Woods, Mickelson returns come not a moment too soon

It's been a rough couple of weeks in the world of golf. While some of the game's top players weren't competing in the season-opening events, a maelstrom of controversy first swarmed around Golf Channel announcer Kelly Tilghman's "lynch [Tiger Woods] in a back alley" comment and later when Golfweek magazine placed an image of a noose on its cover to promote a package of editorial content on the situation.

Here's the last thing we'll say about this incident for now: The Weekly 18 has heard from golf fans and nonfans, far and wide, regarding these controversies. We've heard from those who thought Tilghman's poor choice of words was offensive but the mag cover was not. We've heard from others who felt the exact opposite. We've heard from African-Americans who don't see what all the fuss is about. We've heard from Caucasians who are disgusted by such actions.

The most important thing for all of us to remember is that there are no right or wrong answers here. We can have our own opinion and you can have yours, but unlike the confines of a scorecard, there is room for more than a final tally after the dust clears. If these incidents provoked further discussion about civil rights issues in our country, then at least one positive has developed as a result.

(One final point on this situation: The past few weeks, we've heard a lot about the dearth of diversity on the PGA Tour. To which we can only say … huh? The first two events were won by a Swede who was raised in India and lives in Orlando and a South Korean who lives in Houston. Other top players come from such places as Fiji, South Africa, Australia, England, Argentina and all other corners of the world, with different religious and cultural backgrounds. So although people can criticize the game for a lack of African-Americans -- a valid analysis -- let's not mistake that for a lack of diversity.)

With that, we move on to talking about -- don't be shocked now -- golf. That's right, the actual game itself, not the controversies surrounding it.

1. Will the stars align?This late-breaking news just in to ESPN.com golf headquarters: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson drive ratings.

It's tough to believe, we know, but the game's top players also happen to be its two biggest drawing cards. Each will make his season debut at this week's Buick Invitational, but the importance of having both in action will transcend the usual entertainment value. That's because, based on the on- and off-course developments in golf the past few weeks, there's never been a better time for Woods and Mickelson to return to action.

First the on-course stuff. Nothing against Daniel Chopra, K.J. Choi and D.J. Trahan -- the first three winners of the PGA Tour season -- but not one of 'em moves the needle among any group but the most die-hard of golf fans. Played against NFL playoff games, the Mercedes-Benz Championship, Sony Open and Bob Hope Classic have gotten lost in the mix among the vast sporting landscape, reduced to a quick recap on the nightly highlight shows and an abbreviated story in the next day's newspaper.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned controversies have brought golf into the media spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons. Not since the days of Martha Burk picketing outside the gates of Augusta National has such an off-course issue penetrated the masses

When last we saw Woods and Mickelson in a competitive environment, they were helping lead the U.S. team to victory at the Presidents Cup. That was preceded by a torrid close to the season by both players, as Woods won the BMW Championship and Tour Championship -- ultimately taking the inaugural FedEx Cup -- but saw his title defense at the Deutsche Bank Championship undone by Mickelson on Labor Day, the first time Lefty ever beat his adversary when they were paired in the final round.

Golf could use a similar battle between the game's two biggest stars at this week's Buick Invitational. For so many reasons.

2. 'Tis the seasonMuch has been made about the success of Woods and Mickelson at Torrey Pines, site of this week's Buick Invitational. (Woods owns five wins and five other top-10s in 10 starts; Mickelson owns three wins and five other top-10s in 18 starts.) But each tends to start strong, which could be one more sign we'll be treated to a Woods-Mickelson rivalry renewal this week. Here are each player's results in his initial start of the season since turning pro:

The final tally? Woods has five wins and six other top-10s in 12 starts; Mickelson has four wins and three other top-10s in 16 starts. Don't be surprised to see the trend continue at Torrey.

