What once was a matter of "when" for Tiger Woods has turned into a question of "if," topping the list of story lines as the PGA Tour resumed its 2013-14 season last week in Hawaii.
Woods, who turned 38 in December, has gone 5 1/2 years since his last major win, leaving him stuck on 14 and making Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 look more and more distant.
Woods should be comfortable at all of the venues for this year's majors. The U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst, N.C., where he finished second by two strokes in 2005; the British Open to England's Royal Liverpool, where he won in 2006; and the PGA Championship to Louisville's Valhalla, where he won in 2000. And, of course, he has won four times at Augusta.
"The Masters signals a lot with Tiger," NBC analyst Johnny Miller said on a conference call with fellow NBC/Golf Channel analysts Frank Nobilo and Mark Rolfing. "If he doesn't win the Masters, it gives a great big 'uh-oh' because that course is so perfect for his game.
"If he were to win at Augusta, though, I'd almost bet he'd win another major this year."
But Miller also pointed out that Woods, who typically starts his Tour season at Torrey Pines late this month, has been struggling on the weekends. His scoring average in 2013 was 68.97 in the first two rounds and 70.8 in the last two.
"It's gotten 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,' " Miller said.
This year also represents another chance for Phil Mickelson to complete his majors resume. Mickelson, 43, won his first British Open in July with a masterful performance at Muirfield. After six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open -- including a heart breaker at Merion last year -- he should have an excellent chance to prevail at Pinehurst, where he finished second by one shot to Payne Stewart in 1999.
Rolfing said Mickelson might be putting too much emphasis on that one event.
"He's already said his schedule, his preparation and everything else is going to be geared toward winning the U.S. Open this year," Rolfing said. "That's going to be a lot of pressure on him in the first six months of the year."
One unique aspect of June at Pinehurst this year is that the No. 2 course will host championships in back-to-back weeks, the U.S. Open from June 12-15 and the Women's Open from June 19-22.
The USGA is renowned for its difficult setups and lightning-fast greens for its championships, but Nobilo expects the governing body to back off a bit this year with the women arriving a few days later.
"I think that will give a lot more of the (men's) field a chance," Nobilo said. "One of the intangibles that Mickelson, Ernie Els, Adam Scott have over the field is they know how to control their mind in a situation where you think 'Hey, this isn't fair.' "
The strength and depth of the world's golfing elite was on display last year when three of the four majors went to first-time major winners: Scott at the Masters, Justin Rose at the U.S. Open and Jason Dufner at the PGA.
There are easily at least a dozen more candidates poised to break through this year. Those cited by the analysts included Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia. Matt Kuchar also was mentioned, but Miller was at his skeptical best in expressing his doubts.
"He hits it short and drives it crooked," Miller said. "It's amazing, to be honest, as poorly as he drove it last year that he was able to do as well as he did, finishing third on the money list. The guy is just a magic man (at) scrambling."
After kicking off 2014 in Hawaii, the Tour moves to the West for six weeks before arriving in South Florida for the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens (Feb. 27-March 2, followed by Doral (March 6-9).
The season will culminate in late September with the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland, where the United States will be looking for its first win in Europe since 1993.
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