- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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You're about to read one of my favorite pieces to write each year -- and one of the most difficult.
Before elaborating on those related thoughts, allow me to slice down an adjacent fairway for a minute. I've long contemplated -- with colleagues, with golf fans and (too often) by myself late at night -- why a sport that millions of people play and the world's most famous athlete calls his profession isn't more popular with the casual crowds. And I've found the answer -- or at least one of the answers: It's neither a gambling nor fantasy-friendly sport.
Sure, diehards can throw a few quid on, say, Ryan Palmer at the Ginn sur Mer Classic, but those who are that clairvoyant should already be earning a steady income predicting things like the end of civilization as we know it, not golf results. And yes, anyone can throw a few grinders into a four-man fantasy lineup in January, but it won't exactly quench anyone's thirst for the NFL fantasy season (which is a mere eight months away, so start getting your draft board in order).
Let's face it: Everyone and their mothers will tune in for the Masters each April, but without a personal, vested interest in a given event, it's difficult for fans to remain loyal viewers during a season that is conspicuously endless. And don't expect that to change anytime soon, for the sole reason that it's just too damn impossible to predict the outcomes of golf tournaments.
All of which brings us back to this column, in which I annually choose 18 players to make "The Leap" in a certain category. This isn't a list of the best, the most talented or the most popular players; that would be too easy. Nor is it a rundown of unknown players who might someday become household names; that would be too hard. Instead, The Leap examines which players can reach the next level this season and transform their games into bigger, better results.
Last year's biggest leapers were Anthony Kim, who went from a guy with potential to a two-time tourney champ and Ryder Cup hero, and Yani Tseng, who became the youngest winner of a women's major since 1998 en route to claiming the LPGA's rookie of the year award. Can a player as accomplished as Tiger Woods make The Leap? Sure, but as a guy who's been there, done that throughout his career, about the only thing left for him is to win the Grand Slam. (And no, I'm not being so bold as to predict that, although nothing would surprise me anymore.) Instead, my dazzling dozen-and-a-half includes players from the current No. 2 man in the world to at least a few you likely have never encountered.
It's an inexact science -- and maybe that's what makes it so much fun. Here are my 18 to make The Leap in 2009:
The Leap: Major champion
As the current No. 2-ranked golfer in the world, Garcia might shoulder the label of "Best Player To Have Never Won A Major," but he's far from a Chicago Cubs-style lovable loser. Through the years, he's earned a rep as a player who owns a perennially poor putting stroke and can't win the big one, but look more carefully at Garcia's record, and you'll find those characterizations should have vanished in the past year. El Nino finished 107th in putting average this past season, which obviously wasn't exceptional but was much improved over previous years. For a guy with one of the best tee-to-green games in the biz, his putting might need to be only good -- not great -- to score big-time results. And he already has won a big one -- well, a pretty big one, at least -- taking the Players Championship this past May. I've been saying for years that Garcia will win a major before turning 30. He has four more shots at it. As Cubbies fans keep saying, "It's gonna happen." This is the year for Garcia.
2. Hunter Mahan
The Leap: Top 10 of Official World Golf Ranking
Take a good look at the top 10 of the current Official World Golf Ranking, because 52 weeks from now, it might be totally rearranged. Oh sure, Tiger and Garcia and Phil Mickelson likely will remain among the world's elite, but others will drop from the list, and common sense says they have to be replaced. Mahan is my pick to make The Leap into the game's upper echelon. At No. 44 on the OWGR entering the year, the Ryder Cup star has been a proven winner at every level on which he's competed, from AJGA to college to the PGA Tour, where he broke through with a victory at the 2007 Travelers Championship. It says a lot about the guy that he finished 30th on the money list in 2008 and considered it a down year. Expect him to come back in style this season.
3. Sean O'Hair
The Leap: Presidents Cup team member
Young guns J.B. Holmes, Kim and Mahan might have been all the rage at Valhalla, but they are hardly the only American-born players who will be carrying the flag in international competition over the next decade. Expect fellow 20-something O'Hair, who earned his second career PGA Tour victory before his 26th birthday last year, to enjoy yet another solid season and join them on Fred Couples' roster at Harding Park. He's a notoriously streaky player, but if he hits the scene on an uptick, he could be a key cog for the U.S.' chances.
4. Aaron Baddeley
The Leap: Multiple PGA Tour tournament winner
In 2008, the list of PGA Tour players who had multiple victories included Tiger, Padraig Harrington, Mickelson, Kim, Vijay Singh, Camilo Villegas, Kenny Perry -- and that's it. Seems like this is an increasingly exclusive club each season; anyone can win one event, but only the most talented players win more. Consider the man known as Badds on that level. He didn't have a great season hitting the ball in 2008, resulting in his first winless campaign in three years, but expect that to change while his putting stroke remains one of the smoothest around. The Aussie undoubtedly has been passed on the road to superstardom by a few of his fellow young guns. This season, he'll pass 'em right back.