3. D.J.'s dayHere's the situation: Two players in the hunt for a PGA Tour title heading to the back nine Sunday afternoon. One player -- an 11-time champion and former Ryder Cup hero who is striking the ball so well he's leading the field in greens in regulation -- leads by 3 strokes over another who owns one career win and just six other top-25 finishes. And here's the final result: One player wins by 3 strokes over the other. So, what happened? Well, the wily veteran must have eluded any drama by holding off the young upstart and never letting it get too close -- uh, right? Wrong. Justin Leonard, the first player in this scenario, held a 3-shot lead at the turn, but saw it erased when he went bogey-bogey the next two holes. Meanwhile, Trahan, the second player, kicked things into overdrive, shooting a back-nine 3-under 33 to win his second career title convincingly. "You certainly don't feel particularly optimistic about it when you're playing against a guy like Justin Leonard," Trahan, who also won the 2006 Southern Farm Bureau Classic, told reporters afterward. "I wasn't playing against a rookie who was in the lead for the first time. He's won a major championship, Ryder Cups. … And so it's one of those situations where you don't feel like you're that far behind the eight ball, but obviously you know you've got your work cut out for you. … So it's an amazing thing how just a couple of putts made or just one little mistake from somebody, and you can kind of get you yourself right back in it. And that's what happened to me."

4. All the young dudesWho says there's no up-and-coming talent among U.S. players? The young Americans struck a blow to that notion at the Hope. Trahan (27 years old), Anthony Kim (22), Chez Reavie (26), Ryan Moore (25), Dustin Johnson (23), Nicholas Thompson (25), John Merrick (25) and Bill Haas (25) finished in the top 16, joined by somewhat young Americans Vaughn Taylor, Charley Hoffman and Ben Crane, each of whom is 31.

5. More MooreIf Moore were a thoroughbred, his come-from-behind result would have been a thing of beauty. As it was, Moore's gradual, methodical climb up the Bob Hope leaderboard was still something to see. After an opening-round 75 left him in 124th place, he followed with a second-round 64 to move up to T-34, then a 67 got him to T-16, another 67 moved him to T-13 and a closing 66 left him at T-5 when all was said and done. "This is the best I've ever felt at the beginning of the year, which is really, really exciting for me," said Moore, who has battled injuries throughout his pro career. When he gets hot, he gets really hot, so expect a few more solid results in coming weeks.

6. Dustin the competitionThe Weekly 18's preseason analysis of rookie Johnson, the only 2007 college grad to reach the PGA Tour through Q-school:

    Up-and-comer alert! A three-time All-America at Coastal Carolina and member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup squad, Johnson is one of the top American players to reach the tour in the past few years. He may need a little seasoning, but in time he'll be a solid pro.

We'll take partial credit for a correct prediction, as long as "in time" can be translated as "in his first two weeks." After a T-10 result at the Sony Open to start his season, Johnson followed with a T-12 at the Bob Hope this week. As we've often noted, it's important for rookies to get off to a strong start on the West Coast Swing. These finishes alone should be enough to keep Johnson near the top of the reshuffle in late February, ensuring he'll be able to play early and often, rather than taking things week to week or taking his chances as an alternate.

7. Hooray for BooJust call this the Weekley 18. Sorry, maybe it's because his name sounds like ours, but the Weekly 18 can't get enough Boo Weekley. Here are some of the better exchanges between Boo and the media this week at the Hope.

From his post-round news conference after a third-round 10-under 62 Friday:

Q: Could you just go through your card?
A: I think I birdied, well, I birdied 1, then I birdied 2.
Q: But what did you do?
A: Oh, really I don't even know. I don't remember all the holes.
Q: Forget it.
A: I'm sorry.

On the weather in Palm Springs, Calif.:

"It's a little too dry out here for me. I'm waking up in the morning time early in the morning and nose bleeding and stuff, I'm a little chafed, you know, I mean I got a rash and it's just a little dry for me. I like it a little more humidity."

That was followed up by this exchange:

Q: Your nose bleeds in the morning?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Only here?
A: Well, I mean, yes, I mean it's just dry. I'm not used to this dryness.

Q: It doesn't bleed back home?
A: No, not unless somebody hits me.

8. Rodney Dangerfield awardPoor Hoffman. Guy not only grows his blond locks long to ensure that he looks different from everyone else on the PGA Tour, but he also won the Bob Hope Classic last year -- and still can't get any respect! As he stood on the tee box before beginning his third round, the starter commanded the gallery's attention and bellowed:

    "Ladies and gentlemen, on the tee, the 2006 champion, from Colleyville, Texas, please welcome Chad Campbell."

