Halfway? Already? Didn't we just get over the Masters buzz? Well, it's true; with the shift in the PGA Tour's schedule this season, there are only 38 weekly events (leaving out things like the midweek Tavistock Cup and The Presidents Cup at the end of the season), and The Players was No. 19. As usual, there are lots of questions, some of which even have definitive answers. For the rest of them, we'll attempt to scry through the trusty crystal ball.
Who's stepped up so far? This one's easy. Tiger Woods has won four times already; no other player has won more than once. He's comfortably ahead in the Official World Golf Rankings and in FedEx Cup points. Last year, golf experts were asking in not-so-hushed tones whether Tiger would ever win another major, or would be able to regain his form enough to challenge Sam Snead's record of 82 wins. The Players is the 78th win of Woods' career; and as for talk of the next three majors, who else would you name as the favorite at this point? Woods has already banked almost $6 million, and we haven't reached the middle of May yet. It's too early to award the Player of the Year, but if they had a Player of the Half-Year, there wouldn't be another serious contender.
Okay; who other than the obvious answer? Brandt Snedeker absolutely rocked the early-season events (a win, two seconds, and a third in five starts) until a rib injury sidelined him for six weeks. He missed his first two cuts after returning, but then posted solid results at The Masters (T6) and The Players (T8). He's only entered 10 events this year, but leads the Tour in Top-10 finishes with six.
Does that portend a solid second half by Snedeker? Maybe; but there are precedents for a midseason fold by players who dominated the early going. In 2009, Geoff Ogivly won twice in his first five events and posted a T6 the week before the Masters. He was miles ahead on the money list, and looked for all the world like he was about to enjoy a massive season. Instead, he went away and hid; his best finish after that was a 7th at the Deutsche Bank in September. Snedeker has the skills, of course – everyone at this level does – but if he falters, he won't be the first to do so.
Who stepped in it? Has there been a Jason Dufner sighting lately? After a breakout performance in 2012, he's faltered noticeably this season. Oh, he's making cuts – eight of the 10 stroke-play events he's entered thus far – but when they hand out paychecks at the end, most of his have been in the low-five-figure range. He's only had two finishes better than 20th place, and one of those was a T18 at the reduced-field Hyundai Tournament of Champions (only 30 entries). At last weekend's Players, he was actually in the hunt at the beginning of the final round. But he closed with an 80 that dropped him from T13 all the way to T62. He's No. 83 on the money list and has a ton of work to do if he wants to approach his $4.8 million in winnings from last year.
Who's likeliest to break through and win a first career major the rest of this year? Let's break this into US players and international players. For the US, Steve Stricker is worth considering, because of the layout at Merion for the US Open. It'll be a far shorter course (under 7,000 yards, and on some days, maybe close to 6,800) than the tracks the pros are facing weekly these days. Stricker is one of the best wedge players anywhere. If he's driving the ball even reasonably well, he might get to use that wedge seven, eight, maybe nine times a round on par-4 approaches. He announced at the beginning of the season that he would play a reduced schedule, but you can't tell it from his bank account; he's six-for-six in cuts made and has posted four Top-25 finishes, including three Top-10s. Yes, he would be among the oldest major winners, but that maturity will only help him under Open pressure. You can probably get good betting odds on Rickie Fowler and Bill Haas, too.
For the international set, I'd say pick one of three Brits: Luke Donald is vastly overdue; Lee Westwood has a dramatically improved short game; and Justin Rose is scary-good on those days when he can find the fairways. If you like backing longer shots, look at Carl Pettersson and Nicolas Colsaerts; Thorbjorn Oleson has tremendous ability but probably isn't ready yet.
Who's likeliest to pad a resume that already includes a major? You mean other than Woods? Tiger may or may not win another major this year, but if you absolutely must back only one player only for any given week, Woods is the only pick for any event he enters. Louis Oosthuizen deserves serious consideration, as does Graeme McDowell.
You left out Rory McIlroy. Why, yes, I did! Here's why: When he crushed the field at Congressional in 2011 at age 22, pundits broke plenty of ulnas trying to elbow each other aside to proclaim him The Next Tiger. Guess what? He didn't win an event the rest of that season. He repeated the dominant performance in the 2012 season, winning the PGA and two FedEx Cup playoff events on the way to Player-of-the-Year honors, but after taking some time off, he started the 2013 season seemingly unable to find any level of comfort on the course. To his credit, he's played fairly well recently (three Top-10s in his last four starts), but with only one exception – a solo second at the Valero Texas Open – his weekend play has taken him out of contention. It might be the new swooshed sticks; it might be something else; but he hasn't shown anything like the consistency it takes to be on a list of likeliest major winners this year.
How about Adam Scott? Is there a chance for a Grand Slam? Next question . . .
Will Sergio Garcia recover from his monumental collapse at The Players? In order to be a successful pro, you have to have a dependable reservoir of Golfer's Amnesia. Yes, it will bother him to think about it. But when it counts, when he's standing over a 187-yard approach shot from light rough on the back nine on Sunday at Muirfield or Oak Hill, he isn't going to be thinking about Sawgrass. He'll be okay.
But don't expect him to win any majors.