Tiger and Phil begin their seasons at the Buick

Tiger Woods, Buick Invitational
Lenny Ignelzi/AP
Tiger Woods is trying to win at Torrey Pines for the fourth straight year.

The way the 2008 PGA Tour season has gone so far, Tiger Woods can't hit his first shot of the season soon enough.

He tees off at 9 o'clock California time Thursday with Jim Furyk and George McNeill in the first round of the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. They'll play the tougher South Course, which will host the U.S. Open this June, so more than likely Woods won't lead after day one.

He will still be the big newsmaker, though, and not just because he's trying to win the same event for the fourth straight time, something that's only been done four times in Tour history. Woods has won four straight once, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, and he'll have two more chances to win four straight in '08, at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral and the WGC-Bridgestone in Akron.

No, the stat doesn't mean much anymore. The game is simply desperate for his presence, or more desperate than usual after a dismal start to the 2008 season. Aside from a four-hole playoff in week one between eventual winner Daniel Chopra and Steve Stricker at the Mercedes Championship in Maui, the storylines between the ropes have barely registered. Meanwhile the coverage and ramifications of Golf Channel co-anchor Kelly Tilghman's "lynch him" comment linger forever, like radiation and Rambo movies.

There's been other news. The Tour decided to relocate the Barclays, the first event of the Tour's FedEx Cup, to a new course, and sports fans everywhere yawned; Charles "The Round Mound of Rebound" Barclay has a golf tournament?

But now comes Tiger, thankfully, to play some actual golf, which ought to be a pleasant diversion. Unless he's been doing nothing but changing diapers since decimating the field at his Target World Challenge last month, he should win again, but by how much? And how will he play on the South Course? Will he destroy the field by so many strokes that he drains all suspense from this summer's U.S. Open before anyone's even hit a shot?

Here's what else to watch for:

What will Phil do now?

After canceling his press conference Tuesday due to illness, Phil Mickelson seemed in danger of missing his hometown tournament and the start of his own 2008 season. But after battling respiratory problems and congestion since last fall, when he was done in by either the San Diego fires or a trip to Asia, Mickelson said on his Web site Tuesday evening that he was feeling well enough to make his 6:42 a.m. tee time in the Buick Invitational pro-am on Wednesday.

"I'm feeling much, much better," he said.

Mickelson was on antibiotics and bed rest for three days, according to the press release. He will practice with coach Butch Harmon on Wednesday afternoon, "to make sure everything's in order for this week," he said.

Lefty got his first win as a Tour member at the first Buick Invitational in 1993, and he ended Woods's six-tournament win streak with another Buick title in 2000. He also won the tournament in 2001 but has been unable to break Tiger's recent stranglehold.

Although he won in Shanghai in November, Mickelson's game remains perhaps the week's biggest question mark.

Will the course turn to mud?

According to weather.com, the chance of precipitation is 30% on Thursday and 70% for both Friday and Saturday.

Which young gun will surprise?

Brandt Snedeker scorched the North Course with a 61 in the first round on the way to a third-place finish in 2007.

Jason Day, the 20-year-old Aussie who won the Callaway Junior World at Torrey, and Anthony Kim, coming off a third-place finish at the Hope, could be this year's promising young noisemakers.

What's up with Daly?

Long John reportedly reverted to his usual tricks at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic last week, i.e., Grip it and Sip It. Then he withdrew on the weekend with a rib injury.

Daly's just started working with Harmon, and his scores haven't been bad. He shot 72-68 to make the cut but miss playing on the weekend at the Sony, and he was hanging around at 71-70-71 at the Hope. Were his antics in Palm Springs the result of bad mojo? (One of his ex-wives is from the desert.) Was it simply a one-off while he regains the form that won him the 2004 Buick Invitational?

Let's hope so. The PGA Tour is desperate for more good golf and less off-course trauma and drama. A big week from Daly, Day, Kim or even Woods would do nicely, because like Mickelson, the 2008 season could use some air.

 

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