Sony Open: Another year, another crop of promising golfers
HONOLULU — John Peterson was in the 11th grade and thought no one his age could beat him. That changed when he was at a junior event in Texas, where he heard so much chatter about an eighth-grader from Dallas that he went out to watch him.
That was his introduction to Jordan Spieth, now one of his good friends.
“I heard he was good,” Peterson said at the Sony Open, his first tournament of the year. “I wanted to see what everyone was talking about. I’m a junior in high school, thinking no one could beat me, and here’s this eighth-grader killing everybody, already as tall as me. We battled in junior golf. I got him in a playoff at the Jones Cup, and he’s been beating me ever since.”
Spieth inspires him in a different way on the PGA Tour — just like Spieth was inspired by Sony Open defending champion Russell Henley.
Every year brings a new crop of rookies. Each year, the intimidation factor of playing alongside the best in the game deteriorates. To look at the latest group of newcomers gathered at Waialae for the first full-field PGA Tour of 2014 begs one question.
“It really helps when you see your peers compete — and win,” Spieth said Wednesday. “I watched Russell Henley last year. I was on the Walker Cup team with him, and he wins the first event of the year. When you see that, it gives you a mental edge. You’re starting to see young guys on the leaderboard all the time, and these are guys who competed against for years.”
Spieth was among four rookies who won on the PGA Tour last year, joining Henley, Derek Ernst and Patrick Reed. It was one of the strongest rookie classes in years.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again,” Spieth said.
Peterson is a 24-year-old NCAA champion from LSU who has never been afraid to say what he thinks. He was still an amateur when he lost to fellow amateur Harris English — now a two-time winner on the PGA Tour — on the final hole of a Nationwide Tour event. He told Golf World magazine that day, “I knew I could beat all those guys,” and that the top 20 or 30 college players could hang with the top 20 or 30 on the PGA Tour with a few exceptions.
It’s that fine line of confidence and cockiness, which Peterson is known to cross on occasion, that adds to the increasing depth and makes it harder on everyone to win.
“Jordan, Peter Uihlein, Harris English, Russell Henley … all those guys we’ve played with the last six years, they’re all doing big things,” Peterson said. “Peter is playing himself into the World Golf Championships. He’s killing it. Guys are really starting to believe they can play with guys who have been here for 15 years. Twenty years ago, guys coming off the Nationwide or whatever the Web.com was called, they probably didn’t believe they could beat these guys straight out.
“Now you’re seeing it happen every year.”
Peterson was with Spieth in Colombia early last year when Spieth was at a crossroads. With no status anywhere, Spieth was about $4,000 short of full status on the Web.com Tour. He honored a commitment to play a PGA Tour event in Puerto Rico instead of going to Chile to wrap up his card.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to go to Chile,’” Peterson said. “He went to Puerto Rico and proved everyone wrong again. He could have been out there with us all year. Instead, he went to Puerto Rico … and wound up in the Presidents Cup.”
Spieth gives him a hard time for a full beard — Peterson spent the last two months with his hands on a rifle instead a 6-iron, killing a turkey, two bobcats, a seven-point and 10-point buck, two does, two hogs and two raccoons on family property outside Abilene, Texas.
Peterson questioned whether Spieth could even grow peach fuzz.
“I’m just looking forward to calling him ‘rookie’ all year,” said Spieth, who is three years younger and $3 million richer.
Peterson won the Web.com Finals last year by finishing among the top five in all four tournaments. That gives a high priority the entire season, along with a spot in The Players Championship. He already has made the cut in three majors, including a tie for fourth in the U.S. Open.
He played three times when the wraparound season began in October, making one cut. The full year starts Thursday in the Sony Open. For Peterson and all the other newcomers, they only have to look at what happened last year. Henley and Scott Langley went toe-to-toe playing in the last group, both of them rookies.