When Las Vegas released odds on this week’s John Deere Classic, the three favorites at TPC Deere Run were Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff.
“Obviously Vegas isn’t always right,” Wolff said. “But it’s really cool to see that.”
Cool and crazy.
Back in January, tournament chairman Clair Peterson started communicating with Wolff and Hovland, teammates at Oklahoma State, as well as Morikawa of Cal-Berkeley and Justin Suh of USC about the possibility of playing in the John Deere Classic on a sponsor’s exemption.
“Seeing them stack up these accomplishments made it pretty easy when we made our final decisions (in June) about who was going to get those spots,” Peterson said.
The fact that three of those sponsor’s exemptions are among the favorites shows the future is on a fast track.
“Isn’t that something?” Peterson said. “It’s gratifying. For a long time we’ve tried to identify young players that we wanted to get to know and thought had a great future.”
Wolff, 20, who won the NCAA individual title this spring, picked up his first PGA Tour victory in dramatic style on Sunday. He rolled in a 26-foot eagle putt on the final hole to edge Bryson DeChambeau and Morikawa by a shot.
That victory earned Wolff a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. Morikawa earned a special temporary membership, which means he can receive unlimited sponsor exemptions the rest of the season to try and finish in the Top 125 on the money list. That would give him playing privileges next season.
Hovland was low amateur in both the Masters and the U.S. Open. He tied for 12th in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, shooting 280. That broke the tournament record for an amateur. The old mark of 282 had been held by Jack Nicklaus at Cherry Hills in 1960. Hovland comes to the John Deere Classic with Top 15 finishes at both the Rocket Mortgage Classic and 3M Open.
New talent is coming to the PGA Tour in waves. It wasn’t that long ago that naysayers were predicting the tour would be in serious trouble if Tiger Woods wasn’t around the carry the flag. No one is saying that now.
“Tiger essentially quit playing for three or four years,” said Brandel Chamblee, lead analyst on the Golf Channel. “The tour did fine. Who did we get? Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler. The game gives you stars and continues to give you stars.”
There are plenty of established players on hand this week as TPC Deere Run hosts its 20th John Deere Classic. That list includes 2012 Deere champion and two-time major champion Zach Johnson. He’s finished in the Top 10 here in six of the last eight years, and has not shot an over-par round since 2008.
Also back is defending champion Michael Kim, who shot a tournament-record 257 (27 under par) last season on rounds of 63-64-64-66. Kim will be trying to snap a string of 18 consecutive missed cuts.
But all the pre-tournament hype centers on Wolff, Hovland and Morikawa.
Spieth was 19 when he won the Deere in 2013, the youngest player to capture a PGA Tour event in 82 years. Wolff, who was 13 at the time, became the youngest tour winner since Spieth in 2013 when he won the 3M Open last week. Wolff won in his fourth career start on the PGA Tour.
“To me it was just cool to see that,” Wolff said of Spieth’s victory. “Seeing a young guy win out there was really awesome.”
Wolff talked about how success at a young age motivates a younger generation.
“I’m talking about the younger generation, like I’m not in it,” Wolff said.
Hovland said that watching Wolff and Morikawa fight in out coming down the stretch Sunday was motivation, because he’s been competing with both of them for years.
“I feel like I can do it as well,” Hovland said. “But it doesn’t come to you easy and you’ve got to go out there and get it.”
Morikawa said that the depth of talent in the college game has made the adjustment to professional golf a smooth one.
“I think it’s really cool to have a solid core that we’ve got coming out,” Morikawa said. “There’s me, Justin, Viktor and Matt, who have kind of played this entire summer together. But the competition in college is so good.”
Unlike Hovland and Morikawa, Wolff is a marked man after his victory last week.
“I think I might have put a little target on my back,” Wolff said. “But at the same time, how do you think Brooks Koepka feels? Or how do you think Dustin Johnson feels? Everyone wants to take them down.”