Ben Coley reflects on a year in which several potential superstars have emerged, as golf's youngsters continue to prove ready to win.
The Boy Who Cried Wolff
When Matthew Wolff turned professional at the Travelers Championship, it was on the back of one of the most impressive college careers in memory. Consistently, Wolff played at a level very few could match. In March, when he won the Valspar Collegiate, it was his fifth success in seven stroke play events. On three occasions, he'd needed fewer than 200 strokes to beat a field over 54 holes. He averaged less than 68 per round.
A couple of months later, and it was fitting that he ended his time at Oklahoma State by topping the individual NCAA leaderboard by five, with several of the best amateurs in the world left behind. Granted, many expected Oklahoma to go on and win the coveted team event, but their failure to do so changed little: Wolff was the best amateur in the world, and his move to the professional ranks was eagerly anticipated.
But so fickle is sport, so fine the margin between succession and failure, that after finishing last in Connecticut and missing the cut at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Wolff had been handed what some felt was a reality check. It reminded me of criticism Bryson DeChambeau received, after he turned professional only to find success harder to come by than his amateur career had promised. And while unfortunate, it is understandable: when you're told about the Second Coming every single year, it's hard to identify him when he arrives.
Then Wolff stood over his approach to the final hole at the 3M Open, needing birdie to tie none other than DeChambeau and likely ensure a play-off. From 225 yards, he hit a five-iron right at his target, a bank left of a hole guarded by water. For all the obviousness of his physical capabilities, this was a blend of strength, accuracy, and the sort of decision-making which, got wrong, can render all that comes before powerless.
Putting from off the green, Wolff made eagle, denying DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa, who went on to miss with his own attempt to force extra holes. When Wolff's putt hit the pin and dropped, a cacophonous noise erupted: shock from the left, delight from the right, confusion from back-stage, where DeChambeau cut a miserable figure, and a guttural, threatening roar from the Wolff who had just banged down the door.
When Wolff turned professional, there were echoes of DeChambeau: a kid doing his own thing, which in turn provokes some to spy weakness and celebrate failure. Instead of taking further steps along that path, Wolff turned in another direction, mimicking Jon Rahm's breakthrough at the Farmers Insurance Open more than two years earlier.
It wouldn't take much for his success this summer to be forgotten, for doubts to reemerge, but, as he moves towards the world's top 100, one suspects Wolff won't now turn away from this path towards the top of the sport.
Inspired stuff from Morikawa
Of course, it didn't take Collin Morikawa long to get over his disappointment at losing out to Wolff - again - at the 3M Open.
Second place there was followed by fourth at the John Deere Classic and then, two weeks later, by a tournament-winning burst at the end of the Barracuda Championship. Morikawa almost won on the Korn Ferry Tour as a teenager. Here, on the PGA Tour, he was a winner at 22. He'd seen through both his performance and that of his amateur sparring partner that success this soon was possible, so he went out and got it for himself.
Unlike Wolff, Morikawa didn't have to topple one of the best players in the world to win. His victims where as varied as you'd expect in a stableford-scoring, opposite event in the desert, not far from where this young stud grew up. Troy Merritt, John Chin, Robert Streb, Bronson Burgoon - these aren't household names, and Morikawa started the tournament at the top of the betting.
Still, to deliver under that level of expectation was in its own way impressive, and this sweet-swinging, accurate all-rounder has stolen a march in the world rankings, climbing inside the top 70. While Wolff's victory was more remarkable in and of itself, Morikawa has kept to type and impressed in a more reserved way. In 2019, he played 13 PGA Tour events, and he made 13 cuts.
A season-ending share of fifth in the Dunlop Phoenix, where he led the American raiding party, sets up Morikawa for a year ahead which includes a major championship in his own state. One suspects it won't be his first major start of the year, either.
To the Viktor...
While it was Wolff and Morikawa who completed their graduations in emphatic style, it was Viktor Hovland - a team-mate of Wolff's - who started the ball rolling, first by finishing 32nd in the Masters, and then by taking 12th at Pebble Beach. Seldom has an amateur played so well in both tournaments, but this one - winner of the 2018 US Amateur - is extraordinary.
Hovland also turned professional at the Travelers, where he finished down the field. Then came eight top-20 finishes in succession, from the PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic, to the Korn Ferry Tour's Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship, and then on to the European Tour and its flagship event, the BMW PGA.
This Norwegian superstar, already a social media hero, has made a seamless transition to the professional ranks, and his prospects of making the European Ryder Cup team are rated 50-50 by some. Sky Bet have him at number 12 in their list of likely candidates to make Padraig Harrington's 12-strong team, and Hovland has stressed that it's a goal for the year ahead.
