2023 PGA Tour Preview: Tony Finau, Will Zalatoris, More Poised To Make ‘The Leap’
Getty Images. Pictured: Tony Finau (left) and Will Zalatoris.
If you’re reading this piece, then it must be a new year.
I’ve been writing this column, which I’ve always referred to as “The Leap,” for enough years that I’ve lost track of the number, though my rough estimation concludes this is probably the 18th or 19th edition.
The theory behind it has never wavered: Essentially, I’m attempting to predict the fortunes of 10 players who will take the next big step in their careers, progressing to an echelon they’ve never before reached.
Or more to the point … “The Leap.” Get it?
As with any predictive content, there’s always going to be birdies and bogeys. Last year, I successfully forecasted the individual achievements of Sam Burns, Luke List and Sahith Theegala, while I’m still waiting for that Patrick Cantlay major championship title.
The truth is, I remain bullish on most of what I penned a year ago, particularly in the case of Aaron Wise, Keith Mitchell and Thomas Detry, each of whom is poised to make even more of a leap than he did last year.
Now it’s time to get to this year’s version, with 10 players (and a bonus 11th) ready to take that next step.
The Leap: Major championship winner
Following his initial PGA Tour victory at the alternate-field Puerto Rico Open in 2015, Finau went 142 starts without another victory, despite enough close calls to warrant the backhanded compliment of a Top-Five Tony nickname.
Finau broke that drought at the 2021 Northern Trust and has now famously won four of his last 33 worldwide appearances, including three of his last eight.
For a player who’s always owned the talent necessary to be considered one of the world’s best and win a major championship, he’s now similarly armed with the confidence needed to make that all come true. In his most recent couple of wins, those clues have been written all over his face, the same Finau who previously only looked like a world-beater on Thursday mornings finally making his presence known on Sunday afternoons.
I think the popular choice of the four majors for Finau would be the Masters, where he owns three top-10s in five career starts. Though I certainly wouldn’t rule that out, I’m holding out more hope for the U.S. Open, as his power and strength fits the recent winner’s profile for that event and he lost in a playoff at nearby Riviera two years ago.
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The Leap: U.S. Ryder Cup team member
The one-year postponement of the 2020 Ryder Cup led to some peculiar occurrences, like Collin Morikawa claiming two majors before ever competing for the U.S. team in a professional international competition.
This one is more injury-related, but only slightly less-baffling: The 26-year-old Zalatoris owns a FedEx Cup playoff victory and three runner-up finishes at majors, yet still hasn’t made his debut for a U.S. squad. That is deigned to change in 2023, as one of the game’s best ball-strikers is primed to not just be a token piece on this roster, but a key component.
In the swiftly moving world of “What have you done for me lately?” it’s easy to forget Zalatoris when listing candidates for this team since he missed the recent Presidents Cup due to a pair of herniated discs and hasn’t competed since. There should undoubtedly be cause for at least minimal concern moving forward, but even if he’s forced to ease back into competition, Zalatoris’ raw talent should prevail.
Zalatoris is currently No. 2 on the Ryder Cup points list, and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he’ll qualify through one of the half-dozen automatic spots, rather than needing a captain’s pick.
The Leap: European Ryder Cup team member
Entering this year, the Scottish lefty ranks 70th in the OWGR – and 14th amongst European players. That might put him on the outside looking in for the 12-man team right now, but the 26-year-old has plenty going his way, not the least of which is his overall talent level.
Last year, Bobby Mac bounced back from a middling start to finish 34th or better in 10 of his final 12 starts, including his second career DP World Tour win.
Then there’s the not-insignificant fact that many of the names who would’ve been his competition to make the squad – Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey among them – have essentially disqualified themselves by joining LIV Golf. Without them in the mix, it would take an injury or massive slump to believe that Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Matt Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood and (probably) Tyrrell Hatton won’t be in Rome this autumn.
That leaves 5-6 spots up for grabs. Expect Macintyre to be something close to a no-brainer once the selection process concludes and if he’s too chalky for this spot, keep the names Thomas Detry and Adri Arnaus in mind, as well.
