Hopes or fears about to be realised
None of top tour pros capture the public's imagination in the way McIlroy and Woods do
Expectations for a new tournament year seemed to acquire precious little impetus from Dustin Johnson's exploits in winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions last weekend. Even the familiar appeal of Maui's spectacular Kapalua stretch, served only to heighten anticipation for the return to action of two potentially thrilling practitioners over the coming fortnight.
Ten years on from embarking on his first full season on Tour, Rory McIlroy ends an extended lay-off by joining an elite field on Thursday in Abu Dhabi, which will be the first of eight events for him on the run-up to the US Masters in April. And a week later, Tiger Woods makes a keenly anticipated comeback to the PGA Tour in the Farmers Insurance Open on terrain he loves so well, at Torrey Pines.
As if competitive pressures are not already fierce enough, both players will be expected to revitalise a largely disenchanted world audience. Fearing my own perspective might have become somewhat jaundiced, I sought reassurance from my go-to expert in such matters.
"There's no doubting a general flatness to the tournament scene," said Noel Fox, one of the game's more enlightened observers. "We're missing the rivalries we once had involving Europe against the rest, like in Seve [Ballesteros] versus [Paul] Azinger or [Nick] Faldo versus [Greg] Norman or [Colin] Montgomerie versus [Ernie] Els, or from other greats such as [Ian] Woosnam, [Sandy] Lyle and [Bernhard] Langer.
"Through my coaching work, I'm in close contact with the golfing public and indications are that fewer people are watching the game on TV these days. It's because the current crop of players, talented as they are, simply don't fire the imagination. We're not seeing them engage in thrilling battles down the stretch.
"In previous decades, you would have had exhibition matches to excite the public interest, but unless you really like how the game is now being played, you're unlikely to watch it. Justin Thomas may have incredible talent, but he's not making me watch golf on TV."
He went on: "I love the way Jordan Spieth plays the game, especially his determination to go as low as he can, every time he tees it up. And Dustin Johnson in full flow can be great to watch. But it's the rivalries that we're lacking; the head-to-head confrontations between players with an edge to their personalities."
Having acquired the tuition licence for Leopardstown Driving Range where he will be joined by Hazel Kavanagh and John Langan, Fox is set to negotiate a path once trod at the south Dublin establishment by John Jacobs, otherwise known as "Dr Golf" and arguably the finest teacher in the history of the European game.
Back in January 2008, 18-year-old McIlroy was thrilled simply to have a European Tour card. His aspirations didn't extend beyond making the top-60 for the end-of-season Volvo Masters at Valderrama where, as it happened, he was tied 39th behind Soren Kjeldsen for a reward of €29,500.
He later recalled it as "quite an adjustment, being on tour and playing in far-flung places I'd never been to before." Though the end of August 2008 saw him 90th in the Order of Merit and 205th in the world rankings, he was 39th in the world by year-end, so qualifying for the Majors in 2009. Which warranted a celebratory, early-morning, "guess-what" phone-call from overseas to his coach Michael Bannon.
Now, his targets are somewhat grander, like capturing the Masters at the 10th attempt to become only the sixth player to complete the career grand slam. In the meantime, he continues this month's European schedule in Dubai before returning to the PGA Tour in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am on February 8-11.
All of which will target an ascent back up the world rankings from his current 11th position. A sobering consideration, however, is that from a time when Phil Mickelson complained despairingly "How can I compete with this guy?", McIlroy is now rated a 4/9 shot to end this year without another Major win. Bookmakers also have him at 2/1 to increase his tally to five and 11/1 to make it six, by repeating his double-Major success of 2014.
"Rory is the Ayrton Senna of golf," said Fox. "Watching him at full throttle is magical, like observing Roger Federer or any of the great ones of sport. We've got used to him showing up in top gear three or four times a year and blowing the field away. But there's now the chance that his top gear may no longer be good enough because of the quality of the competition. He needs other gears.
"Rory tends to see himself as something of a golfing artist, for whom everything must be perfect for a successful week. He can give himself more winning chances, however, by cutting down on silly errors and grinding out scores. The different challenges of different courses require a top player to be multi-faceted and for Rory, that means adding a grinding element to his play."
Meanwhile, a missing ingredient in the appeal of televised tournaments these days, was highlighted for Fox by the nature of Woods' latest comeback in last month's Hero World Challenge. "Once Tiger had proved his fitness, I was glued to his every stroke," he said. "What I found really exciting was that unlike previous comebacks, he seemed to have regained his power. That was crucial."
He went on: "Tiger is simply different from the rest. There's an element of Spieth in his play, and of Rory. And he also possesses aspects of Johnson's game. As individuals, those players have established their own, individual way of winning but at his best, Tiger had all of their virtues. That's what made him so special, and that's why I believe he can win again."
From an Irish perspective, there's the question as to whether Shane Lowry is ready to gain Ryder Cup status, which has been hovering tantalisingly since his 2015 victory in the Bridgestone Invitational. It may be that Paul Dunne could beat him to it, or that the two of them could forge an Irish trio with McIlroy. Nor should we overlook Graeme McDowell who, at 38, has put together a five-year plan to revive his game. "After some hard work over the Christmas break, I'm really looking forward to Abu Dhabi," he said. "The wonderful playing conditions there offer a great way to kick off the year."
All of which will be observed with no little interest by Pádraig Harrington in his self-appointed role as Ireland's talkative sage, secure in his rich golfing legacy. A July return to Carnoustie, the scene of his first Open triumph, followed by his 47th birthday a month later, prompt the question as to whether he's still a winner.
Fox, probably his closest friend, believes he is. "I think there's great golf left in Pádraig," he said. "He can win again on both sides of the Atlantic over the next two seasons, provided he remembers what made him great.
"Ask other players on the range what makes Harrington special and they'll point to his ability to put a score together down the stretch; his capacity to make a par where most others would fail; his talent for getting the job done. Carrying the ball 300 yards in the air wouldn't be considered a requirement for him to win again. They'd more likely view him as an unwelcome opponent, blessed with an uncanny ability to make an impossible four."
Though the fund is a relatively modest $3m, they're lining up in some strength this week. Looking to his 27th birthday on Friday, defending champion Tommy Fleetwood will be there as Europe's Road to Dubai winner for 2017, along with other luminaries including the world No 1 Johnson, and 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson.
Most of them will be confident of bright times ahead, though some will be enduring the professional's January torment of imagining they might never win again. Indeed for all, there will be an acute awareness of self-belief constantly under threat, from a notoriously demanding game.
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