Hope springs eternal. But it always springs a little higher on New Year's Day.
This is a day for optimism, for anticipation and, yes, for predictions of what might come to fruition.
Welcome to the 2015 edition of The Leap, my annual column in which I (often unsuccessfully) attempt to determine which players will take a step into the next echelon on golf's ever-changing hierarchy.
Here's what you won’t find: This isn't a list of the best players or a predicted top-10 for the year. So you won't find Rory McIlroy, because, well, he's done plenty of leaping already. Also left out are Sergio Garcia, Ryan Moore and Graham DeLaet, players I've predicted for major champion, U.S. team member and PGA Tour winner, respectively, in recent years – predictions I'm sticking with despite my delayed timing.
What you will find are players who will earn an increase in status over the next 365 days. Here are 10 of ’em.
Rickie Fowler and Jason Day
The Leap: Major champions
For the first time since 2000, there were no first-time major champions last year. The law of averages says that will change this year, and the law of common sense says we shouldn’t look too far down recent major leaderboards to find the next first-timer. Fowler and Day have separated themselves as candidates because their games are equally suited for all four majors. They might not be the only ones, either. The aforementioned Garcia is going to get one – maybe more than one – at some point and Jordan Spieth is already knocking at the door, too.
The Leap: Top-10 player
Yeah, yeah. I already know what you’re thinking. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Make the obligatory “top-five” remark in regard to Reed’s comment about himself after winning at Doral last year. Feel better? OK, now let’s move on to the cold, hard facts: Before his 25th birthday, Reed has three PGA Tour victories and, more importantly, has shown the confidence necessary to compete against the world’s best. The only thing missing has been consistency, but that will come this year. Top-five? Maybe not. But he’ll come close pretty soon.
The Leap: Major championship contender
Your ears might have been buzzing the last time you heard this name. Or maybe that was just the swarm of hornets attacking him on the course in Malaysia, resulting in one of last year’s scariest incidents, not to mention one of the most watched viral videos. But he’s more than just a cushion for stingers. He’s fresh off a season during which he led the European circuit in both scrambling and putting average. Though he’s never finished better than 30th in 11 major starts, those numbers are too good for him to be lingering off the leaderboard for much longer.
The Leap: Presidents Cup team member
Let’s face it: There were a lot of ways to go with Koepka’s inclusion on this list – PGA Tour winner, top-20 in the world and major championship contender are all in play – but for a guy who clearly looks like an impending star, a roster spot on this year’s United States team feels like the best fit. Fresh off a European Tour victory in the fall, Koepka now owns full status on the PGA Tour, as well. It was a circuitous route to the game’s most elite circuit, but now that he’s there, the Florida State product is there to stay.
The Leap: FedEx Cup contender
When you’ve been a top-10 player, a Ryder Cupper and contended in major championships, there aren’t many places to which you can leap. But Casey is on the verge of a career renaissance, much like Steve Stricker or Henrik Stenson years before, so he’s worthy of inclusion here. One year after finishing 95th on the FedEx Cup list, I’ll stop short of predicting him a winner of the fickle playoff series, but I’d similarly be surprised if he isn’t on the short list heading to East Lake. Fantasy owners beware.
The Leap: Top-50 player
You might say he’s a career journeyman, having played nearly a decade on the PGA Tour without making much of a splash. I might say two words in response: Jimmy Walker. He won’t replicate Walker’s breakout three-win season of a year ago, but Stroud has the game to elevate himself at the age of 32 – which is, oh by the way, right about a golfer’s prime. He was as high as 74th in the world at one point last year, but goes into this year at 108th. That will change, though, perhaps in mid-summer, when he tends to play some of his best golf.
The Leap: PGA Tour tournament winner
What did most players seeking a first career win do in their offseason? They probably worked hard and dreamed of getting that proverbial monkey off their backs. What did Tringale do? Well … he won. Teaming with Day at the Franklin Templeton Shootout, the sixth-year PGA Tour veteran got a taste of life in the winner’s circle. It won’t be his last. Already this season, he owns three finishes of 26th or better in five starts. His spot in last year’s Tour Championship puts him in the year’s first three majors and allows him to set a favorable schedule for the coming months. That should translate into an individual trophy at a place like Tampa, Houston or Greenbrier, each of which he’s played well at in the past.
The Leap: European Tour tournament winner
Riddle me this: How can a player who competed in two majors and a WGC last year, who enters this year ranked 64th in the world (only one behind Ernie freakin’ Els!), who would be in the Match Play field if it started today, for goodness sake – how can a player with all of these credentials still be barely on his journey toward a successful career? The easy answer is math, as the 27-year-old has been beating up on his Asian Tour foes to rise to his current ranking. Now he’s got a clear path toward improving that number, having graduated European Tour Q-School in November. Expect the ball-striker from India to claim a win or two this season.
The Leap: Tour Championship competitor
He played college golf with Harris English, he’s good friends with English, he even looks like English – and so it stands to reason that Swafford’s game isn’t too far from his fellow University of Georgia product with two wins already to his name. Last season, Swafford had five top-25s in 26 starts; this season, he’s already more than halfway to matching that, with three such finishes in five starts before the calendar turned over. The stats say he hits it long and often hits it close to the hole. It shouldn’t be long until that turns into a berth at the season finale.
The Leap: Ballyhooed rookie
OK, so this leap is less official than all of the others, but it’s no less significant. Finau is going to be the guy people are whispering about. He’s going to be the young player who impresses the hell out of his veteran playing partners; he’ll be the guy your Sunday foursome is marveling over, even if you can’t remember his name. I’ll stop short of giving him the Rookie of the Year award – I like Justin Thomas for that one – but Finau’s prowess off the tee and aggressive nature will have all of us talking about his immense potential for coming seasons.