1. Can Tiger Woods return to competitive levels?When Tiger returned to competition in December 2017, it clearly excited many in the golf community. Woods, now 42, needs to demonstrate the wherewithal to return to consistent play for the duration of the season. His last major triumph came in June 2008 and his last PGA Tour victory came in August 2013. The Missouri axiom of "show me" remains firmly in place until it happens.
2. Can the Americans win a road Ryder Cup match in Paris?Winning on home soil in 2016 at Hazeltine was one thing—winning on foreign soil is quite another. The last American victory across the pond came in 1993. The 2018 event will be staged in France for the first time. An American win lays the groundwork for a powerful juggernaut. A European win neutralizes everything. American overconfidence can prove fatal given how resourceful the Europeans have been over the recent years.
3. What's Rory's story?When Rory McIlroy won the final two majors in 2014, the last was his fourth major win at the age of 25. Fast-forward to 2018 and the Northern Irishman's major win total remains at four. McIlroy's wants to reassert himself, but a balky putter has too often betrayed him at critical moments. McIlroy would love nothing more than winning in April at Augusta, becoming the sixth member in joining the most elite of clubs.
4. Can Lexi Thompson elevate herself to No. 1?Lexi Thompson wants 2017 to fade quickly in the rear view mirror. Being present for her mother who went through major health issues and having lost key events down the stretch—one courtesy of a rules imbroglio—Thompson is poised to separate herself given her far-reaching talents. Yet, the continued ascension of Asian players—most notably from South Korea—has placed a hurdle that Thompson can clear. But that needs to be proven.
5. How will the USGA prepare the Open's return to Shinnecock Hills?After a debacle during the 2004 event when sound course maintenance practices were aborted, it seemed unlikely the club would offer the USGA another invitation. The USGA, realizing its good fortune went a step forward by awarding a sixth U.S. Open for 2026. The talented architectural tandem of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were called upon to enhance the strengths of the course. Blending a "tough but fair" layout will be a test for all involved with executive director Mike Davis on the hot seat.
6. Can Bubba Watson return to world-class form?The two-time major champion faded from the front row to near total invisibility in 2017. Watson's last PGA win came early in 2016 and his two major triumphs at Augusta are now in the distant past with the last coming in 2014. At 39, Bubba is facing a critical crossroads in the year ahead.
7. Will the USGA and R&A move to bifurcation in the rules?The USGA and R&A have been adamant in keeping the game under one rules roof. Simplifying the rules with a new rollout for 2019 is planned. But having separate rules for different levels of players is still seen as a foreign concept. Recreational players clearly do not play anywhere near the level of world-class professionals and a number of insiders have suggested stronger action on the equipment side for top players is long overdue.
8. Can Dustin Johnson finally maximize his considerable skills?After winning the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, the table was set for Johnson to reach a higher gear in 2017. Four wins came, but after slipping on stairs prior to the 2017 Masters, which necessitated a withdrawal prior to the start of the event, Johnson spent the rest of the year stuck in neutral. The world No. 1 is now 33. Johnson has won at least one PGA victory in his first ten years on tour. But his place in golf history will be determined if other majors are won. The talent is most certainly there.
9. Will millennials seek out golf?As baby boomers age—younger replacements are essential for the overall health of the golf industry. Golf course closures now are a routine matter and new golf course construction in the United States has virtually ended. Millennials have not embraced golf as previous generations have and even with efforts by innovators such as Top Golf, it is unclear if golf will be part to their lifestyles. Connecting with millennials, in conjunction with women and minorities, remains a vexing issue for golf.
10. How will Fred Ridley fare as Augusta National’s new chairman?Ridley is now the point person succeeding Billy Payne. He is the last golfer to have won the U.S. Amateur and not turn professional. Payne’s leadership was significant and Ridley will need to make his own mark. Course changes may happen and Ridley's background will help. But the visibility in being chairman at golf's most noted club can be both liberating and challenging.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s biggest events since 1980 through variety of forums.