Jordan Spieth is considered brightest young prospect on PGA Tour
He opens 2014 by finishing second to Zach Johnson in Hawaii
Tiger Woods goes into the New Year chasing elusive 15th major
Rory McIlroy looking recover his form after difficult 2013
Remember the name: Jordan Spieth is only 20 years of age, but the golfer is already being mentioned in the same breath as Tiger Woods after a whirlwind start to his PGA Tour career.
Spieth, like Woods, was a multiple U.S. Junior Amateur champion before dominating college golf in his freshman year.
Quickly turning professional, he became the first teenage winner on the PGA Tour in 82 years, and at this week’s traditional curtain raiser to 2014 he finished second to veteran Zach Johnson at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, carded four birdies in seven holes to pip joint third-round leader Spieth by a shot on Monday. The 37-year-old tweeted after his win: “I love underdog stories” – a recognition of the youngster’s growing reputation.
Spieth is one of CNN Living Golf’s “Five players to watch” in 2014, as he seeks to add to last year’s maiden victory.
Along with three of the biggest names in the sport – who enjoyed wildly varying fortunes last season –we have also cast our net in the direction of Asia, where the emerging prodigies seem to get ever younger and ever more a threat to the established order on the PGA Tour.
Starting 2013 ranked 810th in the world and having turned professional halfway through his sophomore year at the University of Texas, Spieth ended it as the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year and with a place on the winning U.S. Presidents Cup team.
So highly-rated was Spieth, that his first victory on the PGA Tour at the John Deere Classic in July was hardly considered a surprise.
He won a three-way playoff against defending champion Johnson and David Hearn after spectacularly holing from a greenside bunker on the final hole of regulation play to force the shootout.
Spieth then lost in a playoff for the Wyndham Championship to another promising young golfer, 23-year-old Patrick Reed and charged to fourth in the Deutsche Bank Championship with a last-round 62.
He ended the year just outside the world’s top 20, earning the nod from Fred Couples as a captain’s pick in the Presidents Cup.
Woods was a teammate in the comfortable victory over the Internationals, and when asked about Spieth the world No. 1 gave the following verdict: “He’s earned his way on here and he’s played exceptional golf and his talent is going to take him a long way over the years.”
Woods may have ended 2013 as the PGA Tour’s Golfer of the Year, but will want to finally lose the tag of “14-time major winner” and close on Jack Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18.
Woods has been stuck on 14 since winning the U.S. Open in June 2008 with an injured knee which required surgery and a lengthy recuperation.
His well-chronicled personal problems also clearly impacted on his career and it was only last year which saw the re-emergence of a golfer resembling the former all-conquering Tiger.
Five wins on the PGA Tour were ample evidence, but in the majors his best was tied fourth at the Masters and he will be focused on changing that stat.
With youngsters like Spieth emerging and veterans like arch-rival Phil Mickelson showing no signs of fading away, Woods, who has just turned 38, knows this is a big year – and the choice of venues for the majors could be in his favor.
“I’m really excited about the major championships next year. I’ve won at three of the four venues – Augusta National, Valhalla Golf Club and Royal Liverpool – and on Pinehurst No. 2 (U.S. Open), I’m trending the right way, having finished third and second,” he told his own website.
Woods skipped the opening tournament of the year in Hawaii to spend time with his girlfriend Lindsey Vonn – who will miss the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi due to her own knee problem – before beginning his own buildup to the Masters in April.
He still holds the record low total at Augusta of 270 back in 1997 when he announced himself to the wider sporting public with a stunning victory.
McIlroy started 2013 as the world’s top-ranked golfer and ended it as the sixth best after a series of on and off-course problems.
With a new management team and a new fiancee – he announced his engagement to Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki on New Year’s Eve on Twitter – the popular 24-year-old from Northern Ireland can enter 2014 with optimism.
Buoyed by an end-of-year victory at the Australian Open, McIlroy has renewed confidence in himself and his Nike equipment after a big-money switch to the sportswear manufacturer at the start of 2012 that some linked to his poor form on the course.
“I’m confident with my game and confident where it’s going,” McIlroy told reporters.
“I won a major in 2011 and 2012 but not in 2013, so I’ll try to make up for that with two this year.”
A bold prediction, but McIlroy clearly has the talent to back up his words and has been practicing hard in Dubai ahead of his opening tournament of the season at the Abu Dhabi Championship starting on January 16.
He will lock horns with Woods for the first time in 2014 at the Dubai Desert Classic a fortnight later – an early marker for the rest of the year.
Scott was denied the “triple crown” back in his home country in December by McIlroy, who mounted a final round charge to win at Royal Sydney.
Following wins at the Australian PGA and Masters events, it would have capped a triumphant 2013 for the 33-year-old from Adelaide, who won his first major at Augusta.
Scott also paired with Jason Day to win the World Cup for Australia and, combined with an impressive victory at The Barclays, the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, it left him second in the world rankings behind Woods at year’s end.
Many believe Scott will reach top spot in 2014 and add to his majors haul, having shrugged off the disappointment of letting a four-shot lead slip to hand Ernie Els the 2012 British Open crown.
A dramatic playoff win over Angel Cabrera of Argentina at Augusta sealed his place in golfing history and he was also in contention at the British Open and U.S. PGA Championships.
Scott performed strongly at Kapalua in the Tournament of Champions, tying for sixth, to serve notice he will again be a force in 2014.
Both the PGA Tour, and in particular the women’s LPGA Tour, are becoming accustomed to precocious teenagers from Asia turning up in the United States and making their mark.
Last year it was China’s 14-year-old Guan Tianglang who had greats like Gary Player singing his praises with his performances at Augusta – where he made the cut – and subsequent PGA Tour events.
In 2014, South Korean Lee Chang-Woo has the same opportunity after emulating Guan and winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
That booked a place for the 19-year-year-old at the Masters and also a spot at final qualifying for the British Open.
He is likely to grab the opportunities with both hands, having already mixed it with established professionals while still in the unpaid ranks.
Seoul-born Lee tied for second with McIlroy at the Korea Open, the week before his Asia-Pacific win, and claimed victory in an earlier Korean Tour event.
“Playing in the Masters has been my dream since I started playing golf,” he said. “This is a great honor, I have never been so excited.”
Guan could not repeat his heroics of 2012 and finished back in eighth, but Lee was initially challenged in the final round by another young Chinese star, Dou Zecheng, before the 16-year-old fell away on the back nine.
The pedigree of the Asia-Pacific Amateur winners is also strong. Since 2009, all but one winner has made the cut at the Masters.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, a previous qualifier by this route, achieved the feat twice and finished third in the Frys.com Open last October, the opening event on the 2013-14 PGA Tour calendar.
Lee will be hoping to make a similar impression to earn sponsor invites for PGA events after the Masters, while Matsuyama has already proved he can mix it with the best while still in the amateur ranks.