If you have been following our so-called panel of experts via the Golf Australia website, you might have collected some winnings along the journey.
In a COVID-shortened 2020, the quartet of Brendan James (Editor), Jimmy Emanuel (Deputy Editor), Michael Jones (writer) and Rod Morri (columnist) tipped 20 winners between them as well as an incredible 103 top-10s across the main Tours.
At the beginning of the New Year, the foursome looked a little further ahead to reveal the players they thought would play well, hoist trophies and grab a few headlines in 2021.
Each selected their player to watch from the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, European Tour and the Asian/Japanese Tours. They also chose a player to keep an eye on from outside the Top-100 of the world ranking (man or woman), a nomination for biggest improver of 2021 and the Australian player they thought would excel this year.
Let’s see if these guys have any idea …
It is hard to describe the World No.6 as being in a position to have a breakout year, but I firmly believe 2021 will signal XANDER SCHAUFFELE as a future No.1.
Schauffele’s five PGA Tour wins at just 27 is impressive, but the American could be a major winner already and has yet to consistently lock down a place in the top-10 of the world rankings.
From my observations, the Californian is still learning to win as consistently as his talent suggests he perhaps should, however he is certainly well placed to do so. Schauffele finished inside the top-25 in 13 of his 14 starts post the PGA Tour’s coronavirus hiatus, has recorded a podium finish in every major bar the PGA Championship and is strong in every area of the game except driving accuracy.
Expect big things from Schauffele this year, including a first major. – Jimmy Emanuel
While it’s tempting to focus on the likes of Dustin Johnson or Bryson DeChambeau, one name stands out to me: XANDER SCHAUFFELE. He has everything it takes to explode this year and break into the top two or three players in the world.
It’s hard to believe Schauffele is only in his fifth full year on the PGA Tour, considering he had already amassed four victories and 26 top-10 finishes through the end of 2020.
The 27-year-old is yet to break into the major-winner’s circle – but check out his record at the big four: 13 of 14 cuts made, seven top-10s, five top-5s and two runner-up performances at the Open (2018) and Masters (2019).
Schauffele is consistently ranked highly tee-to-green and is becoming more and more lethal with the putter as he matures. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him capture his maiden major title this year, two additional victories and a place inside the world’s top-three ranked players. – Michael Jones
If you spend any time at the back of the practice range at a Tour event, you will notice there are a few players that other players will stop their hitting just to watch. Tiger Woods is an obvious one. Patrick Reed gets some looks, as does Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy.
You can add SUNGJAE IM to that list. He is a first-class ball-striker. The hit is crisp and sounds different to those playing alongside him. Yes, different … and better.
He’s got a wonderful range of shots, while his temperament is, again, very different to many of his Tour colleagues. He genuinely loves being a Tour pro. He loves the travel, the practice and the competition. Most importantly, he loves to hit shots. His buzz comes from picturing a shot and pulling it off, something he does with great regularity.
In a year cut short by COVID, Sungjae still found 28 tournaments to play, which is more than most pros in a normal year. His four wins in the past three years, and a T2 at the Masters in November, is enough of an apprenticeship to see him push for major championship or world golf championship honours in 2021. – Brendan James
As the cliché goes, he’s got all the tools but Sydneysider (now Seattle) CAMERON DAVIS has more than just that.
His win at the 2017 Australian Open was no fluke, the final round 64 the best of the day by two shots and an inkling of a special talent.
He’s since won on the secondary Tour in the US and comfortably kept his card on the main circuit and begins 2021 a vastly better player than the one who triumphed at The Australian three years ago.
But don’t take my word for it: no less than Mr Statistics himself, Justin Ray, is in agreement. He notes Davis is typical of the top young players in today’s game in all ways but one: consistency.
“Davis in 2019-20 was consistent,” he wrote recently: “He had positive Strokes Gained in all six denominations – Off-the-Tee, Approach, Around the Green, Putting, Tee to Green and Total. Davis ranks well above average in five of the six metrics, and is right on the middle line when it comes to putting.
“Davis should pop up on more leaderboards in 2021.”
I concur. – Rod Morri
LPGA TOURThe shutdown of the world’s golfing Tours effected players in many different ways. Some used the time to recuperate from niggling injuries, while others worked hard on their game waiting for tournament golf to begin again. The LPGA was the last main Tour to return and, while some players hit the ground running. JENNIFER KUPCHO, won the Colorado Open during the break and was expected to be one of those form players, but she struggled.
