Youth is served in PGA Tour's FedEx Cup play-offs

By Sports Desk August 02, 2022

Should you want proof that golf is a game for life, played in different venues and for all ages, digest what was going on in various corners of the world 15 summers ago.

In the Dallas area, an 11-year-old named Scott Scheffler was crushing the competition on the North Texas PGA Junior Tour. There were victories at Shady Valley, The Links at Water Chase, Lantana GC, and by eight strokes over Vince Whaley at Twin Creeks GC.

Down in Bayou country, another 11-year-old named Sam Burns was shooting 84 in the annual Shreveport (Louisiana) City Amateur. He finished top five.

In Scotland, an 18-year-old mop-haired kid from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy, was low amateur in the Open Championship at Carnoustie. Rounds of 68-76-73-72 served notice that this kid might be pretty good.

With rounds of 72-70, a 14-year-old from Kentucky named Justin Thomas finished second in his age group, third overall, at the Evian Masters Junior Cup in France. One perk for winning was that he got to play alongside Juli Inkster in a pro-am before the Evian Masters.

And on the other side of the world, in Hawaii, a 15-year-old Japanese player named Hideki Matsuyama dominated his match against Henry Park, 6 and 5, to help the visitors post a 24.5 to 19.5 win in the Hawaii/Japan Junior Cup.

Those were the stages, of course, played in the shadows. On the stage that mattered, a guy much older, the 31-year-old Tiger Woods, was collecting a fourth US PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Ho-hum as that might have been, given it was his 14th major, what surely resonated was Woods' achievement at the end of that summer. With an overwhelming performance in the inaugural FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour, Woods earned a cool $10million.

What stands out about that 2007 Tour Championship that nailed down the first FedEx Cup were the suffocating numbers. Woods won the season finale by eight strokes, it was his 61st career win and seventh of the season, and he finished the Tour Championship at 23-under 257.

"It has been a phenomenal week," Woods said, then very much at his understated best. He had, after all, also pocketed a cheque for $1.26million for winning the Tour Championship.

"I enjoyed being on a scoring streak, hitting good shot after good shot, and I felt very comfortable with my game. It felt good."

That was then and this is now, and what feels remarkable is how quickly time has passed and how surreal it is to know this: just 15 years after they were playing golf on mostly unheralded stages as kids, the 26-year-old Scheffler (he's Scottie now, unlike in 2007), Burns, 26; McIlroy, 33; Thomas, 29; and Matsuyama, 30, were numbers 1-2-3-4-5 in the FedEx Cup standings when the calendar flipped to July.

The flip side of Woods now being 46 is the fact the game is getting younger and, oh, how the current FedEx Cup standings reflect that. After Scheffler, Burns, McIlroy, Thomas, and Matsuyama, we have Patrick Cantlay, Cameron Smith, Xander Schauffele, Will Zalatoris, and Max Homa.

Average age of those 10 players: 28.5.

That is more than four years younger than the average age in 2007, the first FedEx Cup when seven of the top 10 were 31 or older. This time around, eight of the current top 10 are 30 or younger.

But if this youth parade has many marchers, the warmest spotlight must be shining on the leader, the same kid who 15 years ago was dominating the competition on the North Texas Junior PGA.

All Scheffler has done in this, his third full season on the PGA Tour, is win four times and roar into the penthouse of the Official World Golf Rankings.

Not bad, this number one designation. But some might argue that Burns is number 1A, because all he has done is win three times before, and if you go back to the middle of the 2020-21 season, Burns secured victories in four of his last 29 tournaments.

The screeching noise you heard is the arrival of the Scheffler-Burns express; they are two young men who are great friends and as if to punctuate their new-found grip on the PGA Tour, they had an exclamation point of a Sunday back in May.

Locked in a play-off at the Charles Schwab Challenge, Burns poured in a long-range birdie on the first extra hole to beat his Texas friend.

Even Scheffler flashed a wide smile that day, nodding his approval to Burns, knowing there will be many more opportunities to return the favour. Perhaps even as soon as the upcoming FedEx Cup play-offs. These are the dates that matter: August 11-14 at the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis; August 18-21 at the BMW Championship in Wilmington, Delaware; and August 25-28 at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.

They are tournaments that showcase the best of the elite, and whereas you might have understandably expected them to put Scheffler in awe as a 24-year-old rookie in August of 2020, it didn't work out that way. In his second round in the play-offs, Scheffler shot 59 at TPC Boston.

