What course will golf take?

IAN HUTCHINSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

The winter hibernation is over with the Mercedes-Benz Championship set to kick off on Thursday a golf season in which Tiger Woods is back and Annika Sorenstam is gone.

It should be an interesting year and, as always, controversy will follow a game that is considered so genteel.

Here are some of the hot topics you'll be hearing about as the year progresses.

GLITTERING AUGUSTA

The weather will determine how often you hear complaints about the Masters becoming more like the U.S. Open.

Augusta National has made minimal changes for the 2009 Masters after Trevor Immelman closed with a 75 and still managed to win in gusty conditions last year.

Zach Johnson won the year before after going one-over for the tournament.

In the past, Augusta has been caught up in the trend of making holes tougher in order to deal with technological advances in golf equipment, but so far those changes have only managed to take some of the shine off its reputation as one of the glittering venues in golf.

THREE STRIKES YOU'RE OUT

The PGA Tour has tinkered once again with the FedEx Cup, so let's see how things work out this season.

The most important question is -- as it was during the first two years of the Cup -- can a game that has revolved around majors suddenly be transformed to include playoffs like other sports? So far, the answer is no.

THE REAL WORLD

Will all top players heed a request from the PGA Tour to play a few more tournaments in these troubled economic times or will they just go with the attitude that they've made enough in their lifetime to not be impacted by the problems facing fans and sponsors?

THE EASTERN OPEN?

Scott Simmons, executive director of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, had said he would name all the venues for the RBC Canadian Open up to 2014 by the end of last year.

It didn't happen, but an announcement should come soon and Shaughnessy in Vancouver likely will be the only western venue in the mix, prompting the familiar refrain that the Open is an eastern event that should be rotated around the country.

The problem is that from an infrastructure perspective, the RCGA has deemed Shaughnessy as the only western venue capable of hosting a PGA Tour tournament.

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE

Now that the Americans finally have won a Ryder Cup, when do we start asking why some pretty good International teams have failed to win the Presidents Cup when that event is played in October in San Francisco?

The Americans hold a convincing 5-1-1 record in the event and the Internationals' only victory came more than 10 years ago.

Let the theories begin.

DOWNSIZED SCHEDULE

The LPGA Tour will have three fewer events and less overall prize money in 2009.

What could help with fan interest and sponsorship dollars is an American making a serious run at world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa of Mexico.

The highest-ranked American female is Paula Creamer (fourth), followed by Cristie Kerr (seventh) and Angela Stanford (ninth) in the top 10. After that, the next highest American is Morgan Pressel in 19th.

No wonder all eyes are on Michelle Wie.

TALKING GOLF

The issue of LPGA Tour players learning to speak English, if they can't already, is quiet right now, but it will heat up again in '09 after the tour threatened to suspend or punish players who didn't meet a certain standard of proficiency.

The tour has backed off on that edict, which was seen as directed at Asian players and, by some, as racist. On the other hand, the tour and the players themselves would benefit from improved English on a circuit that is mostly played in North America.

The sputtering economy has emphasized the importance of players being fan-friendly, sponsor-friendly and able to converse with pro-am partners.

But how do you define an acceptable level of proficiency and how do you get players on board, without seeming heavy-handed?

OH, CANADA

It's one month short of eight years since a Canadian won on the LPGA Tour, that coming on Feb. 10, 2001, when Lorie Kane took the LPGA Takefuji Classic.

The best hope to end this dry spell is Hamilton's Alena Sharp, who finished 69th on the money list, but didn't get a top-10 in 2008.

Kane, Canada's only other full-time player, missed 13 of 22 cuts and her best finish in 2008 was a tie for 31st at the LPGA Corning Classic.


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