By TOM LAMARRE
Rory McIlroy established himself as the best golfer in the world last season, but now he will learn one of the oldest unwritten rules in sports: that it’s easier to get to the top than to stay there.
McIlroy, who will turn 24 in May, has established a solid lead atop the World Golf Rankings and figures to stay there longer than Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald, all who had held the No. 1 spot for varying periods since late 2010.
That came after Tiger Woods dominated the position for most of the first decade of the new century, and Woods has shown he’s not going away without a friendly battle with his new buddy, McIlroy.
Woods, who turned 37 on Dec. 30, held the No. 1 spot in the world for a total of 623 weeks – and there’s no question he would like to get it back.
Despite the prospects of this one-two punch lifting golf back onto the front page and to the lead story on ESPN, the 2012 season also showed there are dozens of other players – young and old – who can make an impact on the 2013 season.
Here are five things to watch for in the coming year:
1. TIGER VS. RORY
Even though we said there will be other stories making headlines, if these two guys are in the hunt together on any given Sunday, everything else is relegated to also-ran status – especially if it happens in a major championship.
Those chances will come at the Masters at Augusta National, the U.S. Open at Merion, the Open Championship at Muirfield, and the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
In their late-season matches in lucrative overseas events, Woods shot 64 to beat McIlroy by six strokes in the quarterfinals of the Turkish Airlines World Golf Finals, and the kid came back to shoot 67 to claim a one-stroke victory over Woods in the 18-hole Duel at Jinsha Lake in China.
After being drubbed by Woods for much of his career, Phil Mickelson now gets fired up to play his former nemesis and has turned it around against him, and that might be the case with Woods. He has outplayed McIlroy eight of the 11 times they have gone head-to-head, shooting in the 60s all but one time.
Of course, this story will be about majors. McIlroy was 128 days younger than Woods when he claimed his second major title, the 2011 PGA Championship. However, Tiger won three majors in one year after he turned 24 and six in a span of three years on his way to a total of 14, so we’ll have to wait and see if McIlroy can even come close to that pace.
2. LONG PUTTERS
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the United States Golf Association threw something of a curve at users of long putters in a proposal announced in late November.
Instead of banning the long wands, golf’s powers that be simply have proposed that they not be anchored to any part of the body. (The majority of the long putters are anchored to the belly or chest.) The USGA and the R&A said they will hear input on the rule change for three months before taking action, and that any rule change will not take effect until 2016.
Players such as Keegan Bradley and Ernie Els at one time had indicated they might take legal action if the long wands are outlawed. So instead of the putter, the focus now is on the stroke.
The putting stroke with the belly and broomstick putters are a violation of the Rules of Golf, officials claim. In question is Rule 14-1(b) which reads, “In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either directly or by use of an anchor point.”
The R&A and the USGA let this issue linger until Bradley, Webb Simpson and Els won three of the last five majors with long putters. Some of golf’s rule makers have said that did not bother them as much as players being taught to use the long putter when they first take up the game.
Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old Chinese golf prodigy, recently became the youngest player to qualify for the Masters by winning the Asian-Pacific Amateur – using a long putter. Add to that a recent report that nearly 30 percent of the college players in the United States are using anchored putters, and it seems golf officials are concerned that the long putter will become the norm, rather than the exception.
Matt Kuchar uses a long putter that he rests against his forearm, and that would still be allowed. So would a long putter that is not anchored, like the one Angel Cabrera used to win the 2009 Masters. The PGA, European and LPGA tours have said they would evaluate the proposed rule along with their players. In some PGA Tour events in the last couple years, as many as 20 percent of the players used long putters.
The PGA of America has said it was concerned that such a ban would drive people from the game. Now that it’s fairly obvious that the rule will be enforced, it will be interesting to see if devotees of the long putter make the change immediately, over a period of time or wait until 2016.
3. THE WRAP-AROUND SEASON
Five weeks after the 2013 season ends at the Tour Championship in Atlanta and two weeks after the Presidents Cup winds up on Oct. 6 at Muirfield Village, the 2014 PGA Tour season will begin with the Frys.Com Open near San Jose.
