PGA Tour Confidential: Houston Open

Monday April 4th, 2011
Phil Mickelson earned his 39th career title and first of 2011.
Dave Einsel/AP

Every week of the 2011 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

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BIG WIN FOR PHIL, BUT HOW BIG?
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: What a difference a week can make. Phil Mickelson, whose play has been ho-hum for months, made a big statement by winning the Shell Houston Open on the eve of the season's first major. After tying the course record at Redstone with a 63 on Saturday, Phil shot a 65 on Sunday that included six birdies in a seven-hole stretch. As Mickelson tapped in to win, I couldn't help but think of 2006, when he ran away with the BellSouth Classic the week before winning the Masters. How important do you think the win was for Mickelson as he gets ready to defend his Masters title?

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I'm impressed. All we've been hearing is how he has been pointing his game toward Augusta. Couldn't have made a much better statement to back that up.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Phil looked fantastic. The only thing he's got to guard against now is tiring himself out before the Masters even starts. I predict he'll play very few holes in the practice rounds, and most of those will be in the Par-3 Contest.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil's short game looks Augusta-ready. This is a game-changer for the Masters. It's all on Phil now.

Godich: Perhaps most impressive was that he shot seven under on Sunday with pars on two of the par-5s. He birdied three of the par-3s. That tells me he's dialed in.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: Definitely looked sharp. Loved it when Westy's caddie, Billy Foster, got on his knees and bowed to Phil after that ridiculous chip in on No. 6 yesterday.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: It's very important. Mickelson is one of the few players with the ability to almost peak on command. He's going to be formidable in Augusta.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: It doesn't hurt. Phil had been saying he was getting close. He's got everyone's attention now.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil was going to be among two or three favorites no matter what happened in Houston, but this was a strong opening statement. I've liked him to win this Masters since Sunday night a year ago. It's his to lose.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: Agree with Damon. Phil should be the odds-on favorite heading into Augusta.

Godich: And psychologically, it won't hurt that he has jumped ahead of you-know-who in the World Ranking.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's HUGE. Phil was clearly looking for confidence by adding Bay Hill to his schedule. That didn't pan out. Houston did. He will almost surely contend at Augusta. You cannot win if you don't contend.

Van Sickle: Before we get too carried away, Phil seems to do his best work when we discount him -- like this week in Houston. When we expect him to be The Man, he usually disappoints. Phil is unpredictable. That's why he's so much fun to watch.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: A win is a win. So I think carrying those good vibes into Augusta can only be positive for his game.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Phil could really marginalize Tiger by winning the Masters next week and consolidating power as the czar of golf.

Wei: I am very impressed. Gotta be a huge confidence boost for Phil and give him some momentum going into Augusta. (Not that he needs it since he says the Masters gets him revved up, anyway.)

Tell us what you think: How big was Phil's win on Sunday in Houston? Does he deserve to be favored to win this year's Masters?

MOTIVATION FOR TIGER?
Dusek: During the broadcast, one of the TV commentators said that not only was Phil's win good for him, and for golf, but it should light a fire in Tiger Woods, too. On Monday, Mickelson will be higher than Tiger in the World Rankings for the first time since 1997. Do you agree that this could provide Tiger with more motivation this week, or is it simply something the media will point out and the players will ignore?

Hack: Tiger needs to win for winning's sake. That '08 U.S. Open feels like it was a million years ago. Probably because it was.

Reiterman: Doubt Tiger cares very much, but it's great for forums like this. In fact, here's a guess at what Tiger would say, "Well, Phil's been playing well so he should be ranked ahead of me. As I've always said, winning takes care of everything. If I go out and play the way I know I can play, I'll be right back up there."

Ritter: Ryan, you forgot to add that "It's a process."

Van Sickle: This doesn't change a thing for Tiger. He is determined to get back to where he was. Phil is a mere speck on his windshield, from his point of view. It doesn't affect what he's trying to do. I like his ESPN interview when Tom Rinaldi asked him who the best player in the world was, and he answered, "When my swing is dialed in..." Rinaldi finished the sentence for him after a pause, "You?" Tiger just smiled. He still has that confidence.

