Hyundai Tournament of Champions: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson lead talented American crop at Kapalua

Sam Greenwood

The season tees off in Hawaii, with several storylines orbiting the golf world.

In 2013, on a weekly basis, we'll highlight 18 headlines from around the world of golf -- nine that developed throughout the week and preview the upcoming weekend, and nine coming out of the weekend's events on the various tours. With the 2013 season teeing off at Kapalua on Friday afternoon, here's this week's Front 9.

No. 1 - I am a real American: The Hyundai ToC features a cadre of talented young American players that should rotate as champions for the next 10 to 15 years -- Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar, Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker, Nick Watney, Kyle Stanley, Jason Dufner -- it's a long and loaded list that adds to the excitement of the start of the new season. It features 2012 major winners and Ryder Cuppers, as well as some guys trying to bounce back in 2013. There are, and will be, distinctive levels within that group as the season(s) progresses.

There are plenty watching Dustin Johnson, and how the talented bomber will begin a new year. If he can improve around the greens, he can join Rory at that next level. Simpson, who will have a fill-in caddie on the bag at the start of the season, and Bradley are so consistent that we'll almost certainly see them hoist some more trophies in 2013. And can Bubba, who will be bombing alongside Johnson, follow up his Masters win with another major? He's a week-to-week guy, but it will be interesting to see where he's at for the start in Hawaii. Fowler, who picked up his first win at Quail Hollow, tapered off and missed out on the Ryder Cup. Can he, and Watney, start 2013 strong after relatively disappointing 2012 seasons?

Even in a limited field and with no Rory or Tiger, there are plenty of players to watch this week -- particularly among that talented crop of Americans.

No. 2 - 50th State start: The Tour has settled in nicely to the season opener at Kapalua, considered the toughest pro test on the island of Maui. But whether it's travel, scheduling, or $$$ reasons, the three biggest names continue to skip out on the Tournament of Champions -- Phil, Rory, Tiger. There are plenty of familiar faces, major winners, and young stars in attendance, but with no Rory or Tiger, the first two weeks of the Tour season in Hawaii will fly under the radar among the general public.

But that doesn't mean anything should change. Kapalua has become a picturesque January kickoff point, and has also provided primetime finishes in the dead of winter (although I imagine a few more people will be interested in 'Bama-ND on Monday night). It's an open layout that promotes a "grip it and rip it" approach. Last year's champions will have to contend with Kapalua's tricky wind gusts (up to 40 mph this week) and significant undulations on the greens, but there will be lots o' birdies during an exciting opening week.

No. 3 - Football elements: Golf and football are about as far apart on the sports spectrum as its gets, with just about nothing in common. But with NBC/Golf Channel picking up the coverage this week, the players will take a page from the network's Sunday Night Football broadcasts and announce themselves and their background info on the first tee on Friday, as noted by our Emily Kay this week. The Tour and networks do a lot to try and make golf look cool and dramatic, and this is another little wrinkle.

No. 4 - Bombs away at the 18th: It's not a difficult hole, but the downhill par 5 almost always provides an exciting finish. The cascading views down the fairway are enough, but the bombers love to rip it and target a closing eagle. It was here that Bubba made a play for "shot of year" just days into the 2012 season, when he took his driver off the deck and cut it nearly 75 yards right to left to run it on the green in two -- this is a hole measuring 663 yards on the card.

Of course, the elevation change has it playing much shorter than that, with 400-yard drives well within range depending on the wind direction. The Tour will also employ a gimmick called "The Landing Zone" to track the bombs into the 18th fairway. Bubba and Dustin will be paired together through the first two days of the tournament, and multiple 400-yard drives are certainly in reach in that pairing. Beyond the aesthetics, this is still one of the cooler holes on Tour and an easy way to light some early-season fireworks.

No. 5 - Rory McIlroy and Olympics abstention: Rory made the leap in 2012, and now his every move will be scrutinized. That spotlight certainly existed before his big run last year, but he's firmly raced ahead of everyone in the game (not named Tiger) in terms of global popularity.

Aside from the impending equipment and apparel deal with Nike, one question that's been hanging over his head -- placed by an eager European press -- is who he would play for in the 2016 Olympics. Claiming Northern Ireland as his home country, officials and representative from both the UK and Ireland have pleaded with McIlroy to play for their respective side. Obviously, there's a long and messy history, full of tension there. And in order to avoid controversy, news surfaced this week that Rory may just skip the Rio games altogether. It would be a big blow to golf's return to the Olympics.

No. 6 - Jordan Spieth pro schedule taking shape: The uber talented Texan turned pro at the end of 2012, and he will have to rely on Monday qualifying and sponsor's exemptions to gain entry to 2013 PGA Tour events. Spieth's been a name in the golf world since he was a teenager, when he acquitted himself well at the Byron Nelson. It was no gimmick or flash in the pan, either, as he went on to become first team All-American and win a national title at UT. He also finished with a T25 at Olympic last year as an amateur.

With golf's constant focus on "who's next," tour officials will be closely watching Spieth's inaugural foray into pro competition. Spieth can accept seven sponsor's exemptions, which should roll in for the top prospect. This week, he added the Puerto Rico Open and AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am to his schedule. He'll debut as pro at Pebble next month -- perhaps the start of the next great professional golf career.

No. 7 - Ref Lockout, Part Deux? While it likely won't paralyze the country with fear and prompt the president to issue a statement, the PGA Tour and its rules officials are experiencing labor strife. The rules officials will work at the start of the 2013 season, but without a contract. Rex Hoggard reported on Golf Channel on Thursday morning that their attorney has not ruled out a strike as their salaries slot well below the compensation packages of other professional sports. Hoggard noted that with five years of service, a rules official is estimated at making $130,000 per year. But they're also agitating for a restoration of benefits, which have been reduced. It's a relatively minor and unknown story, but the players are definitely concerned about losing these folks inside the ropes.

No. 8 - Equipment changes: With the start of a new season, a lot of the stories this week focused on all the equipment changes -- before a ball was ever struck in a competitive round. It's an annual thing, tracking all the players who have changed either equipment or apparel sponsorships (or both). Nick Watney and Kyle Stanley switched to Nike, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson joined Oakley. Bubba also noted he'll be using a new driver, putter, and wedges from Ping, his traditional equipment partner. Of course, the biggest switch is expected to be announced on Monday, when Nike brings Rory McIlroy into the fold.

No. 9 - Pine Valley back on top: Golf nerds are always anxious to see where their favorite courses come in on Golf Digest's Top 100 list, and while there's certainly an arbitrary nature and ample argument around the list, things are pretty set at the top. It's either Pine Valley or Augusta National, with both rotating in the top two spots regularly. This year, Pine Valley is back in the No. 1 spot.

In the past decade, the list de-emphasized some of the historical aspects that affected the rankings. But it's hard to imagine either of these layouts ever falling out of the top two, or to expect much change inside the top 10. With majors at Augusta, Merion, and Oak Hill this year, some of these venerable tracks will get plenty of exposure. Pine Valley, however, will remain shrouded and protected from the eyes of the peasantry.

Check in next week for the Back 9 as we recap the headlines coming out of the 2013 season opener at Kapalua.

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