After a lengthy off-season that lasted as long as halftime of an NFL game, it’s time to reset the pins and gaze into the 2013 PGA Tour season. The season itself is curious since some of the results will actually be applied to 2014 when the season ends in September but begins again in October.
It’s always fun to confuse people three lines into a column, but with Tim Finchem’s reconstruction of the Tour schedule, he has exercised his enormous power to deprive us of the fall season. If the leaves don't turn in New England then his execution of the new TV deal for the Tour will descend to second on his all-time feats resume.
With technically a shorter season, scheduling becomes a boilerplate issue for players, sponsors and tournament directors. When, where and how often will be kicked around a great deal starting immediately at the Tournament of Champions next week, which will be absent a champion or three. However, the PGA Tour is now home to virtually every valuable commodity in the men’s game, and with that, the fields will be inconsistent but deeper, depending on who is trotting the globe each week.
There are countless players that enter the new season with big MO, no MO, next step, milk-carton status, or the simple gravitas to make them the most interesting figures starting the year. If Tiger Woods can narrow his field to 18 for the World Challenge and give a bushel of world ranking points, I can narrow my focus to the 13 most interesting players heading into 2013.
No. 13: Tianlang Guan
Always believed kids come first and with respect to Andy Zhang who was also 14 when he played in the U.S. Open last June, the thought of a 14-year-old from China sleeping in the Crows Nest at Augusta National during Masters week is potentially a tipping point on countless levels. The Asia Pacific Amateur has been legitimized by Hideki Matsuyama’s performance at The Masters, including his tie for 27th place in 2011. The aura of the Masters, the celebration of the amateur and the Far East television audience makes his start at the Masters at the age of 14 years, 5 months and 17 days an examination on where we are going in player development, media interest and the thought of inspiring future generations of golfers in the most populace nation in the world that is currently a fetus in the game. It’s possible this kid’s name will be remembered for a long, long time.
No. 12: Jim Furyk
Raise your hand if you made $3.6 million at your job this past year and feel unfulfilled, dissatisfied or just utterly gutted? Furyk has good reasons to feel pride in what he did this year, statistically improving in major areas like GIR, driving accuracy and strokes gained putting. That is admirable for a man who will be 43 in May, but singular moments define seasons and careers. His tee shot on No. 16 at Olympic on Sunday goes into the archives for future generations of television producers, and his final two holes against Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup at Medinah is more scar tissue in 30 minutes than Joe Namath suffered in his entire career. The vortex of winning is like a matrix, once you understand the formula you solve the equation. But what if you lose an element or it eludes you? The elements of winning in golf may be harder than those in math and Furyk enters the new year knowing that the 17th may be harder than the first.
No. 11: Jason Day
This past year may have just been about Dash. Welcoming their first child into the world blew a hole in the middle of Day's season but the results prior to and thereafter reflect a player that started the year with multiple injuries and not much momentum. His lone top 5 in Vegas in October is what believers in the 26-year-old will lean on as a glimmer of what will be a much more productive 2013. Name another player who has a chance to play back-to-back home games in the Presidents Cup? After the disappointment of Royal Melbourne in Australia, Day is now a resident of Ohio, and has the motivation to play host to the International Team at Muirfield Village. His lone win at the Nelson in 2010 seems like a lifetime ago and his valiant effort at the 2011 Masters seemed like the precursor to serious production. After spending half the year looking like a bass player in a garage band, Day got a haircut, welcomed a son and should believe he’s ready to win again. If he’s not on Nick Price’s team next fall that will be a mystery to everyone who has seen what Day is capable of on Tour.
No. 10: Nicolas Colsaerts
The Belgian, by way of La Jolla, Calif., will take up membership on the PGA Tour after a Ryder Cup debut in Friday fourball at Medinah that had him making monkeys fly in addition to his eight birdies and an eagle with Lee Westwood to defeat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. The 30-year-old, with two European Tour wins, seems ideally suited for the bomb and gauge setups on the American Tour but how quickly can he adapt to every aspect of Tour life in the States? He just made his first cut in a major this past June at Olympic and played with eventual champion Webb Simpson on Sunday. His power game at Augusta National is an early tease considering what he could have in his hands for second shots into the par 5s. Colsaerts has meandered along since turning professional in 2000 at age 18 after being on the Junior Ryder Cup teams for Europe in ’97 and ’99. He saw his world ranking plummet outside the top 1,300 after so much early promise but appears to have found the balance between play and PLAY. Chicks dig the long ball, but it remains to be seen if he’s just Dave Kingman. May have to ask Tommy Lasorda at the end of the year about his performance.
