Rather than biding their time and learning the ropes, modern-day rookies are ready to win from day one. So what’s changed?
No Fear – Rookie Winners On Tour
Rookies. Whatever their walk of life, these are the fresh-faced newbies, the ‘tea makers’. Easily intimidated, they lack experience and make lots of mistakes – aka ‘rookie errors’.
In the golf world, those players competing in their first full season on tour are frequently found out, like rabbits in the headlights, right?
Wrong. The standard on the main tours has increased markedly in recent years and no one is afforded time to find their feet, yet the number of rookies making a quick impact is rising.
The modern rookie, it seems, is made of stronger stuff. When Victor Perez won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at The Home of Golf in September, he became the fifth rookie winner on the European Tour this season.
For two players, that victory has already been backed up with a second piece of silverware.
Kurt Kitayama became the fastest player to two wins in European Tour history when he won the Oman Open in March in only his 11th career appearance.
It came just three months after he won the Afrasia Bank Mauritius Open, roughly the same period as Italy’s Guido Migliozzi waited between his two victories in Kenya and Belgium.
“Coming through Q-School, it’s not easy to take your full card on the European Tour. That win in Kenya meant a lot, just to prove to myself I could win on tour. That was magic, it gave me so much confidence. Then came the second one, so that confirmed I was working in the right way,” says Migliozzi.
These are just two of the players vying for the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award – many others have impressed.
In February, Scotland’s David Law won in only the fifth start of his rookie European Tour season.
And, in June, South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout – who, like Migliozzi, is managed by Modest! Golf – defeated a high-class field by six strokes to win the Andalucia Masters, before finishing third at the BMW PGA Championship.
“I’d had decent finishes but you never know when that win will come,” says Bezuidenhout. “Jon Rahm was great in the final round, we were chatting away on every hole. To beat him in Spain was pretty special.”
The seven rookie victories represent a European Tour record.
Then there’s Robert MacIntyre, a winner in waiting, surely, having accumulated three seconds in his debut season, as well as a tied sixth at The Open. It begs the question: what’s changed?
“You have to give a lot of credit to the developmental tours,” says Modest! Golf’s Mark McDonnell. “The EuroPro Tour, the Alps Tour, the Challenge Tour, these events, to win them you need to shoot 23-, 24-under. The standard is so high.
“Trackman, training aids, everything is there. They’re looking at all aspects of their game to build those ‘one percenters’ to make them better athletes and better golfers.
“They have so much more available to them to help them kick on. The support around these younger players is increasing. With more and more rewards in golf, guys are investing more in their careers and their futures. They’re being so much more professional.”
Walking The Walk
Acting like a professional is one thing, but rookies are also walking the walk – and they’re not afraid to win. “These tours teach you how to win and compete,” adds McDonnell, citing Migliozzi’s three victories on the Alps Tour.
“He’s made that step up and he feels he’s been there in a professional event already. Yes, it’s a lower tier, but it still teaches you how to win and it teaches you how to compete going down the stretch.”
It’s an opinion shared by elite performance coach, Dave Alred. When working with his students – one of which is Francesco Molinari – practice always involves a consequence.
In other words, training sessions have targets and numbers to create pressure and help players to perform consistently in the heat of battle.
This is just one example of how performance coaching is put into practice. Alred, like others in his field, has played a part in raising the standard of the game.
“Golf at the top level is just going to get more and more competitive,” he says. “One of the biggest things is the attitude, they’re professionals. People can make a lot of money. Golf is a good profession and you have to be dedicated.
“These players are all athletes now, too. Guys like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, even guys like Rickie Fowler – and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. He’s a player you wouldn’t think could generate such power because of his size, but jeepers he’s got some swing speed.”
Now we’re talking about something different – the fitness factor. Jamie Elson has played on several professional circuits, but now spends most of his time helping aspiring pros to forge careers on tour. The 37-year-old believes one person is responsible for raising the bar.
“Now you’re starting to see the effects of Tiger,” says Jenahura’s Tour Academy director. “The children he inspired to take up the game are now in their mid-20s.
“Not only are they pros, they’re some of the best players in the world. The new generation, because of Tiger, has started to show its face. I put the jump in standard over the last five or ten years directly down to him.”
While golf’s “first proper training athlete”, as Alred labels him, has unquestionably transcended the game, the ‘Woods effect’ doesn’t explain the rise of the rookie; it’s not the reason why so many players in their first full season look so capable of winning.
Rather, it’s McDonnell’s point regarding the strength of the satellite tours that seems the more logical explanation.
Across The Pond
In America, it’s a similar story with the Korn Ferry Tour. So tough is the grind of competing for a full-time schedule on the PGA Tour, it doesn’t seem right calling them rookies.
Last year, Cameron Champ won the feeder tour’s Utah Championship to secure his card, before landing his first PGA Tour title at the Sanderson Farms Championship just three months later. Then, in September, he claimed victory number two on the PGA Tour, at the Safeway Open.
The 24-year-old puts a great deal of his early success down to what he learned on what was then the Web.Com Tour. “It just prepares you for everything,” he said following his maiden PGA Tour win.
“It taught me how to score. My maturity level from then to now is dramatically different, just the way I approach the game, think about it. There is no pressure. I just play.”
In 2016-17, a total of seven victories were recorded by those in their rookie season on the PGA Tour in the immediate year following their graduation from the Web.Com Tour.
“We’re a preparatory tour,” explains Korn Ferry Tour president, Alex Baldwin. “It’s up to us to provide them with a tournament environment, competitive and challenging golf courses and challenging fields. It’s about helping them get well rounded.
“International events, participating in Pro-Ams, sponsor events… it’s not just about everything that happens on the golf course, it’s also starting to help them manage everything that has to happen off it.
“Our 2018 class of graduates won five times in the 2018-19 season and we’ve had some good early success at the start of this season,” she adds.
“With the international composition, we’re seeing more players from around the world – China, Norway and Argentina, for example. Last year, of all our tournament winners, nine different countries were represented.”
It is another contributing factor in raising the overall standard of the game. Golf is a worldwide sport with players competing in qualifying schools all over the globe. As golf reaches new corners of the world, it stands to reason that the very best in the business just keep getting better.
Speaking more generally, Baldwin, a former player agent, says: “This is a brutally hard game and sport to break into as a pro.
“You have to earn every single thing; you have to plan your travel, you have to hire a caddie, you have to make so many decisions, you have to be so incredibly committed in how you manage your team, your game, your practice schedule.
“I think it’s ingrained. There’s a meticulousness. They’re young, they’re hungry and if they’re hot they don’t want to stop.”
In a nutshell, there’s your modern rookie. Maybe not fearless, but not to be underestimated. These ‘newcomers’ are more prepared than ever before and when they have the opportunity to win, they’re ready.
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