Stock Watch for Top 25 in World Golf Rankings

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2013

Stock Watch for Top 25 in World Golf Rankings

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    This week's Honda Classic features one of the most stacked and competitive fields of this young 2013 season. There's a thrill and competitive spirit in the air as the tour returns to the site of Rory McIlroy's victory last year over a surging Tiger Woods, who posted a remarkable 10-under par 62 in the final round of the Honda last season.

    McIlroy, the world's No. 1 ranked player, and Woods, No. 2, will both be in the field this week, along with a boatload of the world's best and brightest. The season remains in its infancy, but let's take a look at how the world's top 25 ranked players have fared thus far in 2013.

No. 25: Bo Van Pelt

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    Bo Van Pelt is coming off a career year of 10 top 10 finishes. His 2013 season, however, has gotten off on the wrong foot.

    Van Pelt has been unable to secure a single top 10, or even top 15, finish in his five events on the PGA Tour. He's missed a cut, and had scattered finishes ranging from T78 at the Farmers Insurance Open to a T16 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

    Van Pelt's core problem lies on the putting greens and it's permeating the rest of his game. He ranks a ghastly 129th in putting on tour this season, whereas he ranked 11th in the same stat in 2012. There's no denying it's early and most players are still in search of their competitive rhythm. For Van Pelt, though, it's clear that when he's putting well it positively affects the rest of his game, so keep an eye on Van Pelt's performance on the greens going forward.

No. 24: Ernie Els

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    Excuse the pun, but the Big Easy hasn't had it so easy in 2013. Sure, his swing is still as silky as butter, but it's not yielding positive results.

    Between the European and PGA Tours, his best finish this year is a T13 at the Northern Trust Open. Other than that, there's been a palpable lack of continuity in his game. His game off the tee has been reliable, but his ball-striking and iron play have been his undoing. He currently ranks 148th in GIR on the PGA Tour, which will take even a player of Els' caliber out of contention. Despite ranking in the top 30 in putting on tour, his iron play is currently the Achilles heel of his game.

No. 23: Nick Watney

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    Other than a T4 at the Farmers Insurance Open, Watney has yet to impress in 2013. The problem is clearly connected to his putting, where he ranks outside of the top 100 on tour.

    Although he's giving himself excellent opportunities through his solid ball-striking, currently ranked 2nd in GIR on tour, he's noticeably struggling to establish a rhythm on the greens.

    Watney is a huge talent and proven champion on tour, so it's likely that he'll turn it around.

No. 22: Peter Hanson

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    Peter Hanson has played in a combined four events between the European and PGA Tours and has performed with poise and consistency.

    His T9 at the Abu Dhabi Championship came in a stacked, competitive field and set a positive tone for the season.

    Since then he's earned a pair of top 25 finishes between the two tours. The real question will be whether Hanson can gather some momentum to make another run at the Masters, where he played remarkably well last season, finishing T3.

No. 21: Hunter Mahan

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    Mahan has demonstrated superb consistency to start off the season, making six consecutive cuts and finishing out of the top 25 just a single time.

    He's finished in the top 10 in his last two events, the most recent a runner-up finish to Matt Kuchar at the Accenture Match Play Championship, the same event he won in 2012. To understand Mahan's impressive start, look no further than the putting green. Whereas Mahan ranked a pedestrian 112th last season in putting on tour, he currently ranks 15th. Granted, it's early, but that's a momentous improvement and the kind that pays dividends.  

No. 20: Dustin Johnson

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    As great as Phil Mickelson is, Dustin Johnson doesn't want to emulate the season he's having, which is almost exactly what he's done. So far in 2013, Johnson has won a tournament, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but failed to show any signs of life in his other performances, just like Lefty.

    Since winning the year's debut PGA Tour event, Johnson has missed two cuts, finished T51 and T33, and has withdrawn from an event.

    It's still early, but the tour lore has always contended that you never want to win the first tournament of the year because it's a jinx. Just ask Geoff Ogilvy whether there's any truth to that.

    Johnson is a versatile golfer with a competitive edge, so there's no denying he'll bounce back from this rough start.