No. 9: Ryo Ishikawa
After going almost two years without a victory, Ishikawa won the Masters late in 2012. Yes, the Mutsui Sumitomo VISA Taiheiyo Masters, a tradition unlike any other. Yet there is no substitute for winning and after a close call in the Puerto Rico Open, finishing second to George McNeil, it appeared he was close to breaking through in the States. But he only recorded one additional top 25 the rest of the year, a tie for ninth at the Memorial. At age 21 he has now played in 44 PGA Tour events with 23 cuts made and four top 10s. Little perspective, you tell any garden-variety player at 21 he will have accomplished that on Tour already they would be thrilled, but Ryo was not plucked from just any garden. The bashful prince has carried the weight of a nation since age 15 and expectations and a year-round media scrum can go from fame to burden over time. He has poise, grace and humility beyond his years but does he possess the finite skills to make him a consistent winner on the best Tour in the world? The numbers in 18 Tour events in 2012 were ugly – 182nd is GIR, 177th in driving accuracy, 185th in birdie average. Frank Nobilo believes it's the right call for him to play in the States more and the reality is that he can only find out if he’s getting better by playing against the best each week.
No. 8: Keegan Bradley
Bradley is everything the American golf fan wants in a player, he doesn't play to live, he lives to play. When we watch the best in any sport we desire certain things. At the top of the list is the belief that they care and they like the moment. Ding, ding, Bradley has a chance to become the new Paul Azinger of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He emotes, he bleeds the colors and he bothers the other team in the best way. Aside from that competition, Bradley enters the year with a bullseye on his back by virtue of the proposed ban of the anchored stroke by the USGA and R&A. Unfairly, he’s been stigmatized because he was the first to win a major with the belly putter and the cloud of Rule 14-1b hanging over golf means every discussion going forward about the proposal will begin and end with video footage of Keegan Bradley. He’s shown thoughtfulness and candor at the outset of this decision but contention could mean contentiousness. If Bradley contends early and in particular in a major the inevitability of further questions about anchoring will persist. The Tour has a gem with all the qualities they want to sell to their consumer they just need to do their best to make sure he doesn't get roughed up.
No. 7: Lee Westwood
What exactly is Lee Westwood doing? He has run through instructors, caddies and coaches like Brandel Chamblee goes through combs. He’s altered his body in a way that would make you think he’s now allergic to Heineken. He’s moved his family from the only home he has ever known to join the growing population on planet Jupiter, Florida. Why would he be doing all of these various things at the age of 39 after being the bellwether for the European Tour for the past decade and a half? Despite a wonderful life, unwavering respect from peers and a stellar career, he has to do something else. That something else is the exclamation point. His presence on a more regular basis in America is found money for Team Ponte Vedra, not just because he’s one of the best players in the world, it’s because he’s righteous and speaks his mind with ease and without fear of consequence. Anybody else looking for a few more athletes that possess those qualities? His withdrawal from the golfing Twitterverse is one of the unfortunate WD’s of all time. The major question may agitate him as much as the questions about being world No. 1 without possessing a major. The second question is likely gone with Rory separating himself from the likely pack for a while, but the first question is the only BUT on the pristine resume. Past European stars have dabbled with PGA Tour membership in the past and many present players have been duel members for years, but Westwood is making a late run at changing the conversation with a complete change of lifestyle for his entire family. It's a bold stroke by a player who has seen virtually every peak and valley a player can see in a career. However, it’s now about the MAJOR summit.
No. 6: Anthony Kim
Bueller? Bueller? Anybody? This is an enigma wrapped in a riddle that can’t be explained away with just injuries. The litany of reasons as to why Kim has evaporated before our very eyes is endless but the only question is if there is hope? Hope for good health, commitment, pride and determination. In 2008 he was the pied piper with two stellar wins and a Ryder Cup debut that included a TKO of Sergio Garcia in unrelenting style. Is there a second act, does 2013 hold any promise of progress? Talent is timeless and form is fickle. Fickle just got TKO’d by unfathomable.
No. 5: Louis Oosthuizen
The sixth ranked player in the world had a very productive fall after the Tour Championship with top-six finishes in six world events and certainly has MO on his side going into the new year. The odd reality is that Oosthuizen has yet to win a golf tournament in the United States. The razor’s edge of winning was proven with gusto by Bubba Watson from the trees on the 10th hole at Augusta National last April, otherwise this dialogue is totally different. He was simply beaten by the better player at the Deutsche Bank on a day he was not physically right but he mesmerizes the golfing world with a swing absent of fear – or thought – and could be the longest sneaky long player of all time. That's a special category for a different day. Does he have the edge, the chip, the desire to annihilate his competitors? He destroyed the field on the Old Course in 2010 but he’s so affable you wonder if golf gets his motor running like his tractor does back home. He could be a player of the year candidate in 2013, it's up to him.
