Commentary

Keep an eye on these 10 golfers in 2010

Originally Published: January 12, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Anyone on a barstool at the local 19th hole with a TV tuned to Golf Channel above his head can predict another major championship for Phil Mickelson in 2010. Or further impressive play from young Rory McIlroy. Or a second LPGA title for Michelle Wie.

None of these results would merit an increase in status, only a continuation of success for the coming season.

[+] EnlargeHunter Mahan
Chris Condon/PGA TOURHunter Mahan might only have a single PGA Tour title to his credit, but expect the 2010 season to yield a spot in the top 10 in the world rankings.

It's much more difficult to predict which players will make "The Leap," which is to say jumping from one level to another here in 2010.

Here are 10 players who may be on the cusp of such a move.

Geoff Ogilvy
The Leap: Multiple major champion

Right now, the Aussie is tied with the likes of Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel and so many others with one major title, but he's no fluke or one-hit wonder. Ogilvy is among the world's most talented players and doesn't get enough credit for his 2006 U.S. Open victory, when Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington all floundered down the stretch.

When asked recently about his chances to become No. 1 in the world during Tiger Woods' absence, Ogilvy said, "My good periods are great but the players who get to the top two or three in the world stay there and play well. They do well when they're not playing their best. ... I think I am more capable and I think I get better most years."

Inconsistency may not be the mark of a top-ranked player, but periods of great play is what wins titles and Ogilvy is primed for another big one, as evidenced by his second straight season-opening victory at Kapalua. Keep an eye on him at St. Andrews, where his propensity to spray it off the tee won't hinder his performance at this summer's British Open.

Hunter Mahan
The Leap: Top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking

His name has become synonymous with the game's second-tier citizens, somewhere a level below Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and other multiple major champions. And yet, what has Mahan actually done to be included on such a list?

His lone PGA Tour victory came at the 2007 Travelers Championship. He only made each of the past three U.S. international teams because he received a captain's pick. He is ranked just 27th in the world.

Perhaps the high hopes for Mahan have exceeded his production, but this is the year that he finally shows he belongs in such discussions. The 27-year-old has as much talent as any American player under 30 -- right alongside Anthony Kim and Sean O'Hair -- but the wins have yet to come. Count on a few of 'em this year, which should be enough to vault him into the top 10 on the OWGR.

Jeff Overton
The Leap: Top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking

Sometimes stats, numbers and results don't tell the entire story. Sometimes you just have to give it the ol' eyeball test. Late in the 2008 schedule, I spent time watching Nick Watney on the driving range and decided that he was a star in the making; he followed with 12 top-25s in 24 starts in his fifth full season last year, including a second career win at Torrey Pines.

Well, this time around I've got my eye on Overton, who is about to enter his fifth season, too. He enjoyed a solid campaign last year, with three top-10s and seven other top-25s, but the 6-foot-4 Indiana University product is still mired at 161st in the OWGR. I'm looking for him to jump more than 100 spots in the next 51 weeks, earning his first career victory in the process.

Jason Day
The Leap: Tour Championship competitor

What's the most important statistic on the PGA Tour? Well, other than wins and money list standing, it's the All-Around category, which measures how players fare in all important areas.

Last year, as usual, Tiger Woods led this category; he was trailed by some other big-timers including Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker. At seventh on the list, Day proved he has all the necessary tools to compete on the most elite tour in the world.

Although most discussions about the game's top youngsters revolve around Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa and Rickie Fowler -- and for good reason -- let's not forget about this 22-year-old Aussie, who last year finished T-2 in Puerto Rico and fourth at Colonial. With two full PGA Tour seasons now under his belt, Day is ready to become part of the game's upper crust, which should equate to a berth in the season-ending, 30-player Tour Championship come September.

Michael Sim
The Leap: PGA Tour tournament champion

This one is easy money.

After his rookie season of 2007 was delayed due to a fractured spine, Sim actually played pretty well, claiming four top-25s in 17 starts. He was given a medical exemption and earned three more top-25s in seven starts in '08, but found himself back on the Nationwide Tour last season.

All he did there was triumph three times to earn a battlefield promotion and win the money title. Now healthy and fully exempt, the Scotland-born Aussie has learned how to win on a high level and should prove it once again now that he's in the big leagues.

