The Sports Xchange's PGA Tour preseason player rankings 11-20 for 2012, as selected by TSX Golf Staff:
11. Tiger Woods, United States: Unless his play late last year was another false alarm, Woods could be back among the best players in the world sooner rather than later. He has shown some flashes of his old form from time to time over the last two years, but at his Chevron World Challenge last month it was vintage Tiger when he sank birdie putts on the last two holes to beat Zach Johnson by one stroke. His first victory in more than two years was an unofficial one, but it lifted him back into the top 25 in the World Golf Rankings.
Woods, who also played well in helping the US retain the Presidents Cup, won't make his normal season debut in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times. Instead, he will be playing on the last week in January in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, obviously receiving a large appearance fee. Woods often has played in the Middle East early in the year at the Dubai Desert Classic, which he won in 2006 and 2008, but is passing on that event this year. There is speculation he might start his PGA Tour season at Pebble Beach on the second weekend of February.
Woods finally seemed to be comfortable with the swing changes implemented by instructor Sean Foley toward the end of last year and also found some of the old magic on the greens. When you are the best golfer in the world, you simply don't forget how to play. After Luke Donald said that Rory McIlroy was more talented than Woods, he pointed out that much of what Tiger had was mental. Once that returns, the package might again be complete.
12. Jason Day, Australia: There are those who believe this 24-year-old Aussie is a monster waiting to happen. Even though he could not back up his first PGA Tour victory — in the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Championship — with another last year, he might have had an even better season. Day finished in the top 10 a total of 10 times in 21 tournaments, including second in both the Masters and the US Open. Day, who is eighth in the World Golf Rankings, struggled with the pressure while playing in front of the home fans in the Presidents Cup, a week after he tied for fourth in the Australian Open.
Day tied for ninth last year in his first appearance at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but won't be in the field this week at Kapalua because he failed to find the winner's circle last season. He is expected to play for the first time next week at the Sony Open in Hawai'i, which he has played three times previously, and he's also committed to the Abu Dhabi Championship in three weeks.
Day's father, Alvyn, obviously anticipated what his son has accomplished in golf. Before the senior Day died of stomach cancer when his son was 12, he requested that his son spread some of his ashes at Augusta National when he got to play in the Masters. Jason said he plans to request permission from Augusta officials, but won't do it unless he gets their approval. He has another goal in the first major of the year: to become the first Aussie to earn the Green Jacket.
13. Nick Watney, United States: The 30-year-old out of Fresno State seems to be on the verge of superstardom after a season in which he captured the WGC-Cadillac Championship and AT&T National. Watney nearly became a three-time winner when he finished second, two shots behind Kevin Na, in the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open during the Fall Series, one of his 10 finishes in the top 10 in 22 events on the PGA Tour.
Watney is playing in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the third time, having tied for fifth in 2008 and tied for 16th in 2010, and the Plantation Course would seem to be well-suited to his power game. He is hoping for a similar start to last season, when he reeled off top-10 finishes in his first five tournaments, capped by the biggest of his four PGA Tour victories in the WGC event on the TPC Blue Monster at Doral, where he held off Dustin Johnson by two shots.
Watney planned to get to Hawai'i early this week because he has caught the surfing bug; he'll be using a new board his wife gave him for their first anniversary in October. He admits he's a novice and will start slowly, steering well clear of Waimea Bay. He tried the sport for the first time with his caddie, Chad Reynolds, and accomplished surfer Adam Scott in Jacksonville, Fla., last May before the Players Championship. Watney said he was hooked after about 10 waves and reportedly seemed to get the knack of it pretty quickly.
14. Bubba Watson, United States: Watson appeared to be headed for a monster 2011 season when he captured the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans by the first day of May, becoming one of seven two-time winners on the PGA Tour last season. However, he did not post another top-10 finish on the US circuit in his last 12 tournaments and also was lampooned far and wide when he came off as the ugly American on an ill-fated trip to the Alstom French Open outside Paris. He played better toward the end of the year and hopefully regrouped a bit during the offseason, so he could be ready for a fresh and fast start to the new year.
