For 2023, here are 23 storylines to watch

For 2023, here are 23 storylines to watch

What’s the forecast for the coming year in golf?  

Meteorologically speaking, that question will be top of mind for the PGA Championship in May at way-up-north Oak Hill in Rochester, New York. It will also come up at The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in July – when Tiger Woods won The Open there in 2006, it was amidst such a fierce heatwave the browned-out course was literally turning to dust.  

As for the other kind of forecast, we have a lot of questions. 

From Steven Alker to Will Zalatoris, here are 23 storylines for ‘23.  

1. Which is more likely for Rory: defend the FedExCup or complete the career Grand Slam? 

 It’s tempting to say McIlroy is going to win the Masters to complete the career Slam, but even after his final-round 64 and runner-up finish last April, which reignited his season, it’s more likely that he’ll win an unprecedented fourth FedExCup. He loves East Lake, where he overcame a six-shot Starting Strokes deficit last season, and excellence is far more likely to be rewarded over the long haul than in any given week, especially one as hard to predict as Masters week.   

2. What will it look like as the top players commit to get together more often? 

You can’t script epic battles like the 1977 Duel in the Sun between Jack Nicklaus and winner Tom Watson at Turnberry, Scotland. But you can set up a schedule to maximize the odds of such a clash. It could happen at not just THE PLAYERS Championship and the majors, but also the TOUR’s designated events, of which there will be 12. Now more than ever we’ll know when and where the TOUR’s best will be competing. 

3. What will Scottie Scheffler do for an encore? 

He cooled down after winning four times in six starts, including the Masters Tournament, but he’s not going away. The PGA TOUR Player of the Year still contended often after Augusta, including three runners-up and a third-place finish. He also had two top-10s in three fall starts – T3 at the World Wide Technology Championship and T9 at the Cadence Bank Houston Open – and absent his A game pressured Viktor Hovland before finishing second at the Hero World Challenge. His best chance for an early win: the WM Phoenix Open (he’s finished T7 and won the last two seasons) and the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play (runner-up, win in the last two years).     

4. What will we see from Tiger? 

Of all the numbers we associate with Woods – 82 PGA TOUR victories, 15 majors – here’s a new one: A quarter of the bones in the human body are in the feet. Still day-to-day physically, he thought walking in the sand might help him but instead developed plantar fasciitis and pulled out of the Hero World Challenge. Don’t expect any more beach walks but do expect him to tee it up in and possibly contend in The Open at relatively flat Royal Liverpool, a course that rewards guile and where he won in 2006.    

5. How will Max Homa fare in his return to LACC? 

This is a bit reminiscent of the 2019 Open Championship, where one of the game’s stars returned home to a region starved for a major championship, and to a course where he shot 61 in his younger days. Homa just hopes this ends differently than Rory McIlroy’s attempt to win at Royal Portrush. McIlroy missed the cut. Homa, now a five-time TOUR winner, admits he needs to contend more at majors and the 2023 U.S. Open would be a perfect place to start. He is from nearby Valencia and cruised to his first collegiate win in the 2013 Pac-12 Championship at LACC, where he opened with that course-record 61 on a day when the scoring average was nearly 74. This will be the first major in Los Angeles since the 1995 PGA Championship at neighboring Riviera Country Club. Homa was 4 at the time.  

6. Which winner of multiple titles in ’22 might have just been warming up? 

Sam Burns. It feels weird to type that given that he won three times last season, but he might still have a lot under the hood. Burns has quietly reached 13th in the world and will try for his third straight Valspar Championship title in ’23. But he’ll also feel plenty motivated after a lackluster season in the big events, including a missed cut at the Masters Tournament and disappointing final-round 76s at THE PLAYERS Championship (T26) and U.S. Open (T27). Burns is still ascending and could put together the kind of season that his pal Scottie Scheffler did in ‘22, even picking off a major. 

7. What does Tom Kim do for an encore? 

After becoming the first since Tiger to win twice on the PGA TOUR before turning 21 and powering the International Presidents Cup Team with two points and immeasurable mojo, Kim told PGATOUR.COM, “I have to get better.” That means hitting the ball harder – the Asian Tour, where Kim kicked off his career, often plays shorter, tighter layouts that emphasize accuracy over power– so expect fewer 2-iron approach shots. He’ll also be studying up on TPC Sawgrass, Augusta National, Oak Hill, L.A.C.C., and Royal Liverpool, none of which he’s played.      

8. Which player will make his TOUR Championship debut? 

Maverick McNealy finished 68th in the FedExCup in 2020, 58th in ‘21, 38th last season, and sits at 28th going into the holidays. In other words, if they all convened at East Lake tomorrow, he would be there. He’s still looking for his first PGA TOUR win after runner-up finishes in the Fortinet Championship last season and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in ‘21, but the guess here is he’ll get that first win and also punch his ticket to East Lake in ‘23. And watch out if he makes it into the U.S. Open at L.A. Country Club – that’s where McNealy went 4-0-0 at the 2017 Walker Cup.   

9. Can the United States win its first road Ryder Cup in 30 years? 

This might be the biggest question in golf, considering how long it’s been since the U.S. won in Europe and how successful the Americans have been in recent Cup play. Winning the road Ryder Cup really is the last test remaining for this young American core, especially after its record-setting performance at Whistling Straits in 2021. The problem is not one of talent but of potential unfamiliarity with the course, Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, outside Rome. Although DP World Tour players may know it as the host of the Italian Open, PGA TOUR pros could be coming in blind. That backfired badly at Le Golf National outside Paris in 2018, when Europe cruised 17.5-10.5, and you’d better believe the home team will set up Marco Simone accordingly.   

10. Will Taylor Montgomery win PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year? 

After finishing 26th on each of the Korn Ferry Tour’s points standings in 2021, one spot shy of a TOUR card twice in a four-week span, Montgomery authored a redemption tour in 2022. The Las Vegas native notched nine top-10s in 17 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, comfortably earning his first TOUR card, and he heads to the winter break at No. 11 in the FedExCup thanks to six top-25s in seven starts. He also won Birdies Fore Love with the most birdies in the fall. Montgomery has yet to win a TOUR-sanctioned title, but the numbers suggest that is due to change. Other rookies to keep an eye on include Thomas Detry, Ben Griffin, S.H. Kim and Davis Thompson.  

11. Tony Finau. Winning machine. Will it continue? 

When he won the Cadence Bank Houston Open in the fall, it marked Finau’s third victory of ‘22, fourth in 30 starts, third in seven starts and fifth overall on the PGA TOUR. “I’ve always had belief,” he said, “but confidence when you win is contagious. I’m starting to put together a full-package game.” Next up is to let that confidence translate to trophies at more elite-field events (like he did at THE NORTHERN TRUST in ‘21) and the majors (where he has nine top-10s in the past five seasons). Don’t put it past this prodigious talent to do just that.    

12. Can Justin Thomas get back to winning multiple times in a season, as he feels he should? 

Thomas was assessing his 2022 when a reporter reminded him that according to Tiger Woods any season with a major victory is a good season. “If he says it,” said Thomas, shrugging his shoulders. The winner of the PGA Championship in May, though, openly expects more than one win per season, and while he had 10 top-10s in ’22, he didn’t accomplish that goal. His final-round scoring average (9th on TOUR last season at 68.7) was not the problem. Instead, it was his relatively slow starts (21st at 69.3). The guess here is he figures it out and puts together something closer to his three-win 2020.     

