The 2009 golf season is underway, despite what the foot of snow and ice outside my door would indicate. Out in Arizona, the Loudest Golf Tournament in the World is underway. Down in Florida, the PGA Merchandise Show is providing first looks at lots of new toys.
It should be an interesting year of golf. Will the younger players continue to win tournaments? Is Sergio about to make good on the promise he's shown for years? Will Vijay's success in the FedExCup carry over in 200? Can Kenny Perry continue to win on the PGA Tour as he nears 50? And just how badly will the economy hit the game we love?
These and other questions remain to be answered in 2009. Here are five of what, if not the absolutely biggest, will certainly be among the most interesting stories to watch.
Number Five: The Round Mound's New Swing
Charles Barkley may have the worst golf swing ever. Perhaps the only thing funnier than watching Sir Charles try to hit the ball is watching Tiger imitating it.
Now Tiger's coach, Hank Haney, is taking on Barkley's balky swing for a Golf Digest feature. After years of watching Sir Charles' too-bad-to-be-true, hitch-filled swing, I'm pulling for him to get it together.
Number Four: FedExCup vs. Race to Dubai
The FedExCup has been underwhelming as a whole, despite all of the overtime finishes last Summer. Vijay had the thing virtually assured after the second week. This year it faces new competition in its quest for golf hyperbole in the European Tour's Race to Dubai.
Last Fall, you may have noticed a number of big name players announcing that they would be playing more on the European Tour this year. In fact, this year 39 of the top 50 in the world will officially be members of the European Tour. Does that mean that players are defecting to Europe? Not really… at least, not yet. Most will maintain membership on both tours and, if all goes well, will play in both big bucks tournaments in 2009.
That won't be as difficult as it sounds. The four majors and three World Golf Championships events will count toward both season-ending contests. Play some Silly Season events overseas (the Race began in November 2008), a warm up or two before the Open Championship, and some September and October stops, and bingo! You're qualified for the Race to Dubai, while getting in a full schedule on the PGA Tour (and having plenty of weeks off), too.
This year, the top 125 points earners during the PGA Tour regular season will get into the first FedExCup event, the Barclays Championship. Unlike the first two go-rounds, this year the points won't reset until after the BMW Championship, so the regular season will have more bearing. The winner at the end will walk away with $10 million.
In the Race to Dubai, the top 60 players in points at the end of the regular season will play one tournament for part of a $10,000,000 bonus pool in the Dubai World Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November. Between the prize money for the Dubai World Championship and the Race to Dubai bonus pool, the winner could walk away with as much as $3,666,660.
Which format will turn out to be the most exciting? And if the purses on the European Tour continue to grow as sponsors in the US cut back, what will the PGA Tour do to counter? It should be interesting to watch, at the very least.
Number Three: Adjustability
The word of the year in equipment this year is almost certainly "adjustability." Movable weights have been around for years. Interchangeable shaft systems are now offered from most of the major brands. Some companies use their systems solely for fitting, but Nickent sold a driver last year with multiple shafts as an option. Cobra and others even found a way to let you adjust the face angle in their drivers.
This year, however, adjustability is set to explode. The upcoming TaylorMade R9 could be, as their marketing hints, revolutionary (or at least evolutionary). Face angle, weighting, lie angle and loft will all be adjustable. It's the perfect storm of adjustability. If it's not a performance dog (and Perez just won with it), TaylorMade might just be recession proof this year.
Number Two: Mr. Asterisk
Almost lost in the When-Will-Tiger-Return frenzy is the fact that a player has a chance to win all four majors in a row. Yessir, Padraig Harrington has won the last two while Tiger recovered from surgery. Come April, Harrington will most likely have to beat Tiger to keep the Paddy Slam alive.
I could see Harrington winning at Augusta. I don't think it's a wise bet necessarily, but Harrington has a lot of game and the Masters still has a bit of a European-style flair left (Augusta National sans rough was like the Old Course in terms of strategy).
If Harrington can pull off a win at the Masters, all of the media that were too wrapped up in Tiger's return will suddenly realize that the Irishman is on the verge of making history. That, and Bethpage Black, will make completing the Grand Slam a very tall order. I suspect that the Paddy Slam will no longer be a story after early April, but Harrington has surprised me in the past. I wouldn't have thought that Oakland Hills would fit his game, but Harrington has a way of flying under the radar.
Number One: The Return of El Tigre
Well, duh! Unless you haven't watched a single golf telecast recently, you've already experienced the build up to Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour. It's been done ad nauseum and it's only going to get worse when the Accenture Match Play comes along (or whatever tournament is his first back).
What do you expect, really? The guy won his last start, a major as I recall, despite a broken leg and a ligament-less knee. This just in… he's pretty good. Naturally, the golf world is just a tad interested in how well he'll play when he returns. Television is practically drooling at the prospect. Hey, maybe Tiger's return can fix the economy!
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