A new year on the PGA Tour raises 5 questions


Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Jordan Spieth spent the first official practice day of the new year in good company.

As he rolled putts at Kapalua, his teenage sister Ellie sat next to him on the practice green and watched until she reclined on her back and took in the warmth of the Hawaii sun. Few tournaments are more relaxing than the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, and that’s just what golf needs.

This is going to be a hectic year.

At stake is a gold medal in Rio and a gold Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.

Another prize is the No. 1 world ranking, and that could take all year to sort out.

Most of the attention, at least for now, is on Spieth. He is coming off a year that was beyond his expectations by winning the Masters and U.S. Open, three other PGA Tour titles and the FedEx Cup. His final tweet of 2015: “Would rather this year not end.”

It starts all over on Thursday with the most star power at Kapalua in 10 years. Where will it lead? Here are five topics to ponder for 2016:

THE ENCORE: In the last 25 years, only four players have won majors in consecutive seasons — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy. In the last 50 years, only four players have followed a multiple-major season by winning another major — Woods, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

Good luck, Jordan.

Odds are against the 22-year-old Texan matching what he did last year. Remember, he won two of those tournaments in playoffs and won the second leg of the Grand Slam when Dustin Johnson three-putted from 12 feet. And for all he did last year, Spieth could lose the No. 1 ranking this week.

The competition is strong as ever. More than just McIlroy and Jason Day, the biggest competition for Spieth might be his 2015 season.

THE BIG THREE: For the first time since the world ranking began in 1986, the top three players are all in their 20s. The No. 1 spot changed six times in six weeks last year, and more movement is likely. Spieth, Day and McIlroy are so close that any one of them could be No. 1 before the PGA Tour reaches the Florida swing.

Ten years ago, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els were battling for No. 1. That prompted Retief Goosen to say, “There will probably be a No. 1 player a few times this year.” Woods took over in June and stayed at the top for the next five years.

So it’s possible that one player pulls away from the other two.

Or considering the deepening pool of talent, the “Big Three” could become a lot bigger.

OLYMPICS: Golf returns to the Olympic program for the first time since 1904, and there is sure to be plenty of discussion about whether a gold medal is more valuable than a silver claret jug, much less a green jacket.

In one respect, this might be one of the easier tournaments to win. Because if qualifying ended today, the 60-man field would have only 25 from the top 50 in the world.

Until the players get to Rio, the biggest impact of the Olympics has been on scheduling. The PGA Championship has been moved to late July ahead of the games. That means Spieth and McIlroy could play eight times in 12 weeks — two majors, four FedEx Cup playoff events, the Olympics and the Ryder Cup.

RYDER CUP: The only player who faces a tougher encore than Spieth might be Darren Clarke, captain of a European team going after an unprecedented fourth straight victory. Clarke follows the masterful leadership of Paul McGinley at Gleneagles in 2014.

As for the Americans? They really pulled out all the stops by creating — wait for it — a task force. Davis Love III returns as captain, a chance at redemption from when the Americans lost a 10-6 lead at Medinah four years ago.

TIGER WOODS: The biggest star in golf sent a mixed message in The Bahamas last month. He spent more time talking about his past than the future, saying at one point that anything he accomplishes the rest of his career will be “gravy.” He also tried to cool speculation about retirement by saying he wants to play.

Three back surgeries in just over 18 months kept him from doing little more than walking.

Woods missed eight months recovering from reconstructive knee surgery after the 2008 U.S. Open. He missed four months after the scandal in his personal life led to divorce after 2009. He missed three months because of injuries in 2011 and 2014. He already has been out of competition for five months.

Interest might be higher than ever when he returns. If he returns.

Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

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