Once upon a time, players turning professional were expected to serve a lengthy probation period. Wolff, Morikawa and Hovland appear to be an exceptional class, and we should not assume that the next one and the one after that will produce success so immediate. And yet, increasingly, there is evidence that those good enough to dominate as amateurs are already good enough to win as professionals. The floodgates may have been opened for good.
Euro stars and gripes
Should Hovland make the Ryder Cup, his presence may actually feed into a potential concern for Harrington: too much in the way of transition from a winning 2018 side, exacerbated by the move from Europe to America.
While Henrik Stenson's back-to-form victory in the Hero World Challenge quashed concerns around the state of his game, and Tommy Fleetwood, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm appear certain to be the core of the European side for a decade or more, there are others who starred in Paris but have not been anywhere near as good lately.
Chief among them is Francesco Molinari, the 2018 Open champion who has suffered a sharp decline since blowing a fine chance to win the Masters. Back then, Molinari was doing a very good impression of the best player in the sport. He's without a single top-10 finish in 14 subsequent starts, a statistic made all the more shocking by the relentless consistency which preceded his breakthrough at the highest level last summer.
Justin Rose, similarly consistent at his best, has been anything but. Unsettled by a change in caddie and perhaps not fully comfortable with Honma clubs, Rose hasn't missed a cut since Augusta, but he hasn't looked like winning since the US Open. Rose has slid from first to eighth in the world this year. It's not quite cause for alarm, and yet should the slide continue, he might be on the outside looking in ahead of the 2020 Ryder Cup.
With Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren all needing to play better than they did towards the end of 2019, new blood looks set to flow throughout this European team. The same was true in 2016, and it's one of several reasons the United States will look an outstanding bet if they go on to lose the Presidents Cup and are eased to around the 10/11 mark as a result.
That's for another day. Besides, if the theme here is that kids are ready to win, why shouldn't they be ready for the Ryder Cup?
Of the potential candidates to make their debuts, Victor Perez, Matthias Schwab and Robert MacIntyre stand out. At 27 and having studied in America, Perez is perhaps the most qualified, especially as he's the only one of the trio to have won, though both Schwab and MacIntyre are younger and sure to win soon if their current trajectories are a reliable guide.
Marcus Kinhult is another name of note, having won the British Masters at the age of 22 in the spring. Thomas Pieters (27) and Matthew Fitzpatrick (25) are others who may return to the side following that 2016 defeat, while Aaron Rai (23), Guido Migliozzi (22), Adri Arnaus (25) and a clutch of talented Challenge Tour graduates could further bring down the average age of next September's touring party.
There is much strength in European golf, even if Harrington would prefer the core strength of its most recent Ryder Cup side to remain intact. It's true that 2019 was the year of the youngster. The challenge for Rose, Garcia, Molinari and company is to ensure that, with the sport's premiere team event looming, they're at the front of a veteran wave in 2020.
From east to west
Back in the spring, there was another young player whose name slotted in perfectly alongside the three at the top of this story who have subsequently turned professional. Takumi Kanaya, now the world's best amateur, finished close behind Hovland at Augusta, and then went on to play in the Open Championship at Portrush.
It's recently, however, that Kayana has really taken off, in the process achieving something Hovland and the others could not: beating the pros to win a tournament. At the Taiheiyo Masters, a strong Japan Tour event which a certain Hideki Matsuyama won before he turned professional, Kayana did what Wolff had done, and eagled the final hole to win by a single shot.
From there, the 21-year-old went on to the Australian Open, where he finished third behind Matt Jones and Louis Oosthuizen. He is currently in his third year at college. While it is not always a given that a player like Kanaya will make the transition to America, where the best in the world do battle, everything he's said and done suggests we should expect it to happen.
He's not the only youngster making waves in Asia. In Korea, Joohyung Kim has rapidly climbed the ranks, first winning a trio of Asian Development Tour events before, in his fifth start on the Asian Tour proper, he won the Panasonic Open India. Like Wolff, like Kanaya, he won by one shot, beating two of the best locals in the field at a golf course one of them, Shiv Kapur, was playing before he was born. Joohyung Kim, you see, is 17 years old.
In China, where Hao-tong Li remains the pick of a strong young group, it was Bai Zhengkai - Bobby to his classmates in Florida - who made headlines. First, Bai won on the PGA Tour China, and then he became the first Chinese player to win on the Challenge Tour, romping to a four-shot victory. Among those in pursuit were standout graduates Calum Hill and Matthew Jordan, plus subsequent Qualifying School winner, Benjamin Poke.
Bobby, aged 22, did a rare thing in turning professional while still at school - from which he graduates this month. Once considered one of the brightest stars in junior golf before struggling to adapt to America, he's another who has put the pieces into place ahead of a bid to make it to the PGA Tour, where in September, Joaquin Niemann became the youngest international winner in decades.
