Preseason PGA Tour player rankings

The Sports Xchange’s PGA Tour preseason player rankings for 2012, as selected by TSX Golf Staff:

1. Luke Donald, England: After a brilliant season in which there was no one even close to him as World Player of the Year, Donald has firmly entrenched himself as the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings. However, he has no time to rest on his laurels — his challengers already have indicated in one form or another that they’re coming after him.

Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood have announced they’re joining him full time on the PGA Tour, and there were indications late in the year that Tiger Woods is ready to rejoin the fray.

Donald won twice on the PGA Tour last season and thus was eligible to open his season this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which he has played twice previously. He finished seventh in 2007 and was 15th in 2003. However, he will open his season in three weeks at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where Westwood, McIlroy and Woods will also be on hand. Last year, Donald did not start on the PGA Tour until the Northern Trust Open in February and missed the cut, then finished in the top 10 in 14 of his last 18 PGA Tour events.

Before last season, the knock on Donald was he did not win enough; he had only five previous victories in his career. However, he nearly matched that in 2011 by winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the BMW PGA Championship, the Barclays Scottish Open and the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. In addition, he wound up in the top 10 a staggering 20 times in his 25 tournaments around the world. All that remains missing from his resume is that elusive first major championship.

2. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland: The US Open champion blew off the PGA Tour — and even the Players Championship — a year ago, saying he wanted to play closer to home. However, he has since broken up with his longtime Irish girlfriend, Holly Sweeney, and formed a sports power couple with Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world.

Partly because he no longer has that obligation at home, Rory will play a full schedule on the PGA Tour this season in an effort to match Wozniacki’s ranking. In what probably are the overriding factors, there generally is more money and more world-ranking points in the US events, and McIlroy’s power game is more suited to many of the courses on the PGA Tour.

McIlroy could have started his season this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, but he is taking extra time off after coming down with a fever while playing a brutal schedule down the stretch last year. It appears he will start his season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in three weeks.

The 22-year-old from Holywood, Northern Ireland, played in more than 10 countries last year and apparently has learned that even at his age he will have to be more judicial in planning his schedule. McIlroy admittedly was running on empty the last few weeks of 2011 while trying in vain to catch Donald in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. Rory is the next anointed one in golf — even Donald has claimed that the kid is more talented that Tiger Woods.

3. Phil Mickelson, United States: Lefty showed last season that he has plenty of good-to-great golf left, claiming his 39th PGA Tour victory at the Shell Houston Open and finishing second in the Open Championship and the Farmers Insurance Open.

However, he was inconsistent for much of the year despite seven finishes in the top 10 and 11 finishes in the top 25, a year most other pros would take in a heartbeat. This figures to be another big year.

Mickelson’s brilliance since he turned pro in 1992 will be rewarded when he is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May before the start of the Players Championship. The 41-year-old Mickelson prefers to spend the extended holidays with his family in San Diego and is not a big fan of the Plantation Course at Kapalua, so he’s not in the field this week for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He has not played in Hawai’i since 2001, but he did win the tournament in 1994 and 1998 when it was held virtually in his backyard at La Costa. Lefty is expected to again open his season close to home at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open — which he has won three times — in the last week in January.

Mickelson played brilliantly in helping the United States retain the Presidents Cup in November, posting a 3-0 record before being held out of the Saturday afternoon session and losing to Adam Scott in singles. His 70.47 scoring average in the final round last season — when he sometimes faded out of contention on Sunday — has some wondering if his psoriatic arthritis is causing stamina problems.

4. Lee Westwood, England: Sitting on his couch at home watching the PGA Tour playoffs late last year, Westwood suddenly wished he was there. Not only was he impressed by the courses in the four-week stretch, but by the drama as Luke Donald battled Webb Simpson for the PGA Tour money title and Bill Haas claimed $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup.

Westwood started last season at No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings and apparently believes the best way to get that spot back is on the best tour in the world, so he will have dual membership this season.

The 38-year-old Englishman has never played more than 15 events on the PGA Tour (he hit that number in 2005), and his only victories on the US circuit came in the 1998 Freeport-McDermott Classic and the 2010 St. Jude Classic. He did not play in the US last year until the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of February and will start his season in three weeks at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the Middle East swing of the PGA European Tour. Westwood even skipped the Players Championship last year after his manager Chubby Chandler called it the "ninth-most important tournament in the world," but has promised to be back at TPC Sawgrass in May.

Even though Westwood won four times around the world last year, he was unable to match the consistent brilliance of Donald, who has taken a firm hold on the No. 1 ranking. Westy even fell behind 22-year-old Rory McIlroy in the rankings, but regained the No. 2 spot by winning the Thailand Golf Championship a week before Christmas.

5. Steve Stricker, United States: Stricker will turn 45 next month and has shown little sign of slowing down, even though a neck injury caused him to miss several weeks before he helped the United States retain the Presidents Cup in November.

With continued rehab through the holidays, he should be ready to open the season at full strength and continue his career turnaround, which began in 2007. He won the Kemper Open and the Motorola Western Open in 1996 and also captured the 2001 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but it was a long drought before he claimed the 2007 Barclays. He has won seven more times since and enters the season as the top American in the World Golf Rankings, at No. 6.

Stricker is playing in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the sixth time and has finished in the top 10 in each of his last three appearances. He came close to winning in 2008 when he came from behind with a 9-under-par 64 in the final round to force a playoff with Daniel Chopra. However, the Swede won with a birdie on the fourth extra hole. Last year, Stricker opened with three rounds in the 60s and was tied for the lead with Jonathan Byrd and Robert Garrigus, but came home in 71 and tied for fourth. He also tied for 10th in 2010, shooting 68-66 on the weekend.