No. 19: Graeme McDowell

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    Graeme McDowell is coming off one of his best seasons and definitely his most consistent in 2012. Not only did he make the cut in all four majors, which is more rare than you'd think even among the world's best, but he contended in all four of them, highlighted by a T2 at the U.S. Open and a T5 at the Open Championship.

    McDowell has played in just two tournaments this year, one of which he missed the cut, and the other, the Accenture Match Play, he earned T5 honors. It'll take a few more rounds to gauge whether the Northern Irishman can mount an even more impressive 2013 than last year's campaign, but so far he's off to a positive start.

No. 18: Keegan Bradley

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    Keegan Bradley has a similar story to Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, players who won a major early in their professional careers and were quickly cast off as flukes. Like his two South African counterparts, Bradley has proven he's more than some fluke champion.

    Although he's noticeably struggled to find a rhythm so far this season, Bradley's shown us glimpses of the brilliance that earned him a victory and five top 10s in 2012, as well as a place on the American Ryder Cup squad.

    This season he's had scattered finishes, ranging from T4 to T49, and a missed cut. He hasn't established a rhythm quite yet, but once he does and his game starts functioning on all cylinders, the PGA Tour better watch out.

No. 17: Sergio Garcia

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    Simply put, Sergio Garcia isn't the free-wheeling, pearly-whites smiling, let-it-rip gunner that he was over a decade ago as a teenager when he suddenly captivated the golf world.

    But, that doesn't mean he doesn't still have some good golf left in him.

    He began his 2013 campaign on the European Tour with a T2 at the Qatar Masters. Garcia followed up that impressive finish with a T17 at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. His strong performance has translated to the PGA Tour, posting two more top 20 finishes.

No. 16: Webb Simpson

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    Last year's U.S. Open winner has one of the strangest golf swings you'll see on tour today—it literally looks like he arrives late to the ball on every swing with his bizarre upper-body whip move. But as Jim Furyk would say, it doesn't matter if it's pretty, what matters are the results.

    From that perspective, Webb is off to a consistent, positive start.

    Simpson's missed just one cut in six starts and has finished out of the top 25 once this season. He earned a T6 at the Northern Trust Open two weeks ago and was among the final five at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

    Simpson's not the kind of player who will intimidate you with his length off the tee, but he's got a sturdy game based on a simple formula—hitting a lot of greens and giving himself lots of birdie opportunities. His putting is a constantly evolving aspect of his game—he ranks 25th in putting on tour—and it's played a major role in his ascent in the golf world.

No. 15: Jason Dufner

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    Jason Dufner's coming off a career year with a pair of victories and six other top 10 finishes, as well as solid showings in all four majors. He's now one of the top ranked Americans in the world, but unfortunately he's begun 2013 on the wrong note.

    "Duff" has missed a cut and finished T33 and T18 so far in 2013. There's no denying the difficulty of adjusting to new course conditions week in and week out, not to mention how long it may take to get back into the swing of competition. But the strangest part about Dufner's poor start is that he's been hitting a ton of fairways and greens, but can't buy a putt.

    While he ranks 1st in driving accuracy and GIR on tour, he's an atrocious 114th in putting. Dufner's challenge will be honing in on his short game, while remaining committed to the other aspects of his game where he's shined.

No. 14: Charl Schwartzel

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    Charl Schwartzel struggled to find his groove in his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2012. There was a lot of hype for the South African Masters champion (2011), and when he didn't live up to the expectations, his major victory was quickly ruled a fluke.

    But Schwartzel has roared back onto the scene of golf's elite, earning a 2nd place finish at the Joburg Open on the European Tour and a T3 at the Northern Trust on the PGA Tour this season.

    Although he still has a great deal to prove, Schwartzel's already recognized as one of the world's most complete players from tee to green. No better way to prove that then by his outstanding scoring average of 67.65, which ranks No.1 on the PGA Tour.

No. 13: Steve Stricker

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    Steve Stricker's notched two top 10 finishes in his opening two starts of 2013. Not too shabby for the 46-year-old who made headlines in the offseason when he declared he'd be playing a shortened season due to his age and lack of stamina.

    The straightforward and unapologetic way Stricker explained his decision to play fewer tournaments mirrors his demeanor and style on the golf course. There's nothing overly technical about his swing and he never spends too much time strategizing over a shot.

    He epitomizes the mantra of "calm, cool and collected," especially on the putting greens, where he rivals the world's best. He may play in fewer events this season, but you can bet that he'll make them count.

No. 12: Phil Mickelson

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    This is one of the only players whose stock is trending down despite winning a tournament this season. The truth is—this is just classic Lefty.

    He won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in nearly record-breaking fashion, but has been erratic in all of his other starts. He's probably the only golfer who can post a 60 in his opening round, cap off a wire-to-wire victory that tied the lowest combined score total in PGA Tour history, and then the next week tie for 60th.

    Whatever happened to momentum?

    Not to mention the T60 was at Pebble Beach, where he was defending his title. In reality, any time you can post a "W" in a season, that's a successful year. But this is Phil Mickelson, a multiple major champion and a Hall of Famer. Even with his win, his season thus far has been pedestrian at best; he's finished T21, T37, T51 and T60.

No. 11: Bubba Watson

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    Despite uncharacteristically missing the cut at the Northern Trust Open, Bubba Watson has been a blueprint of consistency so far this season. Watson's earned a pair of top 10 finishes, first at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions (T4) and recently at the Accenture Match Play Championship (T9). He also notched a solo 15th-place finish at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

    Distance has always been Bubba's strength (currently averaging 300 yards, ranked 12th on tour in distance), but accuracy has never been his specialty (ranks 133nd in driving accuracy).

    His extreme power, though, is not his gift. It's actually his shot-making ability.

    He ranks fourth in Greens in Regulation (GIR) on the PGA Tour, which you might not expect from a guy who barely hits 50 percent of his fairways. But much like he showed the world in his final playoff hole of the Masters last year—hitting a remarkable, curling shot around the trees when he looked like he was without a prayer—Bubba has a knack for not only visualizing the unlikely shot, but pulling it off.

No. 10: Ian Poulter

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    Still riding the momentum of his Ryder Cup sweep, Ian Poulter's now 2-for-2 in top 10s on the PGA Tour this season, first at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions (T9) and  at the Accenture Match Play Championship (T4).

    Poulter's getting it done in two crucial areas, off the tee and on the greens. He ranks T9 on tour in driving accuracy and is No.1 in Strokes Gained-Putting, which throughout his career has been the biggest strength of his game.

    The mantra Poulter must remember, whether he's practicing before a tournament or in the heat of competition, is "Be Aggressive." Poulter's demeanor in match play, both at the Ryder Cup and at last week's Accenture Championship, reveals a much different, bolder player than in regular, stroke play events. If he can translate that aggressive style to stroke play then the sky is the limit.

No. 9: Lee Westwood

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    Lee Westwood has looked pedestrian at best to start 2013, finishing in the middle of the pack in each of his three starts on the PGA Tour.

    Although he's been accurate off the tee (ranks T15 on tour in driving accuracy) and shown relatively solid touch on the greens (ranked T54 in putting), it's the shots in between, his iron play, that lets him down so far this season. Westwood ranks an awful 103rd in greens in regulation, an uncharacteristic stat for a player usually associated with some of the best ball-striking in golf.

    At this point in Westwood's career, though (39), he's got his eyes set on one thing, and one thing only—a major championship. His past in majors is well known, coming excruciatingly close time and time again; he's finished T3 or better at every major at least once in his career.

No. 8: Matt Kuchar

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    Matt Kuchar, the king of the top 10, did something completely out of character last Sunday. He won.

    That's not a knock on Kuchar, but for a guy who already has three top 10s in five events this season and had nine top 10s in each of the last two years, not to mention 11 in 2010, you'd think he might win more often. Regardless, Kuchar is once again off to a hot start, highlighted by his strong performance at the Accenture Match Play, where he held off Hunter Mahan in the final.