The Leap: PGA Tour tournament winner
I easily could’ve listed Cameron Young or Davis Riley for this category – or maybe too easily could’ve listed them.
Look, this piece is less about simply getting ‘em right and more about trying to impart some predictive knowledge. Do I think Young can win a PGA Tour event this season? Sure do. How ‘bout Riley? Absolutely. It doesn’t do either of us much good, though, for me to tell you something you already knew.
Granted, Theegala isn’t exactly a name out of nowhere, but there are some who might still be skeptical that he’s ready to win at this level, following close calls in both Phoenix and Hartford, each of which ended in dashed hopes after a pair of unforced errors.
Even so, I’m still firmly in the driver’s seat on the Theegala bandwagon. This kid owns superstar potential, which is going to manifest itself in at least one victory during the upcoming season – and he already won the offseason QBE Shootout alongside Tom Hoge. It could come very soon (I like him at the American Express) or it could come at a relatively big one (perhaps the Memorial Tournament, where he was T-5 last year), but it’s definitely coming.
The Leap: FedEx St. Jude competitor
I was initially going to list Hardy for a leap into the top-50 of the OWGR, which wouldn’t be a small step for a player currently ranked 185th.
I still believe he owns Sepp Straka-like potential – in reference to a guy who went from 214th to start last year to 27th at the end of it – but I’ll temper expectations a little bit and select him to reach the first FedEx Cup playoff event. That’s a bigger feat than in past years, as the field for the Memphis-based tournament has been pared down from 125 to just 70. The Illinois product made 21 starts on the PGA Tour last season and the result was the type of high-ceiling/low-floor range that we might expect from a talented-yet-inexperienced young player, with one top-10 and four top-25s, but MCs in nearly half of those appearances.
Already in the early part of this new season, he’s made the cut in five of six starts, with a top-10 and three top-25s. That puts him 50th on the way-too-early points list, but don’t believe it’s some fall fluke. I think he’ll stay right around that number throughout the season.
The Leap: BMW Championship competitor
Like the leap to reaching the first FedEx Cup playoff event, the leap to reaching the second is a tougher prospect this year, with the field shortened from 70 players to just 50. NeSmith is a player with some definitive skillsets. He was 30th in strokes gained on approach shots last season and already ranks 25th this season.
The South Carolina native also predictably tends to play his best golf on Bermuda putting surfaces – or at least he has in the past. Already this season, results of T-2 at the Shriners Childrens Open and T-9 at the ZOZO Championship should have us believing that NeSmith can expand his course repertoire.
If that is indeed the case, his elite-level iron play should travel, as he’s picked up strokes on the field with approaches in 16 of his last 22 measured starts. He didn’t miss qualifying for the BMW by much last season.
At 16th on the points list already this season, he’ll be there.
The Leap: Tour Championship competitor
As mentioned in the above section on NeSmith, consistently strong iron play is often a tremendous predictor of long-term success. But it’s not the only one.
By contrast, there’s something to be said for those players whose two best clubs in the bag are the driver and putter. That is the case for Clark, who owns a rare combination of raw power and a sweet touch with the flatstick.
Three seasons ago, Clark ranked 32nd in driving distance and 16th in putting; two seasons ago, perhaps an onus on the former hurt the latter, as he jumped to sixth in distance, but fell to 119th in putting; last season, he found a nice balance, finishing fourth in distance and 31st in putting.
The best iron players are often just a good driver/putter performance from contention, but a guy like Clark is potentially just a good iron performance from contention. It’s difficult to ascertain which skillset is “easier” to find on a weekly basis, but it’s hard to believe Clark’s driver/putter combo won’t lead to a bunch of big-time results.
The Leap: OWGR Top-25
Full disclosure: Prior to researching this piece, if you’d asked me to list Davis’ current world ranking, I would’ve guessed somewhere in the upper-30s or low-40s.
That’s way off. Instead, he’s ranked 71st — and he’s never been higher than 63rd.
