The PGA Tour's new wraparound season is well under way (it started back in October), but the players to watch in 2014 remain the same: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Both Tiger and Phil enter this season with a great opportunity to achieve their biggest goals. For Woods, that means resuming his chase of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major titles. For Mickelson, that means completing the career grand slam at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, the major championship he desires most of all.
Let's start with Woods. If there was ever a year for Tiger to snap his major drought, it's 2014. Of the year's four major venues, he's won at three of them: four times at Augusta National, and once each at British Open host site Hoylake, in 2006, and PGA Championship site Valhalla, in 2000. The only 2014 major venue at which Tiger hasn't won is U.S. Open site Pinehurst No. 2. (He did finish second there in the 2005 U.S. Open.)
Post-renovation Pinehurst could favor imaginative players like Phil and Tiger.
Pinehurst will play much differently than it did in 2005, or in 1999 when Phil finished runner-up. After an extensive renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the course will play as architect Donald Ross intended, with balls running through the fairway. It will allow for creativity, which should favor imaginative players like Bubba Watson or… Phil and Tiger. Weather is typically a factor at the British Open, but if Hoylake is hot and dry like it was for Tiger's Open win in 2006, then the World No. 1 has an advantage because he's so brilliant with his long irons. If the course is wet and playing longer, it could be a different story.
Say what you want about Tiger and his swing—the real reason that major win No. 15 has eluded him for nearly six years is that he doesn't play with the same confidence on the weekends as he did when he was racking up 14 majors over 11 years. For all that he's accomplished, he's in a different phase of his career. Winning his next major will be a little like winning his first one: He won't know if he can do it until he does it. If and when he does, the floodgates could open.
Just as compelling will be Phil's quest for the career grand slam, something that only a half dozen players have achieved. Pinehurst should set up beautifully for his strategic approach and imaginative short game. Plus, there are no lakes he can hit it into. When he misses with his driver, he'll have a chance to recover from the rough, like he famously did on No. 13 at Augusta in the 2010 Masters, hitting off the pine needles and threading it between two trees. Nobody does things like that better.
One quirk of the new 2013-14 PGA Tour schedule is that while many fans see the Masters as the beginning of the golf season, the tournament actually marks the halfway point. Yet for Tiger, Phil and their supporters, the four majors are the dates that matter most. I expect those two greats to put on an incredible show. I know I'll be watching.