- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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The Weekly 18 would like to lead off the first column of 2008 with a few words from the Weekly 18, circa one year ago:
An admission from the Weekly 18 staff: This is our favorite column of the year. Anyone can predict a Masters win for Phil Mickelson or another huge year for Tiger Woods. But it takes some skill to forecast which players will reach a higher echelon during the season. Check that: It takes some skill to correctly forecast which players will reach a higher echelon -- and it's not as easy as it looks.
We call it "The Leap." It's what happens when a rookie keeps his PGA Tour card, or a decent player becomes a champion, or a past winner earns his first major victory.
Couldn't have said it better ourselves. Of course, talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things. Last year, we were dead-on with predictions of a Lorena Ochoa major championship victory and Brandt Snedeker's breakthrough, but, uh, sort of slipped up in prognostications about Stewart Cink and Adam Scott and Brett Quigley and, well, a handful of others.
Another year, another set of predictions, so here are 18 players who will make The Leap in 2008. And we mean it this time. Really.
1. Justin RoseThe Leap: Major champion
Analysis: We like Aaron Baddeley. We really like Adam Scott. And we think Sergio Garcia is immature and whiny, but has an immense amount of talent. However, all three have taken a backseat to Rose, the current King of the 20-somethings. Don't look now, but the kid from London by way of Johannesburg, South Africa (he lived there until he was 5) is now the sixth-ranked player in the world and the reigning European Tour Order of Merit winner.
Next step: Major champion. In the four biggies last season, Rose finished T-5, T-10, T-12, T-12. Perhaps the only question left is: Which one will he win? Well, we won't divulge any early-season prediction, but he did finish T-4 as a 17-year-old amateur at the 1998 British Open. The tournament was played at Royal Birkdale that year. In 2008? It's back at Royal Birkdale. Hmmm
2. Brittany LincicomeThe Leap: Top-five player
Analysis: Currently the No. 16 player in the Rolex Rankings, Lincicome owns many similar skills to Lorena Ochoa, who became the world's top performer this past season. The two players were tied for third on the LPGA in driving distance (270.6 yards per) and Lincicome's putting average (28.94 per round) was in the neighborhood of Ochoa's (28.20). While more eyes have been fixed on the likes of fellow youngsters Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Morgan Pressel in recent years, Lincicome may pass them by season's end.
3. Arron OberholserThe Leap: Ryder Cup competitor
Analysis: Despite lingering injuries that bookended his 2007 season (he injured his back after one round at Kapalua then cut his year short after hand surgery in the fall), Oberholser still posted five top-10s, including a T-4 at the PGA Championship. Now healthy, expect the soon-to-be 33-year-old to add a second career victory to his
résumé, seriously contend at a major championship and find himself at Valhalla come September. And here's the good news for U.S. fans: He's just the kind of gutty competitor who will find success in this format.
4. Hunter MahanThe Leap: Major championship contender
Analysis: He's dominated on every level -- from AJGA through college -- so it was only a matter of time before Mahan came into his own on the PGA Tour, too. In 2007, in his fourth full season, he earned his first victory (in a playoff at the Travelers Championship), netted 11 other top-25s and found himself in the Presidents Cup for the very first time. Mahan also played well in the majors, competing in each of the final three and finishing top-20 every time. Expect him to take the next step in '08, getting into the mix on the back nine of a big one -- most likely the U.S. Open or PGA.
5. Ji-Yai ShinThe Leap: Major championship contender
Analysis: Standing 5-foot-1 with glasses, Shin is hardly the vision of a dominant athlete. But the "Next Se Ri Pak" has been winning KLPGA events since she was a high school amateur, was named rookie of the year in 2006, and followed up with an eight-win season in '07, during which she finished sixth at the U.S. Women's Open, T-15 at the Kraft Nabisco and T-28 at the Women's British. Now it's time for her to seriously contend.
6.Jason DayThe Leap: PGA Tour Rookie of the Year
Analysis: Ask anyone -- anyone -- who has watched Day compete over the past few years and they'll tell you he's the real deal. Just 20 years old, the Aussie can't legally drink yet, but he can drive (finished sixth on the Nationwide Tour with an average driving distance of 306.8 yards) and putt (ninth in putting average last season) and post plenty of red numbers (fourth in birdie average). Day will reportedly start the season with an injured wrist, but once healthy he may become the talk of the tour.
7. Liz JanangeloThe Leap: LPGA Rookie of the Year
Analysis: In a rookie class that includes Taylor Leon and Louise Friberg, this ex-Dukie stands alone as the cream of the crop. She finished sixth on the Duramed Futures Tour money list last season after winning twice, then earned her way to a full exemption through Q-school in December. Look for the West Hartford, Conn., native to reach several leaderboards throughout the season.
8. Bubba WatsonThe Leap: Tour Championship competitor
Analysis: Big Bubba is living in the right generation. As designers continue to lengthen courses in response to the upward curve in driving distance, they consistently play right into the hands of Watson, who led the PGA Tour at over 315 yards per pop last season. But here's the thing about the supposed poster boy for the bomb-and-gouge era: He has some touch, too. How else to explain his performance at Oakmont, when he (mostly) kept the driver in the bag and still recorded a T-5 finish? Such a combination of skills will help him find the way to East Lake this time around.
