At the beginning of the season last year, I was trying (just as I am now) to write a column documenting the various rookies on the PGA Tour. And while there were a few nice stories, there simply just wasn’t enough to fill out a whole article. Fast forward to the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, when Tour rookie Keegan Bradley was in the mix, and I began lamenting not writing the column. Bradley would to be the main fixture of the article, because while he didn’t start with the highest of expectations, I knew more about him than most people, since we went to the same high school. (For the record, the other names I had written down were Jamie Lovemark, Justin Hicks, Kevin Chappell, Nate Smith, and Michael Thompson).
Unfortunately, there was simply not enough there, and a year of lamenting that fact has led me to this. Luckily, 2012 has provided us with a few more big names (a full list can be found here), as well as some nice stories, so without further ado, here are five Tour rookies likely to make a splash in 2012.
Number Five: Erik Compton
Erik Compton is not your typical PGA Tour rookie. Hell, he’s not your typical 32-year-old. Compton was born in Miami, FL, and when he was nine he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy. Previously an extremely gifted athlete, his heart was unable to pump blood as well as it should, and he had his first heart transplant in 1992, at the age of 12. After the surgery and unable to play contact sports, Compton took up the game of golf. Compton attended the University of Georgia, and led the Bulldogs to two SEC titles. He graduated from Georgia and also made the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup Team.
Compton turned professional later that year and played on the Nationwide Tour in 2002. He played on the Canadian Tour over the next two years, won twice in Canada and won the Order of Merit. In 2004, Compton won the Hassan II Golf Trophy, a tournament in Morocco has also been won by Ernie Els, Padriag Harrington, David Toms, Payne Stewart, and Vijay Singh. He moved back to the Nationwide Tour in 2005, and remained there for three years. He also won two events on the NGA Hooters Tour over that time, and since 2000 he has played in 30 events on the PGA Tour, making the cut 18 times. His only top 25 finish was a tie for 25th at the 2011 Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.
In 2008, Compton had extreme highs and equal lows. Compton got married that year, but he also had his second heart transplant. He threw his golf clubs away, thinking he’d never use them again. Amazingly, just five months after his heart transplant Compton played in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. Compton is on Tour this year because he finished 13th on last year’s Nationwide Tour money list. He played 18 events on the Nationwide Tour last year, making 14 cuts and winning one event, the Mexico Open.
Number Four: Jamie Lovemark
2012 marks Jamie Lovemark’s second straight year as a Tour rookie. Last year, Lovemark played in nine events, but only made the cut twice. This year he has been granted a medical exemption, and has 16 events to make the money needed to retain his card. He earned his 2011 PGA Tour card after leading the Nationwide Tour’s money list in 2010.
Though only a rookie, Jamie Lovemark already has an impressive track record. The 23 year old was born in Rancho Santa Fe, California, home of Phil Mickelson. In 2005, he won the Western Amateur, earning himself an entry into the Western Open (then called the Cialis Western Open, now the BMW Championship). At 17, he recorded a respectable T54. Lovemark spent the next few years dominating the college ranks, but he did manage to play three events in 2007 and 2008 on the Nationwide Tour. Lovemark made two cuts and even managed a second place finish in the 2007 Rochester Area Charities Showdown at Somerby.
In 2009, Lovemark was awarded a sponsor’s exemption into the Frys.com Open, a Fall Series event. While he didn’t win the event, Lovemark made his way to a playoff that also included hotshot rookie Rickie Fowler and the veteran of the group, Troy Matteson. Matteson ended up winning the event, but Lovemark used this for momentum heading into 2010, where he played full time on the Nationwide Tour.
Lovemark’s one and only win on the Nationwide Tour came in June of 2010, at the Mexico Open. Lovemark was again in a playoff, this time with B.J. Staten, but a first hole eagle sealed it for him. While Lovemark only had one win on the year, he won the money title and received the Player of the Year Award.
Number Three: Bud Cauley
Bud Cauley, from Daytona Beach, Florida, was an highly decorated junior and amateur golfer. Home schooled, Cauley was a member of the 2006 Junior Ryder Cup and the 2008 Junior World Golf Championships teams. At the time of his advancement to amateur events, Cauley was the top ranked junior golfer in the world. He attended the University of Alabama, and was named to the Golfweek All-American team in each of his three years in school. Cauley was also a finalist for the Hogan Award, awarded to the best collegiate golfer, all three years at ‘Bama, and he was undefeated as a member of the 2009 Walker Cup team. His first year at school Cauley was the SEC’s Freshman of the Year, and he won his first collegiate event at the U.S. Collegiate Championship. He won the 2008 Player’s Amateur, which got him into the 2010 Verizon Heritage, his first PGA Tour event.
