Players to watch in 2020

As we enter 2020, there are a ton of intriguing storylines for the men’s professional game to keep an eye on. Below, I’ve listed the twenty (or so) players that I’m most interested in watching over the next twelve months.

20. Tony Finau

So, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I tend to believe that we as golf fans tend to overvalue winning in the sense that only one player can win each week, fields are so deep, being consistently good doesn’t get enough credit, etc. I really do believe that, but at some point, Tony Finau has to get another win under his belt, right? To date, he still only has two wins as a professional: the 2014 Stonebrae Classic on the Tour, and the 2016 Puerto Rico Open.

Ask yourself this: if you believe it’s fair to criticize Rickie Fowler for not winning more, or not winning with more conviction, it’s fair to think the same of Finau, right?

19. Bubba Watson

After his disastrous Volvik experiment in 2017, Bubba Watson’s 2018 was a huge bounce back, with three wins at big venues and a return to the Ryder Cup. 2019 was awful though, with just three finishes inside the top-10, six missed cuts, and instead of playing in the Presidents Cup, Watson was left at home, voicing his opinion on wanting to always be involved, even as a vice-captain.

His driving was still elite, as he ranked third in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, but his putting was awful, ranking 167th. If he can get back to being just an average, or even a slightly below average putter, he’ll be just fine because I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the driver is going to get significantly worse, but the putting needs to be better if he’s going to continue to play at a high level. He needs to figure it out soon, too, as in the first three months of 2020, two of his three wins come off the board for world ranking purposes, and that already low ranking of 47th will get a lot lower real quick unless he starts putting some results up on the board.

18. Sergio Garcia

As most of you know, I’m very much here for watching Sergio Garcia on the course. When things are working, there are very few players in the game that I enjoy watching more. The swing, traj, and general ball striking are so good that it’s very easy to be captivated, but man, 2019 was a rough one and it was all self inflicted. Sergio ran the gamut over the past twelve months, displaying all of the petulant behaviour that you’d be upset seeing out of your 8-year old, let alone a person approaching his 40th year on this planet, and 21st as a professional golfer.

What Sergio do we get in 2020? One that can actually act his age and let his talent do the talking, or one that can’t get out of his own way?

17. Shane Lowry / Gary Woodland

Okay, so I’m cheating here by putting these two together, but they’re obviously paired for a reason: in the aftermath of winning your first major championship, there’s so much going on that it’s hard to judge the immediate results with any kind of critical eye. Now that 2020 has started though, both Lowry and Woodland have a clean slate with which to work, and the expectations are going to be larger than they’ve ever experienced.

How will they handle that? Are either of them capable of winning another one, or will they go back to being very good tour players who contend a few times per year?

16. Justin Thomas

I wrote in my 2019 Year In Review piece that despite winning twice, it felt like Thomas had a disappointing year. Some of that was because of injuries, but it’s also because Thomas has set such a high bar for himself over the past few years, that people like myself are looking at him to produce more and more, which is probably unfair to him, in truth.

Here’s the thing though: he’s in that highly nebulous conversation about who the most talented player in the world is, and when you’re part of that ridiculous talking point, people are going to expect a lot. The guy we saw at the end of the year, with two wins and no finish worse than 17th in his last ten starts, is the guy that I think we should be expecting in 2020 compared to the one we saw in the first half of the year.

Thomas is insanely gifted, and can win anywhere. That kind of talent should always be intriguing.

15. Tommy Fleetwood

After two straight years of high profile play, 2019 was just a really steady, solid season for Fleetwood. His one win came at the end of the year, to go with a pair of runner-up finishes and a T3 at Bay Hill, but the most impressive part of the year may have been that he didn’t miss a single cut in 28 worldwide starts. You have to go back to the first week of July 2018, and the French Open, to find the last time that Fleetwood didn’t play on a weekend.

He’s really, really good, and it feels like he’s more than ready to take the next step in his career, which likely means winning a big tournament on the PGA Tour, and/or a major championship. Fleetwood plays an intoxicating brand of golf, and I really want to see it come through on the biggest stages.

14. Hideki Matsuyama

It’s hard to believe that we’re coming up on three years since Hideki’s last win at the Bridgestone. He’s too talented to not pick up more wins soon though, and the numbers work in his favour as well. Since joining the PGA Tour in 2014, Hideki has put up a Strokes Gained: Total number of at least 1.1 in each of his six seasons. The only other players to do that over that time? Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, who have stacked wins consistently over that same time period.

As long as Hideki can get the putter dialled in on a week, he’s going to be just fine. Watching him strike the ball still remains one of the absolute best things on tour, week in and week out.

