THERE was a time when first-time Major champions were relatively hard to come by. The reason? Tiger Woods. Such was Tiger’s grip on golf’s four most prestigious titles they became all the more elusive to the chasing pack.
For a while that’s what golf was – Tiger and the rest. Now, however, the landscape has changed. He is out of the picture, indefinitely by some accounts, and it has facilitated the emergence of a new crop of Major champions.
Indeed, eight of the last nine Majors – stretching back to the 2015 PGA Championship – have been clinched by a first-time winner. It’s a trend we hope – and expect – to see continue in 2018 and with that in mind here are the seven most likely to join the Major winner’s circle next season.
Anyone with a passing interest in golf knows Rickie Fowler as golf’s answer to Zac Efron, an All-American heartthrob with undeniable talent. However, while Fowler has delivered on the big stage, including last year’s Ryder Cup and the Players Championship (often dubbed the fifth Major) the big four have eluded him.
That’s not to say he hasn’t come close. In 2014, Fowler was a factor in all four of them, finishing in a tie for fifth at the Masters before following that by going T2, T2 and T3. He finished T5 in this year’s US Open and PGA, while at Augusta he entered the final round just one behind Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, before a 76 crushed his dreams of the Green Jacket.
However, Fowler’s presence at the Majors is consistent enough to suggest sooner or later he will smash that glass ceiling.
- Fowler to win the Masters (20-1, Unibet)
Paul Casey has always been something of a divisive figure. A refusal to take on full European Tour status before the 2016 Ryder Cup was perceived by many as an abandonment of his roots but, considering the life he has forged for himself while based in Arizona for the past 20 years, he has nothing to be sorry about.
Now 40, Casey is widely regarded as one of the finest players of his generation without a Major to his name, yet he has made significant strides towards ridding himself of that reluctant tag.
Casey is a fighter, though. Having amassed 17 career titles around the globe and reached as high as third in the world rankings, in 2009, he is certainly capable of fixing the one glaring omission on his resumé.
He managed a hat-trick of top-six finishes in his last three visits to Augusta and, when next year’s Masters rolls around in April, don’t be surprised if Casey follows in Garcia’s footsteps by delivering that long overdue first win.
- Casey to win the Masters (40-1, Unibet)
Something of a pantomime villain to European Ryder Cup fans in recent years, there is no ducking the fact Reed is a gifted golfer with tremendous heart.
He doesn’t help himself sometimes of course. At the 2014 HSBC Champions Event in Shanghai, Reed was forced to apologise when microphones picked up him angrily shouting a gay slur at himself following a missed putt.
However, when he has his wits about him he is a gutsy competitor and one who already has a WGC title to his name.
His performances in Majors up until this year had been somewhat underwhelming but he perhaps offered a glimpse of what’s to come when a final round 67 surged him into second place at the PGA Championship.
At 27, time is on the Texan’s side but, but there has been enough recent evidence to suggest he is on the precipice of taking his career to Major heights.
- Reed to win the Masters (66-1, Unibet)
It would have been sheer negligence to omit Matsuyama from this list, purely due to the spectacular golf he has produced in the last two years.
Since February 2016, he has won five times around the globe, including two WGC titles. His meteoric rise saw him catapult into second in the world at one point, while his 61 on Sunday at Firestone to clinch the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August confirmed his march to the forefront of the game.
In this year’s Majors, Matsuyama lurked menacingly without closing the deal, with a tie for second at the US Open and tie for fifth at the PGA, but the main takeaway from those results was him becoming the first Japanese golfer to win a Major is a matter of when, not if – and it could be in the next 12 months.
- Matsuyama to win the Masters (16-1, Unibet)
Jordan Spieth may have won The Open in July but Matt Kuchar captured the hearts of those who watched a stunning Sunday unfold at Royal Birkdale.
On an afternoon of absorbing golfing theatre, Kuchar fell short only because of Spieth’s ferocious mental strength, the Texan surviving a mini-collapse to hang on for his first Claret Jug.
Kuchar had stayed in touch the whole way, smiling and waving politely at the galleries all day, methodically plotting his way around the Southport links but it wasn’t to be.
Furthermore, as he congratulated Spieth on the 18th green there was a tinge of sadness to the 39-year-old’s smile, a sadness that suggested he thought his big chance at passed him by.
Kuchar is made of sterner stuff though. He will be back. Although he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since 2014, four top-16 finishes in the Majors this season suggest he raises his game for the big occasion.
Golf is not a young man’s game either, despite the exceptional crop of twenty-somethings dominating the scene these days. Kuchar still has time and maybe, with a Spiethian twist of fate, he will really have something to smile about next year.
- Kuchar to win the Masters (66-1, Unibet)
It’s not a bad time to be a fan of English golf. Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick are names for the future but it’s Tommy Fleetwood, the current leader in the Race to Dubai, who looks to have the skill set to launch a bid for a Major title.
In fact, he already has. The 26-year-old was just one shot off the lead going into the US Open final round at Erin Hills in June but couldn’t quite match the pace set by the inimitable Brooks Koepka. Then again, nobody could.
However, Fleetwood followed that experience by winning the French Open just two weeks later. He also held off the challenge of Major champions Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer to capture the Abu Dhabi Championship in January, highlighting his credentials.
In football, the media tends to ramp up pressure on promising talents by tipping them for big things. It’s no different in golf but Fleetwood looks adequately equipped to rise to such lofty expectations.
- Fleetwood to win the Masters (125-1, Unibet)
The South African made history in July when he became the first player to shoot 62 in a Major. It was a glorious exhibition by the 29-year-old and one that served as a reminder of his Major prowess.
Two years ago, Grace came agonisingly close to following in the footsteps of fellow South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel – not to mention Ernie Els and Retief Goosen before them – into Major dreamland.
At the US Open his chances of lifting the trophy were derailed when, standing tied for the lead on the 70th hole, he skewed a drive out of bounds to extinguish any hope he had of edging out Spieth.
However, he is one who has flirted with Major glory, and continues to pop up, sometimes in record-breaking fashion. His desire to avenge the pain of that US Open still burns strong and could drive him to go one better in 2018.
- Grace to win the Masters (100-1, Unibet)