News & Opinion

10 can’t-miss* golf picks for 2018

It’s fitting that the new year in golf annually kicks off at a locale where a common greeting is a double-edged conversational sword of sorts.

Anybody who has visited the 50th state or watched either of the two TV iterations of “Hawaii Five-0” is aware that in the native tongue, aloha translates to both hello and goodbye. Because there are only 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, there’s bound to be some word-sharing.

So it is with sports predictions, most of which should be shown the door as quickly as they are ushered in. Hard as it is to forecast which teams will be successful – raise your hand if you had the Los Angeles Rams finishing the NFL regular season at 11-5 – it’s downright impossible with fields of 150 or so individuals, each with their own ball.

Every year, however, as a conversation starter as much as anything, media entities send out missives with predictions about the coming year. That was the case two weeks back when Sirius XM’s golf crew was asked to pick the winners of the 2018 majors, among other titles and honors. The picks were distributed on social media, generating more than a few chuckles and jeers.

Longtime broadcaster Brian Katrek, a genial guy whose afternoon chat show is an XM staple, picked Tiger Woods to win the Grand Slam. You know, the same Woods who logged three competitive rounds last year, who hasn’t won a major since 2008, or any event since 2013.

“They didn’t make it real clear how it was going to be used,” Katrek said, laughing.

So he breezed through his picks as if it were 2005, also tabbing Woods to win the PGA Tour’s top-player honor and, despite being No. 656 in the Official World Golf Ranking, reclaim the No. 1 position in the world. Katrek is surely no Kreskin, but Tour veteran Pat Perez crawled out even farther on the lunatic limb. Perez, who co-hosts a weekly XM Radio show with ESPN’s Michael Collins, picked himself to win in all seven forecast categories, and the giggles still haven’t subsided.

“He raised me, and did it even better,” Katrek said, laughing.

The facts are, starting this week, that throwing darts in the dark on a standup surfboard atop the North Shore Banzai Pipeline would be a more scientifically credible way of selecting winners. So, with all of the caveats, asterisks and cautionary warnings attached, feel free to say aloha to any or all of the following prophecies. Crystal balls don’t have dimples, do they?

1. Dustin Johnson cements top-player honors after claiming his second major title. Remember, Johnson was the best player on the planet before his season-wrecking pratfall last April in Augusta, when his socks slipped on a stairwell and he injured himself. This season, he keeps his shoes laced tightly. Cinderfella wears the glass slipper.

2. Tiger Woods hires South Florida-based Claude Harmon III, Butch Harmon’s kid, as his swing coach. Woods says he’ll mount his comeback without the services of a swing guru. He once soared as a relative isolationist compared to his more collegial foes, but he needs all the positive reinforcement he can muster going forward.

3. Huge changes ensue at Golf Channel/NBC as Johnny Miller retires after his contract expires at the end of the year and David Duval is promoted as Miller’s replacement. Duval, a former world No. 1 who has a playing pedigree that few of his NBC peers can match, seems like a natural. Well, except to his bosses, perhaps. “Nobody’s talked to me about it,” Duval said two weeks ago, shrugging. 

4. Rotund and excitable Patrick Reed creates an international incident at the Ryder Cup in France when he excitedly belly-bumps European foe Rory McIlroy during a frenzied singles match, sending the Northern Irishman to the disabled list for the rest of the season. Euro fans start a new sing-song chant in his honor: “Red, white and sacre bleu!”

5. A largely unfamiliar player takes over as world No. 1 in the women’s game. Did that sound vaguely sexist? In reality, it’s a reflection of statistical probability. After all, over the final seven months of 2017, five players reached No. 1 – two of them for terms of two weeks or less. 

6. Europe wins the Ryder Cup. The victory in France was assured when Sports Illustrated wrote a lengthy story four months ago extolling the virtues of the young and unbeatable American crop of players at future Ryders, while dissing their Euro counterparts. Based on SI’s regrettable track record of dooming teams and players it has touted over the years, call it a French kiss of death. 

7. As the marketing slogan goes, everything is bigger in Texas, with the likely exception of the future PGA Tour schedule. Alarmingly, the sponsorship of long-running events in Houston and at Fort Worth’s Colonial for 2019 and beyond is shaky and uncertain. With the relocation of the mega-money WGC Dell Match Play to Austin in 2016, the state’s saturation point may have been reached. No state is richer in golf history than Texas, but unlike the double meaning attached to aloha, adios smacks of somber finality. 

8. Smart lad that he is, Jordan Spieth gets hitched to his high school sweetheart following a Ryder Cup dinner function. All of his groomsmen were on the U.S. team and wearing tuxedos already, so why not?

9. With its collective toe already in the water, the U.S. Golf Association moves closer to a rollback of the golf ball. “We’ve been talking about this for 20 years,” Hall of Famer Bernhard Langer said last month, rolling his eyes. True, but the USGA has taken its signature event, the U.S. Open, to two new (read: longer) venues in the past three summers, with critically mixed results, at best. Players torched Erin Hills last summer, nonetheless. With Fox-fattened coffers, the USGA has the war chest to fight manufacturers in court, and the association’s resolve never has seemed stronger. 

10. After a winless 2017, Bubba Watson makes the Ryder Cup team, ensuring a star-crossed return to France, where he created headlines in 2011 by claiming that he didn’t know the names of the Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and other landmarks. Whether the Florida Panhandle native was joking was a bit unclear, but it didn’t stop one scribe from cracking, “Bubba Watson thinks the English Channel is a TV station.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling