Our panel of PGA Tour experts — Jeff Babineau, Jim McCabe, Alex Miceli, Jeff Rude and Adam Schupak — took a few moments to banter about what 2014 might bring to the golf landscape. Here’s what they came up with:
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1. Will Tiger Woods win a major this season? If so, how many?
JEFF BABINEAU: Mark it down: In 2014, Woods will resume the Great Jack Chase, winning at least one major (and once he does … watch out). The venues – Augusta National, Pinehurst, Hoylake, Valhalla – simply set up too well for him, with lots of good memories, as he’s won on three of the four and finished third/second in two previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst. His swing is good, he’s in a good place, his swagger is back and most importantly of all, it’s time.
JIM McCABE: Everyone loves yes, because of the venues. Woods has won at Augusta, he’s won at Royal Liverpool, he’s won at Valhalla, and he’s been second and third at Pinehurst. But stop and consider that it’ll be a different Pinehurst from 1999 and 2005. Liverpool isn’t likely to be as fast and firm as it was in ’06, and who knows how many times Valhalla has changed since Woods last saw it 14 years ago. So I’ll go against the flow and say no, he won’t win a major in ’14. There’s just too many bad vibes working against him these years in the majors.
ALEX MICELI: I have been consistent in stating that Tiger Woods won’t win another major. Many believe that this year playing three of the four majors in venues he has won major at before gives Woods a very good chance to win No. 15. But Augusta has proven to be a difficult get for Woods since his last win in 2005; clearly it is now Tiger-proofed. Woods has had success at Pinehurst (third in 1999, second in 2005), but it’s a completely different golf course with the changes. When Woods won at Hoylake, the conditions were so hard and fast they were perfect for Woods to hit long irons and stingers off the tee. It’s not likely the conditions will be the same next summer. And Woods hasn’t seen Valhalla for a long time. When he does return, he will find it changed mightily by Jack Nicklaus, with the only thing remaining constant is that the course is still near Louisville. Lastly, the fields keep getting better and better, while Tiger gets older and older.
JEFF RUDE: Yes. One, maybe two. The 2014 venues set up well for him. He’s won four Masters. He’s come close in two U.S. Opens at Pinehurst. And he’s won at Hoylake and Valhalla. Still, it won’t be easy. Since he won his last major in 2008, the competition has elevated and he seems to have pressed on major weekends the last couple of years.
ADAM SCHUPAK: The major drought will end in 2014. I hope it ends at Augusta so we can put an end to the storyline of will he ever win another major … at least for a little while. The majors visit courses where Tiger has a tremendous track record, so it wouldn’t shock me if he won more than one, but I’m predicting he gets to No. 15.
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2. Which player might break through to win his first major in 2014, and why?
BABINEAU: Dustin Johnson. Too much length, too many birdies, too much talent. One of these days he’s going to have a hot putting week and bump into one of those big trophies much like the way John Daly did.
McCABE: Sergio Garcia, because his superior ballstriking keeps him hanging around (he’s made the cut in 13 of the last 16 majors, with six top 15 finishes) and because . . . well, I’m a sucker for great storylines and it’s hard to find one better than the precocious Spaniard finally winning a major. Yes, he huffs and he puffs and he pouts and he sulks, but he’s got to grow up sometime, doesn’t he? Here’s a wild guess that the Spaniard will be lurking on Sunday – and for yucks, let’s say it’ll be at Royal Liverpool – and suddenly a few putts fall for Garcia, but not for others, and finally, for once in his life he shows patience, and much like it did for his friend Adam Scott at Augusta, victory will find him.
MICELI: Had he hit the ball better at Muirfield last July, Lee Westwood would have won his first major. Previously his issue had been the short game, but he improved in that area in 2013, and if he can put a short game together with his usual consistent ballstriking, then I give Westwood a good chance. His move to Florida and having veteran caddie Billy Foster back on the bag are also positives.
RUDE: Sergio Garcia. Because his putting is improved. He finished eighth in strokes-gained putting on the 2013 PGA Tour.
SCHUPAK: Hunter Mahan. He’s been knocking on the door. His ball-striking translates well to the majors. Can he make enough putts and continue to improve his short game? I think he can.
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3. Which ’14 major venue is most intriguing to you?
BABINEAU: Royal Liverpool. Augusta is Augusta in all its beauty, and I’m looking forward to the new, scruffy, no-rough look of Pinehurst, too. But last we visited Hoylake (Liverpool) for a major in the summer of 2006, it was dry, fast and dusty, and Woods bludgeoned the place with a 4-iron. This summer, Hoylake should be greener, more lush, should play longer and will present a very different test.
