PGA: One Eye On The Future, The Other On The Past

PGA: One Eye On The Future, The Other On The Past

Golf largely returned to normal in 2021 after the pandemic-ravaged 2020. And by normal, we mean so many incredible moments. There were remarkable highs – Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama, to name a few – and an unspeakable low, with Tiger Woods suffering career-threatening injuries in an auto accident way back in February. We finally saw Woods play again at the PNC Championship with son Charlie. And the thrills they provided will allow golf to end the year with another indelible memory. But returning to the PGA Tour is an altogether different level, and it's not known when Woods will be able play tournament golf again.

Also in 2021, there was the further emergence of the two best players in the game today, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa; the breakthrough wins of stars-in-the-making Sam Burns and Abraham Ancer; the continued, perplexing downfall of Rickie Fowler; the ridiculous pillow fight between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau; and the slow and subtle disappearing act of perhaps the best golfer of the past 15 years, Dustin Johnson.

Through all the ups and down, as always, 2021 was a representative showcase to determine the best golfers. With that in mind, let's look back at 2021 and use that information to help forecast what lies ahead in 2022. DFS golf resumes in January with the annual lid-lifter, the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Many season-long fantasy leagues have not yet drafted yet, and the RotoWire auction league always begins with the Sony Open in Hawaii the week after the TOC.

So you could treat this article as a mini Fantasy Preview 2.0.

As always, the comprehensive RotoWire Draft Kit should still serve as your primary 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 Jon Rahm
Rahm enters 2022 as No. 1 in the world, a position he's been in since winning the U.S. Open in June. But he may not hold on much longer. It was his only win all year, although COVID played a big part in that. Interestingly, he might not even be No. 1 right now without the OWGR website counting a second win that the PGA Tour does not acknowledge. Rahm had the best 72-hole score in the TOUR Championship, but officially was runner-up. Even if overtaken for No. 1, Rahm remains fantasy gold, with two other third-place finishes in 2021 and a whopping nine other top-10s.

No. 2 Collin Morikawa
Morikawa had the best year of any player in the world, winning three times, each a big event: the WGC-Workday, the Open Championship and the DP World Tour Championship to close the European Tour season. He had two other runners-up and eight more top-10s. Beginning 2021 at No. 7 in the world, Morikawa has been chipping away and it appears he'll rise to No. 1 early in 2022. He had the most OWGR points in calendar 2021 by a wide margin over Rahm. Of course, staying there is another matter. But he appears to be best player in the world and, thus, the best fantasy player in the world.

No. 3 Dustin Johnson
Johnson will end the year at No. 3 OWGR after his worst year ever on Tour – and that's going all the way back to 2008. Not only didn't he win a Tour event in 2021, he didn't even have a top-5 finish, and he was outside the top-25 in OWGR points earned for the year. The only other time he didn't win on the PGA Tour in a calendar year was 2014, when his season ended abruptly for personal reasons/suspension/whatever. His last win was the 2020 Masters that was pushed to November. Yes, he did win again in Saudi Arabia two months later in January, but that was on the European Tour. This all tells us two things: how good DJ was in 2020 to still be No. 3 and, based on the two-year OWGR ranking system, how far he can plummet in 2022. Johnson is entering his age 38-season, making him 10 to 15 years older than many of the other top-10 guys. We're not ready to write off Johnson after such an incredible period of excellence, but at this point staying in the top-10 could be viewed as upside.

No. 4 Patrick Cantlay
Cantlay surely is a controversial figure, though that's no fault of his own. He won four times during the 2020-21 PGA Tour season. Three of those wins came in 2021. One of them was when Jon Rahm was forced to WD from the Memorial with a six-shot lead; the other came in the Tour Championship in which he began the tournament with a head start. He did not have the best 72-hole score at East Lake and the OWGR website does not credit him with a win. In the OWGR universe, Cantlay secured only the 10th most points during 2021. Look, Cantlay clearly is a top-10 guy, but you will have to determine just how high he is in your own mind given all the mitigating circumstances. We'd put him between fifth and 10th.

