PGA: A Year Unlike Any Other

PGA: A Year Unlike Any Other

Well, it was certainly a year unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic threw the schedule all out of whack, and we got the first November Masters we have ever seen. The pandemic protocols will continue affecting tournaments in the new year, as most PGA Tour events early in 2021 will remain fanless. The good news is that all tournaments are on track to be played as scheduled.

Some golfers responded to all the changes over the past nine months better than others. But when it was all said and done, enough tournaments were played to identify the best golfers and crown a champion. 

As such, we'll look back at the last year and use what we learned to forecast what lies ahead in 2021. Some fantasy leagues have not held their draft yet – RotoWire's auction league annually begins with the Sony Open in Hawaii – so this can also serve as a tool for the year ahead. The comprehensive RotoWire Draft Kit is still your best guide.

The Cream of the Crop

We will begin by reviewing the top 25 golfers, as determined by their year-end ranking in the OWGR.

No. 1 Dustin Johnson
Outside of a positive COVID-19 test this was arguably the best year of Johnson's career, and at age 36 that's saying something. He won three times, including the Masters, finished second four times and third once in 18 starts. He won the FedEx Cup and regained the No. 1 ranking in the world. Johnson has shown no signs of letting up, and in fact, winning a second major could even free him up to continue making up ground on the all-time greats, both in terms of majors and PGA Tour wins. He likely will be the priciest golfer in the RotoWire draft – $100 budget, 14 teams, nine golfers – at more than $60 . He'll be worth every penny.

No. 2 Jon Rahm
It's hard to believe that a guy who won twice, finished runner-up twice and third once in a shortened season was not the best golfer. The two wins were pretty big, as he took home the title at the Memorial and the BMW Championship. In the majors, Rahm finished T7 at the Masters and top-25 in the other two – not great for someone of his caliber. In all, the viewpoint here is that the year was a bit of a disappointment for Rahm. Now, with more family commitments off the course, holding onto the No. 2 spot will be a challenge.

No. 3 Justin Thomas
He won twice, finished second twice and third twice. He won a WGC event, but not a major. Thomas finished solo fourth at the Masters and T8 at the U.S. Open, but he is still "stuck" on one career major. He seems to have a relentless drive that shows no signs of abating, while some of his contemporaries – Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler – have fallen back. That second major has to be coming soon, right? He may be the best option to challenge Johnson at the top.

No. 4 Rory McIlroy
He didn't win, he didn't have a runner-up. His best showing was a tie for third and that came in his very first event at Torrey Pines. There were top-10s at the Masters, the U.S. Open and the WGC-Mexico, results an ordinary golfer would kill for. There had been only one year since 2009 that McIlroy hadn't won somewhere in the world (2017). As with 2020, he made fewer than 20 starts. But the 18 events this year should've been enough for a top-5 player to win at least once. He handled the restart worse than most of the top guys and, entering his age-32 season, you have to wonder if it's more likely he'll drop in the world rankings than rise.

No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau
He broke through for his first major and currently is at highest career ranking. He won twice and finished in the top-10 in 11 of his 19 starts. That's elite. But of course other stuff comes with DeChambeau, and if he's on your team you have to expect some of the wacky with the good. But the upside is so strong that it's worth it.

No. 6 Webb Simpson
There's not as much flash, not as much firepower as the five guys in front him. But all that matters is where you are on the leaderboard, not how you got there. Simpson won twice and was third twice in 17 starts. He's missed only six cuts total the past three years. He finished top-10 at the Masters and U.S. Open, but his bread and butter may be the regular Tour events, and how he tends to play in some that other big names bypass. There is value in that.

No. 7 Collin Morikawa
He won a major, he also stared down Justin Thomas in a playoff (Workday Charity Open). He didn't do much the rest of the year after winning the PGA in August, but that isn't a huge concern. Morikawa turns 24 in February and can be a multiple-time winner every year for years to come. But as steady as he is, don't be completely surprised if there is a slight regression. After all, he can't win a major every year.

No. 8 Xander Schauffele
This will be an interesting paragraph. He is a top-10 golfer yet one who by the time he makes his next start presumably sometime next month will have gone more than two years without a win (2019 Tournament of Champions). He has four career wins though two of them were in tiny fields (also the 2017 Tour Championship). Six of the seven guys ahead of him in the rankings won multiple times in 2020 alone. For all the high finishes that Schauffele has in big-time events, at some point you have to start to wonder what's up.

No. 9 Patrick Cantlay
He didn't play a ton in 2020 (16 starts). He was able to somewhat salvage a down year with a surprise win at the ZOZO Championship in late October. Still, even Cantlay would probably view 2020 as a step back. He couldn't crack the top-15 in the three majors. He's a little hard to gauge but he appears to be just outside the very top tier of golfers, albeit not far outside.

No. 10 Tyrrell Hatton
He won at Bay Hill, elevating himself to a European who can win on the PGA Tour – there are many who struggle to make that jump. Hatton also had a few other top-10s, including at the WGC-Mexico. He did miss the cut at all three majors, which likely was a bit of an aberration. But it's also hard to envision whom he would pass to move even higher in the world rankings, especially with these next two guys nipping at his heels and shooting to return to the top-10.

