It can be said about the recently concluded 2011-12 college year that youth was served, with four of the top players fresh out of high school. It is very rare that a freshman becomes an impact player in the college game, much less four of them.
It used to be said about freshman that they should be seen and not heard. But in this case, the golf clubs of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers and Julien Brun refused to be quiet; they spoke loudly all year long. And as a result, all four were named NCAA first team All-Americans.
The best of the frosh foursome, in my estimation, was Alabama’s Thomas. He doesn’t just get my Freshman of the Year award; he gets my Player of the Year award. A native of Goshen, Ky., and the son of a PGA golf professional, Thomas won the first college tournament he ever played in, the Carpet Capital Collegiate in September, 2011. He closed the tournament with a 7-under-par 65 to win by four shots and served notice that he could clearly play at the next level.
He would go on to post three more college wins, including the SEC Conference Championship and the NCAA Regional Championship, and he would add the prestigious Jones Cup title to his growing résumé as well. He was named the SEC Player of the Year, and he led the very talented Alabama Crimson Tide golf team in scoring average, at 70.39.
In relatively short order, he climbed the ladder of the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) and now finds himself perched at No. 13. He was recently named the 2012 recipient of the Nicklaus Award for NCAA Division I Player of the Year, and he also won the Phil Mickelson award, given to the nation’s most outstanding freshman. Some would call that a nice career; Thomas calls it year one.
None of which comes as a surprise to those who follow the amateur game closely. Thomas was clearly one to keep an eye on before he arrived in Tuscaloosa. He became the third youngest player to make a cut at a PGA Tour event when he played all four rounds in 2009 Wyndham Championship at age 16. He was runner up at the 2010 U.S Junior, and he also won the 2010 Terra Cotta Amateur Championship.
Spieth, the two-time U.S. Junior champion (2009, ‘11), who is ranked No. 3 in the WAGR, had an equally impressive freshman season. He had three first-place finishes and led the national champion Texas Longhorns in scoring average. He had six top-10 finishes in just nine events and was named Big 12 Player of the Year. It didn’t hurt his POY credentials that he made his third PGA Tour cut at the Valero Texas Open, getting significant television time. But a PGA Tour event should not count when selecting the college player of the year.
It’s hard not to respect what Stanford’s Rodgers, ranked No. 2 in the WAGR, accomplished this year. The 2011 Walker Cup team member posted two wins in this campaign and led the Stanford team in scoring average 70.60. Like Thomas, he won his very first collegiate start, at Olympia Fields, and he posted nine top-10 finishes. No disrespect intended for Alabama and Texas, but Stanford is … well, Stanford. Rodgers has to go to class and match wits with some of the brightest young minds in America while maintaining a world class golf game.
Brun, a native of Antibes, France, won three times for Texas Christian University, had eight top-five finishes, and played under par in 27 of 39 competitive rounds. Like Rodgers and Thomas, he won in his college debut, and he finished runner-up for the NCAA individual championship. Having grown up and played almost all of his junior golf in Europe, WAGR No. 8 Brun is not well known in America. His play this year went a long way toward changing that, and he is a youngster to keep an eye on.
UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, most observer’s preseason Player of the Year pick, had by his standards a below average year. As a freshman last year, he won three times and was the consensus Player of the Year. Although ranked No. 1 in the world since last summer, he didn’t have a single college win this year.
To be fair, the UCLA sophomore missed some tournaments due to playing in the Walker Cup and The Masters, where he took low amateur honors. But The Masters, like the Texas Open, is not a college event. Try telling that to POY voters; he already took home the Ben Hogan Award, handed out by the Golf Coaches Association and Colonial Country Club in Texas. This despite not being ranked among the top-10 college golfers for the academic year, and not being named a first team All-American. Go figure.
Most expect Spieth to turn pro sometime this summer. Don’t look for Thomas to be one of those “one-and-done” guys; he’ll be in school next fall, playing golf and pulling for the Crimson Tide to dominate on the gridiron as they have in recent years. By all accounts, he loves Alabama, adores his teammates, and has a great deal of respect for his college coach, Jay Seawell.
A short-term goal is to make the Walker Cup team, a team that will also likely include Rodgers, and will try to bring the Cup back to America in 2013 at the National Golf Links. To that end, he’ll play the traditional summer amateur schedule, as well as the Palmer Cup at Ireland’s Royal County Down in June.