Ai Miyazato
The Leap: Major champion

Lorena Ochoa may have been the LPGA's Player of the Year in 2009, but she only finished fourth on the money list, behind Jiyai Shin, Cristie Kerr and, yes, Miyazato, who has been a global superstar for years and is finally coming into her own among the world's best.

A household name in her native Japan, she owns 15 international victories and finally claimed her first LPGA-sanctioned title last season in France, shooting 69-66-70-69 to win the Evian Masters.

In 19 career major starts, Miyazato owns six top-10 finishes, including a T-6 at last year's U.S. Women's Open and a T-3 a few weeks later at the Women's British Open. At 24, she is ready to break through and earn the hardware at one of the four big ones.

MJ Hur
The Leap: Top 20 in Rolex Rankings

In a 2009 rookie class that included Michelle Wie, Vicky Hurst and Stacy Lewis, it was easy for Hur to get lost in the mix, but she also had a successful freshman season, winning the Safeway Classic and collecting nearly a half-million dollars in earnings.

The South Korea native is currently 45th in the Rolex Rankings -- a nice place to be after graduating from the Futures Tour in 2008. She's on the verge of a meteoric rise, though, thanks to one thing and one thing only: She can putt. Last year, Hur was the only LPGA player who ranked eighth or better in both putts per round and putting average.

Expect her to roll the rock all the way up the rankings this season.

Tom Lehman
The Leap: Champions Tour player of the year

Let me preface this by saying I have no idea how many senior circuit events the former Ryder Cup captain will play this season. Last year he played just eight of 'em; with dual status on the PGA and Champions tours, Lehman can cherry pick his appearances based on venue, location, strength of field, etc. If he doubles that number, expect a dominant campaign.

At 50 (he'll turn 51 on March 7), the five-time PGA Tour winner still has the chops to hang with the big boys on courses that aren't too lengthy, putting him head and shoulders above against most guys his own age. Yes, Lehman will have to deal with a ramped-up tour that now includes Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger and Fred Couples -- and will soon also have Mark Calcavecchia and Kenny Perry -- but he's just the kind of fairways-and-greens player who succeeds among the 50-and-over set.

Last year, Lehman teamed with Bernhard Langer to win his first-ever Champions Tour event. This year, he won't need any help.

Francesco Molinari
The Leap: Major championship contender

The lowest stroke average on the European Tour last season belonged to Rory McIlroy. In second place was Sergio Garcia. Who was sandwiched in between those superstars and Paul Casey, with Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer just behind?

It wasn't Ian Poulter (No. 8), Retief Goosen (10th) or Padraig Harrington (12th), but Molinari, who averaged 69.85 strokes per 18 holes. Until now, Francesco wasn't even the most famous golfer in his family; that honor belongs to his brother Edoardo, who won the 2005 U.S. Amateur title.

The siblings teamed up to win the World Cup late in 2009 and this April will be the first to compete in the same Masters field since the Ozaki boys 10 years ago. Though Francesco owns just one career official victory (the 2006 Italian Open), he is proving to be a solid major championship competitor, finishing T-27 at last year's U.S. Open, T-13 at the Open Championship and T-10 at the PGA Championship.

In none of those instances did he clearly contend, though. That will change in 2010.

Thomas Aiken
The Leap: European Tour tournament champion

Here's a trivia question for you: Which player led the Euro Tour in putts per round last season? The answer: Aiken. Here's another one: Which player led that tour in putting average last season? The answer: Same guy.

You may have never heard of the 26-year-old South African, but the numbers show he is the international version of Steve Stricker. After playing the Nationwide Tour in 2007, he made the move to Europe in '08 without much success, failing to earn a single top-10 result.

That changed last year, though, when he became a virtual top-10 machine, netting seven such finishes in 21 starts, including a T-8 at the Open Championship. He very nearly broke through for his first victory on Sunday, coming up a stroke shy of winner Charl Schwartzel at the Africa Open. That elusive title is coming soon, though, and will lead to inclusion in more big-time tourneys, which should in turn mean greater success. After all, putting is crucial when playing against the world's best.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.