Safeway Championship Preview
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
THERE is only one show in town this week as the man who has had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra returns to action at the Safeway Championship (formerly the Frys.com) at Napa, California. After more than 12 months on the sidelines, a certain Tiger Woods finally comes back after recovering from his latest back injury.
Since he last played his world ranking has slumped to 767 and his club supplier, Nike, have left the golf equipment market.
Woods was a vice-captain for the USA at Hazeltine and looked fit and healthy - and 10 years younger than when we last saw him playing in pain at the 2015 PGA Championship. He said that he would not return to action until he was certain that he had fully recovered from his chronic back injury and was able to compete at the highest level once more.
Nobody wants to remember Woods as a golfer who can't hit a fairway and had developed the yips with a wedge in his hand. We want to see the greatest golfer of his generation thrashing 300-yard drives down the middle of the fairway, threading long irons to three feet, playing miracle recovery shots and holing 15-feet putts through sheer willpower. We want to remember the man who won 14 majors, who tore up the record books and won tournaments as he pleased.
Tickets for the Safeway Championship sold out within minutes of Woods announcing that it would be the scene of his return. Even his rivals will want to see him mixing it with the best at the top of the leaderboard again. Notwithstanding the fact that Jack Nicklaus still remains the greatest golfer of all time with 18 majors to his name, there has never been a golfer who grabbed the public's attention in the way that Woods has. And how appropriate it is that in the week after Arnold Palmer's funeral his modern equivalent should be heading back to the first tee once again.
Will he win? Of course he won't. First of all, he has to prove his fitness. Then he has to make the cut and if he can achieve that he will be happy. He is unlikely to ever dominate the game again in the way he did from 1997 until 2008, but don't be surprised to see him winning tournaments again before the year is out.
The tournament was won last year by Emiliano Grillo, of Argentina, in 2014 by Sangmoon Bae, by Jimmy Walker in 2013, Jonas Blixt in 2012 and Bryce Molder in 2011. Grillo's victory was a huge surprise given that he was a rookie, playing in his first full event at the start of the season. His triumph meant that he could relax for the rest of the campaign, safe in the knowledge that he had secured his playing privileges for a further two full seasons. He beat Kevin Na in a playoff and it did wonders for his confidence.
Na had a remarkable 2015-16 season and did everything but win. This is an American who has been through the ringer with his game and his mind. There was a time when he could barely take the club away from the ball, but he has found a way to play the game again and has become one of the most consistent performers on the PGA Tour. Many pundits believe that the floodgates will open for Na if he can win again.
Paul Casey did everything but win last season, and enjoyed a phenomenal FedEx Cup Playoff series. The European team badly missed the inspirational Englishman at Hazeltine and it is about time that the powers-that-be on the European Tour sat down with him and worked out a way for him to play the requisite number of events to restore his membership and make him eligible for Paris in 2018.
He is a streaky player but when he is high on confidence he takes some beating and he must feel 10 feet tall right now. This is the week he gets back in the winner's circle.
And speaking of the 2018 Ryder Cup, I will eat my sombrero if Jon Rahm, of Spain, does not qualify for the team. I will go one step further - in two years' time, Rahm will be comfortably established in the world's top 20. This is a young man who has got the lot, including a fabulous temperament and an astonishing level of self-belief. He really is a special talent and now that he is a full member of the PGA Tour, just watch him go.
The same applies to an American youngster by the name of Ollie Schniederjans - remember that name, because you are going to be hearing an awful lot more of it in the near future.
One man who will be looking to turn things around after a desperately poor 2016 is Graeme DeLaet, from Canada. He was everybody's tip to move to the next level but, inexplicably, failed to grasp the nettle. DeLaet announced that he wouldn't be shaving off his beard until he won – it is a statement he may now be living to regret. When last seen, he looked more like a lumberjack than a tour professional. He has been working hard in what has laughingly been called the “off season” and is determined to get his game back on track.
He will take heart from what Jhonattan Vegas achieved last season. After arriving on the scene like a steamroller, Vegas seemed to lose his way. But he refused to give up, maintained utter belief in his ability to get back in the winner's circle and was rewarded with a long-awaited victory. Vegas has a magnificent golf swing and will start the Safeway Championship in good heart.
Paul Casey. Come on Paul, just get the job done
John Rahm. Could be a future world No1
Justin Thomas. Gutsy and brilliant in equal measure
Paul Casey. On the crest of wave just now
John Rahm. Will win before long
Justin Thomas. Going to win more tournaments - and soon
Ollie Schniederjans. Brilliant young American
Tiger Woods. My heart is ruling my head here
Graeme DeLaet. Time to get back to what he does best
Brendan Steele. Likes this place
Jhonattan Vegas. Looking to continue his progress
Matt Kuchar. Another season, another bucket full of money
Kevin Na. Mr Consistency
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