This year has been – well, I'll just say what most of us are thinking: this year sucked. From a deadly pandemic to economic hardships to contentious social and political events, there’s no shortage of reasons why this scribe is excited about turning the page on this year.
I mean, seriously. Social distancing is now engrained in our lexicon. Thanksgiving and Christmas were lonelier, or at least quieter. We lost James Bond, Black Panther and most shockingly Kobe Bryant. In golf, this year was a prime example of overpromising (Tiger’s 83rd win, Bryson’s 48-inch driver, Spieth’s comeback) and underdelivering (we didn’t get any of those things).
I hate all-caps, but this seems appropriate: GOOD RIDDANCE, 2020!
Yet, for the sake of being positive, in a year that took so much from us, it couldn’t quite take away golf. (OK, so we lost the professional product for a few months, but we got it back.) For many, this game has been an escape as the months have seemingly all started to blend. We needed golf, now more than ever, and it delivered – just not in the way we envisioned last Jan. 1.
In April and May, it gave us something to do; those casual rounds with family and friends, or by ourselves. In June and July, it gave us something live to watch; no offense, 2011 Honda Classic. In August and September, it gave us something major to celebrate; congrats to Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Sophia Popov and Mirim Lee. And we’ve had a few more major champs since, including in November, when golf gave us perhaps the most unexpectedly perfect gift of all: a fall Masters. (Well, about as perfect as it gets if you didn’t make a late November trip to St. Barts like DJ.)
So, what can we expect from 2021 as it relates to golf? For starters, it can’t be worse than its predecessor. When it comes to filling 2020’s shoes, imagine a shoe size that’s much closer to Putter Boy than Ernie Els. But there is still that level of uncertainty. Are any more tournaments going to be canceled? When are we getting fans back on a regular basis? How close to normal will we get – if that even happens this year? All big question marks.
Remember that positivity thing, though? I'll try it again. For all the what ifs as we kick off 2021, there remains much to be excited about. Tiger Woods still has a chance at breaking Sam Snead’s record. Bryson DeChambeau could arrive in Kapalua with a 48-inch driver shaft – or longer. This could be the year (fingers crossed) that Jordan Spieth finally rips off the duct tape and starts winning majors again.
We're going to get our normal major season back: the Masters in April, a U.S. Open in the summer, five women’s majors, plus a Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and Summer Olympics.
Last I checked Phil Mickelson still has social media. As does Bryson. And Max Homa. Distance and slow play remain two hot-button topics that will both be addressed, in some capacity, during these next 12 months. And to borrow from one of the Tour’s old slogans, these guys are still good.
Still not convinced? Here’s a closer look at why golf in 2021 should be exciting, grand, thrilling, sensational, epic and all the things 2020 was, for the most part, not:
This schedule is major!
Buckle up, golf fans. While 2020’s major calendar was a little slimmer than usual, 2021 is going to more than make up for it.
Here’s a quick rundown of this year’s men’s and women’s major championships: ANA Inspiration and the Masters in April, PGA at Kiawah in May, both U.S. Opens (men at Torrey Pines and women at Olympic Club) and Women’s PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club in June, Open Championship at Royal St. George’s and Evian Championship in July and the Women’s Open at Carnoustie in August.
Got all that? Good, now add these big events: Olympics in Tokyo, Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Solheim Cup at Inverness and, only to stay on brand, an NCAA Championship in the Arizona desert.
What a schedule. We’re going to get a second Masters in less than six months. Kiawah last produced Rory McIlroy as a major champ, in 2012. Torrey gave us Tiger in 2008. Royal St. George’s? Darren Clarke might’ve won the Claret Jug in 2011, but Dustin Johnson almost did. The women got the two best rotational venues of the year in Olympic and Carnoustie, while Inverness is so pure.
And I’m interested to see how Whistling Straits will perform as a Ryder Cup venue. Something tells me the Internationals will feel a little more comfortable than they did at Hazeltine. Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s the 30-year anniversary of the “War by the Shore.” (Bernhard Langer will not be making the European team, though.)
While we’re on the majors subject…
Dustin Johnson enters the new year on a huge high after capturing his first green jacket and second major, which begs this obvious – and enormous – question: Will he win all four majors in 2021?
Here’s my quick answer: no. But he will add at least one. Will he complete the ol’ fall-spring Masters slam? OK, that’s not really a thing … yet. Will he finally play Torrey Pines well? His T-3 in 2011 remains his only top-15 in 10 total starts. Can he do better the second time around at Kiawah? I personally thought Kiawah would inspire more than a T-48 out of him in 2012, especially considering he followed it with four straight top-10s that season, but I’ll bet money he doesn’t finish T-48 again.
And I already mentioned Johnson’s close call 10 years ago in Sandwich. Can he hit his 2-iron better and get his revenge on St. George’s? Yes. I’ll go with that.
So, one major title for DJ this year, or two fewer than women's No. 1 Jin Young Ko will collect.
