Now on the Tee ... 2007

As a kid, going back to school was always preceded by the obligatory trip to the office-supply store for a new binder, pens and whatever else looked interesting. The stuff was as useful for motivation as it was for reading and writing, and so it goes for the PGA Tour media guide, which arrived via FedEx (of course) earlier this week. The cover boys are Jim Furyk, Adam Scott and Tiger Woods, all with triumphant expressions and raised and/or clenched fists. Last year's book featured Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, but Singh may be on the downside, and a picture of Mickelson looking triumphant would have clashed with our indelible, ashen image of him after he kicked away the U.S. Open.

In any case, the '07 guide is thicker than last year's -- like the phone book of a midsize city -- which is due partly to the four-page explanation of the new FedEx Cup but mostly to the fact that there are so many great players to introduce. While the preamble at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua this week centered on the absence of Mickelson and Woods, the better storyline is which little-known pro in the field will vault to stardom after a breakout win in 2006. You may not be able to tell Eric Axley from John Senden from Will MacKenzie, but at least one of the 13 first-time winners in the field will be anonymous no more after having a huge 2007. Here are 10 burning questions and their answers as the Tour kicks off the season in the land of the macadamia nut:

1. Who's this year's breakout American star?

J.J. Henry, J.B. Holmes, D.J. Trahan -- there were enough initials among the first-time winners in 2006 to send inquiring minds running for the media guide to read up on Ronald Henry, John Holmes and Donald Roland Trahan, Jr. Alas, the most promising upstart is Troy Jason Matteson, who does not go by T.J. In his 33rd Tour start as a pro last October, Matteson won the Frys.com Open in Las Vegas, then led through three rounds of the following week's Funai Classic at Walt Disney World Resort. (He finished tied for second after a final-round 70.) The next week he tied for ninth at the Chrysler Championship. All told he had five straight top10s in which he banked $1.78 million, vaulted from 172nd to 36th on the money list, and earned a Masters invite. The first Georgia Tech golfer to win the NCAA championship in 2002, Matteson could surpass fellow Yellow Jackets Stewart Cink and David Duval as a pro, as well.

2. When will we see Tiger and Phil again?

As predicted in this space months ago, Woods, who recently announced that his wife, Elin, is pregnant with the couple's first child, will begin his 2007 season at the Buick Invitational at the end of the month. Mickelson will tee it up a week earlier, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, but he'll also almost certainly play Tiger head-to-head at the Buick at Torrey Pines the following week. Although both players thrive on that course, site of the 2008 U.S. Open, we've yet to see them both in top form at the same time, as we have at Doral. Keep your fingers crossed.

3. Will Phil ever be the same?

No, but that might be a good thing. Like most sports and much of life itself, golf is largely about failure, and surviving it, and although they've been tested like never before, Mickelson's disappointment muscles have proven formidable. Ironically, the loss might help Lefty by reinforcing what he already knew, that talent and short-game magic go only so far. He is said to have been contemplating getting in serious game shape for the FedEx Cup points race, but we'll see at the Hope. It says here that he wins that event and at least two other tournaments this season, and contends not only at Augusta but also at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills C.C., where Mickelson finished tied for seventh at the 2001 U.S. Open. A victory at either course would give Mickelson his fourth major in four years, which would be restorative, to say the least.

4. Will the FedEx Cup get airborne?

Conventional wisdom says the "new era" will truncate the season, bring it to a big finish and thereby entice the best players to tee it up together more often. It's a nice idea, but if Mickelson and Woods play any more tournaments than usual it'll be due to their loyalty to the Tour, not the $10 million annuity that goes to the FedEx points-race winner. Money doesn't motivate Tiger and Phil, whose absence from the Mercedes this week and Tour Championship in November, both no-cut events in which last place pays up to $107,900, speaks volumes and makes the new era look an awful lot like the old one.

5. Whatever happened to Ernie Els?

Els, 37, has more or less disappeared since contending in all four majors in 2004, but there are signs that he'll re-emerge this season. He won the South African Open in December for his only victory in 2006, and the U.S. Open returns to Oakmont Country Club, the site of his first Open win in 1994. He also ought to be well over the knee injury he sustained in a boating accident two years ago. The only question mark is his psyche. Too bad he can't carry his momentum into the Mercedes; he didn't qualify.

6. Can Sergio Garcia get it together on the greens?

He can, and he probably will. I've been hard on El Nino in this space, but the fact remains that at the age of 26 (he turns 27 on Jan. 9) he's won six times on the PGA Tour and 10 other tournaments around the world. GOLF Magazine short-game guru Dave Pelz could fix some mechanical flaws in Garcia's stroke, but I suspect the problem is more mental, since Garcia clearly knows how to putt in the Ryder Cup -- his only victory of '06. Either way, it's correctible, especially at his age.

7. Will Monty ever win the big one?

Prediction: Montgomerie, on the verge of his 44th birthday, returns to Oakmont, the site of his playoff loss to Els in 1994, and wins the U.S. Open. You read it here first.

8. Which 40-something will re-emerge with a W in 2007?

Fred Couples, 47, almost won the Nissan Open and the Masters despite being in the middle of a divorce last year. He also endured a variety of health problems, but he stuck it out and played better than anyone at the Skins Game (hey, it's still golf) in late November. If Jeff Maggert and Corey Pavin aren't done winning, then Couples isn't either. He'll strike again at either Riviera or Muirfield Village.

9. What the heck is the Mayakoba Golf Classic?

It's the Tour's south-of-the-border excursion at the Mayakoba Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and for anyone not in the top 64 in the World Ranking it's the official, opposite-field event the week of the WGC-Accenture Match Play, February 22-25. (Which itself will be in a new location, moving from La Costa to the Gallery at Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona.) Ole!

10. Who will be the Rookie of the Year?

University of Oklahoma star and Palm Springs, Calif., prep standout Anthony Kim finished second in the Texas Open last fall and easily got through Q-school. Although early success comes with no guarantees (Garrett Willis won the 2001 Tucson Open in his first start as a member of the Tour; Bryce Molder finished 3rd in his first Tour start as a pro at the 2001 Reno-Tahoe Open) it doesn't hurt, either. Kim's big game and soft touch recall neither Willis nor Molder but Sergio Garcia, who finished tied for third in his first start as a pro at the 1999 EDS Byron Nelson. Congratulations in advance -- and, from this Boise-based writer, sorry about the Fiesta Bowl.

 

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