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The Month Ahead - February

By: Tony Dear


Opening month of the 2013 PGA Tour season started and finished with high-profile wins - Dustin Johnson at Kapalua and Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, and February looks set to begin with a bang of its own following Phil Mickelson's first -round 60 at TPC Scottsdale.

The world No. 22 walked after his ball, ready to pluck it out of the ninth hole (his 18th) and celebrate just the sixth 59 in Tour history, but turned in anguish as the ball spun counterclockwise around the cup and stayed above-ground. Bones McKay, Mickelson's long-serving caddie who, over the course of the last 21 years must have run the gamut of emotions looping for one of the most exhilarating but unpredictable players in the history of golf, fell to his knees - the victim of yet another moment of high Mickelson drama.

Mickelson's round was actually a shot worse than Bo Van Pelt's pro-am score, so the TPC is obviously there to be plundered, and Mark Calcavecchia's record 72-hole total of 256, which has stood for 12 years, is clearly in jeopardy.

Following the Phoenix stop, the Tour heads to the West Coast and two of the country's finest courses - Pebble Beach, where the AT&T National Pro-Am (born the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in 1937) will be played for the 73rd time, and where Mickelson will be defending the title he won 12 months ago with a final-round 64; and Riviera CC in Pacific Palisades, where George C. Thomas's revered layout, which opened in 1927, will host the 87th Northern Trust Open, the seventh incarnation of the Los Angeles Open, that was first played in 1926.

Pebble steals much of the glory, thanks to its magnificent ocean holes, most notably the 18th, which Herbert Fowler transformed from a mundane par-4 into a sensational par-5 in 1921, by filling in the deep ravine that prevented the original hole from exceeding 325 yards, and building a sea wall. But the real delight, for fans, of golf course architecture anyway, is Riviera, where Thomas took a very ordinary site without any of Pebble's God-given features and created a strategic masterpiece that not only earned Alister Mackenzie's approval ("As nearly perfect as man could make it") but which continues to rank as one of the most popular venues among Tour players, which says something.

Last year's winner at Riviera, long known as "Hogan's Alley" thanks to the Texan's victories at the 1947 and '48 Los Angeles Opens and 1948 U.S. Open, was 2011 FedEx Cup winner Bill Haas, who sank a left-breaking 43-foot putt on the marvelously short par-4 10th to win in a playoff against Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, who both birdied the 72nd hole to tie Haas at 7-under 277.

Since that victory - Haas's fifth on the PGA Tour, the 30-year-old has blown very hot and cold, without ever truly confirming his place among the game's top players. The win in L.A. took him to 12th in the world rankings; he's since dropped to 36th.

Hunter Mahan, the defending champion at the following week's WGC Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., has endured something of a lean spell himself. After beating Rory McIlroy 2 & 1 in the 2012 final, then winning the Shell Houston Open five weeks later, the Californian rose to fourth in the world and looked a certainty for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But Mahan missed the cut three times from June until the end of the season, and in the 12 tournaments at which he did play on the weekend, his average finish was 33rd.

Not only did Mahan miss out on what would have been a third Ryder Cup appearance, his world ranking took a significant dip as well. By the end of 2012 he had fallen to 26th, and currently sits in 28th after two mediocre performances this year.

So while a repeat Mahan victory seems unlikely at this point, the tournament itself will no doubt provide stellar entertainment again as golf's best go head-to-head in the desert. The PGA Tour, TV viewers and Nike (sponsors of both players) will certainly be hoping for a Mclroy-Tiger Woods final. But such is the purity of the format and so exciting the contests, it can produce a Louis Oosthuizen-Nick Watney last match that might prove just as entertaining.

The month finishes in Florida at the Honda Classic where, last year, McIlroy, emulating his hero's poise under pressure and demonstrating remarkable mental fortitude, played the concluding six holes of the daunting Champion Course at PGA National in 1-under-par to hold off Woods, who had stormed up the leaderboard with a closing 62. The manner in which McIlroy finished proved what many observers still weren't sure of, even after his eight-stroke win at the 2011 U.S. Open: the Ulsterman had the resolve, courage and guts to go accompany immense talent.

In Europe, play is underway at the 24th Desert Classic in Dubai ,where Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello is defending the title he won by a shot over Stephen Gallacher and Lee Westwood in 2012. Then it's back to South Africa for three more tournaments (the year began with three straight events in the Rainbow Nation): the Joburg Open, Africa Open and inaugural Tshwane Open at the Ernie Els-designed Copperleaf Golf & Country Estate south of Pretoria.

The over-50 Champions Tour is back in action with two events in Florida, and the Web.com Tour begins its 2013 season with two tournaments in Central and South America - the Panama Claro Championship and Colombia Championship. The LPGA, meanwhile, finally gets its year started in Australia, Thailand and Singapore.

In equipment, the hot topic right now is TaylorMade's new adjustable driver, the R1, which features some funky graphics on its mostly-white crown and which made some serious noise at the recent PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. It seems to have been unveiled on any number of official launch days, with today (February 1) being the latest. The R1 goes up against Callaway's X Hot driver, which also tested well at the PGA Show.

The highest-profile golf course opening in February won't happen in Florida, California, Arizona or Scotland, but in the golf-light nation of Nicaragua, where its inventory of courses will debut with the David McLay Kidd-designed Guacalito De La Isla, which opens as part of the $250-million Mukul Resort developed by Nicaraguan billionaire Carlos Pellas Chamorro.

It's the early days of another year in golf. But with Tiger Woods' 75th PGA Tour victory, a 60 from Phil Mickelson in his old Phoenix stomping grounds, and another successful PGA Show in the books, 2013 is warming up nicely.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.