The power grouping of Thornberry, Hovland and Morikawa at the 2018 U.S. Amateur (AmateurGolf.com photo)
By Garrett Johnston
There was a moment in time captured at the memorable 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach where Viktor Hovland
emphatically delivered an iconic win
. But this particular moment didn’t come on Sunday when he hoisted the trophy; it came early in the week when Braden Thornberry
, Hovland, and future major champ Collin Morikawa
shared the tee on the par-3 fifth hole at Pebble Beach (photo above).
The latter two combine with Matthew Wolff
(who didn’t play in that U.S. Amateur due to injury) to make up the "big three" in the class of 2019 who turned pro. Between them they already have seven PGA Tour titles and a major in less than two years as professionals.
Thornberry, however, has yet to make it to the PGA Tour in nearly two-and-a-half years as a pro. He has yet to win on the Korn Ferry Tour where he currently plays, though he did share medalist honors at final stage of Korn Ferry Tour School in 2019. But in fairness, you could compare many players to the big three and they would all fall short of their accomplishments.
The 2017 NCAA individual champion
and former Ole Miss star entered that 2018 U.S. Amateur as the reigning AmateurGolf.com Player of the Year, and No. 4 in the Golfweek/AmateurGolf.com World Ranking
, while Morikawa entered as No. 3 and Hovland as No. 7.
Related: The 2017 AGC Men's Player of the Year: Braden Thornberry
When Thornberry sees the big three hoisting trophies today it’s interesting to hear his reaction.
“I wouldn’t say I get frustrated at all. I like all those guys so I’m happy to see them have success but I think it makes it seem very more real I think,” Thornberry said in an exclusive phone interview. “Seeing Collin win a major, it kind of makes [winning] the major not seem so crazy because it’s somebody who I was just playing practice rounds with. We’d be competing and I’d beat him sometimes and he’d beat me sometimes and we’d have tournaments go both ways. Then you see a year-and-a-half later him winning the PGA [Championship], and I’m like ‘wow, that’s not that far out of my reach’.”
Though Wolff, Hovland, and Morikawa have established themselves on the big Tour, it’s easy to forget that Thornberry was the player who made the biggest splash among them in their PGA Tour debuts as amateurs. His came at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in 2017 as a 20-year-old sophomore when he tied for fourth place
a mere four days after receiving the Fred Haskins Award
. His Sunday 65 was the best final round by an amateur in a non-major since 1983.
Morikawa played his first Tour event at age 19 in the 2016 Safeway Open in Napa, about forty miles from where he went to school at Cal, and missed the cut. Hovland also missed the cut in his first PGA Tour event at the 2018 Mayakoba Classic at age 21. Wolff tied for 50th at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open at age 19.
But collectively the big three have since made a meteoric rise toward the top of the world rankings, like no class before them. Less than two years after turning pro, all three have cracked the top 20, with Morikawa leading the way at No. 4 in the world. To our knowledge, this has never happened so quickly before with three players.
Less than a year after turning pro, the big three (L-R: Hovland, Wolff, Morikawa) were already being billed as a featured attraction at PGA Tour events like the WM Phoenix Open
“It’s tough to see Matt, Collin and Viktor are having so much success and obviously I wish I was there right now but kind of what they’re doing has an asterisk beside it; not many people have done that in history really,” Thornberry said. “I’m just going on my own timeline and I think I’m playing really well. I’ve got full status on the Korn Ferry Tour so it’s a good spot to be. I completely control my own destiny for the next couple years with where I’m at so I feel like the game’s coming around and hopefully I’ll put myself in contention the next couple weeks and be right there with them next year.”
To Thornberry’s college coach at Ole Miss, Chris Malloy, his former star and eleven-time collegiate winner (school record) is well on his way to success in the pro ranks.
“Even though a guy like Braden hasn’t had the success of a Morikawa and Hovland so far, there is zero doubt in my mind that he will get there,” Malloy said. “I know in his mind, he knows he can compete and beat those guys, so I’m sure it’s a little bit hard to see that. Braden expects that same success like they all do immediately but that’s just not how it works. I think he’s well on his way and he’ll get there.”
Thornberry is in his third year on the Korn Ferry Tour and he just posted his best finish of the season, a tie for eighth in the Chitimacha Louisiana Open last weekend. He also played in the final group on Sunday, something the 23-year-old hasn’t done since 2019 Q-School.
“I enjoyed it and I definitely look forward to getting back in that position,” Thornberry said, “I think the more I get there the less nervous and more ready to go I’ll be.”
About five months ago Thornberry made the move from jointly staying in Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, to living full time in Dallas, Texas. There were a few factors that led to the decision.
“Our practice facilities were great at Ole Miss and TPC Southwind in Memphis but there just weren’t enough golfers to play with day in and day out,” said Thornberry. “I got a little stagnant and I kind of noticed I wasn’t getting super excited to go practice each day because I was by myself for three straight weeks practicing and it lost its fun.”
