Changing of the Guard

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2007 Big Questions Editor's Note: TheGolfChannel.com is counting down its top 5 stories from the world of golf in 2006 and looking ahead to the five 'Big Questions' on the PGA TOUR in 2007. This is our No. 4 question for the upcoming season.
 
The term changing of the guard refers to a formal ceremony in which sentries providing ceremonial guard duties at important institutions are relieved by a new batch of sentries.
 
In sports, it is usually used to describe a gradual or sudden shift in power from a once dominate team, conference or single individual athlete to another.
 
Jim Furyk
Jim Furyk has steadily risen to the No. 2 spot in the world rankings.
And in golf, while there looks to be no changing of the guard for the foreseeable future ' at least not at the top where Tiger Woods resides - we might, however, be starting to see a shift, or changing of the guard, in the small group a players who will challenge Woods with his stiffest competition for the next several of years.
 
A quick look at the current world golf rankings shows the slide of what once was known as the Big 5 ' Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen (Tiger, of course, excluded).
 
Lefty (No. 3) and Ernie (No. 5) still reside in the top-5, but Vijay and Retief have been replaced by now world No. 2 Jim Furyk and young Aussie Adam Scott (No. 4). It marks the first time in three years that the so-called original Big 5 will not inhabit all of the top five slots in the rankings at the end of a season.
 
Is there anything to make of this? Will the floor right below Tigers penthouse permanently become occupied by a new host of challengers? If so, who?
 
Well, the potential list of renters includes the aforementioned Furyk and Scott, as well has Padraig Harrington, Englands up-an-comer Paul Casey, current U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, and, of course, Sergio Garcia and the seemingly never-ending talk of his potential.
 
Of the new crowd, its hard to argue that Furyk wont be a fixture for several years to come.
 
Jim Furyk could be the most overlooked player today ' and hes ranked second in the world. He doesnt have the power of an Els or a Singh, but with his swing and his lack of power he has (still) gotten to No. 2 in the world, said Golf Channel and CBS Sports analyst Peter Oosterhuis. I think that is an amazing accomplishment.
 
Furyk, who finished a career-best second on the PGA TOURs money list this past season with $7,482,275, appears to be becoming more comfortable in his role as one of the top players in the world.
 
Already with one major to his credit, Furyk had a monster season in 06 with wins coming at the Wachovia Championship and the Canadian Open. In addition, he had four runner-up finishes as well as three third-place showings. As a result, the 36-year-old Furyk rose from seventh in the world rankings at the beginning of the year to second at seasons end.
 
Furyk works really hard and is probably known as the grittiest player in the world, said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo.
 
But other than Furyk, who else can join the fray?
 
Nobilo points out that it might be tough for a group of players to try and take away Tigers mantle.
 
Paul Casey
Paul Casey is one of a handful of players hoping to give Tiger a run for his money.
Hes too prolific of a winner to be chased by a pack, said Nobilo, who then added his thoughts on the others. Ernie and Vijay have the mental makeup, and of course Phil and his brilliance. With Adam Scott Id certainly like to see more intensity.
 
But a player he says to keep a close eye on is Casey.
 
Casey began the year all the way down at 51st in the rankings. Three wins during the 2006 European Tour season vaulted him to the top of the Order of Merit race, although he eventually was edged out from winning that title by Harrington ' on the final day of the season, no less.
 
Casey is a star in the making, added Nobilo. All the roads point to him becoming one of the elite players in the world.
 
Case in point: his romp through the loaded HSBC World Match Play Championship in September. En route to the finals, Casey took out Goosen, Mike Weir and Colin Montgomerie, before his 10-and-8 drubbing of Shaun Micheel in the finals. He followed that with an impressive unbeaten record at the Ryder Cup, which included a defeat of Furyk in the Sunday singles as well as a hole-in-one on Saturday.
 
Yet as impressive as Casey has been, he is still ranked below another pair of 20somethings in Garcia and Donald.
 
The 29-year-old Donald finally notched his second PGA TOUR title with his win at the Honda Classic earlier in the year and finished third alongside Sergio at the PGA Championship. But as good an iron player as he is, Donald is often thought to be too short off the tee to go head-to-head with the likes of Tiger over the long haul.
 
Which leads us to Garcia himself.
 
Plenty of length, plenty of self-confidence, plenty of talent.
 
And plenty of missed putts.
 
After finishing the 2005 season almost dead last in putting average on the PGA TOUR, Garcia hardly made an improvement this year, when he ranked a dismal 158th. Yet despite his trouble with the flatstick, Sergio continues to be a major player when it comes to the major championships. In his still young career he has racked up 12 top-10s in the majors, including a fifth and a third-place showing, respectively, in the final two majors of the year at Hoylake and Medinah.
 
Garcia was once the surefire answer to who would eventually challenge and perhaps even surpass Tiger. But Tiger has now won 12 majors and Sergio is still stuck on zero. If he could breakout and get that first one, would it signal a start of a major run? With his talent its possible, but for the moment his potential is still on hold.
 
A new season will be upon us soon and the questions of who will challenge Tiger ' whether it is a group or maybe just one individual - will begin to play themselves out.
 
Related Links:
  • Reviewing 2006; Previewing 2007