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Tiger the major story

Will he close the gap on the Golden Bear in 2014?

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Storylines, like optimistic resolutions heading into the New Year, are abundant as the PGA Tour resumed its 2013-14 wraparound season in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Maui, Hawaii.

While the calendar turned a year older, the Hyundai is actually the seventh tournament of the new season. Yet the page is turned to a new year and mystery will join the 30 players on the first tee in the Hyundai.

What will Tiger Woods do this year?

What will Phil Mickelson do next?

Is reigning FedExCup champion and Race to Dubai winner Henrik Stenson the best player in the world? Is reigning PGA Tour rookie of the year Jordan Spieth the next big thing?

Can the U.S. win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008?

And after three players won their first major championship in 2013, will another or two or three or even four first-timers join them in the fraternity of major champions in 2014?

"It's hard to predict golf," NBC lead golf analyst Johnny Miller said in a conference call promoting the Hyundai. "It was pretty easy to predict Tiger there for a while, but the rest of the guys on the PGA Tour are making it a little harder to predict."

Here are a few storylines to watch in 2014.

Following his last event in 2013 in December, Woods, who turned 38 on Dec. 24, said he was excited for 2014 as his body is strong and his new driver, with a heavier shaft, has him energized.

But when Woods starts his year on Jan. 23 as expected in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, where he is the defending champion and has won eight times, the focal point will be on his play in the majors. It was at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open where he won his 14th and last major. Since, he's finished in the top-10 in nine of 18 majors and remains four behind Jack Nicklaus' all-time record.

"It's almost a second career he's going after," Miller said. "...It's getting much harder for Tiger, because guys are not milking on him so he's got a double whammy in that he's not able to close as well as he used to, and then the guys are more heroic against him like they never were before.

"...Guys are just saying, yeah, you're Tiger Woods and you're the greatest ever, but now at your age, I can beat you."

At the year's first major, Woods has 13 top-10s in 17 starts in the Masters, including four wins in his first nine starts. But he hasn't won since 2005.

"What he does at Augusta is really important," Miller said. "If he were to win at Augusta, I'd almost bet you he'd win another major this year. But if he doesn't win at Augusta, I think the odds of him winning another one are not that great. I wouldn't bet against him, but he's just a different player than he was when he was younger, even though he won five times last year.

"In the majors he seems to be a little bit prone to getting nervous. You never would say that about Tiger, but he wants it so badly, he has that desire and dream when he was young, and he looked like he was a shoo-in because he would get 18, 19, 20 majors, and now after five years, he's like, dang, those are hard to get. ... It's a great storyline for golf, especially if he were to get close to Jack's record; even if he doesn't get it, it just makes the ratings go crazy, if he were to get to 17 or something."

"The U.S. just hasn't been able to finish off matches, especially near the end of the Ryder Cup, and that was the killer last time," Miller said. "The Ryder Cup has been great theatre, and it's for the good of the Ryder Cup.

"...I think the U.S. needs to win."

But the U.S. hasn't won on foreign soil since 1993 -- with captain Watson.

"I think it always is a different year when it's a Ryder Cup year for the players," NBC/Golf Channel analyst Mark Rolfing said. "To me one of the interesting things is how the European players have to juggle their schedule as they get closer and closer to the Ryder Cup, and if they're not on that team and haven't made enough points, the question is going to be where do they play to get enough points, and we all know how jammed up the schedule is getting in the summertime. So there's going to be a lot of decision making for the European players that are on the bubble.

"I think this is a huge Ryder Cup for the U.S., and it's going to be a tough one. The conditions are going to be difficult over there in Scotland as you know, but somehow they have got to figure out how to finish off the Ryder Cup."

The list to choose from is extensive, speaking to the depth of talent in men's golf. None of the following have won a major -- Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker, Jason Day, Hunter Mahan, and Bill Haas.

"There's a lot of talk of Matt Kuchar," said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo. "A lot of people are looking for outsiders. I think the first-time winners... they're not going to be fluke winners, because of the venues and the quality of the top 20. You're looking at perhaps Mahan, Dustin Johnson or Matt Kuchar who stand out more than Westwood or Luke Donald, who slightly sort of went off the block."

"I'm going to go with Kuchar," Rolfing said. "But I also have a hunch about Jason Day, and he gets so overlooked in these majors prior to them. You take a look at how close he has come, and then when they're over and he does so well, everybody goes, well, I told you so, but nobody really did say beforehand that Jason Day was one of the favorites in any of those majors. I think there's a really good chance you could see Jason Day one win."

Miller said the Masters will be big for Woods, who is looking to win his first major since 2008.

"If he doesn't win the Masters, I think it gives a great big uh-oh because that course is so perfect for his game. I'll leave it at that," Miller said. "But if he wants to get off on the right foot, I think he needs to get off at the Masters.

"As far as Jordan Spieth, I think he's got the kind of game that could win, maybe not at Augusta, but his game is so balanced. I think sort of a dark horse could be Billy Horschel. You look at his stats, they're really, really good. He's got a beautiful swing. He's got a little bit of a temper problem, but I think he's a guy to really look towards as a guy that could definitely win."

Phil and the Slam: One of the lasting images of 2013 was Mickelson's magical final-round 66 to win the British Open, leaving him just a U.S. Open victory from joining Woods, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player as the only players to win all four majors for the career Grand Slam.

Mickelson has a record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, including last year at Merion. He also finished runner-up in the 1999 U.S. Open at this year's host, Pinehurst No. 2, but tied for 33rd in 2005 at Pinehurst No. 2. Lefty has said he will alter his playing schedule in hopes of peaking at the Open.

"I'm a little concerned that he is putting so much emphasis on that U.S. Open," Rolfing said. "He has said publicly that his schedule, his preparation and everything else is going to be geared toward winning the U.S. Open this year. I think that's going to put a lot of pressure on Phil when he gets down there to Pinehurst and actually leading up the first six months of the year."

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2014 A1

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