Rory McIlroy Kicks Tour Season Into High Gear With Florida Debut

February 25, 2015
Rory Honda.jpg

Dear Beleaguered Golf Fan,

Greetings from Florida!

My apologies for not including a tacky postcard that features a gator biting a beach ball or a palm tree framing a far-too-orange ocean sunset, but postcards are artifacts from a previous century and are harder to find than an honest auto mechanic.

The PGA Tour’s Florida swing starts this week with the Honda Classic, and that’s significant for two reasons. One, it gets me, erstwhile golf writer, out of the frozen tundra that is the Midwest and the Northeast. And two, I forget because all I care about is trying to remember what it’s like to wear only one sweater at a time and no ski hat.

In some ways, the Tour season feels as if it starts this week. Watching televised golf during a raging blizzard makes those glamorous West Coast tournaments seem unreal. Like the conspiracy theorists who think Neil Armstrong and the other moon walks were fakes, shot on a movie set. If it’s five below at your place and you can’t feel your fingers, did Pebble Beach really happen? My additional apologies for that existential daydream.

The official kickoff to the wraparound 2015 schedule came last October and began about 10 minutes after the 2014 season ended. It didn’t feel like the beginning of anything. It felt more like after-school detention.

The season was supposed to start after Tiger Woods teed it up in late January at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, according to what some cynical golf writers wrote (guilty as charged). When Tiger’s game fell apart — he shot 82 in the second round and had more chips than a Frito-Lay bag — and then his back went out the next week, forcing him to withdraw at Torrey Pines, that wasn’t the start of anything, either. At least, not anything good.

That leaves Florida as the season’s virtual kickoff. Rory McIlroy, your world No. 1, will play the Honda. The following week, the planet’s best gather at Doral for a World Golf Championship event. Two weeks, two big events. Now we’re talking. That gets us into March, and you know what that means, since CBS is already relentlessly running commercials for that April outing in Augusta.

The Florida swing includes a stop at the Valspar Championship, a tournament played at Innisbrook Resort’s underrated Copperhead course, and concludes with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. The former draws a weak field but usually sports an exciting finish. The latter usually has Tiger winning in a dramatic finish, but if that doesn’t do it for you, remember that the legendary host likes to hang out and make everyone feel warm and fuzzy.

Here’s what you need to know about This Golf Season That Just Won’t Start: It’s getting good, really good, even though Tiger and Phil Mickelson aren’t working weekends. And by the way, did you ever think you’d read that sentence without remorse?

The PGA Tour is rebooting its star system and minting the next generation of elite players right before our eyes. Every era’s Lanny Wadkins, Paul Azinger or Davis Love III has to start somewhere. They begin by accumulating victories. That is what’s going on in 2015, in case you’ve been dozing.

Patrick Reed won at Kapalua — that’s four wins in 18 months. Jimmy Walker won in Hawaii — that’s four wins in 15 months. Bill Haas, who claimed the Humana Championship, already owns a FedEx Cup title, six wins and a first-class pedigree. In Phoenix, newcomer Brooks Koepka displayed a combo platter of power and putting that gave him instant Next Big Thing credibility. Then came Jason Day at Torrey Pines. We penciled him in for great things five years ago and now, at 27, he finally looks ready. Brandt Snedeker’s victory at Pebble Beach was the seventh of his career and a reminder that, oh yeah, a guy who putts like that is going to win a major or three.

James Hahn was the surprise playoff survivor at Riviera in the Northern Trust Open after holing back-to-back birdie putts. At 297th in the World Ranking before his victory, Hahn, 33, wasn’t exactly on anyone’s list of future superstars. But one of the guys he edged out was Dustin Johnson, an eight-time winner who looks like he means business after returning from a highly publicized, six-month hiatus.

The players who narrowly missed the playoff included Jordan Spieth, everyone’s heir apparent; Sang-Moon Bae, who quietly has won two Tour events, including the Open, the 2015 season lid-lifter; Hideki Matsuyama, last year’s Memorial Tournament champ and a formidable player already as he turns 23 this week; and Keegan Bradley, winner of the 2011 PGA Championship.

Watch out for these talented youngsters in Florida. With a nod to the late Flip Wilson, they are pro golf’s version of The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.

Oh, you’ll surely see more stars created and resumes brightly buffed during this Florida swing, where winners and losers and shotmaking heroics will merge into a blurry green collage. The season has begun in earnest, no doubt about it, because we will be watching.

And FYI, there are only about 40 shopping days left until the Masters. Think about that while you’re shoveling the driveway tomorrow. Me, I just hope I brought enough sunscreen to last the week.

Almost sincerely,

Gary Van Sickle

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