One of the many things affected by the COVID-19 pandemic was scheduling for the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. Both competitions were pushed back a year, moving the Ryder Cup to odd years and the Presidents Cup to even years. Whistling Straits in Wisconsin will host the Ryder Cup next year and the Presidents Cup will be played at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow in 2022.
So, as we head to the new year, we’ve decided to highlight some of those players the U.S. teams may come up against in the coming seasons. We have split this top-10 list into the top five Europeans and top five Internationals.
This is a subjective list; there is no science. Most of these players, though, have shown signs of having a big year ahead.
Here are the 10:
5. Joaquin Niemann
The 22-year-old strikes us as someone who is only going to improve as his experience bank gets filled. With a PGA TOUR win already in his kitbag, Chile’s golf sensation is one to watch in 2021. His Presidents Cup debut in Melbourne might have only yielded a half point but it set him on a path towards excellence. Seeing how his elders prepared and realizing he belongs in the upper echelon of this game has him in great shape.
Niemann was the first winner of the 2019-20 season at The Greenbrier and would ultimately finish 27th in the FedExCup. An improvement on this would not be a surprise in 2020-21.
In the fall portion of this season we saw Niemann quietly move to 35th in the FedExCup with five of his six starts resulting in top 25s, highlighted by a sixth-place finish at THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK. Had it not been for an unfortunate positive test for COVID-19 prior to the Masters, he could have easily been higher.
We also saw evidence of his maturity as he used his last two events of the year to raise money for his infant cousin’s million-dollar medical treatment. It was a classy move and helped bring awareness to the cause.
4. Hideki Matsuyama
Incredible to think Matsuyama is still just 28. It feels like he’s been on the PGA TOUR for a long time now. It feels like that because he has. He made five appearances on TOUR as a young amateur between 2011-13 before turning professional and becoming a mainstay from the 2013-14 season onwards.
Matsuyama is a five-time TOUR winner who has never finished worse than 28th in the FedExCup – and that was his first full season. Since then, he’s always found a spot between eighth and 16th on the list. After the fall portion of this season Matsuyama is 23rd on the list with his runner up at the Vivint Houston Open the highlight.
Now astute fans would be well aware Matsuyama has been a model of consistency but also has not won since his three-win 2016-17 season. We’ve passed the three-year barrier in this drought but have an expectation it will come to an end in 2021.
Due to a COVID-19 adjustment Matsuyama is eligible for a start in the upcoming Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui afforded to all TOUR Championship qualifiers from last season. In his three previous starts there he was T4-2-T3. Also early in 2021 he is likely to play the Waste Management Phoenix Open where after his T4 on debut in 2014 has gone T2-1-1-WD-T15-T16.
3. Abraham Ancer
It’s time. Beyond time perhaps. But 2021 will see Ancer take the next step in his progression and become a PGA TOUR winner. While short in stature Ancer is enormous in heart, fight and talent and quite frankly is too good a player not to have tasted winning success on this TOUR.
The 29-year-old Mexican has been knocking hard on the door in recent years with a runner up finish in 2019 and two of them last season as he finished a career best 18th in the FedExCup.
He will start the 2021 portion of the season in 31st on the FedExCup list after a decent fall that included a fourth-place finish at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and a T13 (Masters) and T12 (Mayakoba Golf Classic Presented by UNIFIN) in his last two starts.
At Augusta National, Ancer forged his way into the final group for Sunday with tenacious play and while a short missed putt on the par-5 second hole on Sunday seemed to rattle him, the experience gained from that day is another in the bank that gets him closer to the elusive win.
The key for Ancer will be lifting his Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green and SG: Putting levels. Last season, he upped his putting to 41st on TOUR after a few years in triple digits. Early this season its slipped back to 107th. Around the green has been in triple digits the last three seasons but currently in 2020-21 sits at 77th.
2. Sungjae Im
What might have been. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2019, Im continued to impress in the beginning of 2019-20 season with a runner-up and third-place result last fall. He was a machine at the Presidents Cup and leveraged the experience gained into a career first TOUR win at the Honda Classic.
A week later, the South Korean was third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard and was leading the FedExCup as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and shut down part of the season.
The momentum was lost – not all that surprising given Im likes to play most weeks and had not dealt with a significant break in his short career. With cautious optimism that any such long breaks won’t be part of 2021 – we feel Im will once again get into his groove.
In his 12 starts after the break, Im had just two top 10s, ultimately finishing 11th in the FedExCup. This new season had been relatively pedestrian early until a runner up finish at the Masters in November, which saw him apply some brief Sunday pressure to Dustin Johnson.
It is that effort that sparks the positivity behind his climb. It would not be a surprise to see him head to the PLAYERS Championship once again near the lead of the FedExCup standings.
1. Cameron Smith
Source: PGA tour