Great Start for the PGA Tour But Give It Time


PGA Tour (75x100)Be careful not to judge a PGA Tour season by the first few months.
It was only three years ago that Tiger Woods went 10 weeks without winning and endured endless questions about a slump. By summer, he had become the first player in 30 years to capture the first two legs of the Grand Slam.
Or look at Vijay Singh last year.
He won just one tournament (Pebble Beach) through the Masters, and had only three trophies heading into August. By the end of the year, Singh became only the sixth man in PGA Tour history with at least nine victories.
This promised to be a grandiose year in golf with so many top players either hitting or regaining their stride.
So far, it has not disappointed.
The first six winners are all ranked in the top 20. All but one (Stuart Appleby) are major champions.
Singh got off to such a strong start that he should have won the Mercedes Championships and did win the Sony Open. It looked as though he would be No. 1 for the rest of his life, or until retirement, whichever came first.
Then it was Woods' turn.
His victory the following week at Torrey Pines was his first stroke-play title on the PGA Tour in about 16 months, and most people figured it was only a matter of time before Woods established himself anew as the player to beat.
But that was before Phil Mickelson won back-to-back at Phoenix and Pebble Beach, setting a slew of records along the way. He tied the course record on the TPC at Scottsdale (60), broke the record at Spyglass Hill (62) and became the first wire-to-wire winner over 72 holes in the 68-year history of Pebble Beach.
'I don't know what specifically is driving everybody to play so well,' Mickelson said. 'But I think it's exciting for the game to see all the top players contending.'
Next up is Riviera, which also has some intriguing possibilities.
The Nissan Open is the first PGA Tour event Woods played, as a 16-year-old, and it remains the only tournament he has played at least four times without winning. He returns to Riviera this week needing only to finish fourth to take the No. 1 ranking away from Singh.
Plus, Mike Weir has a chance to become the first player to win three straight years at the Nissan Open. Canada's Lefty is coming off one of the best rounds of the year, hitting every fairway and missing only one green in the rain and wind at Pebble Beach.
With so many players doing so well, Mickelson has high hopes for rare drama at the Match Play Championship, where two players from the top 10 have reached the finals only once since it began in 1999.
'I think there is a good chance this year a lot of the top guys will win the first few matches and square off later in the final rounds,' Mickelson said.
The only player missing from the mix is Ernie Els, in more ways than one.
He hasn't won, although the Big Easy has finished in the top 10 every time he has played. And after three stops on the PGA Tour, he departed for his global travels and won't return to the PGA Tour until the middle of March.
'Many of the big names on tour ... are off to great starts in 2005,' Woods said in his monthly newsletter. 'That's good for golf and should make the Masters even more exciting.'
How long it lasts is another story.
And one thing to keep in mind as the West Coast Swing wraps up over the next two weeks is how many of the top players will be around when the Tour Championship arrives.
Two years ago, Els won the first two PGA Tour events, then Woods won in his first start after knee surgery. By the end of the year, Ben Curtis was the British Open champion, and Shaun Micheel won the PGA Championship.
Not until after the Masters, probably the U.S. Open or maybe as late as the British Open will anyone be able to get a firm grasp on how this season is shaping up.
The No. 1 spot in the world ranking could change every week from now through the end of March, with the two-year system favoring Singh during that stretch.
Right now, the only sure thing looks to be Mickelson.
Woods won at Torrey Pines, but the way he nearly whiffed a 2-iron on the 18th hole left some questions about how confident he is with his swing changes. Perhaps those will be answered in the next two months.
Despite his hot start, Singh is using a new driver and has a different caddie. He has gone three straight finishes out of the top 10, and last week he missed the cut for the first time in a year. Scrutiny will be even greater when he returns next week at the Match Play Championship, where he has never made it past the second round.
Els is fueled by emotion. It's too early to say whether his first two months will put him in a good frame of mind heading to Augusta National, or whether the little voice in his head will drag him down with doubt.
All that is certain is that golf is off to a great start.
But that's all it is - a start.
Only after the four majors, and maybe longer, will anyone know whether the season lives up to its hype.
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