Herre: If they were 1-2 in the rankings, maybe. But at this stage of their careers I don't think these two get wrapped up in that sort of stuff.

Godich: If Tiger needs Phil to get him motivated, then his problems are even more severe than we thought. This is a guy who has taken joy in beating the brains out of everyone. If anything, Phil's win might have the opposite effect and make Tiger press even more.

Bamberger: Tiger plays more "personal" golf than any grinder in golf history. Way more. He became Tiger by burying people in match play, and he never lost that instinct when he started playing 72-hole medal play events. Phil's win will be a very significant motivator for Tiger, especially if they get paired together. The next question: is it more of a motivator than he can handle right now?

Lipsey: Guys, we're talking about somebody who's earned $240,000 in 2011. That's half as much as Tommy Gainey and $1 million less than Spencer Levin. Fumes and aura go only so far.

Wei: It's about time Phil passed Tiger in the ranking. What was this, the 30th opportunity? I think the idea of Phil's win lighting a fire in Tiger is just media hype. Tiger wants to kick everybody's butt. I don't think he'll be focusing on just outplaying Phil.

Evans: Tiger wants to win. Period. Tiger wants to beat Phil head to head. But he's not going to lose any sleep over Phil winning in Houston or having a higher World Ranking. Plus, the game is so deep now that Tiger has a lot more than just Phil to worry about.

Morfit: I disagree. I think it could fire up Tiger. I say that only because both Phil and Tiger have looked like guys very much in need of firing up. They have looked competitively fried on and off for the last few years.

Godich: How many opportunities has Tiger had to get fired up? I thought getting snubbed in the SI Golf Rankings would do the trick.

Van Sickle: Motivation isn't among the top 10 most important things on Tiger's list of concerns right now.

Tell us what you think: Now that he trails Mickelson in the rankings, will Tiger find extra motivation this week at the Masters?

FAVORITE MASTERS TRADITIONS
Dusek: There are many traditions at the Masters, from amateurs staying in The Crow's Nest to legendary past champions hitting ceremonial opening tee shots to pimento cheese sandwiches in green wrappers. What is your favorite Masters tradition, and what's the thing about the tournament you most enjoy sharing with friends who have never been to Augusta National?

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Iced tea on the veranda, skipping shots across the pond at 16 during practice rounds, watching adults speed-walk across the grounds to get prime viewing spots without breaking the strict no-running policy.

Wei: This year will be my first trip! Can't wait to try a pimento cheese sandwich and watch guys try to skip it over the water on 16.

Herre: With our writers scattered all over the country, I always enjoy seeing everyone together. We have a heck of a group.

Morfit: I like going out to 12 to watch the tee shots there and at 13. It's such a pivotal spot, although I suppose they all count the same. I remember sitting up in the little press perch right of 12 tee in 2004 on Sunday, thinking, Phil, if you're ever going to do it, you'd better do it now. Of course he birdied and the rest is history.

Van Sickle: The aromas of exotic flora; the smell of spring; the fried chicken sandwiches, which blow away the pimento cheese; and the elevation changes. The 10th fairway would make a hell of a toboggan run, for instance.

Hack: The media lottery is high up for me -- I still have my chits from '02 and '09 -- but I'm with Gorant. Lunch on the veranda is a must-do. The cobbler is divine and the view might be the best in golf. There are not many places in the world where you can have an Arnold Palmer while sitting a few feet from Arnold Palmer.

Dusek: I never get over how hilly the course really is, but my favorite tradition is to spend a few hours at Amen Corner every year and bask in the whole atmosphere. On a sunny Saturday or Sunday, there's no better spot in the world.

Hack: Hope you enjoyed it. Word on Fury's Ferry is that the media viewing area at Amen Corner is no longer.

Evans: I think of the rules. The club has rules for everything. You can't do this and you can't do that. Fans are patrons. Everybody has a place, and they better know it.

Van Sickle: Right, Farrell. Remember, no running and no lying down on your back to nap.

