Men’s golf set for blockbuster season in 2018

Like a Dustin Johnson drive, the golf season seems to keep on rolling and 2018 promises to be a blockbuster year.

Here’s eight big talking points for the year ahead:

Can Justin Thomas back up 2017?

He may lack the box office of close friend Jordan Spieth but Thomas ended 2017 as golf’s leading man and enters the new season looking to back up a stellar year.

Thomas stepped out of Spieth’s shadow with a season that included five wins, a first major at the US PGA, the season-long FedEx Cup title and $10 million bonus, and the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award.

He also shot a 59 in Hawaii in January, becoming only the seventh player to score under 60 in PGA Tour history.

The world No. 3 has turned to longtime buddy Spieth to gain insight on handling his elevated status and the increased expectation from fans, media and himself.

At the end of last season Thomas showed reporters a list of his 15 goals for the year, 12 of which he accomplished. He is again refusing to reveal his goals for this term, except to say “a great season would require a major.”

“I just want to win because I like winning and I like trophies and I like beating everybody else and that’s enough hunger and motivation for me, I think,” he told reporters in Hawaii at the first PGA tournament of 2018.

Career grand slam for Spieth?

He lost out to Thomas in the final shootout for the FedEx Cup title, but for Spieth 2018 is all about chasing the career grand slam.

A thrilling Open Championship victory, via an epic saga in the Royal Birkdale backcountry, set Spieth up for a tilt at winning all four modern major titles. Only five men have done it — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — and Spieth can join the “Fab Five” at the US PGA in August.

Spieth has finished no worse than second in three of his four Masters appearances and may well have added to his tally of three majors by the time his grand slam showdown comes around.

But the 24-year-old could be beaten into sixth place in the grand slam hall of fame if Rory McIlroy completes the set at Augusta in April.

Over the Christmas break Spieth added a diamond to his silver jug from the Open — he got engaged to longtime girlfriend Anne Verret.

Compared to going down on one knee, he reckons he was “most nervous at the British” as he battled Matt Kuchar in an absorbing final-day duel.

For Spieth, the new season can’t come soon enough.

“Right now the unknowns are very exciting. 2018 is a pretty special time to be part of professional golf,” he told the Golf Channel in Hawaii.

What will Tiger’s comeback look like?

He’s still the biggest noise in the game and so the question of Woods’ latest comeback is arguably the hottest topic of 2018.

Woods, who turned 42 on December 30, made a promising return at the Hero World Challenge after 10 months out following his most recent back surgery.

Appearing pain free and able to swing aggressively, Woods’ general performance in the Bahamas — he held the lead after 27 holes — suggested this reincarnation of the 14-time major champion could be more meaningful than before.

“I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect after being away from competitive golf for 10 months and came away excited about my health and my game,” Woods wrote in a blog on his personal website.

Woods will begin his 2018 season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines from January 25-28 before the Genesis Open at Riviera in mid February, but after that is still unsure of his schedule, including whether he will be able to play back-to-back tournaments.

In the offseason Woods parted company with his swing coach of three years Chris Como, saying he had “nothing but respect for him” but adding it was time to go it alone.

Woods admitted he had trouble walking and even getting out of bed at times because of his back problem and added at the end of his blog: “I’ve had some tough times this year with pain.

“To come out the other end is phenomenal.”

Spieth is equally excited about having the former world No. 1 back.

“I think Tiger’s return and the excitement based on how he looked is probably first and foremost,” Spieth said.

“I think realistically I can say based on what he does for ratings, what it does for maybe a non-golfer’s interest in golf. It’s got to be at the forefront of the excitement.”

Will Johnson hits last year’s heights?

The world No.1 is another looking to bounce back with a statement season.

Johnson’s 2017 began with a bang and ended rather less explosively as he failed to add to his sole major title at the US Open in 2016.

The big hitter from South Carolina was “playing the best golf of my life” when he won three events in a row last year, but a freak back injury on the eve of the Masters ruled him out of the year’s first major.

The injury put out his early-season spark and he missed the cut at the US Open before finishing down the field in the British Open and US PGA.

But Johnson earned a 16th PGA Tour title in August and was second at the WGC-HSBC Champions in October to suggest the 33-year-old is easing back up through the gears.

Asked if anyone could emulate Woods in his pomp and win nine or 10 times in a season, Johnson said in Hawaii: “I believe so. I definitely think I can.

“Obviously I’m going to have to play very good golf, there’s a lot of really good players out here on Tour and for me to do that I’m going to have to play some really good golf, but definitely capable of it.”

Will McIlroy get back to winning ways?

