KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Tiger Woods has inspired new hope. Brooks Koepka is the No. 1 player in the world.
A new year brings a sense of familiarity, except for the details.
Woods went into 2019 having won again after five long years, but he still had yet to win a major. He took care of that at the Masters, and now it’s a question of whether he can catch the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, the gold standard in golf.
Koepka is the first player since Woods in 2009-10 to start consecutive years at No. 1 in the world ranking. How much longer he keeps it depends on when he plays. Koepka has a knee injury that has kept him out since October.
Their performances are among five topics of conversations going into 2020.
With all the trauma and drama involving Woods, what made his Masters victory so appealing was that a younger generation only saw him win majors on video, and an older generation of fans had reason to believe they might never see it again.
The rest of the year was a dud, and then Woods had minor surgery on his left knee to clean out cartilage. His knee was strong enough to play, but not to practice or squat to read putts. After the surgery, he played for the first time in 10 weeks and won the Zozo Championship in Japan for his record-tying 82nd victory. Then, he played even better by going 3-0 as the playing captain of the U.S. team in the Presidents Cup.
All that did was build hope for Augusta National and beyond. Is the pursuit of Nicklaus back in play? Woods turned 44 this week. When he gets to the Masters, only six players older than Woods will have won a major — Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Jerry Barber, Nicklaus, Old Tom Morris and Julius Boros. No one that age has won more than two majors. Woods needs three.
As the last decade has shown, it’s not wise to bet against him.
Brooks Koepka has a chance to join one of the most exclusive lists in golf as he tries to win a major championship for the fourth consecutive year. Only four other players have done that.
Tiger Woods won majors in four straight years on two occasions — 1999 through 2002, and 2005 through 2008. The others were Tom Watson (1980-83), Jack Nicklaus (1970-73) and Walter Hagen (1924-27).
But first, he has to play.
Koepka hasn’t played a 72-hole event since the Tour Championship. He missed the cut in Las Vegas and then hurt his knee when he slipped on a wet piece of concrete walking off the tee in Korea, landing awkwardly. He is eager to return. He will not return too early. And it’s too early to say when that might be.
But the measure is in April at the Masters and the three months that follow when it comes to chasing history.
The world ranking after the U.S. Open determines who qualifies for the Olympics in Tokyo. Unlike the return at Rio in 2016, don’t expect as many players to skip for reasons ranging from security to mosquitoes.
The competition figures to be fierce for the Americans. A country that sends a maximum of four players, provided they are among the top 15 in the world ranking. Going into the new year, the U.S. has nine players in the top 15.
Tiger Woods, lukewarm about a gold medal when golf in the Olympics first was mentioned two decades ago, wants a shot at it. He currently holds down the No. 4 spot for the Americans and would be helped by his limited schedule. Justin Thomas has said he might consider adding a tournament to his schedule if necessary to make it to Tokyo.
Expect strong competition from Britain, too, with Rio gold medalist Justin Rose (No. 8), Tommy Fleetwood (No. 10) and Paul Casey (No. 15) very much in the mix. Britain had two players in Rio.
Gone are the days when it’s easy to identify the best player without a major because more are winning them. The 29 players who won majors over the last 10 years were the most in any decade.
Any list starts much younger, and three players might be suited to break through for their first major this year.
Jon Rahm is No. 3 in the world with three victories worldwide in each of his three full years as a pro. He has three top 5s in majors, but has yet to face serious pressure in the final hour on Sunday.
Xander Schauffele is winning big tournaments and has challenged in majors each of the last two years, as runner-up at the Masters in 2019 and the British Open at Carnoustie the year before, where his hopes ended on the 71st hole.
Patrick Cantlay was among those who had a share of the lead late Sunday at the Masters until a bogey-bogey-par finish. He hasn’t won as much as the others, but his swing shows up every week. He’s missed only one cut in the 12 majors he has played, three of them as an amateur.
All three go into the year among the top 10 in the world.
Go back to Jordan Spieth winning the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale. He was four days shy of turning 24. He had three majors among his 14 wins worldwide, one short of the career Grand Slam, and he was No. 2 in the world.
He hasn’t won since then.
Spieth sorted out putting problems that held him back. Now it’s about figuring out his swing. He has dropped to No. 44 in the world. He has missed the Tour Championship each of the last two years.
This is an important year for him to at least stay relevant.
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