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Luke Donald
Luke Donald

Race for number one wide open in 2012 Add to ...

The year was 2005 and the pack seemed to have caught up with Tiger Woods.



Vijay Singh had taken the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings from Woods by claiming nine PGA Tour victories in 2004, and Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen also were in hot pursuit.



The media was calling them The Big Five, a throwback to the days when The Big Three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player ruled the game.



The talk on the Golf Channel and the prose in the newspapers was that a most dramatic season was about to unfold, with The Big Five perhaps trading the No. 1 ranking back and forth throughout the year.



As the 2012 schedule starts this week at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, where most of the leading players unfortunately will not be present, there is anticipation of a similar type of dream season.



This time, it was Woods’ lifestyle that caught up with him two years ago, and during his downfall a cadre of Europeans stepped up to dominate the top of the World Rankings.



Luke Donald of England solidified his hold on the No. 1 ranking with a career year in 2011 that included the money titles on the PGA and European Tours, after Lee Westwood of England and Martin Kaymer of Germany also held the top ranking for a time earlier in the year.



Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, anointed as the next superstar at the age of 22, captured the U.S. Open and made it plain that he intends to be the best player in the world, and sooner rather than later.



McIlroy and Westwood have announced plans to rejoin the PGA Tour this season in their chase of Donald and the No. 1 ranking, although Rory for one isn’t so sure the old king is dead.



Woods showed signs late last year that his mojo might be back, winning the Chevron World Challenge to end a two-year victory drought, and McIlroy relishes the possibility.



“It’s something I look forward to,” McIlroy said of getting a shot at Woods at his best. “It would be a huge experience and a huge learning curve for me just to see how I would handle it.



“But it’s not something I have experienced and it’s not something that a lot of players in my sort of generation have experienced yet, and it would just be great to have the opportunity to do it at some point.”



There are others in this next generation who are stepping up, too, and from all parts of the globe.



As the Europeans and other players from around the world soared, the perception was that American golf was in a recession. In addition to Woods’ slide, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III, Justin Leonard and others have been showing their age.



Then 25-year-old rookie Keegan Bradley captured the PGA Championship in his first major appearance last August while leading an up-and-coming platoon of Americans that includes Webb Simpson, Bill Haas, Gary Woodland, Brendan Steele, Rickie Fowler, Chris Kirk and Scott Stallings.



And even though there are only four Americans in the top 10 of the rankings, the U.S. has a strong group of young veterans who are contenders, including Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan.



Donald also might receive challenges from other parts of the globe, particularly from Adam Scott and Jason Day of Australia, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Alvaro Quiros of Spain and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.



In addition to Woods, other top players looking for bounce-back years include Ernie Els of South Africa, Sergio Garcia of Spain and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.



For the record, Woods re-established his dominance in 2005 by winning six times on the PGA Tour, including the Masters and the Open Championship.



While he might be able to return to the top of his game at the age of 36, it would seem that there is too much depth in golf these days for him to dominate the way he did from 2000 to 2009.



“With Tiger, obviously it’s nice for him, I think, that he could win again,” Kaymer said. “It’s good for us. He did a lot for the sport and the status that golf has in the world.



“It would be nice to play against the best player who ever played the game in their top form and see if you can beat (him).”



That didn’t happen in 2005. However, this is more than a new year, it’s a new era.



THIS WEEK

PGA TOUR: Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii, Friday through Monday, on the Golf Channel every day.

TV: Friday through Sunday, 5:30-10 p.m. EST; Monday, 4-8 p.m. EST, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Jonathan Byrd won his second consecutive start and claimed his fifth PGA Tour victory with a par on the second playoff hole when Robert Garrigus lipped out his three-foot par effort. Byrd claimed the first-round lead with a 7-under-par 66 and was among the leaders all the way by posting four rounds of 68 or better. Three months earlier, Byrd was on the verge of losing his PGA Tour card when he made a hole-in-one to win the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in a playoff during the Fall Series. Garrigus, who scorched the Plantation Course with a 63 in the second round, had a chance to win the opener but lipped out his 10-foot eagle putt on the final hole of regulation.

THIS YEAR: Twenty-eight of the 39 qualifiers are entered in the event limited to 2011 PGA Tour winners. PGA champion Keegan Bradley is the lone 2011 major winner in the field. U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and British Open champion Darren Clarke are skipping the tournament, along with top-ranked Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson.

EUROPEAN TOUR/SUNSHINE TOUR: Africa Open at the East London Golf Club (6,770 yards, par 73) in East London, South Africa, Thursday-Sunday on Golf Channel (9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

TV: Thursday through Sunday on Golf Channel (9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

LAST YEAR: South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen won with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff with Chris Wood and Manuel Quiros.

THIS YEAR: Twenty-five days after Luke Donald ended the 2011 season as winner of The Harry Vardon Trophy in Dubai, the focus of The European Tour International Schedule shifts from the Middle East to the heart of Africa and the first of three events on that particular continent which herald the start of the 2012 season. Oosthuizen and 2009 winner Retief Goosen top the field in the season-opening event. The field also features the top 20 finishers from the 2011 European Challenge Tour Order of Merit and 30 Qualifying School graduates while the local challenge will come from 2011 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit winner Garth Mulroy.



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