News & Opinion

Like blind tee shot, uncertainty lies ahead

As we end one year and shortly start another, it’s not too early to think about 2019. Here are eight questions for which we’ll be looking for answers:

Can Tiger Woods win another major? He can, but with some qualifiers. There’s no issue about his physical tools. He proved in 2018 that he has plenty of game to win anytime, anywhere. So, the question becomes: Is he mentally tough enough and sufficiently confident that when the big shots are needed on the biggest stages that he can get it across the finish line? He had the lead on the front nine on the final day at the British Open at Carnoustie and couldn’t beat Francesco Molinari. The old Tiger wouldn’t have done that. But we’ll likely never get much more than a glimpse of the old Tiger again, will we?

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Tiger Woods makes a splash in 2018, but are bigger things ahead?

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Tiger Woods makes a splash in 2018, but are bigger things in store for next year?

Is Brooks Koepka the real thing? Three major championships in two years would seem to be proof enough that Koepka is a bona fide star. A second consecutive U.S. Open and a PGA Championship last year earned him PGA Tour player-of-the-year honors. In case there was any doubt about a major hangover, Koepka won the CJ Cup in South Korea in October in the fall portion of the 2018-19 season and stands No. 1 in the world ranking. He is 28 years old, having spent his formative golf years in Europe. But he’s a young 28, having finished just his fourth full year on the PGA Tour. And he thinks he doesn’t get enough respect, which often is a big motivator.

Will Jordan Spieth return to the big stage? Spieth has fallen from No. 1 in the world to No. 16 in less than three years, and he didn’t win in 2018. This will be an important year for Spieth, even though he’s only 25. He famously has struggled with his putting, which long has been his strength, enabling him to be so successful so soon. But in 2018, he was 123rd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, including 181st – nearly dead last – in putting from 3 feet or less. He has maintained that his putting problems are merely alignment-related. But now, it’s confidence-related. And that’s huge.

Does Rory McIlroy have enough guts? No one argues that McIlroy is one of the two or three most physically talented players in the game. But what does cause some discussion is whether the 29-year-old Northern Irishman is much of a fighter. That might be a harsh observation for someone who won four major titles by the time he turned 25. But he hasn’t won one of golf’s top four prizes since 2014, and when he had a chance to win them in 2018, he shrank at the moment of truth. McIlroy tends to mail it in when it’s not his day. That’s not an ideal character trait when grappling with demons through four days of a major.

Is Rickie Fowler getting too old, too fast? Fowler recently turned 30, if you can believe it, and given the number of PGA Tour stars younger than he is, the game seems to be passing him. Back in the day, players were considered in their primes in their 30s. And this doesn’t insinuate that his career is over. Fowler has plenty of time to enhance his resume. But with only four majors a year, and given the number of young(er) stars who are competing for them, it makes it increasingly tougher to win one. Fowler has won four PGA Tour events and has a handful of top-five finishes in majors. If the sense of urgency is not here, it’s at least right around the corner.

Does the LPGA need American stars? Financially speaking, probably not. The LPGA’s biggest revenue stream is from Korean television. In South Korea, female professional golfers are regarded as rock stars. In fact, female pros in Korea are wildly more popular than their male counterparts. They are mobbed in public at home. It would be nice if Americans Lexi Thompson or Jessica Korda or Michelle Wie would become breakout players. But the tour is doing quite nicely, especially in Asia, regardless.

Will the PGA Championship improve its profile with a May date? Everyone seems to think so. Yes, there are only four major championships, and one of them has to be fourth. Because of that reality, the PGA has been treated poorly over the years. In 2019, the PGA will be played five weeks after the Masters. The PGA will have a real chance to generate more excitement in the run-up to the tournament than it was able to muster when it was in August and three majors already had been played. Now, maybe it will be Glory’s Next Shot instead of Glory’s Last Shot.

Other than the professional game, can golf grow? There’s nothing wrong with growing the game. We all should work toward attracting more golfers. But we have to realize that golf is a niche sport. It’s not for everyone. The rub of the green is that golf is difficult to learn and gain proficiency, and it takes too long to play. In order to make people in the golf business feel better, calculators that measure participation will start counting people who go to Topgolf or the like as golfers. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that except for the fact they are not actually playing golf.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf