Backspin: Opener provides plenty of insight

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Dustin Johnson won for the seventh time on the PGA TOUR on Tuesday.
January 09, 2013
Brian Wacker,

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Well, that was an interesting start to the season.

Mother Nature rules all, and she reared her wrath in Maui. In the end, though, we saw just how talented Dustin Johnson is -- not that there was ever any question about that -- and, based on the rest of the leaderboard, what should lead to a pretty exciting 2013 season.

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I think Steve Stricker, Brandt Snedeker and Keegan Bradley, the three who finished directly behind Johnson, will all win in 2013. And I think Snedeker and Bradley will do so multiple times.

As for Johnson, things got a little dicey when he nuked his tee shot on the 13th hole, but he bounced back with a chip-in for eagle on the next, which was made possible by his prodigious length off the tee.

“The chip on 14 was definitely the biggest shot,” he said. “Maybe the drive; the drive set it all up. I hit a great drive right at the flag which came up just short, and I had a really easy pitch. Fortunate to hit a great pitch and went right in the middle.”

It was also a perfect summation of Johnson, who has yet to fully find his stride. Maybe this will be the year. It’ll be fun to find out.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. After winning twice in 2012, including the FedExCup and its $10 million prize, Snedeker did exactly nothing when it came to his golf swing or his equipment. “I see too many guys in that situation (change something),” Snedeker told me. “I just had the best year of my career and feel like I'm doing everything the right way, so why would I want to change anything? When it's not broken, you don't fix it.” All he did for an encore was finish third in the season opener, where at one point he was just a stroke off the lead in the final round. “I feel like I've got confidence in every facet of the game for the first time in my career,” Snedeker said. Sure looks that way.

2. Snedeker did, however, work on one thing in the offseason: His short irons, which he told me was the thing that let him down the most last year. In 2012, he ranked 121st in approach shots from 125-150 yards, 167th from 100-125 yards and 111th from 75-100 yards. At Kapalua, however, he was eighth, fourth and 15th, respectively, from those distances. “I've really worked on hard to try to get a little more consistent distance control flighting the ball the right way,” Snedeker said. “I think my golf swing is as good as it's ever been.”

3. Stat of the Week I: Six. That’s how many years in a row Dustin Johnson has won since going from college to the PGA TOUR. The last player to do that was Tiger Woods. It’s also the second-longest active streak of consecutive years with a victory behind only Phil Mickelson’s nine in a row, and it was the number of practice rounds Johnson played at Kapalua prior to the start of this year’s tournament.

4. Stat of the Week II: Of Johnson’s seven career victories, three have come in weather-shortened events (The Barclays and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am were the others). As someone quipped during his news conference afterward, “Be ready for the Champions Tour.

5. The good news for Johnson? He’s 1-for-1 and leads the FedExCup standings. The bad news? The last three winners at Kapalua failed to win the rest of the year.

6. For a guy who half-seriously talked about retiring, and will limit his schedule to about 10 or 11 events in 2013, Steve Stricker remains one of the kings of Kapalua. In his last five trips there, including this year, he’s finished second, first, fourth, 10th and second. We’ll have to wait for next month’s World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship to see him again, though.

7. Just how bad was the wind at Kapalua? “I've been hitting 8‑irons from 100 yards,” Keegan Bradley said. “I hit a 9‑iron today from 185.” And that was on a day they played, following 36 holes on Monday. As we saw, the biggest problem was golf balls wouldn’t stay still on the putting surface when the wind gusts got above 40 mph. Sometimes, Mother Nature wins.

8. Last season’s Rookie of the Year John Huh had a respectable week in Hawaii, finishing in a tie for 18th in the 30-man field. More importantly, he moved up four spots in the Official World Golf Ranking, from 66th to 62nd, putting him on the cusp for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship next month in Tucson. The top 64 players one week prior to the tournament will qualify.

9. How did Hunter Mahan spend part of his offseason? In Israel, where he joined Michael Thompson, coach Sean Foley, basketball players Brian Scalabrine and Will Perdue and the LPGA’s Amy Alcott, among a few others, as part of a trip working with the Jewish National Fund and Seeds of Peace during which the group conducted clinics and promoted acceptance and friendship through sports to Israeli and Palestine youths. It was a pretty moving experience for the group. The trip also had to be cut short because of the fighting that broke out in the region during the trip. “I wouldn't say we were in the middle of it but we were pretty close,” Mahan said. “There were missiles at Tel Aviv and we were in Tel Aviv. Once we heard that and once my wife heard that, she said, ‘We're out of here.’ It was surreal and it was hard to fathom that there were actually missiles firing at you. Crazy thing is, for them, it's just a way of life.” Mahan played with one of the top Israeli amateur golfers and asked him about what was going on. “That's just a day in the life of an Israeli,” the amateur said. Added Mahan: “It's pretty surreal, pretty eye‑opening.”

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

I played three really good rounds this week. But I still don't think I've lived up to my potential.” -- Dustin Johnson following his victory Tuesday in Hawaii. Maybe Johnson hasn’t lived up to his potential, but he’s just 28 years old and 2013 is off to a good start.

“I don't like food. I wish I could swallow a few pills every morning and not have to chew on anything the rest of the day.” – Charlie Beljan, who had a panic attack on his way to winning last year’s season finale, on some of his odd habits, noting that he’s also eaten the same Subway sandwich for the last eight years.

“I’ve had a lot of panic attacks off the golf course … thinking I was having something wrong with my heart, and my wife is like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ So I’ve had some issues.” – Bubba Watson, who also admitted he checked himself into the hospital after suffering an attack after a round the 2011 Northern Trust Open.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@ianjamespoulter: I wish I owned a wind farm on this Maui, I would have made a fortune the last couple of days. 45 mins to tee off nobody moving anywhere. -- Ian Poulter, ever the marketer.

@bubbawatson: I say let us play golf in the wind, better for tv. Golf balls blowing around on the greens will get the viewers & ratings for tv! -- Not sure Matt Kuchar or Ben Curtis felt the same after seeing their golf balls knocked off the tee and putting green, respectively.

MONDAY MAILBAG (MAKE THAT WEDNESDAY, THIS WEEK)

How many guys do you think will abandon the long putter right away? Will most push it right to 2016? -- Dominic Terry

I don’t think you’ll see many, if any, abandon it yet. More and more players, however, are practicing with conventional putters in their spare time. Whenever the rule goes into effect on TOUR, though, players will make sure to have put in enough practice time in advance.

Will 2013 be the year of Tiger? -- Drew T.

It depends what you mean, Drew. Will he win more than any other player? Possibly, but I think we’re witnessing the transition from the Tiger Woods era to the Rory McIlroy era. Woods can and will still win, but McIlroy, at least until someone proves otherwise, is the best player in the world.

What 2012 major champion has the best chance of repeating in 2013? -- Mike Puzen

I’ll take the easy route and say McIlroy. I think he’s reached the point in his career where he’ll be in contention at two or three majors a year, if not more.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK

There’s no rest for the weary this week. Because of the weather delays that forced a Tuesday finish in Maui, players also playing in the Sony Open in Hawaii had only a day to island hop over to Oahu for the first full-field event of the year. Waialae Country Club is about as opposite as one could get from Kapalua with much tighter fairways and some of the smallest greens on TOUR. For that reason, and his track record there, I like Zach Johnson’s chances. He’s a fairways and greens guy, and he’s won there before. Look for a guy who controls his ball flight and is an excellent ball-striker to excel this week.

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