He also wanted to be on the course more versus practicing on a driving range for two to three hours a day hitting perfect shots on Trackman. He felt he was getting in a ‘rut’ by focusing on technique and not scoring.
“That’s not really who I am as a golfer. I like working shots and hitting big cuts off some tees and just kind of hitting the shot I see,” Thornberry said.
Click on the image above to see what's in Brayden Thornberry's bag
The Olive Branch, Mississippi native said having friends like Davis Riley
and Will Zalatoris
at Maridoe Golf Club in Dallas also helped get him motivated to make the move.
He’s also started working with Troy Denton at Maridoe just to have a set of eyes on his swing and to watch patterns.
“We’re not really changing anything. It’s just my natural tendency is to get the club underneath and push it out and flip a little bit, and we’re just kind of working on swinging more left and simplifying things,” Thornberry said. “Not really changing anything, just taking what I have and seeing where it gets off when I’m struggling and just kind of getting away from that basically.”
Thornberry (left), Morikawa (below) and the US Walker Cup team (AGC photo)
Thornberry played on a loaded 2017 Walker Cup team and most of those players have gone on to the PGA Tour including Cameron Champ
, Doug Ghim
, Morikawa, Maverick McNealy
, Doc Redman
, Zalatoris, and Scottie Scheffler
One who hasn’t found that kind of success thus far is Norman Xiong
, the player who led that U.S. Walker Cup team with a 3-0-1 record at Los Angeles Country Club. Norman turned pro in 2018 after seventeen months at Oregon and a victory at the Western Amateur.
“He was a can’t miss kid, had the deal with Callaway, but professional golf isn’t for everybody,” Cal Men’s golf coach Walter Chun said. “It’s a very lonely road. You turn it into a sport where it’s just you, and you’ve got all this money. Then you have all of these expectations on yourself. I think it speaks to the maturity of Collin, Viktor and Matt.”
Xiong missed the cut in all six PGA Tour appearances once he turned pro in 2018 and missed the cut in 16 of 21 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour the following year. One can hope that eventually turns around for him.
So what leads to success and failure on the transition from amateur to the pro ranks? The million dollar question, right?
“I think it really depends on each individual. To each their own, there’s no recipe for success,” Chun said.
It can take a variety of different times for players to find their stride in the pro ranks; look at Chun’s former player Max Homa
Homa turned pro in 2013 and played a combination of mostly Korn Ferry Tour and some PGA Tour events initially. He once missed 15 cuts out of 17 on the PGA Tour in the 2016-17 season. But in the 2019 Wells Fargo Championship he eventually got his first PGA Tour win at age 28.
“You just never know how the transition will go, I think Braden Thornberry will be fine, he’s a gifted player,” Chun said.
Going back to the big three from the class of 2019, they are a unique group that college coaches today praise universally.
Oklahoma State head men’s golf coach Alan Bratton says it’s a class that stands above all others. One of the few classes that he would even try to compare was that of 2003 when players like Hunter Mahan (six PGA Tour wins) and Nick Watney (five PGA Tour wins) entered the pro ranks. Watney and Mahan wouldn’t get their first PGA Tour wins, however, until 2007 as Watney played the Canadian Tour in 2003 and the Korn Ferry Tour in 2004. Mahan started on the PGA Tour in 2004.
Hovland and Wolff in 2019 (OkSt photo)
“Viktor has clearly established himself as one of the best ball-strikers in the world. That’s his biggest strength,” Bratton said. Hovland currently ranks fifth on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained off the tee.
“Matt’s such a good ball-striker and really good putter and when he’s going good he’s fearless,” Bratton said. “And he’s got a big advantage in that he can hit the ball really, really high.” Bratton figures that high ball flight will help Wolff in major championships. He made the final group in the 2020 U.S. Open last September before finishing second.
We saw Morikawa's winning smile in 2016
For Morikawa, who won AmateurGolf.com's Silicon Valley Amateur
five years ago, his most recent tour win at the WGC-Workday Championship has the golf world buzzing as he took down one of the best fields in golf.
Chun is enjoying seeing Morikawa’s success on Tour and loves the way his former star bounces back from bad breaks and close calls.
“His strongest asset in my opinion is that he’s able to bounce back, and let these disappointments motivate him,” Chun said referring to losing early in the 2018 U.S. Amateur, and losing to Wolff at the 3M Championship in their rookie seasons. “That’s what makes him so good and will continue to drive him to do things that Tiger Woods has done.”
While Morikawa chases Woods numbers, Thornberry and others like Riley and Zalatoris are looking for what’s next in their own path. Coach Malloy is sure of where they’re headed.
“It’s tough to beat this 2019 class -- a lot of them have been successful on Tour -- but I can promise you, those other guys, Will Zalatoris, Davis Riley, and Braden, they are coming, they just haven’t arrived yet,” Malloy said “It’s not a matter of if, but when for those guys.”