Changing of the guard: The rapid rise of the younger players on the PGA Tour

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There's been a lot of talk about the class of 2011 and players aged 25 and under consistently performing on the PGA Tour this year - so we decided to see how well they actually did in the 2016/17 season.

As it turns out, they did well. REALLY well. 

In the men's game, it a not been typical to have several of the younger players break through and command much of the share of leaderboards in a single season. The 2016/17 year seems to be an exception. 

Last year, the average age of the four major winners was 34. This year it was 27.75, pushed up solely by Sergio Garcia's Masters win. But that alone doesn't tell the whole story.

The 25 and unders have over-achieved this year and then some on the PGA Tour in comparison to recent years. In the past three seasons, the highest number of tournaments won by players that were 25-years-old or younger had peaked at 10 (in both 2013/14 and 2014/15). This year, that number has doubled to an astonishing 20 out of 47 tournaments – and that's not including the pairs event Zurich Classic won by Jonas Blixt (33) and Cameron Smith (24).

But why has that number risen so dramatically in the past year? Are they spurred on by each other's successes? Are they more fearless? Are they just getting better younger? Or maybe it's simply that they set their goals outrageously high.

Take the new FedEx Cup champion and $10million richer Justin Thomas as an example. Not only did he set himself a list of extremely high reaching goals this year – he also achieved most of them. And more.

Prior to the 2016/17 season he had one PGA Tour victory and his best finish in a major had been T18 at the 2015 PGA Championship. From the outside looking in, people saw him as a good player - but I certainly didn't predict he'd end this year with five PGA Tour victories, a major, 12 top 10s and win the FedEx Cup. But in a press conference after the Tour Championship, he proved that those were all things he thought he could do by producing a list of goals he'd set out for the year. And they were pretty spot on.

The 24-year-old began the season with his second ever PGA Tour victory at the CIMB Classic in October, the same event where he had won his first exactly a year earlier. From there, it only got better.

He had previously told media he was jealous of Jordan Spieth's overwhelming success over the past two years, but by the end of 2017, he had made a huge dent in Spieth's lead. Back-to-back wins followed in January at the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, where he shot a 59 in the opening round and became just the 7th player in PGA Tour history to do so.

59 sony open

For most, it would have already an abnormally lucrative season – but for Thomas, being in the hunt in a major was the true goal. He put himself in to contention at the US Open and shot a record-breaking 63, but he had a tough time on Sunday as Brooks Koepka seized his chance. Yet just two months later, a final round 68 at Quail Hollow gave him his first major title at the PGA Championship. And he still wasn't done.

A victory in the second FedEx Cup play-off event totaled his fifth PGA Tour triumph of the 2016/17 season, and put him in with a real chance of winning the FedEx Cup, sitting only behind Jordan Spieth.

He fell just a single shot short of winning the Tour Championship, but a second-place finish was enough to secure the season long title race – and despite beating out Spieth, the 2017 Open Champion felt his friend truly deserved it.

"I think it's rightfully so that he (Thomas) wins the season-long race this year," Spieth said. "Five wins with a major championship and you'd like the FedEx Cup to go to the most deserving player for the entire year and I think that's him."

And Spieth didn't exactly have a bad year either. Proving he has one of the most mentally strong minds in golf twice this year, Spieth notched up three victories - including his third major title during The Open at Royal Birkdale. 

A win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was followed by one of the most memorable wins of the year at the Travelers Championship. In a play-off with Daniel Berger, Jordan Spieth looked almost certain to be on the back foot after finding the green-side bunker on the first play-off hole. Instead of panicking, he holed it from the sand to win and celebrated with that now infamous body-bump between him and caddie Michael Greller. And yet that still wasn't the most tense moment of his year. 

Spieth and Greller

Staring another major collapse in the face with memories of Augusta last year, Spieth needed almost 30 minutes on the 13th hole of Royal Birkdale to get a ruling that saw him 100 yards right of the fairway and hitting from the middle of the driving range.

He scrambled a bogey out of the hole but lost his lead, and went on to produce the most astonishing Open comeback I'd ever witnessed. He responded with a birdie, before holing a 50-foot putt for eagle on 15, a 30-foot putt for birdie on 16 and holing out for another birdie putt on 17. A tap-in for par on 18 secured the title over Matt Kuchar - but it showed the mental resilience of a young player far beyond his years. 