Bamberger: That's great, Farrell. I really love the most obvious of them all, the former winner putting the club coat on the new winner. The transition of power without military force, just like at presidential inaugurals.

Reiterman: Last year was my first Masters and I thought it was cool that everyone gathered under that huge tree near the clubhouse. You could stand there and catch guys as they came off the course, and nothing was cooler than hearing the buzz from the crowd when Tiger emerged from the clubhouse before the first round.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: If I could only go one day, I'd go on Wednesday to walk the course during the practice rounds in the morning, and then see Palmer, Nicklaus and the other past champs and present contenders cut loose in the par-3 tournament.

Tell us what you think: What's your favorite Masters tradition?

THE PICKS
Dusek: While Mickelson may have made himself the favorite with his victory in Houston, is he your pick to win? Let's go around the horn. Who do you think will be wearing a green jacket on Sunday evening?

Evans: Martin Kaymer or Matt Kuchar.

Gorant: Hard not to pick Phil after this week, but I like to keep it interesting, so I'll go with Aaron Baddeley.

Herre: Lee Westwood gets the monkey off his back.

Reiterman: I'm going with Steve Stricker. He's well-rested, and that putting stroke was looking good in Houston.

Wei: Hard not to go with Phil, but just to shake things up, I'll go with Westwood, and for my dark horse, Justin Rose.

Van Sickle: Phil is the obvious favorite, but I'm not ready to give up on the No. 1 player in the world, Martin Kaymer. I think he's got just enough experience around Augusta to win one this year.

Ritter: I think the trend of first-time major winners will continue. I'll take Paul Casey to break through.

Van Sickle: Good one, Jeff. Casey was the Anonymous Pro's pick in our recent Masters roundtable, too. A former winner at Houston, he controversially skipped it this week to get ready for the Masters. I heard the Houston tourney director was extremely unhappy about that.

Dusek: I'll take Paul Casey to win, but I think Luke Donald might surprise us, if it's possible for the No. 3 player in the world to be a surprise winner of a major.

Bamberger: Stricker.

Godich: Hard to go against Phil, but I'll take Lee Westwood. He bounced back with a nice finish on Sunday.

Hack: Philip Alfred Mickelson, with a few shots to spare. Dark horse is Brandt Snedeker.

Walker: I like Rory Sabbatini as a dark horse, but if you're picking one guy, it has to be Mickelson.

Morfit: I actually picked Anthony Kim to win the Masters in a Golf.com fearless predictions column back in early January, and I have to say that pick was looking pretty loony until he shot 64 Friday. I'll stick with Kim.

Tell us what you think: Who do you think will slip on a green jacket on Sunday?

ISHIKAWA'S DONATION
Dusek: Ryo Ishikawa announced earlier this week that he will be donating all of his prize money to disaster relief efforts back in Japan. Pretty amazing gesture. What were your thoughts when you first learned about his announcement?

Van Sickle: That he must have some huge endorsement deals.

Herre: So Van Cynical. Bet we'll see many Japanese athletes and celebrities stepping to the plate for disaster relief. A very good investment in karma.

Godich: Good for him. Don't know whose idea it was, but that doesn't matter because he's the one who signed off on it.

Evans: Ryo is very mature for his age. I hope his philanthropy inspires other golfers to give.

Hack: Thought it was a wonderful and classy gesture.

Wei: If only more millionaires were that altruistic. Many donate to various causes, but I've never heard of someone pledging his year's earnings, which will likely amount to a few million.

Walker: I've been really moved by the proud, responsible and courageous response of the Japanese people to the earthquake and the crisis at Fukushima. Ryo's gesture brought that point home even more, especially from someone so young.

Tell us what you think: What did you think of Ishikawa's decision to donate his winnings to Japanese relief efforts?

LEHMAN'S SENIOR STATEMENT
Dusek: In golf action unrelated to the Masters, Tom Lehman won the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic with a four-shot win over Nick Price, Jeff Sluman and David Frost. Lehman would seem to have the perfect type of game and temperament to become a force on the Champions Tour. Agree or disagree?

