1 Have we seen the end of the Tiger Woods era?
NOT YET, but we may have witnessed the beginning of the end. Woods sent a jolt through the golf world at last week's World Challenge—with his commanding play while building a four-shot lead through three rounds and then with an utter meltdown on Sunday. He showed some grit with a birdie at the 72nd hole but couldn't match Graeme McDowell's mid-range birdie putt in sudden death, a dispiriting end to a winless year. Whether Woods can dominate again will be determined by his putter and his head. Going back to the 2009 PGA, the greatest clutch putter in golf history has had a series of crucial misses on the greens. Now that Tiger is tinkering with his wand, just like everybody else, it's fair to wonder if his best work on the greens is behind him. But Woods's greatest attributes were always metaphysical: mental toughness, a confidence born from an absence of failure. Can Tiger reinvent himself? Even if the answer is yes, so many players have raised their game that he is going to find that it has never been harder to win.
2 If not Tiger, who will be No. 1?
A GOOD bet would be the current No. 1, Lee Westwood. While Woods was showing flashes of his old self in Southern California, Westwood quietly won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa by a sporty eight strokes. The victory ensures that Westwood (below) will keep the top spot in the rankings into early 2011. With golf's most consistent long game, Westwood is in contention seemingly every time he tees it up, and all the high finishes bring crucial rankings points. But if he is going to hold off Woods or a relentless Martin Kaymer, Westwood needs to win more often. Continued hard work on his short game may be the difference maker. His 72nd hole chip-in put an exclamation point on his Sun City victory and is the latest example of his increased efficiency and creativity with his wedges.
Kaymer figures to remain a strong challenger for No. 1, having already displayed a Bernhard Langer--like consistency but with more flair on and around the greens. While Westwood is at the peak of his career and Woods is still in the midst of a long climb back, Kaymer, who turns 26 on Dec. 28, is only getting better with each passing year.
Then there's Phil Mickelson, who had numerous chances to seize the top spot this year but never got it done. Mickelson will never have the week-to-week steadiness of a Kaymer or a Westwood, but he could ride a hot streak to the top of the rankings. Given his history of success on the West Coast swing, that could happen sooner rather than later.
3 With the schedule shrinking, a new TV contract looming and the European tour gaining strength, what's the prognosis for the long-term health of the PGA Tour?
WE'RE STILL waiting for the other shoe to drop in the postrecession golf world, but so far the PGA Tour remains surprisingly strong. Sponsors come and go—always have, always will—and Tour commissioner Tim Finchem (above) finds new ones like the Greenbrier Resort last year and Hyundai for the 2011 season opener at Kapalua. Sony just reupped for three more years at the Hawaiian Open, including 3-D telecasts, and Cadillac is the new sponsor of the World Golf Championship event at Doral (page g16) and the umbrella sponsor for the WGC series.
The European tour has a stronger foothold in the lucrative Asian market, but the U.S. tour still offers far more prize money and has more clout. It's the next TV deal that could dramatically change the economic landscape, however, as CBS and NBC reel from big losses in golf, estimated to be in the millions, and sinking ratings—from a 2.9 average weekend rating in '05 to 2.0 last year. The Internet may be a future source of broadcast revenue, but the TV deal, to be negotiated this year, seems certain to be less lucrative. The Tour has proved adept at changing with the times, though.
4 Is Phil Mickelson the new king of Augusta?
WITHOUT a doubt. Phil the Thrill has now won three of the last seven Masters. In that span Tiger Woods—the default favorite every year since 1997—has claimed only one green jacket. Lost in all the emotion of Mickelson's victory last year was that he turned in one of the greatest performances in Masters history. His four-round total of 272 has been bettered only three times, and none of those totals came on the longer, stronger, retrofitted Augusta National. Mickelson's bogeyless 67 on Sunday was among the most pressure-proof rounds of his career. It marked the first major championship that Mickelson won with Woods in contention, a continuation of the edge Phil has enjoyed over Tiger dating to Masters Sunday in 2009, when Lefty thoroughly outplayed his longtime rival in a freighted pairing.
