That an elite golfer can struggle in a given season is a testament to how many things need to go right to win a golf tournament. And that is under the best of circumstances.
Those players who tend to struggle are typically playing under less-than-ideal circumstances. Swing changes, equipment changes, personal issues and the mental scars the game inflicts are but a few factors that can throw off a player’s game.
This year’s likely suspects happen to be players whose 2012 seasons proved a confluence of highs, lows and a ruling that will fundamentally alter how certain players hit 40 percent of their shots.
Here are the five elite golfers who will struggle in 2013.
Webb Simpson came very close to winning four times in 2011 (two wins and two playoff losses) and backed it up by winning last year’s U.S. Open. He has not won since and seems to still be adjusting to life as a major champion.
Nonetheless he was seemingly on his way to a great career when the USGA and R&A pulled the plug on his putting stroke by banning the use of the anchored putter. It will only be a matter of time before the PGA Tour follows suit.
By not implementing the ban until 2016 those organizations presumably believed they were doing players a favor. Instead they have created the perception among certain fans that any player who continues to use the stroke is effectively cheating within the rules.
In a sport where a single incident of cheating can follow a player for decades, the gravity of the dilemma for a player like Simpson cannot be overstated. He can either continue to “cheat” or take the plunge and abandon the putting stroke he has used since he was 19.
To put the frustration of Jim Furyk’s 2012 season in terms an amateur golfer might appreciate, imagine coming to the 18th green five straight times needing only two putts to finally break 80. And three-putting every time. Furyk’s failings were punctuated by late-round collapses at the U.S. Open and Bridgestone Invitational and a disappointing Ryder Cup performance.
Those familiar with Furyk’s career know that he has never been a stranger to close calls. This includes 12 top-five finishes in majors with just one victory and a 3-8 playoff record in regular events. But his repeated inability to close out tournaments in 2012 was very disturbing for a player whose mental toughness has always been his biggest asset.
Coming off a year whose collective cruelness only Greg Norman could relate to, Furyk should be motivated. But at 42 and with considerably more mental scars than he had entering last season, it will be that much harder to find the winner’s circle.
One of the more curious golf interviews was given by Bubba Watson in the immediate aftermath of his playoff loss at the 2010 PGA Championship. He professed not to care about losing because his runner-up finish had clinched him a spot on that year’s Ryder Cup team.
There is little doubt Watson wants to win tournaments and possesses the ability to do so. He demonstrated that in spades with his playoff win at the Masters courtesy of one the greatest golf shots ever hit under pressure. But as Tiger Woods has demonstrated, there is a large gulf between "wanting to win" and "having to win."
A more immediate concern with Watson is the “Masters hangover,” a phenomenon where winners of that tournament not named “Tiger Woods” spend the next year on a victory tour with their green jacket (since 1999, Woods and Zach Johnson are the only Masters champions who won again on Tour that same year).
It is difficult to fault Watson for enjoying his status as a Masters champion. But there is a strong likelihood that the four-time Tour winner will end the 2013 season as, well, a four-time Tour winner.
How does a golfer play the first 68 holes of a major championship like Jack Nicklaus, and the final four like Jack Black?
For starters, try spending eight years repeatedly hearing that anyone with your swing should have already won several majors.
Watching Adam Scott blow a late four-shot lead at last year’s British Open proved yet again that there are few moments in sports more excruciating than watching a golfer implode.
When Scott won the 2004 Players’ Championship he became a leading contender for the title “best player to never win a major.” Instead of removing that particular monkey from his back he replaced it with King Kong.
Compounding matters for Scott is the ban on the anchored putting stroke that revived his career a few years back. If ever there were a player to root for to come back, it is the gregarious Scott. But the likelihood of him being much of a factor only one season removed from such an epic meltdown seems remote.
Like contemporary Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els’ total of four majors could easily be seven or eight. Which makes the manner in which Els triumphed at last year’s British Open feel as though the “Golf Gods” were attempting to balance the books for a player whose disappointments in majors outnumber his victories.
But for an injury prone 42-year-old forced to resort to an anchored putter, the victory felt more like a valediction than a resurrection.
The victory also felt anomalous as Els became the first player since Lee Trevino to go as many as 10 years between major championship victories.
As if to prove just that, Els’ performance for the remainder of the year was lackluster. In the seven Tour events in which he made the cut his average finish was 35th, including a tie for 48th at the PGA Championship.
Els, who would dearly love to win the Masters, is at a point in his career where he might opt to use the anchored putter until 2016. But with the way he has played since last July it might not matter.
“Struggling” is a relative concept. If you are Tiger Woods, a player who won 14 majors in 12 years, going a fifth straight season without winning one will not be viewed as anything but disappointing.
We know that Woods can win regular Tour events on courses where he has won frequently (Torrey Pines, Muirfield Village, Bay Hill).
What is unknown is how well his new swing will hold up when he is in contention late in the fourth round of a major. Woods has not been in such a position since the 2009 PGA Championship. Until he is, whether he wins another major (let alone five more) remains an open question.
One big difference between amateurs and pros is their respective reasons for changing equipment. Amateurs do it hoping to get better. Pros do it for the money. And Rory McIlroy did it for a ton of money.
McIlroy will ultimately win more majors regardless of his clubs. Except that one wonders whether he opted for the right manufacturer.
Mickelson has won 75 percent of his majors since switching from Titleist to Callaway.
With Woods it is a different story. After he switched to Nike irons in 2002, he went three years before winning another major. And to date,Woods has won fewer majors in 10 years with Nike than he did in six years with Titleist.
The good news for McIlroy is that Nike's golf technology is presumably more sophisticated than it was a decade ago. The bad news is that there may be a transition period that could make 2013 less memorable for him than 2012.