- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

Years from now, golf fans will point to 2008 as one of the game’s bellwether seasons.

From Tiger Woods‘ season-ending injury to the United States’ redemption at the Ryder Cup, change defined the most memorable season in recent years.

In: Competitive balance

Out: Tiger’s Tour

Nobody is writing off the greatest player in the game’s history, but until Woods returns to competition, questions will continue to swirl about the state of his left knee.

“My rehabilitation is going well,” Woods wrote in his blog last week. “Although I won’t be able to swing a club until early next year, my left knee is getting stronger, and the doctors are pleased with my progress.”

Given the multiple fractures and the ACL surgery, will Woods’ knee be at full strength in time for next year’s Masters (April 9-12)? Are there degenerative issues? Even if the joint is healthy and recovered, can he regain his form next season after such a long layoff? Will he have to change his swing to protect against future injury?

With so many lingering concerns about the depth of his injury, there’s some question whether Woods ever will dominate the sport as he once did. Jack Nicklaus won his first 14 majors in 14 seasons and then needed 11 more to reach 18. The 32-year-old Woods reached 14 major victories in 12 seasons, but will his career cool in similar fashion?

Nobody doubts his desire, commitment, constitution or work ethic, but the body eventually betrays every hero. Regardless of the answers to the many questions concerning Woods, his career has come to a crossroads.

In: Anthony Kim

Out: Phil Mickelson

Though the world rankings don’t yet reflect it, Kim is the world’s second-best golfer. The 23-year-old added another impressive chapter to his two-win sophomore season at last week’s Ryder Cup. Kim compiled a 2-1-1 record that included a 5-and-4 beatdown of Sergio Garcia in Sunday’s opening singles match. After Woods, he has golf’s best combination of talent, grit and charisma. It’s only a matter of time and majors before he becomes the game’s second biggest draw.

In: United States

Out: Europe

Captain Paul Azinger and his blue-collar bunch ended the darkest decade in U.S. Ryder Cup history by taking down the heavily favored Europeans last week at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. The 16 1/2-11 1/2 victory wiped away America’s image as a soft, disparate bunch of indifferent individuals, and perhaps it also saved an event on the verge of becoming too predictable, patriotically painful and generally irrelevant to the American public.

In: Padraig Harrington

Out: Padraig Harrington

The Dubliner won this season’s British Open and PGA Championship. But his crash back to reality was almost as remarkable; Harrington missed two of three cuts in the FedEx Cup playoffs and posted a 0-3-1 record in the Ryder Cup.

In a related note, Harrington’s late-season meltdown should cost him player of the year. With five victories (including the U.S. Open) and two other top-fives in seven starts worldwide, Woods deserves that honor. Sure, Woods played only half a season; Harrington played only for a month.

In: Lorena Ochoa

Out: Annika Sorenstam

Though the Mexican phenom took over the LPGA’s top slot last year, Sorenstam made the transition permanent by announcing her retirement at the end of this season.

In: Drug testing

Out: Square grooves

Though the former move was meaningless, the latter will make a drastic impact on the game for manufacturers, course designers and players. Balls will get softer and shorter, stopping the escalation in course lengths.

In: Boo Weekley

Out: John Daly

Golf’s new folk hero has just as much spice with none of the vice.

In: Valhalla

Out: Augusta National

Azinger instructed the superintendent at Valhalla to cut the rough low and leave the greens relatively long and slow. The result was a birdie barrage that made the Ryder Cup the most entertaining marquee event of the season. Maybe the men who run the majors were watching; great golf has little or nothing to do with protecting the sanctity of par.

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