No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau
DeChambeau was fifth in the world but 18th in OWGR points in 2021. When you factor in that he had a win (Bay Hill), a runner-up, a third and three other top-10s, it tells you how many bad tournaments he had. He's such a hard guy to gauge because of all the noise surrounding him, not the least of which was his kerfuffle with Brooks Koepka. DeChambeau was not the people's choice in that dispute, and it showed on the course. Just having that distraction go away could mean the world to DeChambeau, who we shouldn't forget won twice in 2020 and a stunning four times in 2018.

No. 6 Xander Schauffele
Using some metrics, Schauffele had a great year. He had a win, two runners-up and two thirds. Excellent, actually. But the win came in the Olympics and one runner-up came when he blew the tournament in Phoenix by finding the water late on Sunday, which is the same thing that happened when he finished third at the Masters. As someone who owned Schauffele in the season-long RotoWire league, perhaps I'm judging him more harshly than others would. It just seems as if there was so much more there for the taking. I don't think I can pull the trigger and draft him in 2022, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

No. 7 Justin Thomas
Thomas ranked only 12th in OWGR points in 2021, and he needed a late-year surge to get even that high. His year got off to a bad start when he said something he shouldn't have in Hawaii. He struggled until winning THE PLAYERS Championship then went back to struggling till rebounding in the playoffs.  Thomas now has Bones Mackay as his caddie, which some believe can lift Thomas much higher than his current No. 7 ranking. We're not so sure just yet.

No. 8 Viktor Hovland
We like to refer to Hovland as the next-best thing to Collin Morikawa, a Morikawa-light, if you will, because he is also laser-like with his irons. But that might be fair to Hovland, who has carved out his own niche and really took off in the second half of 2021. He won three times, though they weren't the toughest events – the BMW International Open in Europe, Mayakoba and the Hero World Challenge after Morikawa collapsed. Still, Hovland clearly seems like a top-five player right now. Wedge play has been his big trouble spot, but it seemingly is improving every tournament.

No. 9 Rory McIlroy
McIlroy is held to as high a standard as anyone in golf. His good is only mediocre, his excellent is "but can he keep it going?" He won twice in 2021. They weren't majors, but they weren't gimmes either – the Wells Fargo and CJ Cup. Both times McIlroy looked dominant. On the other hand, three of the four majors were disasters, other than a T7 at the U.S. Open. Fair or not, that's how McIlroy more than anyone else is judged. He's back in the top-10 after falling as far as 15th, he was fifth in OWGR points on the year, but it's generally considered a down year for McIlroy, now in his age-33 season.

No. 10 Louis Oosthuizen
Oosthuizen had an incredible year in the majors and did everything but win – two seconds and a tie for third. He is one of only three golfers in the year-end top-25 who didn't win in 2021. He tailed off in the second half of the year and didn't notch another top-10 after July (only six starts). Oosthuizen led the PGA Tour in putting by a big margin but we saw that start to drop off as well as the year went on. Oosthuizen seems a prime candidate to slip rather than rise, especially in his age-39 season.

No. 11 Sam Burns
No one currently in the top-25 OWGR began the year further back than Burns, who was outside the top-150 at No. 154. Now, he's knocking on the door of the top-10 and, frankly, could be even higher based on being No. 4 in OWGR points in 2021, just ahead of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Burns had two wins, two seconds, two thirds and three other top-10s in 2021, which means we shouldn't be too surprised if he somehow managed to climb into the top-five in the world during 2022.

No. 12 Scottie Scheffler
We have come to the dreaded "Top Player in the World Who Hasn't Won." It's almost never a fair tag, especially for someone No. 12 in the world. But until Scheffler wins, he'll have to wear it. Of course, it surely appears he won't be wearing it much longer, after three runners-up during 2021. Even with a win, it's hard to envision Scheffler moving too much higher on the OWGR list. The top-10 is realistic but the top-5 seems unlikely.
 
No. 13 Harris English
English is probably the most inconspicuous guy in the top-25. And also one of the most consistent. And perhaps the most likely to fall from the top-25. English did win twice during 2021, continuing to resurrect a career that appeared over about two years ago. He had plummeted deep into the 200s in the world rankings. English is still relatively young, in his age-33 season, so writing him off might be done so at our own peril. But writing him off and slipping from the top-25 are two different things.
 
