The Players 2023: Preview
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Two young golfers look set to take the sports world by storm, with their early careers already drawing comparisons with those of Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.
American Matthew Wolff, 20, and 21-year-old Norwegian Viktor Hovland both turned professional in June and made their pro debuts at the Travelers Championship that month. The step-up to the big league was the logical step for the former Oklahoma State teammates following stellar amateur careers. Wolff was crowned the NCAA individual champion in May, though he never quite reached the top spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – that accolade went to Hovland, who took home the Ben Hogan Award as the top amateur of the year.
Oslo-born Hovland appears destined to become Norway‘s best ever golfer. He played at the US Open this year as an amateur after earning his invitation with last year’s win in the US Amateur Championship. He finished T-12 at Pebble Beach shooting 67 on Sunday to set the US Open amateur scoring record at 280, beating Jack Nicklaus’ 59-year-old record. He also became the first golfer to earn low amateur honours at the Masters (T-32) and the US Open in the same year since Matt Kuchar in 1998.
Hovland has made an impressive start to his pro career. After a T-54th finish at The Travelers, he finished T-13 at both the Rocket Mortgage and the 3M Open. He would normally be considered the best young golfer out there – but Wolff has already won his first event as a pro, in only his third career start.
After winning the 3M Open last week on 21-under, a shot ahead of Bryson DeChambeau, the Californian jumped from 1,659th in the World to 135th. That jump of 1524 spots was the second largest of all time behind Michael Arnaud’s jump of 1529 spots last season. With that victory he joined Woods and Ben Crenshaw as the only golfers to win a collegiate national title and a PGA Tour title in the same year. And he now stands alongside Woods, Spieth, Seve Ballesteros, Raymond Floyd, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson as golfers with pro wins before the age of 21.
What makes these two young players even more intriguing is that they both have unorthodox swings. Wolff’s swing, from how he picks his left foot up, to the odd flight path his club head takes, is like a Bubba Watson Jim Furyk mash-up on steroids. It not only creates huge power with the potential to dismantle courses with 350-yard drives, but somehow results in precise iron play. Hovland has his own quirks. He will hitch at the top of his drives making it look like he is second guessing himself. But he has been nailing fairways all year.
The early promise of both golfers has drawn inevitable comparisons to Woods and Spieth. As well as Wolff becoming the fist player since Woods to win an NCAA title and a PGA Tour event in the same year, he is also the youngest player to win on the Tour since Spieth, and the ninth-youngest in Tour history. Woods was also aged 20 when he won his first PGA title at the 1996 Las Vegas International, his fifth event, two more than it took Wolff. Not to be overlooked, Hovland surpassed Woods’ amateur scores at both The Masters and the US Open.
Both Wolff and Hovland, however, need to keep their feet on the gas if they are to match the early careers of their more celebrated colleagues. By April 1997, at the age of 21, Woods had won three PGA Tour events in addition to his first major, the 1997 Masters. He then reached world number one in June of that year, less than a year after turning pro.
Spieth, after winning three NCAA tournaments as a freshman, played at the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship a few months shy of turning 17. He impressively made the cut. In 2012, at the age of 18, he finished 21st at the US Open, after which he became the world’s number one amateur. He then turned pro and won his first PGA Tour title, the 2013 John Deere Classic, aged 19, a year younger than Wolff. In 2015, Spieth won the Valspar Championship and became just the fourth golfer since 1940 to win twice before the age of 22 on the PGA Tour. He then won the Masters and the US Open, still aged just 21, and two years later, the 2017 Open Championship.
So, Woods and Spieth have set Wolff and Hovland lofty targets to reach, but so far it would appear these exciting young guns have the ammunition to hit them.
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