- The PGA Tour "offseason" has come and gone, and now it's time to turn our attention to the 2018-19 campaign. Here are eight bold predictions, including proclamations on Tiger, Rory, Phil and more.
Now that the 256-hour PGA Tour “offseason” came and went—how did you use your time away from the game?—it’s time to turn our attention to the 2018-19 season, which actually began on Thursday with the opening tee shot of the Safeway Open.
This time last year, Tiger Woods had played exactly one non-official event in his fledgling comeback: a T-9 finish (out of 18) at the Hero World Challenge, where he showed the world just enough to stir up hopes for a triumphant return to championship form. Still, at the time, you’d have had a hard time believing Tiger would win in 2018, finish second in the FedEx Cup and have a legitimate chance to win the final two majors of the season.
Case in point: it’s extremely difficult to predict what will happen in the future, and trying to do so is likely a fool’s exercise.
But let’s be fools for just a minute. Here are eight bold predictions for the PGA Tour season ahead of us:
Tiger breaks Sam Snead’s record for most PGA Tour wins
Somewhat lost in the spectacle at East Lake was that Tiger’s surreal victory was his 80th on the PGA Tour, bringing him to within two of Slammin’ Sammy’s all-time record of 82. This record is far more attainable than Jack Nicklaus’s 18 majors—given Tiger’s age and the infrequency of major championships—and one can argue that it’s actually a more impressive mark of a dominant career. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Don’t let Tiger’s performance at last week’s Ryder Cup—where he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone win a match—affect your thinking too much. He’s never played particularly well at that competition, and he played all three of his team matches against the Moliwood buzzsaw.
Instead, look at the post-U.S. Open golf he produced while playing his own ball: Eight events, five top-sixes including two at majors, a second-place finish and that iconic victory. Look at the 2012 season, which began right after he won the 2011 Chevron World Challenge, a limited-field victory that was his first win in over a year (sound familiar?). He won three times that season and had 12 top-10s in just 22 starts.
When Tiger wins, he wins in bunches. He had a taste of victory in his last start of the 2018 season. You better believe he’s ready for more. In 2012 and 2013, the wins flowed after he breached the floodgates with that confidence-booster at the 2011 Chevron. The Tour Championship will prove to be the same type of jump-start, and Tiger will pick up win No. 83 by mid-summer.
Tommy Fleetwood breaks into the world top five
Tommy Lad has emerged as a world-class player and, thanks to his signature long hair-Jesus beard combo and soft-spoken demeanor, one of the most popular players on Tour. He’s been hovering between 12th and 10th in the Official World Golf Ranking since the end of January by way of a solo second at the U.S. Open and consistent play throughout the season.
The one big hole in Fleetwood’s resume is a win on this side of the pond, but that’s coming. If professional golf had a college sports style AP poll or power rankings, Fleetwood would rank in the top five for his play of recent, as he likes to say. Ironically, the last cut he missed was the French Open, held at the same Le Golf National layout where he swaggered to a 4-1 record in the Ryder Cup.
Fleetwood is brimming with confidence, and his game is remarkably well-rounded—he ranked in the top 50 in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained approach, strokes gained around the green and strokes gained putting last season. That kind of consistency is going to put him into contention frequently, and as he showed last week in France, he has all the moxie needed to get it done in crunch time. The 27-year-old will win twice in America in 2018-19, the second of which will see him crack the world top five.
Tony Finau wins the Masters
I sensed some of you thinking, hey, these don’t seem that bold yet…the GOAT winning three PGA Tour events and a rising star reaching the world top five? So let’s get really bold here, picking a breakout star from last year but a guy with exactly one PGA Tour event to win the next major.
That Finau still only has that one W, the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, feels like a statistical anomaly. He managed nine top-10s and two seconds in 2018 and played some of his best golf in the biggest events, finishing in the top 10 at the first three majors of the season and posting top-15s in all four FedEx Cup playoff events. His driver will be a weapon at Augusta, and he already has some colorful history at the course. Remember last year, when he turned his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one at the par 3 contest then still finished T-10?
