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US Open

Yes, the PGA Tour is getting younger — but that’s because power and distance rule

The current leader in strokes gained/total on the PGA Tour is Matt Fitzpatrick, who is 27.Andrew Redington/Getty

My editor asked for a story about the surge of under-30 golfers atop the PGA Tour. The “youthquake” — the rise of next-gen — has been the subject of wonderment and conjecture for at least a decade.

Scottie Scheffler, 25; Sam Burns, 25; Cam Smith, 28; Justin Thomas, 29; Jon Rahm, 27; Jordan Spieth, 28; Cam Young, 25; Will Zalatoris, 25; Viktor Hovland, 24; Sungjae Im, 24; Xander Schauffele, 28; Joaquin Niemann, 23; Collin Morikawa, 25; Davis Riley, 25.

All ranked in the FedEx top 20 at the end of May.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the nut graph. Turns out the ‘’youth” angle is a proxy for golf’s pesky enigma: distance. At the PGA Tour level, which will be on display at The Country Club this week, golf is ruled by power and distance. Youth is their muscular enforcer.

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From 2004-20, the average age of the top 100 players dropped from 35.94 to 32.97. From 2003 to May 2022, the average age of the top 20 dropped from 35.3 to 28.9.

The average age of US Open winners from 2008-21 was 28.2, down from 31.8 (1993-2007) and 36 (1979-92). The current era featured 22-year-old Rory McIlroy in 2011 and 21-year-old Spieth in 2015. Jon Rahm, in 2021, and Bryson DeChambeau, in 2020, were 26.

Jon Rahm won the US Open last year at Torrey Pines at age 26.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

A newish metric, “strokes gained,” compares a player’s season-long performance with the rest of the field. From 2004-22, the average age of the top 20 players in total strokes gained fell from 33.3 to 28.35. From tee to green, it fell from 37.1 to 29.35. Off the tee, from 33.8 to 31. Approach to the green, from 37.45 to 29.75. Around the green and putting, which are indifferent to power, showed little change.

“It turns out that the best players, atop the FedEx or world rankings, are all great ball strikers and not necessarily great putters,” said Mark Broadie, a Columbia Graduate School of Business professor who conceived the strokes-gained data in 2007. “Players who lead in strokes gained total tend to be best in strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained approach, and this group tends to be on top of the leaderboard week in and week out. The winner tends to be the best putter among the best ball strikers.

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“In other words, you need to be a great ball striker first, and then putting separates them.”

The decline in average age, for a more youthful tour, coincides with greater distance. In 2021, DeChambeau was the longest driver with an average of 323.7 yards. In 2001, John Daly was longest with an average of 306.7. Daly was the only player above 300 in 2001; last year, 61 players averaged more than 300.

Increased distance tends to produce lower scores. A 10-yard increase off the tee is worth about 0.6-0.7 strokes per round; a 20-yard increase is worth 1.2-1.4 strokes.

“Age changes in two ways — older players leave and younger players enter,” Broadie said. “With the increasing importance of distance, and the decline in distance with age, some older competitors may leave because they’re not competitive.”

Addressing the problem

Distance is a problem, at least according to golf’s governing bodies, the US Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient. In 2003, they issued a Joint Statement of Principles that declared, “Any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” In February 2020, their updated Distance Report stated their desire for “the cycle of distance increases to stop.”

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Potential solutions, such as lengthening courses or altering clubs and balls, have been considered. In March, the governing bodies announced their intention to review how balls are tested for conformance and how clubs are tested for springiness of the face.

Meanwhile, the tour’s leaderboards are filled with young/long hitters who thrill fans with freakish distance and pose a dilemma between curbing it and preserving fan appeal and recreational satisfaction.

Today’s youthful cohort, Broadie noted, grew up with fitness regimens — all the better for distance. They also grew up with distance-enhancing technology: launch monitors, 3D biomechanical analysis, force plates.

“Go to the range and nine out of 10 players have a Trackman or Foresight Quad with them,” Broadie said. “What started as an expensive technology few had access to, now most country clubs have, and junior golfers with good coaches will have as well. Even junior golfers can know about optimizing launch conditions and spin rates.”

Starting young

Great young ball strikers aren’t born great. They develop in a pipeline that didn’t exist when Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus learned the game.

Jay Fiste coaches high school golf at St. Mary’s in Lynn. Fiste won three consecutive state championships (2017-19) harnessing the talents of three brothers from Swampscott, Max, Chris, and Aiden Emmerich. The Emmerichs cut their teeth at Kernwood CC before honing their games on the American Junior Golf Association circuit.

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“In a nutshell, it’s exposure to AJGA tournaments that makes the difference,” Fiste said. “The AJGA is like the PGA Tour of junior golf.”

Founded in 1978, the AJGA counts Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Inbee Park, and Paula Creamer among its early standouts. In 2021, it ran 126 tournaments for its 6,700 junior members, male and female, aged 12 to 19.

“We play several PGA Tour venues, and when we do, we set it up exactly the way the pros play it — same yardage and hole locations,” said Stephen Hamblin, AJGA executive director since 1984. “The kids get out there for four days and learn to not be intimidated by the course.

“Winning is winning. I believe in the process. As you compete locally, you learn to win. You want to know how good you are, and you go up to the state level, then the regional level. If you continue to excel, you look for the best level of competition.”

Undergirding the AJGA, Hamblin notes, is a deep bench of coaches and advisers who work at private and municipal courses, and at golf schools, and who teach players how to swing and think and compete. The AJGA’s objective is not to develop tour pros, he says, but to help teenage golfers land a college scholarship. The AJGA class of 2021 scored 728 college commitments.

Hyper-sophisticated college programs feed off the AJGA pipeline. Two of the AJGA’s Junior Rolex Players of the Year, Spieth and Scheffler, went on to golf for the University of Texas.

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John Fields has coached Longhorn golfers since 1997 and is a two-time National Coach of the Year. College golf became a wellspring for the pro tour, he says, through a gradual evolution. Shifting the national team championship from stroke play to match play in 2009 was crucial.

“It made college golf more compelling to the average fan, and the Golf Channel picked it up [in 2013],” Fields said. “That made everybody so much more competitive in recruiting and preparation; it just reignited what the AJGA was already doing, and it reached out to all the foreign kids who had not thought college golf was a good alternative.”

Amateur development was juiced, Fields noted, by the USGA’s decision in 2006 to allow junior golfers to accept equipment from manufacturers. Within the last month, Cobra Puma signed a likeness deal with a 12-year-old phenom from Georgia, Xavier “Xeve” Perez. And as of July 1, college golfers (and all college athletes) will be permitted to monetize their name, image, and likeness to put cash in their pockets.

This sea change forced upon the NCAA by the courts, Fields said, will further accelerate readiness for the pro tour.

Elaborate practice facilities built by top college programs with alumni dollars are another element of the development formula.

“A lot of things are happening to grow the game on an exponential level,” Fields said. “Golf is preparing these young athletes at a higher level than ever before.”

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