No. 14 Jordan Spieth
Well this was the comeback the entire golf world was waiting for, almost begging for. Four long years. The amazing part isn't that Spieth was lost for so long – hey, it's sports, it happens – but that he was able to find his way back after so long in the abyss. He won (the Valero), he finished second twice (including the Open Championship), he finished third twice and ranked fifth in OWGR points for the year. More importantly, he shot life into the PGA Tour, and there's no reason to suspect Spieth won't continue to keep rising in 2022.

No. 15 Tony Finau
"Tony Finau won a golf tournament!" – wow, how long had those words been expected but didn't happen? Finau broke a five-year winless drought by capturing the Northern Trust. But he accomplished so much more in 2021 than that one win. He finished runner-up in three straight starts early in the year and he had top-10s at both the Masters and PGA. Finau ranked eighth on the year in OWGR points, and it's hard to argue he's not a top-10 golfer.

No. 16 Brooks Koepka
After a lost 2020, the great Koepka finally returned – partially. He won in Phoenix and was runner-up twice, including to Phil Mickelson at the PGA (though the cynic in me, and the Schauffele owner in me, will say Koepka won Phoenix only after Schauffele imploded). Koepka also missed seven cuts in 21 starts, a high percentage for a top player. And of course he was most known for his high-school-like spat with Bryson DeChambeau, which Koepka won in the court of public opinion but it didn't really help his golf. If that dustup continues in 2022, Koepka's golf will continue to be impacted negatively.

No. 17 Abraham Ancer
Ancer broke through for his first PGA Tour win, and it was a big one, taking the WGC-FedEx in a playoff over Sam Burns and Hideki Matsuyama. He also had a runner-up to Rory McIlroy at the Wells Fargo and six other top-10s. He also played as much as any top player, making 29 starts. That's a lot for anybody. Ancer cracked the top-10 for a bit and certainly could get back, but he doesn't seem to be in quite that lofty category right now. Top-15-20ish seems right.

No. 18 Hideki Matsuyama
Winning the Masters of course would've been more than enough to make any golfer's year. But then Matsuyama won perhaps the next-most important tournament for a Japanese golfer: the ZOZO Championship, which came amid enormous pressure to win in his homeland. Augusta broke a four-year winless drought for Matsuyama, who had many good weeks that could've been great weeks if not for his putting. Despite the two big wins, that might still be the case in 2022, as he had 10 finishes outside the top-30 in 26 starts in 2021, a large number for a top-golfer.

No. 19 Daniel Berger
Berger won a tournament in 2021 but off the top of your head to do you remember which one it was? We'll give you a moment to think … well … don't peek if you're still thinking … okay … It was way back in February at Pebble Beach. Nothing really stands out for us from that week. Kind of like Berger. He's really good, but no one area of his game stands out. Maybe his subtle tenacity more than anything else. Berger finished top-10 in almost half of his 20 starts, which is excellent, but it's hard to envision him climbing much higher in the rankings. He's a top-20 golfer, maybe a top-15, but not top-10 could be pushing it.

No. 20 Jason Kokrak
Kokrak is probably the biggest surprise resident of the top-25 club. He went forever in his career without winning, then broke through at the CJ Cup in 2020. And then he won again at Colonial. And then after a number of down months, he won yet again at the Houston Open in November. As has been well documented, it was all tied to his vastly improved putting. We keep thinking that Kokrak will recede a bit, but as of now he's still proving us wrong. One important note to consider: Kokrak has aligned himself more than any other golfer with Saudi Arabia, he's the poster boy for Saudi Golf, and we'll have to monitor if and how this affects him on the PGA Tour in 2022.

No. 21 Cameron Smith
Smith was one of three top-25 golfers who didn't win anywhere in the world in 2021 (unless you want to include the Zurich team event with Marc Leishman). That's surprising. He was in the mix a lot, including a playoff loser to Tony Finau at the Northern Trust. Smith had seven other top-10s and very rarely had a bad week, finishing in the top-25 in more than half his starts. Staying in the top-25 without winning is hard, but Smith seems up to the task. His last win came early in 2020 at the Sony, where is coming up very soon. If you read farther down, we're expecting big things for Smith in 2022.

