2011 West Coast Swing

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Five burning questions

The answers will shape the Southern California professional golf landscape in 2011.

BY ELI MILLERPublished: January, 2011

Woods remains four major titles behind the all-time mark of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus (PHOTO: Gary Newkirk, Tiger Woods Foundation).

Will Tiger Woods return to form?

When Woods held a four-stroke lead through 54 holes at last month’s Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club, it seemed a foregone conclusion he would end his 2010 victory drought and officially fire the starting gun on his long-anticipated, often-predicted comeback.

Thing is, there are no longer any foregone conclusions with the former No. 1 player in the world. Woods squandered the advantage, and despite some clutch iron shots down the stretch, could not do enough to topple Graeme McDowell for the title. The finish was an eerie climax to the most disappointing season of the Cypress native’s career.

Nevertheless, the fact Woods was in contention again is a sign he could return to the winner’s circle — and soon. The 35-year-old is expected to take his revamped swing to Torrey Pines for the start of his 2011 campaign at the Farmers Insurance Open, a West Coast Swing stop he’s won six times.

The 14-time major winner also will be seeking to make up ground in tracking down Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors. As always, Woods looks good on paper to contend at venues such as Augusta National (four titles), Congressional Country Club (U.S. Open site where he won the 2009 AT&T National), Royal St. George’s (tied for fourth at 2003 British Open) and the lengthy PGA Championship layout at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Can Phil Mickelson re-enter the discussion for No. 1?
No professional golfer had more momentum entering 2010 than Mickelson, yet his season-long performance was somewhat disappointing. Granted, the San Diegan was still dealing with the difficult breast cancer battles being waged by wife, Amy, and mother, Mary. He had his own health issues, too, having been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis.

But aside from his signature win at the Masters, last season was ho-hum considering Lefty seemed poised to snatch the No. 1 world ranking from Woods. Instead, Mickelson had only one other top-three finish, failing to record at least two PGA Tour wins for only the second time in the last 10 years. He finished 2010 fourth in the Official World Golf Rankings.

The talent is still there, though. If Mickelson stays healthy, 2011 could be a big year.

Is this the year Hunter Mahan wins a major?
With the influx of worldwide talent, it might be a stretch to anoint Mahan the Best Golfer Without a Major — let’s compromise and call him the Best American Without a Major.

The Orange native may not have the win total or putting touch of Steve Stricker, the length of Dustin Johnson or the spark plug-scoring ability of Anthony Kim, but he’s coming off his best season and has a chip on his shoulder after losing what proved to be the decisive singles match at the Ryder Cup.

Pundits have long revered Mahan’s potential for winning majors because of his routine standing among the leaders in total driving, and as he displayed better touch on the greens in 2010, that could be a sign he is ready to break through for major No. 1.

Who will break through for his first PGA Tour victory?
As is the case every year, the crop of talented Southern Californians on the PGA Tour is deep and exciting.
While Woods, Mickelson and Mahan look to climb higher among the game’s upper echelon, others like Rickie Fowler (Murrieta), Kevin Na (Diamond Bar) and Charlie Wi (North Hills) are still seeking their first career victory. Fowler did everything but win during his Rookie of the Year season in 2010, while the 27-year-old Na earned more than $2 million for the second straight year.

The 39-year-old Wi may not be the most spectacular player, but he has earned more than $1 million in each of his last four seasons and is one of the game’s best putters.

Will Fred Couples keep dominating the Champions Tour?
Boom Boom exploded onto the senior circuit during his rookie season of 2010, winning three straight events early in the year — including the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club — and finishing second on the money list.

With his decision to further trim down his PGA Tour schedule in 2011, the La Quinta resident could be even more of a Champions Tour threat assuming his achy back cooperates.

Standing in his way are many players with local ties, including: John Cook (Palos Verdes), who finished third on the money list; Mark O’Meara (Mission Viejo), whose first Champions Tour victory came at the 2010 Senior Players Championship; and Corey Pavin (Oxnard), who can focus more on competition now that his U.S. Ryder Cup captaincy has ended.

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