The excitement has begun as another long season greets us this week in the game of golf. Sure, there have been tournaments played already, but the true start to the golf season is Thursday, when all of the big guns come out to play.
Many of the game’s brightest stars return to action this week, as Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods all begin their 2012 campaigns at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship Thursday.
In addition, on the other side of the world, the Farmers Insurance Open brings together one of the PGA Tour’s stronger fields.
Played at picturesque Torrey Pines, the tournament formerly known as the Buick Invitational consistently attracts some of the best players on tour. This year is no different, as Torrey will host stars Nick Watney, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson. And while Fowler may be the only player of this bunch to start his year at Torrey, this will be the first time such a distinguished group play at the same event this season.
This is not to belittle the golf played earlier in January, as the PGA Tour has already carried out a full three events this season with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the Sony Open in Hawaii and the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation.
Still, with all due respect to the performances of Steve Stricker, Johnson Wagner and Mark Wilson, since when have these tournaments held much luster?
The Hyundai was great when Woods and Ernie Els were trading eagles and birdies down the stretch all those years ago, but things have since changed. Woods hasn’t been to Kapalua since 2005 and Mickelson, possibly golf’s second biggest drawing card, last played in 2002. The winners-only tournament was especially slighted this year as an astounding 11 players skipped a trip to Hawaii and a guaranteed payday.
The Sony Open has never truly been a great event either. In fact, the tournament’s most exciting moments were watching teenage phenoms Michelle Wie and Tadd Fujikawa compete against the tour pros. These were feel good stories, but, needless to say, there wasn’t much else to cheer for with such a weak field.
The Humana Challenge—or the long-time Bob Hope Classic—is the final event of this “early season,” and also fails to produce much hype. The tournament has been around for over half a century and has enjoyed success over that time, but recently the event has just been fighting for survival. This season, “the Hope” showed signs of progress under the guidance of former president Bill Clinton, but it’s still far from a tour hot spot.
That leaves Thursday, January 26th—a day in which 11 of the top 25 players in the world will compete in Abu Dhabi alone—as the real sign of a new season in golf, and it brings up a lot of questions.
Was 2011 just an aberration for Mickelson or a harbinger of his decline? Will Fowler finally breakthrough with his first PGA Tour win? How will McIlroy build on 2011? Can Donald finally secure a major? And will Tiger return to dominance?
One week will surely not answer these questions, but it’s a starting point. The return of golf’s best players is a warning to the fans: get ready for another wild season. It also reminds fans that the year’s first major is not far off.
Augusta is just over two months away, and with the smell of azaleas already creeping in, golf’s best return just in time.