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Next-gen stars find there's no time like the present

At 25, Jon Rahm seems poised for greatness on the PGA Tour, but don’t be surprised if twentysomethings Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Sungjae Im break out in 2020

As we roll into 2020, the year started off with a playoff at the Sentry Tournament of Champions among three of the world’s top 12 players. As the game’s best jockey for position each week, here are five players who are poised to have breakout year:s

Jon Rahm – It’s difficult to call someone an underachiever when he’s only 25. But Rahm turned pro in 2016 with such talent and promise that virtually everyone thought he would make an immediate impact on the world’s biggest tournaments. And the way young players seem to be fearlessly appearing at nearly every event, age 25 looks like a late bloomer.

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With a renewed focus on his short game and a strong finish to his 2019 campaign, Jon Rahm could have the upper hand this year.

But all indications point to a Rahm insurgency in 2020. He won the Zurich Classic with Ryan Palmer in 2019 and won three times on the European Tour, including the season-ending DP World Tour Championship that gave him the Race to Dubai points title. In fact, leading up to the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Rahm won twice and finished runner-up twice in his previous five starts.

He could have won the Players Championship if not for a couple of critical final-round mistakes. And he had two top-10s in majors last year. He has paid particular attention to his short game – and hopefully his attitude and decision-making – which are essential to get him over the top.

Justin Thomas – Like Rahm, Thomas doesn’t belong on any list of those who haven’t met expectations. He has won 12 times, including a major, and he’s only 26. But Thomas has assessed his career thus far with a critical eye.

“I'm disappointed I haven't achieved more, to be honest,” Thomas said last Tuesday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions before he won the tournament for the second time. “I shouldn't say ‘disappointed,’ but I mean, I'm obviously … I'm pleased with my career thus far, but I feel like I could have and should have won a lot more tournaments and definitely should have contended and won some more majors.”

Thomas has nearly all the tools for greatness: He can drive it forever, he’s one of the best iron players in the game and his short game is impeccable. But he frequently comes up short with the putter. He just doesn’t seem to make enough important putts in big events. If that changes, Thomas’ horizon can be practically limitless.

Patrick Cantlay – Plenty of people believe Cantlay is a star in waiting, and he might have taken a couple of big steps toward that end. He won the Memorial Tournament last May, which can be seen as a steppingstone toward bigger things. And his performance at the recent Presidents Cup, in which he went 3-2-0 for the winning Americans, won’t hurt. For some reason, players who do well at team matches come away with a burst of confidence, and the 14-foot birdie putt that Cantlay made on the final hole to win in Friday foursomes kept the U.S. in the matches.

Cantlay leaped to the top of the leaderboard late on Sunday at the Masters after an eagle-3 at the 15th. But bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes eliminated any chance he might have had of catching eventual winner Tiger Woods. Two weeks before his victory at the Memorial, Cantlay tied for third at the PGA Championship.

Cantlay, 27, has enough game to compete at majors. Whether he has the belief at the right times will determine the amount of his success.

Xander Schauffele – We’ve been predicting great things for Schauffele for the past couple of years, and he’s been squarely on the verge of hitting it big. In the past three years, he has five top-6 finishes in major championships. He tied for second at last year’s Masters, one shot behind Woods. And he posted T-3 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Schauffele has four PGA Tour victories at age 26 and has all the tools needed to win the big tournaments. He is a long, straight driver, which, as TV analyst Paul Azinger says, can be used as a weapon. Schauffele put a new driver, putter and ball in play for 2020, and if his play in the Sentry Tournament of Champions is any indication, he has adjusted quickly and well.

However, he could have defended his title at the T of C on Sunday if not for a three-putt par on the 72nd hole. Those are the kinds of things he needs to clean up if he wants to move to the next level.

Sungae Im – This is perhaps the most interesting of the players who could have a breakout year. He’s only 21, and in his first full year on the PGA Tour, 2018-19, he made it to the Tour Championship, which is almost unheard of for a rookie. The previous year, he won twice on what was then known as the Web.com Tour and was far and away the best player on that tour, finishing the year No. 1 on the money list.

But it was his end to 2019 that generated the most interest. Im lost the Sanderson Farms Championship on the first hole of a playoff to Sebastian Munoz. And he finished T-3 at the Zozo Championship with Rory McIlroy, behind runner-up Hideki Matsuyama and winner Tiger Woods. Im ended 2019 with his performance in the Presidents Cup, showing remarkable poise and finishing 3-1-1, perhaps the best player on the International Team.

He hasn’t won yet on the PGA Tour, but it’s only a matter of time. And once he wins for the first time, others are likely to soon follow.