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Young Americans Have Taken Over Golf. Can They Dominate The Masters?

There are few sporting events as resolutely American as the Masters Tournament, a weeklong devotional to piano-tickled marketing materials, polo-and-khaki ensembles and high-definition flora. If the 2019 Masters gave us an opportunity for apex patriotism, with Tiger Woods completing the ultimate comeback with a win amid the Georgia pines, the 2020 Masters should feature encore potential with plenty of red, white and blue atop the leaderboard.

All but four of the current top 15 golfers in the world were born in the U.S., which is unusual enough on its own. But the Americans are also skewing young: Seven of the 111 are under the age of 30. From 2000 to 2019, there was an average of only two under-30 American golfers entering Masters week ranked in the top 15.

What’s unique about this crop of players is how quickly they’ve ascended. Matthew Wolff, 21, became just the third man to win an NCAA individual title and a PGA Tour event in the same year when he did so in 2019, and he also became the eighth Tour player since 1970 to snare a win in fewer than five starts. Collin Morikawa, 23, only needed six events to collect his first victory, and he is the third-youngest golfer to prevail at the PGA Championship,2 which was only his second start at a major championship.

The two join Jordan Spieth as the youngest American golfers since at least 2000 to enter Masters week ranked in the top 15 in the world.

But they aren’t the only under-30 Americans worth monitoring this weekend. Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas each rank in the top 10 in Data Golf’s true strokes gained metric3 over the past two years. And one of the best Americans won’t even be playing: Despite being ranked No. 13, Daniel Berger was left out of the field after qualifiers were decided in March. But relative to the Tour, measured by true strokes gained, he’s played like the fifth-best player in the world over the past year.

Thomas, 27, has been the measure of American consistency over the past five years. He’s the highest-ranked American under the age of 294 and has spent the past 159 weeks ranked inside the top 10. In many ways, Thomas has blossomed into what golf pundits expected Spieth to be: an always-in-contention mainstay, leading the young generation of American golfers. No golfer accumulated more expected wins than Thomas from 2016 to 2020, according to Data Golf.

And then there’s DeChambeau, the reigning U.S. Open champion who captured the sport’s attention by berating norms, cameramen and weight-gain standards. With potential for soft conditions at a big course, big hitters will dominate the field — and there’s no bigger hitter than DeChambeau, who will cut corners off the tee that professionals have never considered. But while his power surge is unprecedented, he’s been an above-average driver for years. He hasn’t always been plus on the green, where he’s upgraded his performance considerably.

Bryson hasn’t only made gains off the tee

Average total true strokes gained per round, plus true strokes gained off the tee and putting, for Bryson DeChambeau by season of the PGA Tour

Avg. True Strokes Gained Per Round
Season Rounds Played Total Off the Tee Putting
2020-21 8 +4.04 +1.43 +0.56
2019-20 73 +1.67 +1.14 +0.74
2018-19 84 +1.51 +0.54 +0.45
2017-18 99 +1.65 +0.72 +0.34
2016-17 89 +0.06 +0.42 -0.16
2015-16 63 -0.01 +0.26 -0.30
2014-15 73 -0.44 +0.25 -0.45

The current season began on Sept. 10, 2020.

Source: Data Golf

Last season, DeChambeau averaged 0.658 strokes gained per round with the flat stick, which represented one of the highest marks on tour and the third consecutive season in which he improved in the metric.

It’s an interesting time for golf in the United States, to say the least. Thousands of Americans flocked to golf courses in search of a safe outdoor activity during the pandemic, and a golf course was reportedly where President Trump learned he had lost the 2020 presidential election. American golf courses are also home to some of the brightest professional golfers on the planet.

The 84th installment of the Masters, pushed back to the fall for the first time ever, figures to include many of the usual suspects: musty-looking green jackets and Jim Nantz’s velvety voice. But if the world golf rankings are any indication, the tournament that begins Thursday could include a coronation for one of the many young Americans who are pushing the sport forward.

Footnotes

  1. Matthew Wolff, Daniel Berger, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas.

  2. Since it started using stroke play in 1958.

  3. Which adjusts regular strokes gained in a round for field strength.

  4. Dustin Johnson is currently world No. 1, but he checks in at the relatively ripe old age of 36.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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