Budding rivalry doesn't need our help
Considering that their schedules will practically mirror each other’s — heck, they’re even starting the season in the same place, Abu Dhabi — you could have McIlroy and Woods teeing it up in the same tournament as many as 14 or 15 times, maybe more. But let’s hope officials on a weekly basis don’t feel the need to rig the computer so as to spit out those contrived Thursday and Friday pairings that feature these two massive attractions.
If they play their way into the same group Saturday and/or Sunday, fine. But there are far too many available storylines to spice up the 2013 PGA Tour season than to force the McIlroy-Woods thing upon us on a weekly basis. Chances are the players don’t want to see it, and it’s hard to think fans will think it’s worth having that often. Things are truly special when they occur by chance, not by design.
And speaking of “special,” here’s raising a toast of holiday cheer to the two stretches of days that have long been circled on the 2013 golf calendar: the US Open (June 13-16) and the British Open (July 18-21).
OK, so they are tournaments we always look forward to, but this time around there is a greater sense of anticipation because of the stages. Merion Golf Club hasn’t hosted a US Open since 1981, but the absence had to do with narrow-minded folks focused on the lack of length, not the abundance of quality.
Fortunately, reasonable minds drafted a movement to return the national championship to Merion, which is far too brilliant and historic to cast aside; this is where Bobby Jones in 1930 completed his epic Grand Slam with a US Amateur triumph and where in 1950 Ben Hogan emphatically signaled his incomparable comeback with a US Open victory.
There should be total joy attached to a return to Merion, but if there is a hint of apprehension, it’s this: Some will see the 2013 US Open as a litmus test to gauge how the game has or has not evolved beyond recognition. In this age of bigger, stronger, wiser and fitter golfers wielding better and bolder equipment over firmer and more manicured golf courses, the best players are hitting the golf ball to massive lengths, and that has the “purists” with their knickers knotted — not that anyone should care.
If Merion, at approximately 6,900 yards (for comparison sakes, Bethpage in 2009 was set up at 7,426), yields lower scores than the US Open is accustomed to, you’ll hear discontent. If it holds its own and 1 under or 2 under par wins, you’ll hear discontent from those who suggest it was tricked up to give it defense. If it provides a thrilling finish with Jack Nicklaus holing a 6-iron at 18 to make eagle and beat McIlroy, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, by one, you’ll hear discontent from those who bemoan the fact that Hogan required a 1-iron to reach the 18th green some 63 years ago.
In other words, ignore the chronic crowd of complainers who would “bitch about ice cream,” as Ed Dougherty once said, and pencil in June 13-16 for a hefty slice of golf pleasure. Then inhale and exhale and focus on the British Open at Muirfield, which might just be the best pure links in the world. The Open is richer in flavor than all the other majors, and it’s even more so when Muirfield plays host.
The last time we visited, in 2002, Woods was in position through 36 holes to seize momentum and win his third major of the year. Then, Armageddon. Or at least it felt that way because a storm blew in and swept Woods off the leaderboard. When calm was restored, Els was raising his first Claret Jug, having survived a playoff with Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet.
You’ve heard that a true indicator of a course’s quality is the roll call of its champions? Then raise a toast to Muirfield’s decorated Open conquerors: Nick Faldo (twice), Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Henry Cotton, Alfred Perry, Walter Hagen, Ted Ray, James Braid (twice), Harry Vardon and Harold Hilton.
Quality, there. Impeccable quality.
Of course, given the contention that the pro golf scene is deeper and more competitive than ever, it would be foolhardy to suggest that the season is built around the two Opens on each side of the Atlantic. On the contrary, they are but the most enticing tournaments sitting this far out, yet a multitude of other storylines, questions, and wonderments have my interest as we prepare for the opening tee shot high atop the first tee at the Plantation Course on Maui, site of this week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
The biggest question
Will Tiger Woods win a major? One man’s prediction: No.
A job well done
How successful have PGA Tour officials been? By wrapping up the TV deal and re-signing FedEx to bankroll its playoffs, the Tour has served its membership exceedingly well and deserves kudos. Not that they’ll get them, however, because there are many in the media who simply can’t bring themselves to admit that the FedEx Cup playoffs have been a big hit or that tournament sponsorship is in great shape.
The bottom line is, the biggest tournament question mark is the third stop on the Florida swing, the Tampa Bay Championship. It is sponsor-less, as of now, but a PGA Tour source said a new deal is being pursued, and he was optimistic it will remain on the schedule for 2014 and beyond.
Most tiresome scrutiny
Every week, there will be analytical data presented about those who anchor, or did anchor, the putter. Here’s a guess that it will be suffocating by February.
Best eclectic three-week stretch of play
Hard to imagine it any better than vintage Riviera, followed by the purity of match play on a curiosity of a golf course (the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain) followed by a four-day happy hour on a grueling golf course that features about 347 world-class players who merely have to drive a few miles to PGA National (we’re talking the Honda Classic).
Scheduling question No. 1
For the seventh consecutive winter, inquiring minds will wonder, “Why doesn’t Woods play Riviera?”
Scheduling question No. 2
Does McIlroy have the nerve to skip the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
Scheduling question No. 3
What sort of field will the Valero Texas Open attract, sitting one week in front of the Masters, a spot that Houston had polished beautifully?
One annual hiccup to the schedule
Having the tournament in Puerto Rico opposite the World Golf Championship at Doral. Being unable to be in two places at the same time can be a pain.
A World Golf Championship request
Put a halt to this silly two-tee start for a field of about 66 players at the Cadillac Championship. Give the fans a full day of golf Thursday and Friday.
Comeback watch, part I
One year after having a career performance — he won The Players Championship and finished fourth on the money list — K.J. Choi had his worst season since 2000. He slipped to 102nd on the money list.
Comeback watch, part II
Gary Woodland fell to 134th on the money list, but he’s secure, thanks to his 2011 win in Tampa. Given better health and a full year of Butch Harmon’s tutelage, he seemingly has the pieces in place.
Comeback watch, part III
Of course, he has been on the list for a few years now, which seems incredible considering all Stewart Cink had accomplished. But he didn’t have a top 10, finished 149th on the money list, and has slipped to 315th in the world order, just one spot ahead of Paul Haley II. Paul Haley II? Says it all, doesn’t it?
Comeback watch, part IV
He played nicely in the season finale at Disney to avoid being forced to go to second stage of Q-School, but Camilo Villegas finished 144th on the money list after having been ranked between seventh and 77th each of the previous six campaigns.
Comeback watch, part V
Actually, it’s not that Davis Love III slumped in 2012, because he got in the hunt a few times, scored three top-10 finishes and was 100th on the money list. But without the burden of his Ryder Cup captaincy duties, it will be fun to watch him get back at just golf. He’ll be 49 in April and seems to have something left in the tank.