Despite jeers, Casey will succeed in U.S.
When the PGA Tour announced Todd Hamilton as the 2004 recipient of its Rookie of the Year award, no one was surprised.
After all, the 39-year-old backed up a dozen successful years on worldwide tours with a win at the Honda Classic, followed by a career-making, life-changing victory at the British Open. Over Ernie Els, no less.
Then again, MLB and NHL experts will denounce similar awards given in their respective sports to Ichiro Suzuki and Sergei Makarov, players in their prime who predictably succeeded in their first season of a North America-based league.
So let's avoid any of that messy potential controversy on the professional golf tours and call the award what it is: Newcomer of the Year. Available to players of any age, the award can make veterans of foreign or minor tours feel young once again.
With that in mind, the Weekly 18 lists the top newcomers -- though not necessarily rookies -- to the four major U.S.-based tours in 2005.
If you're an American, you may not be a big fan of Paul Casey right now.
Back in November, the Englishman made an off-the-cuff comment about U.S. citizens -- "Oh, we properly hate them. We wanted to beat them as badly as possible," he told the Times of London -- that will probably haunt him for the rest of his playing days in the States.
After all, it certainly ate him up that week at the World Cup, where he endured plenty of criticism from the media, essentially got fired from his sponsorship deal with Titleist, even saw Rory Sabbatini's U.S.-born wife mockingly wear a shirt that read "Stoopid Amerikan" ... then went out and won the tournament with teammate Luke Donald.
In the span of one quote-gathering session, Casey replaced Vijay Singh as golf's Public Enemy No. 1, then played like Singh, who happens to be No .1 in the world. Having already qualified for a PGA Tour membership by way of making the European Ryder Cup team, Casey, who has an American coach, an American girlfriend and lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., these days, plans to play a full schedule on the U.S.-based tour in '05 after competing in nine stateside events last season.
If the World Cup victory was any measure, the more U.S. fans heckle the Brit, the better he'll play. We say he gets heckled a lot. And wins a few times, too.
She's six-feet tall, can bomb the ball 300 yards and will have a major impact on the LPGA Tour in 2005. If you think we're talking about Michelle Wie, think again. The 15-year-old Wie may be the future of women's professional golf, but the 18-year-old Creamer just may be the present. Playing in Q School while still an amateur, Creamer won the event by five strokes. She'll join fellow young guns Lorena Ochoa, Aree Song and Christina Kim as the race begins to remove Annika Sorenstam's Best Player label by the end of the decade.
Speaking of labels, the Irishman is considered by some to have the Best Player To Never Win A Major stamp currently affixed to his back (others claim it's his Ryder Cup teammate Sergio Garcia). That said, he's certainly the Best Player To Never Win In The U.S., a far less ubiquitous label, but one which still holds some value. Harrington has said he will play a somewhat regular PGA Tour schedule this season in an effort to be more prepared for the three stateside majors. Expect the 33-year-old, who lost in a playoff to Garcia at the Barclays Classic last year, to finally nab his first tour victory -- and maybe even a major.
After failing to claim his PGA Tour card by two strokes at Q School, Haas said he was extremely disappointed, that playing on the Nationwide Tour wasn't one of his career goals. No matter, he might not be there too long. The 22-year-old Wake Forest grad -- and son of tour vet Jay -- enters the season as clearly the top of the class in golf's version of the minor leagues. Haas made the cut in nine of 10 PGA Tour events in '04, including ninth place at the Deutsche Bank Championship and two other top-20 finishes. Don't be surprised to see him win three times on the Nationwide Tour and earn a mid-season battlefield promotion to the big leagues.
Never heard of Jones? Don't worry -- you will. After carding a win, three seconds and a fourth-place finish in his first six starts on the Nationwide Tour, essentially clinching a PGA Tour card for '05 by mid-June, the 29-year-old Aussie played an Ernie Els-style globetrotting golf tour. The result? Jones also finished sixth on the Australasian Tour's money list and played well in three majors despite missing the cut in each. Five Nationwide grads earned victories on the big tour last year; Jones is our odds-on favorite to keep the trend going in '05.
As if Creamer didn't have enough competition chasing the Sorenstams and Ochoas of the world while looking over her shoulder at Wie coming fast, she'll share the spotlight with fellow 18-year-old Lincicome this season. If Brittany's name sounds familiar, it should: As an amateur, she led last year's U.S. Women's Open after an opening-round 66, the lowest round ever recorded in the event by an amateur. Well aware of the impact that she, Creamer and other talented teens could have on the LPGA in the near future, Lincicome said that day, "The LPGA players better look out, because we're coming."
For as hard as American fans will be on Casey for his remarks, Poulter -- his Ryder Cup teammate -- will be a marketing dream. Another Brit who's promised to play more on tour, Poulter is known for his zany sense of style as much as his solid game. One week he'll sport blue spiked hair, six inches high; the next he'll don plus-fours made from a Union Jack flag, as he did at the last British Open. But Poulter's not all flash; his game has versatility, too. He may not win, but expect plenty of top-10 finishes.
