Over the last several years, it seems like -- or at least feels like -- the unofficial start to a new PGA Tour season is that week where Tiger Woods makes his season debut.
Well, that week is upon us, folks. The No. 1 player in the world is in the field for this week's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he is the defending champion.
We reached out to our 216,000+ friends in PGA.com Nation (click here to join the masses!) this week to help us identify the top storylines in golf for 2014. While some of those storylines include Woods, it's not all about him. You covered Rory McIlroy, the Ryder Cup, Phil Mickelson and more.
So, without further adieu, here are your top-9 storylines in golf for 2014:
9. How many times will Tiger Woods win this season on the PGA Tour?
Preposterous question, right? I can remember a time -- before Tiger Woods -- when winning once constituted a great season on the PGA Tour. Tiger has set the bar so high that we've come to expect multiple wins in a season. Consider this: Tiger was limited to just 21 starts combined in 2010 and 2011 due to injury. He was winless over that stretch. In 2012, Woods won three times. Just last year, he won five times. The only times in his professional career where Woods has not enjoyed multiple-win seasons came in 1998 and 2004 (he won once each of those years). That's crazy. So, instead of answering that first question with a question, we can definitively answer it like this: It's not preposterous to think he'll have at least three wins in 2014 -- maybe even four. After all, Tiger's career winning percentage on the PGA Tour is a jaw-dropping 26 percent.
8. How many first-time participants will make the U.S. Ryder Cup team?
If the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings closed today, Jimmy Walker, Harris English, Chris Kirk and Ryan Moore would all automatically qualify on points, as they are all currently in the top 9. If Captain Tom Watson then elected to use his three captain's picks on the next three on the list (there's certainly no way of knowing that now -- especially with Woods currently at No. 23), Brian Stuard and Patrick Reed would make it a whooping six U.S. Ryder Cup rookies. It's way too early in the game to figure out how this squad is going to shape up, but we'll almost certainly see a few new names on the team when points close on following the final round of the PGA Championship. In 2012 at Medinah, the U.S. had three Ryder Cup rookies -- Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker and Webb Simpson.
7. Can Zach Johnson maintain his torrid pace?
No way. And that's not meant to offend Johnson, who, time and again, has proven himself a world-class, top-echelon player. But the man is on fire right now. He has 11 top-10 finishes in his last 14 starts. Are you kidding me? Six of those are top 5s. Two of those are wins (BMW Championship and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions). Three of those are wins if you want to include the Northwestern Mutual Challenge, where Johnson beat Woods in a playoff. If Johnson stayed at this clip, it would be like running an all-out sprint for an entire marathon. Realistically, though, it wouldn't be surprising in the least to see him pick off a second major championship. He's arguably the best game manager there is in golf and one heck of a putter.
6. What will 2014 hold for Jordan Spieth after a spectacular 2013?
You know how Woods has set the bar ridiculously high for himself? Spieth isn't quite in that stratosphere (OK, who is?), but he's also set the bar pretty high. At the start of last season, Spieth didn't even have status on the PGA Tour. He relied on sponsor exemptions to get starts. By the end of the season, the 20-year-old amassed nine top-10 finishes, including three runner-up showings and a win at the John Deere Classic. All of that made Spieth the no-brainer of a choice for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors. Already in 2014, Spieth finished runner-up to Johnson at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Expect more of the same -- probably even better -- from Spieth over the next 11 months.
5. Will Adam Scott win another major (or "majors") in 2014?
Sometimes you hear players with multiple major championships talk about how it was great to win the second one because it validated the first one. I've always been of the thinking that if you win one major, you don't need to validate anything. You've achieved the ultimate in a terribly difficult game. Winning another major wouldn't be validation for Scott. But, after having won the 2013 Masters, it's now all about winning majors for Scott. He knows he can get the job done under the most intense pressure now. He's done it once before... and he'll probably do it again this year.
