Tiger Woods' expected return to the PGA Tour some time in 2009 will likely dominate the golf scene for the first part of the season. But when the world's No. 1-ranked golfer does come back, how long will it take for him to get back into form, and will he be like the Tiger of old?
These are just a few of the issues our experts dissected when making predictions for the PGA Tour's top awards for 2009.
Player of the Year
The Pick: Tiger Woods
Tough one, huh? The man has been player of the year in all but three of his 12 full seasons as a pro, and has never gone back-to-back years without winning the award. So after Padraig Harrington swooped in to take the 2008 honor -- winning two majors to Tiger's one -- who are we to suggest that Woods won't bounce back to claim it again?
Of course, Woods' pesky knee problem clouds the issue. Will he come back better than ever? Will he need some time to adjust to a new swing? These are questions that are tough to answer right now, but are likely to be but temporary problems, if problems at all.
Ever since his June surgery to repair a torn ACL, Woods has been saying his knee hasn't been right for years. Hank Haney, his coach, predicts that Woods will come back better than ever because he'll finally be playing on a strong left knee. That's good enough for us. If Woods could win five of the seven tournaments he played in this past season (including one on the European Tour) on a bad wheel, what can he do when healthy?
What will be interesting, again, is to see whether anyone else steps up. Harrington did in Woods' absence, winning the two majors in which Tiger did not compete. Anthony Kim won two tournaments, Wachovia and AT&T National, at which we would expect Woods to be a strong contender. Sergio Garcia and Camilo Villegas had big tournament victories. And, of course, there is the ageless Vijay Singh, who won three tournaments and captured the FedEx Cup. Can any of them topple Tiger? Possibly, but we don't think so.
-- Bob Harig
The Pick: Tiger Woods
When asked to name my POY for 2008, I chose Padraig Harrington over Woods. But don't get me wrong: When it comes to overall talent, no one is on Tiger's level.
I'll take a healthy Woods over the field in 2009. And yes, he will be healthy. (For those who believe otherwise, let me offer up this thought: He won the U.S. Open with a torn ACL and multiple leg fractures. Even if Woods only returns at 85 percent -- which is how healthy he said the ligament would be for this coming season -- isn't that a marked improvement over his injuries from last June?) The nine-time Jack Nicklaus Trophy winner has already started hitting short iron shots and may be back up to full strength in the next month or two. Just a hunch, but I've got to believe he'll play one or two events in preparation for the Masters -- Doral and Bay Hill, maybe? -- then compete in what has become a full schedule for him, taking part in 14-15 tournaments over the course of the entire season. If he wins at his '08 rate -- a ridiculous .667 winning percentage -- he'll take the award, probably unanimously. (Though we'd never know, of course, since the PGA Tour doesn't release voting totals.)
Lower the bar a little, and you'll see that he could enjoy a typical Tiger season -- erring on the safe side, let's go with five wins and one major -- and unless another player steps up à la Harrington and claims two majors, Tiger will still win the POY. Is there a possibility that Woods could be shut out, perhaps repeating his 2004 campaign, when, while undergoing swing changes, he won only one event and went oh-fer in majors? Sure, but I'd take that bet and sit on it through August in a heartbeat.
As for the other contenders, consider it a lineup of the usual suspects. Something tells me this may be the year Sergio Garcia finally proves he's the second-best player in the world, which would only be fitting, since he finished '08 as the No. 2-ranked player. Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh will each win a few times, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas will continue on the road to superstardom, and it wouldn't shock me if Harrington won a fourth major in three years.
They will each have their moments, but 2009 will ultimately be the Year of the Tiger once again.
-- Jason Sobel
Rookie of the Year
The Pick: Colt Knost
This time a year ago, Knost's decision to turn pro was being questioned in many corners. Not because observers didn't feel Knost has the goods to be a successful pro. (He was coming off U.S. Amateur and U.S. Public Links victories in 2007 and had guided the U.S. Walker Cup team to victory.)
But by turning pro, Knost was giving up exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. And those coveted spots are hard to pass up. You never know when or if you will ever get back, and Knost didn't even earn his PGA Tour card at the qualifying tournament.
But he did earn a Nationwide Tour card, and Knost made the most of it, winning twice, tying for third at the Nationwide Tour Championship and finishing sixth on the money list. That earned him a promotion to the PGA Tour in 2009, and the experience he gained will be invaluable as he plays his rookie season.
Knost will be joined by former U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes as a rookie, proof that such amateur titles are not guarantees for success. Nationwide Tour's No. 1 money winner Matt Bettencourt also gets his first shot at the PGA Tour. There will also be 12 rookies who made it through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
Knost would probably be the first to admit that he needs to find more consistency in his game. He missed eight cuts in 22 starts and in addition to his two victories, had just two other top-10s. And in five PGA Tour starts, he made just one cut. But Knost now has the chance to get back to the majors he gave up as an amateur. It'll take a big 2009 to do it, but if he is rookie of the year, the goals will be closer to reality.
-- Bob Harig
The Pick: Casey Wittenberg
After a severely disappointing season for the freshman crew on tour, I expect a big bounce-back year for the incoming crop. Q-school offers up a few first-timers who have legendary tales -- like the long-hitting, former college-hoops-playing Gary Woodland and perennial been-there, done-that journeyman Brian Vranesh. But the real contenders will come from a talented Nationwide Tour graduating class, much of which reads like a who's who of former amateur stars.
There's ex-U.S. Amateur champ Ricky Barnes, who finally earned his card by claiming the last qualifying spot on the circuit. There's another former Am -- and PubLinks -- winner in Colt Knost, who made waves with his decision to forgo a Masters invitation by turning pro last year. There's young Aussie Aron Price, who has an impressive array of tools. There's former Cal standout Peter Tomasulo, who is PGA Tour-ready after gradually climbing through the minor league ranks.
And yet none of them is my pick to win Rookie of the Year. Instead, I'm going with yet another former phenom in Wittenberg. As you may recall, the Memphis native was a can't-miss prospect who finished T-13 at the 2004 Masters as an amateur. Like so many before him, though, the road to the big leagues didn't come as quickly as expected. Ironically, that may just wind up being the secret to his success.
Rather than jumping straight from the amateur ranks to the PGA Tour, Wittenberg has toiled on mini-tours and the Nationwide Tour, waiting for his chance. Now that he's here, don't expect him to take anything for granted. Although he doesn't drive the ball a long way, Wittenberg is a solid ball-striker and owns a fantastic short game, and those skills should put him in contention a few times on some of the tour's shorter venues. In fact, it's happened already; in a late-season start at the PGA Tour's Viking Classic, he shot four rounds in the 60s and finished tied for fourth. If Dustin Johnson, Chez Reavie, Andres Romero and Marc Turnesa can claim victories as rookies in 2008, then Wittenberg is certainly capable of matching that feat in '09. Put him down for a handful of top-10s, too.
One thing I'm sure about: Expect this to be a more competitive award this year, with a few of these rookies not only winning tournaments, but also making cuts in majors and earning trips to East Lake and the Tour Championship.
-- Jason Sobel
Comeback Player of the Year
The Pick: Davis Love
The 20-time PGA Tour winner will turn 45 in 2009, but Love showed at the end of the 2008 season that he has a lot of golf left.
Love, who has won the PGA Championship and two Players Championships, was on the rebound from a severe ankle injury that caused a slow start to the season. He didn't post his first top-20 finish until the British Open -- his 15th start. And he had to qualify just to get in. Love also finished 154th in the FedEx Cup standings, meaning he didn't qualify for the PGA Tour playoffs.
While Love won more than $1.66 million and finished 48th on the money list, almost all of the damage occurred during the Fall Series, where he needed a strong push just to be exempt for the 2009 season. He accomplished that goal and then won the Children's Miracle Network Classic, the 20th victory of his career, giving him lifetime tour membership.
But Love is not exempt for the Masters, and he must either win a tournament before April or move into the top 50 in the Official World Ranking a week before the tournament. He is now 80th, making it a manageable goal.
Who could challenge Love for this award? How about Tiger Woods? If Woods comes back after participating in just six tournaments to play a full season and wins even more than he did in 2008, you can bet he'll get plenty of votes for the honor.
-- Bob Harig
The Pick: Arron Oberholser
Considering the fact that Steve Stricker somewhat inexplicably won this award in consecutive seasons (2006-07), I'm tempted to choose 2008 winner Dudley Hart to make it back-to-back back-to-back winners, if that makes any sense. (Don't worry -- it shouldn't.)
When examining the contenders for this award, the first question we need to ask is whether Tiger Woods qualifies. It's an enticing proposition, that Woods is indeed "coming back" from an injury. But I say he's disqualified because he was still beating guys on one leg. Besides, you think he really needs another trophy?
Instead, I'm going with a player who is also returning from health issues. You name a body part, Oberholser probably injured it during the past few years. Between shoulder, back, neck and hand ailments, the guy spent more time in the physio trailer than on the course. Last year, Oberholser gutted it out through 10 appearances and actually didn't play all that poorly. In just his fourth start of the season, he shot 71-70 at Augusta National before dropping off on the weekend to finish tied for 25th. After the AT&T National in July, he took three and a half months off, then returned to play two events during the Fall Finish, placing tied for fourth at the last one, the Frys.com Open.
At this point last year, I was touting Oberholser as a potential major championship contender and Ryder Cup team member. Obviously, neither of those happened (his opening 36 at the Masters notwithstanding), but the talent level is still there. If he stays injury-free, I expect a big performance.
He isn't without many challengers in this category, though. I think Jay Williamson, who has lost in a playoff in each of the past two seasons, but still had to fight through Q-school, will have a solid year. Chris DiMarco seemingly has nowhere to go but up. David Toms is obviously much better than his 130th ranking on the money list in 2008. And there's always David Duval and John Daly, each of whom could cruise to this award with a win and some other strong results.
But I'm sticking with Oberholser as my pick. And, hey, if he wins, I just may pick him again next year, too.
-- Jason Sobel
Bob Harig can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com. Jason Sobel can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.