Bunker Mentality

What to expect in 2013: From Bubba to Rory, via Tiger

Bunker Mentality

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Rory McIlroy (Reuters)

Since the Mayans were wrong, it appears the 2013 US PGA Tour season will actually happen. There are plenty of big names set to make some noise in the upcoming season, so we've picked our 10 guys we think will have huge impacts next season and preview them here. We continue with the top five.

1. Rory McIlroy

Age: 23

Career PGA Tour wins: 6

Career major wins: 2

What he did in 2012: This was the year that it all came together for McIlroy. His steadiness, his driving, his putting, his mental approach: it all clicked, and the result was an absolutely spectacular season even given a midyear lull. McIlroy claimed the No. 1 spot, lost it, then got his act together and absolutely hammerlocked the top of the golf world.

After a shaky start to the year, which included a T40 at Augusta, a T60 at the British Open and a missed cut at the U.S. Open, McIlroy steadied himself and won the PGA Championship going away. He followed that up with two wins in six days at the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship. He won both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles, as well as the PGA Player of the Year, the PGA Tour Player of the Year, the European Tour Golfer of the Year, and oh so much more. In short, he did all right.

Why we like him in 2013: McIlroy now has the kind of solid foundation of which his peers can only dream. He's already halfway to Phil Mickelson's major total, and the way that he plays, with confidence and grace, it's not out of the question to think McIlroy could break double digits in majors.

For this year, however, he'll go into the year for the first time in the Tiger Woods pre-scandal position: the favorite in every tournament he enters. He's not yet Rory-vs.-the-field material yet, but he's getting closer every day.

The only thing that could drag McIlroy down would be his own overcommitment; how much longer will he be able to play the world-traveling golfer? But as he demonstrated at Kiawah and Congressional, when he's dialed in, there's nobody on the planet capable of stopping him. And that's why he's our most intriguing golfer to watch in 2013 ... and likely for many years afterward.

2. Justin Rose

Age: 32

Career US PGA Tour wins: 4

Career Major wins: 0

What he did in 2012: It has been a solid last three seasons for Rose, who won twice in 2010, once in '11 and once last season at the Cadillac Championship, but it may have been his consistency last season that was the most impressive. In 19 US PGA Tour events, Rose finished in the top-25 12 times with a win, a second, a third and five other top-10s.

It was only the second time in his career that Rose finished with two top-10s in Majors in the same season, with a T-8 at the Masters and a T-3 at the US PGA Championship, but his biggest moment might have come at the Ryder Cup (surprise, surprise!) where his 3-2-0 record was highlighted by one of the most clutch finishes in the history of singles matches (Rose made a bomb of a birdie on the 17th hole to keep his singles match against Phil Mickelson all square and then followed it up with a closing birdie on the 18th to gain the full point for the Europeans).

Why we like him in 2013: Because Rose is a breakthrough-style player that has continued to win important US PGA Tour tournaments the last three season and seems more and more comfortable on the big Major stage.

He will win again this season, there is no doubt about that, but it's the big events that seem to come easier for Rose (of his four US PGA Tour wins, one is a FedEx Cup event, another is a WGC tournament and then you have the Memorial and AT&T National, upper-tier non-Majors).

There are two Englishman that are circled this season as the most likely to win a Major (the other was out number four in the countdown), but Rose seems like the type of player that can flourish at Augusta National and grind it out at Muirfield.

Rose will be a Major champion sooner than later, and I like 2013 to be the year that happens. He's just too talented not to join that elite club.

3. Tiger Woods

Age: 37

Career US PGA Tour wins: 74

Career Major wins: 14 and holding

What he did in 2012: This was the year Woods finally shook off The Hydrant Incident and started playing like one of the best golfers on the planet on a regular basis. Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first US PGA Tour win since all the way back in 2009. He would go on to win the Memorial and the AT&T National, along the way passing Jack Nicklaus's US PGA Tour wins mark.

As for the Majors? Well ... depends on whether you're talking about how he started, or how he finished. Woods continued to struggle on the weekends at Major tournaments, playing himself out of potential win after potential win. He tied for third at the British Open, but couldn't get inside the top 10 at any of the other three Majors. Woods rose as high as second in the Official World Golf Rankings and currently ranks third, still far behind leader Rory McIlroy.