13. Sungjae Im / Joaquin Niemann / Cameron Champ / Matt Wolff / Viktor Hovland / Collin Morikawa

Okay, I’m cheating again…but, it’s very easy to group these six guys into one chunk because of the obvious: they are the young stars of the PGA Tour. Quick hits on each:

  • Im: Played 35 times last year, and was great at the Presidents Cup. That first PGA Tour win is probably just around the corner, but I do worry about the eventual burnout if he keeps playing that much. Someone slow him down!
  • Niemann: The kind of swing that makes me fear for his future back pain, but for now, is incredible to watch. Already boatraced a PGA Tour field at 20 years old, winning the Greenbrier by six a few months ago.
  • Champ: Longest hitter in the game, and unless the governing bodies do something about the distance issue, he’s gonna be here to stay. If he has a good week around the greens and with the putter, it’s game over.
  • Wolff: Unique swing, hits the ball miles, and has been a success at every level. Won last year to give us one of the best photos in golf history.
  • Hovland: Much like Wolff, Hovland hits the ball forever and has won wherever he has played. The fact that he almost earned his PGA Tour card in an incredibly limited amount of starts, and then just did it anyway on the KFT is beyond impressive. He’s going to win this year, and will be on the European Ryder Cup team in September.
  • Morikawa: Somehow, feels like the forgotten man of this group, but also has a win under his belt, and could have two if it wasn’t for Wolff at the 3M. He’s my favourite kind of player to watch: might not be the greatest putter, but just pures the ball everywhere.

12. Patrick Cantlay

We all know Cantlay’s story, so I won’t go over it again in great detail, but it does bear repeating that it’s pretty damn impressive that he’s even here to begin with after all of the physical and emotional stress that he’s endured. Cantlay was all of the guys listed above while they were still in high school: the hotshot amateur ready to dominate at the pro level, and while he was derailed for a little bit, he’s here now and he’s making his move.

He’s already won small events, and got a big one under his belt last year at the Memorial. The next thing for him to do is to grab that major championship, and with his game, there’s really no reason to think he can’t do it at any of the four. As long as someone gets in his ear to pick up the pace (looking at you, Slugger!), than we’re good to go.

11. Jon Rahm

Nine wins in ninety starts is how Rahm has kicked off his professional career, which is really damn impressive, and what might be even more impressive is the consistency with how he’s done it. Three wins in each of the last three years, to go along with a boatload of quality finishes, all while maintaining a pretty healthy split of events across both the PGA and European Tours.

Rahm is the third ranked player in the world, and anecdotally, I feel like he had fewer meltdowns in 2019 than he had in previous years. Those blowups are tremendous for #content, but they aren’t so good for players who are trying to win tournaments when the margin for error is so small. Much like Cantlay, the next step for Rahm is to win a major championship.

10. Matt Kuchar

Historically, I’ve had very little interest in watching Matt Kuchar play golf. He’s a fine player to be sure, but he’s like watching the 63-year old former D1 player play pick up at the gym: he’s got the moves, and they work, but at the end of it all, you feel more frustrated than anything else that he was better than you.

But now, Kuchar’s reputation as the golly gee good guy of the PGA Tour has been shot into the sun, and I’m interested in seeing how he handles it all. Will he go so far the other way to try and make people forget everything that happened in 2019? Will he start handing money out down the rope line? Will he not take drops when he’s entitled to them, playing everything as it lies?

Nah, he won’t do any of that. He probably won’t change a thing, but at least we’ll have all of the social posts created by the PGA Tour flooded with people ripping into him for being that way, which makes me smile every time I see it.

9. Ian Poulter

How many more years are we going to get of Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup? I know that so, so many of you can’t stand him, some of which are for completely justifiable reasons, but others are because he has routinely been a major part of the reason why the Americans can’t seem to consistently win the best event in golf, and that I am very much here for.

Ultimately, I don’t care who wins the Ryder Cup every two years. Maybe that’s because I’m Canadian and I don’t have a real rooting interest, but I’m here for the quality of the event, and to me, there isn’t a single player that we have seen since Seve Ballesteros that has made the Ryder Cup more entertaining than Poulter. And that, I feel, is a true statement regardless of which team you support.

I don’t know how many more he has in him, but I want to see it again.

09.27.14 poulter crazy

The look of a completely sane man.

8. Brooks Koepka

To borrow a line from Kevin Van Valkenburg and make it my own: “Brooks Koepka is going to hate that he’s number 8.”

I enjoy watching Koepka for all of the obvious reasons, but what intrigues me about him more than anything is actually the off the course stuff: his focus on majors over everything, his willingness to speak out about issues in the game, and the ease with which he is happy to throw other players under the bus is all tantalizing. In a sport that feels like it’s full of big game hunters, Koepka is the biggest one of all right now, and I look forward to watching him not give a single fuck about anything other than what he feels is important.

It’s refreshing, and more importantly, it’s working pretty well for him, too.

7. Rickie Fowler

Think about everyone in the game right now, and aside from the obvious answer of players on the KFT winning to get onto the PGA Tour, is there any player who would benefit more from a win than Fowler? Obviously, I’m talking about winning a major championship because at this point, even though he wouldn’t turn down winning another PGA Tour event or two, until he wins a major, the talking points around Fowler are going to continue to be the same: talented player, who has trouble closing tournaments, and has yet to win the big one, even if the PGA Tour would love to have you believe that he did when he took the Players a few years ago.

I’m still in the camp that Fowler is too talented not to win one at some point, and there’s a magnetism to him that I can’t get away from. He’ll be 32 at the end of 2020, and while the stories are plentiful of players winning their first major into their 30’s, those numbers are dwindling as the game skews younger. He’s got loads of time to do it obviously, but it feels like the clock has started to tick a little faster.

