2013 PGA Tour season opens with lots of story lines

3:02 PM, Jan 3, 2013   |    comments
Ryan Moore (right) walks the 17th fairway with Rickie Fowler during the third round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
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By Steve DiMeglio

(KSDK Sports) -- The 2012 PGA Tour season is one tough act to follow - Tiger Woods and Ernie Els winning again, Rory McIlroy dominating, Bubba Watson bending, Europe rallying in the Ryder Cup and 14-year-old eighth grader Guan Tianlang earning an invitation to the Masters.

But after Rickie Fowler rings in the new season today by hitting the opening tee ball in the winners-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course in Maui, Hawaii, the 2013 season seems ready to produce just as much intrigue and just as many memorable moments as its predecessor.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on:

The Swoosh: Nike is expected to announce in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 14 the addition of world No. 1 Rory McIlroy to its playing staff, where he'll form a powerful 1-2 punch with long-time staffer Tiger Woods for the sports clothing and equipment behemoth.

The two were the only players to win at least three PGA Tour events in 2012, with McIlroy notching four, including his second major championship. Will a change in equipment and an ever-growing spotlight derail McIlroy from his commanding perch atop the world rankings? Not likely, seeing as he came back from adversity in midseason last year (four missed cuts in five starts) to win the PGA Championship by eight and money titles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Woods continues to attract more eyeballs than anyone in golf and he looks primed to have another big year. But how big a year will it be? He says he's as healthy as he's been in years, had his putting stroke back at the end of the year, and he looks primed to cut into Jack Nicklaus' 18-14 lead in major championships. But Woods hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where this year he'll likely make his U.S. debut, and time is no longer on his side. He's 37, and only one player - Ben Hogan - won four majors after turning 37 (Hogan won six).

Dustin Johnson: No one has won back-to-back Player of the Year awards since Woods from 2005-07. If that trend continues, Johnson might be the sixth different POY in the last six years. Hindered by injury last year, Johnson came back with a win in the FedEx St. Jude Classic, had top-10 finishes in each of the four FedExCup playoff events, and went 3-0-0 in the Ryder Cup. Johnson, who has won six times since the start of 2008, is healthy and improving his game from 125 yards and in.

The 54-hole leader: In 2012 seven players came from six strokes back in the final round to win - including Brandt Snedeker (from seven shots back), Kyle Stanley (eight) and Phil Mickelson (six) in successive weeks. In all, 26 players came from behind with 18 holes to play to claim victory.

The USGA and R&A: The USGA and R&A have already proposed banning anchoring, which is expected to become a new rule in February and take effect in 2016. Is distance the two's next target? The governing bodies have been studying for years how far the new golf balls are flying as historic golf courses become obsolete for the modern game. In announcing the proposed ban on anchoring, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said, "We haven't shelved distance. It's very much on the radar. Anchored strokes are separate. Just because we're doing one doesn't mean we have taken our eye off the other."

The calendar: The regular season will end with the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 18, followed by the FedExCup Playoffs to wrap up the 2013 season. Less than a month later, the Tour's new wrap-around season begins.

The shortened season puts a premium on playing spots this year as more players are expected to play more often to secure full cards for the 2013-14 campaign. Eight tournaments bumped up the size of their fields by 12 playing spots, producing an additional 96 playing opportunities this year. Still, Web.com and Q-School graduates likely will face fewer playing opportunities because of the impending wrap-around season.

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Stat of the week

92: Drives eclipsing 400 yards on the par-5, 663-yard 18th hole at the Plantation Course since 2003, more than 25% of all 400-yard drives on the PGA Tour since 2003. Golf Channel's Driving Grid, a new graphic measuring yardage of tee shots, debuts this week. "When the wind's in the right direction, every player steps up to the launching pad there thinking they can hit one 400 yards. And who doesn't want to hit one 400 yards? If you catch it in the right spot you can get 450," said Bubba Watson, who led the Tour in driving distance last year with an average of 315.5 yards.

Featured pairings

Steve Stricker begins defense of his title alongside reigning FedExCup champion Brandt Snedeker in today's first round of the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Another key pairing to watch are bombers Dustin Johnson and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson. Times Eastern.

3:35 p.m.: Rickie Fowler, Jason Dufner

3:45 p.m.: Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson

3:55 p.m.: Keegan Bradley, John Huh

4:05 p.m.: Ian Poulter, Jonas Blixt

4:15 p.m.: Marc Leishman, Ted Potter, Jr.

4:25 p.m.: Kyle Stanley, Scott Stallings

4:35 p.m.: George McNeill, Ryan Moore

4:45 p.m.: Ben Curtis, Mark Wilson

4:55 p.m.: Johnson Wagner, J.J. Henry

5:05 p.m.: Carl Pettersson, Scott Piercy

5:15 p.m.: Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan

5:25 p.m.: Charlie Beljan, Tommy Gainey

5:35 p.m.: Bill Haas, Nick Watney

5:45 p.m.: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson

5:55 p.m.: Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker

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