Of the eligible players, all tournament winners in 2021, only Rory McIlroy is absent, choosing to light the fuse in the more familiar setting of Abu Dhabi and Dubai at the end of the month.
In what promises to be a dynamic year for both men’s and women’s golf, here are five themes on which to fix your beady eye.
The Saudi threat
Sport is a central pillar of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to alter global perceptions and drive the tourism industry as the region seeks to reduce its dependence on oil. Golf is one of the key soft power tools in the arsenal and its rollout under Greg Norman threatens to shift the game’s base away from the all-powerful PGA Tour.
The Saudi buy-out of the Asian Tour under the newly-formed LIV Golf Investments has given the new power brokers the legitimacy they need to stage tournaments and attract the game’s best players.
The Asian Tour’s new flagship, next month’s Saudi International event, has migrated from the European Tour and includes Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed among other big hitters in the field. Consider the appearance of the PGA Tour’s biggest ticket-sellers a first step in the Saudis’ 10-year plan to take over the world of golf.
Immortalilty or bust for Rory?
The PGA Tour has a huge advocate in official player representative McIlroy, who has called the Saudi take-over for what it is, a geo-political money grab.
McIlroy is rich enough not to have his head turned and popular enough to draw a crowd at golf’s traditional tour stops. He has chosen to start his season on the European Tour before heading back to the United States for the PGA Tour’s Florida swing ahead of the first major of the season in April.
Though the Masters, the only major he has yet to win, remains McIlroy’s principal target, he would readily accept success at any of the big four seven years after recording his fourth and last major triumph.
With a new generation of major champions already dominating, McIlroy is no longer setting the agenda as he once did. Tiger Woods won his 14th major at the age of 32. McIlroy turns 33 in May. Time to get on with it if immortality is to be his.
The McIlroy narrative is bettered at Augusta only by that of the big cat himself. Woods’ return last month playing with his son Charlie in Miami begat the “where will he pitch up next?” game.
The car accident last February that Woods feared might end his career has morphed into another miracle comeback story. Woods hinted at a selective re-introduction to tournament golf this year, a reduced schedule that would allow him to target key events.
First amongst those he would want to contest is the Masters, where three years ago he won a 15th major after a hiatus of 11 years. The second would be the Open Championship at St Andrew’s. If Woods were to play only two more events as a professional golfer, it would be at Augusta National and the home of golf.
But don’t confuse sentiment with ambition. He won’t play either unless he thinks he can win.
St Andrew’s meets Morikawa
Where else but St Andrew’s? The Open rota was juggled to permit the 150th staging of golf’s oldest major to occur at the home of the ancients.
The cancellation of the 149th tournament in 2020 pushed back the celebrations to this year, which was particularly fortunate for Woods, who would have been watching on crutches a year ago.
Oh, you want a winner? It would be wrong to claim Collin Morikawa announced himself with victory in his first appearance at The Open in 2021, but right to argue the win at Royal St George’s forced upon us the idea that the next great American was among us.
His victory at the PGA championship in 2020, also on debut, and his subsequent conquest in Dubai last November to become the first American winner of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai revealed a golfer or profound talent with determination as armour-plated as Woods’.
You could do worse that stick a tenner on the grouping of Morikawa, Claret Jug and Swilkan Bridge.
The Ladies European Tour continues its remarkable recovery with a record 31 events and a total prize fund of $24.5m (£18m), more than double the figure for 2019.
The women will play Open venue Muirfield for the first time at the AIG Women’s Open, and for a $6.8m prize fund, a pot approaching PGA Tour levels of dosh.
Europe’s Solheim Cup victory on US soil for only the second time last year was another feel-good fillip for women’s golf on this side of the Atlantic, underscoring the sense of optimism washing over the game following the LET’s tie-up with the LPGA Tour in America in November 2019.
The resulting cash injection rescued the LET from near collapse and the guarantee of 17 tournaments televised live deepens the audience connection with the game’s leading players.
Not only does the joint venture provide opportunities for Europe’s top players to colonise America, it invites the LPGA superstars – the likes of Nelly and Jessica Korda, Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, In Bee Park and Lydia Ko – to compete more regularly at LET events.