Doug Smock: PGA Tour’s youth movement on display at Greenbrier

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
At 30 years old, Robert Streb claims he was the “old bag of bones” among the top four finishers at the 2017 Greenbrier Classic, which included winner Xander Schauffele (23), Sebastian Munoz (24) and Jamie Lovemark (29).

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Robert Streb pondered the rest of the foursome who qualified Sunday for the British Open. At 30, he is the oldest of the bunch.

“I’m an old bag of bones now,” he joked.

Xander Schauffele, the newest winner of the Greenbrier Classic, is 23. Jamie Lovemark is 29. Sebastian Munoz is 24. Schauffele and Munoz will play in their first British Opens, Munoz his first-ever major.

Schauffele, a native of La Jolla, California, became the third rookie to win on the Old White TPC, and the fifth player in his 20s.

That’s how this event rolls. That’s how the PGA Tour rolls. That’s how the world rolls — you may have seen 22-year-old John Rahm boat-race the field at the Irish Open this weekend.

“If you look at the 2011 graduates from high school, [Jordan] Spieth, [Justin] Thomas, [Daniel] Berger, you name it,” Schauffele said. “Jon Rahm, he’s even younger than I am — I hate to say it — but yeah, I mean, our class has always been really strong.

“I always joke with my buddies, saying it’s not cool to be 23 and on the PGA Tour anymore since everyone that’s been 22, 23, 24, they’re all winning.

“I guess kudos to them for kind of pushing me along.”

There are now four rookies to win on the PGA Tour, as Schauffele joins Wesley Bryan, Mackenzie Hughes and Cody Gribble. The rookie class entered the week with 35 top-10s, and picked up two more with Schauffele and Lee.

This time around, I figure most more-than-casual golf fans didn’t see the name and say, “Who’s he?” He hit the leaderboard at the recent U.S. Open, finishing tied for fifth, so he showed he can play on a big stage.

And do it with pressure. His tee shot on the 161-yard, par-3 18th hole showed as much. He was tied for the lead with Streb, who was playing behind him on the par-5 17th, when he stuck his shot to within 3 feet.

All four players come with great perseverance. In 2010, Lovemark was the Web.com Tour’s youngest-ever money leader at 22, but back surgery derailed his PGA Tour rookie year, and he eventually fell off the Tour and has had to “graduate” from the Web.com twice.

In one of the most agonizing moments I have seen in person, he missed a short par putt to lose a 3-for-2 playoff at a Monday qualifier at Glade Springs. Now, he’s 41st in the point standings and inside the world’s top 100 and will rise from 98th.

“I don’t even remember that, it’s so long ago,” he said. “When I keep putting myself in this position to knock off some wins, that’s the goal.”

Streb is a repeat runner-up here, having lost a four-way playoff in 2015. This performance was critical, as he rose from 137th to 68th in the FedEx Cup points race, well inside the magic top 125. His two-year exemption for winning a 2015 event expires this season, and he needed a strong finish to maintain full privileges for next season.

Munoz is still fighting for the 125 level after his putting went south. He rose from 198th to 140th, but still has work to do.

The Colombia native has had trouble getting into tournaments, but he gets an extra start at Royal Birkdale.

“I just have to bring it home the last four or five events,” he said.

And then there is Streb, the man known for putting with a sand wedge on the back nine Sunday in 2015, and doing well enough to tie for the lead. He sees the youngsters roll out of the Web.com Tour each year, and is amazed.

“I was pretty young when I first got out here at 25, and it’s almost average now,” Streb said. “A lot of young guys — I’m sure Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] had a lot to do with that. But yeah, you’ve got a lot of young guns and they all hit it a long way, so it’s changing a little bit.”

However long this event lasts, youth will be served.

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I guess I should temper critiques of the tournament, which was lacking in aggressive promotion and other areas. After all, the overriding goal was reviving the event, and the Old White’s reconstruction effort went above expectations.

Kelly Shumate and Josh Pope, take a bow. And get some sleep.

But I’ll add this without hesitation: The concerts must come back.

The shows, which have ranged from the Black Eyed Peas to Bon Jovi to Jimmy Buffett, added the “cool” element to this event. It brought throngs to the state fairgrounds at night and it brought extra humanity to Old White during the day.

And I’d hear the buzz among the gallery about the previous night’s show. Even some players caught a concert or two, adding to their experience. It was another selling point back in the day, when the event had a tournament director who visited other PGA Tour stops to recruit participants.

Adding the concerts back into the week’s schedule may be problematic now, as admission to the course likely will be free from here on out. That’s the new expectation.

The concerts were an expectation, too. They must return.

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Let’s end this on a good note. Sunday’s weather was splendid, capping a delay-free tournament. That had everyone smiling.

Bubba Watson said it well: “You know, it’s one of those things that we needed, West Virginia needed, White Sulphur Springs needed.”

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougsmock

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