Six to Follow for PGA TOUR 2022
With the return of the PGA Tour upon us after its brief winter break I thought I would highlight six players who I feel it will reap dividends to follow this year.
Last year we had huge success in this column with three of our selections, Cameron Champ at a whopping 125/1 in the 3M Open, Si Woo Kim at the Amex and Branden Grace in Puerto Rico, all posting wins for us when we were onboard, while two of the other selections Joaquin Niemann and Aaron Wise hit the frame on several occasions, with Niemann who had two play-off losses in the year particularly unlucky not to post a win. In fact of the six players recommended to follow only Doc Redman disappointed on the year.
For clarification I have avoided the games biggest names and those ranked in the top forty or so. After all no one needs me to tell them that Jon Rahm. Justin Thomas etc will pick up a win or two this year or that Viktor Hovland will make further progress in the game...
I also am pretty confident that last years two ‘nearly men’ Niemann and Wise will get over the line this year, however I have chosen not to include them in this year’s piece as I don’t want to repeat myself in this column from last year.Please do watch out for them both though!
So in no particular order other than alphabetical here we go.
1 - CHRISTIAAN BEZUIDENHOUT
Currently ranked at 48th in the world, the highest of any of this years six picks, Christiaan Bezuidenhout earnt his playing rights on the PGA Tour courtesy of a strong performance in the Korn ferry finals, which culminated in a third place finish in the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
In his early days on the European Tour and initial forays to the US Bezuidenhout’s back story, of how he drank rat poison as a child, an event which lead to a long term speech impediment, which he still battles with, was more often than not the issue that got discussed the most when the South African was on our screens, however as the wins started to rack up, three on the European Tour to date, the quality of his golf soon became the main focus.
It must be said that although he was solid around the globe in 2021 Christiaan was probably disappointed with the year as a whole as he failed to add to his victories across the previous two years and he only posted two top ten finishes in total across the two main tours.
The 27yr old has now decided to turn his attention to the PGA Tour and as a proven winner there is every reason to think he can make a big impact in his first full season and follow in fellow South African’s Erik Van Rooyen, Garrick Higgo and Brandon Grace’s footsteps from last year and post a win this year.
The 27yr old’s main strength over the years has been on the greens, and it was a drop off in this area, which was a big contributor to his low key performances last year, when on song however he is the possessor of a great all round game, which comes to the fore on tougher golf courses.
With such a strong contingency of fellow countrymen he should also have plenty of company and support as he settles in to life on the PGA Tour and if he can just regain the magic with the flat stick I see a big year ahead.
Events Most Likely To.....
Christiaan is always a player to consider when scoring is set to be tough and it is no surprise that his best result last year on the PGA Tour came at the challenging Bay Hill where he posted a seventh place finish. Assuming the scoring continues in the same vein as it has for the past couple of years at Arnie’s place I expect him to be a big threat in this years Arnold Palmer Invitational.
With the Valspar Championship returning to its more traditional March slot this year I expect the Copperhead Course to prove a tougher nut to crack this year and if Bezeduinhout does decide to include a trip to Tampa on his schedule I have a hunch it could pay dividends.
Finally Bezuidenhout’s game and ability to grind it out is a perfect fit for a tough Major Championship layout and after four solid but unspectacular performances in the Majors last year I can see him pushing on and being a serious threat for the first time in one of the game’s biggest events with marginal preference being given to the Open Championship where he could just possibly follow in fellow countryman Louis Oosthuizen’s footsteps at St Andrews..
2 – RICKIE FOWLER
The form, or lack of, of Rickie Fowler has been the main topic of many a golfing conversation over the past couple of years as the player who once seemed to have the golfing world at his feet and was clearly on the trajectory to become a Major Champion has lost his way completely.
Fowler’s downturn in form can from a timeline point of view be traced back to when he changed swing coaches from Butch Harmon to John Tillery at the back of 2019 and after the tour returned from the enforced covid 19 hiatus in 2020 he really began to struggle with all areas of his game deteriorating.
A look through Rickie’s stats for 20-21 does not make pretty reading with his approach play ranked a lowly 157th, furthermore his historical strength the putter also deserted him during this period and the player who ranked first on the greens on tour as recently as 16-17 found himself ranked 126th.
The latter stages of the 20-21 season though did see Fowler start to turn a corner slightly and post some more promising results, notably an eighth place at the PGA Championship and an 11th at the Memorial before he then notched his best finish since his runner up spot in the Honda in 2019, when finishing third at the CJ Cup in Las Vegas.
While the putter is still a concern Rickie’s upturn so far this season is down to a big improvement off the tee and he currently ranks sixth on this season in that area.
