Top 5 Storylines Heading into the 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship

Kevin Casey@kevincasey19Contributor IMarch 7, 2012

Top 5 Storylines Heading into the 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship

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    After a month that saw the re-emergence of Phil Mickelson, the talent of young stars like Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan come through and the possible budding of a rivalry between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, golf fans must be thrilled with the state of the game.

    The excitement will continue into March, as a world-class field meets this week at the 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship. With the Masters looming less than a month away, now is a great time to look at which players are performing and which are not, heading into the first major part of the season.

    All the action from previous tournaments has built toward Doral, and the results this week will most certainly affect the golf scene in upcoming tournaments.

    So, looking forward to one of the most important tournaments of this young season, here are the top five storylines to watch out for at Doral.

5. Young Guns Look to Make Big Splash

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    Of the 74 golfers at Doral this week, 24 of them are under the age of 30, proving that the PGA Tour is indeed facing a youth movement.

    Young players such as 24-year-old Kyle Stanley, 25-year-old Keegan Bradley and 26-year-old Webb Simpson will hope to continue their great early season play and register a huge victory in their young careers this week (although Bradley already knows about winning big tournaments).

    But they are not alone.

    Maybe players like 23-year-old Rickie Fowler, 24-year-old Jason Day and 27-year-old Gary Woodland haven't brought their best game so far this season, but things could change in a hurry. With the talent this group has, any week could be the week they put their whole game together.

    This is not to forget the numerous other young players competing for victory this week, among them 27-year-old Dustin Johnson, 27-year-old Martin Kaymer and 29-year-old Alvaro Quiros.

    All of these young stars are looking for some confidence as they inch closer to the season's first major. But whatever the outcome at Doral, the amount of talented youth in golf today is incredible and will only make its presence more pronounced in future tournaments.

4. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood Gunning for World No. 1

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    This pair of Englishmen will go into Doral heading in completely different directions.

    After a phenomenal 2011, Donald has struggled this season, failing to record a top-10 finish in three starts thus far. Westwood hasn't experienced such problems, recording three top-four finishes already in 2012.

    The intrigue this week is whether either man can become world No. 1 again. A win at Doral by either player would secure the top spot in the world golf rankings. Westwood held the world No. 1 distinction for 17 weeks, from October 2010 to February 2011, and Donald for 40, from May 2011 to February 2012 (he lost it last week).

    This week, either player could regain what was once his and show Rory McIlroy that he won't go unchallenged.

    It will be interesting to see what these two do this week, not only in terms of tournament results, but also in terms of the world golf rankings. If Donald or Westwood can dethrone McIlroy after just one week, it may make the fight for that spot a huge story in the coming months.

3. Phil Mickelson Returns After Wonderful February

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    The start of the 2012 season wasn't exactly auspicious for Phil Mickelson, but in his typical fashion, he turned it around quickly.

    In February, Mickelson shot a final-round 64 to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, lost in a playoff the next week at the Northern Trust Open and was named February's PGA Tour player of the month just this past week.

    Mickelson hasn't played since then, opting to miss the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in order to go on a family vacation. So, the veteran may be shaking off some rust when he resumes play this week.

    Still, the 41-year-old is brimming with confidence after the results in recent tournaments. Mickelson also has some comfort with the tournament, winning it three years ago over Nick Watney in a thrilling final-round duel.

    With this combination of momentum and familiarity, Mickelson could have a very good week. Viewers will watch intently to see if Mickelson, despite a layoff, can continue his extraordinary play of late.

2. Tiger Woods in Search of First Win in Three Years

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    Last week at the Honda Classic, Tiger Woods came up just short of ending his three-year victory drought.

    The 36-year-old started the final round nine shots back of Rory McIlroy and almost climbed all the way back, shooting a 62 that left him in a T-2 just two strokes behind McIlroy.

    Woods' ball-striking has been impeccable this year, but his short game hasn't quite been up to par. The putting showed some strides of improvement last week, but it is still nowhere near perfect.

    With his game rounding into form, this could be a good week for Woods; he knows Doral well and has had much success here, winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship three times already. The course doesn't scare Woods, who has posted some very low scores here back in his heyday.

    Although this is one of the season's toughest fields, Woods could easily win this week. He has been getting into contention regularly now and has been in a position to win on a couple of occasions in the past few months.

    Maybe this is the week Woods finally gets over the hump and picks up his first W in a PGA Tour event since 2009.

    The Tiger of old has been close this season, but with a familiar course and play building on itself the past few months, he may finally finish first once again.

1. Rory McIlroy Looks to Solidify His World No. 1 Slot

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    At the Honda Classic, Rory McIlory displayed something that he had supposedly lacked in recent years: the ability to finish.

    With a short game clinic that may've made even the late Seve Ballesteros jealous, McIlroy finished strong at the Honda and secured a victory with a final-round 69.

    McIlroy finally seems ready to take over as the game's undisputed No. 1 player. Despite some growing pains (see 2011 Masters), the 22-year-old phenom has proven himself as a great player with his ability to contend and to win.

    McIlroy has entered a zone of consistency lately, finishing no lower than 11th in his last 10 tournaments (dating back to last August) and now has five worldwide wins (including three PGA Tour ones).

    This is all at the ripe old age of 22!

    This young man has all the attributes to be golf's next great player and is certainly on his way to realizing this potential with his recent play. He has a chance this week to further entrench himself as the No. 1 player in the world.

    If McIlroy can defeat a world-class field one week after beating Tiger Woods for the Honda Classic title, he could stamp himself as golf's undisputed No. 1 in 2012 and maybe for years beyond.