Arizona Golf – Ready or Not, Big Changes for 2013 “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog by Bill Huffman

From “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog by Bill Huffman at the Arizona Golf Authority.

All four of Arizona’s survivors from PGA Tour qualifying school – Matt Jones, Jin Park, Chez Reavie and Aaron Watkins — get to start their seasons at this week’s SONY Hawaiian Open, meaning perhaps the 2013 season won’t be quite as ominous as first predicted — despite last weekend’s wacky weather at Maui’s highly acclaimed Kapalua Plantation!

Still, many are referring to ’13 as “unlucky.” So many things are going on this year – a shortened season, a new season, an unpredictable season — it’s hard to get a grasp on all of the changes. The biggest, we guess, is trying to comprehend how the final event of the 2013 regular season will end in mid-August and the 2014 season will begin in early October. Yes, October of 2013!

With seven tournaments eliminated from last year’s schedule in order to accommodate a new four-tournament, end-of-the-season playoff between the top 75 money winners from the Web.Com Tour and the lower echelon guys from the PGA Tour (Nos. 125 to 200 on the money list), 2013 had been predicted to be more of a mile run than a marathon.

Guys like Watkins, a former Mesa Red Mountain High School standout who starred at Kansas State, and the ex-Arizona State trio of Jones, Park and Reavie, were expected to get into approximately 15 tournaments. Watkins told azgolf.org that Hawaii was a question mark along with much of the West Coast.

But there he is along with other Valley residents like Ricky Barnes, Tim Clark, Pat Perez, Kevin Stadler and, Kevin Streelman, hoping to enjoy Hawaii. And just to prove that SONY’s 144-man field is a little more wide open than one might have originally believed, Web.Com graduate Doug LaBelle II of Phoenix also will get his first start, too.

“Last time I was out on Tour (2009), I got to play in about 20 tournaments, and I think I missed the cut in eight of them by a single shot,” said the 30-year-old Watkins, who had has been to the finals of nine Q-Schools while earning his card twice.

“This time around, I’ll probably only get into about 15 tournaments, which can make it tough to hold on to your Tour card. So it creates a different mentality in how you approach the season in that each opportunity becomes that much more valued.”

Watkins said his confidence level is up considerably after playing the past three years on the Web.Com and Nationwide tours. And he’s doing a “lot more little things” he feels will help him make more cuts in the coming eight months.

“Earning my card at the last Q-School of all-time, that was special,” said Watkins, who is paired in an all-Arizona threesome with Park and Watkins for his first two rounds of his 2013 debut.

Yes, with no Q-School to gain direct entry into the PGA Tour at the end of this year, it’s another strange twist that everybody has been talking about. It’s a decision that has split the rank and file of the PGA Tour right down the middle. The playoffs between the Web.Com grads and the lower wage earners on the Tour has taken its place expect Q-School still lingers, but this time in the form of a venue to Web.com rather than the major league.

There are other developments beyond the dastardly trick the weather played last week – postponing the 2013 season’s start for three consecutive days at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which led to an abbreviated, 54-hole tournament Monday and Tuesday won by Dustin Johnson. Even though everybody is talking about Rory McIlory, DJ could be a sneaky story this season. He’s young (27), extremely talented and playing the new TaylorMade RocketBaldez Tour irons, which he claims finally fit him to a “T.” And the horizon seems unlimited, according to Steve Stricker, the veteran Johnson beat by four strokes to win the T of C.

“He’s very athletic and he’s just going to continue to get better. . . . He’s fun to watch (because) you never know what he’s going to do,” said Stricker of Johnson, who is second when it comes to active winning streaks on Tour to Phil Mickelson, who has gone nine consecutive seasons with at least one win a year.

Still, it’s hard to look past McIlroy, who is expected to ink the 10-year, $200 million super-deal with Nike next week. Last year he was not only the POY on the PGA and European Tours, the Northern Irishman also won $11 million globally, or almost $4 million more than his next closest pursuer, Justin Rose.

Of course, McIlroy, Luke Donald, Tiger Woods and Rose, currently the top four players in the world, were nowhere to be found in Hawaii these first two weeks. Nor were marquee players like Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Mickelson, who all could have played in the T of C if they had wanted to start their seasons “early.”

Just imagine next year, when the traditional “season opener” comes three months into the season? Yeah, this once-proud event that has a history stretching back 48 years has fallen on seriously hard times.

There are other stories that will play out in the next month and shortened year that will make for lots of headlines. Like next week, when McIlroy gets his new sticks and the European Tour is expected to name its captain that will to toe-to-toe with Tom Watson at the 2014 Ryder Cup. Hey, Watson was such an out-of-the-box pick by the PGA of America that the Euros, who have dominated these biennial matches by winning five of the last six (seven of the last nine), might go back to Colin Montgomerie rather than select a new pilot in Darren Clarke or Paul McGinley, as previously believed. And “Monty” is certainly out there.

Still, there are other storylines developing, like how many times the word “cheater” will be screamed out by unruly fans that are taking note of the R&A and USGA’s proposed ban on anchoring the putter against the body, which doesn’t go into effect until 2016. And just to add some spice to the latest controversy over the anchoring/long putter issue, Carl Pettersson, Sweden’s best player ever, has called the proposed ban a “witch hunt” and talked about taking action (legal?) if golf’s ruling body takes his broom-handled device away after using it for 16 seasons.

It makes you wonder what surprises lie ahead in the major championships, where Bubba Watson will defend his green jacket and serve who knows what for the Champions Dinner. (“When you show up for dinner Tuesday night, that’s when you’ll find out,” the Scottsdale resident said recently.)

We’ve also got the U.S. Open at teeny-tiny Merion, a short (6,500 yards) but storied layout where Bobby Jones completed the game’s first-and-only Grand Slam in 1930. Merion also was the U.S. Open site in 1950 for Ben Hogan’s comeback from a head-on car wreck in Texas that nearly killed him.

It also will be interesting to see what happens at the British Open when it returns to Muirfield, an all-male club that is certain to stir some debate. Now that the heat is off Augusta National for its two female members, Muirfield would seem like the next-most likely place for potential confrontation regarding women’s rights as they relate to the game. Then again, the R&A has been an all-male club since 1735.

So ready or not, here we go with 2013, and lucky or unlucky, it will be entertaining. That includes your Waste Management Phoenix Open, which for the first time perhaps ever will not have any sponsor’s exemptions due to a PGA Tour edict for the shortened season. That decree requires the Thunderbirds to take players off the Web.Com/Q-School list until its field of 132 players is filled.

Too bad, because this would have been a great year to give an invite to Scottsdale’s Tom Lehman, the 2000 Phoenix Open champ and the 2012 Champions Tour player of the year — the only guy ever to win Player of the Year awards on all three tours.

But it won’t happen, and that’s a bit unlucky.

Visit Bill Huffman’s complete “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog archive at the Arizona Golf Authority.

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