The kids? They're alright.
Ten for 2020
Here's a collection of names for the notebook. They include several amateurs, for whom success in professional events in 2020 is a tall ask, clearly. Still, they're ones to watch, while there are also some here who will be playing on major tours over the next 12 months.
It's not just the name, which is outstanding: Hammer is considered by many to be the best American amateur and, as we know, that increasingly makes for a big professional career. His is a name known to many in the sport, after he qualified for the US Open as a 15-year-old, but Hammer has only played in one tour event since, finishing 61st in the Houston Open recently. Like Wolff, he's keen to delay turning professional despite his success as an amateur, which means we may have to wait a while. It should be worth it.
While it's Ernie Els' nephew, Jovan Rebula, who is the highest-ranked South African amateur at present, Louis Oosthuizen says Martin Vorster is 'the future' - Vorster plays out of his academy. Earlier this year, he won the East of Ireland Amateur Championship at County Louth, beating a bunch of locals - including Shane Lowry's brother - by four shots and more. Vorster, still two months shy of his 18th birthday, also has a victory at St Andrews to his name, just like his mentor, and appears to have a bright future. He'll get a taste of the top level in the SA Open after Christmas.
Back in October, Hill - an Englishman born in Dubai - became the youngest ever winner of a tournament which gives out Official World Golf Ranking points, as he took the Al Ain Open on the MENA Tour aged 15. Victory there earned him a place in the Dubai Desert Classic, an event he's been attending for years as a spectator, and judging by his comments after winning he won't be overawed by it. "I'm actually a little disappointed," said the youngster. "I honestly could have broken 60 today."
Sticking with the Hill theme, this Scottish talent breezed through the Challenge Tour, winning twice last season, and he's started life on the European Tour really impressively. Yes, he made a triple-bogey on the first hole having led into the final round of the Mauritius Open, but that mistake aside he's played beautifully, finishing 17th there and 13th at Leopard Creek. There's a growing Scottish fraternity on the circuit and Hill is up there with Bob MacIntyre, Connor Syme and Grant Forrest as the most capable.
With Emiliano Grillo stalling somewhat, Argentina could do with a new kid on the block and while Nunez is not quite that, he might be ready to climb the ranks in 2020. This year, he's been a sensation on the increasingly competitive LatinoAmerica Tour, where he's taken his game to a new level. The campaign ended with form figures of 2-7-1-10-7-16-7-1, and he looks good enough for the step back up to the Korn Ferry Tour, where in 2017 he bagged a runner-up finish but lacked the consistency to keep his head above water. That no longer appears to be the case.
Sticking with the LatinoAmerica Tour briefly, Ruffels also graduated from it to the Korn Ferry Tour and such was his reputation as an amateur, he remains one to keep an eye on. Ruffels is yet to win as a pro, coming closest when losing a play-off back in April (somewhat overshadowed by what Tiger Woods was doing at Augusta at the time), but don't forget he's just 21 and there remains plenty in the locker. Although Australian, note that he grew up in California and lives in Florida, so he should be comfortable next year on a circuit which also takes in plenty of South America, where he's been playing for the last couple of years.
Second to former European Tour winner Mikael Lundberg on the EuroPro Tour Order of Merit, 24-year-old Mansell looks good enough to quickly establish himself on the Challenge Tour. Tyrrell Hatton and Matt Wallace are recent satellite talents to climb all the way towards the top of the sport and Mansell, who already has two top-10 finishes from limited Challenge Tour starts, might be the one to follow them.
Winner of the Junior Players Championship earlier this year, Schaper has long been touted as another big South African star in the making. A couple of years ago, when 16, he became the first junior in the golfing history of South Africa to achieve the ‘grand slam’ of Nomads SA Boys titles, winning the U-13, U-15 and U-17 tournaments and the elusive double at the Nomads SA Boys U-19 Championship. He's already held his own on the Challenge Tour and recently made the cut in the Alfred Dunhill Championship. Like Vorster, his Junior Presidents Cup team-mate, he'll be in action at the SA Open in January.
As detailed above, Kim has won four times this year, and he's not yet 18. Victory in India was particularly impressive given the home favourites he saw off in a tight finish, and he appears set for a big 2020 on the Asian Tour. There are more and more golfers from South Korea who are making noise before they turn 20 and while Sungjae Im now leads the way, they're stacking up in behind.
Fifth behind Lundberg on the EuroPro Order of Merit, Clements was twice a winner in 2019 and ended his season finishing second to a shock winner on the MENA Golf Tour. A former winner of the English Amateur Championship, Clements also finished third twice on the Challenge Tour in 2019, while back in 2018 he made the cut in the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, where he started well. One to watch.