The Leap: Players making career jumps in 2015

By Jason SobelJanuary 1, 2015, 7:00 pm

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.

Patrick ReedPatrick Reed
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.

Pablo LarrazabalPablo Larrazabal
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.

Brooks KoepkaBrooks Koepka
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.

Paul CaseyPaul Casey
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.

Chris StroudChris Stroud
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.

Cameron TringaleCameron Tringale
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.

Anirban LahiriAnirban Lahiri
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.

Hudson SwaffordHudson Swafford
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.

Tony FinauTony Finau
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.

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry