PGA 2011: 11 Bold Predictions for Golf in the New Year

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2011

PGA 2011: 11 Bold Predictions for Golf in the New Year

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    A dethroned Tiger Woods will reassert his dominance with two major championship victories in 2011.

    The unlikely, unintimidating and unsuspecting Sean O'Hair will win multiple events in 2011.

    The 40 somethings will relentlessly challenge the 20 somethings, sparking an intense, dynamic rivalry in 2011.

    2011 ushers in a new season of golf, but predicting how that season will play out is neither scientific nor straightforward. Predictions are both logical and off the wall, improbable and completely attainable. They are what sports fans think about without intent because our ceaseless commitment to the sport and its players—the Davids and Goliaths—produces the awe-inspiring thrill of the unknown.

    Call them against the grain or spot-on, outrageous or totally feasible, here are 11 bold predictions for 2011.

Australian Uprising: Adam Scott, Jason Day and Geoff Ogilvy

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    Three players have the potential to make 2011 the year of the Aussie.

    Just 22-years-old and Jason Day seemed to be impervious to the pressure of the PGA Tour. He won the HP Byron Nelson Championship, contended in a major championship (T10 at the PGA) and nearly captured the Deutsche Bank Fed-Ex Cup Playoff event.

    He’s an outstanding putter who became more and more reliable as he developed his niche on the Tour. Day also pummels the ball off the tee, averaging 298-yards with titanium-denting drives, where he ranks 15th in Tour.

    Adam Scott’s wide-ranging success this season—from his victory at the Valero Texas Open to his three consecutive top 15 finishes in the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs—is a testament to his capacity to compete when healthy.

    Unfortunately, Scott’s No. 3 World Ranking behind Woods and Mickelson in 2007 has become a distant memory since struggling with an array of injuries over the last few seasons. However, throughout 2010 Scott showed real heart and determination, minimizing the kinds of mistakes that set him back and refining his skills, especially putting. He ended on the best possible note with a victory at the Barclay’s Singapore Open, shooting four brilliant rounds of 65-65-69-68.

    After winning the season opener SBS Championship, Geoff Ogilvy struggled to earn a top 15 over the next four months, illustrating that the golf curse of winning the first event of the year plagued the rest of that player’s season. After missing three of the four cuts in the majors, Ogilvy revamped his game in the latter half of the season, finishing in the top 25 in his last four events, highlighted by a solid second place at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

    Then, just a few weeks ago, Ogilvy once again found his rhythm in his homeland, capturing the victory at the Australian Open.

    Each of these three players will be riding the momentum of their strong finishes in 2010 into the new season.

Rory Sabbatini Will Garner Respect (Joke)

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    Every sport has that one player, that one guy who in arrogance or anger has become a symbol for an athlete who's forgot how to have fun.

    Enter Rory Sabbatini.

    It's ironic that on the golf course, which is truly a serene environment, almost like a sanctuary because of its tranquil nature, Sabbatini is consumed by this aura of perpetual dismay. He never looks happy, but instead constantly consternated.

    Any putt, chip, swing or drive that veers off line or doesn’t fit the ideal that Sabbatini imagined is an instant cause for any of a sea of emotional fits, from throwing clubs to shouting profanity. The worst part about Sabbatini is really just that it doesn’t even look like he wants to be out there—strategizing, visualizing, and competing against his peers.

    He's become notorious for an incident at the Booze Allen Classic in 2005. Sabbatini, in his typical, disgruntled mood, ignored the etiquette and played through his partner's turn, Ben Crane. He openly criticized Crane for his slow play, but in reality, Crane was in contention and Sabbatini had no chance.

    The last two holes of that event illustrated just how immature Sabbatini truly is: when things don't go his way, he looks like a five-year-old spoiled brat who just dropped his ice cream.

    Golf, like many sports, is about how you respond to adversity and Sabbatini just doesn't get it. 

Luke Donald Captures No. 1 World Ranking

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    What if Luke Donald—the guy who dominates Rolex and Polo Ralph Lauren commercials—dominated the world of golf in 2011 and captured the No. 1 World Golf Ranking?

    Donald has never been viewed as the overpowering, intimidating figure on the golf course, but instead a crafty, straight-hitting, smooth-swinging player. He doesn’t exude the ferocity of Tiger Woods or the power off the tee of Dustin Johnson or even the timely touch of Phil Mickelson around the greens.

    But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the potential to leap from his current No. 9 position in the world rankings to the coveted No. 1.

    Donald has the potential to make this career-changing leap because there’s few better on Tour with a wedge and putter. Over the last four seasons, Donald has led the Tour in Sand Save Percentage and been ranked in the top 10 in the category of Putts Per Round.

    While his short game prowess remains deadly to his competitors, Donald has also been improving in by far one of the most important stats in golf—Scoring Average. In 2007, he was ranked 27th (70.12), in 2008 was vaulted to sixth (69.58), in 2009 he was 13th (70.01) and then claimed the seventh spot in 2010 (69.85).

    In addition to those statistical improvements, Donald will enter 2011 riding the momentum of an excellent 2010 campaign. He made 16 of 20 cuts, finished in the top 10 seven times, which included three second places. He also put together four terrific rounds (65-67-68-67) to win the Madrid Masters this season.

    The keys to Donald’s success are threefold: first, he needs to maintain his outstanding touch on and around the greens; second, he needs to improve his Driving Accuracy, where he ranked 120th in 2010 and finally, he needs to become a real contender in the major championships.

Rory McIlroy Wins the British Open

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    This kid might be a bit brash, but he strikes the ball purely, drives it deep and intertwines an incredibly crafty short game to fuse these various layers in a deadly fashion.

    When he shot a 63 in the opening round of the British Open in 2010, it looked like nothing and no one could stop him, except, well, himself. Despite his second round 80, which was easily a product of nerves, inexperience and an unrelenting Scottish storm, McIlroy did not retreat. Instead, he rerouted his game to finish with a 69-68 weekend and a remarkable third place finish.

    His Northern Irish background deems him an expert on the links courses of British Open venues, like the site of the 2011 Open Championship, Royal St. George. As he displayed this past season, he understands how to avoid treacherous pot bunkers, rolling hills and the most difficult areas of the undulating greens.

    For a 22-year-old, he sure does put a beat down on the golf ball, averaging 300 yards off the tee in 2010. His consistency off the tee plays to his advantage in severe winds, whether they are with or against him, which is crucial on a links course.

    More than anything, McIlroy is hungry for victory. After clinching his first PGA Tour victory at the Wells Fargo Championship this past season and then finishing T3 at both the British Open and PGA Championship, he’s determined to hoist a major championship trophy.

Tiger Woods Wins Two Major Championships

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    Around the time of the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods’ swing, strut and steadfast work ethic began to resemble his once unstoppable self, provoking critics and fans alike to wonder if he may just be back on track.

    But as 2010 came to a close with ‘winless’ etched into the record books, connoting a sense of failure for one of the most esteemed athletes and golfers of all time, there’s no doubt that the latter half of his season was an optimistic sign of things to come.

    Next season, Tiger Woods can win two majors, at least. Between his personal instruction with Sean Foley, his individual pursuit for reacquiring dominance over the world of golf and the positive note he left on in the 2010 season, Woods has the capacity to do what he does best—win.

    The Masters is Woods’ bread and butter. He owns four victories at Augusta National, but more than anything—it’s a course that he’s openly expressed his passion for, and you always do better at what you enjoy doing.

    Then, when the US Open returns to Congressional Country Club, where Woods won the AT&T in 2009, he will face a course design that fits his game as naturally as his red shirt on Sunday. Woods favors fast greens which, paired with his aptitude for shaping shots, whether high-arching or his famed ‘stinger,’ provides him with a leg up over his competition.

    When the name Tiger Woods is uttered, any legitimate golf fan knows that, aside from this transitional season, his career has been a collection of fairytale stories, defined by defying the odds and rising to the occasion.

    Whether it was his first major championship—a 12 stroke victory and record 18 under par at the Masters in 1998—or ten years later when he captured the US Open in a Monday playoff (on what we would later learn was a nearly disintegrated knee), he has never been one to crumble under pressure, but instead break the mold and persevere.

    2010 may have been a setback, but 2011 may once more catapult him into the spotlight.

Out With the Old, In With the New (Fashion, That Is)

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    Ryan Moore earned a remarkable T14 finish at the Masters, but the majority of the attention he received was a product of his attire that evoked a Bobby Jones-esque look with his tie tucked into his tight-fitting vest. When Graeme McDowell displayed the skills of a champion at this year’s US Open, he did it in four consecutive days of pastel, collared shirts and cardigan sweaters.

    Style and golf have never been as fundamentally connected as in 2010.

    In its history, golf clothing has been notoriously drab and plain, with the occasional argyle sweater thrown in there to add some pizzazz. But being chic and stylish became noticeably important this season.

    Tiger Woods led the charge as the face of Nike, sporting bold colors and form-fitting attire. But most players have ignored the typical golf brands for more mainstream, sophisticated styles.

    Adam Scott flaunts Burberry, Luke Donald is attached at the hip to Ralph Lauren attire and Camilo Villegas fused his fashion ideas with a Swedish designer, J. Lindeburg, for ultra-tight fitting collared shirts.

    Dustin Johnson became notorious for his metal, three-stripe white belt while Rickie Fowler took the vibrant colors approach, specifically starting his own Tiger-esque Sunday tradition with all orange attire in celebration of his school roots at Oklahoma State.

    2011 will still be about sinking birdies and pummeling drives, but expect players to do it with a totally revamped, fashionable attire.

Sean O'Hair: Dark Horse Multiple Event Winner

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    There’s been a lot of talk about players with the potential to win multiple events in 2011, such as Rickie Fowler, Rickie Barnes, Jeff Overton and Bo Van Pelt. However, I see Sean O’Hair having the kind of year Stricker and Furyk had in 2010, snagging two to three victories and contending in a variety of events.

    Skeptics are probably tired of the anticipation and ultimate letdown for a breakthrough from O’Hair, who for countless seasons has underwhelmed with only a handful of solid finishes and three victories in his 11 year career.

    So what makes 2011 any different?

    O’Hair displayed his golf prowess throughout the 2010 PGA Tour season, carding 11 top 25 finishes in 19 events, highlighted by a T12 at the US Open, a T7 at the British Open and a T4 at the SBS Championship. Beyond his promising finishes in highly competitive fields, O’Hair learned something crucial this season—how not to finish tournaments.

    Think back to this season—after most Saturday rounds, O’Hair was a legitimate contender, often just a few shots back of the leader. However, he shot under-par rounds on Sunday in only nine of his 19 events this season, ranking him 98th in the Final Round Scoring Average Category (71.06).

    When you think back to Mickelson’s victory at the Masters or McIlroy’s win at Quail Hollow or even Furyk’s triumph at the Tour Championship, these players were anointed champions because they finished strong. O’Hair put himself in position to win countless times this season, but lost his stride, whether because of nerves, mechanics or just bad luck.

    The point is that he made mistakes, but will learn from them and breakthrough in 2011.

Sergio Garcia Regains His Putting Stroke

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    In irrefutably one of the most crucial stats in professional golf—Putts Per Round—Sergio Garcia has been ranked inside of the top 100 just three times over the last decade.

    No matter how far he drove the ball or close he hit it to the pin, the putter was his nemesis.

    The fairytale story of the young Spaniard rising through the ranks of the PGA Tour is becoming more and more blurry as his game continues to disintegrate. He’s won events, had top 10 finishes, but never lived up to his potential, and that’s what ultimately has been so disconcerting about his career.

    What’s been especially difficult to swallow for Garcia has been that putting is undeniably the most debilitating element of his game that he just can't figure out. Over the last three seasons, he’s ranked 142nd in 2008, 123rd in 2009 and 162nd in 2010 in the Putts Per Round category.

    After winning the Players Championship in 2008, Garcia looked reborn, prepared to shake the cloak of despair that plagued him for multiple seasons of mediocrity.  However, his surge was short-lived and the collection of tournaments that ensued were once more revealing of just how embedded and detrimental Garcia’s putting issues were.

    His season was so terrible that the highlight was his honorary assistant pick the European Ryder Cup Team.

    However, he's just too good of a player to be stuck in such a vacuum of mediocrity. His last few seasons have been difficult to watch only because he doesn't resemble the once vigorous and versatile Spaniard who was a legitimate contender through the majority of this last decade.

    Hopefully in 2011 he can regain his putting stroke and find his way back into the winner's circle.

New Rivalry: Over 40 Generation vs. Young Guns

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    This new rivalry isn’t anything like baseball’s Yankees and Red Sox or basketball’s Lakers and Celtics because golf challenges the stigma that age is a determinant of one’s ability to perform and compete. The 20 somethings challenged the established order in 2010 and now the older generation will undoubtedly respond, but with a vengeance.

    Last year Tiger Woods plummeted from his throne and a plethora of talented youth, accurately titled by PGATour.com as the ‘New Breed,’ paved the way for a striking sense of parity that suffused the golf world.  From the PGA to the European Tours, the under 30 generation proved that what they lacked in experience, they made up for in their overwhelming dynamism and perseverance.

    Last April, Rory McIlroy, 22, sent shockwaves from the US all the way to his homeland in Holywood, Northern Ireland when he shot a course record 62 on Sunday to win the Wells Fargo Championship.

    Rickie Fowler, 22, launched himself to the forefront of the professional golf scene in 2010, nearly winning the Memorial and Phoenix Waste Management Open, but still capturing seven top 10’s and Ryder Cup rookie honors.

    But no young gun outshined Dustin Johnson, 25, who went on a rampage in 2010, winning twice, finishing in the top 10 in two major championships, and arguably elevating himself among the elite of professional golf.

    These kids grew up watching Woods and Mickelson, but what about that bunch of players who learned the tricks of the trade from paradigms of golf like Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Player?

    Prepare for the over 40 generation, what PGATour.com has appropriately labeled the “Establishment,” to take the Tour by storm. Led by determined vets like Steve Stricker, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk, experience matters and these guys have no shortage of it.

    Goosen and Els don’t just own two of the sweetest swings in golf, but they’re both still extremely long off the tee, exceptional short game players and execute their iron shots with nearly flawless precision, which is probably how these young guns learned the ropes.

    Not many guys on Tour can contend with Steve Stricker on the putting greens and this past season, Stricker proved he can do much more than putt, winning both the Northern Trust Open and the John Deere Classic.

    Jim Furyk is all business, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still reveling in his Player of the Year award. Since 2005, Furyk hasn’t gone a season without at least seven top 10’s, meaning regardless of his unconventional swing or visibly stoic attitude on the golf course, the guy can downright perform, contend and challenge anyone willing to tee it up.

Anthony Kim Wins a Major Championship

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    As much of a shame as it was to watch Anthony Kim’s quick start (a victory and three top 10s in eight starts) to the 2010 season dissipate due to a severe thumb injury, he will be rejuvenated for 2011 and is my pick to win a major championship.

    After winning twice in 2008 at the ripe of age of 23, Anthony Kim wasn’t simply destined for greatness, but was anointed the first of what has become an abundance of young talented golfers, to challenge Tiger Woods’ reign over the golf world. In that same year, Kim qualified for three of the four majors, earning his highest honors with a T7 at the British Open.

    He acquired more knowledge of the pressure and overwhelming challenge of professional golf in 2009, finishing in the top three three times over the season. He once more made the cut in three majors, highlighted by a T16 at the US Open and T20 at the Masters.

    Over those two seasons he was making palpable strides, especially on the greens. Kim was always long off the tee, aggressive with his irons and a precise wedge player, but he truly honed in on his putting and became a threat every time he hit the green in regulation (ranked second in Putting Average on Tour in 2009).

    Though the 2010 season was stunted by a thumb injury, Kim’s play between February and May was almost unrivaled. In the span of five tournaments, he earned a first, second, third and seventh.

    Beyond his luminous victory at the Shell Houston Open, his third place finish at the Masters was revealing of just how strong of a player he is and the kind of contender he can become. Kim not only broke Nick Price’s record by carding 11 birdies in a single round, but he made a late surge Sunday to shoot a final round 65 and cause some havoc atop the leaderboard.

    Kim is still learning, but he has the kind of ferocity, execution, and vision of a champion that is reminiscent of a young Tiger Woods and is becoming more and more recognizable in Rickie Fowler. Anthony Kim has exceeded expectations throughout his young career, especially with his outstanding play in the majors, and in 2011 he will reach the pinnacle of his game with a triumph at a major championship.

    I have my money on him at the PGA Championship, which will be held at the Atlanta Athletic Club in John’s Creek, Georgia.

    The course fits Kim’s game to a "T."

    It's over 7400 yards, meaning his massive length off the tee will play to his advantage. The greens are protected by a variety of treacherous hazards, which will be a catalyst for Kim’s aggressive iron play. And finally, the greens have been designed to be extremely undulated and quick, similar to the kinds of Southern California greens Kim grew up learning on.

What Is Your Bold Prediction for 2011?

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    A David Duval comeback?

    A rules change?

    The year of Rickie Fowler?

    Tiger's downfall continues?

    Mickelson's rise to No.1?