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Ahead of Northern Trust, young golf stars ready to take the torch

Justin Thomas of the United States poses

Justin Thomas of the United States poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 2017 PGA Championship during the final round at Quail Hollow Club. August 13, 2017. Credit: Getty Images / Ross Kinnaird

If the torch has indeed been passed to a new generation of golfers, which seems to be the case, it sure doesn’t seem too hot to handle for them. Nor are they afraid to pass it around among each other.

“It’s a cool thing we have going on right now with the young golfers and we’re all rooting for each other,” Justin Thomas, 24, said last Sunday, right after he became the third consecutive golfer in his 20s to win a major championship. “If we can’t play well, we want the others to play well.”

Golf in 2017 is flush with guys in their 20s who shoot in the low 60s. Among those sitting near the 18th green to help Thomas celebrate winning the PGA Championship, his fourth victory of the season, was Jordan Spieth, also 24, the winner of three tournaments this season, including the previous major. Four days earlier, Spieth was asked about a budding rivalry with Rory McIlroy, 28. “It’s not two of us, it’s really eight to 10 right now,” he said.

That would include Brooks Koepka, 27, who won the U.S. Open this year; Hideki Matsuyama, 25, whose victory two weeks ago was his third this season; Rickie Fowler, 28, a close friend of both Spieth and Thomas who always is knocking on the door at majors; Jon Rahm, a rookie who won a PGA Tour event this year at 22 and others.

They grew up idolizing Tiger Woods (Thomas had dinner with him at the Wanamaker Trophy ceremony Monday). None of these 20-somethings is as dominant as Woods was, but as a unit they are a force. They have come of age in the era of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which is what will bring them to Long Island this week.

It is the 10th year of the four-stop playoff system, which culminates with the winner getting $10 million. McIlroy won it last year, Spieth the year before that. The first leg is the Northern Trust, formerly known as the Barclays, and will be played at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury.

Glen Oaks is a flashy ingénue, which makes it a good match and appropriate spot for the young stars on the PGA Tour.

No one will have an advantage in experience because no tour player ever has played a competitive round on the course. Glen Oaks stepped in as a replacement for Liberty National in Jersey City, which was scheduled to host the tournament this year but had to back off when it was awarded the Presidents Cup, to be held in late September.

This will be a chance for the club, just off Post Road, north of the Long Island Expressway, to display the thorough renovation it underwent in the past five years since it hired former Bethpage course superintendent Craig Currier. He said that while many courses are emphasizing a rugged, fescue-strewn appearance, Glen Oaks has gone in the complete opposite direction: Plush green grass from tree line to tree line, bright white sand.

“With all the great golf courses here in the metropolitan New York area to be selected to host something like this is truly unbelievable,” said Currier, who worked at Augusta National years before he prepared the Black Course for two U.S. Opens. “We tried to make something a little different from what we have here on Long Island. Obviously, I was at Bethpage and that’s a rough, rugged golf course. This is more of a manicured course.”

The club was established in 1924, on the William K. Vanderbilt property straddling the Nassau-Suffolk border. Members saw the need to expand in the late 1960s and bought a 250-acre arboretum that was part of the Winthrop Estate and hired Joe Finger (designer of “The Monster” at the Concord Hotel) to build the new layout. It opened on Labor Day, 1971.

Architect Joel Weiman did the redesign that was completed in 2014. For the tournament, Glen Oaks will use a composite of its 27 holes: Nos. 1-3 and 6-9 from the White Course, Nos. 4 and 5 on the complete Blue Course. The configuration was used for the Met Open last year and only the champion, Mark Brown of Tam O’Shanter, broke par.

“I’ve heard a lot of great things about it,” said Patrick Reed, 27, the defending champion who won the Barclays last year at the Black. “With places you haven’t seen, you have to go into it fresh. You can’t have any assumptions. You just have to go in and kind of have your own thought process and mental game.”

The FedEx Cup is a composite of four existing tournaments (the Northern Trust was originally the Westchester Classic). Only the top 125 on a season-long points list are eligible for the first event and the field is narrowed weekly after that. Among the golfers, it has overcome the skepticism and confusion rampant when the concept debuted in 2007.

“I think the players love it. It’s an opportunity to have a fifth major, per se,” said Bill Haas, 35, who won the $10 million in 2011. “Like anything new, you didn’t know what to expect. You’ve got a lot of guys playing in more events toward the end of the year because they want to move their spots up. It makes these playoff events, all four of them, mean a lot. They feel like bigger events than they once were.”

Just about every tournament has been given a shot in the arm by the influx of young talent. Many players have been competing against each other for years on a burgeoning national junior circuit, so they have ready-made relationships when they reach the big time. So, Fowler and Spieth were right there last Sunday, hugging Thomas’ parents.

“It’s awesome and I think they know I would do the same for them. It’s a cool little friendship we have,” Thomas said during his champion’s news conference. “I know Rickie was a couple groups in front and Jordan was probably through nine or something when I finished.”

Thomas, a member of the winning U.S. team in the 2013 Walker Cup at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, added that another friend, Bud Cauley, 27, waited around for more than four hours after his round last Sunday to see how it turned out.

“I think that kind of shows, you know, where the game is right now, where all of us are. I mean, we obviously all want to win,” Thomas said. “We want to beat the other person. But if we can’t win, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends.”

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