Updated at: 01/02/2013 2:37 PM
By DOUG FERGUSON
(AP) KAPALUA, Hawaii - Even without the top four players in the world around to kick off the season, every new year in golf is shrouded in mystery like clouds over Molokai across the channel from Kapalua.
Among the most pressing question: What will Bubba Watson serve for dinner at the Masters?
"When you show up for dinner on Tuesday night, that’s when you’ll find out," Watson said.
One problem. The press isn’t invited.
"That’s what I mean," Watson said.
With a wink and a smile, he walked over to the first tee and smashed the first of what figures to be several 400-yard tee shots. There were 67 tee shots that went at least 400 yards last year on the PGA Tour, and 41 of them were on the Plantation Course at Kapalua.
There are more serious issues going into 2013. What follows is the front nine of what to look for in the new season.
1. EUROPEAN CAPTAIN: The biggest news in Abu Dhabi later this month won’t necessarily be the first showdown between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. This is where the European Tour traditionally selects its Ryder Cup captain, and the choice became a little more complicated when the Americans went back in time by picking Tom Watson.
Watson is beloved in Scotland, site of the 2014 matches. Does that mean Europe needs to answer with a larger-than-life figure for its captain? That has led to suggestions Colin Montgomerie would return as captain, though Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley were said to be next in line. Clarke would seem a better fit when the matches return to America at Hazeltine in 2016, though McGinley might be dwarfed by Watson’s presence.
2. RORY AND THE SWOOSH: Players changing equipment companies is nothing new. It’s different when that player is No. 1 in the world. Nike is not likely to announce its deal with McIlroy until he starts his season in Abu Dhabi, and that’s when the scrutiny begins.
McIlroy gives Nike another world-class athlete in its stable. But whatever recognition his clubs receive might be akin to an offensive lineman who gets his name called only when there’s a penalty. Remember, McIlroy is known to have a bad patch of two. Even last year, when he won five times and swept all the major awards, he missed four cuts in five starts in the summer. When he plays poorly, critics will blame the equipment. And when he plays great, well, he’s Rory McIlroy.
3. SHORT SEASON: The PGA Tour season might feel more like a sprint than a marathon this year. The season, in effect, ends with the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 18, the cutoff for qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs. And once the playoffs end at the Tour Championship, the 2013-14 season starts in October.
That might mean more players competing more often, which could put the squeeze on Q-school and Web.com Tour graduates by limiting the number of tournaments they can play to try to qualify for the playoffs. The motto always has been, "Play better." A tweak might be in order this year. "Play better, now."
4. ANCHORS AWAY: The R&A and USGA announced late last year that anchored strokes used for the belly putter and long putter will be banned starting in 2016. The question is whether the PGA Tour, which has the right to set its own rules, will enact the new rule much sooner.
There already is evidence of a stigma attached to those who anchor their putters _ Keegan Bradley said a fan called him a cheater at the World Challenge last month _ and it might be in the best interest of the tour to make the change quickly. But when? At the end of the FedEx Cup, meaning a player can use a belly putter in September but not October? At the start of 2013, meaning the rule would change in the middle of a season?
5. MASTERS INVITATIONS: For the last six years, the Masters has been awarding invitations to winners of PGA Tour events that offer full FedEx Cup points. The Fall Series didn’t count, nor did the events opposite a major or World Golf Championship.
One problem. Starting later this year, there is no Fall Series. When the tour goes to the wraparound season, there will be an additional six tournaments that under the previous policy would award the winner a spot in the Masters.
The concern for Augusta National is keeping a small field _ it has not had more than 100 players since 1966. The question is whether the tour’s change will mean an end to tournament winners driving down Magnolia Lane.
6. ALL-MALE CLUBS: Just because Augusta National now has two women in green jackets doesn’t mean the debate over all-male clubs is going away. If anything, it might be more intense than ever when the British Open returns to Muirfield. There are no female members in the "Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers," nor are there any female members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.
That received cursory criticism over the years, though most of the scrutiny was on the Masters. Now that the British Open is the only major played in which the host club has no women on their membership rolls, R&A chief Peter Dawson might have some explaining to do. If he’s not too busy talking about changes to the Old Course.
7. DISTANCE DEBATE: Those concerned that distance is ruining the game and making golf courses obsolete might appreciate a prediction in Golf Illustrated magazine that if the "carrying power of golf balls is to be still further increased all our golf courses will be irretrievably ruined as a test of the game."
That was in 1910, and the game has been evolving since.
The R&A and USGA have leaned on their "Joint Statement of Principles" in 2002 when it comes to distance. Even so, Dawson sounded an ominous tone while announcing the ban on anchored strokes.
"We haven’t shelved distance. It’s very much on the radar," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. "Anchored strokes are separate. Just because we’re doing one doesn’t mean we have taken our eye off the other."
8. MINORS VS. MAJORS: With the PGA Tour starting a new season in October, the only way to earn a card will be through a series of four tournaments called "The Finals" that will include the top 75 players from the Web.com Tour and the next 75 players from the PGA Tour who fail to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Privately, the brass at PGA Tour headquarters is curious to see how the Web.com Tour players will fare against the second-tier PGA Tour players who faced stiffer competition and tougher golf courses all year.
9. TIGER: Woods and Jack Nicklaus were talking about rivalries a decade ago when Nicklaus told him it was important to always be part of the conversation. That’s never been a problem for Woods. Even with McIlroy assuming the role of golf’s No. 1 player, Woods is part of every conversation in golf.
The only difference is the context.
Can he end a four-year drought in the majors? Can he get back to No. 1? Will he ever dominate as he once did?
The new season should provide some answers.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)