Major next in Steve Stricker's sights?
Plus, we look at Tiger's return, a Sony Open high riser and tweaks to the tour's opener
Each week during the 2012 PGA Tour season, ESPN's golf experts will weigh in on the pressing -- and not so pressing -- issues in the game.
It's Sony Open week, which means the first full-field tournament of the season and many players making their season debuts.
1. After earning his 12th PGA Tour win at Kapalua on Monday, we're thinking big about Steve Stricker. So which 2012 major suits his game best?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: For Steve Stricker, his best chance at a major this year will come at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. The golf course has five par-4s that play under 450 yards; it should be firm and fast; and Stricker can flight the ball in the wind -- all factors that give him the best chance at his first major.
As for the year, expect at least two more wins.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: At the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Steve Stricker played with the eventual winner, Lee Janzen, on Sunday. Stricker finished 6 shots back of Janzen in a tie for fifth after stumbling in the final round with a 2-over-par 73.
Since then, Stricker's had two more top-10s in 11 appearances in the U.S. Open, which returns to the Olympic Club this June for the first time since his close call in '98. Stricker, who will be 45 years old when the championship begins on June 14, finally has the confidence to win the championship that best suits his wonderful putting stroking and razor-sharp long game.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Unfortunately, none. With all due respect to Stricker, who is ranked fifth in the world and has nine wins since turning 40, guys his age (45 when the Masters begins) simply do not win their first major. You have to go back to Roberto de Vicenzo (44 at 1967 British Open) and Jerry Barber (45 at 1961 PGA Championship) to find a first-time major winner as old as Stricker.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: He'll turn 45 in February, so some might say his major-winning days are behind him. But remember, he's also the only player to win multiple times on tour in each of the past three years. And he's off to a pretty good start in 2012.
Stricker finished inside the top 20 in all four majors last year, but his best showing was a T-11 at the Masters. He has played Augusta National 11 times, so he's at that point when everything should be figured out on those treacherous greens.
It wouldn't shock me if, in 10-15 years (or sooner), Stricker becomes his generation's putting guru, a la Dave Stockton.
2. The PGA Tour season for non-winners begins this week at the Sony Open. Give us a player outside the top 100 in the world rankings who is playing this week who might be inside the top 50 by year's end.
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: He's ranked 105th in the world starting the season, but expect big things from big-hitting Robert Garrigus.
He worked on his fitness in the offseason and will be starting the new year with a surprise in his bag (he made me promise not to let the cat out of the bag yet). He'll make his debut at the Humana Challenge (formerly the Bob Hope Classic), and you can expect him to make a run at the top 50 and the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: A two-time winner on the Nationwide Tour in 2011, 26-year-old Jason Kokrak is the 191st-ranked player in the world. As one of the longest hitters on Earth, the Warren, Ohio, native will overpower golf courses in his rookie year. By year's end, he should have a bunch of top-10s and maybe a win, which should take him to the top 50 in the world.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Bud Cauley. At No. 249 in the world, Cauley has a long way to go. But he earned his PGA Tour card without having to go to Q-School -- he had four top-15 finishes on the PGA Tour in 2011 -- and, since turning pro before the U.S. Open last year, he has jumped more than 1,000 spots.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: I'll go with No. 152 Danny Lee. He's moving up to the big leagues this year after finishing sixth on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2011.
The former U.S. Amateur champ (way back in 2008) played in 18 events last year and finished in the top 10 an amazing nine times. Granted, adjusting to the PGA Tour at just 21 will be a challenge, but remember, he already has won on the European Tour and the Nationwide Tour in his young career.
He's 21 in birth certificate only.
3. Tiger Woods announced he'll open his U.S. season at Pebble Beach in February. Good decision?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Tiger starting at Pebble Beach is a great idea with an asterisk.
The weather is the only thing he won't be able to control starting his year on the Monterey Peninsula and, if the weather gets bad that happy fun place with all the celebrities and six-hour rounds won't be a Disneyland for Tiger.
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Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Any time Tiger Woods plays in a PGA Tour event, it's good news for the game. Even when he's healthy, he seldom plays more than 15 or 16 times a year on the tour.
So it should be exciting to see him in the field next month at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he last played in 2002. The pro-am format might loosen him up a bit as he kicks off his mission to regain his place as the No. 1 player in the world.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Yes. Woods had to start his U.S. schedule at either Pebble or Riviera. To wait until the Match Play -- the eighth week of the season -- would not have been good for him or the tour.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: For his golf game, it's a bad decision. At best, he'll play only two rounds on the same course (Pebble Beach) and play the other two clubs in the rotation. Plus, he'll have to deal with the dreaded amateurs (even though you have to expect Woods will get the pick of the litter when it comes to hackers).
What we learned at the end of 2011 was that Woods needs tournament reps to get better, and changing courses each day through the first three rounds isn't the way to do it. He needs consistency on courses he has played and knows.
If I were in his camp and Torrey Pines was out of the question, I would have voted for him to start at Riviera and the Northern Trust Open, even though he doesn't have a great history there.
4. With Monday finishes and winners-only events opening the season, what simple change would you make to improve the start of the PGA Tour schedule?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: The schedule is fine. The tour needs to institute a 1-for-4 rule -- you have to play every tournament at least once every four years. That way, every tournament is guaranteed the big names once every four years.
If you can't do that, maybe start in Hawaii, take a week off and flip the Florida and West Coast swings. Start in Florida first, then West Coast weather won't be as much of a factor when the tour arrives.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Competing for eyeballs with the NFL and the NBA in early January, the PGA Tour could start its season with an event that brings together the top 100 from the previous year's money list for a $7 million purse event with a 36-hole cut.
Although Steve Stricker won the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Monday, it's hard to tell from a 27-player, no-cut event how his game would stand up in April at the Masters. By coming out of the box with a Players Championship-quality event, golfers could test their mettle right out of the gate against a deep field.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Delay the start of the PGA Tour season until the end of January. The golf season is too long, but there is not a lot of it being played earlier this month. There are no excuses if the season resumes the weekend before the Super Bowl.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: My simple change if you win more than one event, you get to play more than one ball at Kapalua. We've all dropped a second (or third, or fourth) ball in a round at some point, but shouldn't you get the same advantage if you've won more times in a year?
OK, as for real changes, the PGA Tour's opener is going to be a dud until the tour gets the bigger names to play. That's why Torrey Pines became the de facto start of the year. So, how do you get the Phil Mickelsons and Tiger Woodses of the world to play?
Move back the start of the season. No one likes the word "contraction" when it comes to sports, but haven't we reached a saturation point in tournaments? If the season started in late January, the chances of Tiger and Phil playing opening week (if they qualified) would increase.
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