking (with that lovely pause at the top) continues to impress. Justin Thomas played with Im in the CJ Cup in South Korea when IM was 20. “We’d have this huge crosswind and he would hit this little low bullet hold and when it would be the other way he would do the same thing,” said Thomas. “We’d have a downwind into the green, he’d throw an iron straight up into the air. I’ve never seen somebody that young with so many shots.”
When the end result of those shots are putts falling in the hole, Im will be as prolific a winner as he is a player.