Column: New year on the PGA Tour more mysterious than ever

Jan 2, 2023, 9:28 PM | Updated: Jan 3, 2023, 11:30 am
Tiger Woods, right, hugs his son Charlie Woods, left, after finishing the 18th hole during the fina...

Tiger Woods, right, hugs his son Charlie Woods, left, after finishing the 18th hole during the final round of the PNC Championship golf tournament Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski)

(AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski)

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — One moment the splash of a humpback whale’s tail pierced the Pacific blue below the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Before long, as players began lining up for practice rounds, a brief shower sent everyone seeking cover.

It was a fitting start to a new year on the PGA Tour, where circumstances can change with little notice. As for what to expect in 2023 — the short answer is anything — check in with Scottie Scheffler and what he would have wanted going into last year.

“One win would have been nice,” Scheffler said with a laugh. “When you’ve got zero, all you’re looking for is one.”

He wound up with four, including a Masters green jacket, a PGA Tour record $14 million in tournament earnings and a bronze status of Jack Nicklaus awarded for being player of the year.

In these times, trying to decipher which player will emerge is secondary to so many other issues off the course. Here are six topics to contemplate for 2023:

LIV GOLF

The question of “who’s next?” has given way to “what’s next?” for the Saudi-funded rival league. LIV Golf has gone largely quiet in the last month except disclosing that its chief operating officer had resigned. A 2023 schedule was expected in November, but at the close of the year, only seven sites had been announced for the 14-tournament schedule.

Far more pressing is whether LIV Golf can find a television partner for the United States and the United Kingdom, even if it has to pay for it.

As for who’s next, expect the rumors to crank up as soon as the PGA Tour gets started this week at Kapalua, though there has been no substance in any speculation involving the top players.

Cameron Smith and Joaquin Niemann waited until the FedEx Cup playoffs were over to join LIV Golf last summer. LIV’s first tournament is Feb. 24-26, a week after the West Coast Swing ends at Riviera with a $20 million purse in the Genesis Invitational.

However many millions of dollars LIV paid to sign top players last year, it’s hard to imagine the rates coming down to get a big name. LIV can’t afford to lose momentum.

TIGER WOODS

It’s not so much where Tiger Woods plays as how much he plays.

Plantar fasciitis that kept him from playing in the Bahamas and hobbled him at the PNC Championship raised more doubts about his future. His emotional crossing over the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in July was the last time Woods walked in a tournament.

The earliest Woods might play is at Riviera in February for the Genesis Invitational. The Masters is certainly a target (Woods has never missed the cut as a pro). The PGA Championship is at Oak Hill in May, which could be chilly. Woods tied for 39th in 2003 and tied for 40th in 2013 his previous two PGAs at Oak Hill.

Woods remains active in helping to reshape the PGA Tour. But fans want to see him play.

THE MAJORS

The Masters waited until 11 days before the end of the year to say its criteria will stay the same for April, even as Chairman Fred Ridley expressed disappointment in the disruption LIV Golf has caused.

Most telling was a reminder that any modifications or changes to the invitation criteria would be announced in April. One possibility is leaning more on the money list than the world ranking, as it last did in 1998.

The U.S. Open will decide any changes at its annual meeting in February. The PGA Championship has used the PGA Tour money list and invitations, which typically are for the top 100 in the world, but not stated that way in the entry form.

When or if LIV gets world ranking points, most of the players will have slid out of the top 50. Moving up in the ranking with 48-man fields won’t be easy.

AZALEA

That’s the name of the 13th hole at Augusta National, a par 5 that has been reached in two with a driver and a sand wedge by some of the longest hitters. And everyone seems to hit it long these days.

The Masters finally decided to lengthen one of the most dynamic holes on the course, extending the tee to make the hole play 35 yards longer.

Ridley cited Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones as saying a decision to go for the green in two at the 13th should be a momentous one. “And I would have to say that our observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision,” Ridley said in April.

Tony Finau was there in November when it was soft and damp and hit 3-iron and 4-iron in the rounds he played. He expects players hitting about 5-iron in April. To be determined is whether the decision is “momentous.”

THE SLAM

The question has been the same for the last five years: Who gets to the career Grand Slam first? Rory McIlroy is the obvious choice at the Masters, coming off a stellar season that saw him return to No. 1 in the world.

Jordan Spieth gets his seventh crack at the final leg in the PGA Championship.

The difference is Augusta National and the scar tissue it leaves from being the only major played on the same course. This will be McIlroy’s 15th appearance at the Masters. Sergio Garcia (19) and Mark O’Meara (15) are the only two players to have played the Masters that often before finally winning. Neither was going for the final leg of the Grand Slam.

The other, of course, is Phil Mickelson. He will be 53 when he tries to win the U.S. Open.

RYDER CUP

The first question is who plays?

The Americans had three players on the winning team from Whistling Straits who have joined LIV Golf and are ineligible to earn points. Given the depth, they are easily replaced.

Europe lost five players from the ’21 team to LIV Golf, though all are in their 40s and toward the back ends of their careers except for Bernd Wiesberger at age 37. The core of the team — McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry, Viktor Hovland — is in tact.

The matches will be held in Italy for the first time. What’s not new about the Ryder Cup is the perception of the Americans being favored to win. It’s been that way for much of the previous 30 years since they last won on European soil.

___

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Column: New year on the PGA Tour more mysterious than ever