The excruciatingly long PGA Tour off season is over. After an unpredictable 2011 that saw four first-time major winners and a breakthrough FedEx Cup champion, what does 2012 have in store?
2012 has a chance to be one of the most exciting and wide-open seasons on the PGA Tour in ages and it should be a joy for fans. Here are five wishes of mine for this year on the PGA Tour:
1. Youth Movement
This year’s class of PGA Tour rookies has a remarkable resume. Bud Cauley had five top-25 finishes in eight starts and won enough money to secure his card last fall. He is one of only six players in history to earn his PGA Tour card through exemptions rather than through the traditional Q-School or Nationwide Tour route. The others that have accomplished the feat? Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard, among others. Look for him to make some noise this year, especially in some of the events with weaker fields early in the season. Harris English, a recent UGA graduate, won the Nationwide Childrens Hospital Invitational as an amateur last summer and had a strong Q-School to earn his card for 2012. Having already achieved success against professional fields should give him the confidence to be a factor on the big stage this season. Seung-yul Noh may be the strongest player in this year’s talented rookie class. He made the cut in five of six PGA Tour starts last year, which included three majors, two WGC events and the Memorial. The 20-year-old Noh has tasted the winner’s circle on the Asian Tour twice and is poised to make some noise in the United States. Noh could be the heir-apparent to K.J. Choi.
Having a strong core of youth players only helps the PGA Tour and makes the game more exciting for fans. It is always a thrill to see the green rookies come out firing against the established veterans.
2. Tiger Woods plays a full schedule and contends in a major
Whether you are a fan of him or not, the PGA Tour is a more widely viewed sport when Tiger Woods is in the field and playing well. Casual golf fans flock to their television sets to see shots like the 16th at Augusta in 2005 or the third round heroics in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. At just 36, Tiger is in the prime of his golfing life and is looking to build from the momentum of his season-ending victory at the limited-field Chevron World Challenge. It would be a major win for the PGA Tour if Woods, who recently told the Associated Press that he is finally healthy, could play a full schedule this year. An even bigger win would be if Woods contended in a major. His best chance to contend? Augusta of course. Even with his recent struggles, he has notched top 5 finishes at the Master’s the last two years. With a healthy body and a full schedule of tournaments heading into Augusta this season, look out.
The key for Woods to regain his former swagger? Fix the bulky putter.
3. A Rory McIlroy repeat at the U.S. Open
Every few years, the golf world wants to anoint the “next” Tiger Woods (even though he is still around), or the next player who will make a run similar to his in the early naughts. But the Sergio Garcias and Adam Scotts have been around for a while and have not panned out on the major stage. While each next-big-thing on tour has been an outstanding ball striker, none of them have shown the ability to hole the clutch putts that are needed to win majors at a clip like Woods.
Then came Rory McIlroy. The 22-year-old Northern Irishman is the current “next Tiger Woods.” And unlike his predecessors, he has already delivered on the game’s biggest stage. Pundits and fans wondered after his final round collapse at the Master’s if McIlroy would be able to overcome the mental anguish of blowing the opportunity to win his first major. But instead of weighing him down, McIlroy used what he learned that day to propel him to a historic victory at the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club.
How about a repeat? McIlroy is a fresh face for the game of golf and he is as nice a guy as there is. A repeat win for McIlroy at the U.S. Open would cement his status as a superstar in the golf world and would give the golf world a new man to beat (though there is a certain player that may have something to say about that).
4. A British or Irish first-time winner at the Open Championship
Watching Darren Clarke triumph at the Open Championship last year was fun. Really fun. In the same way American players covet winning their national championship, the U.S. Open, British players desire a win at the Open Championship. And when a British player also wins his first major championship in the process, it is an emotional scene and a priceless moment for fans of British golf.
Who better to win this year’s British Open than Lee Westwood? The Englishman has come excruciatingly close in major championships in the past, missing out on the playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open by a single shot. At 38 years old, he has a few more years to capture his first major tittle, and I think he has a solid chance to get that monkey off his back this year.
Honorable mention possible champion: Ross Fisher. Yes, Luke Donald was too easy of an answer.
5. A resurgent Phil Mickelson goes toe-to-toe with a young gun at the PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson did not have a good year in 2011. Whether it was effects of his arthritis or just an off-year, he was a non-factor for much of the season. It would be fun to see Phil battle an established young-gun on the PGA Tour like Ricky Fowler, Webb Simpson or Jason Day on Sunday at the PGA Championship.
The reason people like to watch Mickelson play golf is simple, he uses almost no course management and plays without an ounce of fear. Sometimes the strategy works — the shot from behind the trees on the 13th at Augusta in 2010. And sometimes it doesn’t — hitting driver on the 18th tee at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open. But that is exactly what makes Phil-the-thrill so exciting. You never know what you’re going to get.