More major talk
Ah, here’s a media favorite: Best player yet to win a major? Atop my list (and probably many others’): Jon Rahm. Second on that list: Xander Schauffele. And I could realistically see both lifting big hardware in 2012, Rahm at the Masters and Schauffele at the U.S. Open.
Here’s a new one, though: Most popular player who won’t qualify for one of the majors in 2021. I’m keeping a watchful eye on a few. Phil Mickelson, at No. 66 in the OWGR, is currently not in the U.S. Open. Rickie Fowler, at No. 53, is not in the Masters (he’ll have to win to get in). And Kiradech Aphibarnrat is not qualified for any majors, and a major without the Barn Rat is a sad one.
‘Chase for 83’ continues
Now that we have major odds for Woods’ 13-year-old son Charlie, we can just ignore the Big Cat, right? Kidding. Even though he plummeted in the world rankings this year, from sixth to No. 41 (his decline, percentagewise, was only better than Brooks Koepka), and turned 45 years old on Wednesday, Woods is still the sport’s biggest star. And there’s that certain wins record…
So, after teeing it up just nine times in 2020 (and posting just one top-10), what can we expect of Woods in 2021 as he chases career Tour win No. 83 (and a chance to finally unseat Sam Snead)? Here’s my educated (and wishful) guess at his potential schedule:
Farmers Insurance Open
WGC-FedEx St. Jude
That’s, at most, 15 starts, which is about what he played in 2019. His Ryder Cup stock isn’t very high right now, and he’s definitely not making a four-man Olympic team. Now, how many of those events can he win? The major slate is kinder than most years. Torrey will certainly play tougher, but Woods knows the place well (ask Rocco). Kiawah isn’t Bethpage, and Woods did share the 36-hole PGA lead there in 2012. Royal St. George’s isn’t a brute, either, though Woods has little experience there (T-4 in 2003). And then there’s Augusta National, which goes without saying. But let’s face it, other than a Masters, Woods is likely not adding another major to his trophy case.
There are certainly regular stops where Woods plays well, including the Farmers and Memorial, which will be contested on a revamped Muirfield Village this summer. One could argue, though, that the most likely opportunity for No. 83 this year would be the Valspar. Woods nearly won at Innisbrook a couple of years back, and with new dates (April 29-May 2), it fits well into Woods’ desired schedule these days. Plus, the strength of field might not be as stout as, say, The Players or WGCs.
OK, mark it down: Tiger in Tampa!
A healthier (we hope) Koepka
Let's be real: Brooks Koepka was never really, fully off the disabled list in 2020. He just wasn't the player that won all those majors. He was, um, "pretty bad," and as a result, he's now 12th in the world. So, can he regain his health and elite form in this new year? Of course he can: He's Brooks Freaking Koepka! He just needs two healthy knees.
We'll see Koepka and his left knee early and often on the West Coast to begin the year. If he looks good there, there's no reason he can't add some green to that major haul in April.
The Wonderful World of Bryson
With the 27-year-old DeChambeau planning to live another 100 years (at minimum), he’s got plenty of time to change the game even more. But after leading the Tour in several distance-related categories – and more importantly, getting off the major schneid in 2020 – he seems determined not to slow down. A 48-inch driver shaft? Eclipsing 140 mph clubhead speed? Ball speeds of 200-plus mph? All are likely top of mind for the Mass-matician entering this new year. Of course, there will predictably be a few surprises, too.
But how far can he go? At the very least, it'll be fun to watch.
Yup, those buttons are still hot
With the pandemic consuming much of our attention, it might’ve been easy to forget that before COVID-19 showed up, slow play and distance gains were two of the biggest issues in the game. Well, as I write this column, they appear to be back on the front burner entering the new year.
First, the PGA Tour announced in September that it would finally deploy its new pace-of-play policy for the 2021 opener at Kapalua. With a shift in focus toward individual players, plus the creation of an observation list of habitually slow players, this will be something to keep a close eye on, especially in the early stages. Harsh or not, I'm for anything that makes players speed up. Now, can we do something about college golf?
Secondly, USGA and R&A had delayed the release of research topics related to the next phase of their Distance Insights project, but now the plan is for a March 2021 roll out. Golf Twitter has already marked its calendar.
What does Lefty have left in the tank? (Besides coffee)
Not many players can say they won twice in 2020. Mickelson’s pair of victories, however, came on the PGA Tour Champions. Now in his 50s, Mickelson is becoming less and less of a factor on the big tour, with three top-3s his only top-20s of the year. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Mickelson’s focus on health and wellness is admirable, and hitting bombs is entertaining, but Mickelson is getting older and his window is closing, especially in the majors. He’ll have to qualify if he wants to play the U.S. Open in 2021 – and does he even want to play Torrey after his past comments on the course? We'll see.
Here’s to hoping for a few more big performances out of Lefty, and not just on the senior circuit, because golf is more fun with Phil the Thrill in the mix.
