The calendar has flipped, 2016 is here and there's a lot that will be going on in golf over the next 12 months.
In terms of young players, it could be argued that competitively speaking, the game has never been in a better spot than it is right now. The young guns aren't just making noise, but many of them are winning... even majors.
As we gear up for what's certain to be another year loaded with spectacular highlights and forever memorable achievements, here's a look at nine burning questions for 2016.
9. Will Tiger Woods return to competitive golf?
We're not even talking about "winning" here, we're just talking about being healthy enough to tee it up in an event -- hopefully painfree. In the last two seasons, Woods has played just 18 times, missing the cut on seven of those occasions with three withdrawals. His highest finish over that stretch? A T10 at the Wyndham Championship. Given his sensational career, Woods has nothing to prove to the world of golf. However, hopefully he can once and for all prove to himself that he is capable of sitting out until he truly is ready to return from injury. Stubbornness no doubt won him countless tournaments, but it has also cost him a number of starts.
8. Will Rory McIlroy return to No. 1 in the world?
It's not like he's currently No. 100 in the world. He's actually No. 3. So, of course No. 1 is within his grasp. However, the two men ahead of him -- Jordan Spieth (No. 1) and Jason Day (No. 2) -- are now major champions who don't seem to have any designs on dropping off in 2016. That said, McIlroy is fired up for this year and especially the Masters -- the lone major he needs to win in order to complete a career grand slam. In 2015, he was a bit derailed by a soccer injury that forced him to make the brutal decision to sit out the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Adding insult to injury, McIlroy was the defending champ. Spieth and Day will certainly serve as formidable opponents for McIlroy, but I'm expecting a massive year for the Northern Irishman and there may be nothing that Spieth, Day, or anyone else can do about it.
By the way, having turned 28 years old in November, Day is the oldest of the top-3 ranked players in the world. How awesome is that?
7. How does Jordan Spieth follow up on his 2014-15 season?
Five wins, including two majors. Four runner-up finishes. FedExCup champion. A host of player of the year awards. That's a pretty amazing career for many. For Spieth, all of that happened in about nine months.
Also, he was just a few strokes shy of winning all four majors in 2015. That's just insane. Spieth has proven himself to be the consummate professional and the kind of guy who just doesn't make any big mistakes. He says and does all the right things and -- silencing the naysayers -- has no doubt learned how to close out tournaments... a knock in the very early stages of his PGA Tour career (which, by the way, we're still in).
The only thing that could potentially trip him up is desire. He doesn't lack that right now, but at just 22 years old, having accomplished everything he has to this point, it's fair to wonder how long he can keep it going. Does he reach a point where he decides, "I've done it all, what more is there?" Talk to anyone who knows Jordan Spieth and they'll tell you he's the exception to a lot of rules. Maybe "falling victim to a lack of desire due to so much early success" is one of those exceptions.
6. Will Jason Day add to his major trophy case?
I think so. Day claimed his first major title in commanding fashion at Whistling Straits in the PGA Championship last August after having experienced major heartbreak in the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship, previously. It was a matter of time before Day pulled one out -- after all, he had nine top-10 finishes in 20 career major starts before the PGA. Is that the one that will open the floodgates? Beginning 2015, Day had just two PGA Tour wins on his resume and more close calls than he'd probably like to remember. He was the quintessential "how hasn't that guy won more" guy on the PGA Tour. Well, by the time the 2014-15 season came to a close, Day had added five more to that total, including two more wins in the Playoffs just weeks after taking the PGA Championship. He is now a certified world beater. Carrying the confidence of a man who now knows he has what it takes to close a major, there's no reason to think Day won't be a factor at the four big ones this season.
5. Will we see a first-time major winner?
The short answer? Extremely likely. Only twice since the year 2000 have the four majors been claimed in a single season by players who had already previously won a major in their respective career (2000: Vijay Singh at the Masters and Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship; 2014: Bubba Watson at the Masters, Martin Kaymer at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy at the Open Championship and PGA Championship).
So it looks like it'll happen, but who will it be? There are plenty of guys in the "best-never-to-have-won-a-major" discussion, so let's put them at the top of the list. Names like Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and Lee Westwood (who, admittedly, the door is closing on).
