2012 in preview: PGA Tour storylines

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

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8:41:23 AM ET. 04/24/2014




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1Nicholas Thompson-11-1
T2William McGirtE1E
T2Jim RennerE1E
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T2Paul CaseyE1E
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Only golf measures its offseason not in months and weeks but in deep breaths. We’re barely removed from the historic accomplishment of Luke Donald (money titles on both sides of the Atlantic) when it’s time to pack the Tommy Bahama shirts and head to Maui for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Of course, given that there are a solid 11 months of golf ahead, there’s no reason to sprint out of the gates. Instead, let’s meander forward with some thoughts, speculation and wonderment about the season that awaits. Ten 2012 storylines that grab our interest:

• • •

Is Tiger Woods back?

That depends entirely upon on your definition of “back.”

Back to 2000-01, when he won four consecutive majors? Probably not, because that was historic stuff, not to be repeated.

Back to 2005-07, when he won five majors and 21 PGA Tour tournaments? Unlikely, for a similar sentiment.

But if you mean “back” to being consistently effective and in contention more times than not, then sure, put your money on Woods being a positive storyline throughout 2012. How that translates into personal endorsements and business dealings is of little interest to me; it matters more that Woods in good form is great for golf because no one plugs electricity into the game quite like him.

Here is the quandary for golf journalists in the Woods era: People claim too much is written and reported about him, yet readership is highest and most avid when you do write and report about him.

True, the power advantage he once held over the wide majority of the field has evaporated, given that everyone pounds it into distant galaxies, but Woods is the greatest scrambler and most effective scorer the game has ever known, and if his abilities in those aspects return to even close to where they once were, then strap yourself in for a fun season.

As always with Woods, there are different ways to assess his story.

On the one hand, he will play in 2012 as a 36-year-old, stuck on 14 majors and having failed to win any of the previous 14 major championships. No positive vibes there.

Ah, but Jack Nicklaus in 1976 played as a 36-year-old who was stuck on 14 major championships, and he proceeded to go winless in 10 consecutive majors (thanks mostly to the arrival of the great Tom Watson and the presence of icons named Johnny Miller and Raymond Floyd who were busy winning majors at this time).

Of course, Nicklaus dug deep and won a major at 38, two at 40, and that unforgettable one at 46. Is it possible to envision Woods doing similarly? Yes, because his short game is more efficient than Nicklaus’ ever was, but the Golden Bear fought complacency, which is an easier foe than the serious knee and health issues that remain Woods’ biggest hurdle.

• • •

How good is young Rory McIlroy?

Forget the peripheral stuff like changing management companies, girlfriends and residences. Here’s the rub with 22-year-old Rory McIlroy: He’s flat-out a lovable superstar whom you can embrace, and golf hasn’t had that in a long time.

Climbing out of the wreckage of one major (the Masters) and into the winner’s circle of another (U.S. Open) was downright Tom Watson-like circa 1974 (Winged Foot collapse) and 1975 (Carnoustie glory), only better, because McIlroy recovered in his very next chance.

Charming and refreshingly honest, McIlroy is also resilient and saturated in duende, and there might not be another player in the game about whom you can say that. His game showed great maturity in 2011, and if he ever can figure out how to manage his globe-trotting ways that have to wear him down, there’s no doubt he can be No. 1.

He may already be there, so far as global popularity goes, but boy would a few wins on the PGA Tour in 2012 only validate the hype.

• • •

Major rota, minor buzz

This is not 2010, when the venues for the major championship were Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits (tough walking for fans, but intense wow factor). Nope, in 2012 the major sites after Augusta National will be The Olympic Club, Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

Not excited? You’re not alone.

Whereas having an impressive roll call of winners elevates many courses to iconic stature, The Olympic Club is rather infamous for those Hall of Famers who’ve come up short at U.S. Opens there – Ben Hogan losing to Jack Fleck in 1955, Arnold Palmer to Billy Casper in 1966, Tom Watson to Scott Simpson in 1987 and Payne Stewart to Lee Janzen in 1998.

If you want to defend The Olympic Club, you’ll have to do it while tilted, in tribute to those sloping fairways that confound.

Then again, as golf course identities go, Lytham & St. Annes bunkers are as extreme as it gets. There are more than 200 of them, but there may as well be 20,000. You’ll find plenty of golfers who are passionate about this links, and for good measure luminaries such as Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros (twice) have won Open Championships at Lytham. Yet for all that, it is not St. Andrews or Muirfield, and thus will the summer visit to the Open lack a bit of the usual aura.

So far as August goes, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island presents a diabolical commute that will not endear fans to this year’s final major. Long and difficult are attributes that lead to high scores, but not necessarily memorable contests.

• • •

Those majorless Englishmen

Sitting Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world order to start the 2012 season, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood should be celebrated for remarkable consistency. They are properly situated, because the world rankings need to be about overall brilliance, not outrageously weighed in favor of the majors.

Which brings me to this: What is it about finishing second or third in six of the past 16 majors (Westwood) or top 10 in two of the 2011 majors (Donald) that makes people think these Englishmen need to apologize for their stature?

