News & Opinion

Some dates worth circling this golf season

When boiled down to the coffee grounds, golf is a game consisting of a few simple, spherical imperatives. Use a rounded shaft to smack a circular ball into a round hole. Even the planet is roundish.

But with regard to golf fandom, it’s the tiny circles on the calendar that matter most, because during a global season that seemingly never ends, the high points merit highlighting, lest they become lost in the deluge of inconsequential trophies. As 2018 unfolds this week at the winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, and the sport begins its annual meander toward meaningful events and majors, even the players are excited about what the year portends. 

“I think this year, 2018, the unknowns are very exciting right now,” former world No. 1 Jordan Spieth said this week at Kapalua Resort. “I think with the amount of depth and talent at a younger age, mixed with the guys in their 30s that are playing No. 1 in the world [Dustin Johnson] … phenomenal players that you would call maybe in their prime, right?

“And then, obviously, the major question: What's it going to be like with Tiger coming back?”

Let’s remove some uncertainty by underscoring the dates seemingly destined to become memorable or meaningful for aficionados, both in the States and abroad. These are the red-letter days for watching red numbers on scoreboards as the season veers toward the crème de la crème, the Ryder Cup outside Paris in the fall.

Sure, most weeks on the major tours feature a soap opera of subplots and intrigue, but the following dates could draw millions of extra eyeballs, for various reasons.

Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Jan. 18-21: As usual, the sheiks shelled out big money to attract a field that will include Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Tommy Fleetwood. A related question is, What’ll happen an hour down the road at the Dubai Desert Classic? It is being staged for the first time the following week because of the United Arab Emirates travel ban with neighbor Qatar, whose event has been moved back on the schedule. The early commitment list for Dubai is leaner than usual. The European Tour’s crucial Desert Swing represents one of the few instances in which overseas fields often trump the PGA Tour’s offering. Or at least, it once did.

Genesis Open, Feb. 15-18: The event at Riviera has had so many name changes over the past two decades that it stretches memories to the breaking point. Now the event stands as a fundraiser for Tiger Woods’ charity. Woods played his first PGA Tour event at Riviera at age 16. In some ways, after three injury-ravaged seasons and four back surgeries, he might be just as nervous this time around. Woods, a SoCal native, has never won at Riviera.

Honda Classic, Feb. 22-25: Once the weakest stop on the Florida Swing, the event has raised its stature significantly, thanks in part to the mass migration of many Tour players – notably Woods, Johnson, McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka – to the area. The course isn’t much fun, but the field firepower is inarguable. The run to Augusta hits its stride here.

WGC Dell Match Play, March 21-25: Dustin Johnson claimed his third win of 2017 at Austin (Texas) Country Club, but the Tour badly needs to rearrange the 2019 schedule. Two WGC events in March – the WGC Mexico Championship will be March 1-4 – has wrecked the Florida Swing.

Houston Open, March 29-April 1: Not only is Houston trying to settle sponsorship issues, but so is Colonial, one of the formative events on the PGA Tour. Houston is the fourth-biggest city in the U.S., and Dallas ranks ninth. How is it possible that these events sit on such soft underpinnings?

The Masters, April 5-8: It’s the most-watched event in golf not named the Ryder Cup. Yet again, McIlroy will be gunning for the career Grand Slam. Can he complete the four-trophy collection before Spieth wins a PGA Championship to finish his own slam?

Zurich Classic, April 26-29: It’s a team event that pairs some entertaining partners and still counts toward earning a two-year tour exemption. Variety matters, people.

Players Championship, May 10-13: Next year, Sawgrass week moves back into the tourney-clogged March calendar, the date that it occupied for decades. For those who like watching the world’s best struggle on Bermudagrass, on a venue where no playing style has an edge, this is gotta-see TV.

AT&T Byron Nelson, May 17-20: The move to Dallas’ Trinity Forest Golf Club, a lauded Coore-Crenshaw design, has generated plenty of chatter and should draw an improved field. Frankly, a tournament dedicated to the memory of a Tour trailblazer deserves as much.

Shot Clock Masters, June 7-10: Another product of the forward-thinking minds at the Euro Tour, which delivered the GolfSixes format last summer. This time, players will face a shot clock over every stroke, promoters promise. Lace those spikes tightly, gents. 

U.S. Open, June 14-17: The host U.S. Golf Association nearly ruined the tournament in 2004, the last time the Open was staged at storied Shinnecock Hills, arrogantly allowing the greens to turn into baked pizza crust. The Open venues at Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017) were widely criticized. Yet again, the reputation of the USGA will be a monumental talking point.

French Open, June 28-July 1: One of the best Euro Tour events of the season is staged on the venue that will host the Ryder Cup in late September. Expect a stellar commitment list from among the wannabe Euro team members. Also, Paris is lovely in June.

The National, June 28-July 1: Quicken Loans pulled the plug on Woods’ Washington, D.C., event, which now needs a sponsor. So, if Woods plays great in the spring and demonstrates that he is returning to form … stranger things have happened in the endorsement world. Oh, and the event also needs a host venue. Tick, tock.

British Open, July 19-22: Let the sadists among us celebrate. A return to Carnoustie, widely considered the toughest test in the Open rotation, always elicits white knuckles and carping among the guys inside the ropes. Let ’em pray, let ’em bray.

PGA Championship, Aug. 9-12: Starting in 2019, the PGA becomes a spring fling and not the last stop on the major-championship calendar that lasts well into the sweltering summer. This year’s site, Bellerive in sports-crazed St. Louis, last hosted majors in 1965 (U.S. Open) and 1992 (PGA), events won by global stars Gary Player and Nick Price, respectively. 

Ryder Cup, Sept. 28-30: Given the infusion of young American stars atop the world ranking, and the aging of European Ryder stalwarts such as Ian Poulter and his brethren, Sports Illustrated predicted that the Yanks won’t be beaten for years to come. Feel free to bash SI with a stale baguette: The Yanks haven’t won a Ryder road game since 1993, the year in which Spieth and Thomas were born. 

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling