Five burning questions for 2012 golf season

Tuesday January 3rd, 2012

Over the past few days, as sports talk radio stations have started to focus on 2012, I've been asked a lot of questions about what I foresee happening next season. Here is my take on five questions that are dominating golf conversations as we head into a new season.
  
1. Will Tiger Woods win a full-field PGA Tour event in 2012?
Tiger's win at the Chevron World Challenge in December wasn't major, but his fist pump on the 18th green showed how meaningful it was to Woods. It had been more than two years since his last victory, at the 2009 Australian Masters, and in that time he’d been divorced, changed coaches and caddies, and lost (and gained) several sponsors. But he still needs to win a full-field tournament to complete his comeback.
 
Charl Schwartzel's amazing four-birdie finish and Rory McIlroy's back-nine implosion made it easy to forget that when Tiger made an eagle on the eighth hole at Augusta National on Sunday, more than a few people thought he just might win the 2011 Masters. (He tied for fourth.)

Tiger eagles the eighth on Sunday
Fred Vuich/SI
Tiger Woods makes eagle on the eighth hole Sunday at Augusta.
 
Woods didn't play in the U.S. Open or the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship, but his game looked better at the Australian Open and during the Presidents Cup in November. Tiger's misses off the tee were more manageable, he started to make more putts, and for extended periods his iron play looked very sharp.
 
What prevented Tiger from winning Down Under was an inability to put together four very good rounds. He shot 68-67-75-67 to finish solo third in Sydney. Similar performances in the United States will earn him a lot of cash, but he can’t shoot a 75 and expect to win.
 
Don't be distracted by Tiger's wayward driving statistics; he's never going to hit 71% of the fairways like he did during the 2000 season. But if Woods putts well, he's going to put himself in contention.
 
If he were stock, now would be a good time to buy. Few will be surprised if Woods wins in 2012, maybe more than once, and maybe soon.
 
2. Is Luke Donald going to win a major championship in 2012?
With all due respect to my Golf Magazine colleagues who named Rory McIlroy 2011 Player of the Year, no one had a better season than Luke Donald. Winning a money title doesn't necessarily mean you won the most tournaments, but it does mean you were the best player week-to-week. Donald won the official money titles for both the PGA Tour and the European tour, something no one had done before in the same season.
 
Judging by the tweets that were sent to Donald from around the world, the game's finest players agree he's the best. But because he’s never won a major, some people still question his No 1 ranking.

Luke Donald
Kohjiro Kinno/SI
Luke Donald
 
In 2012, I think he’ll end that debate at the U.S. Open.
 
Donald played in the final group with Tiger Woods at the 2006 PGA Championship, and he tied for fourth at last season's Masters, but his game has always seemed perfectly constructed for a U.S. Open -- especially one played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. With its tiny greens and tilted fairways, the Lake Course is just 7,145 yards long. That's 429 yards shorter than Congressional. More than any recent U.S. Open, next year’s will put a premium on accuracy, control and solid putting, not power.
 
In 2011, Luke ranked eighth on the PGA Tour in scrambling, and first in strokes gained-putting, the Tour’s new putting stat. He was fifth in sand saves, second in birdie average and first in scoring (68.86). That’s just about everything you want for a player heading to San Francisco in June.
 
  1. 3. Can Rory McIlroy exorcise some demons and win at Augusta National?
If it weren't for Rory McIlroy, people who watch the Masters on television would never know the 10th hole has lovely white cottages lining the first hundred yards of the fairway's left side. McIlroy toured the area last year on the way to a triple bogey and a final-round 80,
 
As crushing as Sunday must have been for young Rory, two things make me think he has a green jacket in his near future.

Rory McIlroy Sunday at 2011 Masters
Robert Beck/SI
Rory McIlroy visited the cottages beside the 10th hole on Sunday at Augusta.
 
The first is obvious: He lapped the field at Congressional to win the U.S. Open. Every phase of McIlroy's game was dialed in that week. He had power off the tee, laser-guided iron shots and fearless putting. In fact, he only three-putted once, on the 17th hole Sunday, when he had a nine-shot lead.
 
