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Wringing In The New Year

Who in his right mind would turn down a ticket to paradise? And how is it that Tiger is skipping Torrey Pines? And what in the name of Frank Chirkinian is Nick Faldo doing sharing a television booth with Johnny Miller?
If the golf world looks upside down, well, folks, welcome to the game’s new day. Wasn’t it just a day-and-a-half ago that Luke Donald was cashing big paychecks, we had four first-time major champions and Woods was winning again, sort of?

As we begin the year of our Finchem, 2012, we find that the first event of the PGA Tour season, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, is also the one in the most trouble. Only 28 of 2011’s Tour winners signed up for a trip to Maui and only 27 actually started in Friday’s first round.

It’s no secret that the Tour’s biggest names – Donald, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott among them – don’t like to start their new seasons this close to the end of the old year. And the Hyundai was never expected to attract major winners Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and Darren Clarke. Dustin Johnson might have been there except for a little knee surgery.
Perhaps the players don’t like the Plantation Course at the Kapalua resort. Let’s face it,

Kapalua is not a great track. It has 75-yard wide fairways, huge, undulating grainy greens and you have to shoot about a million under to have a sniff at winning.
Maybe, if the truth were known,

Kapalua is just too dangerous for the Tour pros. Last year, while snorkeling, Geoff Ogilvy cut his finger on a coral reef badly enough that he needed double rows of stitches and had to pull out. This year, the 28th player in the field – Lucas Glover – injured a ligament in his right knee while paddle boarding and couldn’t make the tee on Friday.

Only two players in the world’s top 10 – Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson – were in the field, and looking at the quality of the entrants at the Hyundai, you can no longer snicker at Woods winning the 18-man Chevron World Challenge. It can be argued with assurance that Woods’ tournament had the stronger field.

Speaking of Tiger, can he really need the money that badly that he would jilt the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines for a fat appearance check in Abu Dhabi? He practically has the deed to the property at Torrey, winning there seven times as a pro, including the 2008 U.S. Open, where he did so on one leg. If Woods wanted to post a W on the board early, wouldn’t it make sense to get the confidence meter on high at a place he’s the most comfortable?

But that’s not the only burning question as we ring in the new year. Here are a few more to consider:
What kind of year will Woods have?

Listening to the pundits as January dawned, the touts were giving Tiger three or four victories in 2012, including possibly The Masters. As we summon the specter of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend. While winning at the Chevron was a big deal, it won’t validate itself until Woods wins in a field of at least 144, where 50 guys have a chance to win instead of five or six. Which is why skipping Torrey Pines leaves itching heads.

Will Donald validate his world ranking? Winning a major championship seems to be the only way for that to happen for the world No. 1. He’s not long enough to manhandle Augusta National and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is too big a ballpark for Donald at the PGA Championship. Royal Lytham & St. Annes is a crapshoot at the Open Championship. So, it looks like the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club could be his best bet. It’s not overly long and his short game seems tailor made for Olympic’s small greens. Otherwise, Donald has a chance to devolve into his generation’s Colin Montgomerie.

How brightly will McIlroy’s star shine? While McIlroy is the most physically talented player in the game, it’s what’s goes on between his ears that will determine if he is truly a great player or just another one-off. He ditched his longtime manager, waffled about playing the PGA Tour, whined about conditions at the Open Championship and flitted around the world with his celebrity girlfriend, who apparently channels Yoko Ono when it comes to giving advice to her beau. Someone needs to remind McIlroy that he’s a professional golfer and that’s how he became the next big thing.

Who is the next breakout player? For a while, we thought it would be Dustin Johnson, a physical specimen who can drive the ball miles and turn the most difficult course into a par-68 or better. But he has had three very real chances to win majors thus far and spit the bit each time. Which is why the world No. 10 – Simpson – is the one American poised on the precipice of stardom. This could be a major year for Simpson.
Oh, yes, the Ryder Cup is in September at Medinah Country Club. The greatest event in golf is enough by itself to make this way more than a Happy New Year.


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