Hawk's Nest: Johnson trending toward Hall of Fame


Considering that it lasted for about 20 minutes, it was a fairly busy offseason. Tiger Woods gained ground on Jack Nicklaus by picking up a 38th birthday candle. Rory McIlroy got engaged. And Will Ferrell was given another 10,000 chances to remind everyone that he’s just not very funny.

I would bet against Ferrell taking class-clown honors in a seminary school. LeBron James trying to hit golf balls while Kevin Hart makes fun of him? Quite funny. McIlroy vs. that cocky robot on the practice range? Pretty funny. Some curly-haired dude firing stoner-friendly sarcasm in a ’70s suit? Mute button, please.

(Hey Hawkins, you’re not exactly Richard Bleeping Pryor. Let’s move on …)

NEVER MIND WHAT the Chinese calendar says – welcome to the Year of the Question Mark. Can Woods finally hunt down major title No. 15 and rekindle serious talk of his scaling Mount Nicklaus? Any chance McIlwrongturn stumbled upon the user’s manual for his golf swing en route to the jewelry store? If Phil Mickelson can win a British Open, might he finally claim his own national championship, a landmark title that has eluded him no less than a half-dozen times?

Really, how good is Jordan Spieth? Is there another Spieth waiting in the on-deck circle? Is Dustin Johnson finally ready for his close-up? Matt Kuchar, major champion? What happened to that British Invasion of a few years back? Adam Scott: man, myth or legend?

Will the United States ever win another Ryder Cup on European soil?

INQUIRING MINDS WANT to know, so Vanna spins the wheel, which comes to a stop on … Scott. It may mean absolutely nothing, but I love that last year’s Masters champ began his ’14 season at Kapalua – and will stick around to play in this week’s Sony Open. Back when I was flying halfway around the world to get an early sunburn and cover the old Tournament of Champions, the young Aussie seemed to have other things on his mind besides winning in Maui.

There was the year he frittered about on the beach with actress Kate Hudson, which bought Scott a few jabs from the paparazzi, which might have had something to do with his spotty attendance since. Not that you can’t play good golf while a pretty young movie star rubs lotion on your back, but after finishing solo second at Kapalua in 2007, Scott finished well off the pace on return trips in ’09 and ’11.

“A couple of times I’ve qualified and decided not to come, and I’ve ended up regretting it because I like coming here so much,” Scott admitted last week.

Pardon my optimism, but I see more to it. I see a guy hungry to become the No. 1 player in the world and eager to capitalize on his excellent late-season play in Australia. A guy who wants to develop the mental toughness necessary not only to unseat Woods atop the world ranking, but to perform well in any potential showdown.

More often than not in recent years, Scott has begun his PGA Tour schedule at Riviera in mid- to late-February. You might think he wouldn’t want to change a thing, coming off such a magnificent year, but his playing in Hawaii amounts to a minor alteration – he’ll still skip the first four California events on the West Coast swing. I don’t see how cutting a 10-week break in half is anything but a positive sign.

IT WASN’T MORE than a couple of years ago that I was pleading for Matt Kuchar to win more golf tournaments. On the “Grey Goose 19th Hole” in late 2011, we were asked if Kooch was the best player not to win a major, and I smirked. The guy had three career victories at the time. Steve Stricker, by comparison, had 11.

The fascination with identifying the “best player never to …” has always struck me as a bit odd – shouldn’t we be talking about the guys who have won majors? Still, the question is raised all the time on my live chats, so I’m cool with the premise, and Kuchar is now my pick. First and foremost, he wins premium-field events, including a Players, a WGC Match Play and a Memorial in the last 20 months.

You go all the way back to 1998, when Kooch was just a big, smiley amateur with his dad on the bag. Even then, he had a knack for performing well on golf’s grandest stages. I believe that to be a quality you never lose. Some guys embrace the most intense pressure. Others say they love it but really don’t.

Kuchar’s game has journeyed a thousand miles forward since ’98, when one veteran Tour pro described his golf swing as “having more moving parts than a Tom Landry offense.” The winning score at each of his last three victories has landed on either 12 or 13 under par, so Kooch is an outstanding tough-course player, which is generally what they hold the majors on.

