If you're a fan of professional golf, is there anything better than speculating about how the majors will unfold? Aside from actually watching those majors play out, I don't think so.
The first major championship of the 2016-2017 season tees off with the Masters just 149 days from today.
Here's a closer look at the 2017 major championship venues, when they are and what we're guessing the top storylines will be.
The Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga., April 6-9, 2017
The venue: The same as it's been since this tournament began in 1934 -- the immaculate Augusta National Golf Club. The beauty of this jewel is that there are typically numerous changes made from year to year to the grounds, be it the course, the practice facility, or new buildings, yet each April when you arrive it looks as though those changes had been in place for years and years.
Because the Masters is held at the same place every year, experience is typically a huge plus. Jordan Spieth has bucked that trend over the last few years, finishing T2 in 2014 -- his Masters debut -- before tying the tournament's 72-hole scoring record in his 2015 victory. Spieth also tied for second in 2016.
While Augusta National has become considerably longer through the years, it's still not uncommon to see older players -- specifically "past champions" -- make a run during tournament week. We've seen this from Jack Nicklaus in 1998 (T6), Fred Couples (top-20 finishes from 2010-2014) seemingly every time he tees it up there and Bernhard Langer in 2014 (T8) and Tom Watson (T18, 2010).
An adage that never gets old at Augusta National is, "the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday." That usually holds true. Just ask Spieth about No. 12 in 2016, which costs him a tournament he was in control of at the time; ask Rory McIlroy about the 10th hole disaster in 2011, where the television audience was treated to moving pictures of cabins they probably didn't even know existed on the property thanks to McIlroy's wayward tee shot; or, on the flip side, how about Charl Schwartzel's four consecutive birdies to close out a win in 2012; or Phil Mickelson's miraculous shot on No. 13 in 2010 that set up a birdie that allowed him to get some distance from the field? A lot can happen -- and has happened -- for better or worse on those final nine holes.
Top storylines for 2017:
- Can Spieth win the Masters to avenge 2016's crushing defeat just like he did in 2015 after a tough loss in 2014?
- Can Rory McIlroy win his first major since the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla and, in so doing, complete the career grand slam?
- Does Phil Mickelson, at age 46, make a run at a fourth green jacket, thus supplanting Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion (by months) in history?
- Does Tiger Woods come out from a long PGA Tour absence to shock us all in his first major played since a missed cut at the 2015 PGA Championship?
- Will have a sixth consecutive first-time major winner, joining Jason Day at the 2015 PGA Championship, Danny Willett at the 2016 Masters, Dustin Johnson at the 2016 U.S. Open, Henrik Stenson at the 2016 Open Championship and Jimmy Walker at the 2016 PGA Championship?
The U.S. Open, Erin Hills, Erin, Wis., June 15-18, 2017
The venue: Of all the majors to be played in 2017, Erin Hills will be the great unknown. Just like Chambers Bay out in Washington in 2015, a men's professional major has never been played at this relatively new venue, which opened in 2006.
Though it's 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, Erin Hills looks like a linksy-style course. Don't let the looks fool you, however. Just like its neighbor, Whistling Straits, down the road in Kohler, it's still going to play very much like an American-style course, rewarding towering iron shots that can stop on a dime on the greens (something you will not see on the pure links courses across the pond, where low shots and a bump-and-run game are required).
Since 2000, only two players have won the U.S. Open with scores that reached double digits under par: Tiger Woods (12 under in 2000 at Pebble Beach) and Rory McIlroy (16 under at Congressional in 2011). By contrast, six scores at even par or worse have won the U.S. Open in that timeframe, with Geoff Ogilvy at 5 over at Winged Foot in 2006 and Angel Cabrera at 5 over at Oakmont in 2007, being the highest.
With that said, expect "par" to be the players' friend at Erin Hills.
Top storylines for 2017:
- Since the course is relatively unknown, will we see a surprise winner, someone outside the top-30 or higher in the Official World Golf Ranking?
- Given that he's the defending champion of the U.S. Open and has played well in majors in the area (top 10s in the two PGA Championships at Whistling Straits since 2010), is it safe to call Dustin Johnson the overwhelming favorite?
- Along those same lines, do we see Jason Day claim another major in the state where he picked off his first in 2015?
- Can a 50-year-old Steve Stricker, inspired by his home-state crowd, make a run at his first major?
- Does the winner of the Masters keep the dream of a grand slam alive with back-to-back major victories like Jordan Spieth did in 2015?
The Open Championship, Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southport, England, July 20-23, 2017
The venue: 2017 will mark the 10th time in history that Royal Birkdale has hosted the Open Championship and the first since Padraig Harrington came out on top in 2008.
It will be the shortest of the four major venues in 2017 at just over 7,100 yards... but it might not feel that way to players forced to deal with the brunt of the weather conditions at a place that has seen delays in the past for high winds that were blowing golf balls off the greens.
Arguably the greatest aspect of an Open Championship, along with the fact that it's an opportunity to watch the world's best play the game the way it was first played, is that it doesn't discriminate against age or length (or lack thereof). Anyone can win it.
Look back to Turnberry in 2009 when Tom Watson very nearly won his sixth Open at the age of 59, losing in an three-hole, aggregate playoff to Stewart Cink. That would have been a sports story for the ages.
Mark O'Meara was 18 years younger than Watson when he won at Birkdale in 1998, but still no spring chicken at 41 years old. Since O'Meara, there have been only six major winners in there 40s (Henrik Stenson, 40, 2016 Open Championship; Vijay Singh, 41, 2004 Masters; Payne Stewart, 42, 1999 U.S. Open; Darren Clarke, 42, 2011 Open Championship; Ernie Els, 2012 Open Championship; and Phil Mickelson, 43, 2012 Open Championship)... four of those were in the Open Championship.
Top storylines for 2017:
- Can the epic duel between Mickelson and Stenson in 2016 at Royal Troon be topped (not likely)?
- Does a 40-something win the Open for the second time in as many years and the sixth time since 1998?
- How much of a factor will the weather be and will it lead to like of the draw on tee times?
- Will an amateur player step up and make a run like a then-17-year-old amateur named Justin Rose did at Birkdale in 1998?
The PGA Championship, Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, N.C., August 10-13, 2017
The venue: Quail Hollow Club will be a new major championship venue, but it will be far from new to the world's best players, who have competed in the Wells Fargo Championship several times over the years.
More so than any major -- Masters included -- this is likely to be the one course and one major in 2017 where most of the field will feel a sense of comfort, if there is such a thing in a championship of major caliber.
If there isn't comfort, there will at least be familiarity. Changes have been made in anticipation of the PGA Championship -- including a Wells Fargo Championship venue change to Wilmington, N.C. for 2017 -- but it's hard to imagine the final three holes, known as "The Green Mile," playing much harder than they already do.
Because most of the players who will tee it up here have plenty of experience at Quail Hollow, expect to see the lowest winning total of the four majors in 2017.
Top storylines for 2017:
- Past winners of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow include major champions Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Lucas Glover, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and David Toms. At least three of those players could seriously contend.
- Could Rickie Fowler, also a past Wells Fargo champ, pick up his first major victory if he hadn't already in 2017?
- Can Webb Simpson, a member at Quail Hollow, claim the second major championship of his career in front of his home crowd?
- Can Jimmy Walker become the first players since Tiger Woods in 2006-2007 to win the PGA Championship in consecutive years?