4. Is 2014 the year that the U.S. Ryder Cup team wins on foreign soil for the first time since 1993?
Ultimately, it's going to come down to putting. It always does at the Ryder Cup. But, if you're a fan of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, you've got to love the tone that's been set so far. Tom Watson is the captain for a second time. The last time Watson was at the helm also happens to be the last time the U.S. was victorious on the other side of the pond -- 1993 at The Belfry. The last two Ryder Cups have both been decided by a measly point, both in favor of the European team. That's what makes these upcoming matches so intriguing. For years the U.S. dominated. For a stretch over the last several years, the Europeans have been firmly in command. And now? These teams are about as even as even can be. We can't wait.
3. How will Rory McIlroy bounce back after a disappointing 2013?
The man himself says he has his sights set on two major wins in 2014 -- one to make up for not winning any of the four in 2013. Let's face it, 2013 was just a disaster for McIlroy. It's behind him now. He's moved on. He's comfortable with his new equipment -- since it's not quite "new" anymore; his personal life seems to be in a great place after his recent engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniaki; and, well, he's hungry to win. Are multiple majors a possibility for McIlroy? With his talent, anything is possible. We'd be surprised, however, if there weren't multiple wins (not necessarily majors). He'll bounce back in a big way.
2. Will Tiger Woods win his 15th major championship?
We've been asking this question since 2009. Woods won his first 14 majors with incredible ease (he made them look that way, anyway). The last won was the 2008 U.S. Open, an incredible playoff win over Rocco Mediate on a broken leg. Since then, the majors haven't been so easy to come by. Post 2008 U.S. Open, Woods has had nine top-10 finishes in major championship starts, highlighted by a runner-up finish at the 2009 PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang. That PGA Championship marked the first time in his career that Woods had lost a major when leading going into the final round. If you look at the venues and past successes, you'd think 2014 would be prime time for Woods to grab No. 15 and maybe more. He's a four-time Masters champ, so he knows how to get around Augusta National. The U.S. Open is at Pinehurst No. 2. Woods tied for third there in 1999 and finished second in 2005. The Open Championship is set to be played at Royal Liverpool, where Woods won by two shots in 2006. And the PGA Championship is at Valhalla, where Woods won in 2000, defeating Bob May in a playoff. If No. 15 is ever going to happen it's got to be this year, right?
1. Can Phil Mickelson win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 to complete the career grand slam?
If this happens, they'll probably make a movie out of it. Which isn't to say it's all that far-fetched to think it could happen. Mickelson won the Open Championship last summer, a major he himself didn't think he could win most of his career. That victory put him one tournament away from a career grand slam. That one tournament, of course, also happens to be the one that has stung Mickelson more than any other -- the U.S. Open. Six times, including a year ago, Mickelson has been a runner up in our national championship. A win this year at Pinehurst No. 2 would be sweet, fitting and spine-tingling for so many reasons. First, it would cap off the career slam which the guy deserves for all those years he had to live with the label best-player-never-to-win-a-major (well, he's got five of those to date). Second, it would be fitting because we've all seen the family man Mickelson is. A win at the U.S. Open would mean a win on Father's Day. And finally, a win at Pinehurst would give us the chills because in 1999, Mickelson was runner up to Payne Stewart just months before Stewart's death in plane accident.
Mickelson played that whole week with a pager in his golf bag (a pager! That's a long time ago), insisting that if it went off -- no matter where he stood in the tournament -- he'd be leaving the grounds to fly home to California to be with his wife, Amy, for the birth of the couple's first child. Luckily for golf fans around the world, Amanda Mickelson was able to wait a few days so dad didn't have to leave and we were greeted with an all-time touching moment on the 18th green at Pinehurst, as a jubilent Stewart grabbed Mickelson's face and yelled, "You're going to be a daddy!" in a manner that insisted a U.S. Open trophy is only a consolation prize compared to becoming a parent.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.
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