No. 11 Patrick Reed
Owner of perhaps the world's best short game (wedge plus putter), he won the WGC-Mexico, was second at the Tournament of Champions and finished top-15 at all three majors. Reed really started to hit the ball better off the tee as the year progressed, basically leaving him with no weakness. He finished top-15 in his final six worldwide starts of 2020 and we really could see him even better in  2021. Reed plays a lot, which is also a huge value for fantasy purposes.

No. 12 Brooks Koepka
The former No. 1 has the potential to upend the top of the rankings now that he appears to be healthy after an injury-plagued year. This year was the first since 2012 that he didn't win somewhere in the world. The question about Koepka has always been how dedicated he is week-in and week-out, peaking for the majors but little else. As we can tell on social media, he does seem to enjoy his time away from the golf course. Still, you'd have to think that pride will win out and Koepka will find a way back into the top-10 and the winner's circle in 2021.

No. 13 Daniel Berger
Beginning the year at No. 154 OWGR, it was a phenomenal 2020 for him. He amassed a win, a runner-up and four other top-5s. After finishing solo third at the Northern Trust, Berger couldn't crack the top-15 in any of his final six tournaments. He didn't qualify for the Masters and ended T34 at the U.S. Open. We could see some regression for Berger, if only because it will be hard to duplicate as many high finishes as he had during 2020.

No. 14 Viktor Hovland
He won at Mayakoba, hopped on a plane for Dubai and tied for third at the DP World Tour Championship. It may sound like nit-picking after a year in which he won twice, finished third twice and climbed to a personal best in the OWGR, but the two wins were in lesser events those four top-10s were his only ones in 24 starts. Hovland really piled up the made cuts and top-25s, which get your only so far. He's only 23, but we've yet to see a signature performance from him in an elite field.

No. 15 Matthew Wolff
He didn't win, as he did in his abbreviated rookie year of 2019. But he was runner-up at the U.S. Open and top-5 at the PGA Championship. He really elevated his game after the restart, adding two other runners-up to give him three for 2020. Wolff is still only 21, which is a big difference even from 23-year-olds Morikawa and Hovland. He plays with incredible aggression, which is great, but as he gets more comfortable on Tour and a little bit older he will likely learn when to take his foot of the gas just a little at the proper moments. Then, we might see his career really take off.

No. 16 Matthew Fitzpatrick
He won the DP World Tour Championship for the second time, his sixth European Tour win. But now playing regularly in the States, he has yet to win on the PGA Tour. He did finish solo third at the Memorial but flamed out in all three majors. Until we see a win from Fitzpatrick, we're going to think his world ranking is not a true indicator of where he stands in relation to others on the PGA Tour. The same could be said for this next guy, too.

No. 17 Tommy Fleetwood
He began the year at No. 10, didn't win anywhere in the world and remains winless on the PGA Tour. He was among the last of the top players to return after the restart but couldn't get anything going once back, outside of a few lesser European Tour events. Fleetwood has been a U.S. Open runner-up (2018), but he is another guy we really need to see step up to change his Euro-centric narrative.

No. 18 Sungjae Im
In the spring, Im won for the first time at the Honda Classic and then was solo third at Bay Hill. And then golf stopped. And so did Im. He did not have the same results once golf resumed and struggled until finishing runner-up at the Masters. Of course, Im plays a ton and we could see him maintaining this ranking, or somewhere in the neighborhood of No. 20.

No. 19 Tony Finau
Another winless year, now four in a row. He's still sitting on one career win, and it came at the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open in 2016. He had nine top-10s in 22 starts, including a runner-up at Phoenix, a third at Detroit and a fourth at the PGA. Finau is putting better, so this could/should put him over the top, right? Yes, and even though that's been the thinking for years, it will finally happen in 2021.
 
No. 20 Hideki Matsuyama
Winless since 2017 and a return to the top-5 seemingly unreachable, he is treading water in the No. 20 range. His tee-to-green game is good enough to pile up the top-25s without the benefit of a putter. There were only four top-10s in 24 starts in 2020, including a runner-up at Houston.

No. 21 Adam Scott
He played only nine times all year, yet he still won – at Riviera. He's now 40 and that was his first PGA Tour win since what is now the WGC-Mexico way back in 2016. Scott has such a sweet swing that he can contend out of nowhere. As he is a better putter than the narrative that's out there. But it is far more likely that he continues to drop a little in the rankings than rise.

No. 22 Louis Oosthuizen
His last win anywhere came in 2018 and he just turned 38. He's capable of the occasional good week to prop up his ranking – third at the U.S. Open, T6 at the WGC-FedEx – but had only four top-10s in 19 worldwide starts.

No. 23 Abraham Ancer
He had two runners-up – at the Amex in January and the RBC Heritage in June. So he's still searching for his first win. He had four top-10s in 21 starts, which isn't great. He had a chance at the Masters before a terrible Sunday fade left him outside the top-10. Ancer missed only one cut, which counts for something, but he wasn't in position very many times in 2020.