After a smattering of confused applause, Hoffman put his arm around the starter, pointed to the tee sheet and good-naturedly confided, "You're one group too late. I'm up here." Then, with a big smile on his face, Hoffman turned to the crowd and said, "That's who they were hoping for today!"

9. This idea is goodAfter the Mercedes-Benz Championship a few weeks ago, we were remiss in not reporting the gaggle of fans cruising around Kapalua in T-shirts that read: "HOFFMAN: This guy is good" -- an homage to long-haired Charley in a takeoff on the PGA Tour's motto. (Let's just say it landed at No. 19 on the Weekly 18 list.) But we can ignore the shirts no longer, as one was donned by tournament host George Lopez, who was playing with the defending champ in the first round of the Bob Hope Classic on Wednesday. It recalls a question one of our RPM gearhead buddies used to ask: "How come NASCAR fans will purchase shirts, hats, bumper stickers and everything else with their favorite driver's name, but PGA Tour fans don't even have such an option?" It's true. Other than painting yourself like an orange-and-black-striped tiger or wearing a John Daly "lion" headcover on your hand like a puppet, there aren't too many options for folks who want to show off loyalty to a certain player. (Assuming that buying a Buick is a bit over the top.) Perhaps the Hoffman duds will spur more personalized PGA Tour player clothing for fans of certain players. Rory Sabbatini's face on a belt buckle? An Ian Poulter wig? Weekley-inspired rain pants? Ah, we can only dream.

10. Calc-ulated riskMark Calcavecchia carded one of the more entertaining bogeys we've seen in a long time Friday. With his ball precariously perched upon the bank of a water hazard on No. 15 at The Classic Club, Calc removed his spikes and socks, waded into the water … and promptly shanked one dead left. Splash! After what could only be described as an "angry drop," he knocked his fourth shot onto the green and -- still barefoot and with one pantleg rolled up -- drained the 10-foot putt for bogey.

11. Rock the voteFor most former major champions, a conclusion to last season that included five made cuts in seven starts and no result better than T-37 would have been understandably disappointing. For Todd Hamilton, though, it brought reason for optimism. The 2004 British Open winner missed the cut in all but four of his first 21 appearances last year, only to see a moderate amount of success in the season's final months. In his first start of 2008, it looked as though that would carry over, as Hamilton opened with rounds of 67-69. Instead, he followed with rounds of 76-73 to miss the cut by 4 strokes. Since beating Ernie Els in a playoff at Royal Troon, Hamilton has finished in the money in 40 of 93 PGA Tour starts.

The news actually gets worse for Hamilton. In addition to his MCing this week, there was this news, courtesy of Wednesday's edition of the Fort Frances (Ontario) Times:

    After being handily elected to fill the vacant seat on town council Monday night, Ken Perry took his declaration of office last night -- marking the beginning of his almost three-year term as a councillor. Perry garnered 1,813 votes in the municipal byelection, defeating opponent Todd Hamilton, who received 792 votes.

For the record, golf's Hamilton also lost handily to Kenny Perry, who finished T-3 at the Hope.

12. Career wafflingIn his first PGA Tour start of the season, Richard Johnson missed the cut by 10 strokes, but at least he could tale solace in one thing: He beat David Duval. Nothing against the 13-time champ, but earlier this week Johnson recalled a time when the two players were hardly on the same level. Despite the two having played college golf against each other (Duval at Georgia Tech; Johnson at Augusta State), the days before the 1997 Masters saw Duval preparing for the tournament, while Johnson was … preparing meals at an Augusta, Ga., Waffle House restaurant. "I was cooking breakfast, because that's what a manager does," said Johnson, who originally hails from Wales. "Duval came in there to eat one day. I was like, 'This sucks.' So, you know, so luckily I had my brother over, he had a friend of his whose dad was very wealthy man over in Wales, and he said, 'Come on, let's go back and play golf.' So he helped me get back on it and get back to playing again."

