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Young guns take aim at Tour Championship, FedEx Cup millions

Steve Hummer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Golf

Being just 24 has its advantages, beyond even all the usual ones we'd repossess if only we could.

Say, for example, you're Justin Thomas and you're having a tough time of it on the golf course. Granted, that's a full-eclipse kind of rarity lately. Then, and only then, are you allowed to consider how absurd it all is that you have collected this cache of championships -- one of them major -- at a stage in life when most are just figuring out whether they should double- or triple-space their skinny resumes.

Only then does Thomas deploy the age card.

"Like in the middle of this year," he said, "whether I was struggling or when I was getting down on myself, I think that's just a good kind of a reality check. Look, yeah, I'm mad that I haven't done more. I'm mad that I've missed a couple cuts, which I hate more than anything. But look, I'm 24. I've won four times this season (five now). It's pretty awesome. I've won a lot more than a lot of players, not just a lot of 24-year-olds."

Other than that, Thomas and all those other precocious youngsters who are dominating the upper reaches of this week's Tour Championship behave as if they've been around since the hickory shaft.

Their idea of paying dues is getting a paper cut while handling one of those oversized winner's checks.

Just about everything in our culture bows to the young. Now, so does golf.

Twelve of this season's 47 events were won by players who were 23 or younger at the time of their victory. That's better than 25 percent. From 2000-11, according to the Golf Channel, that number was less than three percent.

The average age of the PGA Tour winner this season was just over 28. According to Golf Channel research, that average hadn't dipped below 30 in the past 35 years.

Don't trust anyone over 30: Six of the world's top 10 ranked players are under that bar. Four of the top five are 25 or younger.

Only right that the two players teeing off last Thursday at East Lake Golf Club -- a spot reserved for the top two in the FedEx Cup standings -- are downy-cheeked 24-year-olds Jordan Spieth and Thomas. And that four of the top seven in FedEx Cup points -- those most in the running for the $10 million bonus -- are 25 or younger.

Put them all together you either have a golf tournament or a boy band.

Among the Favored Five -- those players here who can outright win the FedEx Cup by winning this week's tournament -- Dustin Johnson and Marc Leishman are the creaky old guys. They're like compact-disc or "The Sopranos" old, especially compared with 22-year-old Jon Rahm, No. 5 in points. And they're both just 33.

Leishman, whose victory last week outside Chicago lifted him to No. 4 in FedEx Cup points, has three kids and a vault of difficult life experience (his wife fell ill and was close to death two years ago). By all rights he's in his prime, yet finds himself peering over the rim of a generation gap.

He looked around at the beginning of this season, recognized the hour hand on his sport's competitive clock spinning like a propeller, and it was enlightening. When he came onto tour at 25, he said he'd see guys entering their mid-30s and think they were just hitting their peak. "Now," he said, "that's not the case.

"I guess at the start of this year I thought to myself it's time that I need to do something before it's too late. I've managed to play well and get a couple wins this year, which is really satisfying. I guess I do really feel like one of the older guys on the Tour now."

For his part, Johnson would like to clear up the record on one point: "I wouldn't say that I feel old," he said.

Of all this youth loitering on the leaderboard the way kids used to hang at the mall, Johnson said, "It's good, I like seeing it. I think the game of golf needs it. And for me, it pushes me to keep working harder, too. I definitely am the veteran of the guys even though I don't feel like one yet."

One thing about youth, it sells. In the post-Tiger Woods era, it has been this new, fresh wave of talent that has carried the day for the PGA Tour. Golf had no shot at being cool without such re-packaging.

"Obviously everybody misses Tiger, everybody wants Tiger to come back, but we're talking about a 20-year gap now since Tiger came out and now the new generation's come up. They've taken over, and they're doing a phenomenal job of it," said Pat Perez, who at 41 is the oldest player in this select 30-man field.

The older, silver-haired gent running things couldn't be more pleased.

Asked about the young players' impact, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said, "I would say just the vibrancy, the pure vibrancy on the ground at our tournaments, in our broadcasts, in our social-media platforms."

Ticket sales for this Tour Championship have been going "very, very well," according to the event's executive director, Tom Clark. Some of that, he figures, is because of the makeup of the field.

"It's a different vibe right now, you can feel it," he said. At mid-week, Clark said, ticket sales were up 18 percent from the same time a year ago.

And the young players are not just coming here for the experience. They are no one's unpaid interns. What is striking is how this group refuses to factor age into expectation. The impatience is palpable.

Back to Thomas, who will tell you that there is no such thing as too much, too soon.

Listen to his answer to the question of whether, even in his wildest schoolboy dreams, he could have imagined six career victories, a major and a top-four world ranking in what really is only his third full year on Tour.

"Absolutely. I probably would have wondered or asked why I didn't do it my rookie year or my second year, honestly," he said.

"I just have always expected a lot. I've always wanted to win every tournament I play. I've wanted to compete in every tournament I play, have a chance to win."

"Do I think I can continue what's been happening the last few years?" said Spieth, who has won three majors, a FedEx Cup and 11 PGA Tour events. "Yes, I believe that. I believe I'm improving as a player each year."

These young players need to attack East Lake today and get theirs while they can. Because golfers apparently have become like iPhones. The new better model is always right behind.

(c)2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com

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