Off the course life for Fowler has been far more enjoyable and he and his wife Alison recently welcomed their first child, when their daughter Maya arrived in November.
As we have seen over the years ‘The Nappy Factor’ can often be an inspirational motivator to a player and I expect Fowler to be the type of player who will thrive on the back of this life changing event. In the doldrums for far too long now I expect Rickie to build in the upturn in form he showed at the back end of 2021 and return to the winners enclosure this year.
Events Most Likely To....
Rickie always relishes a trip to Phoenix at the end of January and after several near misses he finally bagged the Waste Management Phoenix Open title in 2019 and I would expect another strong showing from him there again this year.
Another venue Rickie has always performed well at is PGA National and he landed the Honda Classic trophy in 2017. Yet to qualify for this years Masters if Fowler hasn’t taken care of business on that front by the time this years Honda comes around at the end of February I can see him really targeting that event as the one to post a win in to guarantee his place at Augusta in April.
Finally on the Major Championship front if Rickie does do what it takes to play his way in to the biggest events he could easily be a threat across the board in them. Augusta as we know is a course he performs well on and due to his undoubted ability in the wind he has long been seen as a potential Open Champion.
One Major Championship spot Fowler wont be sweating on though is for the PGA Championship as his top ten last year at Kiawah Island saw him book his place for this years event.
As a former OSU standout then with plenty of experience at Southern Hills Fowler should be relishing a trip back to his old college stomping ground when the PGA heads to Oklahoma in May and I can see him making a big push to finally land that elusive first Major in that event.
3 – MAVERICK MCNEALY
In last years six to follow piece when plumping for Aaron Wise I noted that “Wherever you turn these days the tour is littered with young 20 somethings who can make a splash on their day and on that basis the likes of Sam Burns, Cameron Davis, Maverick McNealy, Brandon Wu and Kristoffer Ventura”.
Of that list a pick for Burns would have paid huge dividends, while Davis also found his way to the winners enclosure while on the flip side of the coin it was a hugely disappointing year for Ventura and Wu is yet to make an impact in the big league.
As for McNealy it was a really solid year for him particularly from May onwards from when he embarked on a run of 13 weekends played out of 14 for the remainder of the year and although the youngster is yet to hoist a trophy two runner up finishes and a fourth place on the calendar year give every indication that the first title is not far away at all.
Although two of Maverick’s top five finishes came in a far more inconsistent period of play early in the year it was that really solid run of form in the second part of 2021 that caught my eye the most. The key to that run was simply solid all round play with a noticeable improvement coming in his approach play as the year progressed. This all round solidity is reflected in McNealy’s stats to date for the 21/22 season, which see him rank 30th off the tee, 59th in approach play and 27th from tee to green.
When the 26yr old first joined the tour his main strength was on the greens, something reflected in his ranking of ninth with the flatstick in his debut season. Last season that ranking slipped down to 83rd while this season he ranks 73rd so far in that area. While these rankings are solid if Maverick can up his game on the greens again consistently to his previous level then he could have a huge a year, and possibly even make the type of impact Burns did in 2021. Either way though I expect him to have enough good weeks with the flat stick to aid him on his way to his first tour title in 2022.
Events Most Likely To....
The first event we must ring fence for McNealy is the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. The California native’s family held a home at Pebble Beach so Maverick knows the area and the courses well. This level of comfortability in the area has shone through with second and fifth place finishes over the past two years and if McNealy has not already posted a win by the time this event comes around at the beginning of February it must surely represent a great opportunity for him to do so.
In addition to his strong showings at Pebble Beach Maverick has also posted a top five finish at Hilton Head and two top twelve finishes at the Mayakoba over the past two seasons showing that he is more than comfortable by the coast. From that point of view he is certainly a player to which at both the RBC Heritage and the Worldwide Technologies Championship at the Mayakoba or indeed at shorter coastal tracks in general.
Finally as a native of California McNealy is always going to be most comfortable on the West Coast. In addition to his two top five finishes at Pebble Beach he again showed this level of comfort in his home state at the Fortinet Championship recently when bagging another runner up finish and you would expect him to go well again in Napa this year. Furthermore with Silverado often tying in well with Riviera I would expect Maverick to improve considerably this year on his missed cut at last year’s Genesis Invitational.
4 – CT PAN
It will be three years this coming April since CT Pan bagged his lone tour win to date at Hilton Head and there were definite signs through 2021 that win number two might not be too far away.
