The Year Ahead in 2018


*Can Tiger return to competitive levels?

When Tiger Woods returned to competition this month it clearly excited many within the broader golf community. But the real deal is whether the former long time world-number-one player and 14-time major champion can return to a serious competitive level. That answer can only come when Tiger plays in 72-hole events on the PGA Tour. When Woods attempted his last comeback in ’15-’16 the end came abruptly before the need for his fourth surgery. Keep in mind, Woods turns 42 on December 30. His last major win came in ’08 — his last PGA Tour win came in ’13. In the last three major events he’s played — there’s been one consistent element — all missed cuts. Making cuts and finishing in the top ten may seem like low brow successes but Woods needs to demonstrate he has the wherewithal to return to consistent play for the duration of the season. Golf fans want to see a final chapter where Woods once again is in the mix for the game’s biggest events. The Missouri axiom of “show me” remains firmly in place until it does happen.

*Can the American squad win for the first time since 1993 in a road Ryder Cup Match in Paris?

The USA victory in ’16 at Hazeltine was a crucial point in stopping the continual European onslaught in golf’s premier team event. There’s little question that a new contingent of younger American players has shown the wherewithal to be a force at the top of the golf pyramid with the likes of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler — along with the likes of Dustin Johnson.

But winning on home soil is one thing — winning on foreign soil quite another. The last American victory across the pond in 1993. The ’18 event will be staged for the first time France — with the event held in the immediate Paris area. An American win could lay the groundwork for a major shift and a powerful juggernaut. On the flip side — a European win will neutralize the stated premise that the momentum for dominance now rests on the USA side. Something has to give for sure. What is clearly certain is that any American overconfidence can prove fatal given how resourceful the Europeans have been over the recent years.

*What’s Rory’s story for ’18?

When Rory McIlroy won the final two major events in “14 and with that a career fourth major at the age of 25. The sky seemed limitless for his clear talents. Fast forward to ’18 and the Northern Irishman’s major win total remains at four. McIlroy has had to deal with injuries which have sidelined him for a time and his recent marriage clearly shows he has entered a new phase in his life.

McIlroy has made no secret in his desire to reassert himself at the top of the golf hierarchy. But, there have been clear signals that a balky putter has too often betrayed him at critical moments. McIlroy would love nothing more than winning in April at Augusta – becoming the 6th member in joining the most elite of clubs — golfers having won all of the majors in a career.

The talents McIlroy demonstrated early on were clearly impressive — vanquishing opponents in a powerful manner in similar fashion to what his idol Tiger Woods had routinely done. Now, does Rory’s story have a new chapter showing he’s ready to join the fray. ’18 will send a clear sign on whether it does or doesn’t.

*Can Lexi Thompson elevate herself to number one?

There is little question of the considerable skills Lexi Thompson possesses on a golf course. But, the bigger question is how she sees ’18 given the hurdles endured in ’17. Lexi’s mother went through health related issues and the desire to be there for her was a clear and important moment.

The continued ascension of Asian players — most especially those from South Korea — has clearly put American players on notice that the pecking order has certainly changed. Thompson is fully capable in elevating herself and while ’17 had its moments it’s also clear Lexi’s zest to be the best player in the women’s game is front and center.

*How will the USGA prepare for the return of the Open to Shinnecock Hills?

The national championship of American golf returns to one of its famed venues in ’18 – Long Island’s revered Shinnecock Hills. After a debacle in terms of how the course was prepared during the ’04 event it seemed a true long shot that the club which experienced major embarrassment would welcome back the USGA to its grounds.

Fortunately, the relationship has been rebuilt and the club will be the site for its 5th US Open. The USGA realizing its good fortune even went a step forward — awarding the club its 6th US Open for 2026.

The course players will face in June will be considerably lengthened since the last Open. The talented architectural tandem of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were called upon to enhance the strengths of the course and to make sure key shot values are present. Blending a “tough but fair” layout will be a test for all involved given the benign set-up that players faced at Erin Hills in ’16.

*Is Bubba Watson capable in returning to world class form?

