Tour and News

PGA Tour Confidential: Ben Curtis wins Texas Open; Lee Westwood, Branden Grace also earn victories

Photo: Darren Carroll / Getty Images

Ben Curtis won the Texas Open for his first PGA Tour victory since 2006.

Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

CURTIS ENDS 6-YEAR DRY SPELL
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Ben Curtis held on for his fourth career victory -- that's right, fourth! -- with a two-shot win at the Valero Texas Open. Sure, the field had only three players in the top 50 of the World Ranking, but Curtis, who hadn't won since 2006 and had limited status on the PGA Tour, couldn't care less. It's not easy to win out there. Curtis has done it four times, including in a major. What's your take? Is he that good? Or do the stars just happen to align for this guy every now and then?

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: The stars aligned, although I love Curtis's tempo. Tough golf course, too.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The guy is a great scrambler and a great clutch putter. His long game comes and goes. In that regard, he reminds me a little of Ben Crenshaw. But yeah, he's pretty good when he's playing well. He makes putts under pressure, and that's the difference between closing and coming close, as just about everyone else in contention proved.

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Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He's a closer, which is high praise. Curtis doesn't get in contention much, but when he does he's shown an admirable toughness. It's a great career boost for him, but can he build on it? History shows that's iffy.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Ben's had a very nice career. Four wins, including a major, a lot of cash, and some good stories to tell the grandkids.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: Someone had to win and get all the spoils that come with a PGA Tour victory (Masters invite, lots of cash, two-year exemption). The field was awful, but the up-and-down to save par on the 17th Sunday was fantastic. Kudos to Curtis for showing some guts.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: Feherty said it best -- you don't hear from Curtis much, but when he has a chance to win, he usually gets it done. And yes he is that good. Maybe you have a victory or two fall in your lap, but not four.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: His fourth victory, but his first since 2006. That's a hell of a dry spell for someone who's "that" good.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: I think the stars aligned this week, but it was a great win for a guy many of us had sort of forgotten. Which reminds me, when did he stop wearing the NFL team polo shirts?

Mick Rouse, editorial assistant, SI Golf Group: We talk about it almost weekly: most Tour wins happen when a player catches fire. More times than not, though, those wins are flashes in the pan that happen every couple years.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Poor Ben. In the Haney book, Tiger says he'll never play another practice round with him, after Curtis talked to reporters and called Tiger's game "rusty" when Woods was on his hiatus. Ben's old-school. I loved his Open wins and all the others after it.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Did Curtis have one hot week, or is he an underrated winner?

WHY WON'T THE PROS MESS WITH TEXAS?
Godich: The Texas Open doesn't have the best of dates, and it's played on a difficult course. Do you think the tough track keeps some of the better players away? Or is it only because of where it falls on the schedule?

Gorant: If I recall correctly, they toughened the course in an attempt to attract more players. I imagine it's mostly a function of the timing.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Bad dates, no prestige and a disliked course add up to a weak field?

Reiterman: Their loss. I'd show up just for the water park!

Herre: Dates are critical. Most of the big guys and the Euros won't play until the week before the Players. New Orleans this week is fortunate to have Bubba Watson defending.

Shipnuck: The date and course are equally important. Texas doesn't have much to offer on either front.

Hack: The course is supposed to be good, but all I keep hearing about is the giant Marriott. That's attractive to sportswriters. Pro golfers? Not so much.

Dusek: Most of the big names play both Quail Hollow and the Players, and New Orleans wows players with great food in a party town, so the Texas Open's date is tough. That said, if a tournament isn't played on a really sweet course, the organizers need to do something to entice marquee players. Maybe the folks in San Antonio need to do a better sales job.

Van Sickle: It doesn't matter what they do. It's the date, date, date. Two weeks after the Masters, two weeks before Wells Fargo and the Players. For the best players, it's must-rest time.

Gorant: Although the Honda was in a similar situation a few years back, and that has become a darling of the Florida swing now. So who knows...

Ritter: When the event moves to the week before the Masters next year, the field should significantly improve.

Godich: I wonder how that schedule change will go over with the players. The appeal of playing in Houston was tuning up on a track with Augusta-like conditions. Don't see them being able to do that in San Antonio.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: What holds this event back? The schedule or the course itself?

WESTWOOD GETS A MASTERS
Godich: Lee Westwood won the Masters on Sunday. O.K., it was the Indonesian Masters. I have to ask: Will Westwood ever break through at a major? Or is he just not suited to handle the pressure of winning on golf's biggest stages?

Lipsey: Ben Curtis, Jack Fleck, Shaun Micheel -- if those three and many other similar players can win majors, Westwood can too. He has at least as much ability.

Gorant: What, are you saying that beating 20 guys on the Asian tour doesn't count as big-time? I'm a seller on Westwood.

Herre: Westwood is a great ballstriker, maybe the best driver in the game, but he's simply average on the greens, and it really shows under pressure in the majors.

Bamberger: Every true golfer will say that Lee Westwood will eventually win a major. Golf is rooted in hope.

Van Sickle: His putting under pressure certainly isn't suited to Augusta's greens. No reason he can't win a U.S. Open with his ballstriking, or a British Open on remedial-speed greens. If Darren Clarke can win an Open, Westwood can, too. I'm done picking him at the Masters, however.

Ritter: I agree with Gary. The Masters probably sets up the worst for him. I still think he'll win a major, but it better be soon -- he turns 39 on Tuesday.

Dusek: I think Westwood wins a major. He needs to pick the right week to get hot with the putter, but who doesn't? I love that he's gotten really fit, still drives the ball great and hits sweet irons. There's just too much talent there for him not to pick one off.

Shipnuck: He'll win a major, but it's fun to watch him suffer so much, sorta like Phil around the turn of the century. The longer Westy waits, the sweeter it will be when he breaks through.

Lipsey: Just hope he doesn't get into a Greg Norman U.S. Open/Masters waiting game, because we know where that ends up.

Rouse: I'll be shocked if Westwood goes his entire career without a major, but he needs to strengthen his short game.

Hack: Westwood's work ethic has gone from miniscule to manic. It'll all come together in the same week one of these days. I'm picking June, July or August over April.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Will his win in Indonesia help Westwood in the majors? Will he ever win one?

BRANDEN GRACE STRIKES AGAIN
Godich: Moving overseas, Branden Grace has to be the hottest player on the planet. The 23-year-old from South Africa won for the third time this year, at the Volvo China Open. Is it time to take this guy seriously?

Lipsey: He's likely rising enough in the World Ranking that we'll start to see him stateside in bigger events. Then we can get a fix on how he really stacks up against the top-shelf players.

Gorant: He's starting to remind me of Martin Kaymer, who began quietly kicking it on the Euro tour a few years ago before showing up here, winning a major and becoming No. 1.

Shipnuck: Definitely time to take him seriously. I'm looking forward to seeing how he plays in the Opens.

Hack: A young and talented golfer from South Africa? I'm buying this stock immediately.

Van Sickle: Three wins isn't a fluke. It's a trend.

Dusek: The field at the China Open was better than it was in San Antonio, and three wins in a season before the U.S. Open is heady stuff. That being said, I want to see (with my own eyes) him playing in "more-traditional" European Tour events and here in the U.S. before I heap too much praise or write him off.

Bamberger: Until we see him play in the U.S., repeatedly, he will remain an unknown. That's Ugly American bias, but also reality. This is where the best golf is played.

Reiterman: It's been a nice year for Grace, but those three wins were against less-than-stellar fields. I think I'll reserve "hottest player on the planet" for the guy wearing the green jacket.

Godich: If it's all about winning, Grace is the hottest player on the planet.

Hack: I think Yani Tseng still holds that distinction, the last two tournaments notwithstanding.

Reiterman: It's not all about winning when guys are playing on different tours against different levels of competition. Lee Westwood's win against a bunch of cream puffs in Indonesia is not as impressive as Ben Curtis winning a mediocre PGA Tour event. Branden Grace's three wins don't even come close to the year Bubba, Rory or Hunter Mahan are having. His wins are meaningful, but it's way too early to call him the hottest player on the planet.

Godich: Doesn't even come close? A 23-year-old Q-schooler wins three times in four months. I think that's pretty impressive.

Gorant: Let's say some random American won three second-tier Tour events this year, and his name rhymed with Nicki Towler. Think anyone would dismiss those as meaningless? Think if that player won the same three events that Grace did anyone would be doing anything but celebrating the guy?

Reiterman: I never said his wins weren't impressive. They are. I just can't put him up there with Bubba, Hunter and Rory and say he's the best player on the planet. And Rickie Fowler did win an event outside the U.S., and nobody cared. We're still waiting for him to win against the big boys.

Gorant: Best is not the same as hottest, and hottest is not the same as "guy getting the most media buzz."

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Is Branden Grace a future star? Do you expect him to contend in majors this year?

OLYMPIC'S NEW BUNKER
Godich: We're less than two months away from the second major of the season, and the big news is that the USGA has decided to add a fairway bunker to the layup area of the par-5 17th hole at Olympic. At 522 yards, the hole is anything but long for today's bombers. What's Mike Davis thinking with this 11th-hour change? Is this much ado about nothing?

Lipsey: Only in golf! Somebody digs a hole, adds some sand and it's news.

Shipnuck: I played that hole the other day when they were building, and I think it adds something by complicating the layup. Otherwise it becomes an easy 90-yard par-3.

Bamberger: It's much ado about strategy. He's getting in players' heads, as an architect should. It's cool, and I'm guessing necessary. The par-5 has been too devalued by technology.

Gorant: They realized the layup was too easy, and that everyone would play the hole that way. They're trying to force some decisions and encourage some big swings.

Godich: But at 522 yards, isn't it just a long par-4 for most of these guys?

Shipnuck: That hole is very steeply uphill, so it plays significantly longer than the yardage on the card.

Gorant: Besides the uphill, the green tilts away, so a long shot in will be tough to stick. Could be a real make-or-break hole if guys are going for it. If they're laying up, not so much.

Godich: I think Davis made the change because he saw Shipnuck make birdie there.

Shipnuck: Actually, I drove it a foot into the left rough but had a pretty good lie. I would've ripped a 3-wood as far as possible up the hill, but I was afraid I'd reach that bunker. I didn't want to have to retrieve my ball from a worksite, so I played it short with a hybrid. Mike Davis has a time-share in my head.

Hack: Davis has been King Midas when it comes to U.S. Open course setups. If he thinks the 17th needs a bunker, so be it.

Herre: It's very odd. I don't doubt that Mike Davis is making the right move, but why did it take him so long?

Van Sickle: It sounds suspiciously like the USGA micromanaging the U.S. Open setup, as usual. If it's such a great idea, why did it take until now to come up with it? The 17th was set up poorly in '98, as I recall, so this probably can't be any worse.

Herre: Odder still, the bunker will probably be removed after the Open.

Dusek: If Davis wants to make the layup more challenging, go ahead. But I hope the rough around the green won't be like creamed spinach because penalizing guys too harshly for trying to reach the green in two when you've made the layup tougher doesn't seem right. Sure, rough should be there, but penalties for so-so 4-irons shouldn't be as tough as so-so sand wedges.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: What do you make of this 11th-hour change to the 17th hole at Olympic?

GRAND OLD MEN
Godich: I remember when the Legends of Golf was can't-miss TV. Legends Michael Allen and David Frost won this year's event. Did anybody watch? And for that matter, does the Champions tour get your attention anymore?

Shipnuck: What's the Champions tour?

Gorant: I did not watch, but I saw a few highlights.

Hack: Me, too.

Herre: The Legends was a great event -- in 1979, when the older guys were off the regular Tour and no one had seen them play in decades. The next year the senior tour was an overnight sensation with tournaments sprouting up all over the country. I can remember people debating whether the senior tour was more popular than the regular Tour. Imagine.

