This weekend's Tournament of Champions in Hawaii kicks off the 2019 PGA Tour season. It shapes up to be one of the best in years.
A year after his remarkable return, Tiger Woods leads a host of veterans still winning tournaments and looking to hold off players 10, 15, even 20-plus years younger – in the case of the 43-year-old Woods. Along with the annual trip to Augusta National for the Masters, a superb major championship lineup includes storied and unspoiled Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open, boisterous and beastly Bethpage Black outside New York City for the PGA Championship and rugged Royal Portrush for the first Open Championship in Northern Ireland since 1951.
The PGA Championship's move from August to May and the Players Championship's return to March has created a schedule will little let-up, beginning with this month's West Coast swing. The PGA Tour's wraparound schedule actually kicked off in early October, but for the game's top players the season is now just ramping up.
Here are five storylines worth keeping an eye on the rest of the way:
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1. What's the next step for Tiger Woods?
For many, Tiger's Jan. 24-27 return to Torrey Pines in San Diego will mark the official start of the PGA Tour season. Very few golfers matter to the masses, and none has remotely Woods' reach.
The inspiring and improbable comeback in 2018 from multiple back surgeries ended with his 80th PGA Tour victory – and first in more than five years – during September's Tour Championship. Now Woods looks to win his first full-field event since the 2013 Players Championship. Tiger's ultimate goal, of course, is to win his first major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods had his chances to do both last season, contending at Bay Hill, Tampa and the PGA. He briefly led early on the back nine at the Open Championship. Unlike the Tiger of old, each time he failed to close the deal.
Woods incredibly has more than enough swing speed and length off the tee, continues to be one of the game's best iron players and rediscovered his brilliant short game after an ugly bout with the dreaded chipping yips. Yet Tiger still suffers the occasional and costly loose swing off the tee box and simply does not putt like he did in his prime – then again, no one did. But if his fused back continues to hold up and he manages his schedule to avoid fatigue, Woods is sure to show up more often on Sunday leaderboards. From there, anything is possible for the greatest winner the modern game ever has seen.
2. Does Jordan Spieth bounce back?
A former world No. 1 and three-time major winner, the 25-year-old Spieth remains the game's golden child. But the 2018 season took off some of Speth's shine, raising questions about his ability to win like he did not too long ago.
A closing 64 at the Masters was scintillating but not enough to overtake Patrick Reed. The round served as the highlight of Spieth's first winless season since 2014. Rarely was the 11-time Tour winner in contention again en route to just five top-10 finishes after totaling 35 the previous three seasons. Spieth's best chance for victory came during his defense of the 2017 Open Championship win that encapsulated his grit and clutch shotmaking. Tied for the 54-hole lead this past July, Spieth carded a final-round 76 to finish ninth.
Spieth's putter – long the backbone of his game – betrayed him all season and undercut his already legendary short game. Spieth's relative lack of distance off the tee already put undue pressure on his sublime ballstriking. But with less margin for error than usual, Spieth's game was exposed and his confidence shaken.
Given his age, track record and mental make-up, Spieth is almost sure to rebound with a better season. But the talent pool continues to deepen and the power game is rewarded more than ever, increasingly putting a player who plots and wills his way around the golf course at a disadvantage.
3. Who is the next 20-something ready to join Spieth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka in golf's stratosphere?
Jon Rahm, 24, and 27-year-old Tommy Fleetwood are getting close, each ranked in the top 10 and a major championship away from validating his place in the game. The enigmatic Reed owns a green jacket from the Masters but also wears the black hat, keeping him from attaining the respect reserved for those at the height of the game.
A notch below this group lurks a litany of talented young guns capable of achieving superstar status in 2019. Xander Schauffele, 25, is a three-time winner who appears to be building toward a major win. Based on raw talent, no one compares with 23-year Cameron Champ, whose 130-mph clubhead speed and 192-mph ball speed are 5- and 10-mph better, respectively, than the Tour leaders in 2018. Joaquin Niemann, a 20-year-old Chilean ballstriking machine, needed just eight starts to join Spieth (2013) and Rahm (2016) as golfers who bypassed the Web.com Tour Finals and earned a Tour card after starting the season without any status. Meanwhile, Sam Burns, then just 21, outdueled Woods on Sunday at the Honda Classic and a month later won the Savannah Golf Championship on the Web.com Tour, helping him secure his Tour card this season.
Also keep an eye on 2018 Rookie of the Year Aaron Wise, just 22, Mexico's 27-year-old Abraham Ancer and 23-year-old Texan Beau Hossler as part of the Tour's burgeoning youth movement.
4. How will the new schedule affect Florida Swing?
The Players Championship returns to March and the World Golf Championships will bookend the first true Florida Swing since the Tour's showcase event moved to May in 2007. For the first time since 2006, four tournaments will be played consecutively in the Sunshine State. Overall, the six-tournament stretch including the two WGCs is going to force some tough decisions for players and is sure to compromise the strength of some of the fields.
The Tampa-based Valspar Championship likely will suffer most. A year after record crowds watched Woods finish as runner-up to Paul Casey the week prior to Bay Hill, the Valspar is now the week after the Players and the week before the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, featuring a 64-player field and a $10.25 million purse. The Honda Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill also could suffer attrition.
The Honda is the only Tour event in South Florida and close to the homes of many of the game's stars, leading many of them, including Woods, to tee it up on the demanding windswept PGA National Champion Course. Now the Honda will follow a WGC in Mexico City – a 6.5-hour flight to West Palm Beach – and be played a week prior to Bay Hill, one of the Tour's more prestigious stops.
Woods lives on Jupiter Island up the road from PGA National but has won the late Palmer's event eight times and contended last March at Bay Hill. It's hard to imagine Woods will give up a chance to add to his record 18 WGC titles. There's no way he will play four straight weeks, either.
This is one of many examples of the new schedule's potential impact.
5. Can someone solidify his position as world No. 1 a season after several players staked claim to it?
It's highly unlikely. After all, current No. 1 Koepka, Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose each reached the lofty spot in 2018.
Koepka, with major victories in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and Rose, the winner of FedEx Cup and owner of fifteen top-10 finishes, traded places at the top four times during the past few months.
Expect more of the same, with perhaps four-time winner Bryson DeChambeau, now No. 5, and No. 6 Rahm making a run at the top. Four former world No. 1s are in the top 20 – No. 8 Rory McIlroy, No. 13 Woods, No. 14 Day and No. 17 Spieth. Each certainly has to think he can get back to the top.
If any of the four were to win a major, he would have a chance. That scenario holds true for a long list of top players. The last man standing in the fall is anyone's guess.