Ed. note: Over seven days GOLF.com is rolling out seven bold takes for 2017. Here's Sean Zak on the next young major winner.
The favorites are already established.
We think we know who will win the green jacket, bomb their way to victory at Erin Hills, skirt around Royal Birkdale and carve through Quail Hollow. Their names, of course, include McIlroy, Johnson, Day, Scott, Stenson and Spieth. They are the heavyweights of this PGA Tour and here at year’s end, they seem to be an inevitability.
Also inevitable: the slew of players waiting in the wings.
They are your Jimmy Walkers, your Zach Johnsons and your Danny Willetts; the under-appreciated crop that have delivered an elite (and unexpected) performance during one of the four most important weeks of a season.
The last heavyweight I named, Jordan Spieth, sprang up to win two majors in 2015 at 21 years old. He leads an über-talented crop of golfers now in their early 20s – a handful of whom happened to graduate from high school in 2011, including Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo. Spieth is the leader of the class, but each of the others has the look of a major contender.
So for them, why not now? Here’s my call: Next year, one of these three players will join Spieth as a Class of 2011 major champion. The question is, who?
The Case for Justin Thomas
2016 Majors Masters: T39
U.S. Open: T32
British Open: T53
PGA Championship: T66
When Thomas first arrived on Tour, he was popularly known as Jordan Spieth’s Good Buddy. Well, the moniker is still accurate, but JT has climbed to No. 22 in the World Ranking, courtesy of two Tour victories in Malaysia.
Like many Tour pros, Thomas’s strength is ball striking. Many supreme ball strikers have led fruitful careers while ultimately failing in the majors department. Nick Watney is a prime example.
But Thomas also features a booming driver that, when combined with his ability to hit greens, puts him in position to go low. Even during 2016, the lesser of his two Tour seasons, Thomas ranked 35th in birdie average. At times, he will struggle with inconsistency (T3, CUT, T10, CUT in consecutive weeks last season), but when the pieces fit together at the right time, he becomes a serious contender.
The Case for Daniel Berger
2016 Majors Masters: T10
U.S. Open: T37
British Open: DNP
PGA Championship: T73
Last we saw Berger, he was on the short list to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick. Had he finished off his 54-hole lead at the Travelers Championship, he may have suited up in Hazeltine.
Like Thomas, Berger is lethal from tee-to-green (32nd in strokes gained tee-to-green 2016; 30th in 2015). That kind of game typically leads to Tour wins and major opportunities, as long as the putts drop. Those putts were falling on the cool, undulating greens of Augusta National last April during Berger’s first Masters appearance, where he finished tied for 10th. His lone victory came against the weak field at the St. Jude Classic in June, but it was how it finished foreshadows major potential. It was that Sunday in Memphis that Berger distanced himself from the likes of Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
The Case for Emiliano Grillo
2016 Majors Masters: T17
U.S. Open: T54
British Open: T12
PGA Championship: T13
Grillo made the cut in each major last year, a feat matched by just 13 other players, Thomas included. But the 24-year-old Argentinian finished in the top 20 at three of those majors. Only Jason Day joined him in that regard. Through 36 holes at the PGA, he sat just two shots behind eventual champion Jimmy Walker. Grillo endured a balky putter in a fateful third round at Baltusrol (losing an alarming 4.9 shots to the field on the greens alone), but his consistency in the season’s biggest events shows a positive trend.
Therein lies one of the differences between the trio of Spieth’s 2011 comrades and the heavyweight himself. They all would love to putt like him. Spieth has finished ninth and second in strokes gained putting over the last two seasons. Thomas, Berger and Grillo have never cracked the top 50.
For them, that’s the next step. Whoever takes it first will lift a big trophy next year. And thus, I’m picking Berger. When it comes to the flat stick, Berger seems to be more consistent. In 2016, his best events with the putter were better than Thomas and Grillo’s best events. His worst events were better, too.
This is his year. He has four opportunities to get it done.
For the rest of our bold predictions, check out the links below.