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Rory McIlroy unanimous choice to win 2016 player of the year award

The coming year in golf owns the potential to be unlike any other in recent memory. With storylines galore, a return of the sport to the Olympics and toss in a Ryder Cup for good measure, it looks to be a spoil of riches for 2016.

So with so much brewing in the coming months, our panel members gaze into their crystal balls to do the unthinkable: Predict what will happen in a sport that is inherently unpredictable.

Want to make your own predictions? Use #2016GolfPicks on Twitter and we'll include some of the best ones below.


Player of the year

SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman: Rory McIlroy
The hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat. Repeat a championship run or repeat simply as a champion of a single event. I truly believe that Jordan Spieth is motivated to be even greater. I also think, just like this month, he will play tournaments with money attached which will make scheduling tough. And I have no problem with that. But I think he struggles to adjust and will allow McIlroy to step in and win another major and take the top spot. It won't be easy, but Rory will win in a tight race.

ESPN.com senior golf analyst Michael Collins: Rory McIlroy
If this were a movie, they'd call it, "Rory Part 2 -- Healthy and Taking Back What's Mine."

ESPN.com senior golf writer Bob Harig: Rory McIlroy
McIlroy seems to like the even-numbered years. He went to No. 1 for the first time in 2012, slumped in 2013, bounced back with two major wins in 2014, then saw Spieth and Jason Day run by him in 2015. He gets back on top this year.

ESPN.com senior golf editor Kevin Maguire: Rory McIlroy
The Northern Irishman wasn't too keen on getting knocked off his perch from the No. 1 spot in the world in 2015, so expect a more intense effort this year. Not missing a few of the biggest tournaments during the middle of the summer due to injury will certainly help his cause, too.

ESPN.com senior golf writer Jason Sobel: Rory McIlroy
No more soccer, clarity in his personal life and newfound motivation will propel him to yet another career year.


Rookie of the year

Coachman: Patrick Rodgers
There are a lot of good young players, but this one is easy. Rodgers feels like Spieth to me. He showed up in the fall on every leaderboard and proved he belongs. When you appear in the record books in college alongside Tiger Woods, you have serious game. And we will see that this year.

Collins: Smylie Kaufman
It's almost not fair. The 24-year-old rookie has a win, a top-10 and hasn't even missed a cut in five starts so far. He only turned pro in 2014 for goodness' sake!

Harig: Smylie Kaufman
He's already got a nice head start with a final-round 61 to capture the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas.

Maguire: Emiliano Grillo
The Argentine not only won the 2015-16 season-opening Frys.com Open for his first PGA Tour victory, but he also got to the big leagues (at just 23 years old) with three top-10s in four starts at the Web.com Finals series. These days, anyone can get hot one week and punch a ticket to the next level. Grillo, part of the ever-impressive "high school" class of 2010 that includes Spieth, could be a mainstay for years in the U.S.

Sobel: Smylie Kaufman
With a win already this season, this is like catching a glimpse of the answer key before the big test.


Masters winner

Coachman: Jordan Spieth
After attending the Masters for the first time last year, I realized there is only a small group of players that can win at Augusta National. There many different reasons for this, but the biggest one is that it's just a hard week to finish. So hard. So Spieth will win back-to-back green jackets. Because of the expected hangover, this will be his first win of the year. But expect for two or three guys to be up around 15-under this year.

Collins: Rory McIlroy
The career Grand Slam will be completed in heroic fashion with the epic Sunday back nine battle we've been waiting for among McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.

Harig: Rory McIlroy
He stamps his POY award early by capturing his fifth major and achieving the career Grand Slam.

Maguire: Bubba Watson
Much like Arnold Palmer winning at Augusta National in even numbered years (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964), Watson goes for the trifecta in 2016 after his green jacket-winning efforts in 2012 and 2014. Considering how much the Masters suits Watson's game, major No. 3 in northeast Georgia seems more like a when than an if.

Sobel: Rory McIlroy
I'll take this prediction one step further: His first green jacket definitely won't be his last.


U.S. Open winner

Coachman: Rory McIlroy
I will not pick the sexy pick of Phil Mickelson like other people. But Oakmont requires accuracy and power. For those reasons, this is Rory's year to win his second U.S. Open and everything is setting up for him this time around.

Collins: Jason Day
No vertigo this year and no having to pray in Oakmont's famous "Church Pews" as Day wins major No. 2 of his career.

Harig: Phil Mickelson
That would be some story, huh? Completing the career Grand Slam, too.

Maguire: Dustin Johnson
Wouldn't it be poetic justice for DJ to get that first major win a year after giving it away to Spieth at Chambers Bay? The 31-year-old Johnson will come to Oakmont in June knowing that bombers should have a distinct advantage at the USGA setup, but can he close the door after so many near misses in majors? For the first time, he finishes it off.

Sobel: Justin Rose
The only commonalities between Merion and Oakmont are U.S. Open venues in the same state, but Rose will claim the Penn Double.


Open Championship winner

Coachman: Jason Day
This is always a tricky one. Because I feel like Day is at the top of his game, he will be at the top of the leaderboard in one major. Last year he finished 1 shot out of a playoff at St. Andrews. This year, he will hold the Claret Jug.

Collins: Jordan Spieth
Three down, one to go for the career Grand Slam and this is where he'll temporarily take back No. 1 in the world from McIlroy.

Harig: Rickie Fowler
He's had his best success in this major, and it would appear that is the next step.