With one more green jacket Mickelson (above) will match Woods's and Arnold Palmer's total of four, second only to Jack Nicklaus's six. The bad news for the competition is that Mickelson appears to grow more comfortable at Augusta National every year. "I'm in love with this place," he said last April. "It just brings out the best in me. I love Sunday at Augusta. Back in the '90s, it was the most nerve-racking day. Still is, but I've just come to love and cherish it."
5 Can Americans take back the LPGA Tour?
SORRY, UNCLE SAM, the world has you outnumbered. The Rolex World Rankings feature only 19 Americans among the top 100 players, six in the top 25. Nothing seems likely to change as talented, highly motivated players keep pouring out of Asia. It would be good enough for the U.S. market if at least the game's top player were an American. The decline in American men's dominance, for example, went largely unnoticed as long as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ruled.
Among U.S. players, who can even carry women's golf the way Annika Sorenstam once did? Cristie Kerr is a steady winner who has been No. 1, but she's not quite a superstar. Neither is popular Paul Creamer. Alexis Thompson, a phenom who turns 16 in February, has the power game to be dominant if she develops a matching short game in the next, oh, 10 years. The best bet is Michelle Wie (above). She has just two victories, but she's only 21, attending Stanford and competing in her spare time. Once she focuses solely on golf, perhaps she can foment a modest American revolution.
6 Now that they're 30, can Sergio García or Adam Scott be relevant again?
OF COURSE. Remember, Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson didn't win a major until 34. That said, these guys don't resemble Hogan . . . unless you're talking about shaky putting. Maybe the two have become complacent. García and Scott each have won $20 million--plus on the PGA Tour and plenty more in other endorsements and winnings. Factor in the futility of going up against a guy you know you can't beat—the former Tiger Woods—and that's an understandable disincentive.
The truth is, neither Scott nor García was a great putter, and lately they've scraped bottom. In 2010 Scott ranked well below 100 in most putting categories from three to 15 feet, this just two years after he was No. 1 in the 10- to 15-foot range. With his yippy stroke, García (above, left) tried assorted grips, stances and teachers, but his woes inevitably worked through his entire bag and into his head. Scott (above, right), in fact, was never irrelevant. He won twice in 2010, ranks 20th in the world and has won at least one significant event for 10 straight years. Sergio, winless since mid-'08, has never seemed so lost.
7 With the U.S. Open heading to Congressional Country Club, and hard-core golfers running the executive and legislative branches, and taxpayer-owned GM reentering the sponsorship biz, will Washington finally embrace golf again?
WASHINGTON CAN get its golf mojo back if President Obama can get his political mojo back. The President was pushed to golf by the First Lady, the sister of Oregon State basketball coach Craig Robinson. Michelle Obama was afraid that her hubby, with 50 on the horizon, would get hurt playing pickup basketball, and as a result of one swift elbow to the mouth last month, the entire country had the chance to see her point (a dozen presidential stitches to the lip). It's easy to imagine less hoops and more golf for the President in 2011, and an improving economy too. That will be good for golf and will help the game reclaim its place in the nation's capital. GM's return to golf is significant. It says that the marketing people there are not afraid of golf; in fact, they are just the opposite: We recognize golfers as tax-paying, car-buying model citizens (they vote), and we want to be associated with them. If GM is embracing golfers, and not afraid of backlash, elected officials should too. President Obama and soon-to-be house speaker John Boehner will have a chance in the New Year to show what a companionable game golf is. Suggested programming note to NBC: Arrange for the President and the Speaker to play Congressional before the U.S. Open, mike 'em up and see what happens.
8 Do aging multiple major champions Ernie Els (41), Retief Goosen (41), Padraig Harrington (39) and Vijay Singh (47) have one last hurrah in them?