He didn't win that week, but a tie for fourth set in motion a nice play-off run – tied 20th at the BMW, fifth at the Tour Championship. The three who finished immediately ahead of him in the FedEx Cup standings in 2020 – Schauffele, Thomas and Jon Rahm – are key contenders for the 2021-22 FedEx Cup as a dynamic era of young and talented performers continues into the 16th edition of this season-long race.

It is amazing, the furious speed with which these kids have progressed from junior golf to the spotlight of a FedEx Cup. Then again, perhaps there are those who saw this coming. Joel Edwards, for instance.

A veteran PGA Tour performer, Edwards was in the twilight of his career when he used to practise at Royal Oaks at Dallas where Scheffler was the brightest of a stable of talented junior players.

Precocious and supremely talented, Scheffler would challenge Edwards and another PGA Tour veteran, Harrison Frazar, to random contests. Frazar confirms he lost sleeves of golf balls to a fourth-grader; Edwards concedes that "he cost me a fortune; I used to carry a bunch of quarters because I knew I'd get my butt beat [in a bid to hit practice-range poles with wedge shots]."

And if there was one thing that stood out about Scheffler back then, even beyond his uncanny golf skills, it was his appearance.

"He always wore pants. He looked like a Tour player at 10," said Edwards.

And at 11, while mowing down the local competition, perhaps Scheffler knew this brand-new FedEx Cup was someday going to be in his future.

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  • Copa America 2024: Can Messi and Argentina continue their era of dominance? Copa America 2024: Can Messi and Argentina continue their era of dominance?

    It took 28 years, but Argentina finally ended a long wait for a major international trophy when they triumphed at the 2021 Copa America.

    Lionel Messi starred throughout that tournament in Brazil, which was played partly behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scoring four goals and laying on five more, though it was Angel Di Maria who proved Argentina's hero in the final, scoring the winner against the Selecao.

    That triumph marked Messi's first piece of silverware on the international stage, while Argentina won a trophy for the first time since 1993.

    It paved the way for Argentina to go from continental champions to world champions less than 18 months later, as Messi inspired them to glory in Qatar.

    And now the world champions will look to cement this era of dominance by retaining the Copa America crown.

    With the help of Opta data, we preview the key storylines ahead of the Copa America.

    THE HOSTS

    USA

    This year's Copa will be held in the United States, which was also the host nation for the 2016 edition, which was won by Chile.

    Like in 2016, 16 teams will feature at the tournament this year, with the USA one of six CONCACAF nations involved.

    Gregg Berhalter left his role after the 2022 World Cup, but was then reappointed. While he has a talented group at his disposal, it does feel as though he cannot quite get the required level of consistency out of them.

    The two sides of the USA were on show in their warm-up matches: A 5-1 hammering at the hands of Colombia was followed by a 1-1 draw with heavyweights Brazil.

    In Christian Pulisic, the USA have an influential playmaker who comes into the tournament on the back of his best goalscoring season, having netted 15 times in all competitions for Milan.

    Folarin Balogun has netted three times for the Stars and Stripes since switching allegiance from England, while Antonee Robinson, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have plenty of top-level experience. But Berhalter has to find a way to put it all together.

    THE FAVOURITES

    Argentina

    It is easy to see why La Albiceleste are the big favourites. They are the best team in the world, according to the FIFA rankings, and in Messi, they still have a player who is arguably the best in the world, even heading into his late thirties.

    Messi has already been involved in 21 MLS goals for Inter Miami this season, and everything is set to revolve around him once again for Argentina.

     

    As soon as he features for Argentina at this tournament, Messi will become the Copa America’s all-time record holder for appearances – he is tied with Chile great Sergio Livingstone on 34, as it stands.

    Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi could join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru's Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile's Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

    Since the start of the 2011 Copa, Messi has had 102 shots – more than any other player. Surprisingly, his conversion rate stands at just 10.78 per cent, which is the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

    With 15 titles to their name, Argentina are the joint-record winners of the Copa America, alongside Uruguay. They have played more Copa matches (201) and scored more goals in the tournament (474) than any other team, too.

    They are clearly the team to beat.

    Brazil

    This Brazil is not exactly the vintage of the 1990s or 2000s. With no Neymar, there's less flair, and more streetfighter grit, in Dorival Junior's squad.

    Vinicius Junior does provide a flavour of the archetypal Brazilian international, though, and he is set to be the Selecao's talisman at this Copa.

    He comes into the tournament on the back of an exceptional season with Real Madrid, having scored 24 goals across all competitions.

    Vinicius outperformed his 20.96 xG, while also providing nine assists and creating 56 chances for his team-mates.

    The forward spent much of the domestic campaign playing down the middle for Carlo Ancelotti's team, whereas for his country, he is likely to play wide left.

