The Year Ahead in Golf: 2014
Our annual round of bold predictions for the year in golf that lies ahead. Let the prognosticating begin!
AT LAST, A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
It was sent out as a text, a fleeting message between friends, but it read like a rallying cry for a generation. "This is our time," Adam Scott wrote to his buddy Justin Rose last spring after Scott won the 2013 Masters. A bold declaration. But we had heard claims like it before. Remember when Sergio Garcia was the heir apparent, the prince poised to claim golf's gilded throne? Never mind. Rory McIlroy came next, another fresh-faced firebrand. He rose to No. 1, then tumbled hard. Surely, the pattern would repeat again. But a funny thing happened in the wake of Scott's pronouncement. The man looked prescient. Rose won the U.S. Open, Jason Dufner claimed the year's final major, and someone not named Tiger (Henrik Stenson) seized the FedEx, holding off a feisty challenge from 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. So, is this finally it? Has a new generation at long last arrived? Or will they, too, fade - contenders turned pretenders?
Prediction: It really is their time, and this season will furnish us with further proof, says Cameron Morfit, who covers the Tour for Golf Magazine. "Guys like Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Jordan Spieth are not going to slow down," Morfit says. "They are the new guard and they are not going anywhere. They don't care how unbeatable Tiger used to be."
TOP CONTENDERS FOR THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS CROWNS
On paper, at least, the 2014 major calendar looks good for Tiger Woods. He has collected titles at three of the four venues and notched high finishes at the fourth. So will this be the year that El Tigre finally ends his five-year major drought? Not according to Damon Hack, co-host of Golf Channel's "Morning Drive," whose 2014 forecast leaves Tiger high and dry.
Major: The Masters
Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
When: April 7-13
Who will win: Jason Day
Why: "He has been so close to the green jacket the past two years, and I really believe his time has arrived. He hits it long. He hits it high. He is fearless and aggressive. Throw in the experience he now has under his belt, and this kid has everything it takes."
Major: U.S. Open
Where: Pinehurst No. 2, Village of Pinehurst, N.C.
When: June 12-15
Who will win: Phil Mickelson
Why: "He has been runner-up six times at the U.S. Open, the one major he has missing for the career grand slam. If you believe in fairy tales and fate, you have to believe that Phil is going to finally get his due. When the final putt drops, cue the celebratory trumpets and balloons."
Major: British Open
Where: Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, U.K.
When: July 17-20
Who will win: Brandt Snedeker
Why: "There is a learning curve when it comes to playing links golf, and Snedeker is a quick study. He has come close in the event before, can putt the eyes out, and loves the quirks and idiosyncrasies of links golf. Snedeker's idol is Tom Watson, who won five Opens. Look for Snedeker to get his first."
Major: PGA Championship
Where: Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.
When: Aug. 7-10
Who will win: Jordan Spieth
Why: "The kid is only 20 but he has won at every level of the game and he got his first PGA Tour victory last year. He's the real deal and has proven he can rise to the occasion when it matters most."
WILL THE TOUR SILENCE LOUDMOUTHS?
Back in the good old days, golf was played to a soothing soundtrack: polite applause and appreciative gasps from the gallery, punctuated by the periodic roar. Not anymore. What began with an encouraging "You da man!" has swelled into a chorus of unruly exclamations such as "Mashed potatoes!" and "Baba Booey," a buzz phrase borrowed from Howard Stern's show. Is enough enough?
Prediction: You bet, says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, who expects the powers that be to crack down on the cacophony. "All the shouting has gotten out of hand," he says, "and I think the Tour recognizes that. They are going to start laying down the law, saying to fans, ‘Come on in. Enjoy yourselves. But if you can't show proper respect for the event and the competitors, we are going to ask you to leave.' "
WHO'LL GO BELLY UP?
The USGA ban on anchored putting doesn't take effect until 2016, but it's never too early to prepare. Already, several top players who use anchored belly putters have started tinkering with conventional flat-sticks, including Swedish star Carl Pettersson and former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson. Simpson has been practicing with a short putter in casual weekend matches at North Carolina's Quail Hollow, his home club. Is this the making of a 2014 trend? For sure, says Golf Channel's Hack. "A lot of guys who have had success with the belly putter will be walking a fine line," he says. "On the one hand, they want to cash in while their putters are still legal. On the other, they know what's coming and want to get ready for it." Who'll be next to tinker?
Prediction: Keegan Bradley. "He used a conventional putter growing up, and he has said he's not afraid to use it," Hack says. "So don't be surprised to see the man who won the 2011 PGA Championship with a long putter show up with something shorter in his bag this year."
WHAT'S NEXT FOR INBEE?
Forget Phil and Tiger. The most compelling golf performance last year came from a contender of a different gender: Inbee Park. The South Korean golfer's three consecutive LPGA major championship victories riveted fans around the globe.
But Park's achievement was so stunning, she's not likely to repeat it, says Golf Channel analyst and two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion Kay Cockerill. "Inbee is a wonderful player, but part of the reason she was able to do what she did was that she was flying under the radar," Cockerill says. "When she won her third, the pressure and awareness of what she was doing finally hit home with full force." So what will the new year bring?
