Golf Buzz

January 8, 2016 - 11:38am
Posted by:
T.J. Auclair
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Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth
USA Today Sports Images
There are questions to answer for Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in 2016.

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.

RELATED: Spieth still looking to improve | New golf rules go into effect | '16 schedule

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 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.



Patrick Reed
PGA Tour via YouTube
Patrick Reed closed his round in eagle-birdie style on Thursday to grab the lead at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Patrick Reed, the defending champion at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, was said to be a bit peeved that other players were featured in the event's marketing materials this week instead of him. So he went out Thursday and proved that he ought to be the star attraction by grabbing the first-round lead.
He didn't really look like the leader in the early going, with only a pair of birdies on his front nine on the par-73 Plantation Course at Kapalua. But he closed his round like a champ, going birdie-eagle on his final two holes for a back-nine 31 to edge playing partner Jordan Spieth for the top spot on the scoreboard.
Reed birdied the 549-yard, par-4 17th hole thanks to a laser-like approach shot from 217 yards that parked itself a mere two feet from the cup and was very likely the best shot of the day. 
And very likely the second-best shot of the day was his second shot on the 665-yard, par-5 18th hole. After a big drive, he crushed a 3-wood from 309 yards onto the shaved bank to the right of the green. The ball landed about pin-high, then rolled down the slope onto the green, where it settled down about 16 feet from the flag, and he converted the eagle putt to close out an 8-under 65. 
"I didn't think I could get it all the way to the green," Reed said of that approach on No. 18. "I thought if I smoked it, I'd get to the front edge and it just happened to ride the wind a little bit and kind of just kept on going."
Here are Reed's two big shots:
Dustin Johnson
USA Today Sports Images
Dustin Johnson spends a lot of time on his irons during his pre-round warm-up sessions.
Dustin Johnson is such a fantastic athlete that you almost feel like he could jump out of bed, go straight to the first tee and still put together an impressive round. Maybe he can – but thanks to a new video from the PGA Tour, we can see that he puts in quite a bit of work before he goes to play.
Johnson arrives at the practice ground around 90 minutes before his scheduled tee time, and starts his warm-up routine by hitting a dozen 60-degree wedges. He works his way up and down through his bag, hitting a dozen or so shots with many of his wedges and irons – but hitting more long irons than medium or short irons, and not hitting as many drivers and fairway woods as you might expect from one of the tour's biggest hitters.
That part of his warm-up takes a little more than an hour. With about 20 minutes to go, he's off to the chipping area to hit some shots from both the greenside rough and the short grass. And he finishes up on the putting green, focusing on longer putts and finishing up with shorter ones, before heading off to the first tee.
The video doesn't include any commentary from Johnson himself, but getting this inside look at his routine is certainly illustrative. Take a look:
David Howell
USA Today Sports Images
David Howell went to extremes to keep his shirt clean and dry at the South African Open on Thursday.
It's a pretty safe bet that David Howell of England will never forget the first competitive hole of golf he played in 2016.
Why, you ask? Well, because he played part of it without his shirt on.
Howell, a five-time European Tour winner who's currently ranked No. 97 in the world – and who you might recall as a member of the 2004 and 2006 European Ryder Cup teams – began his 2016 campaign today on the 10th hole at the South African Open. He wound up in a greenside hazard and, apparently, feared getting mud on his shirt as he blasted out.
So, off came the shirt.
Howell escaped the hazard and, as you can see in the left photo in the tweet below from African News Agency golf reporter Michael Sherman, his concern about mud was warranted. He went on to bogey the hole, but bounced back with four birdies in his next five holes on his way to a 1-under 71 – all while wearing his clean, dry shirt.
Sorry to say there is apparently no video of Howell's apparel adventure, nor did he mention it on social media after his round. But we can bet he was happy to play his remaining 17 holes fully clothed.

January 7, 2016 - 4:40pm
mark.aumann's picture
This Arnold Palmer bobblehead was given away by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a 2009 promotion.

Jan. 7 is National Bobblehead Day, a day to celebrate those larger-than-life springy heads on tiny bodies that seem to be a must-have promotional giveaway at most sporting events.

The overwhelming majority of bobbleheads are created for a team to promote its own players, or by sponsors and advertisers. 

But there are a few bobbleheads of golf royalty out there. Here's our favorite foursome: Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples.

Couples is perhaps the most interesting, in that the Boeing Classic handed out 5,000 of them during the 2011 event at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge to honor Seattle's favorite son.

Palmer's bobblehead was a promotional giveaway by the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2009 season, in honor of his 80th birthday.

The San Francisco Giants did something similar for McIlroy, placing a Giants cap on his bobblehead for a 2012 giveaway.



And there are multiple versions of Tiger Woods bobbleheads available for sale, mainly created for Upper Deck, with each bobblehead matching a collector's card. Those range from Tiger's amateur career -- when he was wearing the straw hat during the 1994 U.S. Amateur -- to more recent Nike swooshes and Tiger Woods caps.

January 7, 2016 - 3:52pm
mark.aumann's picture