5. Stacy Lewis
The Leap: LPGA rookie of the year
She's not only talented, but she might have a chip on her shoulder, too. As an amateur, Lewis won an LPGA title -- sort of. An opening-round 65 gave her the 18-hole lead at the 2007 NW Arkansas Championship, but the tournament went no further because of weekend-long weather delays, and she was declared an unofficial winner. And then at last year's U.S. Women's Open, she finished T-3, but since she was not an LPGA member, those earnings didn't count toward her total and she was relegated to Q-school. No matter for the former University of Arkansas sensation, who charged through the tournament to earn medalist honors. All of which has me believing that even during a season that should boast an especially strong rookie class -- in particular, watch out for runaway Futures Tour money leader Vicky Hurst -- ROY might be too timid of a proclamation for Lewis. On her way there, expect two or three wins.
6. Casey Wittenberg
The Leap: PGA Tour rookie of the year
To say I'm bullish on the incoming PGA Tour freshman class that recently graduated from the Nationwide circuit is a severe understatement. While only two such players won tournaments in 2008 (Marc Turnesa and Chez Reavie), a whole bunch have the potential to find the winner's circle this season, including Peter Tomasulo, Colt Knost, Aron Price, Ricky Barnes and Spencer Levin. If you pay attention to amateur golf, none of these names should come as a surprise. Nor should Wittenberg, of course, who was a can't-miss kid -- until he missed. Well, he's not a kid anymore, and although his T-13 and T-36 results as an amateur in 2004 at the Masters and U.S. Open, respectively, might seem like a lifetime ago, he still has the chops to be a successful player. If his Nationwide record is any indication, expect Wittenberg to rack up plenty of top-25s, a few top-10s and a couple of title contentions during the year.
7. Pat Perez
The Leap: Major championship contender
Tiger finished tops in the PGA Tour's all-around ranking -- which measures players' standings in eight important statistical categories -- during each of the three seasons from 2005 to 2007. He didn't play enough rounds to be considered eligible in 2008, so the No. 1 spot was relinquished to none other than Perez. A flammable personality, the much-maligned Perez might not do anything great, but perhaps more importantly, he doesn't do anything poorly. With six top-10s in 27 starts in 2008, it was another season of building and growing and maturing and a bunch of look-on-the-bright-side, positive-attitude moments that Perez probably didn't care much about. The guy just wants to win, and although he's still searching for his first tour triumph, don't be surprised to see him in the mix going into the back nine on a Sunday afternoon at a major this season.
8. Steve Marino
The Leap: FedEx Cup contender
Red numbers are nothing new to this up-and-comer, who led the PGA Tour in total birdies (440) and finished T-9 in birdie average (3.70 per round) in 2008. Those numbers resulted in 27 made cuts in 32 starts, including six top-10s. At 28, he's only getting better. With the revamped FedEx Cup points system allowing for more players to have a chance to win at East Lake, don't be surprised to see his name popping up among the game's elite that week. Helping the cause is the fact that Marino finished T-10 and T-22, respectively, in the second- and third-round playoff events (Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship) last season. Those results left him on the outside looking in when it came to the Tour Championship, but that won't be a problem this time around.
9. Ryo Ishikawa
The Leap: International sensation
If that tag seems a little vague, I apologize, but it's not for lack of effort. Originally, I was going to tab Ishikawa with a leap to "household name," but he's going to have to win a major for that to happen. Then, I decided on "teen phenom" but realized he's already there; that would be less a leap than a flatline. I finally settled on "international sensation," although an Austin Powers-ish label of "international man of mystery" might be the most fitting. Having just turned 17 in September, Ishikawa already owns three career professional victories and is ranked 60th in the world, despite having never teed it up in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. Should he maintain that ranking, it will be enough to qualify him for the three WGC events and at least a few others, if he so chooses. Don't expect any wins over here yet, just a few flashes of brilliance and a few layers of that mystery peeled away.
10. Michelle Wie
The Leap: Top 10 on LPGA money list
Many golf fans believed Wie would make this leap years ago -- and maybe she should have. Many others believe it won't happen for years to come, if at all. Whichever side of the fence you're on -- and trust me, there aren't many who don't have a strong opinion on her future prospects -- do yourself this favor: Forget her past. Forget her increasingly futile attempts to compete in PGA Tour events. Forget her five top-3 finishes in LPGA major championships. Forget her previous wrist injuries. Instead, look at Wie for what she is right now -- an extremely talented LPGA rookie who already owns a ton of experience at the age of 19. Will she set the tour ablaze in her premier full season? It's doubtful, but winning at least one event and finishing in the top 10 on the money list seems a modest proposal, one that certainly is attainable should her wrist injuries subside and should she pick up where she left off a few years ago by continuing to realize her potential.
