10 predictions for the 2016 golf season — including a biggie for Phil Mickelson

Who would have thought a few years ago that a 45-year-old Phil Mickelson would have a better chance of winning the 2016 Masters than a (likely inactive) Tiger Woods?

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The PGA Tour gets going this week (We missed you, live golf! We did, we really did!), with the start of the champions-only Kapalua event and its surprisingly strong field that includes Jordan, Jason, Dustin and Bubba. With the year kicking off, and the hope that ’16 resembles ’15, here are 10 predictions for the upcoming PGA Tour season and what might unfold as the weeks and month creep along.

1. The American Ryder Cup team will look very, very different.

My forecast for the American team come Sept. 27?

Automatics: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau.

Captain’s picks: Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel.

I’m excited for some new faces on this team. It needs it. The Ryder Cup is nearing that point where it’s inevitable who wins (think Presidents Cup but more Ian Poulter), but it almost seems like the perfect storm of younger Americans have risen up and not only become household names but won big events.

Some of those names up top are the same, sure, but think about what we would have with that group of 12 guys. Spieth can play with his Best Friend Ever to Live on This Earth in Justin Thomas. Bubba can team up with Fowler, with Phil taking on Koepka or Finau or Horschel and starting a new butt-slapping duo. Even Zach Johnson and Billy could go all PXG on the Europeans with their new equipment company.

The options and opportunities are endless, and I really hope that Davis Love III goes with a new-look team this year because even in a loss it would be more exciting than what we’ve rolled out the past few years.

2. Jordan Spieth won’t have a down year like Rory McIlroy said he will.

A down year for Jordan Spieth? Uh, no.

I spent a lot of the last two weeks re-watching the big events in 2015 — what, taking in reruns of tournaments that just happened doesn’t sound like the best time of your life? — and the thing that caught me off-guard was how incredible Spieth was at bouncing back.

Now, a quick reminder about Mr. Spieth: He couldn’t close anything out in 2014. He couldn’t do it. Failed at Augusta, failed at Sawgrass, and spent the entire season awaiting that breakthrough moment that didn’t occur until long after the PGA Tour season had wrapped. Then, something clicked in Australia, and Spieth never looked back.

The most impressive win of 2015 for Spieth if you take a minute to look past his bounce-back at Augusta and his roller-coaster ride over the final three holes at Chambers Bay? That victory in Atlanta to claim the FedEx Cup title right about that time when everybody’s attention had turned to Jason Day and golf fans were doing what they do best, forgetting instantly what had happened earlier in the season.

As for ’16, Spieth has to be the favorite at Augusta. Power means little there (not like that matters in Spieth’s ability to win anywhere), his short game can shine there, and he’s coming in having finished second and first the last two years, his only two starts at the Masters. Oakmont sets up well for him because of all the golfers in the world right now, none compares to the way Spieth can handle situations when the upmost amount of pressure is put on him (namely in the final rounds of majors).

It’s easy to look at a season like Rickie Fowler had in the ’14 majors and think he was going to go off in ’15. But there is Jordan Spieth, and then everyone else, and he isn’t going to let up considering the way he played all year long and how it’s his PGA Tour right now. It’ll be up to some of the other top-ranked players to dethrone him from that position.

3. Tony Finau is your official Sleeper Golfer Who Could Win a Major.

Tony Finau seems ready to break through on the biggest stage.  

Equipment switches used to freak me out. Guys going from a brand they’ve played for X-number of years moving to something new right after a big season seemed to be a recipe for disaster. That sure doesn’t seem to be the case these days, especially considering how good everything is by all the manufacturers. (Finau told PGA Tour’s Jon Wall that he’s been working with new stuff for “the last few months.”)

Not only did Finau have a great 2015 that included two top-14s in majors, but he’s improved in every event he’s played so far in the wraparound season, going from a T-32 at the Frys.com in October to a T-16 at the Shriners and a ninth-place finish at the CIMB Classic.

Why is he the type to break out and possibly win a major? Because we now live in a golf world where being consistent leads to being victorious. Finau had a run between the Wells Fargo (May 17) and the Greenbrier (July 5) in which he played seven events and never finished outside the top 25.

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Finau’s A-game is scary good, and unlike a lot of the young players who grab the headlines (Patrick Reed and Rookie of the Year Daniel Berger fit this mold), he’s played his best golf in the biggest events on Tour.

I like Finau’s chances at the majors in ’16 and beyond. He has a ton of talent and is the type of guy who could open the floodgates if and when he gets that first win.

4. The Olympics’ decision to go with 72-hole stroke play will be overly criticized.

It’s already been questioned by plenty in the golf media, but just wait until the world turns to Rio and casual sports fans see golf on television and think, “Is this the Olympics or the Valspar Championship?”

This should be a two-man team event against all the other countries in the world, and hopefully it’ll change to that format as tweaking tends to happen, but for ’16 we will get a whole bunch of guys we watch week in and week out playing the exact same format they do for about 49 weeks out of the year.

On that same note . . .

5. Players will build their entire schedules around a 45-day stretch this summer.

The U.S. Open kicks off June 16. The PGA Championship wraps up July 31. That is an absolutely insane stretch of golf that will see three of the four majors played in just over a month and a half.

The summer stretch is already one that players focus on, but getting mentally and physically prepared for that run will mean events like the St. Jude Classic, the Quicken Loans, Bridgestone and the Canadian Open could be severely impacted by players bowing out to rest and get themselves ready for the next major.

6. The Big Three will turn into the Big Four by September.

Dustin Johnson  has the talent to make golf’s Big Three a Big Four.