    Who occupies that centre-forward spot is perhaps up for debate. Endrick is a superstar in the making, though will Brazil's coach trust the youngster to lead the line from the off?

    Gabriel Martinelli is better on the flanks, though could do a job if required. However, with no Richarlison or Gabriel Jesus, that striker position does seem a possible weakness.

    There's no Casemiro, following his poor performances for Manchester United, but Douglas Luiz, Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta form a steely midfield trio with genuine quality.

    With Ederson injured, Alisson is the clear number one, with Eder Militao and Marquinhos seemingly set to pair up at the back, with Gabriel Magalhaes and Bremer quality options in reserve, too.

    They face Colombia, Paraguay and Costa Rica in their group, and despite their struggles in World Cup qualifying, they are still the favourites to top that pool.

    Uruguay

    Now under the guidance of the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa, Uruguay are being tipped by many to emerge as serious challengers in the United States. 

    A hat-trick from Liverpool's Darwin Nunez helped them thrash Mexico 4-0 in a pre-tournament friendly last week, while they also sit second in the CONMEBOL 2026 World Cup qualification standings, having beaten Brazil and Argentina last year.

    That latter victory makes them the only team to defeat La Albiceleste since they won the World Cup in Qatar. Messi and company have won the other 13 of their 14 matches as world champions.

    Nunez, who ranked joint-fifth in the Premier League for total shots (108) and eighth for xG (16.39) in 2023-24, is an ideal fit for the all-action attacking approach favoured by Bielsa, while tireless midfielder Federico Valverde brings balance alongside enforcer Manuel Ugarte and the cultured Rodrigo Bentancur.

    Luis Suarez, meanwhile, has received a surprise call-up despite not featuring in Uruguay's pre-tournament friendlies, having scored 12 goals and assisted five in 16 MLS appearances for Inter Miami this term.

    Neutrals should expect entertainment from a side that leads all teams in South American World Cup qualifying for xG (9.05), but as is so often the case with Bielsa's teams, there are questions at the other end. 

    Ecuador (4.52) and Venezuela (4.78) are among those to have allowed opponents a lower xG total in the CONMEBOL qualifiers than Uruguay (4.97 xGA), and goalkeeper Sergio Rochet can expect to be worked after usurping Fernando Muslera, who helped La Celeste finish fourth at the 2010 World Cup and win the Copa America one year later.

    Panama and Bolivia look unlikely to offer much of a challenge in Group C, making Uruguay's final match against the United States vital. Should they top their pool, they will land on the opposite side of the bracket to the Group A victors, widely expected to be Argentina. 

    Uruguay held the record for most Copa America victories outright between 2011 (their 15th title) and 2021 (Argentina's 15th). If we see Bielsa-ball in full flow, they could be contenders to reclaim their status as South America's top dogs.

    Colombia

    Colombia are the form team heading into the Copa America.

    They are unbeaten in 23 games, winning the last eight of those, including hammerings of the USA and Bolivia in pre-tournament friendlies.

    Luis Diaz scored one and set up another in that latter match - a 3-0 win - and he was the breakout star of the 2021 Copa America, scoring four goals to finish level with Messi at the top of the charts.

    Those four goals came from a combined xG of just 1.0, with Diaz netting an overhead kick against Brazil in the group stage, and lashing in a supreme strike from outside the area as Colombia beat Peru in the third-placed play-off.

    Diaz is Colombia's most potent goalscoring threat, but they also have James Rodriguez to rely on further back.

    James' club career has become a nomadic one, but for his country, the former Madrid playmaker is a superstar once again under coach Nestor Lorenzo, who has made the 32-year-old the main man.

    Having been left out of Colombia's squad for the 2021 edition, James will be eager to make up for lost time.

    Colombia are more than just dark horses. They should be considered among the very best teams at this tournament.

    THE BREAKOUT STARS

    Endrick is the obvious pick here. The teenager looks set for stardom, and he'll be linking up with Vinicius, Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season. He has scored three goals in his last four outings for Brazil, including a late winner against Mexico earlier in June.

    Alejandro Garnacho is now an established Premier League player, but he is only just finding his way for Argentina. He is yet to score for his country, but has stepped up in big moments for Manchester United this season, none more so than in the FA Cup final, in which he scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Manchester City.

    Colombia forward Jhon Duran  is reportedly of interest to Chelsea, and the Aston Villa attacker could be something of a wildcard for Lorenzo off the bench. His five Premier League goals in 2023-24 came from just 2.0 xG.

    THE OPTA SUPERCOMPUTER SAYS...

