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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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.

1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.

4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.

7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”

Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  

Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.

The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.