Vijay or Tiger? And other questions ...

FACT: The PGA Tour season officially begins on Thursday, with the first round of the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua.

FICTION: No, it wasn't "just yesterday" that you were watching the PGA Tour's top players in action; it was, like, three weeks ago.

As the tour progresses seemlessly from '04 to '05, our panel of experts looked at the big stories entering the season.

  • Vijay Singh, not Tiger Woods, is the prohibitive favorite to once again capture the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award.

    Ron Sirak, executive editor, Golf World magazine: FICTION. Singh has fattened his resume the last two years on a lot of John Deere Classics, and because Woods has been working on swing changes. Tiger still owns Vijay and he will make him pay in 2005.

    Jason Sobel, golf editor, ESPN.com: FICTION. Vijay who? Sure, last season was nice, but once Tiger wins the Mercedes, Singh (the world's No. 1 player) will once again take a backseat to Woods (the world's No. 2 player) on the money list ... and he will never catch up.

    Matt Rudy, editor, Golf Digest: FICTION. Anybody who works as hard (and is as ornery) as Singh has to be considered at least one of the favorites, but after two straight stroke-play wins, Tiger Woods has other plans for the Nicklaus trophy.

    Brian Wacker, assistant editor, GolfDigest.com: FICTION. That's like saying someone's a prohibitive favorite against Michael Jordan. Like the former NBA superstar, Woods is fueled by competitive juices that aren't quantifiable. How else can you explain his 14 top 10s in a year in which he couldn't find the hole with a GPS? He had a swing epiphany late in the year the way he did in 1998 and we'll see the results in 2005.

    Mike Stachura, senior editor, Golf Digest: FACT. Until Tiger Woods learns to hit a fairway when the heat is on with something other than a 2-iron, it's Vijay Hogan's world and we're all just living in it. Only two words stand in Vijay's way: Ernie. Els.

    Bob Harig, contributor, ESPN.com: FICTION. You expect Singh to be there again, but prohibitive favorite? No. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will have too much to say about that. And there is no way Singh can be expected to put up the same numbers for a second straight year.

    Peter Finch, senior editor, Golf Digest: FICTION. This year is wide open. The only prohibitive favorites in '05: Isleworth in the Tavistock Cup.

    Ryan Herrington, senior editor, Golf World: FICTION. Even calling Singh the favorite over Woods might be stretching it a bit, let alone prohibitive favorite. While admitting that Woods' two end-of-the-year wins are not the same as heat-of-the-moment victories on the PGA Tour, he does appear to be rounding into form and, suffice it to say, I think he might be a tad bit motivated by his detractors from 2004 to make 2005 once again the Year of the Tiger.

  • No player will come within three wins of Singh's nine-win total of last season.

    Stachura: FICTION. Besides Woods and Singh, only two players in the last 25 years have won six or more times in a season: Tom Watson and Nick Price. Neither of those guys will do that in 2005 and neither will Singh or Woods. But it will happen, and Jay Haas will be the one to do it. On the Champions Tour.

    Harig: FACT. Before Singh won nine last year, only Tiger Woods won more than six (1999, 2000) going back to Tom Watson's seven victories in 1980. Nick Price won six times in 1994. Perhaps Singh will get more credit when it becomes apparent how difficult it is to win that many times.

    Sobel: FICTION. Tiger gets at least six. So does Annika. And Craig Stadler. And, just for the record, how many college tournaments will UNLV senior Ryan Moore compete in this year? Does that guy ever lose?

    Finch: FICTION. Annika will easily come within three.

    Sirak: FACT. Unless Woods, Els and Mickelson decide to play as many "B" level events as Singh normally does, no one is going to get to a half-dozen victories. Also, this could be the year in which all the best players play well at the same time. Look for several guys with three or four wins.

    Herrington: FACT. Six wins will definitely be the most of any winner, whether that be Woods, Singh or Els.

    Rudy: FICTION. Els won five times around the world and left a good four others (including three majors) on the table. Woods, Mickelson, Els or even Singh could win seven or eight times in '05.

    Wacker: FACT. The talent pool is simply too deep from top to bottom. Everyone from Vijay Singh to Fred Funk to Vaughn Taylor to Ryan Palmer registered victories in 2004.

  • John Daly simply caught lightning in a bottle last season. He won't fare nearly as well in '05.

    Finch: FACT. And golf will be the worse for it.

    Herrington: FACT. Focus has never been Long John's strong suit, and as much as golf fans would love to see him continue his strong play of 2004, to expect a second straight year from the 38-year-old is asking a bit much.

    Wacker: FICTION. If he keeps his life on the straight and narrow, Daly can be a contender almost any week he tees it up. For as far as he hits it, people forget what a great short game he has -- Daly ranked fifth in putting and in the top 30 in sand saves last season.

