Ever see those old Radio Shack ads on TV? Of course you did. The ones with the tagline, “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.”
Well, I’m not gonna rip 'em off. Partly because they’re probably trademarked, partly because I don’t have answers, even though you’ve got questions about what 2014 will bring in golf. Nope, I’ve got predictions. I’ve got educated guesses. I’ve even got a bunch of hunches. But answers? Nah, that’s a little too brash for such fickle thoughts.
But fire away anyway. Let’s call 'em 14 for '14. Just don’t call 'em answers.
1. What’s the bigger story: Tiger Woods going for major No. 15 or Phil Mickelson going for the career grand slam?
Let me break it down for you like this: In the history of the game, five players have previously won all four majors; only one has gotten to 15 major wins. When the U.S. Open rolls around in June and Phil tries to avenge those six runner-up finishes, we’ll turn the Hype Machine up to 11 and break off the knob. But there’s no bigger long-range story in golf – no, in sports – than Tiger’s continued pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record. Sure, after five years of failed attempts this one’s got a “been there, done that” feel to it, but that doesn’t make it any less important or intriguing.
2. Will this be the year that Tiger finally gets another one?
He’s competed in 18 majors since his last win – and on 18 separate occasions, these disappointments have been followed by observers wailing, “The next one is his!” Keep saying it and you’re bound to be right at some point. Maybe even this year. I think it’ll happen. The world’s No. 1-ranked player is simply too good to go much longer without one. Of course, I’ve probably been writing that same line since the Curse of Y.E. Yang was inflicted upon him back in '09.
3. So … when and where is it most likely to happen?
Woods has won at Augusta National, Hoylake and Valhalla, sites of three of the four majors this year. But ask him and he’s got the other one on his mind. “I've won at every one except for Pinehurst, and I'm trending in the right way,” he said last month. “I've finished third, second. You get the picture, right?” Loud and clear. In keeping with that trend, Tiger could be hoisting the U.S. Open trophy come June - the sixth anniversary of his last major title.
4. Does that mean Lefty won’t get the only one left?
If we learned anything from Mickelson in 2013, it’s that we should heed that old axiom: Never say never. The man who spent two decades being flustered and frustrated by links courses won the Scottish Open and followed it up with his first Open Championship title. Can he get that metaphorical monkey off his back? Yes. Will he? Well … that’s a different story. If he doesn’t, it won’t be for a lack of prep, as he’s already conceded he’ll probably make two or three recon trips to Pinehurst beforehand. Hey, never say never.
5. Speaking of majors, who gets a first one this year?
First things first: Somebody will get a first one. Maybe a few somebodies. That’s what recent history has told us. Since 2009, the last 20 majors have been won by 15 first-timers. It’s like a deli line. Every elite player take a number; when it’s called, come pick up your major trophy at the counter. Despite only one career PGA Tour win, Jason Day has been knocking on the door for a few years now. He could be primed and ready to follow friend and countryman Adam Scott into Butler Cabin. And everyone’s favorite tweeter Ian Poulter could pick up a paycheck equal to his follower count at Hoylake, despite missing the cut there eight years ago.
6. How will Scott follow last year’s historic campaign?
The man with the world’s prettiest swing isn’t going anywhere for a long, long time – anchored putting banishment be damned. The truth is, he’s good enough with the other 13 clubs in the bag that if his putting is only average, he can still win tournaments. I’ve got the Aussie winning three or four by the time his career is up. Another could happen at Valhalla for the PGA Championship, since despite last year’s Masters win, he tends to play his best golf during the second half of the season.
7. Is Rory McIlroy “back”?
People are still – somehow – asking this question of Woods, so why not tweak it toward the former No. 1, too? It took McIlroy two dozen starts before his lone victory of 2013 at the Australian Open. Now we’re left to debate and analyze whether that success will serve as a predictor of bigger and better things this season. Read this one in your best little-girl-from-Poltergeist-voice: He’s baaaack! Expect McIlroy to triple that win total of last year. OK, maybe quadruple it.
8. Will the Henrik Stenson story keep on keeping on?
There’s no question as to the hottest golfer on the planet over last year’s second half. Stenson became the first player to claim both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai in the same season. He should be very pleased by that – because it’s not going to happen again. At least, not for Stenson and not this year. Nothing against this ball-striker supreme, just call it the ebbs and flows of a game with natural peaks and valleys.
9. Does the U.S. Ryder Cup team finally stand a chance of winning?
No offense to Brett Wetterich and Vaughn Taylor, but just eight years ago they were part of a U.S. team that got shellacked in Ireland. At the time, it was tough to find a dozen players worthy of roster spots. And now? Consult your handy OWGR, because there are way more than a dozen who might deserve to make it. Some big names – recent major champions, even – will be left on the wrong side of the pond come autumn. What that means is that on paper, at least, this should be a squad with no weak links and talent from top to bottom.
10. So, who makes the team?
I’m going to royally screw this up, but let me give it a try anyway. The locks are Woods, Mickelson and Matt Kuchar. Near-locks include Zach Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Jordan Spieth. That leaves four spots. I’ll go with Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas, Hunter Mahan and Gary Woodland.
11. Then who gets left at home?
A bunch of big-timers. Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel among them. I can also see any of those guys making the team. Sorry, not being indecisive; I just wish the roster could go 18 deep.
12. Wait a minute … Gary Woodland?
Yup, he’s my pick to be one of the game’s breakout stars in 2014. Much like Bradley and Dufner in recent years, Woodland is ready to jump into the next echelon of elite players. It’s not like he’s an unknown – far from it – but after returning from injury to win the Reno-Tahoe Open and nearly win The Barclays, one of Butch Harmon’s pet projects is ready to be a top-flight player.
13. Anyone else going to make that kind of leap?
I’ll give you two more names: Graham DeLaet and Nicolas Colsaerts. Again, they weren’t no-names before, but each is going to make a leap in popularity. Already world-class ball-strikers, these guys just need some solid putting performances at opportune times to really grab our attention.
14. Who are some other players on the verge of a first career title?
I’ll give you a six-pack that should have at least a 50 percent success rate: Kevin Stadler, Brendon de Jonge, Roberto Castro, Matt Every, Daniel Summerhays and Matt Jones. Sorry, I left off Kevin Chappell. And Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. And Josh Teater. Hey, the more names I list, the better chance I’ve got at getting a few right.