Magazines, newspapers and Web sites are now filled with nostalgic features about 2008. The golf season that has now come to a close was certainly memorable for a lot of reasons—Tiger’s win at Torrey Pines, the United States’ win in the Ryder Cup, Annika’s retirement and Michelle Wie’s success at LPGA Q-School to name a few. But 2009 is shaping up to be every bit as interesting. Here are three things I’m looking forward to in the year to come.
1. Tiger Woods Returns
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked if Tiger is going be as dominant when he returns from his knee surgery. The answer is no—he’s going to be even more dominant.
The surgery did not affect the three elements of his game that truly separate him from other Tour players—his mental toughness, his desire to compete and his determination. His knee is healing, but
those crucial mental qualities were never damaged. And he was playing well enough to win the U.S. Open on one leg, so I suspect he will be even better on two legs. Tiger has no desire to come back as good as he was. He wants, and expects, to come back better.
Don’t be surprised to see Tiger putt extremely well in his first few events because he has been able to putt and chip for a few weeks already. But that hot putter may cool off as Tiger starts spending more time on his full swing and less time on the practice green. For players who are coming back from major injuries, or who are making swing changes, this is a fairly common cycle.
Regardless, when the world’s most famous athlete plays golf again, it will be front-page news around the world. And now that Steve Williams has stoked the fires of Woods’s rivalry with Phil Mickelson, it will be an even bigger event. Imagine if the tournament committee at Augusta National decides to pair Woods and Mickelson together on Thursday and Friday at the Masters. My fingers are crossed for that. If it happens, a bunch of newspapers will wish they hadn’t fired their golf writers.
2. The Majors
While enormous attention will be paid to Tiger when he arrives in Augusta, the under-the-radar story will be Padraig Harrington’s quest to win a third-consecutive major. If he could find a way to win the Masters—and his length off the tee and wonderful putting will give him a chance to do it—he would be in position to win a Paddy-Slam at Bethpage in June.
Phil Mickelson was never a factor in the majors last season. In my opinion, he desperately needs to win one, or at least put himself in contention to win one, or his stature in the game will drop considerably. For a player of Mickelson’s caliber, wins at Riviera and Colonial do not add up to a successful season. He is rightfully measured by what he does in the majors.
3. Watching the Young Guns Battle
Sergio Garcia, who will turn 29 in early January, will be under tremendous pressure to win his first major because he is now the second-ranked player in the world. Since he lost in a playoff to Harrington at Carnoustie, Sergio’s two greatest weaknesses, emotional control and putting, have improved tremendously.
But Sergio will face stiff competition from several other under-30 players. Anthony Kim, who is just 23, won twice last season and had a sensational Ryder Cup, so he will be expected to contend on the biggest stages. Adam Scott, 28, has not made a serious run at winning a major, but he is still a tremendous talent. And both 26-year-old Hunter Mahan and Camilo Villegas, who turns 27 in January, appear ready for stardom.
But everything is not going to be wonderful in 2009. Here are three things that I’m not looking forward to.
1. The Effect of the Bad Economy on Golf
The economic downturn that is affecting the world is going to be a big story in the world of golf. Trust me, it’s going to loom over everything and everyone. As corporations weigh the value of sponsorships, some will certainly stop their involvement with the sport. That means purses are not going to grow, and the jobs of hard-working people at the PGA, LPGA and European tours could be at risk. However, the biggest impact may be felt in the area of greatest need, charitable contributions. I would really love to see the PGA Tour reduce the purses by 5 or 10 percent across the board and donate that money directly to charities to help make up the shortfall.
2. The Third Reincarnation of the FedEx Cup
Two years ago we were told that the FedEx Cup Playoffs were going to ensure exciting, meaningful events at the end of the season and culminate in a riveting conclusion at the Tour Championship. And for the second time since, the PGA Tour was forced to go back to the drawing board and modify the points system after the Tour Championship was made meaningless. For 2009, the point totals for each player who makes it to the Tour Championship will be reshuffled on the eve of the event.
They just don’t get it. You can’t call something a “playoff” if you are trying to protect the players who had a strong season while simultaneously giving everyone in the field a chance to win. Either make it a true playoff, or call it something else.
3. Crazy Course Setups
Last season a lot of tournament courses featured fairways as narrow as bowling alleys, knee-high rough and pins tucked two paces onto the green. Like you, I miss the roars and the excitement that have been replaced by bored faces of fans who are watching guys just try to survive. In these tough economic times, the powers-that-be better realize golf is entertainment. That means birdies and eagles, risk and reward. Depressed golfers trying to salvage a par will not entertain anyone.
Like it or not, the Masters and the U.S. Open set the tone for how courses will be set up for tournament play. When they lengthened and narrowed holes in a knee-jerk reaction to advances in technology, PGA Tour events followed suit. I really hope that tournament committees start to realize that golf is entertainment and start to set up the courses accordingly. Make the hole locations firm but fair, make the fairways adequately wide and make the rough playable. Strategy and options should be part of the game. Like a Mickelson-Woods pairing at the Masters, my fingers will be crossed for this one too.