13. Ranked and filedWith rounds of 73-77-73-74, Duval's season debut wasn't terrible, but it can hardly be considered a success, as he finished 127th out of the 128 players who completed four rounds. The former No. 1-ranked player has plenty of room for improvement -- just look at his status on the worldwide list. Entering the week, Duval was ranked 703rd on the Official World Golf Ranking, right between Fredrik Widmark of Sweden and Bernd Wiesberger of Austria. (If you've heard of either of those players, turn off Golf Channel and put down the remote control immediately!) At least he has company with another former Claret Juggy down there on the list. But hell, Greg Norman hasn't cashed a check even on the senior circuit since July 2005 -- and he's only 17 spots behind Duval! The good news for the guy Tiger calls Double-D? There's nowhere to go but up.

14. Rank-out contestMore fun with the OWGR: Entering this week, there were 1,379 players officially ranked in the official ranking. (We're not including those who have 0.00 points; gotta have at least 0.02 to be ranked in our book.) The last-ranked American, sadly, is long-hitting Hank Kuehne, who has been granted a Major Medical Extension carryover for 2008 as he continues to return from a back injury. (A call placed to Kuehne this week was not returned, hence no update on his progress.) In the final spot on the list? A five-way tie between Gordon Brand Jr., Anura Rohana, Matloob Ahmed, Imdad Hussein and Shabbir Iqbal, the final three of which all hail from Pakistan. Who knew?

15. Open for businessLast week in this space, we brought the news of Els' renewed commitment to winning majors in 2008. Well, here's further proof: Golf365.com reported this week that Els is the first former winner to officially enter the field for this year's British Open. Now, perhaps this is just a piece of preseason housecleaning by a representative for the Big Easy, but it has to be considered good karma for a guy who could use a little right about now. Even though the action at Royal Birkdale won't get started for more than six months, Els already has his sights on some major goals.

16. Aces up their sleevesThere has been a lack of top international golfers -- even those with full-time PGA Tour memberships -- competing in the U.S. in the season's opening weeks, as top players such as Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Paul Casey and Luke Donald have been honing their games around the world instead. Why? Well, multiple reasons. These players can work at getting toward the European Tour minimum to keep dual memberships; the travel is easier; and let's not underestimate the power of appearance fees -- or other prizes. Compare, for example, the recent rewards for making a hole-in-one on a certain hole on each tour. At the Bob Hope, an ace on No. 17 at The Classic Club netted a brand new Chrysler Sebring. Pretty nice, huh? Sure, until you consider what those on the Euro Tour were striving for. At this past week's Abu Dhabi Championship, a score of 1 on the 200-yard seventh hole would be compensated with a room for life at the seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel. And next week's Qatar Masters will offer a 26-foot luxury cruiser to any player who aces the 17th. Hey, with a gratis oceanfront hotel room and a boat, who needs a car, right?

17. Hall of a winKeep a close eye on former Big Ten champion Kevin Hall. The Ohio State alum won his first professional title Thursday, shooting 70-66-66 to capture the latest Hooters Tour Bridgestone Winter Series event by 4 strokes. "It felt great to break through with the win, because I worked hard to get my game together and it is nice to see such positive results." Hall told the Weekly 18 via e-mail. "It is, hopefully, only the beginning of great things to come. I feel that my career is starting to progress in a positive direction. I just have to keep working hard and keep pushing to be the best golfer I can be." With the victory, Hall moves into second place on the tour's money list.

18. That's what we call driving distanceSo, you like playing from the tips, huh? Well, here's a course that would be considered lengthy even by Bubba Watson's standards. From Australian newspaper The Age:

    Nullarbor Links is an 18-hole golf course spanning 1,365 [kilometers] and crossing two states of the Australian outback. Beginning at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, holes -- complete with tee, rugged outback fairway and a green -- will be placed at various towns and one working sheep station along the Eyre Highway to Ceduna in South Australia. Eight holes have already been constructed, with the other 10 to be completed by mid-2009.

For the record, 1,365 kilometers is equal to 848 miles. No, the Aussies aren't trying to make the USGA's annual setups look like pitch-'n'-putts; the "course" is a way of improving tourism throughout the region. "On this particular golf course, you'll be able to have a look at everything that is Australia," said Alf Caputo, the Eyre Highway Operators Association secretary. "It won't be just, 'Let's play golf.' It'll be 'Let's play golf and look at Australia.'"

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.