The second is a little less obvious: After shooting a back-nine 43, a lot of players would have sprinted from the 18th green to  the seclusion of Augusta's clubhouse. But McIlroy  stopped and answered every question from CBS's Peter Kostis. He even managed to crack a smile while speaking openly about his emotions, about how his thought process and game plan went out the window, and how he hoped to come back stronger for having gone through the experience. In that moment of defeat, when it would have been so easy to pout, blow off the media and sulk, Rory showed maturity, thoughtfulness, and guts.
 
McIlroy is 22 years old and No. 3 in the world, so picking him to win the Masters next year is not exactly going out on a limb. But this is: McIlroy will win at least three times at Augusta by the time he retires.
 
4. Is 41-year-old Phil Mickelson going to be a contender in 2012, or was last season a preview of things to come?
Mickelson won more than $3.7 million in 2011, but he only seemed to be a factor on a handful of occasions. He was the runner-up to Bubba Watson at Torrey Pines in January, dominated the field to win the Shell Houston Open in April, and was in the mix at Royal St. George's in July until he somehow missed a momentum-killing two-foot putt (again!) on Sunday.

Phil Mickelson putting
Simon Bruty/SI
Phil Mickelson needs more holes to drop instead of lip out.
 
Mickelson’s charisma can't hide his poor putting. Consider this: There are 11 putting statistics listed for each player on Shot Link, and Mickelson ranked worse than 108th in eight of them.
 
Stat
Mickelson's 2011
PGA Tour Rank
Strokes Gained – Putting
134th
Total Putting
108th
Putting from inside 5'
122nd
Putting from 5-10'
91st
Putting from 10-15'
169th
Putting from 15-20'
157th
Putting from 20-25'
66th
Putting from > 25'
139th
Putting from 5-15'
150th
Putting from 15-25'
122nd
Putting from 3-5'
68th

What used to separate Mickelson (and Woods) from so many other players was their short games. Mickelson is still a masterful wedge player, with more creativity than Lady Gaga's hat designer, but he will have a tough time contending in 2012 if he can’t turn his putting around.
 
5. The United States will likely be an underdog once again at the Ryder Cup. Can the Americans win?
On paper, the 2012 European Ryder Cup team is going to be stacked.
 
It's safe to assume that Donald, Lee Westwood, McIlroy and Martin Kaymer—the top four players in the world ranking—are going to be on the squad. Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Alvaro Quiros and Robert Karlsson also finished 2011 ranked in the top 25.
 
But the Ryder Cup will be contested at Medinah Country Club in Chicago, not on paper. The course may not favor either team, but the fans should give the Yanks a boost. Instead of screaming Welshmen supporting the Euros, this time around the U.S. team will hear from brat-eating, beer-loving fans from one of the greatest golf towns in America.
 
And if we've learned one thing from recent Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, it's this: Rookies seem to be more ready for this competition than we expect.
 
At Valhalla in 2008, rookie Anthony Kim crushed Europe's biggest flag-waver, Sergio Garcia, 5 and 4, in the singles. Kim earned 2.5 out of a possible four points that weekend.
 
At Celtic Manor in 2010, rookies Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton defeated Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington in the first session's fourball matches. Rickie Fowler, a captain's pick and another rookie, came back from 3 holes down with 3 holes to play to scratch out a half-point against Edoardo Molinari.
 
At Royal Melbourne in November, Webb Simpson went 3-2 and Nick Watney earned 2.5 points in four matches.
 
But the veteran stars helped the United States team the most at this year’s Presidents Cup. Jim Furyk was a perfect 5-0, and Phil Mickelson was 3-1. Tiger Woods, a controversial captain's pick, played better than his 2-3-0 performance would indicate. And don't forget that Woods and 44-year-old Steve Stricker were the top point-getters for the United States team in the 2010 Ryder Cup.
 
If Tiger's game continues to improve, America's young players continue to surprise us and the team can get another solid performance from the veterans, the Ryder Cup may come back to America.
 

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