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Back in the Majors

Woods will try to keep it going after regaining his spot at the top of the world with two big victories

January 05, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

It starts on the lush fairways lined with sugar cane in Hawaii and ends on the manicured greens carved out of the hills around Thousand Oaks, and if a PGA Tour season that runs from early January to mid-December sounds long, that's the 2006 schedule, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

The PGA Tour has the honor of kicking off the professional golf season, beginning today at the $5.4-million Mercedes Championships at Kapalua on the island of Maui. Tiger Woods won't be there, and neither will six others ranked in the top 10, but you have to begin somewhere.

Gary Planos, who runs the Kapalua layout for the tournament, didn't seem too upset about the hand he was dealt.

"We're not running a funeral; we're running a championship," he said. "We're going to show Kapalua to a freezing mainland."

Then, gentlemen, start your backswings.

There is much to consider when looking forward to what the 2006 tournament schedule might produce and there could even be a few important questions that are answered along the way.

Such as ...

How many majors will Woods win this year, and will his new boat like its dock?

Can Phil Mickelson win his third major in three years or will he suffer a dieting relapse and once again enjoy his In-N-Out burgers with the entire bun?

Is there anybody out there willing to stand up to Annika Sorenstam besides 19-year-old Paula Creamer?

Whose clothes would you rather find in your suitcase, Jesper Parnevik's, Duffy Waldorf's or Ian Poulter's?

The British Open returns to Royal Liverpool Golf Club for the first time since the '60s ... why? Will Paul and Ringo be the official starters?

There is no time to waste, not this year, so let's just get on with it. In no particular order, here are some topics, both major and minor, that bear discussing. Please play along.

The Tiger Factor

Much has already been said about Woods playing his first PGA Tour season at the ripe age of 30, the main topic being whether he'll get bored with the whole thing or if he's still set on breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. Woods has 10, so he is still following the Bear tracks.

But there are other factors at work in the Woods camp, not all of them directly involved with golf. The health of his seriously ill father, Earl, is a situation Woods is closely monitoring during his brief break from playing the PGA Tour schedule, and he has been spending more time with his father in Orange County.

Woods is supposed to make his first tournament appearance of 2006 at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in three weeks.

Off the course, Woods has altered the way he does his business. He is skipping Kapalua for the first time without being injured in order to lengthen his off-season and keep tabs on his 73-year-old father. He is already out of the prime-time "Battle at the Bridges" series that's usually played shortly after the British Open.

There are hints that Woods may soon cut back on his corporate commitments, or at least change some of them. His Nike contract is up at the end of the year, but that sponsor isn't going anywhere, with the possible exception of the bank, so Nike can throw several more millions at him.

The Palm Beach Post reported last week that Woods is close to buying a $40-million, 10-acre oceanfront property on Jupiter Island, an area described by Forbes as having the "most expensive ZIP Code" in the U.S. He can dock his new $22-million vessel there.

Woods, of course, can afford it, with $55.8 million in earnings on the PGA Tour, $68.2 million worldwide and an estimated endorsement income of $90 million.

Any discussion of the 2006 PGA Tour season begins and ends with Woods. He won six PGA Tour events in 2005, led the money list with $10.6 million, won the Masters and the British Open and was voted by his peers as the player of the year for the seventh time in his nine full years as a pro.

Besides reclaiming his No. 1 position in the official rankings from Vijay Singh, Woods was No. 1 in scoring (68.66), No. 2 in driving distance (316.1), sixth in greens in regulation and fifth in putting.

But for Colin Montgomerie, who witnessed Woods' first victory at the Masters in 1997 from close proximity, the lesson best taught by Woods is all about delivering the ball to new area codes even farther away.

"I think we've all been taken in by what Tiger's done. And I think we've all been affected, the length he hits the ball."

Looking back at that point in Woods' progress, Montgomerie said Woods has achieved just what he thought he would.

"You mean to win 10 majors before he's 30? Yes, that's an achievement, definitely. There is no way he was going to do anything less."

Somebody is going to have to push him. Ernie Els is 37 and coming off knee surgery, Singh is 43 next month and can't go on forever (or can he?), Mickelson is semi-unpredictable and Retief Goosen has proved he's a shaky closer. Does anybody else think it's time for Sergio Garcia, 26 next week, to step it up a notch?

Three Stars Fading?

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