Watson will be making his second trip to Kapalua for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this week, having tied for 25th last year. His normal high ball flight might not play well in the trade winds on the Plantation Course; he failed to break 70 in any of his four rounds in the 2011 opener. However, Watson has more shots than anybody, and the low fade he can hit should work at Kapalua.
He spoke recently at media day for his title defense in the Farmers and wowed the assembled journalists — often a cynical and tough crowd — with his folksy, wise-cracking style. Perhaps he simply didn't translate in French. He and his pal Rickie Fowler are featured in a series of light-hearted ads that will be shown on San Diego-area television to promote the tournament in the next few weeks.
15. Justin Rose, England: The 31-year-old is something of a forgotten man in English golf — perhaps because he plays less in Europe than the likes of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood — but Rose has won three times on the PGA Tour the last two seasons. Last year, he salvaged what had been something of a disappointing season to that point when he captured the BMW Championship during the PGA Tour playoffs and wound up fifth in the FedEx Cup standings.
Rose has decided to pass on what would have been his second appearance in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this week, having tied for 12th in his first time around the Plantation Course last year. A report at justinrose.com indicates he will open his season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in the final week of this month. He finished last season strong in China with a tie for seventh in the WGC-HSBC Champions and teamed with Ian Poulter to give England a tie for second in the World Cup of Golf. He hopes the rest will help him pick up this week right where he left off.
His victories in the Memorial and the AT&T National two years ago weren't enough to convince Colin Montgomerie to make him a Captain's Pick for the Ryder Cup two years ago, so Rose has rejoined the European Tour in an effort to make the team this year. He starts the year fifth on the World points list and is 38th on the Euro list. The top five from each automatically make the team for the matches in September at Medinah.
16. Bill Haas, United States: Haas won't be able to sneak in under the radar, as he has often done in the past, after pulling off the shot of the year (from the edge of a lake) on the PGA Tour while claiming the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup in 2011. The 31-year-old son of former PGA star Jay Haas has shown in the last two years that he has a chance to be even better than his father — Bill also won the Bob Hope Classic and the Viking Classic in 2010. But as good as his 2011 season was, it could have been better. He lost to Johnathan Vegas in a playoff at the Hope and to Scott Stallings in extra holes at the Greenbrier Classic.
Haas will be playing this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the second time after finishing eighth at Kapalua last year. He seemed to take to the Plantation Course right away, posting three rounds in the 60s, with his worst score a 3-under 70 the second day. He played better than his 1-3-1 record to help the US retain the Presidents Cup in November, and he would love nothing more than to start the regular season the same way he finished the last — with a victory. He's also committed to the Humana Challenge, the new title of the Hope.
Things have been happening quickly for Haas and his wife, Julie, even though they had to put off their honeymoon after being married in June. He took home the $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup in October, they recently broke ground on a new house in South Carolina and they finally took that honeymoon in Costa Rica.
17. Webb Simpson, United States: In his third full season on the PGA Tour, Simpson broke through in a big way, winning the Wyndham Championship and the Deutsche Bank Championship while finishing second to Bill Haas in the FedEx Cup standings and second to Luke Donald on the PGA Tour money list. He came so close to becoming the only three-time winner of the season on the US circuit, losing in a playoff to Bubba Watson at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and to Ben Crane in extra holes at the McGladrey Classic during the Fall Series.
The 26-year-old graduate of Wake Forest got better as the year went along and is hoping to make a quick start to the new season when he plays this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the first time. He finished in the top 10 in six of his last seven events on the PGA Tour last year, the only exception coming when he wound up 22nd in the Tour Championship.
American golf seemed to be waning with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk beginning to show their age, but Simpson and a number of other younger players showed last year the future of US golf seems to be in good hands. He posted a 3-2 record while helping captain Fred Couples' team retain the Presidents Cup, and you can bet that captain Davis Love III is counting on Simpson to be a vital cog for the US in the Ryder Cup come September at Medinah.