His victory at the Masters there will cap one of the best rags-to-riches stories in modern golf history. The last time I checked, Finau was listed at about 35-1 to slip on the green jacket. Get that bet in STAT.
Phil Mickelson falls out of the world top 50
Enough with the positive predictions! Mickelson, currently ranked No. 24 in the world, will turn 49 on Sunday of next year’s U.S. Open, and his game is trending in the wrong direction. After a really strong start to the season capped by his first win in five years at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Mickelson hasn’t posted a top-10 finish since Mexico, finished dead last at the Tour Championship and looked out of place at the Ryder Cup.
Shortly after Le Nightmare at Le National, he vowed never to play courses with brutal rough again (It is now all but certain that his decades-long flirtation with the U.S. Open will extinguish without a victory, along with his quest for the career Grand Slam). Credit to him for some sobering self-awareness, but his comments speak volumes as to how limited a player he is right now.
His short game and ability to still make birdies will allow him to contend sporadically, but I don’t see Mickelson maintaining the consistency it takes to remain in the world top 50.
Zero rookies will make the Tour Championship
At least one rookie (though it’s usually exactly one) has made the Tour Championship in each of the last four years and 12 of the last 14. This year, Aaron Wise was the lone first-year player to qualify for East Lake.
There are a number of quality players set to play their first full seasons on Tour, but most of the biggest names have already exhausted their rookie status: Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Joaquin Niemann, Sam Burns, Dylan Frittelli and Curtis Luck. And there are certainly guys capable of proving this prediction patently wrong. Sungjae Im comes to mind, the 20-year-old South Korean who had one of the best Web.com Tour seasons in recent history. So does, Cameron Champ, the prodigiously long Texas A&M product with talent giving birth to talent. But I’ve got a hunch that none of the 21 rookies will be among the top 30 in the FedEx Cup after the BMW.
Cameron Champ will break the driving distance record
If you haven’t watched Champ punish a golf ball, you need to get on that. Never in the history of the game has someone routinely produced 190+ ball speeds with such an effortless, efficient motion. He just loads up on that right side and then….BAM!
Anyways, I could go on waxing poetic prose about the guy’s swing, but the stats tell a better story: he averaged–averaged–343.1 yards off the tee on the Web.com Tour last season. That was the longest by a full 10 yards. The record driving distance average for a season was set this year by Rory McIlroy at 319.8.
Yes, the Web.com Tour has wider and firmer fairways, which inflate driving distances. No, the difference isn’t 25 yards. Champ will set the record by a solid eight yards this season, averaging a staggering 328 off the tee.
The next rules debate will center around long putters
This summer had its share of controversies. First, Jimmy Walker essentially admitted to cheating on Twitter, leading to a heated debate on the practice of “backstopping.” Then at the U.S. Open, Mickelson putted a moving ball, prompting non-ironic, think-of-the-children outrage.
One issue that could get spicy this year is the outlawed practice of anchoring a putter to your body part. There are presently two styles that players employ with a long putter—there’s the “forearm brace” used by the likes of Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Kuchar, where the player putts with the putter glued to his left arm. Then there’s the old-fashioned way used by Adam Scott, where the player holds a long putter with his left hand millimeters away from his chest.
I don’t see how having a putter along your arm isn’t anchoring, and Scott’s left hand is so darn close to his chest that it’s impossible to tell whether he’s anchoring or not (some have suggested that Scott McCarron, who plays on the Champions Tour, was indeed anchoring in competition this year). Both are in violation of the spirit of the anchoring ban, and both will come to the forefront of Twitter debate this season.
Rory McIlroy gets back to world No. 1
Honestly, I’m selfishly hoping this happens so we can have “Return of the Mack!” headlines. McIlroy quietly found some seriously good form toward the end of the season, posting five top-12s in his last six events. He was held back this year by subpar wedge play and an underwhelming final-round scoring average of 70.00, just 54th best on Tour.
McIlroy remains the world’s most talented player, and I have a feeling he’s itching for a return to the pinnacle of the sport. Rory’s motivation has waned at times, but his 30th birthday in May will serve as a stern reminder that he won’t be young forever, and now is his chance to go from a terrific player to an all-time great. He’ll win a major this year as well as two other events and get back to world No. 1.