But this isn’t just about thinking Davis has accomplished more than he has. It’s about knowing that the best is yet to come. In his last dozen worldwide starts, the Aussie has finished top-15 in half of ‘em, while missing the cut just once.
What I specifically like about Davis’ game is that he’s not a specialist in any one area — he didn’t rank better than 50th in any major category last season — but there’s no perceived weakness in his game, either, as he was inside the top-100 in each of those categories.
Playing in the Presidents Cup, and especially playing alongside childhood hero Adam Scott, should have Davis brimming with confidence entering the new year, which I believe is going to be so productive that he could move up another 50 spots on the ranking.
The Leap: OWGR Top-50
I’ve been writing this piece for so long that it predates any of the advanced analytics which are so readily available within the game’s highest level these days. Back then, I’d accommodate for the lack of strokes gained statistics by reviewing the all-around category, which is exactly what it sounds like – an accumulation of a player’s ranking in every important metric.
In particular, I’ve often sought out the highest-ranked player in the all-around who’d yet to win on the PGA Tour. Three seasons ago, that yielded a selection of Seamus Power, who’s since won twice; two seasons ago, it was Scottie Scheffler and, well, that hasn’t turned out too badly.
Last season, this “honor” went to Pendrith, who finished 12th – behind Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Scheffler, ahead of Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the Canadian returned from a four-month absence due to a midseason rib injury to finish 13th or better in five of his final six starts of the campaign. While I certainly wouldn’t discredit the chance of an impending victory (or two), the all-around is often predictive of consistency, as well, so I’ll lean toward Pendrith reaching the top-50 for the first time, an exercise made slightly easier by the fact that LIV players won’t be eligible to accrue ranking points on that tour.
Currently 106th in the world, it might not take longer than a couple of months for Pendrith to reach this checkpoint.
The Leap: OWGR Top-100
What a wild rookie season it was for Tarren.
Five months in, his performance was only noteworthy for its futility, as his first eight starts included seven MCs and a WD. That often means dropping to the bottom of the priority list, which in turn usually results in a ticket back to the KFT finals at year’s end, but Tarren was the rare fab freshman who turned things around in a hurry. He finished T-5 at the Puerto Rico Open, T-6 at the John Deere Classic and T-7 at the 3M Open, even contending for the U.S. Open for a few days along the way.
Tarren enters the year at 158th after starting last year at 494th, and his rise should only continue. At 32 years old, I like that the Englishman owns more experience and maybe a little more immediacy than some of his peers.
Already with a T-2 at the RSM Classic under his belt this season, he’ll be dropping paltry KFT points from his two-year rolling profile, while keeping those from the PGA Tour. That should help him keep ascending the board pretty quickly.
The Leap: LIV Golf tournament winner
Full disclosure: I went back and forth for a long time as to whether I wanted to include a LIV player in this column. That’s because in the handful of times last year when I wrote about LIV from a predictive perspective – or spoke about it on my radio show – the lack of any response was palpable, social media LIVbots included.
While the implementation of a rival circuit and its inaugural season was one of the bigger sports stories of 2022, global interest never expanded, as the overall handle on LIV bets paled mightily in comparison to those on the PGA TOUR in every fathomable comparison.
All of that said, I also believe that we collectively must overcome the shock value of a new tour and move on to the realization that LIV will contest 14 events on its schedule this year, rewarding winners with ungodly sums of money. This is the new reality.
Hence my self-compromise: Include a LIV player here in the piece without taking away a spot from a PGA Tour regular.
If you’re so inclined to start investing in the product, Vincent is one under-the-radar player I’ll be watching. On any given week, it’s safe to believe the motivation levels of a Cameron Smith or Dustin Johnson could wane, leaving some openings for lesser-known players to prevail. Vincent closed just 42nd on last year’s money list, never finishing better than T-14, but after the season he posted top-10s in Morocco, Japan and Indonesia.
The 30-year-old Zimbabwean owns a deft short game and the lack of a massive signing bonus – like those of so many of his peers – should keep him wholly motivated throughout the year.