No. 22 Tyrrell Hatton
Hatton was ranked 10th at the start of the year, and he did not have a good year. He did win, way back in January in Abu Dhabi, but was far less proficient on the PGA Tour. The Englishman had only five top-10s in 23 worldwide starts in 2021, and he's a good candidate to drop further in the rankings in 2022. 

No. 23 Billy Horschel
It's hard to knock someone who wins multiple times in a calendar year, but Horschel won the quirky Match Play and also in Europe, albeit at the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. Almost half of Horschel's 24 worldwide starts resulted in finishes of 30th or worse. Certainly a year of extreme highs and many lows, which often is hard to sustain.

No. 24 Matt Fitzpatrick
The Englishman had a win and two runners-up in 2021 – great, right? Well, they all came on the European Tour. Fitzpatrick had some good weeks in big events on the PGA Tour, with top-10s at Riviera, Bay Hill and THE PLAYERS, but until we see him break through in the States, we'll believe his top-25 ranking is a big flimsy.

No. 25 Patrick Reed
Reed spent the latter part of 2020 and the start of 2021 in the top-10, buoyed by a big January win at Torrey Pines. But not much went right thereafter, with Reed having a lot downright bad weeks. Let's make it clear that they were bad weeks for a top-10 golfer, not a regular golfer. Reed was slowed by illness in the second half of the year, but his sub-par play had started well before that. His world-class short game seems too good to keep him down for long, but Reed did look out of sorts for a big part of 2021.

On the Cut Line

Some notables who are outside the top-25 but inside the top-50 of the year-end world rankings

Being in the top 50 at year's end is incredibly important because it gets you into the Masters. So it is a huge demarcation. There will be further chances to get to Augusta all the way into April, but it's just one less thing to worry about for these golfers.

Here are the golfers who earned a top-50 spot by year's end.

No. 45 Sergio Garcia
No. 46 Adam Scott
No. 47 Ryan Palmer
No. 48 Christiaan Bezuidenhout
No. 49 Min Woo Lee
No. 50 Takumi Kanaya 

Garcia and Scott, former Masters winners, have their Augusta invitations for life, but the others are now assured of entry. Kanaya is someone to keep an eye on in 2022, a former world No. 1 amateur and perhaps an emerging international presence. Lee, a 23-year-old Australian, also is on the rise. Palmer, who recently turned 45, took a deep slide in the second half of 2021 and this could be his final Masters.

Major Qualifiers

In the RotoWire league and maybe yours, there's a premium on the majors. Guys who qualify for majors potentially have more value. Here are some lower-ranked guys already qualified for multiple majors.

No. 53 Stewart Cink: Masters, U.S. Open, Open
No. 54 Ian Poulter: PGA, Open
No. 55 Robert MacIntyre: Masters, Open
No. 58 Bernd Wiesberger: PGA, Open
No. 60 Garrick Higgo: Masters, PGA, Open
No. 64 Erik van Rooyen: Masters, PGA, U.S. Open, Open
No. 88 Guido Migliozzi: Masters, U.S. Open, Open
No. 114 Gary Woodland: Masters, PGA, U.S. Open, Open
No. 123 Lucas Glover: Masters, PGA
No. 134 Harry Higgs: Masters, PGA
No. 160 Padraig Harrington: Masters, PGA, Open
No. 175 Henrik Stenson: PGA, Open
No. 178 Zach Johnson: Masters, Open
No. 231 Francesco Molinari: Masters, PGA, U.S. Open, Open
No. 327 Jimmy Walker: PGA, Open

Masters Qualifiers

Seventy-five players, including five amateurs, have already qualified for the Masters, according to PGATour.com, and six more will join them when the year ends and the top-50 in the world rankings are confirmed. These six players are noteworthy because they didn't qualify any other way, such as winning a full-points tournament in the past year or having a high finish in any of last year's majors.

No. 22 Tyrrell Hatton
No. 24 Matt Fitzpatrick
No. 30 Matthew Wolff
No. 37 Lee Westwood
No. 39 Mackenzie Hughes
No. 40 Tommy Fleetwood

We're not bullish on the four Europeans listed about. But Wolff missed a big chunk of the season dealing with personal issues and appears primed for a better season ahead. Hughes worked hard on adding distance to an already-elite short game.