No. 4: Ian Poulter
The man of the match for Europe at the catharsis that was the Ryder Cup at Medinah will go down in Cup lore as one of the most insane displays of “Onions” – thank you, Bill Raftery – of all time. His street cred with golf fans is white hot and it was helped more with a stroke play win post-Ryder Cup at the HSBC Champions. However, the cynics will remain if the match play ninja does not win a stroke play event during the regular season on the PGA Tour, which he has yet to do in his career. No regular season stroke play wins in 148 career starts, three seconds and three thirds. His demeanor at the Ryder Cup is very different from the way Poulter comports himself on the Tour week in and week out. Of course, it's not easy to have your eyeballs reattached every Monday. He’s a peacock and loves the fight and while he has never possessed the length to overpower the setups on Tour, his profile and his cache have never been higher. He likes the good things in life and shares the humble brag via Twitter with his 1.4 million followers, but he’s raised the stakes because what he did at Medinah you just don't do, especially on the road. He had world No. 1 shaking his head on Saturday afternoon. Last year started with illness and sagging results, this year he starts with the most Ryder Cup mojo in memory.
No. 3: Bubba Watson
He produced the shot of the year in winning the Masters and immediately becomes the most interesting examination of a first-time major winner since John Daly. There is no likeness to the backgrounds, personalities or paths of either, but they both possess something that few in the game of golf have – transcendency. What happened to Bubba after the Masters was simply too much for normalcy to return until the year truly was over. His personality makes him good TV but getting attention and being watched are different animals, and Bubba is now under examination for his demeanor and his results at a microscopic level. He is a kaleidoscope of emotions that range from mad to melancholy. He cares what people think about him deeply but can appear completely aloof. There is a fragility to him that contradicts the bravado of his unmatched shot making and in an age of micro analysis he is an American original not carved out of swing instructors but one who found it in the dirt. The guy who won the Masters never changed balls for the entire round on Sunday including the playoff, that's not Tour normal, Bubba is not Tour normal.
No. 2: Tiger Woods
Tiger had a career year for every player on the planet with the exception of … hold on, I'll come up with someone. Sorry, 14 and 74 will do that to the expectations quotient. He was so good in so many areas but several things stand out that must trend upwards for him to be close to what he was, if he ever will be again. He always dominated with GIR and for him to be 32nd is pedestrian by his standards. He is also not willing, not sure about capable, of mutilating golf courses like he did at age 30. He has always been a tremendous thinker on every level. It has aided in his destroying of every valuable record the game has, with few exceptions. Has his thinking become too guarded based on certain circumstances? The Open Championship strategy was extreme in its conservative approach but does the governor come off in 2013 with a trust in the swing that ascends to a new level? It's more compelling now than it would have been if he blew through 18 by 2011. He will be 37 at the start of 2013 but has he found the fuel in someone 13-plus years his junior in Rory? Their relationship will demand careful examination because any real threat to Tiger has always been kept at arms length, but he seems to really like Rory. His weekend performances at the majors, which did not produce one round under 70, is the one hole in the year. He went to events in 2012 he hadn’t seen in years – or ever – and played a lot of golf. The needle, as John Hawkins calls him, remains just that, and each year actually gets more interesting.
No. 1: Rory McIlroy
The No. 1 player in the world has a chance to do things in the game that are reserved for very few players in golf history. His peers know he has all the goods and before it starts, let's curb the rivalry discussion until he, and you know who, trade blows on Sunday at Augusta, Merion, Muirfield, or Oak Hill. That’s when it's real, it's how we remember and define the times between great players. The fascinating thing about McIlroy is there's no comparison to any past European great or international player who made their primary home on the PGA Tour. His likability is real and the test comes late, especially if your loyalty is tested, if he’s trading blows with Phil or Tiger. We all want to pick our guy and find fault with the other guy but this kid requires some rationalization or just hyper cynicism to pull against him. Rory’s production will be measured primarily in two things going forward and that is majors and wins. However, you sweat the small stuff with the potentially iconic, and that includes just raw production. Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson and Woods were all plow mules. Each year the majors were the mark but just pure production measured in top 3s, top 5s, top 10s by the very best was ungodly. Throw in the statuesque, world class athlete girlfriend and a new crib in South Florida and you have a golf rock star right out of central casting.