11. Nick Watney
The Leap: Top 50 of Official World Golf Ranking
Sometimes the numbers lie. Sometimes they don't tell the full story and can't provide an accurate indicator of things to come. In these cases, trust the eyeball test. It's an examination that Watney passes with flying colors; watch him on the range, and you'll see he has one of the most impressive swings on any given week. Of course, watch his results, and you'll notice that it hasn't totally translated into success, save his 2007 Zurich Classic win. That will change this season, as the Fresno State product becomes even more comfortable in his fifth full season on tour. He's ranked No. 204 in the world right now, but if the putter comes around just a bit, he'll soar up the list.
12. Tim Clark
The Leap: PGA Tour tournament winner
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again, right? OK, so maybe I've touted this very same player for this very same leap in the past. More than once. And OK, maybe it hasn't happened -- yet. It's only a matter of time for Clark, though, who recently won the Aussie Open and has five other international victories to his credit. He hasn't been too far off on U.S. soil, either, with six runner-up finishes over the past four seasons. In related news, I also think Ken Duke, Justin Rose, Mathew Goggin and Ian Poulter will win their first PGA Tour tournament titles. And if Clark doesn't claim some hardware? Yeah, he probably will be right back on this list again next year.
13. David Horsey
The Leap: Top 10 on European Tour money list
Waiting in the wings as future Ryder Cup heartbreakers are young European players from Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy), Germany (Martin Kaymer) and Spain (Pablo Larrazabal), but I'll take this 23-year-old Englishman as the breakout player overseas in 2009. Last season, Horsey won twice en route to claiming the money title on the Challenge Tour (the Euro equivalent of the Nationwide circuit). Fully exempt in the big leagues, expect him to make the jump to top-10 player.
14. Jay Williamson
The Leap: Top 50 on PGA Tour money list
No, you don't have to be an up-and-comer to make The Leap. Williamson, who will turn 42 in February, missed the cut in his final six starts this past season, finishing 137th on the money list and earning yet another trip to Q-school. That's the bad news. The good news is that he was this close to never needing it in the first place. In 2007, Williamson was in position to win the Travelers Championship before falling to Mahan in a playoff. Last season, he reached extra holes at the John Deere Classic before succumbing to Perry. He's got the game, he's got the full-year exemption -- now look for the St. Louis native to make the most of both.
15. Na Yeon Choi
The Leap: LPGA tournament winner
Talk about tough luck. In her debut LPGA season, Choi earned nine top-10s, finished 21st or better in all four major championships and placed 11th on final the money list -- and still fell 267 points shy of Yani Tseng in the Rolex Rookie of the Year race. A big hitter (20th in driving distance last year) who can go low (35 of her 98 rounds were in the 60s), expect Choi to join the ranks of so many South Korean players who have followed in the footsteps of Se Ri Pak on their way to the winner's circle. And based on recent history, don't be surprised if -- like Tseng in '08 -- that first win comes at a major.
16. Gary Woodland
The Leap: PGA Tour driving distance champion
You read it here first: Early whispers are that Woodland, a PGA Tour rookie who qualified through Q-school, has the swing speed to topple Bubba Watson from the perch of biggest bomber on tour. In fact, if what I'm hearing is true, the only player who might be able to hold back the former Kansas Jayhawk is himself; if Woodland decides hitting fairways is more important than hitting into the stratosphere and tames his game with more fairway woods off the tee, he'll fall a little short. And if that's the case, here's one more potential contender to the throne: Marc Leishman, an Aussie who also is making his PGA Tour debut this season, finished seventh on the Nationwide Tour driving distance list in 2008 and owned two of the three longest drives of the year.
17. Won Joon Lee
The Leap: Nationwide Tour graduate
If Triple-A ballparks all were 390 feet to the deepest part of center field and major league stadiums all were 440, wouldn't it stand to reason that the best minor leaguers might not translate into the best major leaguers? Such is the case with the differential between the Nationwide Tour and its big brother, the PGA Tour, as the lower level often features shorter venues that play into the hands of ball-strikers more than power players. That's a problem for Lee, who was born in South Korea, raised in Australia and boasts one of the longest games on any pro tour. Last year, Lee led the Nationwide circuit with an average driving distance of 315.7 yards but managed to parlay that into only a 50th-place finish on the money list. Expect the brawny 23-year-old to stay in the top 25 this time, then use his prodigious talents to overpower some of the PGA Tour's longest venues in 2010 and beyond.
18. Wen-Tang Lin
The Leap: European Tour tournament winner
There is absolutely, positively no possible way that every choice on this list will fail to make The Leap. That's because I cheated. Picking Lin is like automatically filling in the middle square on a bingo card before hearing a number called. Having won the Hong Kong Open in a playoff over McIlroy and Francesco Molinari in November, Lin was a 2009 tournament champion two months before the calendar rolled over.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
Who's ready to take the next step in his or her golfing career? We make a case for 18 players from all over the globe who will significantly change their fortunes in 2009, writes ESPN.com's Jason Sobel.