No. 7: Adam Scott

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    Adam Scott still hasn't rebounded from his collapse at last year's British Open. Although he finished off last season with a couple top 10 finishes and earned another a few weeks back at the Northern Trust Open, it will take a victory—the act of hoisting a trophy above his competition—to move past his tragic defeat from last season.

    Like Luke Donald and Justin Rose, Scott also, deservedly, gets thrown into the conversation of "best player without a major." There's no denying he's got all the tools, now it's just about finding the right rhythm at the right time.

No. 6: Justin Rose

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    Justin Rose stormed out the gates this season with a T2 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, the tournament most golf fans know as "the one where both Tiger and Rory missed the cut." Alas, there were other golfers competing that week.

    Rose is a proven champion on both the European and PGA Tours, with four wins on the PGA and five on the European Tour. He often falls into that ominous golf category of "best player to have not won a major," but he sure has come close, posting at least one top-five finish in all four majors in his career.

    He'll be teeing it up this week at the Honda Classic, where he finished T5 in 2012 and third in 2010.

No. 5: Louis Oosthuizen

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    Louis Oosthuizen will be making his PGA Tour debut this week at the Honda Classic, and prepare for a strong showing out of the South African. Although he was bounced early from the Accenture Match Play last week, he'll be riding the momentum of an early 2013 victory at the Volvo Masters on the European Tour.

    Even if you can't pronounce it, get used to seeing the name "Oosthuizen" at the top of golf leaderboards. The 2010 British Open champion was a runner-up last year at the Masters and has undeniably entered the conversation as a contender in any event in which he competes.

No. 4: Brandt Snedeker

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    Brandt Snedeker is playing so well and with such poise so far in 2013 that it feels like when a pitcher is throwing a "you know what" in the 8th inning—you don't want to jinx it by talking about it.

    Snedeker's performance has truly been astounding; he's 5-for-5 in cuts made and has a T23, a solo third, a pair of second-place finishes and a victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

    His game is versatile and he's confident from tee to green, but his putting is what truly puts him on a pedestal above his peers. Snedeker is unmatched in today's golf landscape with a putter in hand.

No. 3: Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald started strong this season with a pair of top 20 finishes. It's exactly what we expect from Donald—a player who minimizes mistakes with his deadly short game.

    But while you can count on Donald to make a lot of cuts and finish relatively high on a consistent basis, he never exudes that tangible, cut-throat, competitive edge, like Tiger in Sunday red. 

    Perhaps that's just not Donald's character. But, imagine if he broke that mold and started playing with more attitude, intensity and grit? Think about it: Donald's never been the favorite, never been the intimidator, never been the guy you don't want to face Sunday at a major.

    It may not be in his DNA, but it may be what's standing between him and the most defining career achievement in golf—a major championship.

No. 2: Tiger Woods

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    In the six seasons that Woods has won his first event of the season, he's gone on to win a major in five of those seasons. His debut victory at Torrey Pines was no surprise, but what it portends may bring him one step closer to catching Jack Nicklaus' elusive 18 major championship record.

    Although Woods was eliminated in the first round of his second event this season, the Accenture Match Play, he played exceptionally well alongside competitor Charles Howell III.

    Woods' driving game continues to be volatile, which was his weakness in the desert at the Match Play. But the real test will be whether he can compete on the weekends at major championships, which was his undoing last season. So far, he seems primed for that test.

No. 1: Rory McIlroy

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    All the fears and apprehension about the 23-year-old phenom's switch to Nike clubs appears to have become a reality in this young season since Rory McIlroy has yet to make a cut in 2013.

    That's right, he hasn't made a cut.

    The world No.1 first missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, and then was beaten by fellow Irishman Shane Lowry at the Accenture Match Play. That's a total of three rounds in 2013 and a total 180 from what we all expected from him, which was, of course, dominance.

    The kid won five times last year, he owns two majors at just 23 years old, and he's shown the resilience and mental fortitude to break every record in the book.

    But as of right now, let's start with making a cut, shall we?