Cameron Champ: Here’s why the 23-year-old rookie is the future of golf

As he walked to the 10th tee at TPC San Antonio for the third round of the Valero Texas Open, he was joined by a member of his group, Ben Silverman, who told Wagner about the third player in the group.

“Dude, wait until you see this guy hit a shot.”

This guy was Cameron Champ — there’s a name straight out of Madison Avenue — and Wagner watched intently on the tee of the 447-yard par-4 that was playing into the wind on a chilly day.

“My jaw just dropped,” Wagner said. “That hole is not as short and easy as he made it look. He probably had a sand wedge in and I had a 6-iron into the green. Such impressive ball flight, such impressive length. I’ve never seen anybody flight and control a driver as he did that day.

“He’s fit, he’s young, he’s flexible and he’s strong as a bull.”

The legend of Champ is ever growing, an eye-popping yarn of a 6-0, 175-pound, 23-year-old who sports a 32-inch waist, 129 mph swing speed and 190 mph ball speed. In a game that features Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and many other bombers, Champ might be the longest of them all.

The latest chapter in his growing tale is this week’s RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club, where this wonder rookie is one of the favorites three weeks after winning his first PGA Tour title at the Sanderson Farms Championship. He also was in Sunday contention in his last two starts before finishing in ties for 10th and 28th.

While his power gets all the headlines — he led the Tour in driving distance last year at 343 yards a pop and leads the PGA Tour this season at 335 yards — he isn’t just a brute force of nature. While he can fly an 8-iron 180 yards swinging at 80% of his capacity and a 2-iron 270 yards, his skill set is ever improving, from his touch on and around the greens to his precision off the tee and into the greens.

And on equal footing with his power and precision is his poise, an even-keel, gentle demeanor that keeps his game and ego in check despite all the attention.

“I’ve definitely noticed the attention, but I try to just ignore that kind of stuff,” Champ said. “I just try to focus on what I’m doing. Obviously, everyone likes to talk about my distance, so I think that’s one thing I’ve really blocked out. Just try to focus on other aspects of my game, just my game in general, and I feel like I’ve handled that pretty well so far.”

Still, a lot of his peers are still trying to get a handle on how far Champ hits the golf ball with an effortless swing. So, too, is Sean Foley, swing coach to Justin Rose and former swing coach of Woods, who saw Champ for the first time eight years ago.

“I was blown away,” said Foley, who has worked with Champ the past six years. “I’m still blown away. He was 14 when he came to see me. He had big legs. So that day, he was hitting a 4-iron. He hit it and I said, ‘Oh (expletive).’ At that time, I’m watching Justin Rose and Tiger and I was hanging out on the range with Rory McIlroy and all the rest of them, so how was I going to be blown away by anyone? Well, I was blown away by a 14-year-old.”

And there was the 9-hole Monday practice round at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Champ, who won just one tournament at Texas A&M, qualified for the national championship and then teed it up with McIlroy before tying for 32nd. And Champ outdrove McIlroy on every hole.

“Something happened to Cameron that day,” Foley said. “He saw he could play golf on an elite level.”

There are so many other stories about the power of Champ, but he’s working hard with Foley to change the narrative. Call the project DJ 2.0, a nod to Dustin Johnson, who harnessed his power and built up his short-iron talents that had plagued him to become No. 1 in the world.

“Athletic players hit it far, and then once they learn how to hit wedges like DJ did, then the sky’s the limit,” said Champ, who has risen more than 100 spots in the world rankings to No. 107 since the season started. “I rarely hit a full shot unless it’s a calm day. I like to flight shots lower, my numbers are more consistent that way, instead of just throwing it up in the sky. That’s one thing I’ve really worked on in the last few years.

“Now I’m very comfortable with it and it’s kind of my go-to.”

Foley said Champ didn’t have a handle on controlling the distances of his short clubs just five years ago, so the two went to work on that. The improvement has been drastic, but the work continues.

“His golf IQ is increasing,” Foley said. “He’s concentrated on the areas of his game that needed attention. And length has never needed his attention.

“Is Cameron going to go out there and beat up the DJs and Koepkas and Roses and Tigers? No. But he has the potential to be the No. 1 player in the world some day. But he has a long way to go and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

It’s sure to be quite the ride. En route to winning last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, Matt Kuchar played with Champ for the first time.

“He’s going to do damage out here,” Kuchar said. “He’s going to be kind of the future of the game of golf.”

He’s not doing too badly in the present, either.

Khalil Mack, Bears overwhelm Vikings to build NFC North lead

The Bears tightened their grip on the division lead with a 25-20 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night. Yes, the teams play again in Minnesota in the regular-season finale, but this was a statement game for the Bears, who almost nobody expected to contend for a division title this season.

Next season, sure. But this season?

Even after picking up Khalil Mack in the heist of the season, the Bears were projected by most to finish around .500. This was only Mitchell Trubisky’s second season, and his first with new coach and offensive guru Matt Nagy. Allen Robinson was coming back from an injury.

But Trubisky has progressed further and faster than expected, and the Bears defense is nasty enough to make up for his mistakes.

Take Sunday night. Trubisky threw two interceptions, and had a couple of other passes seemingly intended for a phantom Bear that only he could see. But he made enough plays with both his feet and his arm, and the defense did the rest with a pick-six and two sacks.

This was the first game in what will be a critical stretch for the Bears. They have a quick turnaround before Thursday’s game in Detroit, then host the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 9 and Green Bay the following week.

There’s still a long way to go, but the Bears showed their spot atop the NFC North is no fluke.

Here’s what else we learned from the win:

1. Cousins makes Vikings pay: Games like these are why the Minnesota Vikings broke the bank for Kirk Cousins.

They might want to ask for some of that cash back.

Cousins was dazzling in two fourth-quarter drives that made the final score look a lot closer than it really was. Until then, however, he was completely ineffective. Yes, the Bears defense is making a case as the best in the league, and Minnesota’s offensive line was repeatedly pushed around.

But Cousins has to do better than two interceptions and a 76.5 quarterback rating. Too often he made throws where no Vikings were even close, and if he scrambled even half as much as Mitchell Trubisky, the outcome might have been vastly different.

Cousins and the Vikings will get another crack at the Bears in the regular-season finale and he’ll have to be better. Much better.

2. Clean up your act: Chicago got away with its late-game sloppiness.

This time.

Minnesota scored its only touchdown on a drive that was extended by a pass interference call on Roquan Smith. The Vikings failed on the two-point conversion, but got another try with a roughing-the-passer call on Akiem Hicks and made that attempt to cut Chicago’s lead to 22-14.

Both fouls were blatant. And stupid. Smart teams, teams that make deep runs in January, don’t give up free plays like that.

3. Nagy isn’t afraid to mix it up: It was the second quarter, and Chicago was comfortably in the lead after Trubisky’s 18-yard pass to Anthony Miller. The conventional wisdom would have said kick the extra point for the 10-0 lead and be done with it.

But Nagy kept his offense on the field for a two-point conversion. A two-point conversion in the second quarter? Yep.

Trubisky connected with Joshua Bellamy, giving the Bears the very odd-looking 11-0 lead. But the unorthodox move made a lot more sense with just under a minute left to the half when Cody Parkey made a 41-yard field goal. That put the Bears up by two touchdowns, which, given the way the Vikings were playing, seemed almost insurmountable.

Nagy went for two again midway through the fourth to make it 22-6, but that was to ensure the Vikings would need two touchdowns and then some to tie the game.