The question always comes up this time of year from fans inquiring about the Next Big Thing to hit the scene.
“Which golfers are going to step it up this year?”
The answer is always tricky, as it involves some amalgamation of big names reaching their potential, journeymen enjoying better performances and youngsters rapidly improving.
As such, I have devised this annual column called The Leap. Its premise is simple: I predict 10 players who will fare better this upcoming season, establishing themselves as part of a higher tier of competitor.
Last year – like all years – was hit and miss. Jason Day did indeed become a top-10 player, and it could be argued that Charl Schwartzel and Thorbjorn Olesen should have earned Rookie of the Year honors on their respective tours. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Paul Casey to claim a major championship, Fredrik Andersson-Hed to reach the top 10 in Europe and singular-named-sensation Siddikur to jump into the world’s top 100.
This year’s list is sure to have a few more hits and misses. We’ll find out which is which as the 2012 campaign unfolds starting this week. (Click here to view photo gallery)
The Leap: Major champion
No, this section of the column wasn’t accidentally reprinted from a 1999 edition – but it could have been. Garcia seemed destined for many majors early in his career, but 13 years after his rally around Medinah, he’s still seeking that breakthrough win.
It’s finally coming this year. Always one of the game’s best players tee to green, Garcia’s putting has come around recently, as evidenced by his two late-season European Tour victories. More importantly, he’s now in the right frame of mind. No longer the petulant, scowling brat on the course, he appears to have found an inner peace and renewed confidence in himself and energy toward finding success.
Coming off a year in which he made the cut at all four majors and finished 12th or better in the final three, Garcia is primed to claim that elusive hardware. It’s been a long time coming.
The Leap: Major championship contender
I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t a leap. He’s already contended.”
True. Rose was T-4 at the Open Championship as a 17-year-old amateur in 1998, but he’s failed to match that mark in 30 subsequent major championship appearances as a professional. That all changes this year. Rose has matured into a player capable of finding his name high on a major leaderboard deep into a Sunday afternoon.
Can he win one? Absolutely. One of the best things about his game is that it’s suited for any of the majors. Will he win one? Maybe not this year, but he’ll be in serious contention for at least one or two of them.
The Leap: Top 10 in OWGR
“It” can’t be explained. Certain athletes have “it” – that special something that separates them from the pack. Woodland has “it.”
The former college hoopster exudes confidence on the course. Not cockiness, but the inner knowledge that he owns as much talent as anyone and can put it all together at any moment. Those moments will come early and often this year. Coming off a season in which he posted a half dozen top-10s and won the Transitions Championship, the longest hitter on Tour is on the verge of superstardom.
He enters the season as No. 52 in the world, but we’ve seen how fluid and flexible those numbers can be. With a few healthy results, any player can make a big move in a hurry. Woodland will be one of those players this season.
The Leap: Top 25 in OWGR
Coming off a breakthrough European Tour season in which he won the Volvo China Open, made a run at the Volvo World Match Play Championship and finished top 10 in three other non-Volvo events, Colsaerts is starting to establish himself as an elite talent.
With a sturdy build that recalls Martin Kaymer, this Belgium native averaged 303 yards per drive in 2011 and hit more than three-quarters of his greens in regulation. He’ll really benefit from the rich-get-richer philosophy in today’s game. As he moves up in the world ranking, he’ll get into more big-time events – which in turn offer more world ranking points and will help move him even higher.
Starting the year at 72nd in the world, expect a move of some 50 spots by year’s end. It wouldn’t be the biggest leap in OWGR history by any means, but it would vault Colsearts into the upper echelon of pros.
The Leap: Top 10 on PGA Tour money list
Perhaps the biggest leap of last season was made by Webb Simpson, who went from outside No. 200 in the world to 10th at year’s end after winning twice and finishing second on the money list.
Simpson was 25 at the beginning of last year; Stanley will be 24. Simpson was entering his third season; Stanley is entering his second. Simpson had six previous top-10 results; Stanley has four. And perhaps most importantly in this whole Lincoln-had-a-secretary-named-Kennedy coincidence is the fact that Simpson had former pro Paul Tesori on the bag, while Stanley will counter with Brett Waldman, who is coming off a full year on the Nationwide circuit.
Last year, Stanley made the cut in 22 of 28 starts and earned more than $1.5 million. Those numbers are only going to get better this year, as he continues his ascension toward becoming one of the better week-in, week-out players on the PGA Tour.
The Leap: Ryder Cup team member
Most fans know him for the ignominious distinction of blowing the PGA Championship down the stretch and succumbing to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. While it’s true that was his biggest headline-maker, Dufner is more than a one-hit – or one-mishit – wonder.
A solid ball striker with nerves of Teflon, he’s past due to earn his maiden PGA Tour victory this year. Not only will it happen, but with continued consistent play and guaranteed starts in each of the majors and WGC events, expect him to earn enough points to be playing for Davis Love III at Medinah later this year.
The Leap: PGA Tour tournament winner
Highly acclaimed as a top-ranked amateur, it’s taken Levin more time than expected to reach stardom in the big leagues. He may be on the verge, though.
In 2011, he finished in the top 25 in 13 of his 31 starts on the PGA Tour, with six top-10s and a playoff loss at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. He’s a fiery competitor and the type of guy who won’t falter in the spotlight when he’s in title contention. And it may come sooner rather than later. The West Coast kid typically plays some of his best golf in that part of the country over the season’s first two months.
The Leap: PGA Tour Rookie of the Year
The PGA Tour freshmen class of 2011 may never again be duplicated. It included six winners who combined for seven titles, including a pair of major champions in Charl Schwartzel and Keegan Bradley.
It would be foolish to expect anything close to that from the 2012 crop of rookies, but that doesn’t mean the group is without talent. Noh Seung-Yul, Ted Potter, Jr. and Harris English will be among the success stories, but no one will fare better than Kokrak. A two-time winner on the Nationwide Tour last year, he was also the driving distance leader at a whopping 318.6 yards per drive. That type of length will translate well on the big tour this season.
The Leap: Top 10 in Rolex Rankings
It’s tough to figure which of the following was more unbelievable during the 2011 season: That this 22-year-old Swede would break through with four victories on the Ladies European Tour in her rookie campaign? Or that such a fruitful performance chart vaulted her to only 37th on the year-end Rolex Rankings?
Whatever the case, Hedwall should only continue to find more prosperity this year, while that quartet of titles remains on her ledger. You don’t have to understand how the ranking works to realize that adding on to such totals will only heighten her profile. Expect more wins for the super sophomore – and enough strong results to boost her into the world’s top 10 by year’s end.
The Leap: European Tour tournament winner
If there’s one stat which shows the true potential of this 23-year-old from South Africa, it’s his scoring average, which last season ranked ninth on the Euro circuit, behind only a bevy of household names.
Granted, that number came in limited action, but this year should be different. Grace finished T10 at Q-School to secure his playing privileges. With additional appearances should come additional opportunities to find success. He already owns a victory on the Sunshine Tour at a young age. He’s ready to take the next big step on a bigger tour this year.