Ewen Murray looks forward to another bumper year for golf in 2018
Last Updated: 02/01/18 12:06pm
Will Rory McIlroy complete a career Grand Slam of majors at Augusta? Will Tiger Woods win his first major for 10 years? Will 2018 be dominated by the youngsters once again? Ewen Murray looks forward to another big year in golf ...
With the festivities over for another year, we turn our attention to the 2018 golfing season which is already underway on the European Tour and its American counterpart. The majors will once again be the highlight and they are accompanied by the World Golf Championships and the hugely-successful Rolex Series, introduced by the European Tour chief, Keith Pelley, last year.
The FedExCup play-offs have found an exciting formula since their inception a decade ago, and the Race to Dubai has proved to be a top-class innovation since Robert Karlsson struck the first ball at Sheshan golf club in China just a year later.
Who will be the stars of these shows come next autumn? Golf has never been more difficult to predict. There are so many fine players in the modern era and some of that is down to the technology which has brought the average player closer to the top players - something Seve and Gary Player predicted in the 1990s.
Today's players are generally fitter overall, with guidance being given by highly-qualified people. Add to that, controlled diets and the first-class facilities enjoyed across all Tours.
If you take the last half a century, 72 majors have been won by Arnold, Jack, Gary, Tom, Seve, Tiger, Nick and Phil. But those lengthy periods of domination are over, as has been proved over the last four years. Much of that is down to the feeder tours, led by the Web.com in the US and the European Challenge Tour, with young golfers emerging from all over the world.
You can add to that The Latino, Asian, Mena and Canadian tours, and there are more. China and South Korea have well-organised Tours and Australia and South Africa continue their proud history in producing world-class golfers. The young golfers of today learn their trade across these Tours and, by the time they reach their early 20s, some earlier, they are ready for the challenge on the major Tours.
By the time they hit that point, they are close to the finished article. Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth took three of the four majors last year and two of them have yet to reach their 25th birthday. Koepka is only 27 years old. They will contend for major honours throughout the next decade and beyond.
With them will be the likes of Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Chinese sensation, Haotong Li. They are all 25 and under and, should any of them collect a major title this year, it would not be a great surprise.
Two of the World Golf Championships arrive early in the year and world No 1 Dustin Johnson will defend both of them, in Mexico and Austin,Texas. One of the joys of The Masters is to see who's running into form heading to Augusta National, and it is a great privilege to be there in early spring.
The colours, the immaculate playing surfaces, the orderly way the event is conducted and along with that, the roars that reverberate around the hills and pines during Sunday's last nine holes is quite unique. The winner? I think Rory McIlroy will complete the Grand Slam.
On his day, few can match Rory, but his putting will be key, an area he has not been so strong in since he first went to a specialised putting coach. A more natural stroke arrives went the pressure is at its height. It will be that in Georgia and, having come close before, his time will arrive in April.
For the last time, The Players will be played in May. In 2019, this fine championship will revert back to March to accommodate the PGA Championship moving to May. It is one of the hardest events to predict. TPC Sawgrass is not long by modern standards, so many players begin there on a level playing field.
Most of the world's top 100 play at Ponte Vedra Beach and year in, year out, we enjoy a golfing extravaganza. It's a spectacular event fitting of its title. I'll go for Matt Kuchar here. He has a good record, he has the patience and the know-how, having lifted the famous crystal trophy in 2012.
The second major, the US Open, returns to familiar territory. Formerly home to the Shinnecock Indians in America's north east, Shinnecock Hills is tried and tested and only the tough survive. Down the years, it has produced fine champions in Raymond Floyd, Corey Pavin and Retief Goosen - all steely competitors with iron wills.
Tiger Woods played here as an amateur in 1995 and withdrew through injury during the event. If Tiger remains more than 90 percent fit, this is a course I believe he can win on. I know it's a big "if", but with Shinnecock, again, not that long, it's a course that demands mental strength and precision, as well as expertise.
A lot depends on how Woods performs, and how often, in the early part of the year. Given a decent run of tournaments, I don't think Tiger is yet finished as far as majors are concerned.
The end of June and into July belongs to Europe with three Rolex Series events in France, Ireland and Scotland. Ballyliffen will host the Irish Open. A course up by the northern tip of the Emerald Isle will be seen by millions of television viewers for the first time. It's raw, rugged, natural and quite beautiful.
The Scottish Open returns to Gullane in East Lothian, where Rickie Fowler triumphed two years ago. It's where I grew up and spent many days of my youth playing. Whether you play Gullane 1,2,or 3, you're always in for a treat and a good field will be guaranteed. Rafa Cabrera Bello will defend just a few days ahead of the year's third major.
The Open returning to Carnoustie in Angus is always something to savour as this majestic piece of links land is the toughest and fairest of the courses on the Championship rota. It has a grand list of champions as well as a history of drama. Ben Hogan played only once in The Open and in 1953 after victory at Carnoustie, took the Claret Jug back across the Atlantic Ocean on the boat.
Much has changed over the last 65 years. The airports of Leuchars and Dundee will welcome the private jets of today's superstars. Gary Player won at Carnoustie in 1968, and his second to the par-five 14th over the spectacle bunkers remains one of the most memorable Open shots.
Tom Watson shed the bridesmaid tag winning in 1975. After a lengthy sabbatical, many will remember Frenchman Jean van de Velde in the Barry Burn and the excellent final round of the eventual champion, Paul Lawrie. The Barry Burn was again troubled waters in 2007 when Padraig Harrington won the first of three majors in what was a golden 13 months.
I'll go for a successful defence here for Jordan Spieth. Mature beyond his years, he will relish the challenge that Carnoustie presents. He has embraced the history of the game and will enjoy plotting his way round and coming up with the answers to this wonderful course's difficult questions.
The venue for the PGA Championship hasn't seen major golf for a quarter of a century. Nick Price was in his prime when he claimed the PGA at Bellerive in 1992. This course has a British parkland feel to it and I think it will suit the eyes of Justin Rose perfectly.
After the FedEx finale at East Lake, Le Golf National will become the centre of the golfing world for three days. When the course close to Versailles was designed in 1991 by Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge, I'm sure the Ryder Cup would have been far from their minds.
After hosting many hugely-successful French Opens, the Albatross Course has become a firm favourite of players and spectators, and this may well prove to be the best Ryder Cup venue since it all began in 1927 in Boston, Massachusetts.
The closing four holes will witness great drama and the atmosphere on what is essentially a stadium-built course will be fabulous. Both the USA and Europe could have young sides given the talent that has blossomed in the last few years, and it has all the ingredients to produce a golfing spectacular and I'm sure it will.
The winning side? Well, I have to say Europe! America were mighty impressive during their victory in the President's Cup, but Thomas Bjorn's team will have a wealth of experience playing this course and that, I believe, counts for much.
The 1981 Ryder Cup was played at Walton Heath and this fine Herbert Fowler heathland creation returns to the fold hosting, along with Justin Rose, the British Masters. Having spent many years at this impressive club, it's one of the many weeks I look forward to in 2018.
So there is just a flavour of what is to come this year and, of course, you will all have your favourites to triumph in the majors. Whoever wins, we will enjoy these coming months together across the fairways of the world.
Happy New Year and good golfing.