Few can go on a heater like him, and maybe that’s how he’ll have to win one: by starting the day six shots back, and having the round of his life while others crumble around him, but I do think he gets one at some point.

6. Bryson DeChambeau

It must be tiring to be Bryson DeChambeau. On top of playing a full schedule, Bryson has to manage all of the numbers in his head, defend murderous regimes, deal with the haters, and now, has decided to bulk up in near as I can tell, is his tribute to Bill Irwin’s legendary early 90’s WWF character, The Goon.

It’s no wonder he’s moving so slowly out there!

I love the idea of Bryson. He’s talented, and he does things in his own way, which I actually respect a lot, and is refreshing when you compare it against a lot of the cookie cutter stuff we see out there these days. Is he annoying sometimes? Absolutely. Does he really know as much about science as he claims? Who knows! But, at the very least, he keeps things interesting, which is almost all I can ever ask for.

5. Phil Mickelson

Phil’s always going to be on this list until he decides to stop playing because of all of the obvious reasons that I don’t need to go over with you guys. What I’m most interested in is this: how is Phil going to get into the U.S. Open? Right now, he’s not qualified for it, and from what I can tell, he really only has a few options:

  1. Win either the Masters or the PGA Championship
  2. Win the Players, or multiple full point allocation PGA Tour events prior to the U.S. Open
  3. Top 60 in the OWGR in either May or June

Now, he could get a special exemption from the USGA, but given the way that relationship has worked over the years, I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were Phil. They don’t usually give them out to non-winners in the first place, let alone non-winners who napalm them multiple times each year.

So, are any of those three things above possible? Sure, they are. If he gets on a heater, he can still win tournaments, as we saw last year at Pebble, but I wouldn’t be betting on that at this stage. If that doesn’t happen, his only two options are to sit out entirely and watch from his couch, or he can attempt to go through qualifying, which would be one hell of a scene that I’m not sure any of us are actually ready for.

4. Patrick Reed

You know, things were relatively quiet for Patrick Reed last year until he got to the Hero and decided to blow up the entire golf world. Whether you believe that to be an intentional form of cheating or not, one thing is definitely true: this episode is going to follow Reed for a long, long time. Had he just apologized for it initially, he probably still would have heard about it at the Presidents Cup, but it probably would have died down after that, but now, much like Kuchar, this one is going to linger.

Every single time he ends up in a bunker, people are going to be eagle eyed, both on the course and on television. He’s probably going to get heckled about it, much like he did in Australia, and as we saw with some of the International players, his reputation, which wasn’t great to begin with, took another hit. Much like the sand in the Bahamas, I’m sure Reed will try to sweep this whole thing away, but it’s not going to work.

Maybe he’ll be able to focus more than ever. Maybe, like Koepka, he’ll use this as some kind of motivator to play angry and he’ll have the best season he’s ever had. I don’t know, but we’ll all be watching very, very closely.

3. Tiger Woods

Do I really need to write anything here? He’s still the guy that most of us care above everyone else, and somehow, the chase for Jack’s record appears to be back on. Buckle up.

2. Rory McIlroy

We may care more about Tiger, but there probably isn’t anyone more captivating in golf than Rory. Everything about him is worth watching, re-watching, and dissecting. He’s the guy that, when it’s all firing, might be the most watchable player in the entire sport, and when it’s not all firing, he’s open and honest.

It hasn’t been by design, but Rory has taken the opposite path to Koepka in recent years, winning a bunch of tournaments, but going winless in the majors since 2014. It’s a fact that he is keenly aware of, as is Koepka, and one that he would desperately love to change. At this stage of his career, if we’re talking about the almighty legacy conversation, there’s only one thing that’s going to add to it for Rory, and that’s winning one of the four majors. Completing the Grand Slam by winning the Masters would be great, but any of them would do at this stage to get what, from the outside looking in, appears to be a large monkey off of his back.

It feels like he’s motivated, and ready to challenge Koepka at the top of the game. If that’s the case, we’re all better off for it, and I can’t wait to see it happen.

1. Jordan Spieth

When you look at the numbers, as I did for my Year In Review piece on Spieth, it’s clear to me that something has gone wrong in his game off the tee, which is not allowing his once immaculate iron play to shine. I feel like if he can fix that, he should gradually improve and likely get back to the player that we’ve seen over the past few years.

Now, what’s causing that problem off the tee is something I can’t pin down. Whether it’s something technical in the swing that is knocking him offline, the equipment not being tuned enough to his game, or something in his head that is getting in the way, I can’t do that analysis. Those are things that Spieth and his team need to figure out, and it’s what makes him the most fascinating player for me to watch over the next twelve months.

What we saw a few years ago should have been the start of one of the greatest careers that golf has ever seen, but the last two years have been a downward spiral that would have seemed completely unfathomable not that long ago. Golf does this to players, and sometimes they never get out of it. I’m not banking on that with Spieth, and figure that he’s due to have a better year in 2020.

He has to, right?

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