McCABE: The first thought is to say Pinehurst No. 2 (U.S. Open), because people are falling in love with the work Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore have done. But Pinehurst will be more intriguing a week later when the women play their U.S. Open and the USGA’s bold gamble is truly put to the test. Truth is, Royal Liverpool has me anxious already. It’s still an unknown commodity to most competitors, with only two visits the last 58 years. It will be interesting to watch the lads play these doglegs without benefit of rock-hard and fast-running links that greeted them eight years ago. That’s assuming, of course, that we don’t get a repeat of the ’06 conditions – and my money would be on that.
MICELI: Pinehurst No. 2 is clearly the most intriguing. The changes are dramatic and it’s a golf course that very few of the participants will have seen before they arrive to North Carolina in June.
RUDE: Pinehurst No. 2, because of its renovation. It will be interesting to see how it plays, as usual. Whoever wins will need a brilliant short game.
SCHUPAK: Pinehurst over Augusta. A U.S. Open without rough? I can’t wait to see how that plays and what the winning score will be. Hoylake and Valhalla don’t get the blood flowing like some of the other options in the Open rota and recent PGA sites.
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4. Who could be the Henrik Stenson/surprise performer of ’14?
BABINEAU: Harris English. He’s talented, he’s steady, he’s gaining experience and as he continues to win, his confidence will grow. At 24, he appears ready to jump into a more prominent place in the landscape of good young American players and could be a guy there in the end at the Tour Championship.
McCABE: Paul Casey. Remember him? The Englishman was ranked third in the world in late August of 2009, the year he won on the PGA Tour and added two in Europe. He was on a fast track until a series of injuries, some personal issues, and scratchy play took over. He was left off the 2010 Ryder Cup team and wasn’t even in the discussion in 2012, by the end of which he was 122nd in the world. Now, pointing the spotlight on Casey isn’t that big a leap; he won the Irish Open last year and has been “trending,” as they say, for months, even if he’s only moved to 93rd in the OWGR. At 36, he’s about about 15 months younger than Stenson, and it doesn’t seem a reach to see him replicating the Swede’s dynamic 2013 season.
MICELI: Paul Casey was 122nd in the world when 2013 began and played his way inside the top 100. Winning the Irish Open may lead to more success in 2014 after a solid season in Europe. One obstacle for Casey will be how many starts he will get in the U.S., but if he starts hot he will make the jump into the top 50 and it no longer will be be a concern.
RUDE: Not sure anyone will come out of left field and play at that kind of high-level golf week after week. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Harris English takes a step up to the elite level. He won in the fall, has a jump start and can free up and play.
SCHUPAK: Stenson’s comeback is right there with Steve Stricker and Lee Westwood in my book. The only guy who could eclipse Stenson in returning from the abyss would be David Duval. (And to a lesser extent, Robert Karlsson). Do I think either will win the FedEx Cup? Fat chance. As for fallen stars who may regain some lost luster, Geoff Ogilvy and Martin Kaymer are due to win again soon.
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5. Who will win the Ryder Cup?
BABINEAU: Europe. No one quite knows why, but those boys from across the pond (many of whom make their homes here in the U.S.) just seem to summon something extra to gain an edge in this event. The U.S. will be pressing to turn around the shocking turnaround of Medinah, and we all know how the Americans perform when pressed. Scotland’s Gleneagles will be waiting after a long, arduous closing stretch of playoffs for the American side, and the U.S. result will mirror the weather: Cold and dreary.
McCABE: Europe. Better team chemistry, better feel for Gleneagles, better Super Hero for this competition (that would be Ian James Poulter). For the record, it will be three straight for the Euros, five of six, and seven of nine. Let’s just say American captain Tom Watson will mutter to himself that it wasn’t like this when he played.
MICELI: The law of averages gives a Ryder Cup win to the U.S. Unfortunately, the law of averages has been proven wrong time and again by the Europeans. Tom Watson could be the X-factor this time around at Gleneagles. In fact, I’m betting he will be. The U.S. wins.
RUDE: The U.S. will win this time around, because it is overdue and the team probably will get some inspiration from captain Tom Watson.
SCHUPAK: My crystal ball is kind of blurry on this one. Hard to predict not knowing the makeup of the two teams, but since the Euro nucleus seems stable, I’ll go with the chalk and say Euros defend at home. Don’t they always?