KAPALUA, Hawaii – The PGA Tour marks the New Year in Kapalua for the 20th consecutive time. After all these years, the one moment that stood out from all the others was the titanic battle between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els in 2000.
The two made an eagle on the 18th hole to force the playoffs. Both birdie on the first extra hole. Woods finished with a 35-foot birdie on the next hole which was downhill and in the squall with about a 6-foot break. Equally memorable was what Els said at the end:
“He’s 24. He’ll probably be bigger than Elvis when he’s 40.”
Woods turned 42 on Saturday. He’s still no taller than Jack Nicklaus when it comes to golf’s ultimate stallion most majors have won.
But he’s still Tiger, and that means a lot.
He attracts more attention than the big champions almost half his age. And that’s why Woods, who makes golf’s staple TV when he plays, is at the top of the list of five questions to consider for 2018.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM TIGER?
The question was not much different a year ago.
Woods returned to the Hero World Challenge after a 15-month recovery from two more back surgeries, and his 24 birdies more than finished 15th against a squad of 18 men in an unofficial holiday event. When the new year started he lasted three rounds in two tournaments and was out again.
This time he’s coming back from a lower back fusion operation. Most notable in the Bahamas last month was his power, and Woods said in a recent blog that he’s hitting a full club longer than he ever was before. The highest level of optimism is the amount of golf he played prior to his return – not the score, but the business. Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Daniel Berger all played with Woods and loved what they saw.
The measure will be the full schedule he wants to play, although he hasn’t said what or where it will be. And if his health is as strong as he suggests, golf will receive a full dose of Woods in the majors for the first time since 2015.
WHO IS ON THE PLANE TO FRANCE?
The Americans haven’t won the Ryder Cup on European soil since 1993, two months after Jordan Spieth was born.
The Americans won the last Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, and they start 2018 with the top three players in the world rankings and five of the top eight. This means that they will be favored on paper, and most American golf fans will be dismissive of Europe’s chances.
The most relevant question is who goes to Paris for the matches?
Much attention will be given to Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t missed a team competition since 1993 and is desperate to participate in the next one. He hasn’t won since 2013 and was the captain’s choice for the Presidents Cup.
The Americans had 14 players in their 20s win on the PGA Tour last year, and six of them were on the Presidents Cup squad. Chances are not that all of those six will be in France, and US captain Jim Furyk might have some tough choices for his picks.
WHAT WILL THE CALENDAR LOOK LIKE?
This summer, the PGA Tour will herald a major overhaul of a schedule that has been predicted for years.
This is the last PGA Championship in August before moving to May 2019. Reducing the number of PGA Tour events to end Labor Day at the FedEx Cup will not be a problem with the loss of a playoff event (Boston), move an event to the fall (Greenbrier) and possibly convert one to a world championship golf course (Memphis).
The hard part is knowing where everything else is going.
It starts in March, which currently includes a pair of world golf championships (Mexico, match play) and next year adds the players’ championship. Something will have to give. In addition, title sponsorships need to be resolved for the Houston Open and possibly the Colonial.
HOW WILL RORY MCILROY RESPOND?
For the first time since 2009, Rory McIlroy is entering a new year outside the world top 10. Attribute this to nagging injuries that persuaded him to take a long hiatus late last year to get his health and play in order.
He will have spent more than three months without competition on his return to Abu Dhabi, the start of an ambitious program in which he will play eight times before arriving at Augusta National.
Golf should have a good idea by then if McIlroy is back in the conversation.
WHO RETURNS HIM TO PARADISE?
Justin Thomas has said he would love nothing better than to start each year in Kapalua.
As good as it is, there are no guarantees.
Only nine players from the 32-man squad last year returned in early 2018. Among those missing are Jason Day, who started last year at No.1, and Bubba Watson, absent from the Sentry Tournament of Champions for the first time in four years. Spieth missed the game in 2015. Rickie Fowler was not in Kapalua last year.
Last year there were 14 first-time winners on the PGA Tour. It is not easier to win.
This also applies to Woods.