KAPALUA, Hawaii – The PGA Tour ushers in the new year in Kapalua for the 20th year in a row. After all these years, the only moment above all others was the battle between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els in 2000.
Both made an eagle on the 18th hole to force a playoff. Both made birdie on the first additional hole. Woods finished with a 35 foot birdie putt on the next hole that was downhill and into grain with about a 6 foot rest. Equally memorable was what Els said when it was over:
“He’s 24. He’ll probably be taller than Elvis by the time he gets 40.”
Woods turned 42 on Saturday. He’s still no bigger than Jack Nicklaus when it comes to the ultimate benchmark in golf. Most majors won.
But he’s still a tiger, and that means a lot.
He gets more attention than great champions almost half his age. And that’s why Woods, who makes must-see TV when he plays golf, tops the list of five questions to consider for 2018.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM TIGER?
The question wasn’t much different a year ago.
Woods returned to the Hero World Challenge after a 15 month recovery from two more back surgeries, and his 24 birdies were made into more than 15th place in an unofficial holiday event against an 18-man field. When the new year started, he ran three rounds over two tournaments and was out again.
This time he is returning from lower back fusion surgery. Most noticeable in the Bahamas last month was his power, and Woods said on a recent blog that he’s been hitting a full club longer than before. The amount of golf he played before his return – and not the score, but the company – contributes to the higher optimism. Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Daniel Berger all played with Woods and liked what they saw.
The action will be the full schedule he wants to play, even though he didn’t say what or where that would be. And if his health is as solid as he lets it be, golf will get a full dose of Woods in the majors for the first time since 2015.
WHO’S ON THE PLANE TO FRANCE?
The Americans haven’t won the Ryder Cup on European soil since 1993, two months after Jordan Spieth was born.
The Americans won the last Ryder Cup in Hazeltine and will start 2018 with the three best players in the world rankings and five of the eight best players. That said, they are preferred on paper, and most American golf fans will turn down Europe’s opportunities.
The more important question is who is going to Paris for the games.
Much attention will be paid to Phil Mickelson, who has not missed a team competition since 1993 and is eager to do the next. He hasn’t won since 2013 and was a captain’s choice for the Presidents Cup.
The Americans had 14 players in their 20s on the PGA Tour last year and six of them were on the Presidents Cup team. Chances are that not all of these six will be in France and US captain Jim Furyk could make some tough choices about his selection.
What’s the schedule?
Sometime this summer, the PGA Tour will herald a major overhaul of a schedule that has been predictable for years.
This will be the final August PGA championship before being postponed to May 2019. Reducing the number of PGA Tour events to end the FedEx Cup on Labor Day isn’t an issue with losing a playoff event (Boston). Postponing an event to fall (Greenbrier) and likely converting an event to a World Golf Championship (Memphis).
The hard part is figuring out where everything else is going.
That starts with March, when there are currently two golf world championships (Mexico, Match Play), and the Players Championship will be added next year. There has to be something. In addition, title sponsorships for the Houston Open and possibly Colonial must be canceled.
HOW WILL RORY MCILROY ANSWER?
For the first time since 2009, Rory McIlroy is entering a new year outside the top 10 in the world. Put this down to excruciating injuries that persuaded him to take a long hiatus late last year to get his health and play in order.
He will have no competition for more than three months when he returns to Abu Dhabi. This is the start of an ambitious schedule in which he will play eight times before joining Augusta National.
Golf should be a good idea by then, when McIlroy is back on the agenda.
WHO WILL MAKE IT BACK TO PARADISE?
Justin Thomas said there is nothing he would rather do than start in Kapalua every year.
As good as it is, there are no guarantees.
Only nine players out of the 32-man field made it back to 2018 last year. Among the missing are Jason Day, who started in first place last year, and Bubba Watson, who went missing for the first time in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, four Years. Spieth missed it in 2015. Rickie Fowler wasn’t in Kapalua last year.
Last year there were 14 first-time winners on the PGA Tour. It’s that easy.
That goes for Woods too.