Stricker said the neck problem has caused him some numbness in the middle finger of his left hand, which has bothered him for about a year. The fact the numbness persists indicates there still is pressure on the nerve, but he is hoping eight weeks of physical therapy has taken care of the problem.

6. Dustin Johnson, United States: Johnson is coming off cartilage surgery on his right knee at the end of November and was hoping to play in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this week, but is not quite ready. The 27-year-old said he had been experiencing nagging pain in the knee since he tied for second in the Open Championship behind Darren Clarke last July at Royal St. George’s.

Johnson had an MRI exam performed on the knee when he returned to the US following the Presidents Cup and missed two events in December. He had hoped to play at Kapalua for the fourth consecutive year, having posted his best finish last season when he tied for ninth.

Last season, Johnson became the first player since Tiger Woods to win at least one tournament on the PGA Tour in each of his first four seasons after leaving college, and he enters the season at No. 7 in the World Golf Rankings. He has been in the hunt to win a major each of the last two years, and most of the golf pundits believe it is only a matter of time before he breaks through because of his immense talent. It seems he simply has to get out of his own way.

After losing caddie Joe LaCava to Tiger, at least in part because Johnson plans to play more overseas, he has reunited with Bobby Brown as his bagman. Brown was with Johnson for four of his five PGA Tour victories, but also for meltdowns at the US Open and PGA Championship in 2010 in addition to numerous other moments to forget.

7. Adam Scott, Australia: Say what you will about abrasive caddie Steve Williams, but he seems to have instilled a winning attitude in Scott, who in the second half of last season finally seemed capable of achieving the greatness that was forecast for him as a youngster.

The Aussie captured the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, perhaps the biggest title of his career, after tying for second earlier in the year at the Masters. A string of strong performances around the world led to his selection as Golfer of the Year in Australia — edging Jason Day — and he continues to be the great hope Down Under to become the first Aussie to win at Augusta.

Scott, an avid surfer, is passing on a chance to catch some waves this week while playing in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the sixth time. He came closest to winning the opener in 2007 when he bounced back from an opening 73 with three 69s to finish second, two strokes behind Vijay Singh. He also tied for fifth in 2005 and finished seventh in 2004.

Another aspect to Scott’s resurgence last year was his switch to the broomstick putter after he struggled for years on the greens. He is one of the best ball-strikers in the game and now seems to get better with the long wand every week. At the Australian PGA in November, Scott was 5-over after seven holes in round one before his putter turned red hot. He recorded 24 birdies the rest of the way and finished two strokes out of the playoff in which Greg Chalmers beat Robert Allenby and Marcus Fraser.

8. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa: Now that he knows the courses and the routine, the Masters champion might be even better on his second swing around the PGA Tour.

Last year, he finished in the top 10 on three occasions and wound up in the top 25 in 10 of the 15 tournaments he played. He made the cut in every event he played and has made it to the weekend in 20 consecutive tournaments on the US Tour.

Right after becoming the first player to birdie the last four holes to win the Masters, Schwartzel boarded a flight taking him to the Maybank Malaysian Open. He hasn’t slowed down since, and it is believed the Green Jacket has traveled farther with Schwartzel than with any other Masters champion. Schawrtzel has taken his prize to every inhabited continent except South America, his stops including Bermuda, China, Australia, Dubai and Thailand, where he became the first reigning Masters champion to make a visit.

Schwartzel was eligible to play in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the first time this week, but decided to stay home after the holidays. He will make his 2012 debut later this month in South Africa in the Joburg Open, co-sanctioned by the European and Sunshine Tours. He has won the tournament each of the last two years. Schwartzel is expected to start his PGA Tour season at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of February and said he will start thinking about his Masters defense about the time he hits Bay Hill in March.

9. Matt Kuchar, United States: Kuchar only added to his stature as one of the leaders in what appears to be an upsurge in American golf late last year. He helped the United States retain the Presidents Cup in Australia and teamed with Gary Woodland in China to bring the World Cup of Golf back to the US.

Woodland and Kuchar shot a 5-under 67 in the alternate-shot format in the final round to overcome the favorites and third-round leaders, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who slipped to fourth. The US, which won by two strokes over England and Germany, claimed the World Cup for a record 24th time, but the first since Tiger Woods and David Duval prevailed in 2000.

Kuchar enjoyed another stellar season with nine finishes in the top 20 — giving him 20 over the last two seasons — but was unable to find the winner’s circle after doing so in each of the previous two years. That means he will miss the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this week, but he is expected to start his season next week by playing in the Sony Open in Hawai’i for the 10th time.

10. Keegan Bradley, United States: About the only disappointment of Bradley’s rookie year on the PGA Tour was that he did not make the US team for the Presidents Cup, despite intense lobbying by the likes of Phil Mickelson.

However, there is plenty of time for the 25-year-old — starting with the Ryder Cup in September — if he can even come close to performing the way he did last season. In addition to winning the PGA Championship in his first major appearance, he captured the HP Byron Nelson Championship and the PGA Grand Slam of Golf and teamed with Brendan Steele to claim the Shark Shootout.

After a season of firsts, Bradley will make his initial appearance this week in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. That’s a long way from Vermont, where he was a better ski racer than a golfer growing up. However, his aunt Pat is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his father, Mark, is head pro at Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club, and those golf genes finally took over.

Since he was a rookie, Keegan had only one season in which to amass points to make the Presidents Cup team and nearly did so, a point made strongly by Mickelson. Now he’s in a position of virtually having to play his way off captain Davis Love III’s team for the Ryder Cup at Medinah. His playoff victory over Jason Dufner in the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club has him leading the US point standings heading into the season.

What … no Tiger? See players ranked 11-20 here