With or without the wayward Tiger, 2010 promises a magnificent quartet of majors and many more golfing treats.
A dream year in the making
Whichever way you look at it, the year ahead for golf has much riding on the inevitable return of Tiger Woods. The timing of his comeback could have a huge bearing on the four majors, the world rankings, the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup, the World Golf Championships, and even the 38th Ryder Cup, taking place in Wales for the first time next October. But with or without him, 2010 is already shaping up to be a dream year for the majors, with Pebble Beach, St Andrews and Pete Dye's masterpiece, Whistling Straights, joining the evergreen Augusta National to form a classic quartet of venues.
There is no better place than Augusta to stage the first big one of the year, and I would not be surprised to see Tiger going in search of his fifth green jacket there in April. In a poll to find out where the players would most like to play the US Open, Pebble Beach would come out on top. Given its spectacular setting atop rugged cliffs jutting into the Pacific Ocean, there is no more dramatic venue, and a big variety of shots is needed to win there.
The second shot to the par four eighth, over the corner of the bay from one cliff to a lower one, is my favourite in golf, the element of difficulty depending on how brave you are with your drive. By comparison, the attractions of the Old Course at St Andrews are much more subtle, and the return of the Open Championship to the home of golf in July will again highlight it as a venue with many different faces.
It's a canny little course, and as conditions can be transformed instantly, with huge shifts in the direction and force of the wind across the links dramatically affecting club and shot selection, it is a different challenge every time you play it. Choice of club and line off the tee is crucial in order to avoid the deep and notorious St Andrews bunkers. The greens are the largest in the world, but weather conditions and treacherous slopes and hollows make it incredibly difficult to get the ball close to the hole with approach shots or pitches, giving a big advantage to those who avoid or minimise three-putting.
Hosting the final major of the year, the US PGA Championship in August, Whistling Straights has many features of a classic links course, some of its rolling mounds created by burying railway carriages in the ground. The nature of the course means that the most creative players should do well there, a fact which won't have gone unnoticed by the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, and, of course, Tiger. While it was previously left to the majors to bring the world's best players together four times a year, the growth of the World Golf Championship and the emergence of The Players Championship as "the fifth major" means this now happens nine times annually, and it can only be good for the game.
It remains to be seen how many of the nine will feature Woods, but the hope must be he plays well on his return and his golf does most of his talking for him. If he dedicates a good deal of his time away from the game to seeking more accuracy off the tee, he could return a better player. After he played so well towards the end of 2009, it's going to be interesting to see how well the world No 2 Mickelson starts the New Year. More pressure on Tiger at the top of the world rankings is what the game needs, and if Lefty can continue to putt well, and retain his hunger for success and his fearless approach, he could snatch the No 1 spot.
Paul Casey moved quickly up the rankings last year before injury halted his progress, and the same can happen for Garcia and Els in 2010 if they find their putting touch. The banning of square grooves will help some players and hurt others. There will be more emphasis on accuracy off the tee and on approach shots, with more skill needed to get up and down from the rough. The flyer - when grass gets between the club face and the ball at impact, reducing spin and resulting in the ball flying further than normal - will be back in play. Players will need more skill and imagination when hitting from the rough, which was made much easier by square grooves.
The best players from tee to green will benefit, and if the new European No 1 Lee Westwood reproduces the golf which made him the first Race to Dubai winner, 2010 could provide his breakthrough in the majors. Finally, I'm tipping Europe to win back the Ryder Cup from the Americans at Celtic Manor. They were favourites in 2008, but arguably the strongest ever European side were beaten at Valhalla, with the US captain, Paul Azinger, playing a key role, engineering waves of crowd fervour which was to prove hugely influential.
The same tactics won't work in Wales where Corey Pavin will have to be more diplomatic. His counterpart, Colin Montgomerie, will relish being in the limelight, although he must develop the right rapport with his players, and is already working on that. The US currently have the top three players in the world so it's not going to be easy for Europe, even with home advantage. Behind the scenes great efforts are being made to ensure Wales capitalises fully on the benefits of hosting the Ryder Cup.
Meanwhile, the Welsh weather in October could be hugely influential and I'm expecting the Europeans to triumph, come rain, hail or shine. Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US.