But it wouldn't be fair to focus solely on Thomas and Spieth, although the class of 2011 have certainly done their fair share on Tour this year. Between Justin Thomas (five), Jordan Spieth (3), Xander Schauffele (2) and Daniel Berger (1), the graduating high school class of 2011 have put together 11 of the 20 victories. And that includes both The Open and the PGA Championship.

But it hasn't just been American youngsters in charge of the spotlight this year. Playing his first full season on the PGA Tour, Spaniard Jon Rahm wowed at the start of 2017 with victory at the Farmers Insurance Open, and went on to prove he certainly isn't a one-tournament wonder.

Jon Rahm

In addition to his first win on the PGA Tour, the 22-year-old Spaniard also finished 5th in the FedEx Cup, 2nd and 3rd in two WGC events, had 11 top 10 finishes on Tour (only behind Spieth and Thomas who both had 12), and won at just his second-ever European Tour event at the Irish Open.

Fellow former World No.1 Amateur Hideki Matsuyama fell just a few places behind Rahm in to 8th in the final FedEx Cup standings. It could have been a lot better if it hadn't been for a lackluster performance in the play-off series, but his entire season more than made up for that.

Four victories (which includes two of the four World Golf Championship titles) and a move to World No.3 later, Matsuyama has become the highest ranked Japanese golfer in history – and he even had a short stint at World No.2

He won the WGC HSBC Champions last October, before picking up the Hero World Challenge title just a couple of months later. A third victory came at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in May, with a final masterclass five-shot victory at the WGC Bridgestone in August.

Matsuyama

Oh, and these four players mentioned above? They command four ranking spots in the World's top 5 – with Spieth narrowly following behind World No.1 Dustin Johnson, Mastuyama in 3rd, JT in 4th and Rahm in 5th spot.

Between them, they've shown that a combination of goal setting, mental determination and belief in their sheer talent has been the key to the youthful domination that has gripped the PGA Tour this year more than any other.

But they aren't the only young stars coming through and proving their worth. 

The rest of the 2016/17 winners aged 25 and under

Mackenzie Hughes managed to sneak in to this list with a victory at the RSM Classic whilst still 25 (he turned 26 three days after his win), outlasting four others in a play-off.

Si Woo Kim's victory at the Players Championship came a little easier. The 21-year-old finished three shots clear of chasers Ian Poulter and Louis Oosthuizen, becoming the youngest player in history to win the event.

Si Woo Kim

Daniel Berger, who was alongside Spieth and Thomas when JT had his 59, gained glory of his own with his second PGA Tour victory in June. Berger successfully defended the St. Jude's Classic in June, and was second to Spieth at the Travelers Championship, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot more of him next year. 

Xander Schauffele began to make a name for himself with two T5 finishes early on – including at the US Open, but the tour rookie made his breakthrough at the Greenbrier Classic just a few weeks later.

And while a win in your rookie season would be a brilliant feat for most, but Schauffele topped it off making it in to the final 30 of the FedEx Cup and going on to win the Tour Championship, ensuring his 3rd place spot in the FedEx standings – one place above World No.1 Dustin Johnson.

Bryson DeChambeau and rookie Grayson Murray made it a hat-trick of wins in a row for 23-year-olds on tour, with DeChambeau winning the John Deere Classic directly after the Greenbrier and Murray taking home the trophy for the Barbasol Open, which plays in the same week as The Open.

Between those 10 players, they already have an envious record of 20 PGA Tour wins, 2 major titles, 2 WGC's and 58 top 10s between them in 2017– and these players look certain to continue stamping their dominance.

Who else should we be watching out for?

Patrick Rodgers (25), Patrick Cantlay (25) and Ollie Schnierderjans (24) all came agonizingly close this year – but remain big contenders on the PGA Tour.

Schniederjans just fell short to Henrik Stenson at the Wyndham Championship and was tied 3rd at the RBC Heritage with Patrick Cantlay, who was 2nd at the Valspar Invitational to Adam Hadwin.

Patrick Rodgers had his real shot at the John Deere Classic, but ended up one shot adrift of Bryson DeChambeau.