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New World Order: Twelve to look for at the finish in 2012

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

ORLANDO, Fla. -- We're all atwitter with the spirit of the season.

No, not the holiday season, but the series of college bowl games that have been on parade.

Each year, before the college football year begins anew, the pollsters issue a preseason ranking of the best teams in the land. Obviously, it's based mostly on program reputation, past performance and a staggering amount of guesswork with regard to final placement in the forthcoming year.

Having been an Associated Press football voter for a few seasons, they ought to hand out Ouija boards, divining rods and tea leaves beforehand in August. Other than trying to scope out the strength-of-schedule issue, the forecasting ought to work at least as effectively for golf; plus, we're not forced to factor in the performances of teenage freshman or first-year starters, either.

With both major men's tours set to begin the 2012 seasons this week in Hawaii and South Africa, we're going to throw a wrinkle on our monthly New World Order rankings and project which players will be ranked in the world top 10 by mid-December, when the year will be winding down.

So, while it's a preseason ranking, it's predicated mostly based on what this list will look like at year's end, when we'll circle back around and see how the forecasting went. The measuring metrics are pretty simple, like with the stock market -- chart the past and bet on the projected earnings. Each of the players, as with USC, Oklahoma, Alabama or Florida State, has a significant career portfolio already, yet admittedly there's a huge degree of speculation involved whenever human error is part of the process. And these golfers don't have backup quarterbacks or kickers to help bail them out or cement a victory.

Players get hurt, as with Paul Casey. Players get hot, as with Webb Simpson. When last season began, few would have guessed that Adam Scott would finish the season ranked No. 5, or that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods would jointly fall out of the top 10 for the first time since 1997, or that reigning 2010 PGA Tour Player of the Year Jim Furyk would follow up a career year with another -- his worst ever.

Given the huge strides made by younger players, and the continual graying, if not spraying, of guys like Lefty, Furyk and Woods, there's a distinctly young look to this list. No knock on major winners guys like Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington or Furyk, but it's like they fast turned into pumpkins when the birthday clock struck 40. Els, Goose and Furyk all began the 2011 season ranked 14th or better, and a scant 52 weeks later, each is at 50th or worse. Remarkable.

As everybody knows, aloha means both hello and goodbye in Hawaiian. So as the U.S. tour event begins Friday, let's see how many of the dozen players on this opening-week iteration make the list when we bid the season adieu in 12 months.

Our Twelve for '12:

1. Rory McIlroy
Northern Ireland
Age 22
World ranking at start of 2011: 10
Current official world ranking: 3
The early knock on the kid is that he hasn't won all that often. Well, he doubled his global victory total with victories at the U.S. Open and Hong Kong Open last year and was in the mix so often in the second half of the season, it's hard to envision any reason he won't continue the ascent. For the record, the Ulsterman finished T4 or better in six of his last seven official starts in 2011, and based on his play at the Masters and U.S. Open last year, has fast become the favorite outside the ropes and inside the betting parlors. If his putter holds steady, he could win two majors this year.

2. Luke Donald
Age 34
World ranking at start of 2011: 9
Current official world ranking: 1
Player of the year on two continents, the best putter and wedge player on the planet, one of the top two or three match-play aficionados, and he's just entering his so-called prime? Donald will have a hard time matching his career-best four wins globally in 2011, but he won't need to, because there's nobody in his rear-view mirror to run him over. A thinking man's player, Donald makes up in finesse what he lacks in brute firepower. As long as he has a putter in his hand, the rest of these guys are in deep waters.

3. Charl Schwartzel
South Africa
Age 27
World ranking at start of 2011: 34
Current official world ranking: 9
Pretty good season for a player who was a member of the PGA Tour for the first time, and mostly playing venues he'd never before seen. With that in mind, it's easy to see how the reigning Masters champion has room to keep improving. Schwartzel won the Summative Slam title last year, amassing the best cumulative score at the four majors, which proves he can play tough courses under a variety of circumstances. And man, what a golf swing, eh?

4. Martin Kaymer
Age 27
World ranking at start of 2011: 3
Current official world ranking: 4

It was an uneven season for Kaymer, who climbed briefly to world No. 1 after winning in the European Tour Desert Swing, then went into the doldrums for several months before winning in China in the season's waning weeks. The performance in China was perhaps the best of his career as he obliterated a deep World Golf Championships field with a closing 63, one of the best finals rounds of the year. One other reason he's liable to stay near the top of the charts: He's the only player in the current world top 20 who is not a PGA Tour member for 2012, which means he'll often be facing lesser fields.

5. Lee Westwood
Age 38
World ranking at start of 2011: 1
Current world ranking: 2
There's a sense out there that Westy has peaked. Sure, he climbed to No. 1 in late 2009 and wobbled all the way to third at times last season -- that's sarcasm, you thin-skinned U.K. people -- before finding a late-season second wind. Westwood won in Sun City and Thailand to slide past McIlroy and back into the No. 2 position to finish the season. All told, he mustered four wins that gleaned world-ranking points in 2011, matching Donald's total. If you think this guy's battery is already running down, I might consider agreeing with you -- but then, we'd both be wrong.

6. Dustin Johnson
Age 27
World ranking at start of 2011: 15
Current world ranking: 7
Here are a couple of numbers guaranteed to amaze and entertain: With wins in his first four years, Johnson holds the second-longest active streak of seasons with at least one tournament victory, behind Mickelson's run of eight. Impressive. He also ranked as statistically the worst putter on the entire PGA Tour from 5 to 10 feet, ranking 186th at 47.1 percent. So, pretty clearly, he has some major weaknesses that can be sanded down, polished and shellacked. In terms of raw talent, he's the best young Yank in the game. Sometimes, raw feels like exactly the proper term.

7. Adam Scott
Age 31
World ranking at start of 2011: 23
Current world ranking: 5
It's fairly easy to admit now, but there's no way I thought Scotty would be back in the mix of the truly elite players. Then he switched to the broom putter, got steadier over the short ones, and picked up Steve (The Terminator) Williams on the bag. Now all of a sudden, at least one expert on the Golf Channel is picking him to win a major in 2012. By him, we mean Scott, not Williams, just to be clear. Scott didn't miss his first major by much last year at the Masters, when he held the outright lead late on the back nine before Schwartzel napalmed the last four holes. Who would ever have envisioned Scott, a player who fought deep-seated putting woes for years, contending on Augusta's tricky greens? Scotty has been ranked as high as No. 34 in the world. He seems headed back to that general neighborhood.

8. Paul Casey
Age 34
World ranking at start of 2011: 9
Current official world ranking: 20
Meanwhile, while everybody was tracking Tiger Woods' injury and marital woes, another prominent player was silently enduring many of the same issues, without much nearly as much consternation and complaint. Casey, a former world No. 3, limped along with a nagging foot injury that led to his worst U.S. season in years, then finalized a divorce late in the season. Casey endured a painful rib injury in 2009, was passed over for the 2010 Ryder Cup team and seems poised to put it all right in 2012. Like Luke Donald in '11, a breakout year is hardly implausible.

9. Webb Simpson
Age 26
World ranking at start of 2011: 208
Current official world ranking: 10
No doubt, in terms of career leaps, he made Luke Donald look like he was wearing cement spikes. After starting the year outside the world top 200, Simpson led the U.S. money list into the final weekend, won twice and lost two other events in playoffs. Put another way, he posted the lowest 72-hole score four times last year, an impressive feat. Simpson isn't a power player, and his game doesn't make your jaw drop in any particular area. But he ranked first or second in most birdies/fewest bogeys last year, so he minimizes his gaffes and maxes out his opportunities. As far as the Yankee contingent, who had a more consistent year? We'll wait.

10. Tiger Woods
Age 36
World ranking at start of 2011: 2
Current official world ranking: 23
Personally, nothing that happened during his unofficial win at the Chevron event in December mattered until the last two holes, when Woods made gotta-have birdie putts to catch and defeat Zach Johnson for his first win of any sort in over two years. The significance of the putts is what mattered -- he knew he needed 'em, and for the first time in months, he delivered. Over and over, I am asked whether Woods can again be the top player on tour. Why not? Nobody logged more than two PGA Tour wins in 2011. You think he can't get his putter to cooperate two or three times each season? If he's 80 percent of what he was before the scandal, that's probably good enough for a couple of Ws annually, though his old aura of intimidation is probably gone for good.

11. Sergio Garcia
Age 32 on Jan. 9
World ranking at start of 2011: 78
Current official world ranking: 17
After a couple of seasons wandering in the wilds with a broken heart and a fairly shaky sense of dedication, Garcia started climbing out of the pit early last year, when he started piecing together a series of solid rounds in succession, but he usually faded on the weekend. Then he won on consecutive weekends last fall on the European Tour, and was smiling, cutting up and back to his normal extroverted self. Hey, the guy can be annoying. He can also be entertaining. If his claw putting grip holds up, he's a huge talent. Did you know he had the second-best overall score at the four majors last year? True, that. Here's another indication that Sergio, once again, gives a darn about how he plays after years of lifeless, listless play. Mind you, he was ranked No. 2 in the world to Woods at the start of the 2009 season.

12. Anthony Kim USA
Age 26
World ranking at start of 2011: 31
Current official world ranking: 78
OK, so this has all the appearances of a serious reach. After all, he's not even the top-ranked guy named Kim these days, having fallen behind Presidents Cupper Kyung-Tae Kim several months ago. But there's little doubt that the American-born Kim seems to be shaking off the surgery on his wrist from 1½ years ago and has the moxie and talent to get right back in the mix. Almost nobody saw it -- the Singapore Masters was unofficial and wasn't televised in the States -- but Kim lost in a playoff to Rory McIlroy and was T3 in two Asia Tour events in the fall. One rather alarming shortcoming needs fast fixing, however. He ranked dead last on tour in driving accuracy (46.99 percent) last season among 186 players. Even in the bomb-and-gouge era, that's not good enough and was 3.5 percentage points worse than any other fulltime player.


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