New US PGA Tour season tees off at Safeway Open with Tiger Woods still in limbo
Many of golf’s elite skip the first low-key events of the new season, and this week’s tournament has its customary laid-back feel now that the 14-time major champion has delayed his return
Phil Mickelson, energised by America’s Ryder Cup triumph, was raring to go as the US PGA Tour season tees off with the Safeway Open this week without Tiger Woods.
“Well, after five solid days off it’s exciting to start the year,” the five-time major champion said in a jokey jab at the quick turnaround from the Ryder Cup to the opening event on the 2016-17 calendar.
Little more than a fortnight ago, Rory McIlroy capped the 2015-16 season with a scintillating victory in the Tour Championship – nabbing the $10 million FedEx Cup play-off bonus into the bargain.
Many of golf’s elite who battled in the play-offs and Ryder Cup will skip the first low-key events of the new season, and this week’s tournament will have its customary laid-back feel now that 14-time major champion Woods has delayed his return from an injury absence lasting more than a year.
“We all want Tiger to come back, but we want him to come back when he’s ready,” Mickelson said. “If he doesn’t feel like he’s ready, then he should wait.
“We’ll all wait in anticipation and we’re excited, but I understand there’s a lot of pressure not just to come back but to perform when he does come back.
“If he doesn’t feel like it’s right, then he needs to wait. We support him.”
The question of when Woods will return – and how he’ll play when he does – is a topic that sparks interest beyond the confines of the golf world.
But plenty of top golfers who battled through 2016 season find themselves in recovery mode in the waning months of the year.
World number one Jason Day of Australia, forced out of the Tour Championship and the BMW Championship before that with a back injury, has pulled out of next month’s Australian Open and the World Cup of Golf, and indicated he might not compete until 2017.
Ryder Cup inspired me to play my best. Unfortunately as I prepared, I still need work and refining. https://t.co/wCFjIznK6R
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) October 10, 2016
Day won three US PGA Tour titles in 2015-16, but Player of the Year honours went to American Dustin Johnson, whose three titles included his breakthrough major at the US Open.
Johnson is planning to make his season debut at the WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai later this month, then play the elite Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January.
Watch: Dustin Johnson wins Player of the Year
“Obviously my expectations going into next year are going to be very high, and that’s going to drive me to keep continuing to work hard and keep doing exactly what I’m doing because it’s working,” Johnson said.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the game right now, in all parts of the game. There’s nothing that I don’t feel good with. Next year, yeah, expectations are going to be very high, and hopefully I’m going to play up to this year, and next year hopefully I can have a better year.”
Good day’s work: Rory McIlroy banks $11.5m as he wins USPGA Tour Championship and FedEx Cup bonus in dramatic ending
So with players like Day, Johnson, world number three McIlroy and world nunber four Jordan Spieth waiting in the wings, England’s world number 12 Paul Casey is the highest-ranked player in this week’s field.
Casey, who finished alone in fourth at the Tour Championship, is seeking his first PGA Tour title since the 2009 Houston Open.
After his solid form late last season, he’s happy to have a chance to keep the momentum going.
“Hopefully that good run I had finishing at Tour Championship I can continue that because I played some great stuff,” he said.
“I feel like I have unfinished business for this year, great golf but didn’t get a win. So still looking at trying to correct that.”
Mickelson is also seeking to end a title drought that stretches to his 2013 British Open triumph.
“I’m still on an emotional high from the Ryder Cup. It has been such a fun experience to share that with so many guys,” Mickelson said.
“There was such a closeness and unity on this [Ryder Cup] team and such support from each other. It helped bring out our best golf. Guys have been texting all week long and staying in touch.”
Watch: 2016 Safeway Open preview
But the newest crop of PGA Tour players will be eager to start making a mark.
Last year, Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo won the season opener after defeating Kevin Na in a play-off to become the first player to win in his first start as an official PGA Tour member since Russell Henley at the 2013 Sony Open, and on the eve of his title defence, collected his Rookie of the Year trophy.
Watch: Dustin Johnson wins Player of the Year