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Teeing up 2011 and the play to come

While most of the country sits wrapped in its traditional winter gray, the PGA Tour returns this week, framed as always by the palm trees and idyllic images of Maui, where the 2011 season officially begins at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions today.

Unlike last year when the mystery of Tiger Woods was still unfolding and the major championships were set at Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits, this season begins with a different look.

Will Woods win again?

What about Phil Mickelson, whose game seemed to fade as last season wore on?

What about the majors at Augusta, Congressional, Royal St. George’s and, finally, Atlanta Athletic Club?

It’s a season filled with storylines, including:

The Tiger Tale

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Woods’ 2010 season is that it’s behind him.

Woods didn’t win a tournament, didn’t threaten to win many and made no progress in his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship victories.

Should you need a reminder of how time marches on, Woods hasn’t won a major championship since he beat Rocco Mediate on a broken leg at Torrey Pines (Calif.) in 2008. That’s 10 majors ago and Woods just turned 35 last week.

After looking like a man in search of his confidence last year, Woods believes in the changes he’s making under new swing coach Sean Foley and it showed when he nearly won the Chevron World Challenge. He’s a man on a mission again.

Power across the pond

Whether you believe in the world rankings or not, it’s impossible to miss the collection of European players crowded around the top.

Seven of the top 11 players – No. 1 Lee Westwood; No. 3 Martin Kaymer; No. 5 Graeme McDowell; No. 8 Paul Casey; No. 9 Luke Donald; No. 10 Rory McIlroy and No. 11 Ian Poulter – are from the other side of the Atlantic.

It speaks to the global nature of the game, but it also says something about the state of American golf beyond Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.

Was it a one-year thing or a trend?

The young Americans

Mickelson is 40. Furyk is 40. Steve Stricker turns 44 next month.

And Tiger is now closer to 50 than he is to 20.

But, to borrow an old rock lyric, the kids are all right.

Dustin Johnson, who became a household name by not winning the U.S. Open or PGA Championship, is a monster talent with serious major championship potential. Unless he’s pulling off a great act, the Myrtle Beach resident seems to have dealt with his 2010 disappointments without any lingering effects.

Rickie Fowler, with his X-Games hair and neon wardrobe, won fame and fans last year but no tournaments, though he had seven top-10 finishes. His dramatic finish at the Ryder Cup cemented his stardom, but it’s time for him to win.

And then there’s Anthony Kim, who’s just 25 but seems somehow older. He was on a tear before thumb surgery sidelined him last year. When he’s on, he’s spectacular.

Who’s next?

Remember the name Matteo Manassero. The 17-year-old Italian made the cut at the Masters last spring and became the youngest winner in European Tour history last fall.

Jamie Lovemark was player of the year on the Nationwide Tour last year and has the game to contend immediately.

Keep an eye on Joseph Bramlett, a former Stanford golfer, who is the second player of African-American descent on tour, joining Woods.

And then there’s Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, on tour for a second swing at big-time success.

What’s next?

Expect to hear plenty of chatter about television negotiations. The tour’s TV deals expire after the 2012 season and discussions about the future are expected to begin soon. Ratings declined without Woods in the mix much last year and there are questions about the future of the FedEx Cup format.

The Heritage Classic at Hilton Head doesn’t have a title sponsor nor its traditional week after the Masters date, raising serious questions about its future.

And, with the 2017 PGA Championship booked at Quail Hollow, it won’t be long until discussions begin about what happens to the Wells Fargo Championship after its contract expires in 2014.