Spieth outside the world’s top 100?
It’s possible. While Spieth will at least play in every major in 2021, there’s a big concern whether he will contend at one any time soon. Heck, there are questions of when he’ll be in the mix at a regular Tour event again. Spieth’s last top-10 came at Colonial in June. His most recent top-5? The 2019 PGA. And his last win remains the 2017 Open.
I’m still optimistic, but as Spieth’s world ranking continues to plummet – he’s at No. 82 right now – that optimism fades a little.
While we’re still waiting on 2015 Spieth to make a return, how about 2002 Annika Sorenstam? The now-50-year-old Sorenstam might admit that she isn’t that player anymore, but considering she hasn’t played competitively since 2008, any version of Sorenstam will be exciting.
Last month, the LPGA legend told GolfChannel.com that she is planning on teeing it up in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, set for Aug. 19-22 at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. “I think I have enough space now to where if I have to use my clubs to do a little bit more of the talking, I’m ready to do that,” she said.
We are ready, too, Annika!
Fill in the blank: ____ is a battlefield
Nope, not love. It's actually, in this case, the pathway from the Korn Ferry Tour to the PGA Tour. While not completely closed, no promotion until August means the door to the big leagues is currently barely cracked.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance? Will Zalatoris, the KFT’s current points leader, has already managed to slip through by gaining special temporary membership, which means he’ll be playing mostly on the big tour this year. There is also the potential for the instant battlefield promotion, which comes after a player wins three times on the KFT in a single season. With this year being a continuation of last, Davis Riley and Jared Wolfe begin 2021 as two-time winners, each needing just one more victory to join Zalatoris at the highest level.
New kids on the block
With the quick success of young stars such as Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland (two have majors and all are currently in the top 15 in the OWGR!), people want to know: Who’s next? While I love Scottie Scheffler, Will Zalatoris and Davis Riley, they are all older than the aforementioned studs. And with no rookies on Tour this season, it’s likely that we’ll have to buy some stock in one of these fresh-out-of-college youngsters.
Pepperdine’s Sahith Theegala, the reigning Haskins Award winner, is certainly one to watch. Akshay Bhatia didn’t go to college, but the 18-year-old is starting to find his footing after turning pro in late 2019. Masters low amateur Andy Ogletree will get some Tour starts this year, as will Ogletree’s former Georgia Tech teammate Ty Strafaci, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ who has already left school and is expected to turn pro after the Walker Cup in May. There will be a few more big names also wanting starts this summer.
But if I'm just picking one: Vanderbilt product and 2019 U.S. Amateur runner-up John Augenstein, who will make his pro debut at The American Express and arguably has the biggest ceiling of the bunch.
Mark your calendars, grads
After we didn’t get the traditional graduation season on the professional tours this past year, I look forward to the return of promotion and relegation between the PGA and Korn Ferry tours, as well as Qualifying School on various circuits.
Most intriguing figures to be the inaugural PGA Tour University class. After the NCAAs this June, 15 players will be awarded full access to one of the PGA Tour’s developmental tours, including the top five receiving KFT cards for the remainder of the summer season.
Florida State’s John Pak is in the driver’s seat, as the senior sits atop the ranking heading into the spring. He is followed, in order, by Arizona State’s Kevin Yu, Oklahoma State’s Austin Eckroat, Georgia’s Davis Thompson and Texas Tech’s Sandy Scott. Oklahoma teammates Quade Cummins and Garett Reband, and Baylor’s Cooper Dossey are among the top challengers currently outside that top five.
A few leftovers
If you need any more reasons to stay plugged into golf in 2021 (no way I was stopping at 13), here are some parting thoughts: I'm tired of saying four-time major winner Rory McIlroy. Needs to be five, or six, or 20. ... Webb Simpson is still one of the best players in the world. ... Tyrrell Hatton is still the most entertaining player to watch when he doesn't have his A-game. OK, A-plus-game. ... Patrick Reed is making another Ryder Cup team. Just. You. Watch. ... I want to see how much Viktor Hovland worked on his chipping this winter. ... Attention, Tony Finau: The Puerto Rico Open curse has been broken. ... Better hair: Tommy Fleetwood, Cameron Smith or Abe Ancer? ... Arizona State. Pepperdine. Texas. Texas Tech. Oklahoma. The contenders for the NCAA men's title are plentiful. Can Grayhawk get here like now? ... That 250-1 bet on Lee Westwood to win the Masters didn't pan out, but good thing we get another chance this spring. ... Robert MacIntyre needs to play more on the PGA Tour. Love watching Bobby Mac. ... Thomas Detry and Thomas Pieters are ranked Nos. 83 and 84, respectively, in the world. What are the chances they end 2021 that way? ... Sam Horsfield starts the year at No. 101 in the OWGR. He most definitely will not be outside the top 100 at year's end. ... Paging, Francesco Molinari.