Prediction: Cockerill believes that after much-needed downtime this winter Park will come out strong next season, likely with a win in a non-major. But maintaining her No. 1 ranking will be tough, especially with multiple-major winners Stacy Lewis and Suzann Pettersen in hot pursuit. Both Lewis and Pettersen "have the mental and physical strength to always be in the mix, and for them it will be fun to try and take Inbee down," Cockerill says.
A SHARK ON FOX?
Ever since last summer, when Fox Sports acquired the rights to broadcast the U.S. Open beginning in 2015, inquiring minds have wondered: Which announcers will work the tower? Joe Buck, a big golf fan, seems like a shoo-in for the play-by-play job, and the leading candidate for color commentary appears to be Greg Norman. At least according to the Great White Shark, who told reporters he had been offered the gig. So, that's that, right? Wrong, says Golfweek television columnist Martin Kaufmann, who expects a non-Australian accent to ring in our ears.
Prediction: The versatile Buck will call the action, Kaufmann says, but commentary will come from famed instructor - and Tiger Woods' former swing coach - Butch Harmon, who, unlike Norman, is a seasoned analyst, having worked for Sky Sports in Europe since the mid-'90s. "Butch has experience, he has star power, and he knows the game in and out," Kaufmann says. "He would be good for a network that's going to want to make a splash."
SPLASHIEST NEW COURSE
Tiger Woods is set to cut the ribbon this fall on El Cardonal, a course he designed at the swish Diamante private retreat in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, which already features a highly rated 18 holes designed by Davis Love III.
Prediction: "This course will appeal to architecture purists, not just big-game hunters who say, ‘Hey, I want to play a course designed by Tiger Woods,' " says Joe Passov, Golf Magazine's chief architecture critic. "It's a spectacular desert setting of cacti and canyons with the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop."
SEE NO EVIL, REPORT NO EVIL?
Televised sport is true reality TV, with some viewers treating the action as interactive, phoning in to report rules violations they witness on their screens. But how much outside input should tournament officials take? The issue started simmering last spring at the Masters; a viewer phoned in to report a dubious drop by Tiger, who incurred a two-stroke penalty. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has said that phone-ins can be "difficult and awkward" and has promised the Tour will study the matter. How will this ruling go?
Prediction: Tour officials will keep answering the phone, says John Maginnes, a former Tour player turned host of "Maginnes on Tap" on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. "The last thing the Tour wants is to tune in to SportsCenter later that evening and find out they got a ruling wrong."
THE RYDER CUP: U.S. TURNABOUT?
The Ryder Cup used to be a biennial beatdown, with the U.S. dominating for decades, followed by a healthy stretch of European rule. Credit the FedEx Cup for closer competition more recently. The fall playoff series gives the pros reason to keep their games sharp late into the season, sparking Ryder Cup play like we witnessed in 2012 at Medinah, where the Europeans mounted a miracle Sunday comeback. In 2014, when play returns to Europe at a renovated Gleneagles in Scotland, expect it to come down to the wire again, says Golf Magazine's Morfit.
Prediction: Team USA wins. "Yes, the Europeans have won the last two Cups, but the Americans were just a roll of the ball away from winning both," Morfit says. "If you look at the math it took for the Europeans to win last time, it really was a miracle. That kind of lightning strike won't hit the Americans this time around."
CHAMPIONS TO BE
Fifty isn't just the new 40. In the men's game, it is a major milestone for a pro golfer, marking his transition from the PGA Tour's fierce competition to the greener pastures of the Champions circuit. Just how green? In 2013, Bernhard Langer topped the senior money list, earning $1.8 million. It's pretty much Tour custom for aging pros to downplay their interest in the Champions Tour. Until they turn 50, when their tunes change. Of this year's big-name birthday boys, look for Stephen Ames, Billy Andrade, and Lee Janzen to tee it up with gusto on the Champions Tour. As for the biggest name of all - Davis Love III - so far, he's insisting that he won't.
Prediction: Can't buy me Love? We'll see about that. At some point this season, the temptation will be too great to resist, and DL3 will tee it up on the Champions Tour.
WOMEN'S GAME: THREE TEENS TO WATCH
Like Benjamin Button, women's golf standouts keep getting younger. So which teen star to watch out for next? Beth Ann Baldry, who covers the women for Golfweek, sees three on the horizon: Charley Hull, the English 17-year-old who helped Europe win the 2013 Solheim Cup; 18-year-old Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, a big hitter whose older sister, Moriya, plays on the LPGA Tour; and 16-year-old Lydia Ko, who won the 2012 and 2013 CN Canadian Women's Open and finished second at the 2013 Evian Championship, the year's final major. Born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand, Ko had planned to stay in school and retain her amateur status but gave in to temptation and turned pro last fall.
Prediction: The sky's the limit for Ko, according to Baldry, who expects a victory or two for the teen star, maybe even a major. "She has shown she can handle the pressure of the biggest stages," Baldry says.