Van Sickle: Thanks to the senior tour, there are no longer any seniors we haven't seen play in years. It's not like the early days. It's amazing the Champions schedule is as big as it is. Still, it's an excellent spectator experience.

Bamberger: The best way, and maybe the only way, to go to the Legends is as a reporter, notebook in hand, and get the true legends to start talking. I love it in person but can't watch it on TV.

Van Sickle: Bamberger has it right. Senior events are great fun in person, usually not as much on TV. And when is it on TV? I never seem to catch it.

Herre: Michael's right. The Champions tour still has that going for it. The older guys have a lot of stories and perspective. If you're a reporter, it's much more fun to hang with them than the young guns.

Godich: So I guess you guys didn't see that Gibby Gilbert and J.C. Snead won the Demaret Division? At least I think that's what it was called.

Herre: The Legends is probably the only event Gibby Gilbert and J.C. Snead still play. That's sort of the charm of the Legends.

Hack: The early senior studs -- like Trevino-- embraced the tour. The next generation -- like Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan, Bruce Fleisher -- really got into it, too. Today's would-be-stars -- like Greg Norman -- just aren't that jazzed by it. I remember Norman saying in the Dominican a few years ago that he just couldn't get used to the sight of carts in the fairway and how short the courses were set up. That's why he doesn't play out there much. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Herre: Norman also has an axe to grind with the PGA Tour.

Godich: Damon, don't forget Don January, Julius Boros, Gene Littler et al. The Legends was an event to get excited about. Those guys were grinding, but they had a good time doing it. The golf was awfully good too.

Van Sickle: Many of the seniors now playing have already made their millions. They don't "have" to play, but nothing beats the adrenaline of competition. Norman has also found that things don't change in senior golf -- he suffered a couple of heartbreaking losses when he didn't close well.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Does the Champions tour get your attention?

TOO TOUGH ON TIGER?
Godich: Finally, what's a week without a Tiger query? Sean Foley said the other day that people should stop being so hard on Tiger. Butch Harmon couldn't wait to pile on, telling the Wall Street Journal what many of us have been saying for months: Tiger had become too robotic with his swing. So, does Tiger deserve a break?

Herre: Lots of karma in play here.

Van Sickle: Tiger deserves as many breaks as he's given out. Oh, wait -- that would be zero.

Shipnuck: I'm so bored with this kind of Tiger "news." It'll be interesting to see him play two weeks in a row at Charlotte and the Players. Then we'll actually have something to talk about.

Godich: Me too. Which makes me wonder why Foley even opened his mouth.

Herre: Foley didn't do Woods any favors by speaking out.

Dusek: Tiger deserves to be treated the same as any other pro, but when you've got 14 majors on your mantel, you've got to know that's never going to be the case. Foley wanting the media and talking heads to stop critiquing Tiger's swing is not news, but because there is so little genuine news about the player more fans still follow than any other, even the most minuscule nuggets of information get scrutinized.

Hack: If Tiger wins like he did at Bay Hill, he will get praise. If he melts down like he did at the Masters, he will get hammered. That's life beneath those bright and expensive klieg lights.

Lipsey: If he wants the money and titles, the scrutiny comes with it.

Ritter: His attempt to come back and beat Jack's record is the single most compelling story in golf, and "non-news" headlines are part of the deal -- they'll follow him the rest of his career.

Bamberger: Does Tiger deserve a break? In some ways, for sure. When Nick Faldo says Tiger has lost his game, and his mind, for simply hitting a bad shot on 16 at Augusta and then kicking his club in disgust? He certainly deserves a break from that sort of thing. He hit a bad shot and got mad. They all do that now and again. Tiger is the same guy who won Bay Hill in a walk two weeks earlier. But in a larger sense, he'll never get a break from our interest. He'll carry that around for the rest of his life. His golf alone would get him that. I'd love to know what the Bay Hill win really meant to him.

Van Sickle: Sounds like somebody's critiques have hit home. I wonder if it has Tiger wondering?

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Is the media's scrutiny of Tiger justified, or has it gotten out of hand, as Foley stated?

 

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