It’s easy to see his career trending steadily toward a major title, more than, say, Dustin Johnson, whom I’m still not convinced has the mental toughness to avoid trouble down the stretch or get himself out of it at crucial moments. Kuchar is my best player not to win a major, but not for long.

AROUND THE TIME Zach Johnson qualified for the PGA Tour in 2003, his search for an experienced full-time caddie led him to Damon Green, who had spent years working for Scott Hoch, one of the most consistent money-winners of his generation. Hoch was still active 10 years ago, but at age 47, his future was on the Champions Tour, which might have been one reason the rookie approached Green.

“I’d like you to work for me,” Johnson said.

“Work for you? I can beat you.” the caddie replied.

Now let it be known that Green is more than a very good golfer – you may recall him contending well into the weekend at the 2011 U.S. Senior Open. He collected more than 70 victories during his years as a mini-tour player, so we’re not talking about some 3 handicap with an attitude.

“Tell you what,” Johnson proposed. “We’ll play next week, and if I beat you, you come work for me.”

Zach would knock off Damon by a couple of shots – the best loss of Green’s life. The two men have been together since, and if there’s a story more symbolic of Johnson’s competitive tenacity, I’d love to hear it. Monday’s victory at Kapalua was the 11th of Johnson’s career. Only Woods, Mickelson and Vijay Singh have collected more on the PGA Tour over the last decade.

I don’t know if Johnson is a Hall of Fame candidate at this point, but he’s hanging around a few guys already in. There is something to be said about the company you keep.

AS MANY OF you know, this year’s major championship sites offer Woods a golden opportunity to get off the schneid and resume his pursuit of Nicklaus’ all-time record (18). To call it now-or-never time is probably a bit of a stretch, but unless they start playing the U.S. Open at Firestone or move the Masters to Bay Hill, Sir Eldrick might want to get busy in 2014.

Pinehurst, Royal Liverpool, Valhalla. Three Tiger-friendly venues where Woods has performed well in the past, although all three come with a caveat. Let’s start with the Donald Ross masterpiece in North Carolina – Woods finished T-3 at the U.S. Open in 1999 and solo second to Michael Campbell six years later.

They were two very different U.S. Opens in terms of weather and course conditions: cool and very cloudy with some rain in ’99; hot and dry in ’05. It’s not like Tiger won either event, as his putter betrayed him down the stretch on both Sundays, so to think of Pinehurst as a mortal lock is certainly a reach.

Royal Liverpool hosted the 2006 British Open, where Woods won his 11th major title with one of the best ball-striking weeks of his career. Tiger’s father, Earl, had passed away 2 ½ months earlier, which is why the grieving son looked so unprepared at the U.S. Open that June – his first missed cut as a pro at a major.

It led to an ultra-motivated Woods at the British, which was played on a bone-dry racetrack that allowed him to completely eschew his driver. He hit it just once all week, on the 16th hole of the first round, then dominated the field with 3-woods off the tee and middle-irons in. What are the chances of those same conditions occurring again? Tiger won a unique British Open in very impressive fashion, but clearly, there is the possibility of a limited carry-over effect.

Onto Valhalla, where Woods outlasted Bob May in an unforgettable playoff – another performance for the ages. That was at the 2000 PGA, more than 13 years ago, before Pro-V1s and another equipment-related advances helped narrow the gap between Tiger and the rest of his fellow competitors.

He was virtually unstoppable that summer, pushed by the rapid emergence of Sergio Garcia and the brilliance of David Duval, a tireless worker whose 24-year-old body really hadn’t begun to break down. These are different times, a different competitive landscape, and the man trying to reclaim an outrageous level of supremacy feels far more pressure than he did at the turn of the century.

I do believe Woods will win one of the four in 2014, but I also think Johnny Miller made a terrific point during the Friday telecast from Kapalua when he said Tiger gets a little “freaked out” when he doesn’t win the Masters. The tournament Nicklaus himself once predicted Woods would win “10 or 12” times has become an annual exercise in frustration.

To make an honest run at Jack, Tiger needs a fifth green jacket.