9. Ryan MooreThe Leap: PGA Tour winner
Analysis: For most young players, eight top-10s in 62 professional starts -- all before turning 25 -- would be considering a wild success. Most young players, however, are not Ryan Moore. The kid who came out of UNLV as an All-Everything player was known as a closer on the amateur circuit, where he won -- deep breath -- the U.S. Amateur, U.S. PubLinks, NCAA Championship, Western Amateur, Sahalee Players Championship and was a four-time All-American. The ability to win doesn't just wear away with time, so expect Moore to close out an event or two on top of the leaderboard this season, en route to reaching the Tour Championship.
10. Anthony KimThe Leap: PGA Tour winner
Analysis: This isn't a leap so much as it is an inevitability. After all, this is a kid who in his first career PGA Tour start at the 2006 Valero Texas Open, finished T-2. He added four more top-10s in his first full season in 2007 and is primed to find the winner's circle. And it could happen sooner rather than later. Kim grew up playing La Quinta, one of the host venues for the Bob Hope Classic, and the SoCal native might not be a bad bet at Riviera, where he finished T-9 last season.
11. Ross FisherThe Leap: European Tour top-10 player
Analysis: OK, so we cheated. Just a little. Even though you may still be feeling the hangover effects of that New Year's Eve bash, the European Tour is already six events into the season and Fisher ranks first in Euros cashed. The 27-year-old Englishman may be on the verge of big things this season. After battling the likes of Henrik Stenson, Ernie Els, Niclas Fasth and Tiger Woods in Dubai last season, he broke through for his first career victory at the KLM Open. Still, he finished only 43rd on the Order of Merit and became the other guy who blew up in the final round of the 2008 HSBC Champions tournament (played in November), losing to Phil Mickelson in a playoff.
12. Ashleigh SimonThe Leap: Major championship contender
Analysis: Like most 18-year-olds, Simon lists her hobbies as hanging out with friends, watching sports, DVDs and music. Unlike most 18-year-olds, she has a résumé longer than Santa's naughty-or-nice list. As an amateur, she became the first player in 101 years to win the Ladies South African Open three times and five weeks after turning pro, the Johannesburg native became the youngest winner on the Ladies European Tour. So what's next for Simon? She missed receiving fully exempt LPGA status by one stroke at Q-school, but don't be surprised if she someday joins Morgan Pressel as yet another teenage major champion.
13. Yong-Eun YangThe Leap: Top 50 on PGA Tour money list
Analysis: If the name sounds familiar, you've been spending too many sleepless nights focused on the Golf Channel's live programming. A little over a year ago, Yang took down Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen in the final round of the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, China. After qualifying through Q-school, he'll be among the most experienced PGA Tour rookies this year. Expect him to play like the seasoned vet that he is.
14. Jeff OvertonThe Leap: Top 50 on PGA Tour money list
Analysis: Quick: Which PGA Tour statistic serves as the greatest measuring stick for future success? It's not driving distance or greens in regulation or even putting. OK, maybe this is a trick question, but the correct answer is the All-Around category, which ranks players based on their performance in all other important statistical numbers. Last year, Overton finished third in the All-Around category -- just behind Tiger Woods and Justin Rose, in front of such skilled players as Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. A player who does everything well will eventually find himself cashing some big-time checks almost by accident. Overton is ready to prove that theory in his third full season.
15. Rory McIlroyThe Leap: European Tour winner
Analysis: Remember the name, because you're going to see young Rory high-fiving Sergio Garcia and friends on Europe's Ryder Cup team for much of the next two decades. Sure, that may not happen in 2008, but the 18-year-old from Northern Ireland will make waves in his initial Euro Tour season. Actually, it's happened already -- after turning pro late last season, he finished third at the Dunhill Links Championship and T-4 at the Madrid Open. A victory is next on his hit list. The Ryder Cup team? It might not be such a stretch after all.
16. Casey WittenbergThe Leap: Nationwide Tour winner
Analysis: You may remember Wittenberg for his T-13 result at the Masters as a 19-year-old amateur in 2004, then figured he flamed out on the road to superstardom. Well, to borrow a phrase we've heard more than a few times in the halls at ESPN: Not so fast, my friends. Though Wittenberg didn't immediately graduate to the PGA Tour, he's been playing on mini-tours the past few years -- and playing extremely well, it turns out. Last season, he led the Hooters Tour money list, eclipsing the previous single-season record by more than $20,000. Now it's on to the Triple-A circuit, where Wittenberg will continue his winning ways and earn a trip to the big leagues in 2009.
17. Rickie FowlerThe Leap: NCAA All-American
Analysis: According to one on-the-scene observer at the 2007 Walker Cup, it was Fowler -- not highly decorated Colt Knost or reigning NCAA champ Jamie Lovemark -- who was the most impressive ball striker for the victorious U.S. side. Not bad for a kid who, at the time, had yet to hit a single shot in collegiate competition. Now a freshman at Oklahoma State, Fowler is already atop Golfweek's ranking of college players. Expect him to remain there for a while.
18. Anna RawsonThe Leap: Fan favorite
Analysis: Move over, Natalie Gulbis. By qualifying for fully exempt status at LPGA Q-school last month, Rawson has become the hottest thing on tour -- in more ways than one. Like Gulbis, the Aussie isn't afraid to bare a little skin, posing as a bikini model in several magazine shoots. And like Gulbis, she has the game to back it up, helping USC to its first women's title in 2003. We could tell you more about the 26-year-old, but it's easier to simply click on her official Web site or her MySpace page or this YouTube video. Nothing wrong with a little exposure, uh, so to speak.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
Anyone can predict a big year for Tiger Woods or Lorena Ochoa. It takes a little skill -- or is it luck? -- to correctly guess which players will make "The Leap" to another level. The Weekly 18 starts with Justin Rose, who just might own a major championship trophy by the end of the year.