Maguire: Jordan Spieth
The young Texan will always think about how he nearly kept the Grand Slam dream alive at St. Andrews in 2015, at least until he gets his next shot at Royal Troon in July. He won't be without the Claret Jug for long.

Sobel: Rickie Fowler
He isn't just a great links player, he embraces the style of play needed to succeed on these courses.


PGA Championship winner

Coachman: Justin Thomas
This is the final major and because of the tough, condensed schedule, I am going to take a flier on this one with Thomas. I love this kid's game and after winning for the first time last fall, he knows how to get in the winner's circle. Who will buy drinks now, Jordan?

Collins: Rickie Fowler
He's not late to the party, everyone else just got there early. If you thought the "Big Four" talk got nuts last year ...

Harig: Dustin Johnson
The PGA is often the place for first-time major winners. Those two closing par-5s at Baltusrol ought to help Johnson, too.

Maguire: Rickie Fowler There's doing early scouting on a major venue and then there was Fowler, along with Spieth, playing Baltusrol, site of the 2016 PGA Championship, nearly a year before it was held. That kind of early thinking, along with a major-caliber game of course, is just one more reason why the man in orange will raise the Wannamaker Trophy.

Missed cut pillow fight round today at Baltusrol but still some good action from @rickiefowler

A video posted by Jordan Spieth (@jordanspieth) on

Sobel: Brooks Koepka
There might be an adjustment period after the switch to Nike (right, Rory?), but Koepka has the talent to overcome it.


Olympic champion

Coachman: Jordan Spieth
Qualifying for the Olympics is going to make it difficult for some of the world's best to even be in Brazil. This is a high pressure tournament. Spieth has made it clear that this is a fifth major to him. I want someone who is motivated. Spieth is my guy.

Collins: Rory McIlroy
This will be his fifth win for the year (that includes European Tour wins) with the FedEx Cup Playoffs on the horizon.

Harig: McIlroy
Motivation will be the key here, and McIlroy will also have a short field to beat.

Maguire: Jordan Spieth
The field will be so small -- only 60 golfers -- so just getting into the field will be a chore even for the best in the world. That being said, Spieth won't win two majors like he did in 2015, but he will win the first gold medal in golf since 1904.

Sobel: Jordan Spieth
Steaming mad after close calls at the four majors, he'll lap the field like Michael Phelps en route to a gold medal.


Ryder Cup champion

Coachman: Team USA
The American team has a mental block when it comes to Ryder Cup. But this year, with the infusion of young players who are scared of nothing, the United States will bring the cup back on home soil.

Collins: Team USA
The POD system is back in play and just like the first time, it works.

Harig: Team USA
It has to happen eventually. Right?

Maguire: Team Europe
Why should anything change just because the Americans tried to emulate the European system? Although that was a good move, like any plan, it'll take a while for Team USA to get back into the win column for the first time since Valhalla in 2008. A U.S. victory in France come 2018 might be a better shot, though, with all the young American talent enjoying a bit more experience in these biennial matches a couple of years from now.

Sobel: Team USA
Is it the task force? The younger team members? The resolve for retribution? Maybe. Or maybe it's just the law of averages.


Comeback player of the year

Coachman: Graeme McDowell
For me, this guy's comeback has already started. McDowell made a commitment to playing on the PGA Tour more because his U.S. Open exemption was ready to run out. His win in Mexico in November was huge, but I don't think that it will stop there. McDowell needed a kick and he got it. And no one is more happy to start their year in Hawaii than Graeme.

Collins: Jason Dufner
At one time, Dufner was ranked seventh in the world. He begins 2016 ranked 133rd. I'd say a victory and two top-5 finishes will make him a deserved winner of this award.

Harig: Billy Horschel
The 2014 FedEx Cup champion went silent in 2015 but bounces back this year, winning a tournament and getting back to the Tour Championship.

Maguire: Keegan Bradley
The 2011 PGA Champion has now gone winless for three straight seasons on the PGA Tour. At the ripe old age of 29, Bradley isn't playing poorly. (He finished 64th on the money list last season.) But now that the anchor ban is officially out of the way, he can't go back if he wanted. That weight will be off his shoulders, allowing him to just go out and play.

Sobel: Brian Gay
I played 18 holes with him a few weeks ago. Even after two surgeries, the dude still knows how to putt.


Sleeper/breakout player of the year

Coachman: Matthew Fitzpatrick
I am going across the pond for this one. Fitzpatrick is young and ready to take the golf world by storm. This kid is not intimidated and has the chops to play with the best. This first year he will spend making money and getting to a point where he can play in all the majors. Fans in the U.S. better get used to early morning golf on the Golf Channel to see this kid.

Collins: Brooks Koepka
If he stays healthy, expect at least a two-win season and look for him to contend in a major.

Harig: Justin Thomas
He showed flashes in his rookie year, then broke through for a victory at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. A good friend of Spieth, look for Thomas to go head-to-head somewhere against his buddy.

Maguire: Jamie Lovemark
If Lovemark can stay healthy, and that's a big if after his back issues, the 2010 Web.com Tour money winner could make some waves with the big boys in 2016. The former two-time All-American at USC posted seven top-10s in 22 starts on the Web.com Tour in 2015 and he even notched a top-10 in the RSM Classic, his final start of the year, on the PGA Tour.

Sobel: Justin Thomas
Tony Finau and Fitzpatrick have household name potential, but Thomas' game could lift him into the top 10 by year's end.