KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The new year in golf is consumed by an old topic, this time with a twist.
Instead of wondering when (or if) Tiger Woods will play, the question now is how will he play?
And here’s another question: Who ever imagined a time when the guys he beat for so many years would be rooting for him to play better?
“I think we’ve proved that golf does not need Tiger to be successful,” Brandt Snedeker said last month in the Bahamas. “That being said, golf is better when Tiger is around. I don’t think we need Tiger necessarily any more. We all want Tiger. I think golf is a better product, it’s better TV and I want to see Tiger play again. It’s fun. You see the crowds he brings and he still has an innate ability to do something only a couple of guys can do.”
No one commands attention like Woods. The biggest problem for golf might be battling the perception that it matters only when Woods is playing.
Compared with last year, that’s a nice problem to have.
There remains a battle for supremacy, minus any talk about a “Big Three.” Europe has to face a Midwestern crowd, this time in the Solheim Cup. Two of the majors are going to courses that have never held one — Erin Hills for the U.S. Open, Quail Hollow for the PGA Championship.
The first tee shot of the year is Thursday. Answers to a few topics will take months to sort out.
By most accounts, Woods made a successful return in the Bahamas, except for the one that matters. He finished in 15th place out of 17 players and 14 shots out of the lead. But it was a start, and a healthy one. The best bet is that Woods will return at Torrey Pines at the end of the month, and with each event, the measure will shift form his health to his score.
Jack Nicklaus is mostly curious about his motivation, and he speaks from experience. Nicklaus won his 16th and 17th majors at age 40, and he refers to his final major in the 1986 Masters as “an accident in many ways.”
“It’s really difficult when you’ve had as much success as I had over a long period of time to charge your batteries, day after day, and go back out and say, ‘Man, I want to do this again.’ That’s what he’s going to have to do,” Nicklaus said. “Whether he can do that or not, I don’t know. That’s going to be the question.”
THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1
Jordan Spieth started last year at No. 1, won three times and fell to No. 5.
Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy were separated by 0.76 points of their world ranking average going into last year, so some movement was inevitable. Day has been at No. 1 since the end of the March, and while there is slightly more separation at the top, there are a half-dozen players or more who could end 2017 at No. 1.
McIlroy came on strong at the end of the year. Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open and was the PGA Tour player of the year. Henrik Stenson won his first major and became a threat every time he teed it up. Hideki Matsuyama ended last year by winning four of his last five tournaments.
A different player has finished No. 1 for the eighth consecutive year. Odds are this will be the ninth.
No one knows what to expect at the U.S. Open for the second time in three years. The USGA took golf’s second-oldest championship to Chambers Bay in the Pacific Northwest in 2015, and now heads to Erin Hills in the middle of Wisconsin.
The last time the U.S. Open went to two courses in a three-year span that had never held a professional major was Hazeltine (1970) and Pebble Beach (1972). Then again, Pebble had been around since 1919 and hosted the U.S. Amateur four times. Erin Hills opened in 2006.
The PGA Championship is going to Quail Hollow, the North Carolina club’s first time holding a major, though it has held the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003.
CUPS RUNNETH OVER
The Americans will be going for a third straight victory in the Solheim Cup when it goes to Iowa this summer. Nothing brings out passion in team golf quite like the United States vs. Europe.
The Presidents Cup also holds some intrigue. The International team has lost six straight times and has won only once since the Presidents Cup began in 1994. More pressure would seem to be on U.S. captain Steve Stricker, not only because the Americans haven’t lost since 1998, but because he is the likely Ryder Cup captain for 2020 at Whistling Straits in his native Wisconsin.
Speaking of Ryder Cup captains, expect the next American skipper to be named next week. But those matches are two years away.
WHAT WILL PHIL DO NEXT?
Phil Mickelson was runner-up at a major for the third straight year since his last victory, which was the 2013 British Open at Muirfield for his fifth major. The focus, as always, will be whether Lefty can complete the career Grand Slam at the U.S. Open.
At age 46, and having gone through two hernia operations in the offseason, it would seem a victory anywhere would suffice. Mickelson, however, shouldn’t be ruled out after last year. He made 10 birdies in a Ryder Cup singles match against Sergio Garcia. He shot 267 at the British Open, matching the fourth-lowest score in major championship history. Just his luck, he got only a half-point against Garcia, and he was runner-up at the Open.