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Ahead of the game

Rob looks ahead as new calendar year begins

Rob Lee Posted 4th January 2012 view comments

The last calendar year ended with European golfers in the top four positions in the world rankings, but can they keep it going in 2012?

I think they can - and none of them will lack motivation. Just because Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are number one and two in the world, they won't be taking their foot off the gas because neither of them have ticked the biggest box of all: winning a major.

Bradley: the only major champion in Hawaii field

Bradley: the only major champion in Hawaii field

Similarly, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy won't want to go down in history as one-major wonders and will be keen to win a second one.

I'm hoping to see Sergio Garcia back in consistent form and challenging in the big events. I see no reason why he shouldn't after two wins late in the European season. He still doesn't putt as well as someone like Donald, but most of the three-footers are going in for him now and if he can maintain that he will be a worry to most players.

Their problems are highlighted by the fact that commissioner Tim Finchem is so keen to have guys like Westwood and McIlroy playing on the PGA Tour. When you take Woods out of the equation, the names that are selling are the foreign players.

Rob Lee
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I'm also looking forward to a comeback from Tiger Woods, but for me the likes of Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk are the wrong side of 40 now. They'll still have their days in the sun and will remain capable of great things, but when you've been playing hard for 20 years it's natural to slow down a little bit. That's the way we are as human beings.

So who are the emerging names set to capture the imagination? I'll be following Tom Lewis closely because his win in Portugal last year was right up there with the very best. This will be a big season for him as he learns the courses and gets used to life on Tour, but I don't think we're taking about an ordinary golfer here. I'm keen to see how he progresses.

Also Peter Uihlein, who was the best amateur in the world for many years, has joined the European Tour after failing to get his card in the States. He's always impressed me when I've seen him play and that could be a really clever move for him.

We saw plenty of surprise names emerge in 2010. Webb Simpson had a phenomenal year, producing strong performances on a weekly basis and then Keegan Bradley had an amazing rookie season winning twice, one of them a major.

But overall the Americans have questions to answer. Dustin Johnson had his injury problems, Nick Watney's torch has been on and off and they need to start producing more consistent performers like Bradley.

Their problems are highlighted by the fact that commissioner Tim Finchem is so keen to have guys like Westwood and McIlroy playing on the PGA Tour. When you take Woods out of the equation, the names that are selling are the foreign players.

He's pushing pretty hard to make sure those guys go over there and I'm sure he wouldn't be as hawkish if they were saturated with homegrown talent. It'll be interesting to see how that develops over the year.

And, of course, this is a Ryder Cup year and that will be in the back of the players' minds, even though there is an awful lot of golf to be played between now and August. It won't be paramount in their thoughts right now, but the European and American players all know that a big victory could see them play themselves into their side.

That's a story that will run throughout the season and there will be plenty of changes to the lists before the teams are settled - and the players know that they need to play well continuously to remain in the shake-up. The players in there now cannot assume they will accrue enough points; they need to keep grinding away and working for it.

Invitational

The first PGA Tour event is the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, an invitational event made up of all of last year's winners.

I'd have thought it would be lovely to go to Hawaii at the start of the year for a short-field tournament, but only 28 of last season's winners have opted to take part. The likes of Donald, McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel aren't there, which is a surprise.

Some of the European players have only had a couple of weeks off, so perhaps that's understandable, but the PGA Tour has been on a break for a while and the American players should be raring to go. I understand they all have their own interests, but they mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture - the Tour they play in - and making sure they keep the sponsors happy.

I'm sure the likes of Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson will provide plenty of entertainment and the winner will get $1.12million - and with such a small field you've got to fancy your chances. I can't work out why so many of them aren't going, but those that have turned up will get a wonderful opportunity to make a flying start to the year.

Ahead of the big Desert events on the European Tour, Sky Sports will also bring you the Africa Open this week, which is a huge tournament for players such as Oliver Wilson who didn't have a great season last year and need to get back inside the system proper.

For many people, a win in one of these early season events would be absolutely massive.

Rob's Sky Bet Tips

Hyundai Tournament of Champions - Gary Woodland, 16/1 with Sky Bet, has got potential. I could see him winning a major at some stage and I like watching him. He played well in the early part of last season, winning the Transitions Championship and losing in a play-off to Jhonattan Vegas at the Bob Hope Classic.

Africa Open - Thomas Aitken, 14/1 with Sky Bet, was a runner-up in this event to Schwartzel in 2010 and he was a winner on the European Tour last year. He will start a new year in his home country on a course that he's played well on before. Those are good indicators.

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