After a West Coast swing that provided little clarity, the PGA Tour is blowing into Florida with a flurry of questions. Most notable with the Masters a mere six weeks away: Can any of the Big Three get his act together, and will the trio be getting company anytime soon?
APRIL APPROACHES, fellow hacks. You have fewer than 50 chopping days left until the Masters. (All together now: Amen!)
April. The Masters. Now that I have your attention....
Over the next month the PGA Tour barrels into its Florida primaries, otherwise known as the Honda Classic, the Cadillac Championship, the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Some dandruff-coated traditionalists consider the Florida swing the real start of the golf season. The real start? We're nearly one third through the 2015--16 schedule, having played 15 of the slated 47 tournaments. Thanks to the PGA Tour's rockin-around-the-Christmas-tree schedule, the Masters falls at practically the halfway mark (event number 22), even though it's the year's first major championship and the one that makes us drool. And in case you've forgotten, the WGC--World Match Play Championship has been bumped back up to a late March date and is moving to a new venue: Austin Country Club. Featuring 64 of the top players in the world, the Match Play figures to be a nice tune-up for Augusta. The stars are taking notice.
"This is the start of the road to the Masters," Rory McIlroy said last week at the Northern Trust Open. "If everyone's not thinking about it directly, it's definitely in the back of their minds."
That makes it a good time to examine the State of the Golf Union. Here is what I know, what I think and what I think I know.
MAKING A (BANK) STATEMENT
□ Jordan Spieth is poised to defend his Masters championship and start another Grand Slam chase.
□ Jordan Spieth is already out of gas, and the first major is still more than a month away.
Since winning the Tour Championship in September, Spieth has traveled to South Korea (Presidents Cup), China, Sydney, the Bahamas, Maui, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Pebble Beach and Los Angeles, an estimated 77,000 air miles. He was dragging in Abu Dhabi and Singapore (and admitted as much), was never a factor at Pebble and missed the cut at the Northern Trust after opening with a sloppy 79.
It would be easy to say Spieth chased the money too hard. We love to complain about the rich getting richer, but seriously, who would pass on upward of $3 million in appearance fees to play golf anywhere on earth? Nevertheless, considering that Spieth banked $22 million last season, recently signed a monster endorsement deal with Coca-Cola and isn't the type who's ever going to spend half of what he's earned, his ambitious winter schedule seems curious.
You're 22, you're No. 1 in the world, you think you can do anything. Maybe Spieth can. He tied for seventh at the HSBC, lost in Australia by a shot, won in a rout on Maui, tied for fifth in Abu Dhabi, was second in a weak field in Singapore, was 21st at Pebble Beach and then had the debacle at Riviera.
Of course, if he plays like the world No. 1 and repeats or simply contends at Augusta National, all will be forgotten. Seeing as how Spieth tied for second in his only other Masters appearance, in 2014, it would be unwise to write him off.
ALIVE AND KICKING
The last time McIlroy did anything exciting in the U.S. came 10 months ago, when he won the Match Play and the Wells Fargo in a three-week span. He closed with a 66 at Chambers Bay to tie for ninth at the U.S. Open, but then he missed the British Open after rupturing a ligament in his left ankle playing soccer.
McIlroy rebounded nicely, winning the European tour finale in November and the Race to Dubai. But since then he has tied for third in Abu Dhabi and tied for sixth in Dubai, and in his 2016 PGA Tour debut he was 20th at the Northern Trust.
A lot of observers still believe Rory is the Man and that Spieth is merely keeping the throne warm. Winning the Honda a second time (McIlroy's first came in '12) would be a step toward proving those believers right. But U.S. fans haven't seen Rory Being Rory since he won the British Open and the PGA in '14. He has something to prove.
"Sometimes I feel like I haven't had to work as hard to get where I am as some other people have," McIlroy, 26, said at Riviera, "but I definitely have a ruthlessness on the course now that I maybe didn't have a few years ago."
The pivotal player to watch in Florida will be Jason Day. His 2015 late-summer hot streak, highlighted by his win at the PGA, combined the power of a young Tiger with the short game of a young Ballesteros and the putting of Crenshaw. He was anointed as a member of the Big Three. The question remains whether Day was on a temporary tear or if that's a level of play he can sustain. If it's the latter, prepare to negotiate terms of surrender, gents.
Day, 28, spent most of the fall at home in Ohio as his wife, Ellie, gave birth to their daughter in November. So it was a rusty Day who finished 10th at Kapalua, missed the cut at Torrey Pines and was 11th at Pebble Beach. He hasn't been able to keep his ball out of the left rough, but March is when he will ramp it up.
Pencil him into your Masters fantasy lineup. Day has a tie for second (2011) and a third ('13) at Augusta (Rory's best finishes are fourth and a tie for eighth), and he has had seven top fives in majors, one fewer than McIlroy. However, four of Rory's are wins. What a difference a Day might make in April.
After Rickie Fowler beat a strong field at Abu Dhabi, the media started talking about the Big Four. But then Rickie lost a two-shot lead on the 71st hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and was beaten in a playoff by Hideki Matsuyama.
Memo to golf typists: Players without a major championship aren't worthy of inclusion in any discussion about a Big Four. Yes, Fowler won the 2015 Players and he's ranked fifth in the world, but his résumé has that one glaring omission. With victories in eight straight seasons, Dustin Johnson, who turns 32 in June, is one major away from getting close to Hall of Fame territory, not to mention Big Four consideration. Bubba Watson, who won on Sunday at Riviera, owns a pair of green jackets, and his nine Tour victories since the start of 2010 rank second to McIlroy's 11. But Bubba has been too inconsistent. Plus, he's 37.
Then there's Matsuyama. He's ranked 11th in the world; his other Tour victory came at Jack's place, at the '14 Memorial; and at 24 he fits the wave-of-young-talent narrative. Matsuyama has been flying under the radar because of the language barrier, but he has a fluid swing that is built to stand up for years.
If there's going to be a Big Four, the race for Ringo's spot figures to be between Fowler and Matsuyama. Going into Florida and then Augusta, they're in a dead heat. We'll get an answer soon enough.
"I definitely have a ruthlessness on the course that I maybe didn't have a few years ago," said McIlroy.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Tiger Woods is coming back, but with diminished swagger. He is who he is. Woods will play his first tournament of the year at the Masters, and he will tie for fourth. He'll never really have a chance to win, and his short putting and wayward driving will continue to flummox him, but that won't stop people from talking about him as a Ryder Cup pick.
The newer, meaner Rory McIlroy is going to begin a scorched-earth campaign that culminates in a runaway victory at the Masters. McIlroy showed up in L.A. last week in a fighting mood, torching Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee on Twitter and acting like a man hell-bent on reclaiming his former status as the most feared player in the game. He is already on his way.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno For Sports Illustrated
ROUGH FINISH McIlroy was around the lead for three days at Riviera, but after opening with an eagle on Sunday, he signed for a 75.
Photograph by Kohjiro Kinno For Sports Illustrated
TIRED SUBJECT Spieth's globe-trotting brought in about $3 million in appearance fees, but the haul may have come at a cost.
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
NEED A FOURTH? Fowler (left) and Matsuyama have made strong cases to join the Big Three, but each has a big hole in his résumé: no major championship.