Seven questions for a new year in golf

— -- KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The grandstand surrounding the ninth green was packed, and it was only a quiet Monday afternoon at Kapalua, with no more than a dozen players on the Plantation Course. Everyone anticipates a blockbuster season on the PGA Tour. Vijay Singh starts the year at No. 1 for the first time in his career. Tiger Woods showed signs of recovering his game late last year, while Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen could make it crowded at the top. Singh knows his nine-victory season that took him to No. 1 was old news when the calendar changed. "Everybody is going to be starting level," Singh said. "You've just got to get in front as quick as possible and see if you can stay there. That's the way I've always thought, and hopefully I'm going to start that way again." And that leads to seven questions about the 2005 season: ^What does Singh do for an encore?< Singh is curious how he will handle the expectations, although they won't be as great as when Woods tried to follow up on his nine-win season of 2000. Woods went 10 weeks at the start of the '01 season without winning and had to face questions about a slump. Then he won three straight, including the Masters for his fourth straight major. Keep in mind that Singh won only one time through the Masters last year, and no one questioned his game. That won't be the case in 2005, and he can take a load of pressure off by winning at least once on the West Coast Swing. Odds are against him winning nine times again, although if he plays the same schedule -- his 29 starts last year matched his career-high -- there is no reason he can't win a half-dozen times.< ^Was the end of the year a mirage for Tiger?< Woods gained renewed optimism by winning his final two tournaments of the year with a game that looked vaguely familiar. Still, no one will take the Dunlop Phoenix (Japan) or the Target World Challenge (silly season) too seriously. Still, it was enough to raise expectations. Woods is playing two of the first three tournaments, and he might face more scrutiny than Singh. The real test will be the majors. If Woods fails to win the Masters, it will be the longest stretch without a major in his career. Another question is whether Woods' cut streak (133 tournaments) can survive another year. ^Will the majors haunt the Big Easy?< Els will remember 2004 as the year the majors got away -- all four of them. He had three putts on the 72nd hole to either win or get into a playoff, and missed them all. He shot 80 in the final group at the U.S. Open. He might have found the secret to getting sharp for the four biggest weeks of the year, but four close calls in one year creates a lot of scar tissue. The Masters is what he wants the most, only Els might be the next in a long line of players who felt Augusta National owed them one (Ken Venturi, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, David Duval). His best bet might be the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, which should feel like a U.S. Open.< ^What will Phil do next?< That 8-inch vertical leap at Augusta National is the most vivid reminder that Mickelson no longer is hounded as the best player to never win a major. Coming within five shots of winning all four was a statement that Lefty has these majors all figured out. Still, his magical year ended after the PGA Championship. The Ryder Cup was a disaster, and his 59 at the Grand Slam of Golf doesn't count. Memories being short, he'll probably have to prove himself again the first three months of the year to be considered a major force going into the Masters.< ^Will anyone in their 20s emerge as a legitimate star?< Assuming Woods is an old man at 29, golf still is searching for a player in his 20s to emerge as a rival for the next decade. Adam Scott became the youngest winner (23) of The Players Championship, but the best bet is Sergio Garcia. He already has won five times on tour and, unlike Scott, is becoming a regular contender in the majors. Other possibilities are the English trio of Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Paul Casey. Charles Howell III is too young (25) to be forgotten. Even though he has won only one tournament, he has never finished lower than 33rd on the PGA Tour money list.< ^What about the old guys?< Tom Kite once advised Jay Haas to keep playing on the PGA Tour as long as he could, because once someone goes to the Champions Tour, it's hard to go back to regular golf. Haas has made the Tour Championship the last two years, and at 51 will be trying to make the Presidents Cup team. Kite, meanwhile, is using a career-money exemption to return to the PGA Tour. But if he fails to compete, he might be a victim of his own advice.< ^Can Tim Finchem work magic on another TV deal?< No one will be pulling harder for Woods than the PGA Tour commissioner, who will start negotiating the next television contract this year. The last two times Finchem sat across from the networks were in 1997, when Woods won the Masters by a record 12 shots, and in 2001, when Woods won the "Tiger Slam" -- four majors in a span of 294 days. It's all about timing. And the tour is positioned to provide some drama that will have everyone watching.