IF LAST HURRAH means winning again, sure, they can all win Tour events. If it means winning majors, it's hard to imagine any of them winning one of the game's four biggest prizes. Singh, who turns 48 in February, will never be able to beat balls as he has done in the past, and his long, all-in-the-timing swing requires more ball beating than most other actions. With Els (below), when was the last time he put together four really solid rounds in a major, even without winning? His final-round 73 at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was the ultimate rally-killer. Harrington has never been a knock-your-socks-off talent, so all that leaves is drive, and he's too smart and interested in the world and his family to stay hyperfocused on golf. Goosen, the same: Between his various houses and vineyards, his growing kids and the comforting knowledge that the next generation of South African golfers is on the scene (hello, Louis Oosthuizen), it's hard to see where the drive would come from. To win, you have to beat Rory and Ryo and Matteo, to say nothing of Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer and a possibly resurgent Tiger Woods. That takes a lot of energy and skill, great nerves and massive desire.
9 Does Fred Couples care enough to usurp Bernhard Langer as the dominant player on the Champions tour?
MAGIC GOLF BALL (stamped with an 8) says: Fred's future fuzzy. It's hard to know what Fred really cares about. He's an enigma wrapped in a fairway wood with a ladies' shaft. He certainly has enough talent to overtake Langer. At some point, despite Langer's freakish, Hale Irwin--like drive, the golfing skills of the bionic 53-year-old German will start to decline, and Couples, being a couple years younger, will be ready to pass him, whether he cares enough or not. But that's not likely to be in 2011, when Couples will again captain the U.S. Presidents Cup team, giving him a nice distraction alibi. And by 2012 or '13 you don't know who is going to pass Couples (above). Could be Mark Calcavecchia or Kenny Perry or Lee Janzen or even Greg Norman. But in the New Year, expect more of the same. Bernhard one, Fred two, Calc coming to bat. As for the three senior majors—the Senior U.S. and British Opens and the Senior PGA Championship—Fred's struggles with short putting are most likely to show up there.
10 Will the Olympic golf movement gain momentum?
ABSOLUTELY, THOUGH you won't hear much about it in 2011, not in the U.S., Europe or Japan or anyplace else with a highly developed golf culture. But in China and India? Plus South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, even Russia? Golf, capitalist tool and barometer of economic health, is growing fast elsewhere. The 2016 Olympics are still five years away. There's very likely more teenage golf talent in China right now than there is in the U.S., and certainly more governmental support for promising golfers. The to-be-built Olympic course in Rio has a chance to become the blueprint for the next wave of course design—a public layout that can challenge the best players but be playable for duffers, and is green in every sense.
11 Now that Martin Kaymer is old news, who is the next big thing?
GOLF IS SO flush with young talent that the Molinari brothers—Francesco, 28, and Edoardo, 29—practically count as elder statesman. With his grown-up bearing and polished all-around game, Kaymer has established himself as the best player in the world under 30. Yet four players nipping at his heels may have more upside: Dustin Johnson, 26, Anthony Kim, 25, Rory McIlroy, 21, and Ryo Ishikawa, 19, are all proven winners who have displayed zero compunction about shooting crazy-low scores. Any among this outrageously talented quartet could break through in 2011 with a major championship win. (Rickie Fowler, 22, is still looking for a win of any kind, but his courageous comeback in Ryder Cup singles, capped by his 18th-hole birdie putt, bodes well.)
You have to go younger still to identify golf's most intriguing prospect: Matteo Manassero (above), the 17-year-old from Verona, Italy, who in October became the youngest winner in European tour history. That was hardly a fluke; he also had a second- and third-place finish en route to being named rookie of the year. Expect him to continue to shake up the existing world order in 2011. The kids are growing up faster and faster these days.
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Photograph by FRED VUICH
ONE TO WATCH After winning three European tour events and the PGA Championship in 2010, Kaymer could put a stranglehold on the game in the New Year.
ROBERT BECK (WESTWOOD)
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (FINCHEM)
FRED VUICH (MICKELSON)
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (WIE)
ROBERT BECK (GARCIA)
MIKE EHRMANN (SCOTT)
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ROBERT BECK (ELS)
DARREN CARROLL (COUPLES)
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ALBERTO SAIZ/AP (MANASSERO)