Consider this a disclaimer: My crystal ball was made in China. Do not touch it, break it, spill it, drink its contents or taunt it.
Now that the corporate lawyers are satisfied, let’s move on to eight things to watch for in ’08.
1. Tiger Woods. Thanks for pretending to be surprised. Tiger has been the one player you can’t stop watching for more than a decade, and the end is still not in sight. Despite a shaky driver and an evolving swing, he marched into 2007 with a winning streak that he pushed to seven tournaments before falling to Nick O’Hern in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Not only that, he was a runner-up at the Masters and the U.S. Open. Just how off his game he felt was epitomized by the eighth hole Sunday at Augusta. He wasn’t confident enough to hit driver off the tee on a par-5 that he, among only a few, had the length to reach in two. Ultimately, he scrambled to save par, looking very un-Tiger-like.
Woods found his swing in late summer, and he finished the year by winning the PGA Championship and the FedEx Cup. His golf swing may not be quite as beautiful as his 2001 textbook model, but it may, in fact, be better. Woods has never looked more unstoppable, if that’s possible, and it seems likely that he’ll run the tables again in ’08.
2. The Grand Slam. (Or Tiger, Part II.) Woods hasn’t had a major lineup this promising since the 2000 menu of Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla. The ’08 lineup features the first U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won five PGA Tour events and has had four other top-five finishes; Royal Birkdale, where he made a run at buddy Mark O’Meara in the ’98 British Open and settled for third; and Oakland Hills, where, as an amateur, he was leading the ’96 Open in the first round before fading at the finish thanks to a quadruple bogey at No. 16.
Tiger has already proven that winning four majors in a row is possible. He’d make it five in a row if he pulled it off, on the heels of his PGA win in Tulsa last August. The Masters has become more difficult to win since the Hootie Johnson tree-planting and lengthening campaign, as shown by the firm and fast conditions of ’07. Still, Woods nearly won despite playing at less than his best. On the other hand, don’t concede the U.S. Open to him just because of his Buick Invitational dominance at Torrey Pines. The Buick has never had anything close to U.S. Open rough. It’ll be a different course with the USGA in charge. Plus, Tiger won’t get that automatic low round at Torrey’s North Course, which is used for one round in the PGA Tour event. Oh, I’d still pick him for the Open — it just isn’t a gimme. Can he get the Slam? Yes. Will he? I’ll go conservative and say he wins three out of four.
3. Annika Sorenstam. The most compelling storyline of ’08 may be the comeback attempt by Annika, who was sidelined by neck and back problems in ’07 and lost her crown as the queen of women’s golf to Lorena Ochoa. Can Annika climb back to No. 1? I don’t think so. Can she win another major? Maybe. I was ready to write her off as finished until she bounced back to win a late-year event on the European women’s tour. OK, it was no LPGA field she beat, but a win is a win. She’s got the drive and the determination to do anything. Ochoa is too young and too good — Annika isn’t going to catch her. But she’s going to win something, maybe something big.
4. Drug tests. The PGA Tour will begin drug testing during the summer. Here’s a thought — maybe testing should extend to pro-am participants, even celebrities such as, oh, I don’t know, say, Roger Clemens. With months of warning, it seems unlikely that any tour pro will be caught with traces of performance-enhancing drugs. It won’t happen. But pot, cocaine, recreational drugs? Oh, yeah. I guarantee somebody will get nabbed for one of those.
5. Phil Mickelson. The lefty known as Lefty (I smell writing award for this sentence!) was overshadowed, once again, by Tiger last year. I look for him to bounce back with his best year. He’d just started working with Butch Harmon when he won the Players Championship on a course that had never suited his errant driver. Mickelson wiped out his summer by over-practicing in Oakmont’s thick rough and hurting his wrist, but he outdueled Tiger in Boston on Labor Day weekend and looked sharp. More time with Butch is only going to help. Mickelson will win multiple times in ’08.
6. The FedEx Cup. The first run-through had the facade of being a success, but that was because all four tournaments were exciting on their own, and Tiger was in the mix in three of them. There will be a break in the format this year — it won’t be four weeks in a row. There’s an off week, plus the Ryder Cup. Given that, look for Woods and Mickelson and possibly others to still skip one of the four events. Look for the Tour to up the points awarded in the playoffs in the next month or so to encourage more movement in the standings. The verdict? The FedEx Cup won’t get as lucky with the winners this year. Look for a letdown in the buzz factor.
7. The Ryder Cup. The Euros have dominated this event because they’ve had a better team (that is, more players in better form) and better camaraderie featuring inspirational captains (Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer) or one-of-the-guys captains (Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam). In Paul Azinger, the Americans have someone who’s a little of both. He also changed the selection system to improve his chances of getting players who are playing well leading up to the Ryder Cup instead of guys who played well 12 months ago. In Nick Faldo, the Euros have a non-people person who has already alienated some potential team members and may not be an inspirational figure. The team could be missing Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie, whose games were in serious decline in ’07, and if so, their leadership would be missed. The Americans aren’t going to win the Cup back until their three big guns — Woods, Mickelson and Furyk — show up with their A-games. But this year the talent, the captain and the selection process add up to a great opportunity.
8. Young guns. Anthony Kim was the most impressive Tour rookie last year. He’s long, he ranks high in greens hit and putting, and he makes tons of birdies. His air of confidence rubbed some fellow pros the wrong way, but the fact is, he’s got talent. He’ll win in ’08, more than once. Two Aussies bear watching. Nick Flanagan, the former U.S. Amateur champ, won three times on the Nationwide Tour in 17 events. He won’t be an Amateur champ who flops. Jason Day, who turned 20 in November, is a wunderkind. He was sixth in driving distance on the Nationwide Tour and ninth in putting. Who wins on the PGA Tour? Blasters who can putt. That’s Day. Look for him to keep his card. Another player with long-term potential is Alejandro Canizares, son of Jose Canizares, a former Ryder Cupper. He made a clutch short putt on the final hole to survive Q-school. After that, no putt he faces on Tour will carry so much pressure.