Nonsense to suggestions that you can’t be No. 1 or even No. 2 without a major on your resume. Such an omission comes into legitimate play at the end of a player’s career, when Hall of Fame merit is weighed, not now, when his worth against the field is assessed.

• • •

Time to fill those Ryder Cup rosters

Bet you’re thinking we just thawed out from Wales? That it can’t possibly be time to do this Ryder Cup stuff all over again? Think again, because we’re less than nine months from the first waltz of two players and two caddies lining up the same 6-foot putt. The American press will jump into Ryder Cup mode sometime in March, perhaps 18 months after our European brethren first launched their intrigue about the 2012 matches, and if that doesn’t tell you which side continues to take this competition more seriously, nothing will.

True, it will be of interest to see if Tiger Woods can qualify for his first team since the 2009 Presidents Cup or if the nucleus of the past five U.S. teams – Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan – will be wearing the red, white and blue for captain Davis Love III. But let’s be honest here: It’s going to be far more fun to see the European team take shape, given the parameters at stake. Europeans committed to the U.S. for their golf in the end will create a sort of five-square-pegs-for-four-circles predicament.

Refer back to 2010, when Paul Casey and Justin Rose both discovered in the middle of the fourth round at The Barclays that they had been passed over in favor of Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington by European captain Colin Montgomerie. Delicious stuff, and with Sergio Garcia back in the mix and Alvaro Quiros a serious contender, we are destined for the same sort of competition by many of the same familiar names.

One man’s guess: Expect to see Casey at Medinah, but Harrington’s run of six straight Ryder Cup teams will come to an end.

• • •

So, who wins the Ryder Cup?

On the Ryder Cup's last visit to a mundane but sprawling Midwest golf course (Oakland Hills, in 2004), a spirited European team responded majestically for an admired captain, Bernhard Langer. Here’s a guess that this trip to an equally mundane but sprawling Medinah, outside of Chicago, will be a resounding victory for captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who just might be one of the game’s most respected players.

Olazabal might not have four captain’s picks, but possibly having the top four players in the world rankings (Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer hold down those spots, in order) trumps that, and there remains a magical quality to Europe’s approach to this Ryder Cup that is impossible to explain.

• • •

Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

No, sir, we’re not. In case you haven’t followed along, despite the media’s attempt to disparage them, the FedEx Cup playoffs have offered up a five-year ride that has accomplished its main intent: to get great fields at a time of year when tournaments used to serve up NoDoz.

Certainly, the series of tournaments going from New York (Barclays) to Boston (Deutsche Bank) to Chicago (BMW) to Atlanta (Tour Championship) haven’t made people shut off Major League Baseball, the NFL or college football, but they have presented good theater to golf junkies and kept more interest in the game for marginal fans who in past years would have been tuned out.

Five years, 20 tournaments and chaps named Tiger Woods (three), Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Camilo Villegas and Dustin Johnson (two each) have dominated the victory parade, and when you toss in one each for Jim Furyk, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas (apologies to the surprises, Heath Slocum and Charley Hoffman), it’s hard to argue that the cream has not risen in the chase for those FedEx dollars.

• • •

Which brings us to a key storyline for 2012: Will FedEx renew?

Skeptics will venture to say no, but the PGA Tour has done a tremendous job of keeping a full schedule and renewing sponsorships, so pay heed to that impressive track record.

• • •

Big Three in Masters spotlight, again

If Thursday, April 5 offers you a feeling of 1999, it will be for good reason. Three Masters icons who have 13 green jackets between them – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – will serve as honorary starters to this year’s tournament, a nostalgic reminder of 13 years earlier when Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead did similar duties for the last time.

There was a four-year period when no one took on the assignment, at least until 2007, when Palmer agreed. Nicklaus joined him a year ago, and it’s only fitting that Player completes a reunion of “The Big Three” for this year’s annual rite of spring.

• • •

Comebacks and breakthroughs

Having finished winless and 128th on the money list, Tiger Woods has joked about being in position to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Then again, he’s not alone, because there were a number of marquee names who went winless and sank to poor depths on the money list in 2011, among them Graeme McDowell (86th), Anthony Kim (87th), Ernie Els (93rd), Stewart Cink (101st), Padraig Harrington (107th), Retief Goosen (108th), Ian Poulter (115th) and Angel Cabrera (131st).

In fact, the aforementioned nine names combined for a mere 17 top 10s in a whopping 161 starts (for comparison's sake, Luke Donald had 14 top 10s in just 19 tournaments), so if you’re looking for great rebound stories, there’s no shortage of possibilities.

Then there are those who haven’t achieved world-class stature but could make strides in that direction with a breakthrough. Jason Dufner is one who is on the verge of winning, and Kyle Stanley is another. Brendan Steele already has won, but he’s got the game and the demeanor to take it up another notch or two, and if Rickie Fowler doesn’t crack through in 2012, it might just start to become an anchor that follows him to the first tee.

• • • 

You need major picks in advance?

So, there’s a desire to place a wager two months in advance of the major championships? We aim to please, so cleaning off the foggy crystal ball, here is one man’s valid attempt to steer you in the right direction:

Paul Casey, Masters; Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open; Luke Donald, Open Championship; and Dustin Johnson, PGA Championship.

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