Mercifully, 2020 is over, which obviously means many things. One is that a new (and very full) golf year is here. Because of the pandemic, events like the Olympics and Ryder Cup were bumped into 2021 alongside an already-jammed PGA Tour slate that was amended because of all the postponements in 2020.
With a new year comes plenty of new storylines. Some of these will be overtaken by narratives we don’t even know about right now — who could have predicted this time a year ago that a pandemic and Bryson DeChambeau’s weight gain would take center stage in 2020? — but some will have an even brighter spotlight than we think. We can’t know that on Dec. 31, of course, but we do know that there are several massive stories heading into next year.
Interestingly, the guy who has been at the center of most of them for the last 20 years is not the pre-eminent focus going into next year and barely in the top 12 at all. Let’s start at the epicenter of 2020 and look at the 12 biggest storylines heading into a new year.
1. What will Bryson DeChambeau do next? We might be underestimating what’s happening right now in several different ways. First, I’ll be yelling for the next several years that the entire sport changed the week he won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Rules will change because of that week, and though those changes won’t go into effect for a while, that week will be one of the primary reasons they happen. Second, it blows my mind that maybe the best golfer on the planet is tinkering with his swing in such massive ways and doing so right out in the open (in a Christmas onesie). There’s a lot to criticize about Bryson, but his insane and relentless desire to get every ounce of success out of his body and his game as he enters his prime is not one of those things. As was the case for the second half of 2020, we won’t be able to look at anything else when he’s on the scene in 2021, for better and for worse.
2. Will Jon Rahm make the leap? He’s had one of the best starts to a career of all time, but the major championship trophy case is still bare. This doesn’t normally get me all that worked up, but the greater the talent and the longer it goes, the more of a burden it becomes (Rahm need not look outside his own country’s best players ever for evidence of that).
3. Will Jordan Spieth do anything at all? It’s on repeat, but I’m going down with the ship. I have no other choice. Spieth fell from No. 44 to No. 82 in the world and will likely fall out of the top 100 fairly soon if nothing changes. He has the ability to transform the ethos of entire tournaments when he’s in the mix like only a handful of other golfers do. So for the sake of the sport I hope something that doesn’t look the first 30 seconds of a roller coaster ride is awaiting him in 2021.
4. Is … the major championship winning over for Rory McIlroy? As someone who covers the sport and enjoys certain players and people more than others, I certainly hope not. But it’s been six full years now. Matthew Wolff could not drive the last time Rory won a major. That’s not everything, but it’s not nothing either. He was on a pretty torrid run from January 2019 right up until the world stopped back in March, but he never truly reached that level for an extended period after the restart. He’ll remain the sport’s best spokesperson for the foreseeable future, but what he says carries even more weight when he’s winning major championships. That’s how the game has always worked and likely how it always will.
5. Does a young star emerge from the pack? We have discussed the young studs on the PGA Tour ad nauseam, and while nobody agrees on anything, I think most people agree that the clear-cut threesome at the top is made up of Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa in some order. The question for 2021 is whether one of them separates himself as the guy in 2021 or whether we’re in the same spot this time next year hollering about which of them has the brighter future.
6. How do we think about Tiger Woods? The Tiger Woods storyline for me is less about him and more about us. His downward trajectory that becomes natural as a player ages was upended by that 2019 Masters win, and now about half the folks who follow golf genuinely expect a 45-year-old to have Rory McIlroy’s major career and upend Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. That’s not going to happen, and I suspect the 2020 Tiger we got — plagued by injury, mildly competitive at times, pretty uncompetitive at other times — is more of a harbinger of what’s to come. Is the broader golf world ready to accept that?
7. Can Brooks Koepka bounce back?: What’s the deal? Is he healthy? Is he still the monster he once was at major championships? Did he have his Jason Day-like two-year run, and that’s what the entire career looks like? I don’t think he’s feared like he was maybe this time two years ago, and some of what used to be swagger now comes off a bit more petty than it used to. That’s what happens when you’re not housing everybody you go up against. Big year for him.
8. Can D.J. clean up? Back in June when the major championship slate started to emerge, it became clear that the whole seven majors in 11 months thing was a premium opportunity for somebody to carve out an entire career’s worth of achievement in a single year. That somebody might be Dustin Johnson, who has won three times since the PGA Tour restarted and will be wearing a green jacket down Magnolia Lane in April. The only question is how many wins (and mostly majors) he will collect and whether we look back at this pandemic-induced stretch as the moment when his output finally correctly matched his talent.
9. Strategic alliances: It got buried because it came out the day after Thanksgiving, but the PGA Tour and European Tour aligned themselves in such a way that a global tour is more feasible now than it was three months ago. Much of this is seemingly a result of the concern over competition from the Premier Golf League — which got talked about a lot in 2020 — and I want to know if there’s any movement from either the PGL or the future of the PGA Tour and European Tour in 2021.
10. Who has the Berger-English year? Daniel Berger and Harris English — both currently ranked in the top 30 in the world — moved up a combined 300 spots in the Official World Golf Rankings in the last 12 months. Both players had already established themselves as good pros but both had fallen down for various reasons. Throw Russell Henley in that group (you could toss others like Mackenzie Hughes as well), and you have a nice template for how much can change in a year. They were all interesting, fun stories to follow (and bet on!) this year, and I’m interested to see who follows them in 2021.
11. Bryson rules: That’s right, Bryson is such a big storyline that he gets two of these. Like I said off the top, any potential equipment changes that limit distance will take years to implement, but I’m curious if the tipping point for change will be reached in 2021, and who will be the first to draw a line in the sand to protect some of the most historic courses in the game. Nobody thinks Major League Baseball is less interesting with wooden bats than it would be with metal ones, but for some reason rolling back either the ball or the equipment used to hit the ball has become a third rail. This year made it clear that we have not reached the outer limits of distance in the professional ranks, which means that some of the great golf courses of all time are going to remain under siege until somebody does something. Hopefully whoever that person or organization is chooses 2021 for that something to take place.
12. Ryder Cup team formation: For myriad reasons, the formation of this year’s Ryder Cup teams is going to be more unique, interesting and look a lot different than in other years. Both teams could look wildly different than they did in 2018 in Paris, and both sides have questions to answer. Europe has to determine which Ryder Cup is the last for their great lions (Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter), and the United States has to find its soul. With Woods and Phil Mickelson likely out of the picture and Jordan Spieth still wandering in the desert, does Justin Thomas assume that role? And what does that mean for Patrick Reed? The dynamics on the U.S. side are messier and more dramatic, despite the fact that they should be the big favorites going into the summer.