PGA Tour Confidential: The Big Three, The Big Story and the Big Winners of 2014
1. Who's going to have the best 2014 of the Big Three -- Tiger, Phil or Rory?
John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated (@jgarrity2): I expect McIlroy to reassert himself and deliver the kind of dominating performance that you guys wrongly predicted for him in 2013. I'm the one who pointed out that he had made abrupt changes in virtually every aspect of his life -- equipment, management, continent, residence, you name it -- and he'd need at least a year to deal with all that. Well, he's had his year, and now he can concentrate on what's important -- golf and suing his management team.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): His win in Australia was massive -- for him and the game. It makes 2014 much more intriguing.
Anonymous Tour pro: I think Rory wins a couple of Tour events but not a major. He's still figuring out his equipment to some degree.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It's human nature to get complacent after remarkable success and/or riches, and to forget that what got you there was long-term hard work. Ultimately, 2013 will be the best thing that ever happened to Rory.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm less optimistic about Phil. His window to play well gets smaller each year because, arthritis or no arthritis, guys in their 40s can't count on feeling that great four days in a row. Phil's swing is catching up with him because his body doesn't cooperate as well. Week in and week out, he can't be as sharp as he used to be. Now his bad weeks are bad.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: We all know Phil is going to win the U.S. Open. That'll be enough.
VAN SICKLE: Does it worry you that Phil always played his way into form by teeing it up three, four or five weeks in a row, and now he's cutting back?
SHIPNUCK: He said he's going to reduce his schedule after the PGA Championship, so the FedEx Cup playoffs may go on without him. Look, this is a one-tournament season for Phil. If he wins the U.S Open, it'll be a spectacular year.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Of the three, next year is the biggest for Tiger. If he doesn't win any majors, his race to catch Jack is over.
BAMBERGER: Tiger is the most poised to have a big year. There's been something missing in his majors play. He's shown over a lot of years that he's very smart. He'll figure out the problem.
VAN SICKLE: What if he decides the problem is his teacher, Sean Foley?
BAMBERGER: Foley isn't the problem. Tiger won five tourneys against tough fields on difficult courses. It's a mental hurdle for Tiger.
SHIPNUCK: Tiger's swing isn't the issue. He gets on the green and looks spooked at times. It's not so easy to fix that.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Tiger has gone off the deep end on his weightlifting workouts again. He made some swings in Turkey that were so short and flat because he can barely get his arms above his muscle-bound shoulders. He's lost his old suppleness and seems to be trying to regain his speed by being strong. His body doesn't look like a golfer's body anymore, the way it did from 1996 until about 2007.
SHIPNUCK: The things that used to separate Tiger were his head, his putting and the ability to summon the shot that's called for. Now that's all in question. It's a fascinating flip. If he can't get it done this year, I don't know if he can get to 15 majors, let alone 19.
VAN SICKLE: Tiger's swing looks suspiciously like stack and tilt. He isn't getting it done in majors for the same reason the other stack-and-tilt guys haven't: the driver. Under pressure, you can't trap the ball with a driver with any consistency.
SHIPNUCK: The most shocking swing of the year was Tiger's at number 13 at Augusta on Sunday. He played a cut over the trees! If there's any hole in golf where you need to play a draw, it's 13. That shot revealed something. You can't blame it all on the putter like Tiger tries to do.
2. What will be golf's big story in 2014?
ANONYMOUS PRO: I wouldn't be surprised if Tiger and Foley part ways. I'm not sure Tiger has bought into everything Foley is telling him. Tiger's ego may be getting in the way too.
GARRITY: Tiger is way too far down the road to switch coaches again. He'd be better off with a performance coach. Anybody who watches Tiger practice knows that he hits it great on the range. He just has trouble taking it to the course.
VAN SICKLE: One thing we learned from Hank Haney's book is that Tiger is a surprisingly needy student.
GARRITY: Tiger's narcissism is at the root of his troubles. He could have quit tinkering during his Butch Harmon phase, because he had all the shots. Tiger could change trajectory at will, shape shots however he wanted, hit every conceivable pitch and chip, hit it from rough, sand, water and oatmeal, if necessary. That's all a golfer can do. But every now and then Tiger hit a bad shot, and he couldn't accept that. Now he no longer has all the shots.
VAN SICKLE: Vijay Singh's lawsuit against the PGA Tour about his use of deer-antler spray could have legs. His attorney has alleged that other Tour drug-policy violators have gotten exemptions and special treatment. Some Tour secrets may get spilled in court.
BAMBERGER: What does Vijay want? If he's looking for a payday, he's going to get it. If he's looking to embarrass the Tour, it could get interesting.
SHIPNUCK: It sounds like a vendetta. The Tour has besmirched him in the twilight of his career. It's not about money -- he wants to destroy Tim Finchem and the Tour. It's going to be really, really ugly, and I'm really, really excited about it.
BAMBERGER: Actually, I think it could be about the money. The payday could be staggering.
GARRITY: Yes, but Vijay can't claim Finchem damaged his reputation without opening himself up to questions about his reputation, which means reviving that old Asian-tour suspension for alleged cheating and some long-forgotten tangles with Australian golf authorities. Vijay can't go there.
