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1 Have we seen the end of the Tiger Woods era?
NOT YET, but we may have witnessed the beginning of the end. Woods sent a jolt through the golf world at last week's World Challenge—with his commanding play while building a four-shot lead through three rounds and then with an utter meltdown on Sunday. He showed some grit with a birdie at the 72nd hole but couldn't match Graeme McDowell's mid-range birdie putt in sudden death, a dispiriting end to a winless year. Whether Woods can dominate again will be determined by his putter and his head. Going back to the 2009 PGA, the greatest clutch putter in golf history has had a series of crucial misses on the greens. Now that Tiger is tinkering with his wand, just like everybody else, it's fair to wonder if his best work on the greens is behind him. But Woods's greatest attributes were always metaphysical: mental toughness, a confidence born from an absence of failure. Can Tiger reinvent himself? Even if the answer is yes, so many players have raised their game that he is going to find that it has never been harder to win.
2 If not Tiger, who will be No. 1?
A GOOD bet would be the current No. 1, Lee Westwood. While Woods was showing flashes of his old self in Southern California, Westwood quietly won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa by a sporty eight strokes. The victory ensures that Westwood (below) will keep the top spot in the rankings into early 2011. With golf's most consistent long game, Westwood is in contention seemingly every time he tees it up, and all the high finishes bring crucial rankings points. But if he is going to hold off Woods or a relentless Martin Kaymer, Westwood needs to win more often. Continued hard work on his short game may be the difference maker. His 72nd hole chip-in put an exclamation point on his Sun City victory and is the latest example of his increased efficiency and creativity with his wedges.
Kaymer figures to remain a strong challenger for No. 1, having already displayed a Bernhard Langer--like consistency but with more flair on and around the greens. While Westwood is at the peak of his career and Woods is still in the midst of a long climb back, Kaymer, who turns 26 on Dec. 28, is only getting better with each passing year.
Then there's Phil Mickelson, who had numerous chances to seize the top spot this year but never got it done. Mickelson will never have the week-to-week steadiness of a Kaymer or a Westwood, but he could ride a hot streak to the top of the rankings. Given his history of success on the West Coast swing, that could happen sooner rather than later.
3 With the schedule shrinking, a new TV contract looming and the European tour gaining strength, what's the prognosis for the long-term health of the PGA Tour?
WE'RE STILL waiting for the other shoe to drop in the postrecession golf world, but so far the PGA Tour remains surprisingly strong. Sponsors come and go—always have, always will—and Tour commissioner Tim Finchem (above) finds new ones like the Greenbrier Resort last year and Hyundai for the 2011 season opener at Kapalua. Sony just reupped for three more years at the Hawaiian Open, including 3-D telecasts, and Cadillac is the new sponsor of the World Golf Championship event at Doral (page g16) and the umbrella sponsor for the WGC series.