It’s hard to imagine a two-time major champion fading from the front row to the point of near total invisibility. That’s been the case with Bubba Watson. The talented lefthander has often faced issues in whether his mental skills are the equals of his considerable physical golfing talents.

Watson’s last PGA win came early in ’16 and his two major triumphs at Augusta are now clearly in the rear view mirror with the last coming in ’14. Watson and his wife have been earnest in moving ahead with their family plans and questions remain on whether Bubba really has the zest to really commit himself to becoming a key player. At 39, Bubba is facing a critical crossroads in the year ahead.

*Will Millennials seek out golf?

Even before The Great Recession took place starting in ’07 the undercurrent of the golf market remained strongly¬† in the hands of Baby Boomers – those born between the mid 1950’s to the 1960’s. As the group ages out — the need for younger replacements is essential to keep the overall industry healthy. Golf course closures now are a routine matter and the need for new golf course construction in America has virtually ended.

Millennials have not embraced golf as previous generations and even with efforts being made by such providers as Top Golf it remains to be proven that golf with this new generation has real currency as a recreation of choice. Some have suggested that golf needs a draconian closing of courses — in the 20-25% area — in order to balance out supply with the dwindling demand. Connecting with Millennials and in conjunction with women and minorities remains a significant issues for golf. Related questions on how much the game costs to play, the difficulty in learning to play and the overall time it takes to play is no less important and remain equally vexing.

*Will the USGA and R&A move to bifurcation in the rules?

The separation between those playing recreationally and those playing at the world class professional level has been going in two different directions for quite some time. Courses for the biggest of events are now moving towards the 8,000 yard figure in order to sufficiently test the game’s premier players. At the recreational level the game needs a fun element where players can enjoy the game.

The USGA and R&A have been adamant in keeping the game under one rules roof. There’s been recent movement to simplify the rules with a new rollout planned for 2019. But, the idea in having separate rules for different levels of players is still seen as being a foreign concept. The recreational players clearly do not play anywhere near the level of world class professionals and a number of insiders have long suggested that stronger action is needed on the equipment side regarding what top players are using today.

Years ago there was an opportunity when metal clubs were coming out onto the market but the governing bodies simply punted the issue further down the road. The issue now has reached critical mass — will the governing bodies move ahead or sit passively behind the times.

*Can Dustin Johnson finally maximize his considerable skills?

Prior to the start of last year’s Masters, Dustin Johnson was coming into the event as a heavy favorite His climb to number one in the world had his supporters touting that DJ was just getting started and that more key wins would be nothing less than formality. Unfortunately, Johnson suffered a mishap when slipping on stairs at his rented house on the eve of the start of the ’17 Masters,

Johnson did return to form later in the year and winning four times is nothing to downplay. But, at age 33 the ’18 season will be crucial to see if Dustin can fully achieve what his immense talents provide.

Winning the ’16 US Open at Oakmont removed forever the mantra of “best player never to win a major.” Golf has had other players who possessed high level skills — names such as Tom Weiskopf and Greg Norman — come quickly to mind. Johnson has won at least one PGA victory in his first ten years on Tour. No one’s ever done that. But, DJ’s final stature will rest on being a consistent presence in the majors and winning his share. Having only one to date is not sufficient enough given his talents. The bigger question is does Dustin have the fire internally to go beyond what he’s done to date?

*How will Fred Ridley fare as Augusta National’s new Chairman?

For a number of years the former US Amateur champion and past president of the USGA has been an important behind the scenes contributor at Augusta National. Operating under the leadership of the recent past Chairman Billy Payne, it is Ridley who will now be the point person for what is clearly a position of high stature and visibility. Ridley is the last golfer to have won the US Amateur and not turned professional.

In recent years through Payne’s leadership Augusta National has taken clear stands in promoting golf at various levels including the Olympics and junior golf development. The main issue though deals with how the Bobby Jones / Alister Mackenzie course is prepared for the April annual first major of the year. The club has purchased additional land and expanded its considerable footprint. There may be additional changes to the course with holes such as the 5th and 13th, on the radar screen. Ridley now will become the face of Augusta — what steps he takes and which ones get highest priority will be watched very carefully.