Biggest Storylines in Golf Ahead of the 2015 Valspar Championship

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2015

Biggest Storylines in Golf Ahead of the 2015 Valspar Championship

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    David Cannon/Getty Images

    We've arrived at the Valspar Championship. With this week's tournament from Florida's Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, the first major of the season is less than a month away. And in the five months since the 2014-2015 wraparound season began, there has been no shortage of drama, intrigue and excitement. 

    Some of this season's storylines surround Tiger Woods, of course, and the current top-ranked golfer in the world, Rory McIlroy, and his play on and issues off the golf course. 

    Keep reading for the biggest storylines in golf.

Rory McIlroy and the Quest for the Career Grand Slam

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    In case you hadn't heard, when Rory McIlroy tees it up at Augusta National for this year's Masters, he'll be pursuing the career Grand Slam. The 25-year-old Ulsterman will endeavor to become just the fifth player to win all four modern major championships. 

    And while he played well on the European Tour earlier this season, McIlroy has had difficulty in the events he's played stateside this season. 

    Beyond this, McIlroy's (now-concluded) legal battle with his former management and other potential legal drama have occupied the headlines. 

    As we move ever closer to the Masters, the Rory McIlroy-related question remains the same as it was after he won The Open Championship last season: What state will his game be in heading to Augusta?

Tiger Woods and the Quest for His Golf Game

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    If we remove "Toothgate" from the equation, there have been two major Tiger Woods storylines this season. Put another way, there have been two areas of concern: the golfer's health and the health of his golf game.  

    To say that Tiger Woods is playing the worst golf of his career around the greens is an understatement. Although he's been decent from tee to green and has picked up a key few miles per hour of clubhead speed, the 39-year-old appears to be suffering from chipping yips

    It's a malady he can't afford to be suffering from at Augusta National, where hitting precise spots is key on pitches and chips. And the dreaded Y-word is likely the reason he announced a break from competitive golf in order to give his game the "lot of work" it needs. 

    Woods' surgically repaired back has also been under the microscope. Still, the golfer claimed after his withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open that he was suffering from an inability to reactivate his glutes (whatever that means) and not a primarily back-related ailment. 

    However, Woods' agent has confirmed to GolfChannel.com the golfer's sabbatical is to hone his craft rather than rest his back. Thus, the Woods-related storyline at this point in the season is: Will he be ready to chase major No. 15 at the Masters?

The Triumphant Return of Dustin Johnson

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    One of last season's stranger stories, Dustin Johnson's "is he or isn't he suspended" leave of absence drew to a close with the golfer's return at the Farmers Insurance Open at the beginning of February. 

    In five starts this season, Johnson has been either scorching-hot or ice-cold: The South Carolinian has missed the cut twice and finished inside the top five three times. 

    With his convincing victory at last week's WGC-Cadillac Championship, DJ is back from whatever abyss he was floundering in. The victory, strong play and renewed focus make the new father a rising Masters favorite, where his best finish is a tie for 13th.

Ryder Cup Task Force Names Davis Love III Captain

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    While the Ryder Cup and its lead-up grabbed headlines for much of last season, this season has been dominated by an open conversation about what the U.S. side needs to do to win the 2016 edition of the biennial competition.

    At the heart of the chatter: the Ryder Cup task force, which was formed in the wake of the defeat at Gleneagles and became a heated topic of discussion in its own right. 

    On February 24, the PGA of America named Davis Love III captain of the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team. That decision, of course, has generated additional discussion that will be part of a larger conversation that continues all the way to Hazeltine next year.

Significant Returns to the Winner's Circle

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    Looking at the winners on tour already this season, several golfers have restated the cases they made in 2014, and a few have returned to the winner's circle after lengthy absences. There have been few victories on tour this season of the throwaway variety—certainly a good thing for commissioner Timothy Finchem and company. 

    Players now with wins in the last two years: Jimmy Walker (Sony Open), Patrick Reed (Hyundai Tournament of Champions), Sang-Moon Bae (Frys.com Open), Ryan Moore (CIMB Classic), Jason Day (Farmers Insurance Open), Bubba Watson (WGC-HSBC Champions) and Dustin Johnson (WGC-Cadillac Championship).

    Prominent players returning to the winner's circle after at least two years without a win: Bill Haas (Humana Challenge), Brandt Snedeker (AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) and Padraig Harrington (Honda Classic).

Breakthrough Wins

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    David Cannon/Getty Images

    In addition to the significant returns to winning form mentioned in the previous slide, three golfers broke through in a big way this season: Brooks Koepka, James Hahn and Ben Martin. 

    In his first full season on the PGA Tour, Koepka got off to a hot start. He tied for eighth at the Frys.com Open, tied for fourth at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and put together weekend rounds of 64 and 66 to capture the Waste Management Phoenix Open. 

    Thirty-three-year-old James Hahn broke through at the Northern Trust Open, where he triumphed in a playoff over Paul Casey and Dustin Johnson. The win was just Hahn's fifth top-10 finish on tour since 2013. Perhaps more importantly, he'll be known in tour history as more than just the "guy who celebrated with the 'Gangnam Style' dance."

    Ben Martin turned pro in 2010. Back and forth between the big tour and the Web.com tour in the five years since, Martin oddly recorded three third-place finishes last season. He improved upon those finishes, riding the momentum of a Saturday 62 to his first tour win at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

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