18. Jim Furyk, United States: Coming off the worst season of his 18-year career on the PGA Tour, Furyk probably will not play 26 tournaments again without posting a single finish in the top five. In fact, he showed late last season his game is coming around when he posted two of his four top-10 results down the stretch. Then he led the US to a successful defense of the Presidents Cup by posting a 5-0 record at Royal Melbourne, joining Tiger Woods and Shigeki Maruyama as the only players to win all five sessions in the history of the event.
By failing to win on the PGA Tour last season, Furyk is missing out on his 13th appearance in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which he won in 2001. He often spends the holidays in Hawai'i with his family, but he told reporters in California late last year at the Chevron Challenge that he will skip the first five tournaments of the season before playing three consecutive weeks in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Furyk is fortunate he won't have to spend his early appearances of the season trying to qualify for the Masters. After starting last season at No. 5 in the World Golf Rankings, he slid to No. 50 on the final list of the year, the last spot in which a berth in the first major of the season is granted. The only time he has missed the Masters since 1994 was in 2004 when he was recovering from wrist surgery.
19. Sergio Garcia, Spain: Following a slump that lasted nearly three years, Garcia seems ready to make a big comeback this season on the PGA Tour. He seemed disinterested at times during the skid, but regained his enthusiasm last year. Then he was the "El Nino" of old when he captured the Castello Masters and Andalucia Masters on consecutive weeks in October, posting his fifth and sixth top-10 finishes of the season on the European Tour. He also played well in the last three majors of the year, tying for seventh in the US Open, tying for ninth in the Open Championship and tying for 12th in the PGA Championship.
Dubbed "El Nino" as a teenage prodigy, Garcia turns 31 this week, and he has not yet released his schedule for the season. He is expected to start on the Middle East swing of the European Tour and might not play on the PGA Tour until the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Those two victories have him starting the year at No. 18 in the World Golf Rankings, after he was outside the top 64 that qualify for the match play event.
Like Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and others who seemingly are coming out of slumps, when a golfer is this good he simply does not forget how to compete and win. Garcia's resurgence comes just in time for a Ryder Cup year, and expect him to be part of captain Jose Maria Olazabal's European team at Medinah in September. He did not make the team two years ago and was a glorified cheerleader as a vice captain at Celtic Manor in Wales.
20. K.J. Choi, South Korea: The greatest South Korean male golfer in history — even though Y.E. Yang is the only one to claim a major title — Choi in 2011 bounced back from a skid that lasted almost three years. He claimed the biggest title of his career by beating David Toms in a playoff at the Players Championship — one of his four finishes in the top three — and wound up fourth on the PGA Tour money list with $4,434,691. If he is going to equal or surpass that this year, he will have to do it without his longtime caddie, Andy Prodger. The 59-year-old Scotsman has gone home to semi-retirement on the European Tour, so Choi has lined up Steve Underwood, who was on the bag for his first PGA Tour victory in 2002.
Choi is a popular figure in the Hawai'ian events because of the large Korean population in the islands, and he is playing this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the sixth time. His best result at Kapalua came in his first appearance on the Plantation Course in 2003, when he tied for second, a distant eight shots behind Ernie Els. He also tied for eighth in 2007 when his second-round 77 kept him from challenging winner Vijay Singh.
When Choi won on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, it was his first PGA Tour victory since the 2008 Sony Open in Hawai'i and the eighth of his career on the circuit. He also finished second in the AT&T National and was third at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and the Tour Championship before closing out the year with a 3-2 record in the Presidents Cup.
Others receiving consideration: Ernie Els, South Africa; David Toms, United States; Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland; Ian Poulter, England; Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa; Brandt Snedeker, United States; Geoff Ogilvy, Australia; Rickie Fowler, United States; Aaron Baddeley, Australia; Martin Laird, Scotland; Hunter Mahan, United States; Vijay Singh, Fiji; Gary Woodland, United States; Jason Dufner, United States; Zach Johnson, United States; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela.