The first full-field PGA Tour event of 2021 starts on Thursday at the Sony Open, which means this will be the calendar year debut for most of the golfers in this field. With that, of course, comes expectations, both internally and externally.
Everyone will say they're in the best shape of their lives and couldn't be more excited about a new year (which, in this case, is actually probably true). But golf is a zero-sum game (at least when you look at the strokes-gained numbers). So we should look briefly before the event in Honolulu starts rolling at four golfers in this event I think are coming in a little under the radar and have a chance to have really good years.
Not all four of these will hit, and surely a few (maybe all?) of them will peter out and play poorly for stretches in 2021. However, we're just trying to find one or two that pop. One or two guys who will jump up and have a Harris English-like or Tyrrell Hatton-like improvement in 2021.
1. Cameron Davis
Could have the distinction of being on both last year's most improved list and this year's (sort of like when Steve Stricker won back-to-back most improved player awards). I love his game, his swing and his steady, consistent improvement over the last year. He might not continue on that upward trajectory, but he's still younger than Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, and has only been a pro for four years. The case against him is his pedigree -- he didn't have the amateur career an English had -- but I'm all the way in on his talent and progression.
2. Marc Leishman
The case for Leishman is the same case you could have made this time last year for English or Daniel Berger. Former world-class performers who had fallen off recently, but you felt confident would eventually bounce back to where they used to be. Leishman had a terrible 2020 in which he drove the ball poorly and his normally-stout short game was abysmal. If you believe that was an outlier -- I think I do -- then you could also believe that he's going to rebound in 2021 with a great year and slide back into the top 15 or top 20 in the world. It sounds weird to have somebody ranked in the top 30 in the world on this list (Leishman is currently 30th), but that ranking is going to drop quickly if he doesn't start playing well (Data Golf has him at No. 142 currently).
3. Talor Gooch
He relies a little too heavily on the putter for my liking, but his all-around game has improved a lot over the last three years, and he was incredibly close to having positive strokes gained in every statistical category in 2020. I'm not sure what the ceiling is here, but he had two of his five best finishes as a pro in the fall at the CJ Cup and Houston Open. I think we could see him become a top-50 or top-40 player in 2021.
4. Doug Ghim
A favorite of mine since he was at Texas, he's been absolutely elite with his iron play of late, which we've seen is the single most important statistic in determining who's going to find success on the PGA Tour. He needs to improve off the tee to make any real leap, but I love his trajectory going into 2021.