PGA Tour tees off season this week

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Ernie Els looked as though he had not shaved since the last time he was at Kapalua for the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, even though the stubble was more like four days than four years.

Standing atop the steps of the clubhouse, gazing across the Pacific to the island of Molokai, Els soaked up a view he sorely missed.

"It's good to be here," he said. "Especially here."

The start of a new season is for PGA Tour winners only, and while the top four in the world ranking are not here -- Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington -- the 33-man field shows how unpredictable the tour is becoming.

Thirteen players have never played at Kapalua. Only six players were in the field a year ago.

With so much uncertainty about the economy, the return of the world's No. 1 player and who will take him on, here are six questions worth pondering for the 2009 season:

n 1. When will Woods return and what can be expected?

His last shot was a tap-in par on June 16 to win the U.S. Open for his 14th career major. Woods had reconstructive surgery on his left knee eight days later and has been MIA on the golf course since.

His wife is expecting their second child in February, so he won't return before then. Woods began taking full swings with short clubs in December, and assuming there are no other complications when he resumes a full practice routine, he likely will make his '09 debut at the Accenture Match Play Championship the last week in February.

Woods believes he will be stronger than ever, finally able to swing against a stable left knee, and there is no reason to doubt him.

n 2. How will the economy affect the PGA Tour?

Prize money is slightly up, but only because tournaments had increases built into their contracts. So players won't see a change in their paychecks or their schedule, unless anyone was clamoring to play the defunct Ginn sur Mer Classic in the Fall Series.

Most tournaments are having to scramble to find courtesy cars, and they might have to cut back on personal services (maybe it's time players started paying for their own dry cleaning).

Sponsorship trouble comes in the middle tier of the financial structure, such as corporate hospitality, which is vital for operational costs and charitable dollars. The tour said charity was up last year, but the economic meltdown wasn't felt until the latter part of the season.

The biggest blow could come later this year when the tour starts renegotiating with title sponsors with contracts that end in 2010.

* 3. Which will be the toughest major?

Translation: Will anyone break par at the Masters?

Augusta National is not as impossible as some make it out to be. Trevor Immelman had a chance to finish double digits under par until a meaningless double bogey on the 16th hole last year. Still, the concern is that it has become a course where players protect leads instead of charging from behind.

Woods was the only player to break par at Bethpage Black in the 2002 U.S. Open. The course now is 212 yards longer, but Mike Davis has shown sensibility in setting up the last three U.S. Open courses.

The British Open returns to Turnberry for the first time since 1994, and while the course has been strengthened, the difficulty of links golf is all about the wind.

As for Hazeltine? During a visit this summer, club president Tim Rainey showed guests the new tee on the 545-yard 12th hole, which is a par 4. The Minnesota course now can play longer than 7,700 yards depending on how it is set up.

n 4. Is Phil Mickelson still a major factor?

Lefty won a major in three consecutive seasons -- only six others have done that since 1934 -- but he has gone the last two years without one, and it hasn't been pretty.

Since losing the 2006 U.S. Open with a double bogey on the final hole of Winged Foot, Mickelson has played 10 majors. He has missed the cut twice, and finished a combined 80 shots out of the lead in the other eight.

n 5. Will Sergio Garcia finally win a major?

Not since Mickelson has anyone been so clearly defined as the best player without a major. This is his 10th full season as a pro, and he is just hitting his stride. Garcia has gone three straight years playing in the final group of a major.

The talent is undeniable. The temperament remains a question.

n 6. Can the youth movement continue when Woods returns?

Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas both won twice last year and are the poster boys for the dynamic youth movement on the PGA Tour. Even so, Kim never has finished higher than Woods in a PGA Tour event, and Villegas only has done it twice.

Kim and Villegas are equipped, but their challenge (beyond Woods) might be coping with celebrity and staying hungry.

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