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As we approach the first majors of the year, Jason Daniels gives us five to follow at The Masters, The Chevron…and beyond

The rules for winners at tournaments like The Masters are pretty much set in stone, so this is more a hint at the players to watch over the next couple of months, up to the end of June, a period covering not only Augusta but the USPGA and US Open… and that’s just the PGA Tour.

Dustin Johnson

While the likes of Cam Smith, Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler continue to contend in top form and therefore shorten up in the weekly markets, DJ has been slowly returning to his top game quietly out of the headlines, That was until making the semi-final of last week’s Match Play.

Having not qualified for the Tournament of Champions for the first time since 2015, DJ is relatively lightly raced this season, with last week’s knock-out competition being only his sixth event of the year. Viktor Hovland, for comparison, has played nine events, but even before the Match Play result, DJ’s two top 10 finishes on his card were full of encouragement.

At his favoured Saudi International, the 37-year-old opened with a 65 to lie in seventh place and, whilst he never really sparkled, finishing in 8th position was a trend in the right direction after a 25th at Torrey Pines.

A missed-cut at Riviera was a disappointment given his excellent record there, but a fast-closing 9th at The Players came courtesy of tying the course-record 63. Whilst sometimes a fast finish over-rates a player’s performance, in this case it’s all building an improving profile.

Talking about the figures, DJ performs best when he’s doing it off the tee-peg and therefore allowing him short approaches off the fairway. That has been missing this season, but at Sawgrass he gained strokes in everything bar around the green, showing a much more rounded game.

Two weeks ago, at the halfway stage of the Valspar, he ranked 4th off-the-tee, a figure that paved the way for a 17th rank in tee-to-green, and an encouraging 11th in par-5 performance. Given he is unlikely to put it all in when well off the pace, he finished with a decent five-birdie 2-under in the final round, playing plenty well enough for tee and approach to think he was still moving forwards whilst still not at peak.

At the more relaxed WGC last week though, he certainly found some game, going unbeaten through the group stages before winning from behind in a top-grade contest, against Brooks Koepka.

Whilst he looked a tad tired in the semi-final, DJ came from five behind to be within one as they closed down the stretch, only to succumb to the hottest player on the tour, and the new world number one, Scottie Scheffler. It’s safe to say that he had little interest in the 3rd and 4th place play-off, and showed that in his play.

He looks back to his languid best and, whilst the open nature of the match-play course doesn’t relate to what he will face over the next eight to 10 weeks, the former world number one is worth following at courses that are bound to suit.

Should he not perform at Augusta, where he already has the ‘lockdown’ win, a runner-up, fourth, sixth and 10th place finish, the calendar over the next couple of months offers further opportunities.

It’s doubtful he will play in Texas in a couple of weeks, though who knows? He made a late entry into the 2021 running before re-exiting, but should he have one of his rare starts at San Antonio, form figures of 6/24/15 can encourage him to put on a show.

Go past Augusta and DJ has positive form at all of Harbour Town, Muirfield and at the Travelers Championship, a course at which has won once in five starts.

A new Mexico Open at Vidanta Vallarta will be an unknown but he’s two from four in WGCs in the country itself, whilst a fresh course also hosts the Canadian Open, an event at which he boasts a win, second and eighth place finish.

All those seem to give the selection a genuine chance to grab his first win since the romping to the green jacket in November 2020, and we also get the USPGA, and US Open, at The Country Club, Brookline, thrown in for good measure.

Twice runner-up at the second major and with a game suited to tough, fast conditions, he’ll simply relish the test of Southern Hills – a course far more like Bethpage Black than Kiawah Island – whilst the U.S Open looks one he’ll certainly see as another that suits his game.

DJ has an enviable record in Boston (one win by 11 shots and four top-10 finishes) and an overall U.S Open record of 1/2/3/4/6/8, numbers that should have been one better but for a mini-collapse during the back nine of the 2015 running at Chambers Bay.

In conclusion, for the first and most obvious and comprehensive pick, we have an ex-world number one back in the top 10, hinting at his best form, coming to a set of courses that clearly suit, and containing the two majors that he’s already tasted success in.

Will Zalatoris

Once again, while the golf world watches the younger players coming through and winning, lest we forget the 2014 U.S Amateur winner, the darling of the golf world just a year or so ago.

Despite a handful of top-5 finishes in the highest class, it took the afore-mentioned Scottie Scheffler over 50 events to get over the line for his first win at this level, and Zalatoris, at the same age and with a similar profile, looks like another that surely has to gain his maiden win soon.

The 25-year-old is not a secret, but with so many players coming to fruition, the market is losing faith in him, so be on before he wins and shortens up again for a considerable period.

As a quick recap of his quality, Zalatoris qualified for the 2020 US Open via a win on the KFT Tour, during which he made a hole-in-one during his first round, contributing to a tied-sixth finish alongside Johnson and in front of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas et al.

