Golf feature: Ten golfers to keep an eye on in 2012
Nick Bonfield takes a look at 10 golfers who are set to enjoy a fruitful 2012 as the new season gets under way
The short off-season has passed, and the 2012 golf season gets under way this week at the Africa Open.
No one can dispute the potential of a golfing season that has all the ingredients to match the best in its history. Entry lists, on both sides of the Atlantic, will be as strong as they have ever been, and the youthful exuberance that accompanies some of the new generation of golfing superstars will be set against older hands desperate to preserve their standing and prowess.
Predicting the outcome of the 2012 season is nigh on impossible, an indication in itself that the game of golf is as strong as it has been for some time, and that it is poised to captivate and enthral a wider cross section of the sporting public than ever before.
The professed return of Tiger Woods has dominated the headlines, along with the fact that Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood will take up PGA Tour membership this season.
It will be fascinating to see how Luke Donald fares in his quest for a maiden Major championship, and how the race for respective money list titles develops between the aforementioned superstars and the multitude of young, exceptionally gifted golfers storming towards the top of the official world golf rankings.
But, aside from those mentioned, whose prospects for the new season scarcely need to be analysed, who will make a big impression this term, and on which side of the Atlantic?
The Spaniard is widely regarded as one of the best ball strikers in the modern game. His troubles, both on and off the course, have subsided somewhat of late. He is more settled in his personal life, which could arguably have translated to greater consistency with his former enemy, the putter. He has started holing his fair share of putts, his long game is imperious as it has ever been, and he is playing the game with a smile on his face. He won twice in consecutive events at the Castello and AndalucÃa Masters on the European Tour in October, and is poised to have the best season of his career. Expect to see him win in America and push for at least one major championship.
QuirÃ³s is a sensational prospect, and the biggest victory of his career at the season-ending Dubai World Championship should give him the confidence and self-belief required to reach to the top tier. He is the most powerful driver of a golf ball on any tour and has the putting stroke to match. If he can harness his new-found confidence and improve his wedge game, there is no limit to what he can achieve. He will be one of the standout performers on the European Tour this season and will challenge for the Race to Dubai crown. A major championship title, perhaps the Masters, is certainly not outside the realms of possibility.
Rickie Fowler has the faculty to become a class act, and we all know it. He has stormed onto the PGA tour, the epitome of the young, wonderfully talented former college golfer with almost limitless potential. Granted, he has not won on the PGA Tour, but recorded his first professional victory in Korea in October, something that should act as a catalyst and spur him on to greatness. He is a fantastic putter and a great ball striker, and once he learns to deal with the pressure exerted at the weekend and improve his Sunday scoring average, his victory tally will snowball. His performance at the Open Championship last year opened the eyes of many, and is a tournament in which he may well contend next season.
The German recently gave an enormous boost to European golf by pledging his allegiance to the European Tour, and he is set to excel next season. Kaymer started the season strongly, winning in Abu Dhabi and finishing runner up to Luke Donald in February at the WCG World Matchplay Championship. However, after reaching world number one, he stumbled, and missed several cuts to fall out of the world’s top five. His victory at the WGC Champions Tournament in November showed he had turned a corner, overcoming a five shot deficit and shooting a final round 63 to become only the tenth man to win a major and a World Golf Championship. He will be full of confidence going into 2012, and if he retains the form that saw him make 9 birdies in 12 holes in China, he will improve on his current standing as world number four.
Johnson is the most athletic, powerful golfer on the PGA Tour, and no one else in their twenties has recorded more victories in America than the man from South Carolina (5). He is the only man, except for Tiger Woods, to have won in every season since he graduated from college. Johnson’s driving is exemplary, and at the Deutsche Bank Championship he was first in both driving distance and accuracy. If he can improve his iron play, he has all the tools needed to win a major championship this term. His desire will be second to none: he has been in the final pairing on Sunday in three of the last six majors, but has failed to win, most notably at the 2010 PGA Championship when he inadvertently grounded his club in a bunker after failing to familiarize himself with a local ruling.
Woodland is widely considered as one of the greatest talents in the world game. He is another young, former college golfer in possession of almost unparalleled power, and another with no apparent weakness in his game. He was in the top 10 in driving distance and greens in regulation last season, and will win countless tournaments in the future if he can improve upon his putting statistics. He won his maiden PGA Tour title early last season, maintained a level of consistency that saw him finish seventeenth on the money list, and put in a fine performance alongside Matt Kuchar to win the WCG World Cup for the United States. He won’t win a major next season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was a multiple winner on tour in 2012.
The young Swede had a scintillating start to the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic club, and he will start to feature more and more prominently in majors and World Golf Championships, starting this season. He is in possession of one of the most fluid swings in the game, and will be chomping at the bit to start his 2012 campaign after two high profile victories on the European Tour last season. His first victory in 2011 came at the high profile Wales Open at the Celtic Manner resort in June, and he thrilled his home crowd by winning the Nordea Masters in Sweden by seven strokes. Look out for Noren to make quite the impression this term.
The young Englishman burst onto the scene at the 2011 Open Championship at Sandwich, matching the lowest ever score by an amateur when he shot 65 to take a share of the lead after the first round. The fact that he performed as he did alongside Tom Watson, one of the greats of the game, reveals so much about his temperament and mental strength. He would go on to claim the title of European Tour Rookie of the year despite making only six starts, winning on just his third professional outing at the Portugal Masters. If he can keep his feet on the ground and learn to deal with media hiatus, he will challenge on a regular basis and finish in the top ten in the Race to Dubai standings.
The extrovert Spaniard is a fine prospect, and may be an outside bet to secure a Ryder Cup berth for September’s tournament in Chicago. He recorded the best result of his career in 2011, beating compatriot Sergio Garcia in a play-off at one of the biggest events on the European Tour calendar, the BMW International Open. He is a player that is supremely confident in his own ability, and such a prestigious victory may well kick start his push for a place in the top 20 in the world rankings. If he works hard and keeps his head down, he will be one of the surprise packages on 2012.
Noh, at 20 years of age, was the youngest player in the PGA Tour Q-School field. He has already won on the European Tour, and there in no one on the PGA or European Tour that has a better golf swing. He finished in the top 10 on the Asian Tour money list last season, and looks to possess a temperament and maturity well beyond his tender years. It all depends on how he adapts to life in America, but expect him to be a contender for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year come the end of the season. A victory in his maiden season is well within his grasp.