The year of the Tiger

Tiger Woods of the U.S. tees off on the 16th hole during the final round of the Chevron World...

Tiger Woods of the U.S. tees off on the 16th hole during the final round of the Chevron World Challenge PGA golf tournament in Thousand Oaks, California December 4, 2011. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

TIM MCKAY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:35 PM ET

With the book closed on 2011 — a year in which Luke Donald rose to the top and Rory McIlroy announced his presence in a major way — there are a lot of questions as the 2012 PGA Tour season kicks off this week.

The biggest of which, of course, is whether Tiger Woods can, nay will, continue his comeback by posting a victory in a full-field event, let alone a major championship.

Pundits are predicting big things from Woods after his victory late last year in the 18-man Chevron World Challenge, where he whet the appetite of golf fans by holding off Zach Johnson down the stretch to claim his first title in two years. In doing so, Woods soared from 52nd to a controversial 21st in the official world golf ranking, many feeling such weight should not have been given to a limited-field tournament.

But what everyone wants to know is whether Woods can make another assault on the world No. 1 ranking and whether or not he can once again chip away at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors as he has been stalled at 14 since 2008.

Heck, after his comments to the Associated Press this week, even Tiger seems unsure.

“The young guys coming through are practising harder and training harder than ever before and raising the bar,’’ Woods said. “I think the level of consistency I had a few years ago would see me climb back up the rankings pretty quickly, but I do think there are some pretty phenomenal golfers out there that I really respect.”

Woods will get his first opportunity to measure himself against the best right out of the gate, kicking off his season Jan. 26 with the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship against the likes of Donald and McIlroy.

“I am looking to get off to a fast start in Abu Dhabi and keep building from there,” Woods told AP, even mentioning his foils and the welcomed sparring they will provide.

“There are so many great and talented players in the game right now — it is exciting for golf fans and I relish the challenge of going head-to-head with any number of the leading players on a Sunday afternoon,’’ Woods said. “Rory and Luke are both very talented golfers and I admire what they have achieved in the last year. I look forward to having many great battles on a Sunday afternoon with these great players in 2012.’’

Woods says he’s finally past the leg injuries that had hampered him. His work with Canadian swing coach Sean Foley is starting to pay dividends and his putting/putter issues are showing signs of fading. Now all that’s left is to find his form in competition.

“Now that I am healthy, I feel I can keep building my game and confidence week on week, much like I did at the end of (last) year — from the Australian Open to the Presidents Cup to, finally, a win in California.”

Many have pegged April’s Masters as Tiger’s big test, some predicting victory. Not a bad bet, considering he has tied for fourth there in each of his past two visits, when he was less than ready.

QUEST FOR No. 1

Everyone knew Luke Donald was good, but 2011 was such an intoxicating run, there is bound to be a hangover.

Donald became the first man to officially win the money title on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, and he won just about every end-of-season golf award. But with the calibre of golfers nipping at his heels in 2012, he will have to continue with his amazing consistency (fun fact from the PGA Tour: Donald missed just 45 putts out of 2,258 inside five feet on the PGA Tour in 2011, prompting Donald to write on Twitter: “45? I want a re-count!”) to stay on top of the heap.

Donald also would like to drop the best-player-without-a-major-victory tag, which would be a nice cherry on top of an incredible run.

THE NEXT WAVE

McIroy, 22, clearly is the face of the next generation, but the world No. 3 needs to show his 2011 U.S. Open brilliance wasn’t a one-off.

Just saluted by the Queen as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, with his silky-smooth swing and a vow to play more on the PGA Tour, he’s not likely to disappear, but would anything less than another major be considered a success in 2012? Darren Clarke’s British Open stunner is considered a nice cap to his career, but McIlroy’s major was hailed as the beginning of a special career.

But he’s not the only 20-something with a nice 2011 season to back up.

The list includes 24-year-old Jason Day (runner-up at the Masters and the U.S. Open in 2011), PGA Tour rookie of the year and PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, 25, FedEx Cup champ and Presidents Cup winner Bill Haas, 29, among others.

CANADIANS

Sure, 2011 was not a banner year for (most) Canadians on the PGA Tour, but a couple of standout performances kept Canucks cheering.

David Hearn’s end-of-season brilliance (including two crucial top-10s down the stretch) allowed him to keep his card and he will be looking to build on that in 2012. Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., earned more than $400,000 US in just five PGA Tour events, including a fourth-place finish at the Canadian Open, but he fell short at qualifying school and will play with conditional status on the Nationwide Tour.

Canadian elder-statesmen Mike Weir and Stephen Ames, both of whom have battled injury and flagging results over the past couple of years, are hoping for bounce-back seasons in 2012 with Weir looking to fill out his schedule by taking up membership on the European Tour as well.

Finally healthy after surgery last year, Graham DeLaet will play 2012 on a medical exemption.

TIGER’S QUEST FOR 19 MAJORS

Tiger Woods is now 36. Can his body and game propel him to five more majors? Here’s a look at players’ major records before and after the age of 35:

Player Before 35 After 35

Jack Nicklaus 12 6

Tiger Woods 14 ?

Ben Hogan 1 8

Sam Snead 2 5

Tom Watson 8 0

Arnold Palmer 7 0

Phil Mickelson 1 3

CONTROVERSIES FOR 2012

These were all issues in 2011, will they rear their ugly heads again?

Steve Williams: The caddie was let go by Tiger Woods after asking to loop for Adam Scott while Woods was on hiatus, but the diatribes that followed were uncalled for and, frankly, racist. One more outburst may force Scott into firing Williams, too.

Dueling coaches: Tiger Woods’ former coach Hank Haney and current coach Sean Foley traded barbs via Twitter and the press in 2011. All seems quiet between them, for now.

The long putter: Here’s hoping someone addresses this issue sooner than later. Are they fixed to the body? Is there a maximum length? Should they be banned? Probably yes to all three!

Free Ryder: Some seemed shocked Tiger Woods was selected for the 2011 Presidents Cup team. If he’s not in the top 8 that automatically qualify for this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup squad, he will be a captain’s pick again.

THREE INTRIGUING PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2012

WEBB SIMPSON

Simpson won twice last season (Wyndham and Deutsche Bank), but with a little luck he could have won five times (bogeyed final hole at Transitions, penalty stroke in playoff at Zurich, playoff loss at McGladrey). After finishing as runner-up for the money title, can the 26-year-old keep it going?

GARY WOODLAND

This guy came out of nowhere (went from an official golf ranking of 588th at the end of 2010, to 51st) to win his first PGA Tour event (Transitions). He finished 17th on the money list, but was 2011 just an anomaly?

DAVID HEARN

The 32-year-old from Brantford, Ont., proved late last season that he has the game to play with the big boys when the pressure’s on. After a career-best tie for fifth at the Justin Timberlake event in October and three top-10s on the season, Hearn said he feels he can take the next step and win. This could be his year.


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