Can Luke Donald win a major?
Ever since Tiger Woods fell from golf's good graces, we've seen a strange melange of top-ranked golfers and major winners capturing the headlines, but never at the same time. The reigning world No. 1 hasn't won a major since Woods at Torrey Pines more than three years ago.
That's going to change in 2012. Luke Donald, without a doubt the best player in the world, is going to win his first major this year. Best guess? Either Augusta or the PGA Championship. But it will happen, and Donald will secure his place as the best golfer on the planet.
Why? Recent history. The guy ran the table in 2011, winning the money titles on both the PGA and European Tours, taking four tournaments over the year, and securing Player of the Year honors from both the PGA and the PGA Tour. That kind of sustained steadiness is what you need to show up big in major after major. Anyone can have a single hot weekend; Donald has the kind of game that doesn't need to rely on hot streaks for victory. Consider, for instance, his astonishing run this year of 449 holes without a three-putt. That's the kind of course management that wins you tournament after tournament.
Obviously the majors are a different beast; pressure and tradition and jacked-up courses and your own internal butterflies combine for an experience that demands players dig deeper than they ever have. It's time for Donald to do exactly that. And this year, he will.
Is this finally the year Tiger returns to form?
It used to be easy to predict what Tiger Woods might do. If he was leading he'd win. If he was trailing he would probably lose, and if he was hitting the ball like only Tiger seemed to hit it, everyone else in the field was playing for a nice, but humbling, second-place paycheck.
But these days, predicting Tiger has become very, well, golf-y. This game isn't supposed to be predictable. The moment we think we have figured it out, our swings disappear, or Michael Campbell wins the U.S. Open, and we are back to the drawing board. Birdies are sometimes followed by double-bogeys, and triple-bogeys followed by a nice, simple par.
But the question remains, did the Chevron win for Tiger, over just 17 other professionals, mean that 2012 was the year he would finally return to the form we were used to seeing?
I think it is. Tiger might have only beat a handful of golfers at his event in early December, but winning is the key word in every sentence about that tournament. He won. That is enough. And he didn't just win by default. Tiger was forced to pull off great shots and clutch putts like he did in the past to get back to the trophy ceremony. It was a monumental win for Tiger, even if it wasn't really that big of a deal for the rest of us. "Oh, Tiger won a Silly Season event, big deal," some might think, but it was bigger than that. Tiger put himself in a position to cash in, did so, and will be carrying that momentum into this season.
So that brings us to the next question. In 2012, what is a good season for Tiger? A good season used to be double-digit wins and a couple of majors, but we must be realistic these days. Those unfathomable years are through, and Tiger's approach must be different. If Tiger could win three PGA Tour events this season, I think it would be an enormous year (remember, not a single player on the PGA Tour won three times in 2011). I think he will have a shot, just like last season, at Augusta, if he continues on the path he's on, and I'd really like to see him claim a major, but that doesn't define a great season for Tiger anymore. It's baby steps for Woods right now, and if he could snag an early season event, and build on that momentum (Pebble Beach, anyone?), I think we'd really be talking about the start of a career mulligan for Tiger.
This game is fickle, and Tiger had never felt that before up until 2009. Now, he is trying to figure out how to get past it. If Tiger wins only once in 2012, I think people will stop thinking about a comeback. Lucky for him, we see a bigger year, and as he continues to get more and more healthy, I think the golf swing will return, the swagger will as well, and we might see his name near the lead come Sunday afternoon as the red Nike shirts remind us just how great this guy used to be.
Can another rookie pull a 'Keegan Bradley'?
No doubt about it, Keegan Bradley had an incredibly special year in 2011. From becoming only the third player in golf history to win a major in his first appearance to winning multiple PGA Tour events, the 25-year-old from Woodstock, Vt., had a season most golfers can only dream about.
Best of all? He accomplished all of it in his first season on tour. Think about it: a PGA Tour rookie, going toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the world ... and actually coming out on top. Sure, we've seen plenty of rookies win in their first season, but none, in recent memory, had as big an impact on the tour as Keegan Bradley did last season.
With a new crop of 26 rookies joining the tour this year, you have to wonder if there's a guy in the bunch that could replicate Keegan's year-long success. Looking at the list of names, there a few who could make some noise (Harris English and Jason Kokrak come to mind); however, while most might have a moment or two of brilliance, trying to keep it going for an entire season, and remain consistent, is extremely difficult.
Despite the task at hand, there's one rookie who could rise above the rest and come close to replicating Keegan's season. That guy would be Bud Cauley. While most rookies will be cutting their teeth during the early part of the season, Cauley's experience advantage could give him a serious edge over his peers.
Just last season, Cauley did the unthinkable, foregoing the rest of his junior year at the University of Alabama to turn pro. Despite the long odds, he made enough in just eight starts -- he finished inside the top 25 on five occasions -- to get inside the top 125 on the PGA Tour's money list and secure his card.
While he didn't go the Q-School route like most guys, Cauley showed enough in just eight starts to make you believe he could produce something special in 2012. Time will tell, but when the season comes to a close, don't be surprised if we're all talking about this special 21-year-old talent.
Can Phil Mickelson bounce back?
You'd be hard pressed to call 2011 a terrible year for Phil Mickelson; he had one win (the Shell Houston Open) and seven top-10 finishes; he ranked 12th on the money list and pulled in $3.8 million. That's a fairly successful season by most standards.
But as is always the case with Phil, there's the pesky question of what could have been. He was flat-out forgettable in three of the four majors, and only an amazing bounceback on the final day of the Open Championship, where he would tie for second behind Darren Clarke, kept the year from being a total major washout.
So here's the question, as it always is with Phil: is this the year? Could he take down those elusive U.S. and British Opens? Could he snag another green jacket? Let's be clear here: Mickelson has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone but himself; he's already a deserving Hall of Famer, and if he walked away from the game at this moment he'd still be among its top 20 players ever.
But he's not going anywhere ... and neither are the fanbases, both pro and con, that both sanctify and rip into Mickelson with astonishing, what's-missing-in-their-lives fury. No matter what he does, he'll delight one and frustrate the other. So which will it be?
Mickelson is by no means done, but he's stretched out the string about as far as it can possibly go. He specializes in recovering from horrendous shots, but he no longer has a margin for error at this point. The field is just too good; both American and international golfers are playing at a level where Phil can't afford to give away shots.
Our best guess: Mickelson will be competitive in at least one major, probably Augusta, but he'll have a hard time winning any of them. He's surprised us before, though, and to win big this year, he'll have to do it again.