Why we like him in 2013: Because even though he's no longer the best player on the planet, he's still one of them, and that's enough. This is undoubtedly Rory McIlroy's world now, but Woods still has the game to compete on a regular basis. He'll take a couple more steps in the direction of Sam Snead's record 82 US PGA Tour wins. But we all know that the big target still lurks in the bushes for Woods.

Can he catch Jack Nicklaus? Can he amass four more Majors to tie, five more to pass the Golden Bear? That's the challenge, that's the question, and it gets tougher to back Woods with every passing year. Certainly, he should have a good shot at Augusta, but he's never won a Major at any of the other three sites (Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill). McIlroy, Luke Donald and others are rounding into form. And to put it in perspective: only 13 golfers have ever won more than five Majors. Woods would have to match or exceed the career efforts of Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros or Phil Mickelson to top Nicklaus.

No matter what, Woods won't pass Nicklaus in 2013. So let's enjoy what we have: a chance to watch one of the world's greatest in one of his final seasons of Tour-challenging dominance. He may not be the greatest, but he's still great, and for golf, that's more than good enough.

4. Ian Poulter

Age: 36 (turns 37 on January 10)

Career US PGA Tour wins: 2

Career Major wins: 0

What he did in 2012: It was a funny year for Poulter, who started off his season fairly cold, got hot in the middle of the season with top-seven finishes at both Bay Hill and the Masters.

It was really the Majors that brought out the best in Poulter, who finished seventh at Augusta, T-9 at The Open and T-3 at the US PGA Championship (his lone finish outside the top 10 in the Majors came at the US Open, where he finished T-41). This past season was the first time Poulter had finished in the top 10 in multiple Majors in the same season, but he had a hard time on the US PGA Tour other than those events, finishing in the top 10 just that one other time at Arnold Palmer's event.

But we all know what happened toward the end of the year. Poulter did what Poulter does at the Ryder Cup, finishing 4-0-0 to help push the Europeans past the Americans on that epic Sunday. If the Euros needed clutch, Poulter was there in every form, and it was he who basically gave his team hope on Saturday with an incredible finish to his afternoon match alongside Rory McIlroy that saw Poulter card five birdies over his last five holes to win their match 1-up.

After the Ryder Cup, Poulter kept the momentum going, winning the HSBC Champions, his second World Golf Championships win of his career.

Why we like him in 2013: Because Poulter is too talented not to bring that Ryder Cup type of play to the golf course on his own, and it seems like this year is setting up to be his.

If you made a list of players without a Major championship win who are most likely to change that in 2013, Poulter would be near the top, and after the way he closed out 2012 it seems he's destined to tear it up in '13.

I like Poulter to win multiple times in '13 and I see him contending at both Augusta National and the Open Championship.

5. Bubba Watson

Age: 34

Career US PGA Tour wins: 4

Career Major wins: 1

What he did in 2012: Watson entire body of work in 2012 was pretty impressive, but when you look back on his season, it will likely be remembered for one shot — that being the gap-wedge slinger he produced from the pine straw on the second play-off hole at the Masters. The incredible shot earned Watson his first Major championship and ensured that no matter how the rest of the season went, 2012 would be considered a huge success.

The green jacket defined his season; however, if you dig a little deeper, you'll notice Watson also had one of the most consistent years on tour, which is something he seemed to lack in years past. Watson only played in 19 events in 2012 — a number that likely diminished following the adoption of his newborn son, Caleb, and the Masters win — and only missed three cuts. But in the 16 events where he made the weekend, he never finished outside the top 25 and posted two runner-up finishes.

He also finished the season ranked 1st on tour in driving distance and 2nd in greens in regulation — two stats that usually lead to big paycheques and Major hardware. Throw in a solid individual showing at the Ryder Cup and you're looking at a banner year for the lefty bomber.

Why we like him in 2013: Winning a Major and posting top 25s in bunches is reason enough to like Bubba's chances in 2013. There's always a chance he could suffer a post-Major letdown, but based on the way life is going at the moment — he's loving life as a dad and seems to be in complete control of his game — you have to think there's a better chance Watson keeps the good times rolling and doesn't regress. With the exception of the Masters, I'm not sure there's a Major course that really suits his game this year, but knowing Watson, he'll probably still find a way to get into contention. Look for him to pick up at least one win in 2013 and come close to replicating his stellar 2012.

Shane Bacon & Jay Busbee, Yahoo! Sports

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