13. THE PLAYERS’ return to March has produced big-name winners. Who’s next?

Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are among the winners since THE PLAYERS returned to March in 2019. TPC Sawgrass requires a well-rounded game and the overseeded conditions of the earlier date puts the driver back in players’ hands. That would make names like Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele candidates for success. Rahm was the TOUR’s top driver last year, adding 10 yards to his average tee shot and leading the TOUR in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee. He has put himself in contention at THE PLAYERS but also seen the penal side of Pete Dye’s design. Schauffele finished second in his PLAYERS debut, but has missed the cut in all three starts since. And Cantlay has struggled, as well, missing all three cuts in March after starting his PLAYERS career with consecutive top-25s. Jon Rahm, your 2023 PLAYERS champion it is.

14. How will the PGA TOUR U No. 1 fare? 

Texas Tech’s Ludvig Aberg currently holds the top spot in both the PGA TOUR University Velocity Global Ranking and the World Amateur Golf Ranking. The Swede is in line for an unprecedented reward, as the top player in PGA TOUR U after the 2023 NCAA Championship will become a PGA TOUR member and have access to all open, full-field events for the remainder of the year (approximately 14). Aberg has impressed with his ball-striking and his poise. He fits the modern mold in that he leans heavily on the driver, the strongest club in his bag, but he veers from his peers with his lack of social media presence. He doesn’t have a Twitter account and rarely posts on Instagram. He isn’t glued to his phone, occasionally taking hours to respond to a text. With the long-term in mind, he tries to limit distractions and his emotions aren’t enslaved to the moment. “His ball-striking is as good as his mental game, and those are top level,” said his college coach, Greg Sands, who uses the final round of Aberg’s win at the Big 12 Championship, when Aberg gave himself a birdie putt on all 18 holes, as an example. Sounds like a good combination. 

15. Can Jason Day win again on the PGA TOUR? 

If he’s healthy, yes. Day battled valiantly in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where his eagle hole-out on the 14th hole tied him for the lead and was one of the most thrilling shots of the year. In short, you’d never know he hadn’t won since 2018. He finished T3 that day, but with four top-25 finishes in the fall, and at 33rd in the FedExCup, Day seems to be building up to something for ‘23. 

16. How will Will Zalatoris rebound from a season-ending back injury? 

It was a big year for Zalatoris, who made a difficult caddie change – adding Joel Stock to the team – and copped his first PGA TOUR win in a wild FedEx St. Jude Championship in August. But when you consider close calls at the Farmers Insurance Open (playoff loss to Luke List), PGA Championship (playoff loss to Justin Thomas), and U.S. Open (a shot back of Matt Fitzpatrick), it could have been a huge year. If he’s healthy again, Zalatoris isn’t a bad bet to win more than once in ’23.   

17. What can we expect from Rickie Fowler after his coaching and caddie changes? 

Fowler is still only 33, and he finished T6 in tough conditions at the season-opening Fortinet Championship and led at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP before slipping to a T2 finish. The two top-10s in the fall, when he was back under the tutelage of Butch Harmon and had a new man, Ricky Romano, on the bag, doubled his total top-10s last season when he fell out of the top 100 in the world. To read the tea leaves keep an eye on how he does at the WM Phoenix Open, site of his last win in 2019. Another interesting note is that Fowler’s average driving distance was up 12 yards from the previous year, among the biggest year-over-year gains in 2022.

18. Is Jon Rahm poised for another monster year? 

It appears Rahm, 28, is building up to something. His PGA TOUR campaign in 2022 featured a win at the Mexico Open at Vidanta, but more close calls than anything else: second at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, T3 at the Farmers Insurance Open at his beloved Torrey Pines. He was in the mix at the U.S. Open until a final-round 74 dropped him into a tie for 12th. But it’s the way he closed out this year on the DP World Tour that suggests a big ‘23. Rahm finished T2 at the BMW Championship in September, won the Spanish Open in October, and won the DP World Tour Championship in November. All in all, he closed the year with seven top-10s in his last eight starts, including two wins. He didn’t miss the cut in any of his 23 worldwide starts in 2022 and his 19 consecutive PGA TOUR cuts made is the longest streak on TOUR by six. As noted above, he also added 10 yards off the tee to make himself even more of a formidable driving force. He was the only player to gain more than a stroke per round off the tee in 2022.