On his debut at the 2021 Masters, the then world number 45 made eagle on the 15th hole during his first round and made birdies at his final three holes of the second round to lie tied-second at halfway.

There would have been no hardship dropping down the board over the weekend, but he cemented his Rookie of the Year nomination by making birdies at the 15th and 17th of his final round, eventually losing by just one stroke to champion, Hideki Matsuyama.

Nothing can be perfect on the course and the only thing wrong is his seemingly unshakable grief on the greens, but in a set of tough events where level-par can be a good round, this looks like the period for him to shed his maiden status.

Off the tee, Will ranks 17th for distance and 11th for strokes-gained, whilst a continual top-5 status for approaches will always lead to an impressive tee-to-green figure, decidedly useful for the first three majors when players missing greens will struggle to save par. Currently in second place on the seasonal-long lists for tee-to-green, he finished 2021 ranked in the top-10 – a clinic in ball-striking that merely needs a better than field-average week on the greens.

Indeed, if there is one major you’d expect him to struggle on, it would be The Open at St. Andrews. Fortunately, that takes place outside of the limitations of this column!

At last week’s Match Play, Zalatoris beat Viktor Hovland in his final group match to progress to the knock-out stages, at which he beat Kevin Na after four extra holes, before looking a touch out of kilter against eventual finalist Kevin Kisner. If nothing else, the week was a sign of his well-being, and that’s all fine and dandy coming to the next few events, especially as he holed some crucial mid-range clutch putts, something the golf world hasn’t seen from him in a while.

Now between the ‘perfect’ Masters ages of 25 and 40, he has the recent second place at Torrey Pines to shout about (perhaps he should have won), and now that has confirmed his place inside the top-30 on the OWGR, he almost becomes an auto-bet according to the stats.

The constant tee-to-green figures and the slight struggle to get over the line are both reminiscent of Scheffler’s early career, and it well may take a master move such as introducing Ted Scott onto the latter’s bag to create that winning momentum, but everything else looks very suitable indeed.

Xander Schauffele

This was a hard choice between Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland and Sam Burns, all of whom I expect to continue to make their mark through the season.

It would be fairly easy to put up all three, but with all the Norwegian’s PGA wins coming with scores of at least 20-under, I’m not sure this is the best period for him to add to an admittedly impressive recent record, whilst Burns has a best of T29 in a relatively short major career and also seems best when birdies are flowing.

So to Xander, who hasn’t been at his imperious best but comes here with an enviable record in the big four events.

At Augusta, the 28-year-old has a second and third from four attempts, runner-up to Tiger Woods in 2019 courtesy of an impressive final round 68, whilst he held every chance last season until the 16th hole on Payday, where a triple-bogey ruined his chance of winning.

In between, an untimely rain delay put him off his stride during the softer conditions of the ‘lockdown’ Masters, and ultimately he did well to finish well inside the top-20 after making some strange decisions at a rain break during the second round.

Given his best efforts are usually at East Lake, where he has won twice and has a second, third and seventh in five starts, it’s easy to think Schauffele is a one, or two, track pony. That isn’t a bad thing coming to Augusta, but looking further ahead, the figures are extremely encouraging.

The former top-10 amateur was, like so many, baffled by Kiawah Island last year but otherwise has a 16th at Bethpage Black and a 10th at Harding Park where, at both, he was never outside the top-20 at any stage. And he can boast even better at the US Open.

Only a victory is missing from Xander’s profile at the toughest of the US majors, with a record that reads 7/5/3/6/5, and in-running punters should note that in four of his five attempts at the title he has been closer at the end of Sunday play than he was at any stage.

Since 2018, Xander has ended the year within the world’s top-10, and whilst we may not see him that much in-between the big ones, the record shows two top-20 finishes from three starts at River Highlands, and four top-14s in as many starts at Muirfield since his missed cut in 2018.

Having won at least once a year since 2017, it’s time to put another ‘1’ on the OWGR record.

Paul Casey

The recommendation to follow Paul Casey comes with a caveat after he withdrew from the Match Play with back spasms.

The Valspar Championship seems like an excellent guide to the majors with Charl Schwartzel, Jordan Spieth, Gary Woodland, Retief Goosen and, of course, Tiger Woods, amongst those that have had wins or top finishes at the four most important events on the calendar – with The Masters having clearly the most correlation.

That meant having a good look (again) at Sam Burns but also at the more experienced Louis Oosthuizen (2/7/8 at Copperhead) and Paul Casey, back-to-back winner in 2018 and 2019.

It’s the Englishman that gets the vote.

The 44-year-old has, pretty much, done everything in the game bar winning one of the biggies, but he is playing some of his best golf ever and might take inspiration from 50-year-old Phil Mickelson’s victory at Kiawah Island last year.

This is an easy pick, and perhaps a shoo-in for the top Englishman in at least two overseas majors, though he wouldn’t be without a chance at St. Andrews.