The former stand out amateur struggled for a period after that win, however after a bleak 19/20 campaign he posted a superb top ten at the Masters in the fall of 2020 and a seasons best third place in 2021 at the Honda. Furthermore he bagged himself a bronze medal at the Olympics.
The start of the 21/22 season has seen CT make four cuts in five events including a sixth place at the Fortinet Championship.
Of particular encouragement has been the upturn that we have seen so far this season with the putter, he currently ranks 26th with the flat stick and with his iron play trending nicely as well he should be confident of a big year as he heads in to 2022.
Events Most Likely To....
CT is a tricky player to identify the right test for as he seems to perform well on two completely contrasting types of track.
Firstly as his win at the RBC Heritage in 2019 and his runner up finish at the Wyndham Championship the previous year both showed he is a player to look out for on shorter tracks where his lack of distance off the tee should not be a handicap. From that point of view look out for him at both of these events or indeed at Colonial CC in the Charles Schwab Challenge where he has a best of third place and two other solid showings in three further visits.
Contrastingly though Pan has also shown a liking for ‘big boy’ courses over the years something that was first highlighted with a runners up finish at Torrey Pines in 2017 and then more recently with his seventh at Augusta and his third at the Honda so he is worth considering in these events.
5 – SAHITH THEEGALA
There were plenty of rookies under consideration for this piece and I was close to including Alex Smalley or Davis Riley, two players certainly worth keeping a close eye on.
In the end though it is former standout amateur Sahith Theegala who I have plumped for.
Theegala’s rise to PGA Tour status has been meteoric. Without any status on the Korn Ferry Tour until April 2021 Theegala reached the big league courtesy of two top six finishes in the Korn Ferry finals.
Once the 21/22 campaign started Theegala wasted no time in making an impact as in his second start he was right in the box seat at the Sanderson Farms Championship heading in to the Sunday having held at least a share of the lead over the first three days before understandably fading slightly in to a still more than respectable eighth place.
A player who can shape the ball both ways his game bares similarities to Bubba Watson in the way he ‘sees shots’.
At only 23yrs old Theegala is very much a rough diamond still and I would expect plenty of off weeks in amongst some really good stuff this year.
Events Most Likely To....
Having been born, bred and attended college in California Theegala still bases himself in his home state and I would very much expect the West Coast to be where he makes an impact.
It is quite possible then that Sahith comes out of the traps quickly in 2022 when the tour hits California.
Of the Golden State events the one where Theegala could be most likely to pull off a shock is, assuming he makes the field, The Genesis Invitational as he sites Riviera as one of his top three favourite courses, furthermore he made his PGA Tour debut at Riviera way back in 2017 going on to finish 49th.
While Sahith is a player to watch in any California based event allowing for the similarities between Riviera and Silverado he should also be on the radar for the Fortinet Championship later in the year.
Finally having played so well at the Sanderson Farms last fall it would be foolish to rule out a repeat performance when the tour returns to Mississippi later in the year.
6 – NICK WATNEY
Finally for this years ‘six to follow’ I am going to follow our one rookie selection with a veteran pick who I think might just surprise us and return to the winners enclosure this year.
While I was tempted to side with Charl Schwartzel who is another I can see having a ‘comeback win’ this year, the man in question is Nick Watney.
Watney last tasted victory way back in 2012 on the tour at The Barclays however since then Watney’s career has been in steady decline as he struggled to get back on track after a major back injury.
This season after a grim 2020/21 campaign Watney finds himself burning a once in a lifetime Top 50 career money list exemption to retain his playing privileges so it is really last chance saloon for the Vegas resident.
The good news for Watney fans is that after a return to previous long term coach Butch Harmon last summer the former member of the worlds top ten started to show some progress at the back end of last season and he built on those improvements to post his best finish in many a year at the Sanderson Farms Championship where he was runner up in the fall.
We have seen with Stewart Cink over the past couple of years and more recently from 42yr old Lucas Glover who ended a ten year winless drought at the John Deere last July that there is still plenty of life in the over 40s on the course.
Watney who turned 40 last year knows he needs a big year to maintain his playing privileges and to not find himself in the golfing wilderness and I can see him taking inspiration from the aforementioned duo and posting a long overdue sixth PGA Tour win this year.
Events Most Likely To....
A native of California Watney is always worth watching out for on the West Coast and he was victorious at Torrey Pines way back in 2009. He also posted four more top tens in San Diego before his slump came. It is possible then Nick could come out of the gates strongly in 2022 at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Finally as a resident of Las Vegas Nick has always enjoyed the Shriners Hospital For Children Open and if he is still searching for a win come the Fall he is definitely worth keeping an eye on when he tees it up at home.