Bunker Shots Out of the Fog


It won’t arrive with the electric crackle that comes with Major League Baseball’s opening day, but the start of a new PGA Tour season brings something that might be just as welcome.

It approaches with the hope of a freshening breeze.

Golf sorely needs some new storylines to help move the fog off the game.

Twenty-eight players will be aiming to deliver something hopeful when the 2010 PGA Tour season begins Thursday at the SBS Championship in Kapalua in Hawaii.

The game could use something medicinal right now, maybe history-making, like a round of 59 to match the PGA Tour record shared by Al Geiberger (1977), Chip Beck (1991) and David Duval (1999). Or a closing run of seven consecutive birdies to win on Sunday, a feat that would break Mike Souchak’s 54-year-old PGA Tour record six closing birdies to win. Or a Craig Parry-like hole out to win from long distance, some unforgettable final shot like the one the Aussie sank from 176 yards with a 6-iron to win at Doral six years ago.

Golf could use some magic this week if only to remind us that Tiger Woods didn’t take it all with him when he announced he was leaving on an indefinite break.

The PGA Tour could use a good beginning to help soothe the pain from last year’s lousy ending.

Not so long ago, PGA Tour veterans used to say the new season didn’t begin until the Florida Swing. After Woods came along, it didn’t feel like the season was fully launched until he teed it up for the first time. That didn’t happen until the Accenture Match Play Championship last year, with Woods delaying his start after rehabilitating from reconstructive knee surgery. He started the three previous seasons at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, winning all three times. The last time he started the season in Hawaii was 2005, when he won the Mercedes Championship.

Nobody outside the Woods’ camp – and maybe inside of it – is quite sure when Woods will return, whether it will come sooner than expected in San Diego at the end of this month, though that seems unlikely, or at the CA Championship at Doral or Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando in March. Or perhaps the Masters in April. Or if he’ll take the entire year off to rebound from his fall from grace.

Whenever he comes back, it’s certain to be an epic event, the nature of the comeback’s storyline almost overshadowing the competition itself.

In that respect, the SBS Championship and all the events that will come before Woods’ return will offer a respite.

Or so we hope.

Stance: Just two of the top-10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are in the field, No. 3 Steve Stricker and No. 10 Kenny Perry. All four major championship winners are scheduled to compete (Masters’ winner Angel Cabrera, U.S. Open winner Lucas Glover, British Open winner Stewart Cink and PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang). Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy is also back.

The only player who can come close to Woods’ star power is Phil Mickelson, but he’s skipping the season-opening event for winners yet again. Henrik Stenson, winner of last year’s Players Championship, also is skipping the opener.

Bunker shot:
Combine his significantly improved driving with his formidable wedge game and putting prowess and Stricker appears poised to be a larger factor in golf’s biggest events this year. Stricker turns 43 in February, but he’s building the kind of game late in his career that could give him a chance to break through and win his first major. Stricker won three times in ’09 while finishing on a roll. He won the FedEx Cup playoff event at the Deutsche Bank Championship, closing hard under pressure. He played well while paired with Woods a bunch of times during the FedEx Cup playoffs, then teamed with Woods in a dominant Presidents Cup pairing. The way he performed in Woods’ presence says something about the rising level of his confidence. It makes you wonder if Stricker might be following the path of Mark O’Meara, who won his two majors at 41 after beneficially matching his game against Woods in countless rounds together and pairings in team events. Stricker’s late-blooming development makes him a man worth watching this new year.