    As mentioned, Argentina are the clear favourites, with Opta's model handing them a 31 per cent chance of winning their 16th Copa crown.

    Brazil, as would be expected, rank second - their win likelihood is 23 per cent .

    Uruguay come in with a 13 per cent chance, ahead of the USA ( seven per cent ), Colombia ( six per cent ) and Mexico ( six per cent ).

    Two teams - Jamaica and Bolivia, who are the worst-ranked side in this year's edition of the tournament - are given a zero per cent chance of winning the trophy.

    Panama, who reached the CONCACAF Gold Cup final last year, can perhaps consider themselves hard done by to be given just a one per cent chance, however.

  • McIlroy set for break after toughest day of career in US Open collapse McIlroy set for break after toughest day of career in US Open collapse

    Rory McIlroy intends to take a break from golf after his US Open collapse as the Northern Irishman bemoaned the toughest day of his career following further major disappointment at Pinehurst.

    The four-time major champion has not triumphed in one of golf's top events since 2014 at the PGA Championship.

    McIlroy came within touching distance of ending that decade-long wait on Sunday but fell short in disappointing circumstances as Bryson DeChambeau claimed the US Open title by a shot in North Carolina.

    The 35-year-old McIlroy managed to bogey three of his final four holes in the last round at Pinehurst's No.2 course, including a woeful miss from a short putting distance on the 18th.

    DeChambeau was left to save par with an impressive up-and-down from the near-side bunker, leaving McIlroy to rue another missed opportunity on the major stage.

    "Yesterday was a tough day, probably the toughest I've had in my nearly 17 years as a professional golfer," McIlroy wrote on social media.

    "Firstly, I'd like to congratulate Bryson. He is a worthy champion and exactly what professional golf needs right now. I think we can all agree on that.

    "As I reflect on my week, I'll rue a few things over the course of the tournament, mostly the two missed putts on 16 and 18 on the final day.

    "But, as I always try to do, I'll look at the positives of the week that far outweigh the negatives. As I said at the start of the tournament, I feel closer to winning my next major championship than I ever have.

    "The one word that I would describe my career as is resilient. I've shown my resilience over and over again in the last 17 years and I will again."

    McIlroy was expected to play in this week's Travelers Championship in Connecticut.

    However, the world number two confirmed he will not feature as McIlroy prepares for a break after suffering a brutal blow to his major hopes.

    "I'm going to take a few weeks away from the game to process everything and build myself back up for my defence of the Genesis Scottish Open and The Open at Royal Troon," he concluded.

    The Scottish Open does not start until July 11, leaving McIlroy with almost a month to recover from this setback.

  • DeChambeau excited for more McIlroy battles following U.S. Open glory DeChambeau excited for more McIlroy battles following U.S. Open glory

    Bryson DeChambeau is looking forward to more final-round battles with Rory McIlroy following his second U.S. Open triumph at Pinehurst on Sunday. 

    DeChambeau headed into the final round in North Carolina with a three-shot lead over the field, but soon found himself two behind the Northern Irishman three holes into the back nine. 

    A birdie at the 13th regained the American's composure, with McIlroy making bogey in three of the last four holes, including an agonising miss on18 to hand DeChambeau the victory. 

    The fifth major title continues to elude McIlroy, last winning at the 2014 PGA Championship, but DeChambeau labelled the world number two as one of the best to play the game and is excited for future tussles on the golf course. 

    "Rory is one of the best to ever play," DeChambeau said. "Being able to fight against a great like that is pretty special. I'd love to have a lot more battles with him.

    "I have nothing but respect for how he plays the game of golf... to be honest, when he was climbing up the leaderboard, I was like, 'Uh-oh', but luckily things went my way today.

    "For him to miss that putt [on the 18th], I'd never wish it on anybody.

    "I'm sure it will fuel Rory's fire even more. He's a strong-minded individual. He'll win multiple more major championships, there's no doubt."

    McIlroy's missed putt at 18 opened the door for DeChambeau to capitalise, but a wayward drive left him hunched under a tree, forcing him to punch out to a greenside bunker to set up a nervy finish. 

    However, the American would produce a moment of magic to place the ball within four feet of the hole, going on to say it was the shot of his life. 

    "That bunker shot was the shot of my life," DeChambeau reflected.

    "I knew where Rory was. After my tee shot, I was up there going, 'Man, if he makes par, I don't know how I'm going to beat him'. I just really didn't know.

    "Then I heard the moans. It was like a shot of adrenaline got in me. I said, 'Okay, you can do this'. I'm so happy I got that shot up-and-down."

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