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Critical year for PGA

By Ron Kroichick
San Francisco Chronicle
Not to suggest the PGA Tour is already off to a sluggish start in 2011, but the season kicked off Thursday in Maui ó without Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, the worldís No. 1 ranked player (Lee Westwood) and three of last yearís four major champions (glad you could make it, Graeme McDowell).
And hereís the strangest part: Woods has the best excuse. He didnít qualify.
The Tournament of Champions is reserved for players who won an event the previous calendar year. Itís a logical concept, launching the new season by rewarding winners from the old season, and itís a shrewd way to gather the top players ó well, except for Woods and Mickelson, who seldom show up.
At any rate, the tour needs rejuvenation as it heads into a crucial year. Negotiations for a new television contract begin later this year ó the current deal runs through 2012 ó and the networks will not offer big money if the most compelling storyline involves a player drawing a penalty in a bunker populated by spectators.
Thatís just not cool, OK?
Here, then, is our personal wish list. Call it Five Things Weíd Like to See This Year.
Woods in the winnerís circle. (Duh)
Heís 35, more than year a removed from his shocking sex scandal and fresh off the only winless season of his professional career. Itís about the golf again with Woods, who showed signs of a return to form when he nearly won his own tournament last month outside Los Angeles.
The competition is too strong for him to dominate the way he did. But itís easy to see him winning three or four times, including one major ó maybe the Masters, where heís won once in the past eight years.
Rickie Fowler becoming Y.E. Yang and/or McDowell.
Or, put another way, Fowler needs to take down Woods in the final round. The concept seemed preposterous until Yang toppled Tiger at the 2009 PGA Championship, then McDowell nailed two clutch putts to beat him in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge on Dec. 5.
The only theater more riveting than Woods winning is Woods falling down the stretch ó especially if he falls to a young, dynamic player such as Fowler.
ó McDowell hangs around.
He did win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, elbowing his way into some nice company (Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Woods). He did soar from No. 40 in the world rankings at the start of 2010 to No. 5 at yearís end. And heís a good-natured chap who tells amusing stories.
ó Phil being Phil.
Mickelson was mediocre last season, but he authored the yearís signature moment in the final round of the Masters. His second shot on No. 13: off pine straw, around a tree, over a creek, 4 feet from the hole.
Then, naturally, he missed the eagle putt. Thatís Phil being Phil.
ó Dustin Johnson with a final-round clue.
Heís a prodigious talent, powerful enough to hit the ball a country mile. Johnson also seems lost on Sundays, from his self-destruction in the U.S. Open to his memorable, 72nd-hole penalty in the PGA. Hereís hoping he learned from his missteps.
FLIRTING WITH TROUBLE: Champions Tour officials need Mother Nature to cooperate come November.
They originally planned to hold the season-ending Schwab Cup Championship on Oct. 20-23 at San Franciscoís Harding Park, two weeks earlier than last year. But a scheduling issue with sponsors prompted the tournament to return to its previous spot on the calendar (Nov. 3-6 this year).
Thatís risky, as the 2010 event illustrated. Hardingís fairways were a soggy mess, forcing ělift, clean and placeî rules to be used ó never an ideal way to contest a marquee event.
ěItís always a concern when you loosen the envelope on the weather,î tournament director Tom Clark said.
The date change is especially curious because the schedule includes two open weeks (Oct. 20-23 and Oct. 27-30) before Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and Co. come to San Francisco.
(E-mail Ron Kroichick at rkroichick@sfchronicle.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
The Associated Press
01/06/11 15:00

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