The 23-year-old American finished T60 in the return event, before missing four consecutive cuts in as many weeks. A week away from the Tour saw Kupcho make some changes before the ANA Inspiration, where she finished T22. A runner-up result and a T7 soon followed.
At the time of writing, Kupcho had risen to World No.19 and was still in search of her first LPGA Tour win. It will come in 2021, as will a position in the Top-10 of the Rolex World Ranking. – Brendan James
MEL REID managed to get her first LPGA Tour win in 2020, and this year is positioned as one of the most exciting players to watch as she benefits from the confidence boost breaking her duck will have provided.
Reid was a prolific winner on the Ladies European Tour prior to moving to America, winning six times and recording 41 top-10 finishes, and having noticeably improved with the putter last year, looks set to fulfil her potential on the biggest stage in women’s golf.
I have long been a fan of Reid’s game, especially her outstanding ball striking, and her world ranking of 35 (at the time of writing) will be a distant memory in my opinion come the end of this year when she will have added to the trophy cabinet and returned as the heart and soul of the European Solheim Cup team. – Jimmy Emanuel
How on earth is LYDIA KO still only 23? It’s crazy to think six years have passed since the two-time major winner first reached the pinnacle of the world ranking.
It hasn’t been an easy few years for the South Korean-born New Zealander, who hasn’t added to her 15 LPGA Tour titles since 2018. She fell as low as World No.55 in August last year and faced plenty of criticism. But she’s since found something – and it has been terrific to watch her contending again.
I don’t think we will ever see her back to her dominant best. But I do think she will be one of the major players on the LPGA this year. – Michael Jones
2020 was set to be a breakout year for MADELENE SAGSTROM after she claimed her first LPGA title at the opening event in January.
Having steadily improved in each of her three previous seasons on Tour, the 28-year-old looked to have worked out the path to the next level.
But what followed were two disappointing weeks in Australia where poor final rounds at both the Vic Open (81) and Australian Women’s Open (78) shook her confidence.
Then COVID-19 came along and stalled, for five months, any progress she might have made.
Sagstrom was less than her best when the Tour restarted in July, posting a string of missed cuts and poor finishes.
But her last two events showed signs of improvement and she will be one to watch in 2021. – Rod Morri
WILCO NIENABER made headlines at the Joburg Open when he opened with an eight under 63, which included three bogies. Also in the round was a measured drive of 439 yards (401 metres). Social media went into meltdown about ‘the freakish big-hitter from South Africa”.
Nienaber is a star on the rise, who has a cool temperament, sharp short game and the ability to go on lengthy birdie runs during a round. Then there is his immense power which allows him the luxury of hitting short irons into greens. He had five top-12 finishes in 2020, including a runner-up display at the Joburg Open.
The 20-year-old has made an impressive start to his career on the European Tour and I’ll go out on a limb here and predict we’ll be hearing a lot more of his exploits during the next 18 months and will be an outside chance of making the International Presidents Cup team in 2022. – Brendan James
THOMAS PIETERS has yet to truly harness his incredible talent for the game and secure himself as one of Europe’s best players, and 2021 could be the year the Belgian does exactly that.
Pieters’ early career success suggested a truly special player was on display, and despite falling outside the top-100 on the world rankings at times since, at just 28 there is plenty of time to deliver on that promise.
The former University of Illinois student appears to have a desire to play more in America in the future and a solid year on the European Tour in 2021, where he will add to his four previous victories, will help him achieve that goal.
Solid results in late 2020 post the birth of his first child are a positive sign for Pieters, who appears a player who will greatly benefit from a more balanced off course life. – Jimmy Emanuel
How can you possibly go past CHRISTIAAN BEZUIDENHOUT?
He absolutely dominated the closing stages of 2020, hits it far enough, scrambles well and possesses one of the best putting strokes on the planet.
The South African won his national Open last December, claimed the Alfred Dunhill Championship the week prior and finished the year entrenched inside the world’s top-50 players. Not bad for a guy who almost died after accidentally drinking rat poison as a child.
I’m excited to see where the 26-year-old will be this time next year. If he can improve even slightly tee-to-green, I don’t see any reason why he can’t become a top-20 player for the next decade. – Michael Jones
RASMUS HOJGAARD is yet to turn 20 but already has two European Tour titles to his name and all indications are there will be more to come.
While the victories are impressive in their own right, both came in play-offs and that suggests the Dane is not only a fast learner but has the nerve to perform in big moments.
Some may point to the weaker European fields in 2020 as diminishing Hojgaard’s achievements but that would be short-sighted.
A player can only beat the field that is in attendance on the day and those winning experiences will hold him in good stead in the longer term. – Rod Morri