Cauley played in the U.S. Amateur in 2009 and 2010, beating Rickie Fowler in the first round of match play the first year. He qualified for the U.S. Open in 2011 and decided to turn professional (and forgo his final year of NCAA eligibility) after a T63 finish. Cauley ended up playing eight total events on the PGA Tour last year, missing the cut only one and recording a T4 at the Viking Classic and a third place finish at the Frys.com Open. Despite not begin a member of the PGA Tour, Cauley finished the year at what would have been 116th on the money list, earning him a Tour card for 2012. Cauley joins Gary Hallbery, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, and Ryan Moore as the only players to make it to the Tour in that fashion.
Number Two: Danny Lee
Danny Lee was born in Incheon, South Korean, in 1990. His family moved to New Zealand when Lee was a kid, and he quickly took to the game. Now a naturalized New Zealander, Lee first hit big time when he won the 2008 U.S. Amateur, becoming the youngest ever winner of the event at the age of 18. He was six months younger than Tiger Woods when Tiger won his first U.S. Amateur, a record that was again broken in 2009, by 17-year-old Byeong-hun An, also from South Korea. From the time he won his U.S. Amateur in August of 2008 until the day he turned professional in April of 2009, Lee was the top-ranked amateur in the world.
In February, 2009, Lee won the Johnnie Walker Classic, an event sanctioned by the European, Asian, and Australian tours. Still an amateur, Lee didn’t make any money from his victory, but he did become the youngest ever winner on the European Tour. After he did turn pro, Lee had to turn down his U.S. Amateur exemptions to the 2009 U.S. And British Opens. Though he tried to earn enough money through sponsors exemptions to earn his Tour card. He also failed to acquire it through Q-School, where he didn’t even make it through the first round. In late 2009 and all of 2010, Lee played mostly on the European Tour. He went winless, but he did make it to the final stage of Q-School that year, earning himself a full Nationwide Tour exemption for 2011.
In 18 events on the Nationwide Tour in 2011, Lee recorded one win at the WNB Golf Classic, one second place, and one third place finish. He had nine total top tens, and made 13 cuts. Despite a midseason wrist injury, Lee was sixth on the money list, and will start 2012 with a card for the PGA Tour and the European Tour.
Number One: J.J. Killeen
Though he enters the PGA Tour with little fanfare, it would be a mistake to not include J.J. Killeen on this list. Killeen was the top money earner on the Nationwide Tour last year, and was the Tour’s Player of the Year. That earned him a full exemption for the 2012 PGA Tour season as well as a chance to play The Players Championship.
J.J. Killeen was born on October 22nd, 1981, which I note only because that’s the same day of the year I was born. Killeen was born in San Diego, took up golf at the age of 10, and attended Texas Christian University, where he led the team to four team titles. Despite turning professional in 2005, Killeen had never played a PGA Tour event before this year.
Killeen played on the mini-tours, including the Tight Lies Tour, where he won the High Meadows Ranch Classic in 2005, and the NGA Hooters Tour. Killeen’s first season on the Nationwide Tour was 2008, and he played 28 events. Killeen made just 12 cuts, and his only top ten was a second place finish at the Livermore Valley Win Country Championship at Wente Vineyards. He had staggeringly similar records the next two years, playing 28 events and making 14 cuts in 2009, and making 16 of 28 cuts in 2010. Showing steady improvement, last year Killeen played 25 events, making 21 cuts and winning two events (the Utah Championship and the Cox Classic). Killeen nearly won more money in 2011 than he did in ’10, ’09, and ’08 combined.
Closing and Your Thoughts?
Obviously, there’s a decent chance that none of these players will do much of anything this year. They are, after all, rookies, and rookies are not known for their long streaks of winning. But these five golfers, at least, are all massively experienced for their age, and could be very strong players over the next decade. I’m not saying any of them will be the next Tiger Woods, or even the next Keegan Bradley, but between Compton, Lee, Killeen, Cauley, and Lovemark, this looks to be as strong a freshman class as any.