PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — One was a college kid playing the Valspar Championship on a sponsor’s exemption. Two were PGA Tour rookies.
They were joined on the back nine at Innisbrook by a tour veteran who already has played in a Ryder Cup and a Presidents Cup, who has played in the final group at the Masters and is among the top 10 players in the world.
And they’re all the same age.
Well, not really.
When they stepped off the 11th tee Tuesday afternoon, Golf Channel asked Georgia Tech senior Ollie Schniederjans, rookies Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas, and Jordan Spieth to pose for a picture. Someone asked who was the oldest, and they each mentioned their birthdays.
“I’m the oldest? Really?” said Berger, who lost in a playoff at the Honda Classic two weeks ago and turns 22 in April.
The youngest was Spieth, who would be in his senior year at Texas if he had not left college after three semesters. He crossed the $9 million mark in career earnings on the PGA Tour last week at Doral, so it appears to have worked out well for him.
More than a foursome, they are friends.
And more than just friends, they are part of a group that is quickly becoming known as the “Class of ’11.” That’s their graduation class. From high school.
This is an example of the direction golf is going.
The future of Tiger Woods has never been more uncertain. He turns 40 at the end of this year, and no one has any idea if he’ll play before then. Phil Mickelson turns 45 in June, and while he looks as fit as he has in years, Lefty has finished out of the top 10 in 24 of his last 25 tournaments.
The best player in golf is Rory McIlroy, who is 25.
The challenge is more likely to come from guys who are younger, not older, with exceptions such as Dustin Johnson (30), Jason Day (27) and a few others.
Spieth has been mentioned as a possible challenger depending on quickly he matures and whether he can start piling up victories. He got started late last year when he won the Australian Open by closing with a 63, and then the Hero World Challenge by 10 shots.
Spieth and Thomas have known each other the longest, and they had a fierce competition in the summer of 2007 when both were picked to play for the U.S. in the Evian Junior Masters in France. Thomas won the 36-hole event, allowing him to play in the Evian Masters pro-am with Juli Inkster. Spieth caddied for him.
Spieth left Texas after the fall semester of his sophomore year, and 10 months later he was playing alongside, Woods, Mickelson and Steve Stricker in the Presidents Cup.
“It’s just nice to have guys out here my own age,” said Spieth, who won the John Deere Classic when he was 19. “I have good friends out here. I’ll have a beer with Rory or Rickie Fowler, but I think Rickie was five years ahead of me in school.”
And they didn’t have a beer until last July. Legally, anyway.
Thomas left Alabama a year later, spent one year on the Web.com Tour and easily earned his PGA Tour card. He has played in the final group on the weekend three times this year — the third round at the Sony Open and Phoenix Open, the final round of the Humana Challenge.
Berger, who left Florida State after only two years, did not have an amateur career as decorated as Spieth or Thomas. But he’s not the same path as Thomas — one year on the Web.com Tour to get his ticket to the big leagues, already three top 10s this year, and plenty of power off the tee.
Schniederjans had his heart set on playing Major League Baseball as a kid and was part of a traveling team until he was 12 and picked up a golf club while messing around with kids on his baseball team. He was obsessed with it. Two years later, he tried local qualifying for the U.S. Open. At 15, he played in the U.S. Junior Amateur.
He might have turned pro if he had a great freshman year like Spieth and Thomas, but now is determined to get his degree at Georgia Tech. As the No. 1 amateur in the world last year, he is exempt for the U.S. Open and British Open.
But it’s more than a foursome.
Also in the field at Innisbrook this week is Emiliano Grillo, another guy from the Class of ’11. He lost in a five-way playoff in the Puerto Rico Open two days ago.
Patrick Rodgers was a Walker Cup partner with Spieth in 2011 and Thomas in 2013. The Stanford alum is in his first year on the Web.com Tour and already has won this year. Thomas described Anthony Palouci as “the best in our class coming out of high school.” Palouci missed out on Monday qualifying for Innisbrook.
“It’s going to pretty cool the next few years,” Thomas said. “We’ll be 23, and there could be six of us out here.”
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