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Five things to watch entering PGA Tour season

The PGA Tour season kicks off Thursday with the Tournament of Champions in Maui. Story lines abound in 2018, including the return of Tiger Woods, the intense competition for the No. 1 ranking and the Ryder Cup in Paris.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Can Tiger Woods win again?

Woods first must stay healthy. If he does, Woods showed during last month’s Hero World Challenge four back surgeries have not robbed him of the firepower and fire to compete. But tying for ninth in an 18-man field on a benign golf course in the Bahamas is not beating more than 100 players on a demanding layout. While Woods drove the ball with impressive accuracy and distance and striped many iron shots, he had eight two-chip efforts around the greens and several three-putts over 72 holes. Those are hiccups he rarely suffered during his 79 wins and will cost him No. 80. But without a victory in more than four years and with just one top-10 finish since 2013, Woods finally appears ready to return to the Sunday mix. A Tiger ‘W’ would be the biggest story in sports.

2. Will Rickie Fowler win a major?

Sergio Garcia shed the “Best Player Without a Major” tag last April with his unexpected Masters win at age 37. Fowler now holds the distinction. He appeared on the cusp of a breakthrough after top-five finishes in all four majors in 2014. Fowler then failed to crack the top 10 in 11 straight appearances, capped by a Sunday collapse at the 2017 Masters. Few can match Fowler’s talent and scoring ability. No player is more popular. But will the 28-year-old succumb to major championship pressure like Sergio did a decade earlier or put it together much sooner on one of golf’s biggest stages?

3. Who is the real world No. 1?

Justin Thomas had the best season in 2017, Jordan Spieth the best tournament and Dustin Johnson the best stretch until he slipped and injured his back on the eve of the Masters. Johnson enters 2018 atop the world rankings, followed by Spieth and Thomas. Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and Hideki Matsuyama are many who could push for the top spot. Whatever happens, the days of a dominant No. 1 like Woods or Greg Norman seem unlikely. DJ appeared headed that way last March, as did Jason Day a year earlier and Rory McIlroy in 2014 before each of their runs fizzled. Expect the volatility to continue as the top of the game is as competitive as it’s been in decades.

4. Is this the year the U.S. wins the Ryder Cup on foreign soil?

The last time the United States won a Ryder Cup played in Europe, Tiger Woods was a high school senior and Nick Faldo was world No. 1. The Americans now look to end a 25-year drought during the Ryder Cup’s first visit to Paris. The Americans will be expected to pop the champagne. But the Euros are familiar with Le Golf National’s layout - site of the French Open - and have 12 players currently ranked in the top 30, compared with 13 for the Americans. The strength at the top of the U.S. lineup is formidable, but so is the pressure to win back-to-back Ryder Cups for the first time since 1991-93.

5. Whither McIlroy and Day?

Incredibly, the former world No. 1s ended last season out of the top 10 and winless. Each battled injuries believed to be the byproduct of overzealous workouts and endured off-the-course distractions. McIlroy changed managers and got married; Day’s mother battled cancer and his wife suffered a miscarriage. Looking for answers with their golf games, both players fired longtime caddies. At their best, McIlroy and Day dominated the game. McIlroy has won four majors while Day won eight times during a 15-month span. Each now has to show he’s hungry enough to get back on top.

egthompson@orlandosentinel.com / @edgarthompson

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