Friday, April 02, 2010

Some have not paid much attention to golf without Tiger Woods. Others don't tune it until the Masters gets under way. Consider this the front nine of issues in golf leading up to Augusta National:

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1. Tiger Woods

The record shows that he is going after his second straight "Masters" title, having won the Australian Masters on Nov. 15. That was 12 days before one the most shocking scandals involving the private life of an athlete unfolded. Caught in a web of infidelity, Woods announced in December he was taking an indefinite break to try to save his marriage. He missed the first three months of the season, including two title defenses. He went from being one of the most revered figures in sports to a punch line. Not only is the Masters is first competition in five months, he faces a public that likely will no longer regard him as it once did.

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2. New Grooves

The USGA adopted a new standard for grooves in 5-irons through wedges, changing the dimensions from what was called a "square groove" to a "V groove" that allowed for less spin. The idea was to put a premium on hitting fairways by making it tougher to spin the ball out of the rough. It has been too early in the season to determine if the new grooves are making a difference. But there has been anecdotal evidence of trouble with distance control because of balls jumping out of the rough on full shots, and players struggling with chipping. One litmus test figures to be Augusta National, especially from the first cut of rough and around the greens.

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3. Ping Wedges

Because of a lawsuit settlement from 20 years ago, Ping Eye2 wedges made before April 1, 1990, were exempt from the USGA's new groove regulation. John Daly and Dean Wilson showed up at the Sony Open using Ping wedges with the square grooves. Phil Mickelson put a Ping wedge in his bag at Torrey Pines, leading Scott McCarron to say, "It's cheating." That set off big trouble for the PGA Tour, which had to abide by the settlement, and it caused division among players. The controversy ended when Ping CEO and chairman John Solheim waived the company's right that prevented the PGA Tour from enforcing the new grooves regulation. Ping wedges, like other square grooves, no longer are allowed.

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4. Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson was the hottest player in golf when 2009 ended, winning the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, the latter playing with Tiger Woods in the final group. With Woods taking an "indefinite break" because of his infidelity, this figured to be a perfect time for Mickelson to fill the void and perhaps become No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. He not only failed to win, it was the first time he failed to finish in the top three at any tournament before the Masters. Those close to him say his wife's recovery from breast cancer is taking a bigger toll than Mickelson is letting on.

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5. English Revival

Only a decade ago, Lee Westwood was the only player from England among the top 100. Westwood won the European Tour money title last year, Paul Casey won three times worldwide, Ian Poulter won the Match Play Championship, and England suddenly is all the rage in golf. England has three players in the top 10 in the world, and eight players in the Masters.

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6. Drought Busters

Ernie Els had gone two years with a victory until he ended the longest drought of his career with a four-shot victory in the World Golf Championship at Doral. Then, he won consecutive events for the first time in seven years with a two-shot victory at Bay Hill. Between those tournaments was The Transitions Championship at Innisbrook, where Jim Furyk won for the first time in 2 1/2 years. It was the longest Furyk had gone without winning since his first victory in 1995.

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7. Parity

With Tiger Woods on indefinite leave, the search was on to see which player would fill the void. The answer was by committee. Thirteen players won the first 13 events on the PGA Tour until Ernie Els became the first multiple winner with his win at Bay Hill. Eight of the 13 winners on the PGA Tour are ranked among the top 30 in the world.

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8. Sponsors

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Tiger Woods' image and his absence, the PGA Tour continued to make progress against a tough economy. It found a new title sponsor for San Diego (Farmers Insurance), added a Fall Series event at Sea Island (McGladrey) and added another Asia event in the fall to be played in Malaysia. But it did lose a sponsor for one of its World Golf Championships when CA decided not to renew its contract.

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9. Tim Finchem

The Tiger Woods scandal made everyone a little testy, including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. In a rare display of temper, he became terse with an Australian reporter asking about Woods' relationship with a Canadian doctor. Finchem also conceded that he underestimated the amount of problems the Ping wedges would cause, and he apologized for not informing players at the Match Play Championship why Woods had chosen the middle of the tournament to speak publicly for the first time. "That's just a screw-up on my part," he said.

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