The highest-ranked players still not in the Masters on Jan. 1 will be No. 51 Cameron Tringale and No. 54 Ian Poulter. The Englishman always seems to find his way in; he's played in 17 Masters. He and anyone else can qualify by winning a full-points tournament or being in the top 50 on March 28, two weeks before the Masters.

2022 Major Winner Predictions

Masters: Cameron Smith
PGA Championship: Jon Rahm
U.S. Open: Collin Morikawa
Open Championship: Jordan Spieth

Movin' On Up

We see the following golfers taking a step forward in 2022:

No. 30 Matthew Wolff
No. 32 Talor Gooch
No. 36 Marc Leishman
No. 39 Mackenzie Hughes
No. 49 Min Woo Lee
No. 50 Takumi Kanaya
No. 66 Aaron Wise
No. 79 Cam Davis
No. 93 Nicolai Hojgaard
No. 96 Rasmus Hojgaard
No. 101 Aaron Rai
No. 122 Taylor Moore

Backtracking

We see the following golfers declining in 2022:

No. 27 Webb Simpson
No. 37 Lee Westwood
No. 40 Tommy Fleetwood
No. 42 Kevin Kisner
No. 43 Justin Rose
No. 47 Ryan Palmer
No. 73 Charley Hoffman
No. 78 Matt Wallace
No. 82 Bubba Watson
No. 94 Harold Varner III
No. 95 Chris Kirk
No. 114 Gary Woodland

Now or Never

The following golfers are at a crossroads in their careers.

Rickie Fowler
We saw Jordan Spieth return to glory. Why not Fowler? Well, two reasons: Fowler is a bit older, having just turned 33, and was never as good as Spieth. But he was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, which is not nothing. Fowler fell out of the top-100 during the year but climbed back in to finish 2021 at No. 85. He showed a few brief flashes, most notably T8 at the PGA and T3 at the CJ Cup. Whether Fowler ever gets that first major seems more unlikely than ever, but a victory of any kind seems within the realm of possibility, as does a return to the top-50 in the world.

Jason Day
The former world No. 1 hung on as long as possible, but finally, finally fell from the top-100 in the world in November. It will be a difficult path to return. The injury-prone Day played only 18 times all year, and we expect that general ranger of tournaments will continue. He's now 34, far from through for most guys but probably not him. We'll always remember the two-year stretch of 2015-16, when Day won eight times, including his lone major, the 2015 PGA.

Matt Kuchar
There was a great burst for Kuchar soon after turning 40, at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, to break a four-year winless drought with not one but two victories just months apart. That gave him nine PGA Tour titles. But there's been little to celebrate since then and now, in his age-44 season, Kuchar is outside the top-100. Last year he played in probably his final Masters; he missed the cut. He had one real bright spot, surging all the way to the final four of the Match Play before finishing third. But he missed 10 cuts. Kuchar has nothing to apologize for, he's had a great career. But it's still a long time till the Champion's Tour.

Phil Mickelson
We'll look back at Mickelson's stunning victory at the PGA Championship as one of the top golf moments of the 21st century. And also one of the great outliers. It was his only top-10 in 20 worldwide starts in 2021 – not including the Champions Tour, where Mickelson now dominates and is best suited. Miracle of miracles, he'll finish this year at No. 33 in the world. We'll still see him on the PGA Tour. That victory at the Ocean Course will qualify him for all the majors for years to come.

Tiger Woods
Seeing a tweet of a three-second swing on the driving range made the golf world lose its collective mind last month. And seeing Woods play with his son Charlie at the PNC Championship last week was as big of a golf moment all year. Woods showed he is long way from being able to compete on the PGA Tour but enough to indicate we will in fact see him again, maybe even in the first half of 2022, maybe even in the second week in April. No matter what the future holds for Woods, we'll always have the 2019 Masters and, even if it's only for two rounds, maybe even the 2022 Masters.

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire. Len Hochberg plays in daily fantasy contests using the following accounts: DK: Bunker Mentality.
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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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