Like Spider-Man 2, Ken Griffey Jr. and Little Nicky, the $50,000 cloned cat, sometimes the sequel is better than the original. If such is the case with Kevin Stadler, we could have a future Hall of Famer entering his rookie season on the PGA Tour in '05. Kevin is, of course, the son of 13-time PGA Tour champ and current Champions Tour dynamo Craig Stadler. He's called "Maxi-Me," an Austin Powers reference to the fact that his 5-foot-10, 250-pound frame isn't far off from his dad, and young Stads maximized his performance on the Nationwide Tour last season, earning victories in two of his first three appearances on the circuit.
Anyone whose two major jobs during his life include professional golfer and Budweiser truck driver is our kind of guy. Johnson delivered beer for 18 years then turned pro, winning the Champions Tour Q School with a final-round 64 (during which, we assume, he was getting plenty of good hops and always had a draft at his back).
This 27-year-old Nationwide Tour grad could take golf world by storm and win the '05 U.S. Open at Pinehurst ... and he still wouldn't be the biggest longshot to win the event from his hometown! A Brookline, Mass., native, Driscoll's resume is already more packed than that of former caddie Francis Ouimet when he won the Open in 1913 at The Country Club. Driscoll was runner-up to Jeff Quinney in the 2000 U.S. Amateur and placed seventh on the Nationwide money list last season, including a win at the Virginia Beach Open.
One of the toughest obstacles for PGA Tour rookies to overcome is the pressure that comes with playing in the big leagues. That's why we like Hearn. In second place through five rounds of Q School and seemingly coasting towards earning a card, Hearn made six bogeys and no birdies through the first 17 holes of the final round. The 25-year-old Canadian came to the final hole needing a par to make the tour. He hit a solid drive, knocked his approach to the fringe, then left nothing to doubt, rolling home a downhill 30-footer to clinch his spot.
The competition on tour should be nothing new to Trahan, who's only a year-and-a-half removed from Clemson University where he battled it out with fellow Tigers -- and current tour members -- Jonathan Byrd, Charles Warren and Lucas Glover on a daily basis. In fact, in Trahan's senior season Clemson became the first school in NCAA history to win its conference championship, an NCAA regional title and the NCAA Championship in the same year. He'll have a strong contingent of ex-teammates to lean on, which should prove highly beneficial on tour.
Davis started the '03 U.S. Open eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie on his first four holes. Had he just been able to keep up that pace for 68 more holes, Davis would have cruised to an 82-stroke victory over eventual champion Jim Furyk. But alas, Davis couldn't, and finished T-61 in the event. We kid, of course, but the moral of the story is that Davis is a rookie in only one sense of the word. He's playing his first season on the PGA Tour, but is a battle-tested veteran with several Euro Tour seasons under his belt. Is he this year's version of Hamilton? It's possible.
He's probably heard the line his entire life. You'd think we could come up with something better. But it's just too good to resist. So here goes nothing: Last year on the Nationwide Tour, Jimmy Walker was Dy-no-mite! The leading money winner on the Nationwide in '04, Walker is hoping the "good times" keep on rolling in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Expect the 25-year-old Oklahoma native to play well in the tour's southern-most events; his two wins last year came in Panama and Louisiana.
A career amateur, McKnight didn't turn professional until 2001. Still, he shouldn't be be intimidated by the length of anyone on the senior circuit; after all, he lost the '98 U.S. Amateur to perhaps the world's longest hitter, Hank Kuehne, 2-and-1. A former petroleum distributor and convenience store owner, McKnight played in one Champions Tour event in '04 and finished 12th. Expect plenty of top 10s in '05.
In Snyder, the PGA Tour is looking to go 3-for-3, or rather III-for-III. With junior-juniors Davis Love III and Charles Howell III already among the game's elite, it would take a huge jump for Snyder, a Q School regular since 1996, to join that crowd. In fact, he'd easily settle for the status of a Notah Begay III or Tommy Armour III, each solid pros who have won on tour. A final-round 65 at Q School suggests the talent level is there.
Bill Haas, Chris Nallen and Casey Wittenberg -- the three most talked-about collegians-turned-professionals in the past year -- will have no status on the PGA Tour in '05. Davidson, a recent graduate of Furman University, will. Saying he had "no expectations" at Q School, Davidson shot 10 under for the week to finish in a share of 11th place. The pressure-cooker event was only his third as a pro, following two starts on the vaunted Tarheel Tour earlier in the fall. Who said it's tough to get a job out of college?
What do we know about Birdie Kim? Well, not much. But we're sure of two things: She'll be one of six players with the surname Kim on the LPGA next season. And she's already got the best first name in professional golf (yes, including you, Tiger).
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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