Season 2021 saw Casey win just once – an easy victory in Dubai – but he followed that with 10 front-page finishes that included a three event run from Pebble Beach to Bay Hill and Sawgrass, while he also recorded a top-5 at Kiawah Island, The Olympics and at St Jude. All that leaving out a tied-seventh at the US Open at Torrey Pines.

The latest results have seen ‘Case’ finish 15th at Riviera, 72nd at Bay Hill (was sixth at halfway before the weather came in), and third at Sawgrass, an event that again was badly weather-affected and one that clearly took its toll and caused him to withdraw from last week’s Valspar.

For those that haven’t seen, the 19-time professional winner was extremely unlucky down the stretch at The Players, his perfect tee-shot finding the bottom of a pitch mark at the final par-5 and although the result on paper is still not far off being top-class, it could, and should, have been an even better guide to his chance at The Masters.

Results in majors? Five top-10 finishes and three further top-20s at Augusta; two top-7 finishes at the U.S Open with the last five years reading T7/T17/T21/T16/26, and a pair of top-4s in the last two runnings of the USPGA.

Away from that excellent form, the column covers the period that includes River Highlands, where he has two runner-up finishes and a pair of top-fives, whilst form in Texas and Mexico would give him claims in all of those.

Should he pop over to the DP Tour, Case would have huge claims at the European Open at Green Eagle, an event he won in 2019 and was a closing 6th in a shortened event last year.

Yes, the withdrawals are a minor worry, but he told reporters that, “Purely, it’s a thing when you get to your 40s. But that’s I guess what’s causing the pain in the spasms up the back. I’ve had it, I’ve probably had this like four, five times in 20 years, so it’s not an injury, it’s just, what is it? Fatigue? (It) could be back from the Players and the cold weather and all sorts of stuff and traveling.”

Take encouragement from when Casey withdrew from The Players and BMW in 2018, citing a painful back injury. Within a couple of weeks, he was back on the course racking up a T11 at The Tour Championship and following that with a trio of top-20 finishes that included the HSBC Champions. A couple of months later, he was runner-up in Singapore and Bay Hill.

Now in his eighth consecutive year of being in the world’s top-50, Casey will know what to do to prepare for Augusta and beyond.

Atthaya Thitikul

A couple of weeks before The Masters, the LPGA holds the Chevron Championship, its own first major of 2022.

An alternative name, a new sponsor, but this is still the ‘Mission Hills major’ previously known as the Nabisco and the ANA Inspiration.

19-year-old Atthaya has been on the radar for many since winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship as an amateur at 14 years of age. That victory made her the youngest ever winner of a professional golf tournament, and came just five months after her first invite on to the LPGA Tour when finishing midfield in a no-cut event of 67 players, closely followed by a win in the Taiwan Amateur Open.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that a teenage prodigy becomes a high-class professional, but in this case, that would be far away from the facts.

Since that victory in July 2017, the Thai sensation has defended her home title and won a further twice on the Ladies European Tour before gaining her LPGA card at the tough eight-round Q-School.

Overall, in her first 24 events on the LET, Atthaya won four times, had ten top-5 finishes and a further three top-10s.

It can be a tough transition from Europe to the US tours, but the Thai had settled well and was within the world’s top-20 after her first four LPGA events, the pick of results (before last weekend) being an always-present 4th at the HSBC World Championship, and 8th at the Honda LPGA Thailand, where she came from 42nd after round one and 30th at halfway.

While finishing this column over the weekend, Atthya has just won her first LPGA Tour event, the JTBC Classic, after a best-of-the-day 8-under and a second hole play-off. Her Sunday 64 beat the previous tournament-low Sunday round by one shot, whilst her demeanour throughout the play-off suggested this was only the start, almost dunking her approach at the first of the deciders.

Having come from six off the pace and 11th place, Atthaya again showed her ability to stay in contention throughout the four days and is now arriving at her third major as a professional with confidence at a high, and with a ranking of 4th in the season-long Race to CME Globe.

Low amateur and 30th at her only start at Mission Hills, she may take added inspiration, if required, from compatriot and second-season player, Patty Tavatanakit, winner of her only LPGA event at the ANA last season, winning in impressive all-the-way fashion.

Whilst not yet updated, her stats over the last three months, for all tours, show the 19-year-old to be second in total driving, 16th in greens-in-regulation, 13th in scrambling and 11th for putting average, all impressive without the certain improvement that will be forthcoming. Rankings of seventh for par-4 performance and third for the longer holes give further evidence that we may be looking at the best Thai golfer to have ever graced the LPGA stage.

Although one eye is being kept on the pre-Christmas ten-to-follow column and Ayaka Furue, she may be one for the future, the upcoming ten events looking far better suited to the player currently a shoo-in for the Rookie of the Year trophy and a live one for the top awards.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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