The debate was over by January. He had a short-game prowess to match his prolific power, and his iron production was miles ahead of were it had been on the Web.com circuit. The results backed it up: Cam Champ, hailed as the “Future of Golf” by several publications—this one included—had a win, four top 11s and five top 25s in his first six starts of his rookie campaign. The then-23-year-old was so hot that he was listed as one of the Masters favorites, despite not receiving an invite to Augusta National. He was a lock for Rookie of the Year.
Sure enough, Champ was listed on the PGA Tour ballot that was released on Wednesday. However, a lot has changed since January. Forget winning the award; there’s a good chance Champ won’t medal.
That’s because Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff, Adam Long, and Sungjae Im have enjoyed seasons that have surpassed Champ’s, whose year went sideways after Hawaii. So who will take the title as the tour’s top rookie in 2019? Here are the cases for each:
One of the true Cinderella stories the tour has seen in quite some time. Though it’s too soon to call him a one-hit wonder, Long didn’t do much after his Desert Classic win, missing eight of his next 10 cuts and posting just one other top-10 on the season. That he’s even on the ballot is a feat in itself.
Though Champ was a fall phenom following his win at the Sanderson Farms, he suffered a fierce slump in the new year. He missed the cut in 11 of his last 20 starts, with a mere two top-40 finishes in that stretch. While he led the tour in driving and was sixth in strokes gained/off-the-tee, the rest of his game was a bit of a mess, finishing 161st in approach, 188th in around-the-green and 151st in strokes gained. He’s just 24 and his distance is an asset that all crave. Still, next season will be a barometer if Champ has learned from growing pains, or if he merely was on an autumn heater.
Wolff would easily win the fan’s vote. His viral swing—part baseball stance, part piñata cut—length and bravado are the trappings of a marketable star. He won six times as a sophomore in the 2019 season—an Oklahoma Statue record, which included the NCAA individual title—while posting a 68.69 scoring average, the lowest in NCAA history. Wolff carried that success to the tour, winning the 3M Open over Morikawa in just his third professional start.
“What he’s done over the last two-three years is absurd,” Morikawa recently told Golf Digest. “We grew up playing against each other in junior golf, and his drive is just relentless.”
Though the bite is matching the much-hyped bark, his so-so showings in his other six starts—a T-19 was his second-best finish—will keep him from winning Rookie of the Year. Given the trajectory this fledgling star is on, it won’t matter one iota.
Though he was overshadowed by Wolff and Viktor Hovland’s arrival, Morikawa had the best overall performance of the college-to-pros quartet (you are not forgotten, Justin Suh). The Cal product turned in a T-14 at the RBC Canadian Open in his tour debut; a week later, he made the cut at the U.S. Open (T-35). Admirable, yes?
Then Morikawa transformed into a fireball starting in Minnesota, finishing T-2 at the 3M Open, T-4 at the John Deere Classic and winning the Barracuda Championship. Unlike Wolff and Champ, Morikowa’s game is not fueled by power but precision: had he enough starts to qualify, he would have finished the regular season in the top five in strokes gained: approach and greens in regulation.
“It’s always a lot of fun,” Wolff said of Morikawa’s breakthrough. “There’s a level of comfort out there, and I think when we play together it kind of comes out. Obviously he’s been really hot, and we’ve both got a win now, so it’s kind of just awesome battling back and forth.”
Morikawa cooled down in his final three events, a T-31 at the Wyndham, T-52 at the Northern Trust, and T-48 (at 70 player field) at the BMW Championship to miss the Tour Championship. Nevertheless, that run, when he needed it most, has made his candidacy a viable one.
“If it happens, it happens,” Morikawa said about Rookie of the Year. “I’ve proved I belong out here. Now it’s about that next progression.”
Im is the most unheralded out of this bunch. This relative invisibility isn’t for lack of appearance. He lead the tour in starts (35) and cuts (26), and his 118 rounds were 18 more than the nearest competitor. He finished the year 17th in strokes gained, and was the only rookie to reach East Lake.
Though fans might not be taking notice, those inside the ropes are. Following a pairing with Im at the Northern Trust, Joel Dahmen’s caddie Geno Bonnalie took to Twitter to testify to the things he had seen.”In my short three years caddying on the PGA Tour, we’ve had the fortune to play with some of the very best in the world,” Bonnalie wrote. “Sungjae Im is the most impressive player I’ve ever seen.”
Added Morikawa: “Oh Sungjae, that guy is a beast. There are not many holes in his game.”
It comes down to Morikawa and Im. While Morikawa has a win in his corner, he’s got two major knocks against him. Sample size—as evidenced with Champ, six events is not much of a litmus test—and history. Im was the ninth player to make the Tour Championship as the only rookie in the FedEx Cup era; in the eight previous instances, that player captured ROY honors. Though Morikawa’s game has a more consistent framework than Champ’s, it’s hard to overlook the body of work from Im, giving him the nod as the 2019 Rookie of the Year.