Ten reasons to be cheerful about 2010
There should be no doubt that 2010 has the potential to be a vintage year for golf. Forget for a moment the credit crunch, the gaps in the calendar, the tournaments under threat and the sponsorship deals still to be done.
Leave aside the current troubles of the sport's top player and instead look ahead to what should be a fantastic twelve months for golf fans. Here are ten reasons to be cheerful in 2010:
1. New rules on groove size and shape: This will add a fascinating dimension to the new season. Groove edges in the professional game will have to be more rounded and will have less depth. The result should be less control on shots from the rough so there will be a greater premium on finding fairways from the tee. "As much as it won't suit my game, it is a good decision," says three-time major winner Padraig Harrington. The feeling among the pros is that the move will put the onus on skill and accuracy and courses will be able to chop back some of the rough that has become such a negative aspect to course set-up in recent years. Seems like a win, win situation, while there is plenty of grace time for the rest with the new rules not kicking in until 2014 at elite amateur level and 2024 for the rest of us.
2. The Ryder Cup: 2009 didn't lack for excitement or drama, but Ryder Cup years always seem to have that extra dimension. Yes we over obsess on this biennial clash between Europe and the US but the intrigue of the qualification period provides a strong narrative for the season and the match itself never fails to deliver. The October date at Celtic Manor provides concern over autumnal conditions in the Usk Valley but this already feels as though it will be a very special match, especially with Europe so desperate to recapture the trophy. Judging by the 2009 year end rankings we will be watching the best players in the world, Europe and America each have 11 players in the world's top 30. The captains, Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin are such strong competitors they will be their own sources of interest throughout the year and once again golf will be able to transcend and attract general sports fans as well as die-hard golf enthusiasts. Bring it on.
3. The Return of Tiger part 1: Who knows when it will happen, but when it does it will be one of THE sports stories of 2010. Speculation is rife as to what "indefinite" means. Some say he will skip the entire year, but that seems unlikely. The odds are more likely on a return in time for the Masters. The carefully managed media side at Augusta would make the first major of the year an attractive idea for Woods (TMZ would struggle for accreditation), but he would surely want some competitive action before continuing his quest to overhaul Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 big ones. Could his season start at the Match Play as it did in 2009? What would be the message of returning at an event backed by one of the companies that dropped him from their sponsorship roster in the wake of the revelations about his private life? A trip to Uncle Arnie's place at Bay Hill is another option, but in reality how could we possibly know where Woods will tee up next when in all probability he has no idea? What is certain is that when he does come back golf will immediately jump towards the top of the sporting agenda.
Tiger Woods is taking an "indefinite" break from golf following revelations about his private life
4. The return of Tiger part 2: Quote of the year in 2009 came from Johnny Miller ahead of the final round at Bay Hill: "When you are paired in the final group with Tiger Woods you are the butter and he is the sun." Opposition has nearly always melted in Woods' presence if he has a sniff of a title. That's why YE Yang's US PGA victory was so special at Hazeltine, prompting "the end of an aura" type headlines. Well that message has been trotted out plenty since Tiger's troubles showed him to be as prone to human frailties as anyone else. So will the opposition continue to be as meek on a Sunday back nine as it has been throughout much of Woods' career? He needs five more majors to overhaul Nicklaus. As Peter Alliss recently said if Woods wins those the size of that achievement would dwarf anything he has already done in his glittering career. In any case when he does come back the competitive story will be strong enough to have us talking golf far more readily than the stuff that's been dominating the winter agenda so far.
5. Lee Westwood: Europe's number one doesn't believe much in mind gurus, the chaps who encourage clients to set their goals and keep them secret. We know the targets Westwood has in his sights and he is happy to tell us. Immediately after winning the Dubai World Championship he was discussing how he can use this success in his bid to win the Masters in April. For the Englishman it's simple. The one thing he hasn't won is majors and everything will be pointed at satisfying that aim. Emboldened by his recent wins in Portugal and in the desert, having finished the year as world number four and with the best caddie in the business, Billy Foster, on his bag 2010 is surely the year for the big breakthrough. He is now ready to seize the moment. He had the opportunity to do so at Turnberry and couldn't manage it. Expect him not to make the same mistakes again given the chance in 2010. Remember the groove factor too - Westwood is long but accurate from the tee a quality that should now have a higher premium.
6. Rory McIlroy: 20 years old and already a member of the world's top 10 and he looks at home there. His stats bear a striking resemblance to those of a 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros in 1976 - when the Spaniard won once en route to taking the Order of Merit crown - though the golfing world was a somewhat different place then. Only Westwood's brilliance denied McIlroy the Race to Dubai crown and the teenager will have learned plenty from the way the experienced Westwood bullied his way past him in Dubai. Mark O'Meara, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Ian Poulter were all among those who sang loudly McIlroy's praises in the course of 2009. From tee to green there are few better and only with the short stick is there much room for improvement. So long as he ensures he has the right voices around him on and off the course, 2010 could prove his lift-off year that should include a Ryder Cup debut.
7. Padraig Harrington: The man who shattered the glass ceiling that had frosted over European golf for far too long had a relatively quiet 2009. But from the moment he surrendered his Open title at Turnberry the Irishman appeared to have turned a significant corner, though uncharacteristically ruinous final round visits to the drink did for his chances at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA. He was, though, a consistent performer in the second half of the year and while the economic downturn hit some of his investments hard, Harrington appears in the mood to challenge at the majors in 2010. He also has a point or two to prove at the Ryder Cup having failed to fire in the two previous matches. Another big year would mean plenty of visits to the interview room and so an enlightening year for those of us sitting listening.
8. Pebble Beach: The iconic home of the US Open, it is 10 years since America's national championship was last played on this special piece of California coastline and so anticipation could not be higher for the second major of the year. We'd be feeling the same about our own Open being played at St Andrews if the R&A could bring themselves to limit the number of times they use the Home of Golf, but that's another matter and this is supposed to be an upbeat piece. We remember Watson's chip in at the 17th to defy Nicklaus, Kite flying in the wind to deny Monty and Woods winning by fifteen shots a decade ago. Pebble never fails to deliver.
9. The extended Road Hole: Opinion is split on the putting back of the 17th tee on the Old Course at St Andrews by 35 yards. A collective groan often meets news of a course being extended to cope with the distances travelled by the modern day golf ball. But if this move makes the famous Road Hole once again the most feared par 4 in the game at this year's Open then it should be welcomed. We want a player with a two-shot lead not to feel comfortable until this hole has been completed. But here's also a chance to get rid of the rough down the right-hand side which was a blight on this majestic hole.
10. Chris Wood's headgear: Or rather the lack of it. How refreshing to see a top player rejecting the opportunity to use his head as an advertising hoarding and here's hoping he continues with this policy in 2010. Think of the greats of the past and how distinctive they were in the absence of standard issue hats or visors - Nicklaus, Seve and co. Those who chose to wear hats had their own style - Watson, Trevino and Hogan for example. Too many of the modern players look too similar and the peaks of those caps obscure too much of their personality. Wood has been the exception and long may it continue. He climbed 120 places in the rankings in 2009 and now into the top 75 the eilte leading 50 spots in the rankings is surely within touching distance. Hats off to Wood!