Like Spieth, the early part of McIlroy’s season will be dominated by grand slam talk.

McIlroy just needs the Masters to join the game’s elite, but he won the last of his four majors in 2014 and will likely be keen just to add to his tally in any of the big four events.

Augusta has also become something of a burden with the tempting prospect of a grand slam alongside a green jacket, despite finishing inside the top 10 every year since 2014.

The Northern Irishman was hampered for much of last year with a rib injury and went through the season winless before taking three months off to regroup for 2018.

The 28-year-old former world No.1 has retained best friend Harry Diamond as his caddie after splitting from longtime bagman JP Fitzgerald in July.

Hideki Matsuyama — Japan’s first major champion?

History beckons for the 25-year-old as he bids to become the first Japanese golfer to win a major title.

Matsuyama, who played with US President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the American politician’s Asian tour in November, is already a superstar at home but his status would become legendary if he finally lands a big one.

His best major finish was second at the last year’s US Open, only the second runner-up spot in a major by a Japanese player after Isao Aoki in 1980.

That took him briefly to second in the world rankings, and with five PGA Tour wins since 2014, the intensely private Matsuyama has become a serious contender.

Who will win the majors?

Golf’s big four events provide the framework and the running narrative for the season and are what careers are judged on.

This year’s majors visit some classic courses alongside Augusta, permanent home of the Masters:

Masters, Augusta, Georgia

When: April 5-8

Purse: $11 million

Defending champion: Sergio Garcia

What: The Masters is golf’s spring rite and has been played on the dazzling Augusta course since its inception in 1934. The event is steeped in history, from its roll call of champions donning the green jacket to famous shots, infamous meltdowns, and traditions such as the pre-event Champions Dinner and family friendly par-three tournament.

US Open, Shinnecock Hills, New York

When: June 14-17

Purse: $12 million

Defending champion Brooks Koepka

What: Shinnecock is a celebrated links-style track on Long Island and claims to be one of the oldest organized golf clubs in the United States, dating from 1891. The course has hosted four previous US Opens, with South African Retief Goosen last winning on a windy and fiery final day in 2004.

British Open, Carnoustie, Scotland

When: July 19-22

Purse: $10.25 million

Defending champion Jordan Spieth

What: Carnoustie is a feared and revered links course overlooking the North Sea near Dundee on Scotland’s east coast.

It will forever be remembered as the venue where Frenchman Jean van de Velde squandered a three-stroke lead playing the last and even contemplated playing a shot out of a stream in desperation. Ireland’s Padraig Harrington beat Sergio Garcia in a playoff to win the last Open at Carnoustie in 2007.

US PGA, Bellerive Country Club, St Louis, Missouri

When: August 9-12

Purse: $10.5 million

Defending champion: Justin Thomas

What: The historic club opened as the Field Club in 1897 but changed the name to Bellerive in 1910 and moved to its current site west of St Louis in 1959. The course, designed by the celebrated Robert Trent Jones, hosted the 1965 US Open and 1992 US PGA, won by Zimbabwe’s Nick Price. This year marks the 100th staging of the PGA Championship.

Who wins the Ryder Cup?

The US team broke a three-event losing streak to beat Europe in a highly charged Ryder Cup in 2016, but Jim Furyk’s men will face an even stiffer task this September.

The US side has not won on European soil since Tom Watson’s team triumphed at the Belfry in England in 1993 — and after a boisterous home crowd willed its team to a 17-11 win at Hazeltine, the Euro fans will be looking to play their part at Le Golf National near Paris from September 28-30.

Europe has won six of the last eight Ryder Cups, but the US side will feature some of the game’s brightest talent including Johnson, Spieth, Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Ryder Cup specialist Patrick Reed. Then there’s the prospect of Woods — at least in a reprise of his vice-captain role from Hazeltine.

“We have 25 years of scars to overcome,” Furyk said at the year-to-go celebrations in Paris in October.

“We will have a lot of young talent on my team and I’m anxious to see how they handle that challenge. Europe has handled those away matches far better in the last 25 years than we have.

“I guess you’ll call that the final frontier and that’s something that we have to accomplish to validate our team.”

European captain Thomas Bjorn of Denmark insists his side are not worried by America’s perceived superiority and insists Great Britain’s Brexit decision will have no impact on the motivation of his team.

“To be in that team room and in that environment represents, I think, everything that’s great about Europe,” Bjorn told CNN’s Living Golf.

“European players come together in that team and they are the greatest of friends across borders and they represent Europe as a continent in the best possible way.

“It’s something that’s very unique to a Ryder Cup team. We play under the European flag but we play for Europe as a continent.”