As the calendar turns to 2013, the promise of a new season can hold a variety of meaning for players. For some, the new year represents an opportunity to build upon momentum garnered in 2012; for others, it serves as a chance to break through on the game's biggest stage.
For still another group, the promise lies somewhere in between. After solid campaigns in 2012, their names are well-established among golf's best, but questions still remain about whether they can find a place among the game's top echelon this season. Who, then, are the players with the most to prove in the coming year?
Nine months ago, Hunter Mahan was arguably the hottest player in golf. A winner twice in his first seven starts last season, Mahan entered the year's first major ranked No. 4 in the world and atop the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings. From there, though, his season faltered; Mahan would crack the top 10 only once in his next 15 starts (T-8, AT&T National), and a Ryder Cup berth that appeared to be a certainty in the spring never came to fruition.
As a result, a season in which Mahan took home more than $4 million in earnings and finished sixth in the regular season FedEx Cup points race was seen in many ways as a disappointment. Entering 2013, he will be eager to erase the pain of his mid-season slump and prove that the early successes of last year were no fluke.
Last season saw Rickie Fowler achieve an important milestone, as the 24-year-old claimed his first PGA Tour win at the Wells Fargo Championship. Fowler followed that up with a runner-up finish at The Players and a T-5 showing at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in his next two starts, earning him PGA Tour Player of the Month honors for May.
Fowler struggled to maintain that pace across the second half of the season, though, as he was unable to record a top-20 finish in his next nine Tour starts and failed to break 80 on three separate occasions. Entering only his fourth full season on Tour, time is still very much on Fowler's side. Nevertheless, as 2013 begins, questions remain as to whether his game will soon match his prominent fashion flair on a more consistent basis.
Among those with the most to prove entering 2013 are a pair of Englishmen, both of whom played pivotal roles in sparking the European comeback at the Ryder Cup in September. Ian Poulter's already-impressive match play credentials reached an historic level with his 5-0 individual record at Medinah, and Poulter complemented that result with an equally impressive stroke-play effort in claiming the WGC-HSBC Champions two months later. As a result, he enters the new year ranked No. 12 in the world, his highest position in nearly two years.
Like Poulter, Justin Rose also won a WGC event in 2012, holding off Bubba Watson to win at Doral in March. To that result he added impressive showings at several other high-profile events: T-3 at the PGA Championship, and runner-up finishes at both the season-ending Tour Championship and the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour. Now fourth in the world, Rose has never been ranked higher – and expectations have never been loftier.
For both Poulter and Rose, a place among the best in today's game has been established; what remains to be seen is whether either player can ascend to a truly elite level in 2013. For the Englishmen, along with players like Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, such ascension can only take place under one condition – a major championship triumph.
Fair or not, major titles continue to be the most consistent measuring stick by which seasons can be evaluated; they are the ultimate means by which a good year becomes great. With only four such events to be won each year, the pool of players able to meet such lofty goals will inevitably be small. The question, however, remains as January nears: by season's end, which of these players will have proven themselves worthy of such expectations?