Golf’s future will tee off together at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — We love to label.

Outside of partaking in free meals, labeling might be the media’s favorite pastime.

So, while it may be premature to call Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff the sport’s next “Big Three’’, don’t be surprised if that label eventually sticks for reasons warranted more by results than projections.

Morikawa, Hovland and Wolff — they sound like a Wall Street law firm — will tee it up together for their 1:18 p.m. tee time in Thursday’s opening round of The Players Championship as one of the tournament’s “feature groups’’ (the PGA Tour’s label).

All are first-timers for The Players at iconic TPC Sawgrass.

A year ago this week, all three were playing college golf — Hovland, 22, and Wolff, 20, at Oklahoma State and Morikawa, 23, at Cal.

Now — already — all three are PGA Tour winners.

Wolf, who won the 2019 3M Open, already qualified for the Masters next month. Moriwaka, who won the 2019 Barracuda Championship and is ranked 44th in the world, has the PGA Tour’s current top made-cuts streak at 21 and is a virtual lock to get into Augusta.

And Hovland, whose win came last month at the Puerto Rico Open, which is an opposite-field event that doesn’t come with a Masters invite, is ranked 58th and needs to move inside the top 50 in the next three weeks to get in. A year ago, he finished as the low amateur at the Masters.

Are they the next generation of great players on the PGA Tour?

None is intimidated by the thought, though they’re all respectful of their current places in the game.

“It’s something we have to embrace,’’ Morikawa said Wednesday.

“It’s really cool to hear that people believe that we’re going to do well. It might be a little too early to say, but we take that as a compliment,’’ Hovland said.

“I think we are considered the next wave,’’ Wolff said. “But there are still guys like Brooks Koepka, Rory [McIlroy] and DJ [Dustin Johnson], who have so many years left in their careers, and we have to compete against them. We have to beat those guys.’’

The latest “Big Three’’ all possess a confidence that doesn’t cross the cocky state line, which is a healthy place for an athlete to reside.

“We didn’t expect [to win] so quickly, but it’s not surprising to us,’’ Wolff said. “It is a big deal, but at same time we all wouldn’t be out here if we didn’t think we could win.’’

Said Morikawa: “I fully believe that all three of us knew whenever we turned pro, we could come out here on our very good weeks and win. We’ve all had those weeks so far [and won]. It’s now up to us to learn how to do it more often.’’

Justin Thomas, who’s 26 and already has 12 career PGA Tour wins, including one major championship, faced this inquiry from a reporter on Tuesday: “It seems like just a blink ago you were considered one of the young guns out here. I want your thoughts on this current crop of young players that come out here not only thinking they can win, they expect to win.’’

“Am I officially out?’’ Thomas said with a look of faux incredulity. “Am I thrown out of the young guns?’’

“Yeah, you’re out,’’ he was told playfully.

“Damn, that’s tough,’’ Thomas said with a smile.

“No, it’s impressive, and I think it’s cool what the Tour is doing this week [in] pairing Viktor, Matt and Collin together. The fact that those three guys have won already is unbelievable. They probably don’t even realize how impressive it is.

“But they also understand how talented they are, and we do, too, and they’re going to be out here for a long time. They’re unbelievable players. They’re very, very mature for being thrown into the spotlight. It’s easy to forget that they’re [20], 22 [and 23] years old.’’

Because they all came in together, they’ll forever be linked. But, at the end of the day, all three are on their own, trying to carve their own niches, win their own tournaments, create their own history — beginning with this week.

“I want to be the No. 1 player in the world,’’ Wolff said. “Whether that’s now or in 10 years or five years, it doesn’t matter. I don’t really look at labels.’’

Obviously, he’s not a member of the media.

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