Taking stock of the key talking points...
With 15 events in the Race to Dubai already in the books, we are more than a quarter of the way through the 2018 season. The first Major is on the horizon and the anticipation ahead of summer is beginning to simmer. From breakout wins for Eddie Pepperell, Chris Paisley and Shubhankar Sharma to Tommy Fleetwood’s move into the top ten in the World Ranking, there have been no shortage of talking points so far this year.
With that in mind, we take stock of the first three months of the season, picking out six of the key talking points.
Big Cat is back
Gene Sarazen may have played "the shot heard around the world", but after securing his highest worldwide finish in 1,659 days on Sunday, Tiger Woods’ comeback is proving just as hard to ignore. Finishing just one shot back, the 14-time Major Champion claimed a share of second at the Valspar Championship. Not only is the 42 year old teeing it up regularly again in front of fans reared on the vintage days of the noughties, he appears able and ready to actually compete with the new, younger generation of players.
With four top 25s in five appearances this season, including that social media-shattering final round in Florida on Sunday, talk inevitably is turning to the Masters Tournament. It’s not surprising; Woods has 13 top tens at Augusta National, including 12 top fives and of course four Green Jackets in his wardrobe. We haven't quite seen the Tiger of those indomitable years, but nobody knows the hallowed turf of Augusta quite like Woods.
Last year was no fluke
If Tommy Fleetwood has allowed himself a look back on a ground-breaking 2017, it’s clear that nostalgia isn’t blurring 2018’s to-do list. It’s like the Christmas break never happened for last season’s Race to Dubai Champion. With barely a moment to allow a year in which he won twice and finished top of the rankings to sink in, Fleetwood boarded a plane in Dubai to the UBS Hong Kong Open. Any signs of a metaphorical hangover were quickly vanquished; rounds of 68-68-66-69 earned him sixth place at Hong Kong GC.
The Middle East beckoned for the 27 year old in January, with the lure of defending his Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship title on the agenda. Not only did Fleetwood retain his title, he smashed his 17 under par total from the previous year by five shots. Moving through the gears with such fluidity on a regular basis, Fleetwood has truly arrived as one of the world’s top players and confirmed it when he cracked the top ten following the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Other men to join Fleetwood on the ascension trail include Dylan Frittelli and Matt Wallace. The former claimed his second European Tour title in six months at the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open in December and has finished in the top 20 four times in his last five appearances. Meanwhile, Wallace also won for the second time in less than a year, triumphing at last week’s Hero Indian Open. While 2017 may have been good for the aforementioned players, 2018 is shaping up to be better.
Hard work pays off
Golf is traditionally a game that shows little mercy. Flying from one country to another searching out an elusive victory or a top ten requires the kind of mental fortitude that lots desire but few have. Chris Paisley can count himself among those who have it. At the beginning of this season, the 31 year old had played 118 times on the European Tour since his debut in 2010. He had amassed just seven top tens and had gone through the humbling process of trying to keep his tour card.
However, the trajectory of Paisley’s career took a sharp upturn on January 14th 2018. With his wife Keri on the bag, Paisley won the BMW SA Open hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni, holding off home favourite Branden Grace with real poise. From that moment, it seemed like a switch had been flicked. After that life-changing result in South Africa, Paisley notched consecutive top fives in the Middle East, moved to 45 under par for his previous three weeks combined and earned his first WGC appearance in Mexico. He might not forget all the sacrifices made to reach this point, but there’s no doubt they laid the foundation for what looks like being his most successful season.
India and China have new stars
While Europe may have overcome the wintry conditions of the ‘Beast from the East’ recently, the European Tour are embracing two men who might want to adopt the same monikers if their promising starts continue. Shubhankar Sharma has enjoyed a whirlwind start to the season, winning twice – at the Joburg Open and Maybank Championship - and earning an invitation to the Masters, belying his 21 years to play some genuinely outstanding golf. The reward for his victories was a place inside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking and a place in the WGC-Mexico Championship, a tournament he led after 54 holes. Playing with his idol Phil Mickelson in the final group will have given Sharma a taste of what the future may hold. Already the highest ranked Indian in the world, the world is very much at his feet.
It’s been a similar story for Li Haotong. The Chinese won the Volvo China Open to announce his arrival on tour in 2016 and has hardly stopped to look back. The highlight of an impressive 2017 was an outright third place at The Open Championship, when a final round 63 put him in contention for the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale. His stock soared to an all-time high earlier this season at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, though, edging out Rory McIlroy to become the first man from China to break into the Top 50 in the world. You’ve been warned – the Beasts from the East are coming.
Ryder Cup fever is building
In less than 200 days, the biennial global fever pitch of The Ryder Cup will be at its most intense. Thomas Bjørn and Jim Furyk will lead their respective teams at Le Golf National for the 42nd edition of one of sport’s most watched and revered tournaments. Although both Captains will have an idea of the plan they want to action and the personnel to carry it out, there is still plenty to be determined. One man who will feel increasingly confident of automatically qualifying for a spot in Bjørn’s 12-man team is Paul Casey, fresh from victory at the Valspar Championship in the United States.
Casey’s first victory since the 2014 KLM Open has moved him into tenth spot in the Ryder Cup qualifying World Points List and up to 12th in the World Ranking. A first appearance for Team Europe since 2008 could be on the cards if the Englishman can continue to impress. A homecoming appearance at the BMW PGA Championship in May will present another opportunity to impress Bjørn. However, Casey’s search for a Ryder Cup berth is just one of many storylines set to play out over the next few months, as the world’s best continue to strive towards Paris.
All about going low
If you’re going to win, do it in style. That’s the mantra many of this year’s winners seem to have taken to heart. From Shubhankar Sharma’s huge 23 under par win at the Joburg Open to Li Haotong’s matching score at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, there have been no shortage of low scores out on the course this season. Out of 13 stroke play events this season, eight have been won by a score of 18 under par or lower, with four players breaking 20 under par, including Shubhankar Sharma twice.
Cameron Smith set the tone with an 18 under par victory in the Australian PGA Championship, before five of the next six victories were won by scores of 21 under par or lower. Sharma claimed two of those victories, in Johannesburg and at the Maybank Championship, amassing a staggering score to par of 44 under in the process. It’ll take some effort to surpass the record lowest 72-hole score to par on tour, though; Ernie Els’ staggering total of 29 under at the 2003 Johnnie Walker Classic remains the benchmark.