SHIPNUCK: All this off-course stuff in golf -- the anchoring ban, the drug testing, it's all just something to talk about in December. Ultimately, it comes down to who wins where. A year is always remembered for its champions. Like Adam Scott at the Masters and Phil at the British.
VAN SICKLE: Which would be a bigger story, Tiger winning a major or Phil finally winning his elusive U.S. Open?
SHIPNUCK: Phil's quest has become so big that even non-golf fans know about it. Even if you weren't a football fan, you knew about Peyton Manning's quest to win a Super Bowl ring. It transcends the sport.
BAMBERGER: Tiger winning any major is bigger. It gets him to 15 and, most important, reopens the chase to 18.
GARRITY: Phil's Open would be bigger because the career Grand Slam would complete that story arc.
SHIPNUCK: Tiger winning a Masters would be the most impactful, to use Finchem's favorite word.
3. It's 2013, but we're already six tournaments into the 2014 season. How do you like the new schedule?
GARRITY: I liked those two big Asian tournaments a whole lot, but then I'm a night owl. That's the only thing I like about the new schedule. The other fall Tour stops seem even less compelling than before.
ANONYMOUS PRO: When the ratings for a PGA Tour event are worse than ratings for Golf Channel's Big Break, you've got a problem. The fields for the fall events are better, top to bottom, but the people they need to affect the ratings aren't going to play. The Tour hasn't solved anything.
GARRITY: Now you don't have the marginal players fighting to keep their Tour cards. There was some entertainment value in that.
VAN SICKLE: When the FedEx Cup system was devised, the fall tournaments were hung out to dry, as if the Tour wanted them to go away. Now that the fall events count, so to speak, it seems the Tour recognizes that it needs these playing opportunities.
SHIPNUCK: The schedule is acceptable because it's creating this fall Asian swing, which draws some top Americans. The PGA Tour has finally colonized Asia.
VAN SICKLE: We may see more Asian stops. The PGA Tour has a knack for following the money.
BAMBERGER: We are going to have a global tour, just as Greg Norman predicted years ago. Finchem has shown what a savvy leader he is in his own uncharismatic way.
VAN SICKLE: Less is not more. Finchem has realized that, and I wholeheartedly agree.
GARRITY: I guess I'm a fuddy-duddy then, because I won't get excited until next season starts for real. At Kapalua. When it really is 2014.
4. If you were PGA Tour commissioner for a day, what rule would you put into place and why?
SHIPNUCK: I would trim 10 tournaments from the schedule. Nobody would miss them.
VAN SICKLE: A few players might.
SHIPNUCK: Those World Golf Championships in Tucson and Akron are stuck at such uninspired venues. I'd move those around the world to places that are more dynamic. The Walker Cup is being played at places like National Golf Links and Seminole. Why can't we have golf at the citadels of the game, like Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Bel-Air and Chicago Golf Club?
BAMBERGER: I'd create some significant conditions of play by which bifurcation is introduced into the golf culture. A very good place to start would be the ball.
SHIPNUCK: Exactly. Cypress Point at 6,500 yards would be too short for a pro event. If you said, Boys, we're going to play a WGC event for $8 million at Cypress, but you have to use a reduced-flight ball, every guy on Tour would say, Sign me up.
VAN SICKLE: I'd pay to see that. I'd cut the FedEx Cup playoffs to three weeks, ending with 60 players at the Tour Championship, and I'd give the stroke-play WGC events full fields with a cut instead of these 70-player snoozefests. I'd also blow up the new Q school. It was a disaster.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'd rescind the ban on anchored putters and declare that the PGA Tour will play by its own rules.
5. Who are your early picks to win the four majors?
SHIPNUCK: I've got Adam Scott repeating at the Masters, because I think he'll build on his strong finish to the year. It's Phil at Pinehurst because it's meant to be. I like long-iron specialist Henrik Stenson at Hoylake, and though it may be wishful thinking, I'll take Rory to win the PGA at Valhalla.
GARRITY: Mickelson to win the Masters because he occasionally does. Luke Donald at Pinehurst, because we've stopped paying attention to him. Tiger to win at Hoylake -- unless it's wet, in which case I take Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño. And for the PGA, I'm thinking Rory picks up his third major. It's the kind of big track he can beat up.
VAN SICKLE: I like a second straight Aussie champion at the Masters -- Jason Day; short-game artist Louis Oosthuizen (remember him?) at Pinehurst; Sergio García at Hoylake (yeah, that's right -- Sergio!); and Stenson over Scott in a playoff at Valhalla.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I don't believe Tiger can drive the ball straight enough anymore, but he can still get it around at Augusta. At Pinehurst you're going to have to chip and putt really well, so I like Phil. Adam Scott gets redemption at the British Open, and since Valhalla is kind of a birdiefest, I'll go with Brandt Snedeker.
BAMBERGER: I'm going with the stories that would mean the most to us: Tiger at the Masters, Phil at the U.S. Open, Rory at the British and Dustin Johnson at the PGA.
VAN SICKLE: What does DJ winning the PGA do for you besides bring Paulina Gretzky into play?
BAMBERGER: It brings Paulina Gretzky into play.