Nine issues that have helped shape golf this year during the road to the Masters:
1. Protecting a lead
Steve Stricker set the tone for the year at Kapalua when he took a five-shot lead into final round and predicted it would be a burden. Sure enough, he lost four shots in six holes before hanging on for the win. At Torrey Pines, Kyle Stanley had a three-shot lead on the 18th hole when he made triple bogey and lost in a playoff to Brandt Snedeker, who started the day seven shots back. The very next week, Stanley rallied from eight shots behind and won the Phoenix Open when Spencer Levin collapsed. And the following week, Phil Mickelson rallied from six shots behind to win at Pebble Beach. In 13 events on the PGA Tour, only five players have won with a 54-hole lead.
It took a full year of discussions for the PGA Tour to decide to end nearly 50 years of Q-school. In a massive overhaul, the PGA Tour approved doing away with Q-school as a ticket to the big leagues. Starting next year, the tour will merge the 75 top players from the Nationwide Tour with the top 75 players from the PGA Tour who fail to keep their cards. Those players will compete in three tournaments, with the top 50 advancing to the PGA Tour. There will be a Q-school in the fall, but only for access to the Nationwide Tour. With this change, the PGA Tour will have a wraparound season that starts in October. That will help toward keeping $25 million in prize money from fall tournaments that might otherwise have gone away. But it will make it unlikely for a college player to go straight to the PGA Tour.
3. Tiger Woods
Woods started his season in Abu Dhabi by failing to win for only the ninth time in 63 tries when he had at least a share of the lead going into the final round. This loss was to Robert Rock. He couldn't putt at Pebble Beach. He couldn't get out of the second round at Match Play when he missed more key putts. Then, his year really looked bleak when he withdrew in the middle of the final round at Doral with tightness in his left Achilles tendon. Two weeks later, he was the Tiger Woods of old with a five-shot win at Bay Hill. Now, some are talking about a six-win season and his resumed race to beat Jack Nicklaus' record in the majors. One thing hasn't changed. He stars in his own soap opera.
4. Stars Aligning
Anticipation for the Masters kept growing as top players were winning — Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach, then Rory McIlroy at the Honda Classic to go to No. 1 in the world, and finally Tiger Woods at Bay Hill. But it has run much deeper than that. Eight players from the top 20 in the world have won this year — Luke Donald (Transitions), McIlroy, Steve Stricker (Kapalua), Woods, Justin Rose (Doral), Hunter Mahan (Match Play), Mickelson and Bill Haas (Riviera). Compare that with a year ago, when only five players from the top 20 in the world had won — three on the PGA Tour (Donald, Bubba Watson and Nick Watney), two on the European Tour (Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey).
5. Best without a win
Jason Dufner considered it a mixed blessing when he realized he was the only player from the top 50 in the world who had not won on any of the six major tours around the world. One could argue for an asterisk next to Rickie Fowler, who won the Korea Open last year. That's part of the OneAsia circuit, which does not have full recognition by the Official World Golf Ranking board. Then again, Fowler won over Rory McIlroy. Does that make Dufner the best player to have never won a tour event? An argument could be made for Briny Baird, who has the most PGA Tour career money ($12.5 million) without ever having won. Brett Quigley is next with just over $11 million. Brian Davis is third in career money without ever having won. All have been runner-up five times. Dufner has been runner-up three times, one of those in a playoff at the PGA Championship.
6. American resurgence
Keegan Bradley's win at the PGA Championship ended the longest drought for Americans in the majors since the Masters began in 1934. The previous six major champions were international players. But there are rumblings of an American resurgence. For the first time since 1991, Americans made it a clean sweep of the West Coast Swing — from Steve Stricker at Kapalua through John Huh (born in New York) in Mexico. A year ago, there were 17 Americans in the top 50 in the world. This year, that number is up to 21.
7. Battle for No. 1
Rory McIlroy at 22 became the second-youngest player to reach No. 1 in the world when he won the Honda Classic. Tiger Woods was 21 when he first got to the top of the ranking in 1997. McIlroy and Woods had something else in common besides youth. Neither of them stayed at No. 1 for very long. McIlroy was there for two weeks until Luke Donald regained the No. 1 spot by winning at Innisbrook. Woods was No. 1 for one week when he was replaced by Ernie Els, who lasted one week until he was replaced by Greg Norman, who lasted one week. Clearly, it was a lot more volatile in 1997 than it is now. Going into the Masters, three players have a shot at No. 1 — Donald, McIlroy and Lee Westwood. All have been there before.
8. South Koreans
K.J. Choi carried the South Korean flag by himself when he first joined the PGA Tour a decade ago. He was joined by Kevin Na and Charlie Wi, Korean-born but raised in California. Each year, he is getting more and more company. Y.E. Yang became the first Asian to win a major at the 2008 PGA Championship. S.Y. Noh and Sang-Moon Bae made it through Q-school last year, and now there are seven South Koreans who are full PGA Tour members this year. Except for the United States, only Australia and South Africa have more players with full-exempt status this year.
9. Ryder Cup
It's rare for there to be so little chatter about the Ryder Cup with the matches only six months away. Then again, there hasn't been much reason to talk about the Ryder Cup. The American qualifying process is based on the PGA Tour money list, with the money from the majors counting double, and we haven't played the first major yet. Not surprisingly, only one player among the top eight has failed to win this year — Keegan Bradley, who won the PGA Championship last year. Only the majors from last year count. It's also too early to figure out what's going on in Europe, except that this figures to be the tougher team to make. One other reason not to get too excited about the Ryder Cup — Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal have not even named their assistant captains yet.