    Sobel: FACT. It's great for the game, great for the fans and great for Long John when he's playing well, but don't expect a repeat. Prior to finishing 21st on the money list last season, these were Daly's previous 10 finishes: 171st ('03), 112th ('02), 61st ('01), 188th ('00), 158th ('99), 77th ('98), 165th ('97), 121st ('96), 57th ('95) and 49th ('94). Ouch.

    Sirak: FACT. Throughout John's career consistency has been defined by finishing two holes in a row. The chances of Daly having back-to-back good years are slim and none -- and slim is not a word in Daly's vocabulary.

    Rudy: FICTION. He might not win as dramatically as he did in San Diego last year, but there's no reason Daly can't win as much money in '05 as he did last year. He's still one of the four or five most talented people on tour. Of course, there's a reason they don't allow glass bottles into tour events ...

    Harig: FICTION. If Daly had really caught lightning in a bottle, he would have won more than once in '04.

    Stachura: FICTION. John Daly's entire career is about catching lightning in a bottle. He's still hitting it an average of 305 yards off the tee, longer than all but two players on the PGA Tour. But now that his putter works again -- he ranked fifth in 2004 -- he could easily accidentally win twice.

  • Phil Mickelson will still own only one career major title at the end of the year.

    Stachura: FICTION. Five years ago, Mickelson turned in the steadiest major performance of his career when he went toe-to-toe with Payne Stewart. Stewart made big putts on each of the last three holes to steal the trophy. Pinehurst, the site of that bitter defeat, owes him one and Mickelson knows it. That will be the motivation he needs.

    Herrington: FACT. Protected from criticism by the continued glow of his Masters win in 2004, Lefty might have a success in 2005, but a second Green Jacket or any other piece of major paraphernalia will elude him.

    Sirak: FICTION. He will win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The tournament owes him, the course owes him and most importantly he now believes he can do it.

    Wacker: FICTION. It took John Elway 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl. The second one came the next year. When you're as talented as Mickelson, once the first one's out of the way, the rest come easier.

    Rudy: FICTION. After Tiger gets it back at Augusta, Mickelson will win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999.

    Harig: FICTION. If Mickelson continues to treat the majors as he did in '04, when he scouted out the venues and put extreme effort into winning, he is bound to come away with another Grand Slam title. Given the way he played last year, he could have easily won two or three more.

    Sobel: FICTION. As long as Augusta National is still in the major rotation (and from everything we've heard, that's not changing anytime soon), he's got a great shot to win one. Throw in Pinehurst and Baltusrol and Mickelson will play three major courses that should set up well for his game.

    Finch: FICTION. He'll do even better at Pinehurst this time. Unless ... is Amy is expecting again?

  • David Duval will return to the winner's circle for the first time since the '01 British Open.

    Sirak: FICTION. The only way David picks up a first-place trophy in '05 is if he enters a snowboard competition. Too many players got a lot better in Duval's absence. He'll win again, but not this year.

    Sobel: FACT. Had the same question been posed about Daly a year ago, we would have scoffed. Or Joey Sindelar, Fred Funk and Woody Austin, for that matter. Once a player knows how to win, he'll always carry that knowledge. Duval could snag a late-season victory, maybe at The International in his new hometown or at the Deutsche Bank Championship, where he played well in '04.

    Finch: FICTION. He's come a long way -- but not that far.

    Rudy: FICTION. He's on the way back, but it's a long, bumpy road. Duval would be overjoyed to finish 30th on the money list and rack up a half-dozen top-10s. Winning is still two steps away.

    Stachura: FICTION. Really, which 80 last year leads you to believe he's back? The one in the U.S. Open? The one in the PGA? Sure his swing's looking a little better, but he's a long way from redeveloping the mental makeup of a winner. Don't forget, the guy went 86 starts before winning for the first time. He's played just nine times since starting his latest comeback.

    Wacker: FICTION. He's Ian Banker-Finch redux, and that's just fine with him. Duval's a happier person when not worrying about winning golf tournaments or being No. 1 in the world.

    Harig: FICTION. Duval has not seriously threatened to win for nearly three years. He needs to get into contention first before he can break through and win.

    Herrington: FACT. Double D quite likely could be the PGA Tour's feel good story for 2005. He has too much talent not to win if he's finally committed again mentally to playing on tour.

  • Sergio Garcia is the current Best Player To Never Win A Major.

    Rudy: FACT. Nobody else is even close. A transcendant performance at the Ryder Cup just makes us wonder even more when he's going to break through in a major.

    Harig: FACT. With apologies to Padraig Harrington, who until '05 has played very little in the United States, Garcia gets the nod. It might be based more on potential, but Garcia, at age 25, is already a six-year veteran and is ranked ninth in the world. He now has five PGA Tour victories along with another nine international titles.

    Stachura: FICTION. Nice kid, good act, but he's nowhere near as complete a player as the Detroit Lions' quarterback's cousin. Padraig Harrington will win a major.

    Herrington: FACT. Although that will change come July; St. Andrews is wide open enough for Garcia's somewhat wayward driver not to get him into too much trouble, and his ball striking will help reward him with the claret jug.

    Wacker: FACT. Arguably more talented than any player on tour, Garcia has knocked on the door a couple of times. That 66 he shot in the final round of the Masters this year was silly good. Unfortunately his antics afterward were just silly. You don't want him to shut off his emotions completely because that's part of what makes him so good, but if he ever learns to reign them in just a little look out.

    Finch: FACT. Who else would it be? Stephen Ames?

    Sirak: FACT. And now that Colin Montgomerie has had a late-career personality transplant, Garcia is also the most annoying player never to win a major. The scary thing for El Nino is that he is a feel player and feel players win early in their careers. His window on majors may be closing. Needs one this year and Masters or British Open at St. Andrews are his best chances.

    Sobel: FICTION. Hmmm ... upon last inspection of the World Ranking, Garcia was ninth and Harrington sixth. Garcia will be the better player in the long run, but Harrington's better right now. And Stewart Cink deserves to be thrown into the conversation, too.

  • A European golfer will win a major for the first time since Paul Lawrie in the '99 British Open.

    Sirak: FACT. A dozen guys are coming into 2005 on a Ryder Cup high and one of them -- at least -- will ride that momentum to a major championship title. Best bets are Padraig Herrington, Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia. The sentimental choice would be Colin Montgomerie at St. Andrews in his native Scotland.

    Wacker: FICTION. Garcia's still too temperamental, Luke Donald isn't seasoned enough, Padraig Harrington can never quite put it all together and Colin Montgomerie's best days are behind him. Who else is left?

    Stachura: FACT. Padraig Harrington. His game is perfect for a brutal U.S. Open-like torture chamber like Baltusrol, which will be the site for the PGA. Mark him down to win there and reinstate Sergio as the next in line.

    Finch: FICTION. Unless you consider Ernie Els a European.

    Herrington: FACT. As the Ryder Cup last September proved, the Euros can play and have several young guns ready to take their games to major heights. If it's not Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and even Paul "properly hate them" Casey can all win just as easily as Ben Curtis or Shaun Micheel.

    Rudy: FICTION. Europe's best hopes are Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke, but those three stand in line behind the Americans (Woods, Mickelson) South Africans (Els, Goosen) and Singh. Augusta and Pinehurst are especially unfriendly to European style roll-it-up golf.

    Sobel: FICTION. There are just too many good international players out there these days. Even if the Fab Five of Woods, Els, Singh, Mickelson and Goosen doesn't sweep the majors, there's a great chance that guys like Mike Weir, Chad Campbell, David Toms, K.J. Choi, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson or Stuart Appleby will get in on the act. It's quite conceivable that the Presidents Cup in September will showcase the winners of all four majors.

    Harig: FACT. The odds say it has to happen sometime, right? Harrington, Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn give Europe six players among the top 25 in the world.

  • Annika Sorenstam's LPGA money title streak will be snapped by Grace Park, Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer or another up-and-coming player.

    Sobel: FICTION. The real question may be, When will Annika's money title streak end? If she doesn't forego golf for babies (as she's often discussed wanting to do), Sorenstam may be locked into the top spot for the remainder of the decade, until a 20-year-old named Michelle Wie finally nabs the honor in her third professional season.

    Rudy: FACT. Sorenstam's only limitations are self-imposed. She doesn't like to travel and is bored with golf outside the majors. She'll be the obvious favorite to win those, but somebody like Park or Ochoa, both of whom play 10 more events, have a Singh-style advantage in capacity.

    Harig: FICTION. Unless Sorenstam has a serious motivation problem, she'll claim all the top honors again.

    Sirak: FICTION. Annika is Secretariat and everyone else on tour is the rest of the pack in the Belmont Stakes. No one in the history of the game has ever separated themself from the field as decisively as Sorenstam. The only quuestion is how many majors she will pick off this year.

    Wacker: FICTION. Annika is still to women's golf what Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL -- miles ahead of everyone else. She will dominate again in 2005.

    Herrington: FICTION. Unless Sorenstam reveals she's pregnant in the next few months, she'll once again be the lead hen on the LPGA Tour in 2005.

    Stachura: FICTION. Where in that group do you see a terminator? Grace Park? She carries an umbrella to protect herself from the sun. Ochoa and Creamer have two wins between them, both by Ochoa, neither with Annika even in the field. Truthfully, Annika looks at all of these newbies, and like Curly in City Slickers, says to herself, "I crap bigger than you."

    Finch: FICTION. They won't even come within $500,000 of her.

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