The likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy still dominate PGA Tour headlines, but as witnessed this weekend at Quail Hollow, a new wave of talented and confident golfers are quickly making their mark by claiming first-time victories at an accelerated rate.
Tour rookie Derek Ernst emerged from the pack Sunday to win the Wells Fargo Championship in a playoff over David Lynn in Charlotte, N.C.
In doing so, the 22-year-old Ernst, who bested established Tour stars including third-round co-leaders Mickelson and Nick Watney, became the seventh first-time winner through the first 19 official PGA Tour events of the season.
It’s a rather startling figure considering that during the same stretch of the 2012 Tour season, only four golfers broke through with first-time triumphs. Of those, Kyle Stanley, Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler were already established players just looking for their first breakthrough.
The same can’t be said for Ernst, fellow rookie Russell Henley, John Merrick, Scott Brown and Kevin Streelman, just a few of the golfers that have surprised and surpassed some talented fields during the first half of the season.
Whether we’re looking at the emergence of exciting young players coupled with improving veterans finally breaking through or just a simple anomaly that will eventually correct itself is worthy of debate.
There is no doubt, however, that parity is finding its way to the Tour.
Younger players such as Ernst and Henley are arriving more ready to win than ever before, and vast improvements in technology and training are helping players in the middle of the world rankings as much as those at the top.
No matter the explanation, it’s fair to say this this run of first-timers is among the most interesting stories of the PGA Tour’s first half. It began right out of the gate when the promising Henley became the first golfer in 12 years to win his rookie debut, capturing the Sony Open, the first full-field event of the season.
Nine-year pro Merrick followed with a playoff victory at the Northern Trust Open several weeks later, and from there it’s been a steady stream of newbie champions of varying degrees of experience, right up through Ernst’s breakthrough at Quail Hollow this weekend.
It’s a stretch made all the more noteworthy considering the quality of events that are being won by the previously winless.
A week ago, five-year pro Billy Horschel bested a strong field at the difficult TPC Louisiana for his first victory after a couple near-misses in the weeks leading up to the Zurich Classic. Michael Thompson’s first career win came in March at the Honda Classic, a World Golf Championship event. Two weeks prior, Merrick earned his breakthrough at the legendary Riviera Country Club in Southern California, surviving a playoff over Charlie Beljan.
Bottom line: These victories are coming against stellar fields and on challenging golf courses, eliminating any kind of “as luck would have it” or “watered-down competition” arguments that might dismiss this as 2013 happenstance.
These players have shown the talent to beat the likes of Mickelson at Quail Hallow, the fortitude to better the world’s best 50-plus players in a World Golf Championship, and the wherewithal to survive pressure-packed moments in a relatively unknown world called “winning time.”
For his part, Ernst was making just his ninth professional start and managed to overcome a talented leaderboard and a choppy Quail Hollow layout for his first triumph. Impressive stuff, to say the least. It’s also worth noting that Lynn, the 39-year-old Englishman bested by Ernst in the playoff, would have also been a first-time winner had the result gone in the opposite direction.
Of course, no one is arguing that the PGA Tour monarchy is about to be overthrown by the villagers. After all, Tiger has won three times this year, and established stars Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott have all rung the bell in 2013.
What is being argued, however, is that now more than ever an unknown 22-year-old rookie like Ernst can better a Tour legend like Mickelson on a difficult course such as Quail Hollow.
Likewise, veterans once held winless have improved to the point that they can regularly topple the world’s finest fields when their game is on and their mind is right.
We all love to see the established stars perform at their best, but there’s also an enjoyment that comes from being able to expect the unexpected—to be introduced to a new player on the verge of a successful career or see a long-toiling golfer rewarded for years of hard work and sacrifice.
With the victories by the likes of Ernst, Henley, Thompson and others, that is exactly what 2013 has delivered thus far.
Considering the vast amount of talent still waiting for that same career moment, including the likes of Lynn, Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Brian Harman to name just a few, it’s more likely than not that 2013 will deliver even more first-time winners, maybe even as early as next week at famed TPC Sawgrass.
If the first four months of this season are any indication, that will make for an interesting second half of 2013.