REUTERS - The new golf year begins with Jason Day and Tiger Woods seeking to overcome back issues, Rory McIlroy trying to shake off a bout of glandular fever and Hideki Matsuyama perhaps on the cusp of supplanting them all as the game’s top dog.
Nothing is likely to garner more publicity than whether Woods can finally resume a full schedule following 2015 back surgery, but speculation of his prospects will remain just that until his 2017 debut.
In the meantime, Day and Matsuyama will attempt to get the year off to a flying start this week in Hawaii at the Tournament of Champions, with McIlroy scheduled to begin his campaign at next week’s South African Open.
Day has not played since back pain forced him to pull out during consecutive starts in the final two events of the PGA Tour season in September.
The 29-year-old Australian says he has shortened his swing in an attempt to stave off further trouble, a change that will be on display starting on Thursday.
Woods, meanwhile, is widely expected to make his first start of the year at the PGA Tour’s Jan. 26-29 Torrey Pines stop in southern California, with an appearance two weeks later at nearby Riviera already confirmed.
His long-awaited return last month in the Bahamas, where he finished 15th out of 18 starters, raised as many questions as it answered. While he recorded 24 birdies, more than anyone in the field, he also littered his tournament with errors.
Time is certainly not on the side of the 41-year-old, but McIlroy at 27 can afford to be more patient.
The Northern Irishman finished 2016 ranked world number two and is the betting favourite to reclaim top spot this year. A recent bout of glandular fever is not expected to delay the start to his campaign.
One man who might make a return to the top difficult is Matsuyama, who closed out 2016 in style with four wins and a second-place finish in five starts worldwide.
At 24, few dispute the quality of Matsuyama’s long game, but he is prone to periods of mediocre putting, something he must minimise to rise above his current ranking of sixth.
“He’s going to be one of the top guys to beat for a very long time,” Woods said after the Japanese player’s triumph in the Bahamas.
“Look at his swing, look at his game and look at the body that he has. It’s built to handle the test of time.”
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue