PALM BEACH GARDENS — The Florida swing is the unofficial start of the road to the Masters, now just 44 days away and counting.
Greg Norman made it feel that way a few decades ago.
The Shark would play the Tournament of Champions in January and then not show up again until Florida, usually at Doral. He was No. 1 in the world a good chunk of that time, which only added to the feeling that golf began to matter when TV showed swaying palms, sweaty brows and water hazards.
Rory McIlroy better hope the similarities end there.
Norman never did win the Masters, hard as he tried. McIlroy needs a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam, and the pressure will start building this week at the Honda Classic when the world's No. 1 player makes his American debut. He already has won this year against a strong field in Dubai.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the opening two months of the season on the PGA Tour. Because if the Florida Swing is the road to the Masters, then the West Coast Swing blazed the trail.
Here's what emerged from Hawaii to Arizona and up the coast of California, beautiful weather nearly every step of the way:
—The guy in black pants and a red shirt can be dangerous when he gets anywhere near the lead on Sunday.
That would be Patrick Reed, of course.
Coming off a year in which Reed won a World Golf Championship, went unbeaten in the Ryder Cup and did about everything except reach No. 5 in the world, the 24-year-old showed even more spunk when he overcame a four-shot deficit with four holes to play in Kapalua. He made two birdies and holed an 80-yard sand wedge for eagle, and then beat Jimmy Walker in a playoff.
Yes, he was lucky the hole got in the way on his eagle. But some guys have a knack for that. See Tiger Woods at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2000. Or anyone playing Norman.
—Woods has yet to wear black pants and a red shirt on Sunday.
If not for the West Coast, Woods would not have had a chance to activate his glutes. The bad news is that his glutes deactivated in the cool fog of Torrey Pines.
Woods' peculiar choice of words to describe what led to tightness in his lower back turned into a punch line that overshadowed what could turn out to be quite serious. The chipping display at Isleworth at the end of last year, which was attributed to closely mown grass, turned out to be the preview to a horror show.
Until or unless he returns, the signature shot for Woods will be from a bunker on the 16th hole at the TPC Scottsdale in the pro-am. It shot out of the sand, over the green and into the bleachers. It was so shocking that some pundits thought he must have done it on purpose.
So one of the greatest short games has short-circuited. And it led to Woods saying he won't return until he gets his game in shape for tournament golf. That won't be at the Honda Classic. The next option is Bay Hill. And unless his schedule changes, the next stop would be Augusta National.
This is a road that feels as if it has 1,000-foot cliffs on both sides. Or in front of it.
—The Phoenix Open offered a snapshot of youth, and it was frightening.
Brooks Koepka emerged as the winner by rolling in a 50-foot eagle putt on the 15th hole. What really stood out was the drive the 24-year-old Koepka hit on the 18th, which was long and pure, reminiscent of Angel Cabrera on the 18th at Oakmont when he won the U.S. Open.
Phoenix also offered a big picture.
Hideki Matsuyama, the 22-year-old from Japan, missed a birdie putt to force a playoff. Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old Texan, made a late charge. A pair of 21-year-old rookies, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger, played in the final group Saturday.
And then one week later, 27-year-old Jason Day won a four-man playoff at Torrey Pines that included 25-year-old Harris English.
It's getting harder than ever to win. These guys are good. They're young. And they're hungry.
—The return of Dustin Johnson.
Johnson took a six-month break under curious circumstances — Golf.com reported he failed a cocaine test twice — and missed the cut when he returned. He rallied late at Pebble Beach to tie for fourth. He had Riviera wrapped up until he hit a lob wedge into a bunker on the 17th hole and made bogey. He delivered one of the best shots of the young season, that flop shot over the back bunker on the 10th hole in the playoff, only for James Hahn to match his birdie. And then Hahn beat him with a 25-foot putt.
Maybe the break and the birth of his son did some good. Or maybe he's oblivious to it all. Either way, he looks just as good.
McIlroy starts his road to the Masters this week. Given what happened out West, it's starting to look like the 405 at rush hour.