Tour Confidential: Who will be World No. 1 at the end of 2020?

January 6, 2020

Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss who will be on top of the golf world at the end of 2020, underachieving pros, the new World Handicap System and more.

1. Paul Azinger, the lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, gave GOLF.com five bold predictions for the 2020 season: Tiger wins major No. 16, Rory wins the Masters, Cameron Smith becomes the best Australian, Patrick Cantlay gets to World No. 1 and Sungjae Im vaults into the top 10 in the World Ranking. Which of these takes is most and least likely to happen?

Luke Kerr-Dineen, instruction editor (@LukeKerrDineen): Logically, Rory winning the Masters is least likely, because he’s only got one tournament to fulfill the prediction, whereas Tiger has four chances and Cameron, Cantlay and Sungjae have all season. But that said, I don’t see Tiger getting another major in 2020. Not that I don’t want him to — let me be very clear on that — I just suspect he won’t defend his green jacket and the rest of his 2020 major season will mirror 2019. As for most likely, probably the Cameron Smith prediction. He’s only got three Australians to leapfrog, and even though we’ve seen signs of life from Adam Scott (the highest ranked of them all) last season, his continually sketchy putting always makes you wonder how long it’ll last.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): For Cantlay to get to No. 1, he’ll have to leapfrog Tiger, DJ, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. Forgive me for not believing that will happen.

Sean Zak, senior editor (@Sean_Zak): I’ll go ahead and say there’s no way Smith vaults ahead of Adam Scott for top Aussie. Not the way Scottie is playing. Cantlay getting to No. 1 isn’t that unrealistic, folks. A couple of nice wins (which he’s fully capable of) and Brooks backing up (very plausible) and he’ll be duking it out with Rory. JT and Rahm are the real ones I’d be worried about. Rory winning the Masters has probably a 5 percent chance of happening. So … Tiger winning one of four majors is most plausible. Get this! None of them happen! Sorry, Zing.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Let’s throw some numbers on these! I’d put Rory’s chances at Augusta just shy of 10 percent. Tiger should have around a 25 percent chance of winning No. 16. It wouldn’t shock me for Cantlay to hop into the top three, but he’s under 5 percent to take the top spot. I don’t even know how to handicap the Cam Smith prediction, because his 2019 wasn’t particularly impressive. Sungjae has leapt all the way to World No. 34, and while the trek into the top 10 is a tough one, I love his game. Gimme Im as the most likely, and Cantlay as the least likely.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): Most likely: Sungjae Im gets to top 10 in the world. Least likely: Cantlay to No. 1. Not impossible obviously because Patrick is a stone-cold killer, but there are just so many guys capable of being there.

2. Zinger’s boldest prediction was surely Cantlay ascending to World No. 1. Who do you think will be the top-ranked male and female players at the end of this calendar year?

Kerr-Dineen: Nelly Korda will get to World No. 1 and stay there for a while. So much talent, she’s going to be the next dominant force in women’s golf. On the men’s side? The OWGR being what it is, it’s really more of a power ranking, so think about who might catch some good form over the next season. Xander Schauffele jumps to mind, but I think Jon Rahm’s even more likely. He’ll get to World No. 1 and win (at least) one major along the way.

Sens: Unless she gets bored or injured, Jin Young Ko should remain right where she belongs atop the women’s rankings. Such a sharp, well-rounded game. I see Rory supplanting Koepka before the year is out, though I realize shorting Koepka is rarely a good idea.

Zak: Like I said before, I think Cameron Smith becoming top Aussie is a lot harder to believe in than Cantlay becoming top player. Now that I got that out of the way, Jin Young Ko has a gigantic lead, so I’ll take her. On the men’s side, Justin Thomas will be No. 1 this time next year. All he needs is a fully healthy season.

Dethier: Jin Young Ko’s got numbers on her side and will finish the year at No. 1, although Nelly Korda’s pursuit of the top spot is one of the great recent storylines in American golf. I’ve predicted Rory to finish the year at World No. 1 the last two years; let’s see if we get it right this time around!

Wood: Jin Young Ko and Tiger Woods. Every time he tees it up and is healthy he will be the guy to beat. His play is stellar again, and his world ranking divisor will be so low I think that will help. I just think he’s gonna play 12-15 times and have a monster year.

3. Speaking of Cantlay, he caught the attention of golf fans last week when a Golf Channel “hot mic” caught him using some colorful language at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Cantlay thought he was having a private conversation with his group on the 17th tee and had no idea his remarks were being broadcast. Should Tour players be made aware when mics are live, or should they operate under the assumption that anything they say anywhere between the ropes is fair game for the telecast?

Sens: Given the intimate coverage they get week in and week out, they should be aware that anything they say can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion. At the same time, we should all stop feigning offense when we hear a cuss word. It’s a fair reflection of golf-course speak. Save your outrage for things in the world that deserve it. No shortage of those.

Kerr-Dineen: Shocker, pro golfers swear. And trust me, it’s not nearly as incendiary as some of the things I hear on the course on a weekly basis. But either way, yes, they should be made aware, and it’s something the Tour should kick up a notch by mic’ing up the leaders for the final 36 holes. Then there will be no doubt on either side, and the viewers at home will be getting more of what they actually want.