19. Can Jordan Spieth complete the career grand slam at the PGA at Oak Hill? 

Spieth has been just one leg away from joining the most exclusive club in golf (Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods) since winning the 2017 Open Championship. Although he missed the cut in the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill (74-74), it was only the fourth major start of his career, so call it a fluke. The leaderboard that week (Jason Dufner and Jim Furyk finished one-two) suggests it’s not a bomber’s paradise, and Spieth is on a nice run after winning last season and going 5-0-0 at the Presidents Cup. He can get it done at Oak Hill; he doesn’t scare easily. May in upstate New York can bring unpredictable weather, as well, and that could fit a grinder like Spieth. He finished third in the 2019 PGA at Bethpage Black, which also was held in New York in May.  

20. Which player will fare better on Korn Ferry Tour, Chris Gotterup or Pierceson Coody? 

One finished atop the PGA TOUR University Velocity Global Ranking, the other was the consensus collegiate player of the year in 2022. Only two players have won three Korn Ferry Tour titles in a calendar year since 2009, but Texas’ Pierceson Coody and Oklahoma’s Chris Gotterup could be poised to change that in 2023. Coody won by five strokes in just his third Korn Ferry Tour start as a pro, this summer’s Live and Work in Maine Open, but was slowed by a wrist injury late in his season. Gotterup has made the cut in 10 of 12 PGA TOUR starts, including two top-10s, and finished T3 at Final Stage of Q-School to earn 12 guaranteed Korn Ferry Tour starts. Much is expected of these two rising stars, and they could be primed to duel for 2023 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year. 

21. Will someone be able to iron Hoylake to submission like Tiger did? 

Not likely. Anyone who covered The Open Championship in 2006 will remember the tournament was played in the middle of a heat wave. The baked-out course was literally turning to dust, and the ball was running forever, allowing Woods to strafe Royal Liverpool into submission with long-irons off the tee. The R&A will tweak the place accordingly when the golf world convenes in July, and it’s a good bet the weather won’t be the same, either. Rory McIlroy also returns to the site of his Open victory, which was marked the third of his four major wins.

22. After the Schwab Cup race went to the season’s final day, will Alker and Harrington be the men to beat on PGA TOUR Champions again? 

Steven Alker went from Monday qualifier in 2021 to PGA TOUR Champions’ season-long champion in 2022, and the New Zealand native’s blend of precision and growing confidence positions him as a force for years to come. Padraig Harrington’s fountain of youth is ever-replenishing, as is his curiosity for the game’s nuances. His search for more swing speed made him the circuit’s longest driver by 10 yards. That’s tough to beat. Look for these two to duke it out for the Charles Schwab Cup once again in 2023, but don’t count out Steve Stricker, who won four times in 12 starts this season after returning from a severe illness that required hospitalization. A healthy Stricker will give Alker and Harrington a run.  

23. Can Cole (Hammer) get on a roll? 

After helping the University of Texas to the 2022 national title alongside the Coody twins and finishing No. 5 on the PGA TOUR University Ranking, much was made of Hammer’s chances to make a quick leap to the PGA TOUR. The Houston native, who qualified for the U.S. Open at 15 years old and became the world’s No. 1 amateur, might be in that process, just in a roundabout manner. Hammer missed the cut in his first six PGA TOUR starts as a pro, shooting a combined 29 over par, and failed to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. He also fell two strokes shy of guaranteed starts at the Final Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School, but his form in recent weeks has offered a glimpse of his immense potential; a T27 at the Cadence Bank Houston Open was followed by a T5 at The RSM Classic. That earned him a spot at next month’s Sony Open in Hawaii. A decade after his fellow Longhorn Jordan Spieth earned TOUR status as a non-member, Hammer will aim to do the same.