By John Strege
It is still January and the 2014 golf season is nearly four months old already according to the PGA Tour's convoluted scheduling, but we know better. The season begins this week.
Golf still revolves around Tiger Woods, however anyone might argue otherwise, and a new orbit begins with his 2014 debut in the Farmers Insurance Open, the de facto season opener. The rest was just filler, even Patrick Reed's remarkable performance in the Humana Challenge.
Reed opened with three straight rounds of 63 to set a 54-hole PGA Tour record in relation to par, then activated the cruise control on the Palmer Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., to win for the second time.
Not that anyone noticed. The Humana was a tournament without hope, Bob or otherwise, by virtue of its final round coinciding with the start of the Patriots-Broncos AFC Championship game. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady or Patrick Reed and Brendon Todd? If you're conflicted, it might be helpful to note that the latter was introduced on the first tee as Todd Brendon.
Golf is still the Tiger Woods Show and the focus on the game returns when he does. Even as his once relentless pursuit of Nicklaus and his 18 professional majors has stalled, he remains the game's most intriguing figure, maybe more so. He is now 38, time isn't the ally it once was, and 2014 might be critical to his Nicklaus chase.
"I'm really excited about the major championships," he wrote on his blog at TigerWoods.com. "I've won at three of the four venues -- Augusta National, Valhalla Golf Club and Royal Liverpool -- and on Pinehurst No. 2 (U.S. Open), I'm trending the right way, having finished third and second."
The question, however, is not his comfort level with the golf courses, but with weekends. A few weeks ago, NBC's Johnny Miller noted that "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 and then on the weekend he's not closing out the deal."
Miller also called Woods "a different player than he was when he was younger." He is still No. 1, but no longer mentally infallible. Urgency is now part of the equation.
Urgency also infiltrated the psyche of Woods' chief rival, Phil Mickelson. He is turning 44 in June and is only a U.S. Open shy of a career grand slam. Opportunities are declining for Mickelson, who, incidentally, will be making his 2014 U.S. debut at Torrey Pines, increasing the cachet to the first must-see tournament of the year.
There was once a time that the tour was said to begin at Doral, then the first stop on the Florida swing and the beginning of the run-up to Augusta. Now, with all due respect to Reed Patrick or Patrick Reed, it starts with Tiger and his own run-up to Augusta.