Frys President Duke Butler said recently that the PGA Tour has promises from Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the six others (Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and Charl Schwartzel) it released to play in the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final that they will tee it up in the Frys at least once in the next three years.
Without such deals, expect the opening events to look much like the Fall Series, because the top golfers in the world aren’t going to jump right back in after a long season, capped by the FedEx Cup Playoffs and the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
McIlroy, Westwood, Luke Donald and the rest of the Europeans who have dual tour membership will be off to finish the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, which wraps up at the end of November. The rest of the best players probably will continue to fly around the world late in the year to play in lucrative events in Asia, South Africa and Australia because they should be able to catch up in the FedEx Cup standings early in the year.
Of course, that doesn’t mean none of them will play in those early tournaments, but mostly it likely will be second-tier players trying to get their season off to a good start against fields that are less than loaded.
After the Frys comes the yet-to-be renamed Las Vegas tournament (Oct. 17-20), the WGC-HSBC Champions in China (Oct. 24-27) and the CIMB Classic in Malaysia (Oct. 31-Nov. 3), the McGladrey Classic (Nov. 7-10) and the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico (Nov. 14-17), which moves from its spot opposite the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.
Apparently losing its spot after 41 years on the PGA Tour is the tournament at Walt Disney World, which lost Children’s Miracle Network as title sponsor at a time when the former Fall Series events were required to increase their purses to $6 million to become part of the regular season schedule.
4. CHANGING OF THE GUARD CONTINUES
Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker continued to show last season that they still can win on the PGA Tour into their 40s, but while in the past they often had multiple victories, they each won only once. Of course Els’ was the biggest as he claimed the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes for his fourth major title, but all three of them were in contention several other times and could not close the deal.
The times are changing and it’s getting more difficult to win because there is more depth than ever before, with 39 players winning events on the best tour in the world last season, 10 more than the previous season.
There were only six multiple winners, with Rory McIlroy winning four times, Tiger Woods taking three titles, while Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Hunter Mahan each had two. And the winners are getting younger, with 14 players in their 20s collecting a total of 18 victories and 18 players in their 30s took home a total of 23 titles.
Snedeker captured the FedEx Cup and this season should become the first winner of the season-long chase to make it back to the Tour Championship. Woods (twice), Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Bill Haas all failed before him. Bubba Watson (Masters) and Webb Simpson (U.S. Open) gave the United States two majors titles in the same season for the first time since 2009, a year after Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship, and the likes of Snedeker, Dufner, Mahan, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler appear ready for a major breakthrough.
Meanwhile, the young guns just keep coming, as rookies John Huh, Jonas Blixt, Ted Potter Jr. and Charlie Beljan won PGA Tour events, with Bud Cauley and Harris English doing almost everything except winning. Expect to see more of the same this season – and it might come from players we’ve not yet heard of. After all, last year at this time not many golf fans knew about Huh, who became the only rookie to make it to the 2012 Tour Championship.
5. THE PRESIDENTS CUP
It will be of little consolation after collapsing in the Sunday singles and losing the Ryder Cup for the fifth time in six tries to the Europeans at Medinah, but the United States should continue its domination of the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village in October.
The U.S. holds a 7-1-1 lead in the series, even winning when the International squad had what many considered to be the best team in the world in the early years with major champions Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Greg Norman, Steve Elkington, Michael Campbell, Mike Weir and Nick Price, who will take over the role of International captain this year.
Fred Couples has reason to feel confident about claiming his third consecutive victory as captain of the U.S. side, even with veterans Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker getting older, because he also has rising stars Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Dufner, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler, among others.
Norman could not turn around the Internationals’ record as captain in the last two Presidents Cups and they have turned to Price, who will start with a good nucleus. Els should made the team for the eighth time and be joined by major champions Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, also of South Africa, plus Adam Scott of Australia and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.
Depth could be a problem for Price, although Branden Grace of South Africa might be a star in the making after winning four times last season on the European Tour.
One ominous note for the Americans: The only time the Ryder Cup was played at Muirfield Village, in 1987, the Europeans won for the first time on American soil – and on Captain Jack Nicklaus’ hope turf, no less – to start turning the tide against the Yanks. The Internationals will arrive in Ohio never having won on U.S. soil.