Few things capture the hearts and minds of the golfing public like young talent. Every year, a new cast of studs emerges from the college ranks, and pundits get to prognosticate which phenom will set the world on fire right out of school.
In April 2018, Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner penned an outstanding profile of Norman Xiong titled “The next big thing: Xiong ‘wasn’t born to be ordinary.’” In the piece, Lavner detailed why many expected Xiong to take the PGA Tour by storm.
After a sterling junior golf career, Xiong went to Oregon a semester early and excelled right away. The young star won the Phil Mickelson Award for being the nation’s top freshman after just a single semester of tournaments. Xiong then won the Western Amateur, went undefeated at the 2017 Walker Cup, and won four times in his sophomore year at Oregon. After collecting the Haskins Award as the nation’s most outstanding collegiate golfer, Xiong turned pro and signed a lucrative endorsement contract with Callaway.
In many ways, Norman Xiong was a can’t-miss prospect. He boasted impressive physical gifts, a powerful golf swing, and a stout résumé. So why did he make only five cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour this year? His results are not as surprising as you might think.
By and large, young professional golfers don’t produce immediately. Xiong isn’t the only highly touted player from the class of 2018 to struggle this year. Dylan Meyer, the 2016 Western Amateur champion and three-time University of Illinois All-American, also signed with Callaway after turning pro. He finished T-20 in his pro debut at the 2018 US Open but made just a single cut on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019. Braden Thornberry, a former world amateur number one and Walker Cupper, also had a tough year on the KFT and will join both Xiong and Meyer in Q-School this winter.
Even when these young studs do achieve success, consistency often remains elusive. The starkest recent example of this point is Cameron Champ.
Last fall, Champ began his PGA Tour career with an outstanding six-week run of play. In five events during that stretch, he went T-25, 1, T-28, T-10, 6. His eye-popping distance numbers were instant fodder for the Tour’s social media team, and Champ became a staple in PGA Tour Live featured groups and PGA Tour commercials. However, from the Genesis Open in February to the Wyndham Championship in August, Champ made only three cuts in 14 starts.
Just as he hit the low point of his young professional career, golf witnessed the emergence of Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa, and Viktor Hovland. Suddenly, Champ fell out of favor on the Tour’s official channels. He even suffered a long-delayed descent in Rob Bolton’s rookie rankings.
In the past, the media hyped up players like Tiger Woods, and to a lesser extent Jordan Spieth, and those players went out and exceeded expectations right away. That isn’t the norm, however.
Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari—these guys needed time to develop. For all the commentary about how young the tour is getting, the average age of the top 50 players in the Sagarin Rankings (which are more indicative of recent performance than the Official World Golf Ranking) is currently 33.32 years old. My first suspicion after finding this out was that the Jim Furyks and Lee Westwoods of the world were inflating the average. But even when the five oldest players are removed from the list, the average age holds relatively steady at 32.04.
No doubt it’s exciting when young guys like Wolff and Morikawa win right away. It gives us something to talk about, and golf is the sport in most desperate need of new blood. Who wants to gather around the water cooler and talk about 32-year-old Peter Malnati making it into the FedEx Cup Playoffs after posting just a single top-ten all season? The PGA Tour and the golf media are desperate to reach a new, youthful audience, and they see players like Cameron Champ as potential meal tickets.
But these young stars need time and space to let their games mature. If we heap too many expectations on them before they’re ready, we’re essentially killing the golden goose in pursuit more clicks and impressions.
Champ, Xiong, Meyer, and Thornberry might turn out to be world-beaters down the road. They all have a ton of game. But we just have to remember that for every Jordan Spieth, there are a dozen Ty Tryons and Chris Williamses, and the best wines taste better after they’re given time to breathe.
Michael Geiger is a college junior studying marketing at the University of Minnesota. When he’s not playing golf, he’s either writing about the game or thinking about taking his clubs to a pawn shop.
This article is part of The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which focuses on golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.