The big questions heading into the 2023 golf season

CNN  — 

To say 2022 was a dramatic year for golf would be something of an understatement.

The emergence of LIV Golf sent shockwaves through the sport, as tussles between the Saudi-backed breakaway series and the PGA Tour and DP World Tour dominated headlines.

On the fairways, Tiger Woods’ shock comeback and ongoing injury woes peaked at The Open at St Andrews in July, with pictures of his tearful walk down the 18th fairway among the year’s defining images.

Australia’s Cameron Smith would go on to lift the Claret Jug, becoming the third man to win his first major championship of the season after Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick’s maiden wins at The Masters and US Open respectively.

First-time major winners were also a theme of the women’s calendar, as Jennifer Kupcho clinched the Chevron Championship for her first LPGA Tour title before South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai lifted the British Women’s Open on her 221st career LPGA Tour start.

LIV Golf tensions and Woods’ fitness are two plot lines that will continue in 2023, and the year will surely offer a string of new ones. From Rory McIlroy’s grand slam chase to the Ryder and Solheim Cups, CNN looks ahead to another mouthwatering golfing season.

Will LIV Golf fissures close?

Fractures caused by the rise of LIV Golf show no sign of healing soon.

December’s announcement by The Masters organizers that LIV Golf players would be allowed to take part at the major in April was met with a promise by a 9/11 survivors’ group to protest at the “front door” of the Augusta National venue.

The vow came less than a month after Tiger Woods called for LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman to stand down.

In August 2022, the LIV series joined an antitrust lawsuit alongside some of its players, alleging that the PGA Tour threatened to place lifetime bans on golfers who took part in LIV Golf events. A countersuit from the PGA Tour followed in September.

Dustin Johnson sprays champagne on Cameron Smith at the LIV Golf Invitational - Miami in October.

Woods and Rory McIlroy were among the biggest names to condemn the new series, with McIlroy slamming it for “ripping apart” men’s professional golf.

“I think there are ways to mend that and bring it back together. But with everything else that’s going on right now, I don’t see that happening anytime in the future,” he told CNN in August.

The presence of a host of LIV players at Augusta in April promises to be a substantial subplot to the first men’s major of the year, with LIV Golf participant and reigning Open champion Cameron Smith among the leading contenders to clinch the green jacket.

Can McIlroy finally complete career grand slam?

It was a bittersweet 2022 for McIlroy. Back to playing some of the best golf of his career, the Northern Irishman’s won three PGA Tour titles en route to reclaiming the World No. 1 spot for the first time in over two years.

A flood of top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour were replicated at the highest level during the majors, as the 33-year-old finished no lower than eighth in any of the four biggest events.

Yet McIlroy’s remarkable consistency was soured by agonizing near misses, as a runner-up finish at The Masters was followed by a painful final day fall at The Open. Having tied for the lead heading into Sunday at St Andrews, a string of missed birdie putts – and a surging finish from Smith – saw McIlroy’s hopes of ending an eight-year major drought slip away.

McIlroy celebrates his CJ Cup victory in October.

Given his form, for many the four-time major winner enters 2023 as the favorite to don the green jacket at Augusta in April. Beyond ending his wait for more major success, a win at The Masters for McIlroy would see him join an illustrious group of golfers that have achieved the career grand slam.

Only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods have lifted all four major titles. With two PGA Championship wins and triumphs at the US and British Open Championships, McIlroy had already put himself a green jacket away from immortality by 2014, just seven years on from turning professional.

But despite seven top-10 finishes at Augusta, McIlroy is yet to convert form to first, including a devastating final-day collapse in 2011. With such a glittering CV, his legacy is long-established, but the completion of just the sixth career grand slam in golf history would represent a momentous day for both McIlroy and the sport.

At the 2011 Masters, a 21-year-old McIlroy had led the field by four shots heading into the final day, before a nightmare round saw him finish tied for 15th.

How many events will Tiger Woods play?

After 17 months away from the game, Woods’ comeback to the sport at The Masters in April stunned the golfing world.

Having suffered serious leg injuries in a car accident in February 2021, it was a shock that the 15-time major winner was even playing. The fact that Woods, visibly struggling on the hilly Augusta National course, would go on to make the cut was even more stunning.

Since then, Woods has been candid regarding the disruptive impact of a punishing rehabilitative process. His playing time has been decimated, with an emotional cameo at the 150th Open Championship one of his limited outings during 2022.

In December, Woods withdrew from the Hero World Challenge citing foot pain, and again looked to be struggling with movement during the seventh edition of The Match later that month.

Woods waves to the crowd on the 18th green at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews in July.

As a result, the 47-year-old’s presence on tournament fairways looks set to remain rare, yet Zach Johnson has not ruled out a place for Woods at this year’s Ryder Cup.