Here are some other names to look out for who might not be so obvious: Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Branden Grace, Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Bill Haas, Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk.
4. Which player will have a "breakout" season?
I'm looking at Justin Thomas. He's one of the rare players to have already logged four starts in the new season. The first -- at the Frys.com Open -- resulted in a T3. A couple of weeks later, he logged his first PGA Tour win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Thomas just missed out on the Tour Championship in his rookie season (2014-15). The win in Malaysia should prove monumental when it comes to his level of confidence going forward. Not only is the 22-year-old out there playing on the PGA Tour, but he belongs out there and has proven to himself that he has the goods to win.
3. The most exciting major championship will be...
Beats me. They're all the best, aren't they? What we do know is that the venues are awesome (not that they aren't usually, but this year will be extra special).
We know we'll see loads of birdies, eagles and other highlight-reel shots on Amen Corner at the Masters. That's what makes the season's first major so much fun to watch.
In June, we're not going to see much of that as the U.S. Open returns to heart-stopping Oakmont for the first time since 2007. Arguably the most difficult course in the world, Oakmont is the type of place where a lot of times "par" feels like "birdie" and "bogey" feels like "par." It will be an excruciating test -- as is usually the case for a U.S. Open. But, winning a U.S. Open at Oakmont has got to have a similar feel to winning an Open Championship at St. Andrews. It's an epic venue.
In July, we get a double-whammy. The Open Championship at Royal Troon (July 14-17) and the PGA Championship at Baltusrol (July 28-31) will be played within three weeks of one another as a result of golf in the Olympics in August.
Troon should feature all the things we love about the Open -- wind, rain, much colder temperatures. Players assaulting the course with more of a ground game than a hit it high and land it soft approach. It could also lend itself to a more veteran winner. The course isn't as long as the other major venues and the Open hasn't been played there since 2004. For a lot of players in the field, Open week will serve as a "first-look" at Troon.
Two weeks later in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, things will be quite different. It's sure to be hot and humid and Baltusrol sure isn't the easiest stroll in golf under ideal conditions. Scores may not be quite as low as other PGA Championship venues (Phil Mickelson won at 4 under in 2005 at Baltusrol), but typically such a stern test weeds out all but the most worthy of champions.
Back to the initial question: Which will be the most exciting major championship in 2016? I'm calling for a four-way tie.
2. What will golf in the Olympics mean when it comes to the game's history?
For many athletes, winning an Olympic medal -- any color, but especially gold -- is the absolute pinnacle of a career. It's hard to imagine that will be the case for the Olympic gold medallist in golf. Sure, it will be a remarkable achievement, but does it have the same ring to it as "major champion?"
This will be the first time the Olympics features golf since 1904. The format will consists of 60 players in a 72-hole stroke-play competition, which is also a little bit of a bummer. Match play and a team format could have been very cool -- or just something that made it different from the typical four-round Tour event.
I guess it's one of those things we'll need to see before we decide what it means. Of course, with a gold medalist like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth or Jason Day, I'd think the desire of players around the world to win an Olympic medal in golf would soar.
1. Does the U.S. need to win the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine?
If the Captain Davis Love III U.S. team is victorious, dare I say, it will be the biggest U.S. win in Ryder Cup history.
How so? Because this could be the one that turns the tide. Now, more so than ever before, there is a system in place for the U.S., one the powers that be hope is a recipe for success going forward. There's an investment in the team by a number of leading players over the years, starting with Love and including the likes of Phil Mickelson, assistant captains Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tom Lehman -- men that will most likely be the captains in the years to come (with the exception of Lehman, who captained the 2006 team in Ireland).
Some have referred to this year's Ryder Cup as a "must-win" for the Americans. Eh. That's not that case. They're not going to stop playing the Ryder Cup if the Americans lose for the ninth time in 11 matches since 1995.
The thing that makes this year so compelling for the U.S. -- aside from all the young talent -- is the "all-in" feeling that starts at the top with Love. Of course he wanted to win and was all in in his first go around as captain in 2012, but he's got so many more people invested and excited now than arguably ever before.
A loss would be devastating for the U.S., but win or lose, they're going to learn a lot more from this one than maybe any other Ryder Cup in history.