New generation of golfers emerging, and Tiger Woods may be back in swing

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are on a PGA task force to figure out how to stop Europe's streak in Ryder Cup

It isn't too often that Tiger Woods gets enthusiastic about finishing a tournament 26 strokes off the lead.

But the grin on his face after the Hero World Challenge in early December had nothing to do with the score and everything to do with playing pain-free.

"Look how far I'm hitting it again now," he told reporters after the 18-player event in Florida. "That's nice."

While Jordan Spieth was sprinting to victory at 26-under, Woods and his new swing consultant were ironing out a revamped game and drawing early praise. That, in itself, offered reason to look forward to the resumption of the PGA Tour in Hawaii in early January.

"It's a process to get back to that [winning] level," Woods said. "You've got to build up to it."

How far will the former No. 1 player rebound in 2015? That is but one question mark facing golf in the coming year.

Fans will be watching the man who succeeded him as the game's biggest name, Rory McIlroy, and the emergence of a new generation threatening to overtake the game.

This season will also mark the swan song for the anchored putter and the dawn of a new American effort to be competitive in the Ryder Cup. As McIlroy recently put it: "A lot of good stuff going into next year."

A look at what to expect around golf in the new year:

Can McIlroy stay on top?

After winning the British Open and the PGA Championship, by the end of the 2014 season McIlroy appeared to burn out. Still, he managed a second-place tie at the DP World Tour Championship and helped Europe retain the Ryder Cup. "I haven't finished outside the Top 25," he said. "My last few results have been very consistent, very good." With that kind of steadiness — and some time off — he should be more than ready for 2015.

What about Tiger's 'new' swing?

It isn't really new, more of a return to the longer, more upright form he showed earlier in his career. During months of rehab, Woods watched video spanning his entire career back to juniors and hired Chris Como as a consultant. The reviews from the Hero World Challenge were positive. "Looked like the club was going through a lot freer," Steve Stricker said. "Looked like it was on a better path."

Will we see more new faces atop the FedEx Cup standings?

The top two finishers in 2014 — Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk — rose a combined 47 spots from the previous season. Jimmy Walker also made a big move up to No. 7. If Woods and Jason Dufner can regain their healthy form, and if Dustin Johnson comes back from his personal leave, the FedEx Cup standings might have a more familiar look.

What about the young guns?

Spieth isn't the only 20-something making a name for himself on the Tour. Patrick Reed won twice in 2014 and was one of the few American players to put up a fight at the Ryder Cup. But the 24-year-old will have to control his temper, which flared up again at the recent WGC-HSBC. He said: "Especially after a Ryder Cup and at the level of golf I'm playing nowadays, you can't have outbursts."

Can the U.S. ever win another Ryder Cup?

The biennial match won't come around again until 2016, but the PGA of America has assembled a task force to figure out how to stop Europe's current winning streak. Woods and Phil Mickelson are among the 11 members who will look at the selection process for captains and players, among other things. "This is a great step by the PGA to accomplish what we all want — to win the Ryder Cup," Woods said.

Is the anchored putter already a thing of the past?

Officially, players can continue using the long sticks until January 2016. Keegan Bradley chose to get a head start by switching to standard length at the Hero World Challenge. "This was one of the biggest tournaments in my career, to be honest with you, to show myself that putter is not an issue," he said after finishing tied for third at 15-under. "Actually, probably the best I've putted all year."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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