That’s an easy prediction, so here are my picks — most likely to least likely — for who will join Spieth, McIlroy and Day atop the golf world by the end of this PGA Tour season.

1. Dustin Johnson. Though a caddie change seems like the easiest solution for a breakout year for DJ (no offense to his brother, but a pro would really help him over the weekends in the majors), I think Dustin is the one name in all of golf who has the sheer talent to blow away a field at a major championship.

The three-putt at Chambers Bay was unfortunate, but his putter was balky that entire week. DJ is going to win a major, and probably by a few shots, when that putter gets hot, and I think ’16 is the year he does it.

How am I so sure? Well, first, Dustin has absolutely no problem getting off to hot starts in majors. He was leading or tied for the lead after the opening round in the final three majors of 2015, shooting 65, 65, and 66 at the U.S., British and PGA Championship.

On top of that, DJ has finished in the top seven in four of the last seven majors, a streak that looks a lot like what Day was producing before his breakthrough win at Whistling Straits. (Day finished in the top nine in four eight majors before winning the PGA.)

Dustin wins a lot on Tour, and a major win is inevitable, not probable, in the coming months.

2. Rickie Fowler. His mix of major success in ’14 and producing wins (and big wins at that) in ’15 seems to be the recipe for a major victory. Fowler’s game is solid throughout the bag (he could work a bit on his iron play, landing 106th on Tour in GIR last season), and it just seems like the major win the world has wanted from him is inching closer and closer. Even if he doesn’t win a major, I could see Fowler doing something like he did in ’14 after a disappointing major season this past year, and the more you put yourself in the conversation on a weekend in a major, the more you have a chance of ending the day atop that leaderboard. McIlroy, Spieth and Day all won their first majors in dominating fashion, and though I think that’s a bit more Dustin than it is Rickie, Fowler’s mental game late in rounds has improved to a major-worthy level. The next time he’s in a position like he was at Valhalla, he will know how to bring it home.

3. Bubba Watson. I’m not exactly breaking the Internet by putting the fourth-ranked golfer in the world on this list, but for some reason it seems when people think of Bubba they don’t think of a dominant player.

Did you know that in 2015 Bubba played in 19 PGA Tour events and finished outside the top 25 exactly five times? While Bubba’s issues continue to be the non-Augusta majors (his only two missed cuts last year occurred at the Opens), another win at the Masters and three other wins sprinkled in would not only put him in the convo as best golfer in the world but might be enough to leapfrog the big three as the best ranked player in all of golf.

It could happen, and it isn’t that far-fetched. Pray for Ted Scott everybody else.

4. Emiliano Grillo. Already a winner in the wraparound season (his first PGA Tour victory), Grillo has played sparingly on the Web and PGA Tours the last two years, but when he has teed it up he’s showed up big.

In ’15, Grillo played nine combined events on the PGA and Web.com Tours, finishing in the top 10 five times including a T-2 at the Puerto Rico Open (a PGA Tour event) and winning the Web.com Tour Championship.

Grillo has a ton of talent, already has a win this season and will continue to improve as the year goes on.

7. Graeme McDowell will continue his recent success.

Graeme McDowell seems to have rediscovered his game just in time for 2016.

Of all the one-and-done major winners we’ve had since Tiger’s run, it was McDowell who most seemed like a sure thing. We looked at names like Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel and Michael Campbell and thought, “lucky week,” but McDowell’s victory at Pebble Beach and his continued play over the next year showed he would most likely be around for a while.

Then he slumped badly and it looked like he might be best known for his awesome bar in Orlando and not his ability to stay relevant over a long career, up until he claimed victory at the OHL Classic in November and finished third at the RSM Classic the following week to get himself prepared for ’16.

I’m not thinking McDowell wins a second major, but of all those one-hit wonders we’ve had, isn’t he the most likely name to follow Zach Johnson’s lead and grab a second?

8. Phil Mickelson will win the Masters.

In Phil’s last two seasons, he has carded just four top-10s, with two coming at majors as second-place finishes.

Phil is 45, has been playing professional golf since 1992 at the highest of levels and can’t logically think he has the same ability to grind out a full season like he did when he was younger.

I talked to two professionals late last year who are both in their 40s and have won big, big events and championships over their careers (including majors). Both mentioned that it’s the grind and the practice rounds that are the most brutal at this age — thinking of how much time must be put into something that used to come so naturally to them.

Phil has to feel the same way. How much time can you expect Mickelson to spend grinding on the range or the practice green to prepare for the Waste Management Open? It has to be minimal, and that is why his results aren’t what they used to be.

That being said, the majors still catch his eye, and he knows he can contend at Augusta National until he’s 55 if he can avoid any major injuries. Winning the U.S. Open would be career-defining for Mickelson, but a more realistic expectation is a victory at the Masters this year. He was close in ’15, and a fourth green jacket would put him on the Masters Mt. Rushmore with Jack, Arnie and Tiger.

9. We won’t see Tiger Woods play golf this season.

Not after what he said before the Hero World Challenge. I think we see Tiger again before he bids farewell to an incredible career, but I don’t see it happening in ’16. If he’s going to give it one more full run, does it matter if he’s 40 or 41? I think taking this entire year to get 100-percent healthy without a rush back to the game is as important as anything he’s ever done in his career (OK, maybe not the Tiger Slam, but we all want one more Tiger run and I’m trying my hardest here). Hopefully he will be patient enough to stay away from the sticks and get himself to a place where he can play a few weeks in a row without wincing and withdrawing.

10. The U.S. will win the Ryder Cup.

And I don’t think it’ll even be close. The streak is over. How many days until Hazeltine?!

Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com’s golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.