No. 24 Paul Casey
He had one top-10 in 18 starts. He's now 43. He is so good from tee to green that he could still contend on occasion, as he did with a runner-up at the PGA. But if you have any expectations for Casey, they should be tempered.

No. 25 Kevin Kisner
He is a master of turning a few great finishes every year into a continued high ranking. Second at the RSM, third at both the Rocket Mortgage and the Wyndham, fourth at the Northern Trust. His last win was at the 2019 Match Play and before that in 2017. He had that bulldog reputation, and more for than just attending Georgia, but it only rarely surfaces in tournaments. Kisner can and has been a great putter.

On the Cut Line

Earning a spot in the top 50 spot is important, as anyone in that category at year's end earns a trip to the Masters. There are still opportunities to qualify in 2021, but knowing you're already through to Augusta makes things a little bit easier at the start of the year. Plus, the top 50 as of Feb. 15 are automatically in for the WGC-Mexico Championship. 

The top 50 will look like this at year's end, according to noted OWGR expert @VC606

No. 46 Sergio Garcia
No. 47 Brendon Todd
No. 48 Ian Poulter
No. 49 Matt Wallace
No. 50 Mackenzie Hughes

That will get Poulter and Wallace into the Masters. They otherwise weren't in, as were the others. Niemann, Todd and Hughes have already qualified to play in Mexico. 

Just outside the top 50 are:

No. 51 Erik van Rooyen
No. 52 Rickie Fowler
No. 53 Kevin Streelman
No. 54 Corey Conners
No. 55 Chez Reavie

Only Conners has sewn up a trip to August, and none of those guys have earned a spot in the next WGC event just yet.

Rise and Shine

We see the following golfers taking a step forward in 2021:

No. 27 Cameron Smith, No. 31 Scottie Scheffler, No. 35 Christiaan Bezuidenhout No. 54 Corey Conners, No. 59 Will Zalatoris, No. 60 Sebastian Munoz, No. 62 Adam Long, No. 66 Joel Dahmen, No. 81 Martin Kaymer, No. 82 Thomas Detry, No. 97 Zach Johnson (hard to believe), No. 808 Andy Ogletree.

Taking a Step Back

We see the following golfers declining in 2021:

No. 13 Daniel Berger, No. 17 Tommy Fleetwood, No. 26 Jason Kokrak, No. 29 Marc Leishman, No. 30 Ryan Palmer, No. 32 Justin Rose, No. 37 Matt Kuchar, No. 39 Gary Woodland, No. 41 Tiger Woods, No. 65 Henrik Stenson, No. 98 Brandt Snedeker, No. 105 Francesco Molinari.

Stars of the Show

A case could be made that the following four golfers are the most popular on Tour. They generate buzz and move the needle no matter how well they are playing, which is why a year-in-review piece is incomplete without them. None of the four played well in 2020 – Woods is the only one still among the top 50 – and their prospects for a 2021 rebound remain in question.

Tiger Woods
There's no way to sugarcoat it: It was a terrible year and he will be down to No. 41 at year's end. Of course he'll play the Masters, but dropping out of the top-50 may not be too far off and that will hurt as far as the WGCs. There could be one or two moments of glory – he's Tiger Woods, after all – but figuring out when those will happen is no easy task. He simply doesn't play much, and apparently can't because of his back, which ratchets up the pressure every time out.

Phil Mickelson
He will finish the year at No. 66. His future is on the Champions Tour, where he's won twice in two starts. He did tie for second at the WGC-FedEx and managed a T3 early in the year at Pebble Beach. But qualifying for big tournaments will start to become a problem for Mickelson. For instance, he's not in the WGC-Mexico. Maybe that's not a such a big deal but he's also not in the U.S. Open right now. He has a long time to get there, but how? He's 50 years old and maybe this is the end of an era.

Jordan Spieth 
Incredibly, he will be ranked 82nd at year's end. He had only two top-10s all year in 20 starts – T9 at Pebble Beach and T10 at the Charles Schwab. He's only 27, plenty of time to turn it all around. Also, plenty of time to be mediocre, if Spieth is even that right now. We're entering Year 5 with nary an indication of a turnaround on the horizon.

Rickie Fowler
He's older than Spieth by five years but the potential to recover – he'll be ranked 53rd at year's end – seems greater. We don't know how much of Fowler's decline is related to a swing change that is still in progress. But at least there's a semi-excuse there. Like Spieth, he also had two top-10s in 20 starts 2020 – both in January. That's right, coming up on a full year without a top-10. It's unfathomable that Fowler won't recover at least a little bit, climb back inside the top-50 and get to the Masters and the U.S. Open, neither of which he has currently qualified for. He will be one of the primary early storylines in 2021, and he could be a draft steal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Len Hochberg
Len Hochberg has covered golf for RotoWire since 2013. A veteran sports journalist, he was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years. He was named 2020 "DFS Writer of the Year" by the FSWA and was nominated for the same award in 2019.
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