Golf will turn the calendar with the Hawaii swing that starts Friday with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
NBC and Golf Channel analysts Johnny Miller, Frank Nobilo and Mark Rolfing provided their thoughts and a few predictions on what could happen during this golf season, such as: Can Phil Mickelson complete his career Grand Slam and win the elusive U.S. Open? Will Tiger Woods break his drought in the majors? Who could be a breakout star? Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Last year there were three first-time major winners. Who is your pick to become a first-time major winner this year? Nobilo: There's a lot of talk of Matt Kuchar. I think we have such a great crop in the top 20 of the World Rankings. A lot of people are looking for outsiders. I think the first-time winners this year, they're not going to be fluke winners -- because of the venues and the quality of the top 20. You're looking at perhaps Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson or Kuchar that stand out more than Lee Westwood or Luke Donald, who slightly sort of went off the block.
Miller: I think the best player in the world is Henrik Stenson. He's the hottest player that doesn't show up in the world rankings, but in reality he's playing way better than anyone else.
This doesn't answer your question, but I always think that the Masters signals a lot with Tiger Woods. 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. But if he wants to get off on the right foot, I think he needs to get off at the Masters.
Q: I think one of the big stories looking back at 2013 was Phil Mickelson and yet another runner-up finish in a U.S. Open. Is this the year he breaks through at Pinehurst, which can be a friendly course for him? Rolfing: Well, I think there's a chance he can, but I'm a little concerned that he is putting so much emphasis on that U.S. Open. I mean, 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 don't know, I think that's going to put a lot of pressure on Mickelson when he gets down there to Pinehurst and actually leading up (in) the first six months of the year. So that does concern me a little bit.
Nobilo: A lot is really just going to be Phil. He probably blows hot and cold more than any other player, so it'll be what sort of form he hits going into Pinehurst.
Q: Johnny, how important do you think it is for Woods to win a major this year, and how hard is it going to get if he doesn't do it this year? Miller: Well, open up the proverbial bottle of life and let it get released with that first win. It's almost a second career he's going after. He had this unbelievable first career when it comes to the majors, and he's knocking on the door, but the stuff he's doing on the weekend, I'm sure he's very concerned, even last year he was so great on Thursday and Friday with a 68.97 in the first two rounds, and then on the weekend he's 70.80, so he's not closing out the deal.
Guys, they're not as scared. Before, guys just wouldn't do that against Woods. It's getting much harder for Woods 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.
It's really much, much harder for him because guys are just saying, 'Yeah, you're Tiger Woods and you're the greatest ever, but now at your age, I can beat you.' He needs to do it in the majors. Like at Olympic last year, he could have won that Open, and in the old days he probably would have won it. He's a little bit different guy.
Q: Johnny, I'm curious why you think Woods may be so erratic with the driver, and how does that contribute to leveling the playing field? Miller: He said that he's Ranger Rick. He hits it great on the range, hits his driver like an Army guy, left, right, left. He admits that. That's the way he's always played. But he didn't have that when he was working with Butch and he was hitting 70 percent of the fairways and hitting a lot of drivers in the year 2000. He was amazing then for a guy that hits it that far.
I just think that the driver to him is not the friendliest club. I hate to criticize him, but when he gets off, he stops hitting his stinger. It's interesting, if he hits a lot of stingers with that 3-wood and stuff, he's pretty hard to beat. But he seems to be almost a little bit boneheaded with wanting to go with a crutch swing. I think he used that as a crutch swing.
The stinger does so much for your swing, to line that club up with your left arm through the hitting area, it's hard to miss a fairway and to me, it should be almost his best friend because I don't know if I've ever seen him miss a fairway with the stinger.
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