While I can't believe that my downtime in Scottsdale is over so quickly, it's time for CBS (and me) to crank up the New Year. However, while I was teaching away at GrayHawk, several questions dominated the conversations I had with regular golfers like you.
Question 1: Where are all the good young American players?
Take a look at the World Rankings and you will see that America has three players at the top. Tiger Woods (No. 1), Jim Furyk (No. 2) and Phil Micklelson (No. 5) are going to contend for titles for a long time, but the next American on the list is Davis Love at No. 16. After that, you'll only find 11 American names in the Top 50.
We are a very parochial here in America and think anything outside the U.S. is a second-class, except for things like French wine and Australian swimsuit models. But more and more sports that were once dominated by Americans are being played internationally. And played well.
Take basketball for instance. How would you like these guys on your team (All-Stars all, and no Americans among them):
In order to grow, the NBA invited, and welcomed, international players. Major league baseball is dominated by international players. And as more and more courses are built around the world, and more people are exposed to golf, it makes sense that more good players from outside our shores will arrive. The best college teams nearly all have one or two foreign-born players. And many foreign players skip college altogether and turn pro early, earning valuable playing experience so they will be ready to compete (and win) at age 24 or 25. While many American college players leave school with a solid education, they also leave with essentially the same game they started with as a freshman.
And with more and more PGA Tour veterans maintaining a high level of fitness, guys are also extending their careers and playing at a high level for longer periods of time.
It's going to get nothing but harder for young players with little experience to break through and compete for victories. This situation is not going to change for a while, so get used to seeing European, Asian, African, Australian and 40-something players winning on the PGA Tour.
Question 2: Will Tiger be as dominant in 2007 as he was in 2006?
It's as if we went back six years in a time machine; Tiger Woods once again has an air of invincibility to him, and his game looks as solid as ever.
Tiger is now completely comfortable with the major swing changes he and Hank Haney worked on, and at this point, he will only need to make minor tweaks and adjustments when things go wrong. Statistically, Tiger did not putt lights-out in 2006, and he's said he worked on improving his stroke and speed control during his time at home. If Tiger's putter starts out hot, it's tough to bet against him winning any tournament he plays.
So, even this early in the season, I make Tiger the clear favorite to win at the Masters (where he's earned four green jackets) and capture the third leg of another Tiger Slam. The course favors long hitters, and no one is more comfortable on any course than Tiger is at Augusta National.
After that, we're going to learn volumes about Tiger Woods the man, not just the golfer. The U.S. Open at Oakmont will be played in mid-June and the British Open at Carnoustie will be played in mid-July. Tiger's wife Elin is due to deliver the couple's first child sometime in that time frame.
Depending on exactly when the baby arrives (and God willing everything will go smoothly), Woods is going to have to make some big schedule decisions. But considering how close Tiger was to his father, Earl, who passed away in May of last year, it's hard to think that he won't want to start a strong relationship with his first child right away. If Tiger is the person I believe him to be, it will be family first and golf second.
Question 3: Is Phil Mickelson going to bounce back in 2007 after a poor second half of 2006?
Here's the bottom line: It's not important whether you get knocked down or not, it's if you get up. And every time Phil has been on the canvas, he's gotten up. For example, Mickelson had a tough 2003, and then won the Masters (his first major) in 2004.
But I have to be honest: I think everyone got what happened at Winged Foot dead wrong. If Tiger Woods had missed 12 of 14 fairways on the last day of the U.S. Open, but scrambled and grinded his way into the lead with one hole to play, everyone would have said he had guts. But because fans and members of the golf media still think of Phil as a gambling, risk-taking player, he was raked over the coals for losing the tournament. In my book, Mickelson had no business being on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot with a lead the way he was hitting the ball that week. He got there because of his determination, mental toughness and all the work and strategizing he and his team put in before the tournament. He should have been 12-over-par, but he was there in the end.
I don't think the collapse is going to leave as big a scar as people think. Phil knows he survived for 71 holes, and if you think Phil doesn't learn from his mistakes, you don't know Phil.
Peter Kostis, a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher, is a contributing writer for GOLF.com and GOLF Magazine. He is also an on-course analyst for CBS Sports.