Punch Shot: First-time major champion

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Jordan Spieth and Jason Day broke through in the majors in a big way in 2015. Who has the best chance to win major No. 1 in 2016? Our writers weigh in.

By RYAN LAVNER

Patrick Reed.

After a steady but unspectacular summer, Reed closed out his year with six consecutive top-10s worldwide to push inside the OWGR top 10 for the first time. Still maddeningly inconsistent at times, the 25-year-old finally appears ready to deliver on all of that promise, after a major season in which he finished in the top 30 in all four events.

An improved putter, Reed ranked near the bottom of the Tour statistics in ball-striking last season, the biggest reason that he failed to capitalize on his opening win at Kapalua. He seems to have found something of late, however, because in two starts during the wraparound season he has found 82 percent of the greens in regulation. He should have little trouble carrying over that strong iron play during the three-week offseason.

Reed plays so much golf (three consecutive years of 29-plus starts) that he’s bound to endure waves of inconsistency. But if he can find the right combination of staying sharp and not getting worn out, he has the all-around game to break through and win his first major.


By RANDALL MELL

Rickie Fowler will spend a lot of time with the claret jug next year.

Fowler won on some big stages in 2015, beating strong fields with clutch closing efforts at The Players Championship, the Scottish Open and the Deutsche Bank Championship. He had that great run knocking on the door at every major in 2014, when he was T-5 or better in all four of them. He looks prepared for the next big step and Royal Troon looks like a good place to take that step.

Royal Troon has a history of crowning first-time major winners. The last three players to win The Open Championship there were first-time major winners – Todd Hamilton (’04), Justin Leonard (’97) and Mark Calcavecchia (’89).

Fowler wants to get into the mix with Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy for consideration as the game’s best players. He needs a major to move into that conversation, and he looks more than ready to do so.


By REX HOGGARD

Branden Grace began 2015 with no status on the PGA Tour and little name recognition on this side of the transatlantic divide.

He rectified the former issue with his play in this year’s majors and the latter concern seems destined to be addressed at this year’s Grand Slam stops.

The laconic South African earned special temporary membership on Tour with his tie for fourth at the U.S. Open, where he began the final round tied for the lead but derailed his title hopes with a tee shot that raced down the train tracks adjacent to the 16th hole at Chambers Bay and out of bounds.

Grace completed his Grand Slam apprenticeship with a third-place finish at the PGA Championship after a third-round 64 moved him to within three strokes of the lead.

That momentum continued for Grace in 2015, with top-five performances to close out the year at the WGC-HSBC Champions, DP World Tour Championship and Nedbank Golf Challenge.

He also scorched the U.S. side at the Presidents Cup in October, leading the International team with a perfect 5-0-0 record in his second start in the matches.

It was all a sign that the 27-year-old is poised to take the next step in this year’s biggest events.


By WILL GRAY

This will be the year that Hideki Matsuyama graduates from “consistent contender” to “major champion.”

Matsuyama quietly had one of the most consistent seasons last year on the PGA Tour, racking up 19 top-25 finishes in only 25 starts while missing just two cuts.

His consistency has been a staple at the majors, as well: since the 2013 U.S. Open, Matsuyama has finished outside the top 40 only once in 11 majors, with a trio of top-10 finishes across that same span.

Matsuyama is one of the best ball-strikers on Tour, and he demonstrated at the 2014 Memorial Tournament that he has what it takes to defeat an elite field on a difficult track. The putter has always been his biggest liability, but if the birdies start to drop he will certainly be a factor down the stretch – especially on a taxing layout like, say, Oakmont.