The first event of 2019 on the European Tour in Abu Dhabi always feels like the first day back at school.
Walking along the range, greeting old friends and checking out their bags for the inevitable new clubs, the one thing overflowing from every bag is boundless optimism.
So, who will be able to translate the ‘feel good factor’ into success? Will 2018’s breakthrough success stories like Matt Wallace, Shubhankar Sharma, Haotong Li and Eddie Pepperell consolidate their status? Will Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose remain at the top of the world rankings? What can we expect of Rory McIlroy? What kind of year will it be for the #JocksOnTour?
Difficult but always intriguing questions. I think Matt Wallace for example, is now firmly established among Europe’s elite. China’s Haotong Li is fast becoming one of my favourite players to watch and I think he, too, will have another successful year. I was also hugely impressed with Aaron Rai’s win in Hong Kong. The young Englishman showed great calmness in holding off Matt Fitzpatrick for his first win, and now that he has learned to play more quickly, he will add a little more popularity with his fellow players.
Other players I expect to make an impact in 2019 include Thomas Detry, above, who will surely win again after his World Cup triumph with Thomas Pieters. The big-hitting Ryan Fox from New Zealand and young Aussie Lucas Herbert are also potential winners, as is the young Swede Marcus Kinhult.
Jordan Smith was an outside bet of mine to contend for a Ryder Cup place in Paris - Thomas Bjorn thought so too, incidentally – and, although he didn’t make the team last time round, I rate him highly to win again in the New Year.
To answer my own question, I’m certain Molinari, Rose and Fleetwood will remain among the elite, with Tommy hopefully picking up a first major. I would also love to see Martin Kaymer, below, rediscovering his form in 2019. He is one of the most intelligent, perceptive and likeable players in the game, and far too good to be languishing outside the word’s top 150.
Rory McIlroy, to my mind, needs to recruit someone to his team that he both respects and, crucially, listens to. The supremely talented Irishman makes all his own decisions these days but is underperforming dramatically. He looked totally out of sorts in events I saw him in over the last few weeks.
Like everyone else in Scottish golf, though, my greatest wish for the New Year is for more consistent success for our players on tour. Our only main tour winner in 2018, Russell Knox was also our only player in the top 80 on the Race to Dubai.
It was encouraging to see four young Scots win their card via the Challenge Tour, more than any other country. All are richly talented, and I wish them every success as they compete alongside their more experienced countrymen, including Marc Warren, who told me his gutsy performance at Q-School to win back his card was his longest week ever.
To all of them and to you, a Happy Golfing New Year.