Q School: Ten fresh faces to watch

Maverick McNealy speaks before first pro start at Safeway Open

Web.com Tour Q-School always attracts a wide range of players, from former PGA TOUR winners in the twilight of their careers to young college stars who recently traded in the textbooks for yardage books.

While we’re always interested in the familiar faces who are trying to regain a foothold in the meritocracy of professional golf, it’s often the young players who are the most intriguing. Golf fans always want to know about the game’s hot prospects. Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas aren’t even 25 yet, but fans already want to know which players are most likely to follow their footsteps.

For some, this week’s Q-School at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Arizona, will be the first steppingstone toward golfing glory. Thomas proves that the road from Q-School to the FedExCup doesn’t have to be a long one.

It was just four years ago that Thomas was playing in Q-School at PGA West. Now he’s a seven-time TOUR winner and the reigning FedExCup champion.

While he made the game look easy in 2017, his first Q-School experience was anything but.

“It was nerves I really hadn’t felt before,” Thomas said after his first Q-School. “It’s extremely stressful, and such a long week. It’s unlike anything you can really prepare for.”

Thomas, who turned pro in September 2013, needed a final-round 65 on PGA West’s difficult Stadium Course to crack the top 45 with just a single shot to spare. That bogey-free round was 13 shots lower than his previous score on the Stadium Course.

Thomas’ rally was necessary after a third-round 78 that was punctuated by a quadruple-bogey on the final hole, where he hit snap-hooked two tee shots into the water. He sat in 122nd place after signing his scorecard, but closed with rounds of 69-66-65 to secure strong status for the upcoming season. He won in his first Web.com Tour season and easily earned his PGA TOUR card, never to look back.

Here’s a look at some fresh faces at this year’s Q-School who will try to trace Thomas’ career path. Below is a list of 10 players -- all of whom turned pro this year (well, except one) -- whom you should keep an eye on this week.

1. Cameron Davis: We’re bending the rules a bit here, but it’s worth it for a player who beat Jordan Spieth and Jason Day in his last start. Davis comes to Q-School on the heels of a final-round 64 to win the Australian Open. He vaulted from No. 1,494 to 229th in the Official World Golf Ranking with the win. He turned pro in October 2016 after winning the 2015 Australian Amateur and claiming medalist honors at the 2016 World Amateur Team Championship. The previous winner of that event? Jon Rahm.

Davis, 22, struggled on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada this year, finishing 76th on the Order of Merit with just two top-25s in 11 starts. His amateur pedigree and big win last month seem to hint at a promising future, though.

2. Sam Burns: The LSU product had extra motivation this fall after he was a controversial omission from the Walker Cup team. Burns won this year’s Jack Nicklaus Award as the top player in college golf and finished T6 in the PGA TOUR’s Barbasol Championship while still an amateur. Since turning pro, he has made the cut in both of his TOUR starts and won his second stage of Q-School by five shots. Burns, 21, played two seasons at LSU before turning pro this year.

3. Joaquin Niemann: The 19-year-old from Chile is the top-ranked amateur in the world, and the only amateur in the field this week. He impressed at this year’s The Greenbrier Classic, where he shot a final-round 64 to finish T29. He is the first South American player to win the Mark H. McCormack Medal, which is awarded to the world’s top-ranked amateur. Past recipients of that award include PGA TOUR winners Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Danny Lee and Nick Taylor.

4. Curtis Luck: The 2016 U.S. Amateur champion turned pro in April after making the cut at the Masters. He made the cut in six of 10 PGA TOUR starts as a pro, including a T5 at The National and T20 at The Greenbrier Classic, to qualify for the Web.com Tour Finals. He finished in the top 30 of the first two Web.com Tour Finals events but missed the cut in the next two. Luck already has Web.com Tour status, but will try to improve it this week. In 2016, Luck also won the Asia-Pacific Amateur and a PGA Tour of Australasia event, the WA Open.

5. Rico Hoey: The USC product turned pro after this year’s NCAA Championship, then found quick success on Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada. He finished fifth on the Order of Merit after a victory in the season-ending Freedom 55 Financial Championship. He also posted a runner-up and four other top-10s in 11 starts on the circuit in 2017. The Californian is known for his two diamond stud earrings and for hitting driver off the deck from the tee. He also beat current PGA TOUR player Beau Hossler in the 2012 Junior World Championship, just weeks after Hossler had contended in the U.S. Open (Another PGA TOUR player, Aaron Wise, finished third). Like Luck, Hoey already has Web.com Tour status, but will try to improve it this week.

6. Maverick McNealy: This may be the name on this list that is most familiar to casual fans. McNealy is best known for his 11 victories while playing for Stanford, tying the school record set by Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers. He was three-time finalist for the Ben Hogan Award, given to the best player in collegiate and amateur golf, and won the award this year. Bill Haas is the only other three-time finalist for the award. McNealy twice represented the United States in the Walker Cup (2015, ’17) and won the 2016 Mark H. McCormack Medal.

7. Sean Crocker: The USC All-American has traveled the globe since turning pro, playing in seven European Tour events. He made the cut in all but one of them, and is coming off consecutive top-20 finishes (T16, Hong Kong Open; T7, Australian PGA). Crocker grew up in Southern California after being born in Zimbabwe. He is mentored by World Golf Hall of Famer Nick Price, who is friends with Crocker’s father, Gary. Gary Crocker was a standout junior golfer who later played cricket for Zimbabwe’s national team.

8. Cameron Champ: He impressed at the U.S. Open, where he led in driving distance (337.3 yards) and contended at the halfway point. He finished 32nd after sitting in the top five through two rounds at Erin Hills. Champ represented the United States in this year’s Walker Cup after a standout summer that included a victory at the Trans-Mississippi Amateur and runner-up at the Pacific Coast Amateur. He also was medalist at the North & South Amateur and semifinalist at the Western Amateur. Champ turned pro last month after advancing through Q-School’s second stage.

9. John Oda: The Hawaiian turned pro after earning first-team All-American honors this season at UNLV. He finished eighth in his first PGA TOUR start as a pro, at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. As an amateur, Oda Monday qualified for this year’s Sony Open in Hawaii (MC) and qualified for the U.S. Open (MC). He also made the Round of 16 at this year’s U.S. Amateur.

10. Wyndham Clark: He was a first-team All-American at Oregon in 2017, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and one of three finalists for the Ben Hogan Award. His best finish in seven TOUR starts this year was 17th at the Sanderson Farms Championship. Clark won his second stage of Q-School by four shots over Davis, Oda and Brett Lederer.

Honorable mention: Jimmy Stanger. He was a first-team All-American at Virginia this year and was medalist at both Q-School’s first and second stages. He is 38 under par in eight rounds of Q-School, averaging 67.3 strokes per round. He also tied for 41st at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.