While the PGA Tour season is two weeks old, the game's biggest names start their year this week -- in both Abu Dhabi and Palm Springs.
No. 1 - Tiger tees off -- The game's biggest name begins his 2013 season overseas while a majority of the American audience sleeps. Woods ended his nearly three-year winless streak last season when he captured his seventh career victory at Bay Hill, running away from Graeme McDowell. The victory propelled him to a three-win season, but Woods remained stuck on 14 major wins. He struggled at The Masters, and dropped off on the weekend at the season's final three majors.
Now he begins another season in the desert, playing at the European Tour's stop in Abu Dhabi with some of the world's best. Woods will undoubtedly receive a hefty appearance fee from the tournament organizers for showing up in the Middle East. It's a critical season for Woods in his majors chase of Jack Nicklaus -- the white whale of his career and everything he's working towards. 2012 was certainly an improvement over the previous two seasons, but there was still inconsistency with his swing and around the greens.
At the end of last season, he was overheard discussing the struggle and difficulty fully transitioning into the swing crafted by Sean Foley. But the natural progression, and his expectations, would call for a win at the majors in 2013. If the swing is beginning to take, he'll build off the three-win 2012 season and turn that into a 15th major, and perhaps more, in 2013. That work starts in the new year late Wednesday night in Abu Dhabi, playing alongside...
No. 2 - Rory McIlroy -- For the second-straight year, McIlroy and Woods will play together for at least the first two rounds in Abu Dhabi. But much has changed, particularly this week with the announcement that McIlroy would be joining Woods and donning the swoosh from head to toe. The two played plenty of golf together at the end of last season, and by all accounts, developed a friendship on the course. Woods did certainly seem more amiable with Rory.
Now, it's McIlroy who begins the year with a fat new sponsorship deal from Nike and a firm grasp on No. 1 in the world rankings. Rory's profile clearly shot to another level at the end of the last season, boosted by a dominating PGA Championship win and back-to-back victories in the FedExCup. The Nike deal and friendship with Woods will add to his worldwide appeal, and also increase the pressure for the Northern Irishman. This week's tournament in Abu Dhabi certainly isn't the biggest prize he'll chase this year, but playing next to Woods, there are still statements that can be made.
A major winner in each of the last two years, there's little doubt about who's calling the shots in European golf, particularly when it comes to...
No. 3 - McGinley named Euro captain -- Unlike the PGA of America, the European Tour stuck to the script and went with the favorite for their 2014 Ryder Cup captain. Paul McGinley was the odds-on favorite heading into Tuesday's final deliberations in Abu Dhabi, and he was unanimously selected. Once Darren Clarke took his name out of the running, McGinley became the preferred choice for the likely 2014 team members, despite a reported push by Colin Montgomerie.
McGinley becomes the first Irish-born Ryder Cup captain, and just the fourth outside of the U.K. He's played for Europe in three Ryder Cups, and been a vice captain for two of them -- including the stirring comeback at Medinah. He certainly doesn't have the playing resume of his counterpart, Tom Watson, who's the most successful modern player in Scotland, the 2014 host. But McGinley did have the vehement support of the players, including Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, and Ian Poulter.
McIlroy was a particularly strong supporter, speaking out on Twitter against any repeat captains (Monty) and citing McGinley by name. He also showed up at the introductory press conference on Tuesday, standing in the back of the room smiling as McGinley took questions and thanked him profusely. It's clear the support mattered:
At the St. Regis bar the top Euro tour brass are huddled with Rory celebrating. There's no doubt who the baller/shot-caller was on this deal— Alan Shipnuck (@AlanShipnuck) January 15, 2013
No. 4 - Dufner abroad -- It's unlikely there will be many War Eagle shouts from the gallery this week for Jason Dufner, as the proud Auburn alum also makes the trek to Abu Dhabi. Dufner became a worldwide star last year with his first two career wins and an impressive showing at the Ryder Cup. He'll reconnect with many of his former European adversaries this week by playing the Euro Tour event in Abu Dhabi. Dufner also revealed that he may be over on that tour more often, telling people he's considering membership in 2013.
Dufner will certainly fly under the radar with the crowd following the Woods-McIlroy-Martin Kaymer group, but it won't be a surprise if he's paired with one of those superstars in the final groups on Sunday. If he does play his way into contention, it will be without his caddie:
Some players struggle w/ lost luggage going overseas. J Dufner lost a caddie (visa issues) heading to Abu Dhabi & is going w/ a local looper— Rex Hoggard (@RexHoggardGC) January 16, 2013
No. 5 - Lefty debut -- While Rory and Tiger garner all the headlines overseas, Phil Mickelson will be making his 2013 debut in California at the Humana Challenge. Mickelson started hot last season, blowing out Woods at Pebble Beach. But he tapered off thereafter, squandering a chance at The Masters and struggling in the season's final three majors.
Mickelson certainly adds some star power to the revitalized Humana Challenge, the former Bob Hope Classic which was rescued last year with a new sponsorship deal. It's a nice spot to start the season for Mickelson, with plenty of chances to roll in birdies before he swings home to Torrey Pines. He'll turn 43 in June, and while he appears to have his arthritis problem in control, this is also the start of a big year for him. Is he entering the sunset of his career, or can he make another big push at a major and multi-win season? He'll still likely be in contention plenty this season, starting this week.
No. 6 - Bill Clinton -- This is the second year that Clinton and Humana are involved in the Tour's first stop on the continental US. Clinton has done more than lend his name and money to the tourney, as the 40th president continues to take an active role out in California. He spent time on the range meeting with all the players and interacting with the crowd throughout the week last year, fully immersing himself in the experience and adding cache to a once troubled tournament.
He's back again this year, and has already made news this week with a quip about his wife during the Health Matters discussion that started the week (via USA Today), "She's always been very, very healthy and she has very low blood pressure, very low standing heartbeat. I tell her that, you know, she's still got time to have three more husbands after me. So, I think she'll live to be 120."
Clinton's star power, and Humana's money, have this tournament on solid ground.
No. 7 - Humana Changes -- Outside of the new sponsorship deal, one of the biggest changes to the tournament in Palm Springs is that it has shifted to the traditional four-day format. Previously, the Bob Hope had been five rounds across five days, on three different courses, and with two amateurs in a group of foursomes. The change to a four-day event has drawn praise from the players, and also added to the ability to lure big names, like Mickelson. David Toms, a veteran at the Bob Hope, talked about the changes this week:
"I think it just has the feel of it being a normal tour event. You have four days, you are playing with pros every day. I think overall for the players experience, it's better," Toms said. "Now is it quite as much of a spectacle? You don't have as many celebrities playing. Bob Hope's not on the 18th green any more. It has a different feel to it. You aren't playing Indian Wells and Tamarisk or Bermuda Dunes anymore. So from a guy who has seen one end to the other, it's just different. I think it is better."
The four-day event had to be particularly helpful this year, with all the weather problems and flu going around during the two-week stint in Hawaii.
No. 8 - LPGA reveals 2013 schedule -- The LPGA continues to add events, punching up their schedule under commissioner Mike Whan. They seem to announce a new deal or sponsorship on almost a weekly basis recently, and this week they unveiled a 28-event schedule. While the tour lost two events this season, Whan did add three more for a net gain and the most complete schedule the LPGA has had since 2009.
No. 9 - Retrofitting Augusta -- EA Sports adds new wrinkles to their Tiger Woods golf game every year, and 2013 appears to have a history theme running throughout. This year, gamers will be able to play against the "legends" of golf, such as a young Arnold Palmer. EA also revealed this week that Augusta National, as it was set up in 1934 for the first Masters, will be included in this year's game. Here's a short video of how it will appear: