Monday, 01 January 2018
Rory Static  (European Tour)
Rory Static (European Tour)

Once again the European Tour dished out its fair share of twists and turns in a dramatic season that began with a victory against the odds for Sam Brazel in Hong Kong and concluded in gripping fashion in Dubai. After finishing 41st in the Race to Dubai Rankings the previous season, who would have called Tommy Fleetwood’s phenomenal form to take the season-ending glory in 2017? Who would have foreseen Sergio Garcia’s first Major success coming against old friend Justin Rose on a pulsating final day at Augusta National?

With the new year just around the corner, predicts seven storylines that could materialise, from a new World Number One to a successful Ryder Cup homecoming.

Hatton to get Major top 5

Back-to-back top tens at The Open and US PGA Championship made everybody sit up and take notice of Tyrrell Hatton in 2016. Every other story became a subplot at Royal Troon as Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson played out one of the all-time classic Open final rounds, but once the dust had settled there was plenty of acclaim for Hatton’s top five finish.

An impressive performance two weeks later at Baltusrol resulted in a tie for tenth, and proved the perfect preparation for a first win on tour two months later at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Strong performances in the Majors may have eluded him in 2017, but two more European Tour titles and five other top tens this year mean his strong ascension continues. His links pedigree might mean a strong Open finish is on the cards next year, particularly given that his last two rounds at this year’s venue, Carnoustie, are 65 and 67. 

Rory to win his fifth Major

If McIlroy’s winter break works the way he intends, 2018 could be the year he wins his fifth Major. It is possible he could complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters in April; he possesses a strong record at Augusta National, most notably four straight top tens since 2014. An injury-free build-up, something he did not get this year, would give him a fighting chance of claiming a first Green Jacket.

McIlroy can certainly mix it on an Open links, too, with three top fives in as many appearances. His 2014 victory at Royal Liverpool was vintage McIlroy and a return to similar form would make him difficult to beat. After claiming two wins in three years at the US PGA Championship, McIlroy has struggled lately to find his game in the year’s closing Major, while a second U.S. Open title has proved similarly elusive in recent years. Make no mistake, though, if the Northern Irishman has a healthy run this season another Major is on the cards.

Rahm to reach World Number One

You can never guarantee anything in this game, but a successful 2018 for Jon Rahm is as close as you can get to surefire thing. With two Rolex Series wins in 2017, Rahm gathered the momentum to climb to World Number Four and will finish the year in fifth place. Not bad for a 23 year old who started the year outside the top 100. To master the topsy-turvy weather of this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation and look equally adept in the desert at the DP World Tour Championship suggests this is a guy who can find success anywhere.

It seems likely Rahm will make his Ryder Cup bow at Le Golf National in September, by which time it is quite plausible he could have another tour title to his name, maybe even a Major Championship. Rahm will need the likes of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth to endure quiet years, but the title of Number One player in the world is a genuine possibility. Watch this space…

Europe to bounce back in The Ryder Cup

The run of three successive Ryder Cup wins may have come to an end at Hazeltine in 2016, but the Europeans have reason to be cheerful about what 2018 will bring. There will be a fiery determination to win back the Samuel Ryder trophy in what is already shaping up to be a classic encounter just outside Paris next year.

A formidable year for potential rookies – Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren and Tyrrell Hatton – has breathed new life into European lungs in what will be the first home edition to be hosted outside Great Britain and Ireland since Valderrama in 1997. A returning Paul Casey would be a welcome addition to the team, with the likes of McIlroy and Stenson sure to lead the line. One thing is for certain – Thomas Bjørn’s side will not be short of quality. 

Stenson to win again

It is hard to follow the year of your career. In 2016, Henrik Stenson won The Open, claimed a Silver Medal at the Rio Olympics and won the Race to Dubai for the second time in four years. It was always going to be a battle to match or even exceed that this year, although that did not stop the Iceman from claiming runner-up spots at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions.

The 41 year old remains one of the best ball-strikers on tour and finished in the top ten in Stroke Average (70.21), Fairways Hit (74.3%) and Greens in Regulation (73.8%) in 2017. It will not take much for the Swede to get back in regular contention for titles, particularly if he can come back in peak condition following an end-of-year rib injury. The last time Stenson had a winless year was 2015…and we all know what happened next.

Li Haotong to finish in style

Twice in 2016 Li Haotong put on a Sunday masterclass to surge up the leaderboard, including during the final 18 holes at Royal Birkdale with the Claret Jug on the line. The Chinese, already a European Tour winner thanks to a home win at the Volvo China Open in 2016, fired what was then a joint-record Major score of 63 at Birkdale to put the pressure on Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar.

He put on another Sunday show at the Nedbank Golf Challenge, with five birdies in six holes to start his round. An eventual 64 helped him finish within four of champion Branden Grace and showed he has the fighting spirit necessary to compete for big titles. Whether another comeback round will result in victory in 2018 is yet to be seen, but his all-round game is in shape to contest in a big tournament. 

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