IT'S ONLY MARCH, but thanks to the new schedule, we are already halfway through the golf year. Soon enough the Masters will be upon us, overwhelming every other story line. But before we turn our attention to Augusta, let's look back at the first six months and 18 tournaments in the PGA Tour's brave new world.
• BIGGEST LETDOWN
Adam Scott kicking away last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational
ON THE wings of a course-record-tying 62 on Thursday, Scott surged to a seven-stroke lead through 36 holes, and a coronation seemed inevitable at the King's tournament. Not only was the defending Masters champ positioning himself as this year's favorite but also, according to the algorithm swamis at the World Ranking, the victory was going to push Scott to No. 1 for the first time. It was richly symbolic that he would bump Tiger Woods from the top spot. But all that went up in smoke thanks to a shaky Saturday and a dreadful Sunday that raised anew concerns about Scott's ability to close.
March 31, 2014
Matt Every, 94th in the world at the start of the week, stole his first victory by playing with more guts and gusto during the final round. Meanwhile, Scott made five bogeys against a lone birdie and missed a series of critical putts. There's not a nicer or more humble superstar in all of sports than Scott, and therein lies the problem. For all his gifts, he lacks that certain killer instinct that is indispensable on Sundays. Afterward he described his performance as "shaky" and "out of sorts" but with typical buoyancy tried to put a positive spin on the week: "I somewhat achieved what I wanted out of coming here. Playing in contention over the weekend was fun. Definitely identified a few areas that I'll be working on in the next couple of weeks."
• MOST NOTABLE BODY PART
(Tie) Tiger Woods's back, Patrick Reed's mouth
WOODS'S WITHDRAWAL from Bay Hill—an event he has won eight times—was just the latest twist (literally) in a season plagued by back spasms, the cause of which has been reported to be a bulging disk, though Tiger's not saying a thing. Watching him suffer has led to the glum realization that while this may not be the end, it is at the very least the beginning of it. Woods turns 40 at the end of 2015, and his brittle body has been breaking down since '08, which happens to be the last year he won a major championship. As injuries and age have caught up to him, he has lost his distance advantage. (His average driving distance of 287.3 yards would rank 91st on Tour had he played enough rounds to qualify in the official statistics; last season he was 49th, at 293.2 yards a pop.) Woods's former swing coach Hank Haney has long been critical of Tiger's reduced practice schedule, and it's clear he came into this year rusty. With all he has accomplished on the course—and with two young kids and a new love in skier Lindsey Vonn—it makes sense if Woods has eased off a bit, and good for him. He has earned it. But the latest setbacks don't bode well for the arduous climb to the summit of Mount Nicklaus.
Reed, 23, borrowed Woods's red-and-black Sunday ensemble and copied his old swagger during an impressive victory at Doral, his second of the season and third W in eight months. After conquering the brutal new Blue Monster, Reed crowed that he's one of the top five players in the world. He was pilloried in the press and on social media. Hey, it's hard not to love the kid's moxie, and it is this intense self-belief that may help separate him from the pack. Reed is emblematic of a fearless new generation that has followed Woods's blueprint to success and will make it that much harder for Tiger to pile up more wins even if he can get healthy.
• PLAYER OF THE (HALF) YEAR
HE LEADS in money, FedEx Cup points, Ryder Cup points and, most important, victories. After tearing off the first three wins of his career in the span of eight starts, this 35-year-old overnight sensation has cooled off, but only slightly, with top 25 finishes in his last three tournaments. Long and straight off the tee, and solid on and around the greens, Walker has a game that travels exceptionally well. It will be interesting to see how he fares in his first trip to Augus ... sorry, shouldn't have gone there.
• DOMINANT STORY LINE
The Tour's youth movement
WITH WOODS and fellow Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson winless, plenty of fresh talents besides Reed have filled the void. Jason Day, 26, won an unforgettable Match Play Championship, propelling him to fourth in the World Ranking. Already with four top three finishes in the majors, Day is a good bet to break through soon, maybe even in a couple of weeks. Other young studs who have won this season include Harris English (24), Russell Henley (24), Chris Kirk (28), Scott Stallings (28) and the grand old man of the bunch, Dustin Johnson (29), who has developed into a week-in-and-week-out force. Reigning rookie of the year Jordan Spieth, 20, hasn't yet notched his second career victory, but he has piled up three top five finishes, in addition to dropping a 63 on Woods when they were paired at Torrey Pines. Oh, and let's not forget....
• BEST ROOKIE
HE'S A GOLFER, not a character out of Middlemarch. Hadley, a lanky 6'4" 26-year-old by way of Georgia Tech, won the Puerto Rico Open in his 12th Tour start. This birdie machine keeps coming; he was in contention for three days at Bay Hill before fading to 26th. Honorable mention goes to Hudson Swafford, who is also a real person, not a character from Wuthering Heights. The 6'3" Swafford, the latest ball basher from the University of Georgia, tied for eighth at the Sony Open and ranks 14th on Tour in greens in regulation.
• RYDER CUP SNEAK PEEK
SETTING GOLF'S Super Bowl in Scotland is intriguing enough, but both teams are going to feature a bevy of fresh faces. For the U.S., Walker, Reed and English (a Tour-best six top 10s this season) look like sure things to qualify, and the 10th through 14th spots on the points list are held down by would-be Ryder rookies: Ryan Moore, Kirk, Every, Spieth and Kevin Stadler, respectively. For Europe, Victor Dubuisson of France and Jamie Donaldson of Wales have all but clinched spots on their first team, and among those also in position to make their debuts are Spain's Gonzalo Fernàndez-Casta√±o and Scotland's Stephen Gallacher, nephew of Bernard, who was the captain for Europe's victory in 1995. On paper the teams will be evenly matched, meaning all of these rookies are likely to play outsized roles in the outcome. Gulp.
• BEST SHOT(S)
WE'LL GO with Dubuisson's chip shots from impossible lies on back-to-back holes in sudden death at the Match Play final. He lost to Day in 23 holes, but those outrageous up-and-downs were part of the most electric finish on Tour this season and instantly made a star of the ruggedly handsome and intensely private 23-year-old.
• WORST SHOT
HENRIK STENSON hit a cold shank from the middle of the 2nd fairway at Doral, emblematic of his struggles this season after a monster 2013. But don't dismiss the resilient Swede just yet. A tie for fifth at Bay Hill has given him a bit of momentum, shank you very much.
• BEST QUOTE
"IT WAS a good 12. I got up and down for a 12." —John Daly, on his misadventures on the 16th hole during the second round of the Valspar Championship. He signed for a 90. Daly, 47, is rarely good these days, but he's never boring.
It will be interesting to see how Walker fares at Augus ... sorry, shouldn't have gone there.
TOP 100 TEACHERS POLL
If you had to bet on one of the Big Four to win the Masters, whom would you take?
Rory McIlroy 21%
Phil Mickelson 8%
Adam Scott 57%
Tiger Woods 14%