Speaking ahead of the Sony Open earlier this month, the US captain discussed a potential role for Woods at the biennial event, set to tee off in Italy in September.

“I would only contemplate having him on the team … if he was putting up some numbers and some scores, numerb one, where he’s showing some sign of being competitive,” Johnson told reporters.

“And then number two, that discussion would be had with the other guys that are a part of that team, and specifically him. If there is anything I trust in Tiger Woods, is that he’s extremely invested in this team and the future Cups.”

Will Europe take Ryder Cup revenge on US?

Come September, Team Europe will be looking to exorcise demons at the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club outside Rome, host of the first Ryder Cup to be played in Italy.

Team USA dealt the Europeans a historically crushing defeat at Whistling Straights in 2021, soaring to a 19-9 victory in Wisconsin. It marked the largest margin of victory in a Ryder Cup since 1979, the year continental European players were made eligible to compete in the previously Great British and Irish team.

Team United States celebrates a dominant win at Whistling Straits.

McIlroy’s tearful interview following the crushing defeat underlined the team’s pain, with the Northern Irishman saying he “should have done more.” McIlroy has gone from strength to strength since, his stellar form giving the Europeans belief that they can prevent a US title defense.

England’s Luke Donald was announced as the captain of Team Europe in August, replacing initial choice Henrik Stenson following the Swede’s participation in the LIV Golf series.

Can US prevent European Solheim Cup three-peat?

It’s a contrasting picture in the biennial women’s event, as at the 2023 Solheim Cup in Andalucia, Spain, the US Team will be scrambling to prevent a hat-trick of European victories.

After back-to-back wins in 2015 and 2017, the US suffered narrow defeat at Gleneagles in Scotland before losing again on home soil at Inverness Club, Ohio, in 2021. Both European victories were led by Team Europe’s Scottish captain Catriona Matthew, with this year’s armband passed to Norway’s Suzann Pettersen.

Team Europe's Matilda Castren and Madelene Sagstrom celebrate with the Solheim Cup.

Stacy Lewis, the US Team captain, has an array of talent to choose from, with Nelly Korda, Lexi Thompson and Jennifer Kupcho all enjoying excellent seasons in 2022.

Though recent form favors their opponents, history favors the US, who boast 10 wins to Europe’s seven.

The tournament is set to tee off at Finca Cortesin Golf Club on September 18.

Will we see a new major winner?

It was a good year for first-time major winners in 2022. Of the nine major champions across the men’s and women’s game, five were maiden victors.

In Scheffler, Fitzpatrick and Smith, the trio of new men’s winners were relatively young, with all three in their 20s. Their success will serve as inspiration for a host of talented young golfers on the PGA Tour, none more so than rising star Tom Kim.

The South Korean became the first golfer since Tiger Woods to win twice on the PGA Tour before turning 21, with victory at the Shriners Children’s Open in October, the latest highlight in a breakout year that included a starring Presidents Cup role.

Kim poses with the Shriners Children's Open trophy.

Elsewhere, 25-year-old Viktor Hovland will look to build on a hugely impressive top-four finish at The Open, while Will Zalatoris aims to end a devastating run of near misses.

Just one year older than his Norwegian counterpart Hovland, Zalatoris has endured brutal ends to brilliant major performances in recent years, finishing runner-up three times in the last two years. Six top-10 finishes across 10 major appearances represents a superb level of consistency that the American can take into 2023.

At just 19 years old, Atthaya Thitikul continues to make waves in the women’s game. Having only turned professional 2020, the Thai prodigy was crowned World No. 1 in October 2022 and LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year the following month after two wins in her debut season.

Likewise, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka will now look to add a major triumph to an impressive haul of six LPGA Tour wins. Another youngster at 24 years old, Hataoka has already put together a number of strong major showings, finishing runner-up at the Women’s PGA Championship and and US Women’s Open in 2018 and 2021 respectively.

Key dates: Men

The Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, April 6-9

PGA Championship, Oak Hill Country Club, New York, May 18-21

US Open, Los Angeles Country Club, California, June 15-18

The Open, Royal Liverpool Golf Club, England, July 20-23

Ryder Cup, Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, Italy, September 25 – October 1

Key dates: Women

The Chevron Championship, The Club at Carlton Woods, Texas, 20-23 April

KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Baltusrol Golf Club, New Jersey, 22-25 June

US Women’s Open, Pebble Beach, California, 6-9 July

Evian Championship, Evian Resort Golf Club, France, 20-23 July

AIG Women’s Open, Walton Heath Golf Club, England, 10-13 August

Solheim Cup, Finca Cortesin Golf Club, Spain, 18-24 September