HONOLULU (Swing Update) – Let the oldest rookie best illustrate how the PGA Tour has become a young man's game.
Chris Thompson has been trying for 19 years to reach the highest level of golf and he finally got a PGA circuit card at 42 years old. Every year he was passing mini-tours from Florida to Arizona, he could not help but notice that better just meant to follow.
"It's a job that few good players pull out, but there are always good players coming in," Thompson said.
Stewart Cink knows what he's talking about.
Cink and Tiger Woods arrived on the PGA tour at about the same time and were named rookie of the year in consecutive seasons (1996 and 1997). Woods started early in the fall of 1996 and has won twice in eight starts, which has become his rookie season. Cink's first full season was 1997.
"So really, we started playing full time the same year," he said. "For the first three years, he was the only player younger than me. That put me at 23, 24, 25. There was no younger player besides Tiger Woods than me my first three years.
"How many players are under 25 on the circuit?" Asked Cink. "Forty?"
He was close. There are 29 full status players on tour who are 25 years old or younger. This includes Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who have already won major tournaments and ranked first in the world. It includes Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele, all in the top 10 of the world rankings.
"They play a lot more, facing better competition when they are younger now," said Cink. "And they're just more seasoned when they come here. There is no longer a break-in period as before because you did not need to learn. "
In his debut two decades ago, Cink said that most players – Woods is an exception in almost every respect – had to reinvent the wheel and learn to play the required golf style on the PGA Tour.
"Now you've just come out here, firearms flaming," he said.
More are on the way.
Woods went straight from the university to the PGA Tour. Playing on the sponsor exemptions, he earned enough money to get a full card in only four tournaments, then won in Las Vegas on his fifth start as a professional. It took nine years before it happened again. Ryan Moore, an NCAA and US amateur champion, made it in 12 events in 2005, helped decisively by a second place finish at the Canadian Open.
Only three other players had done this since 1980, a short list including Phil Mickelson, who won the Amateur Amateur.
Spieth did not have a card during a tour in 2013 and actually got his card in six tournaments. Rahm did it in three starts after going professional in 2016. What was the exception, this is not the norm, but we get there.
Scott Verplank, who won the Western Open in 1985 while an amateur, watched the NCAA championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma, last spring, and he could not believe what he was seeing. And it's not just his alma mater, Oklahoma State, that has won the title. Almost all the teams that reached the quarter-finals of the match have players that appeared to be ready for the PGA Tour.
Charles Howell III has also traveled to the state of Oklahoma and oversees university golf. "So I knew what was going on.
"All of these guys hit the ball over 300 yards and they all had a great shot," he said. "You get Justin Thomas and win a group. Jordan Spieth arrives and wins a bunch. So when they do, then the work of a veteran is gone. It is the work of another veteran who has left. That's how it works.
Golf does not have an alignment of 53 or 25 players like the NFL or Major League Baseball. And the beauty of golf is that no other sport can be so old. Remember that Mickelson won last year at age 47 at a World Golf Championship.
According to Howell, it is increasingly difficult to win as tour cards return to younger and younger players.
"When I started my tour, the best players were the oldest," Howell said.
Woods – again the exception – was No. 1 and was heading to four major tournaments in Howell's first full season in 2001. But the world's top 10 was filled with players in their 30s, Mickelson and Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Davis Love III, Colin Montgomerie and Hal Sutton.
"Now I have aged, it has changed in the other way," Howell said. "And the best players seem to be the youngest. So, look now at all the guys we talk about and focus on – Jordan, McIlroy, Justin Thomas, etc. These are all young guys. And it's the best of the sport. "