What's ahead in 2009? We convened a meeting of SI senior writers Michael Bamberger, John Garrity, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, plus a PGA Tour player (who participated on the condition that he remain anonymous), and analyzed next season.
THE TIGER FACTOR
Anonymous Pro: There isn't a player on Tour who doubts that Woods will continue to dominate. He'll be as good as ever, probably better. It's going to be a long year for the other top five players in the world.
Van Sickle: So Tiger simply picks up where he left off?
Shipnuck: His record was phenomenal during the 11 months after he hurt his knee and before he had the surgery. I don't think he hit balls once after a round. It really cut into his preparation and practice time, yet he still won. He can work harder again, which is a scary thought.
Bamberger: Maybe Tiger comes back smaller and takes two miles per hour off his clubhead speed. His only real weakness is erratic driving. I could see him slowing down the driver head slightly, hitting more fairways and winning that way.
Anonymous Pro: The injury might change his swing, but if it does, it'll make it better. What caused the problem was the aggressiveness of his lower-body action. Notice at the U.S. Open that he never winced on an iron swing, only on his driver swing. If he can get his driver swing to match his iron swing, he may gain more control.
Van Sickle: When will Tiger actually return?
Shipnuck: Everyone thinks Tiger wants to play a couple of tournaments before the Masters, but I could see him showing up at Augusta for his first event. The accompanying buzz would be deafening. He'd make the statement of all statements that, Yes, I am back.
Bamberger: That's a great call. That buzz and intimidation factor would probably be worth a shot and a half a day to him.
Shipnuck: Tiger likes being Tiger. He knows when he's creating a Tiger moment, even as it's happening. If he blows into Magnolia Lane for his return, it'll be the golf event of all time.
Van Sickle: Didn't Mark O'Meara say Tiger could be back by Torrey Pines?
Shipnuck: No one knows, but Elin's due date is around February. So that could be a factor.
Garrity: I'll take March 3 at 7:30 a.m.
Van Sickle: Are you starting a pool on the baby's birth or on Tiger's return?
Garrity: Both. I remember Johnny Miller saying that the most difficult thing for him was having his second-youngest son, Andy, bawling at the end of the driveway when he was leaving to go back on Tour. It'll be interesting to see whether having a second child makes a difference for Tiger, although I doubt it. Don't forget, Charlie Chan solved a lot of his cases with honorable Number Two son at his side.
Anonymous Pro: I don't care that Tiger hasn't won 18 majors yet, he's the best player of all time. Tiger won five of seven last year all while his leg was a mess? The only person who's going to beat Tiger is Tiger, and I don't see that happening.
Shipnuck: Give him Augusta this year, and then he has a home field advantage at Bethpage, where he won before. Tiger could go from question mark to exclamation point in a hurry. I think he'll win Augusta. It's one of those things that's fated. All the questions about whether he can come back? Augusta will be his answer.