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.

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