By JASON SOBEL
Has there ever been a veteran player more primed to win his first major than Rickie Fowler?
OK, you could make the case that a guy like Phil Mickelson, with so many close calls before his 2004 Masters breakthrough, was ready for that moment, but Fowler proved in 2014 that he plays his best golf when the spotlight is shining brightest.
Though he didn’t win, Fowler posted top-five finishes at each of the four majors. That in itself should be considered an impressive leap into the game’s upper echelon.
I’ve long believed that what separated the top tier of players from the next tier is that the former is capable of winning anyplace, anytime. Think about it: How many current players have an equal chance of winning any of the four majors? There aren’t many, but Fowler certainly fits that description. You wouldn’t be any more or less surprised if he won the Masters than the Open Championship.
I still think Sergio Garcia wins multiple major titles – and his first one isn’t far off. Jordan Spieth is going to win one fairly soon; Jason Day will, too. Only one player, though, can be next. Give me the guy who’s come the closest in the last four of 'em.
By RYAN LAVNER
No one really knows what to expect at this year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay – after all, the only guys who have played there in competition were the 2010 U.S. Amateur participants. (And Jordan Spieth didn’t even make match play.)
So for a breakthrough major winner, why not a guy who has a proven record at golf’s most grueling major – a player with THREE top fives in the last four years? That’s right, for all of the injury questions surrounding Jason Day, one thing you can almost always count on is a strong performance at the year’s second major.
Overall in majors he already has seven top 10s, not a surprise given the strengths of his all-around game. He’s long off the tee. He hits a lot of greens. He’s a terrific scrambler. And he’s a better putter than given credit for (30th on Tour in 2014).
If Day is healthy come June – not a certainty, of course – then he’s my favorite to win the U.S. Open.
By REX HOGGARD
Although he’s only played in a half dozen Grand Slam tilts – and to be historically accurate, his tie for fourth place at last year’s U.S. Open was little more than a spirited run at “B” flight honors considering Martin Kaymer’s Pinehurst masterpiece – Brooks Koepka is the most complete player vying for his first major championship.
At 24, Koepka arrives on the PGA Tour this season via a winding road that featured stops in Kenya, the Czech Republic and dozens of other points.
On paper, Koepka has all the markings of a major player, including a power game (he ranked sixth last year on Tour in driving distance and 23rd in the more-revealing strokes gained: tee-to-green category) that plays well at most of the modern Grand Slam venues.
He has also shown a surprisingly mature ability to refine the parts of his game that need improvement, particularly around the greens.
However, what will separate Koepka from a deep pack of would-be first-time major winners (a list that includes Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker) will be a resume forged around the globe.
By taking the road less travelled through the European Tour, Koepka proved he has an added quality that can’t be measured and is crucial at any major championship, the ability to overcome adversity.
By RANDALL MELL
Patrick Reed is my pick.
His limited major championship record isn’t so impressive yet. Statistically, he wasn’t great in any category his first two seasons on Tour. But that’s all trumped by his bravado and belief he’s destined for something big. There’s just no fear in him. From his boldly proclaiming he’s a top-five player to his “shhhhh-shing” the gallery at the Ryder Cup, the guy won’t be afraid of the moment. Reed, 24, will be ready to own it when he’s there at the end of a major with a chance to win.
The Masters and British Open at St. Andrews might take more experience, more knowledge, to win, but I wouldn’t put it past Reed to claim one of those. I like him at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson showed you don’t have to be ultra-straight to have a chance.
By WILL GRAY
After a two-year ascent through the professional ranks that basically wore out his passport, Brooks Koepka is ready to make another leap in 2015 – to the title of major champion.
Koepka has all of the attributes you look for when trying to identify future stars: long off the tee, accurate into the greens. He has performed well under pressure and beat an elite field during the European Tour’s Race to Dubai to cap a successful 2014. More importantly, though, he has the brashness of youth, and at 24 years old will not shy away from the game’s biggest stages.
Koepka is embarking on his first full season on the PGA Tour, one which he began with a pair of top-10 finishes this fall and which will include starts in all four majors. Can he break through where Jordan Spieth fell just short last year and win in his first try at Augusta National? That might be a tall task. But can he overpower a course like Chambers Bay, St. Andrews or Whistling Straits? I like his chances.