Sobel’s 2020 PGA Tour Season Preview: Rahm, Im Headline Players Ready To Make the Leap
Mike Ehrmann, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Jon Rahm
How long have I been writing this annual column on which players will make “The Leap” during the impending golf year? Long enough that I’ve managed to get plenty wrong – and yes, a few of ‘em right, too.
Predicting winners of golf tournaments is the most inexact of all sciences, but predicting long-term success based on accrued knowledge can obviously offer a higher degree of probability.
For those new to this column, here’s how it works: My goal is to identify players who will advance their status into a higher level over the course of this year, hence “The Leap.” Get it? If you’ve come here seeking confirmation that Rory McIlroy will win a few tournaments this year or Brooks Koepka will continue contending for major championships, you’re doing it wrong. This is about those who are on the verge of some massive movement.
I’ve listed 10 players below who should fit this profile.
The Leap: Major champion
About a year-and-a-half ago, after the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship, I was part of a group of a half-dozen golf media types who convened at the nearest hotel bar for a beverage or two. (Shocking, I know.)
The conversation quickly turned from that week’s major to upcoming majors and which players would be winning more of them than others. We quickly turned this conversation into a formal question: “Which player will win the most majors over the next decade?” Wouldn’t you know it, the six of us produced six different answers.
The first takeaway here is that the game is in great shape when such a query doesn’t offer a slam-dunk response. The second is that the other five guys got it wrong. Even though I flirted with the thought of picking Justin Thomas, my guy was Jon Rahm – and I believe he’ll claim his first one this coming year.
Quite simply, Rahm has all the tools to be the best player in the world. He owns both a high floor and a high ceiling, his impressive consistency only bolstered by brief bouts of dominance. I also think he’ll remain more motivated than some of his peers over the long haul.
His best chances this year should be the Masters and PGA Championship, but I’ve always believed that what separates the very elite group of players from the next level is the ability to win any of the four majors and Rahm certainly qualifies for that list.
The Leap: Top-20 in the world ranking
Perhaps the least surprising name on this list, Im is a popular choice to produce a breakout campaign. The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year is a ball-striker supreme who doesn’t like taking many off weeks, which should offer plenty of opportunities for him to claim his first career victory. The truth is, I could’ve picked him to win that initial title and left it there, but that seemed too easy.
Instead, I like Im making the not-too-unimaginable leap from 34th in the world to somewhere inside the top-20 – and potentially well inside the top-20. The sophomore slump can be a real thing in other sports, but it’s rare that a notable rookie in golf endures a downturn in his second season. Expect Im to continue rising upward.
The Leap: Tour Championship competitor
We’re just past the holiday season, during which you might’ve wondered about your spouse or another relative: What do you get for the person who has everything? That’s sort of how I felt about Niemann on this list, considering he owns all the necessary tools to be a special player, but with a PGA Tour victory under his belt already, it’s hard to pin him down to a specific category. I eventually landed on this one, with the Chilean reaching East Lake for the playoff finale – an underappreciated accomplishment.
Not that he should be worried about qualifying for future majors, but escaping the second playoff event inside the top-30 on the points list affords a player the luxury of setting his schedule for the next year, with a spot in each of those four fields already clinched.
At No. 8 on the early list, thanks to his win at The Greenbrier, it should hardly be a surprise if Niemann continues on this trajectory.
The leap: Ryder Cup candidate
Look, I get it: In his short PGA Tour career so far, Champ has earned a rep as an all-or-nothing type of player, having won two tournaments already, but also missed cuts in bunches.
Maybe that pattern will continue for a while – and really, it’s a much better way to live than consistently playing decent golf, but never reaching those highs – but I think Champ will start chasing his best golf with at least his B-minus/C-plus game, instead of something closer to F. I’m not quite ready to predict he’ll make the upcoming U.S. Ryder Cup team; after all, there’s a lot of talent he’d have to overcome in order to get one of those coveted 12 spots.
But here’s what I do know: Whistling Straits should be set up to account for the home team’s distance advantage, which plays to Champ’s strength, and that length off the tee can be an intimidating weapon in the best-ball and singles formats. He’ll need to play much better to get some consideration, but I do think Champ will be a viable option sometime before the captain’s picks are decided.
The Leap: Major championship contender
Anyone can pick, oh, some top-25 type of player to start contending for major titles. I’m going out on a much thinner limb here, considering Wise is ranked 113th in the world, has never finished better than T-17 in any major and – here’s the real kicker – isn’t currently qualified for any of those four events in the coming year. So really, this leap is two-fold: I’m predicting the former NCAA champion and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year will return to his past prominence and then parlay that into at least one strong result at a major. It was surprising to see his game take such a turn last year – he posted just a single top-10 during the 2018-19 campaign – but he already has a T-3 on the board this season.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s what Wise’s buddy Brooks Koepka had to say about him this past summer: “Watching Aaron hit the ball, it’s super impressive. He’s going to be super talented when he figures it out and understands his game. I think he’s going to be a hell of a player.”
The Leap: Top-50 in the world ranking
He doesn’t hit the ball 330 yards off the tee; he doesn’t often make eye-popping birdies in bunches; he doesn’t have one of those names or personalities that resonates with casual fans. All Frittelli does is play very solid golf on a very regular basis, which should be enough to continually move him up the world ranking.
In the past three years, the 29-year-old South African has posted two European Tour victories and one on the PGA Tour, claiming the John Deere Classic. Despite those successes, he’s still mired at 102nd in the world, but I suspect Frittelli will be the type of player who keeps playing his brand of consistent golf and slides into the top-50 without much fanfare.
The Leap: PGA Tour winner
Prior to the formal implementation of the strokes gained statistics, I always kept a close eye on the PGA Tour’s all-around category — which, if you couldn’t guess by the name, is a compilation of a player’s ranking from a group of vital stats. It serves as a strong barometer for which players have few holes in their games; there’s a reason why the leaders each season aligns with those we believe are some of the game’s best.
Last season, the top-five were Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele. In fact, most players in the top-20 are household names and every single one has won, save for Im, whose expected triumph seems imminent, and Ryder, who reached No. 20 on this list by showcase an array of talent. It’s not a stretch to believe he’ll soon put it together for a full event and come out a winner.
The Leap: PGA Tour winner
Remember at the top of this column, when I readily admitted that I’ve gotten plenty of these selections wrong over the years? Well, some of those were just total whiffs and others only missed their mark by a little bit.
I’m running this one back from last year, when I predicted Ancer would be a tournament champion by now. It didn’t happen, but Ancer’s campaign was hardly a failure, as he finished runner-up at the Northern Trust, already has a pair of top-10s in the fall part of the current season and showed his mettle at the Presidents Cup, when he led the International team in points. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, so I’m trying to double-down my bullish feel on Ancer into a victory, finally, this year.
The Leap: Comeback Player of the Year
OK, so this is no longer an official PGA Tour award, quietly buried after Steve Stricker embarrassingly – and confusingly – won it two years in a row. Too bad, because Tiger Woods probably could’ve used another piece of hardware in that trophy room of his. I’m calling for a return of the COPY and I’m calling for Berger to win it.
Once ranked as high as 18th in the world, Berger has dropped to 154th, the combination of injuries and some indifferent results. A member of the U.S. Presidents Cup team just a few years ago, he should return to similar prominence now that he appears fully healthy again. While he did finish runner-up at the alternate-event Puerto Rico Open last year, he didn’t post another top-10 finish in two dozen other starts. He’ll be playing catch-up this year, which should be enough to motivate the always-confident 26-year-old to those previous heights.
The Leap: Multiple European Tour winner
Just as it’s almost too easy to pick Im to win his first PGA Tour title, I feel the same way about Bobby Mac – and so I’m picking him to win twice instead. Already 64th in the world ranking, the Scotsman finished T-6 at The Open and posted a trio of runner-up results on the Euro Tour last season.
Even so, we often don’t hear him mentioned in the same vein as similarly aged players such as Viktor Hovland or Collin Morikawa, but he’s worthy of such accolades. I’m not sure if MacIntyre can be as good as, say, Tommy Fleetwood someday, but he’s certainly on the right path. If people aren’t paying enough attention already, this will be the year we’ll collectively start taking notice, as I expect him to turn a few of those runner-up results into runaway wins at some point.