Zak: There is sooooooo muchhhhhhh spacceeeeee that is nowhere near a microphone on a golf course. If you don’t want to be caught swearing on the microphone, don’t swear near a microphone. It’s pretty darn clear where they are located. And to comment back at my guy Josh Sens, I think most of “Golf Twitter” was happy to see Cantlay show some personality. It was the broadcast team who immediately recoiled at such a scary four-letter word.

Sens: Fair enough. The broadcasters should stop feigning squeamishness. In the meantime, I’ll have to check out this Twitter thing you mention.

Dethier: I’d suggest you stay away, Sens. With that said, I think this was a big moment for Cantlay — in a good way. Up to this point, there’s been little to suggest that Cantlay has a sense of humor of any sort. I think there’s some personality in there after all!

Wood: I know, I know, it’s not the “right” thing to do, but to me it’s endlessly entertaining. I can’t be the only one who tires of the clichéd interviews and safe, safe, safe narratives. I think 75 percent of the people watching laughed, 15 percent displayed fake outrage and 10 percent were offended. And out here? About 108 percent of the caddies and players got a kick out of it.

4. Dustin Johnson has 20 PGA Tour wins in his career but said last week that he feels like he should have “probably about double” that total. When accounting for talent and potential, which active Tour pro has most underdelivered/underachieved in the wins column?

Kerr-Dineen: Dustin Johnson is right, he has underachieved relative to his ability, but not enough to lose sleep over. He’ll get another major at some point and continue making lots of money, which won’t keep him up at night. Bubba Watson joins him in that category. As for the players who will be haunted by their final haul: Adam Scott is the obvious answer, but like Sergio, at least he’ll always point to his green jacket. Hideki Matsuyama is the name flying up this ranking with every passing tournament. With the weight of a golf-loving nation on him, those two Waste Management Open trophies aren’t going to keep him warm at night.

Sens: Dylan Dethier. When he was coming out of Williams (or was it Amherst? I always get those schools confused), I figured he was destined to dominate for years. But no. He got caught up in the allure of the writerly life and squandered all that talent. After him, hmmm … the way Sergio hits the ball, he could/should easily have more than his 10 PGA Tour wins. To say nothing of another major or two.

Dethier: I’d argue my peak World Ranking (1,508, I think) remains a wild overachievement.

Zak: Dethier does have one of the best caddies in the game! DJ underdelivered in the majors column but not the wins column! He’s won a ton. The answer, per usual, is Rickie Fowler. In a decade on Tour, he has won five times, a total also known as fewer than Jimmy Walker. Apologies to Jimmy, but Rickie is on top of the list until he moves himself off it.

Dethier: Good thoughts all — I’d add that Tony Finau is climbing this list quickly. My man has six runner-up finishes on Tour and only one win at the Puerto Rico Open, which nobody will mistake for a major. Here’s hoping for a trophy in 2020.

5. The USGA and R&A’s unified World Handicap System kicks off in 2020, which, in short, will make a more uniformed system for golfers around the world. A few highlights: Eight rounds, not 10, will count toward your handicap; the minimum round requirement to get a handicap was lowered to three (or six nine-hole rounds); handicaps update daily; and a playing-conditions calculator takes into account the weather. What do you like best about the new system, and do you see any downsides?

Kerr-Dineen: I sort of like all of it, to be honest. It’s more modern, more accessible, and more fair. People love to rag on the USGA whenever the U.S. Open rolls around, but when it comes to their governance of the game for recreational golfers over the past few years, they keep making progressive, forward-thinking decisions.

Sens: I second Luke’s sentiments. Specifically, I love the daily updates and the way it takes into account playing conditions, a huge and long-ignored factor. The most obvious downside is no fault of the system. It’s user error/apathy; most of the golfers I know can’t be counted on to post their scores in a timely manner. I include myself among them.

Zak: Daily updates are so obvious, I’m almost annoyed that we didn’t have them before. Bravo, nonetheless. Anyway, my favorite part is just making it WORLDWIDE. I was very annoyed to not be able to play handicapped games appropriately over in Scotland. Or add those scores to my index. I’ve read a bunch on the possible downsides, but it’s just a complex system. I’m not sure those downsides (or some others) were truly avoidable.

Dethier: There will no doubt be complications from users posting scores on incorrect dates and skewing the adjusted scoring averages, but hey — if the USGA can do daily updates, we can try to keep up, too. Good stuff, this.

6. Joaquin Niemann borrowed a rules official’s umbrella last week (yes, it’s legal!) after the gusty conditions got the better of Neimann’s umbrella. What’s the most unusual, or embarrassing, loaner you’ve had to request on the golf course?

Kerr-Dineen: A competitor of mine once gave me one of his handwarmers out of sympathy, because it was so cold and I had forgotten mine.

Sens: Toilet paper. ‘Nuff said.

Dethier: Related note: Some years back, one friend in the tournament group ahead of me had to borrow a towel to clean his clubs because he’d used his own towel to clean, uh, something else. (He shot 62. Never turn pro, kids!)

Zak: A sandwich, because I had just upchucked mine in the parking lot. Early rounds after a night out are unfortunately kinda my thing.

Wood: It wasn’t me, but a friend of mine had an intestinal issue and wasn’t going to make it to the facilities in time. He took off into the woods like a bear was chasing him, and came back about five minutes later… without his socks.

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