Major League Baseball showcased its next crop of stars at the Futures Game in Cleveland on Sunday.
The future of the PGA Tour is in the Quad-Cities this week. But unlike the next wave of baseball superstars, these golfers already have made an imprint on the game’s biggest stage.
When Vegas released its odds earlier this week for the John Deere Classic, the top five betting favorites range from 20 to 22 years in age — Viktor Hovland (18/1), Collin Morikawa (20/1), Joaquin Niemann (20/1), Sungjae Im (20/1) and Matthew Wolff (25/1).
“It just kind of shows how strong (college golf) is,” said the 20-year-old Wolff, who eagled the par-5 18th hole to claim last week’s 3M Open and earn his PGA Tour card with his first victory. “We’re so ready as soon as we play to come out here and compete against the best players in the world, and it gives us a lot of confidence.”
That was evident last week.
Wolff and Morikawa were in the final group on Sunday in the Twin Cities. They traded birdies on the back nine along with Bryson DeChambeau and 25-year-old rookie Wyndham Clark.
It was like previous showdowns between Wolff and Morikawa.
“There were just people watching now,” Morikawa said.
Wolff and Morikawa grew up about 45 minutes from each other in California. They’ve competed against each other since high school.
“I don’t know if I would have been talking to Bryson coming down 17 if we were all tied like I was with Collin,” Wolff said. “It just makes you a lot more comfortable knowing that you have someone who you’ve been through all the stages with.
“It gave me confidence knowing that in college we kind of battled it out, and I can compete with those guys, and they’re doing it. So why can’t I?”
Wolff is the only one of the six players in the field 22 years or younger to win. The others — Hovland, Morikawa, Niemann, Im and Justin Suh — have been very competitive.
Spurred by his runner-up finish last week, Morikawa has earned temporary status on the Tour. A win this week would turn the California-Berkeley graduate into a full-fledged member. It also would earn him a spot on Sunday night’s charter plane to The Open Championship in Ireland.
“I’ve felt very comfortable since the first day I’ve stepped out here on the PGA Tour,” Morikawa said. “To see (Wolff) win, it definitely helps, but I think I’ve already proven to myself I can play well out here.”
Hovland, the low amateur at the Masters, tied for 12th at the U.S. Open. The Norwegian, who starred at Oklahoma State with Wolff, has finished inside the top 15 at the Rocket Mortgage in Detroit and at the 3M Open.
Niemann, of Chile, had four top-10s in his first eight professional starts last year to earn his Tour card. Im is among the highest ranked players in this week’s field at No. 62 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
The early results among this group line up with the 2011 high school graduating class — three-time major champion Jordan Spieth and PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas. Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger and reigning JDC champion Michael Kim also were in that class.
“It seems like every three or four years you get this crop of kids that are just really, really, really good,” Tour veteran Zach Johnson said. “When I was 20 or 21, I was trying to crack the top five at Drake University. There are not many parallels.”
The difference between Johnson’s generation and this one is how junior golf has advanced to where it’s doing for teenage golfers what AAU basketball began doing more than 20 years ago.
“These guys are playing professional golf as amateurs,” Johnson said. “They’ve got coaches, they’ve got trainers and they’ve got the mental side accounted for.”
So when they step out on the Tour, they aren’t awe-struck or intimidated.
Neither Wolff nor Morikawa backed down last week. They were fearless and attacking pins.
“There is no book that’s going to help you you’ve got to read in four years that’s going to prep you for this,” Morikawa said. “You’ve got to figure things out on your own, but I think I’ve just matured enough to come out here and know what I need to do.”
Wolff, who had more than 600 congratulatory text messages following his victory, knows the expectations will be heightened moving forward.
He and the younger generation embrace it.
“There are a lot of guys who kind of want to take me down, just like I want to them down,” Wolff said. “I might have put a little target on my back, but at the same time, how do you think Brooks Koepka feels or how do you think Dustin Johnson feels?
“So having that pressure, I feel like I live up to it, and I can deal with that.”