Herre: Maybe. Lehman's always been in and out on the greens. He'll be tough on the good putting weeks. Average on the others.

Hack: I see him battling Couples, Calc, Langer, Sluman and the rest. Not sure if he'll be a force.

Evans: Lehman is probably the greatest five-time winner in PGA Tour history. He didn't get enough out of his game out there.

Godich: It all depends on how motivated he is. After all, he has banked more than $21 million on the regular Tour.

Van Sickle: Kind of a lull on the senior circuit at the moment. Especially with Langer sidelined. No real king of the hill out there. If you're going to be a force on the Champions tour, now's the time. Wouldn't be surprised to see some lesser names like Russ Cochran and Ted Schulz pick off a few wins.

Tell us what you think: Will Lehman be a force on the Senior circuit?

STACY LEWIS TAKES KRAFT NABISCO
Herre: Forget Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie. Kraft Nabisco winner Stacy Lewis could be the Great American Hope on the LPGA tour. Long, straight and fearless is a nice combination. Loved the way she stared down -- and outdrove hole after hole -- No. 1 Yani Tseng on Sunday.

Hack: Great tournament, and judging by that greeting for Stacy Lewis on the 18th green, a very popular winner. It's a neat story.

Van Sickle: Yani Tseng is supposed to be a big hitter, around 10th in distance driving on the LPGA, but Stacy Lewis, who is slight and kind of a pipsqueak, bashed it by her. She made some great up-and-downs, especially that downhill curler to save par on 17. Lewis showed grit. It was very impressive, considering she was head-to-head against the game's No. 1 player.

Hack: Not that it mattered in the end, but I wanted to see the tees up on 18 today. Much more fun as risk/reward finish.

Van Sickle: With the wind that suddenly came up at the end, I'm not sure they could've moved the tees up far enough to make 18 reachable in that gale.

Hack: True. And as Karrie proved years back, three can be made by laying up.

Wei: That was a really fun tournament to watch as the leaders came down the stretch. I'm very impressed with Stacy Lewis. She seems like she has a great personality, too. It was strange to see Yani struggle the way she did. I think she was probably feeling quite confident this morning. She told me a few months ago that something she used to struggle with was holding the lead going into the final round, but after she won the British Open last year, she overcame those demons. I don't think she had a mental lapse today, though; it just wasn't her day, and Lewis was practically flawless. That putt to save par on 17 and basically seal the deal was fantastic.

Herre: I like the way Lewis came up. Instead of going pro at age 15, she went to college, worked through adversity and to an NCAA championship while at Arkansas, won Q school and now, at 26, is a major champion. You could see and hear her maturity as her family got ready to make the traditional winner's leap into the water hazard. Stacy was in control, giving everyone instructions, telling them to jump out as far as they could. Pretty cool.

Gorant: Great stuff by Lewis down the stretch, but there were two really surprising things to me: Tseng faltering for the first time with a major in her sights and the tan line on Lewis's forehead. Man, that girl has been spending some time in the sun. Glad it paid off for her with a big win.

Evans: Lewis has a good golf swing. Is Michelle Wie getting worse the older she gets?

Herre: Wie has four top 10s in four starts this year. Not bad. She needs to make more putts, but all of the players were having trouble on the greens on Sunday. I actually felt sorry for Morgan Pressel a couple of times, and she's a terrific putter.

Evans: Wie is so much better than most of the women on tour that her getting Top 10s isn't a pure indicator of her development as a player. She's gotten too mechanical with her putting, and her ball striking seems a little average compared to what it was when she was 13.

Wei: Wie is also taking a full course load at Stanford! Golf is tough enough as it is, but with school on your mind, it's really difficult to keep your focus on golf. So I'm thinking four top-10s in four starts is pretty darn good.

Evans: If she were on the Stanford women's team she would probably have a more demanding schedule. But I understand her challenges of trying to play the tour and go to class. Still, the issues that she has with her game could persist long after she graduates unless she gets a putting coach.

Van Sickle: Let's wait until Michelle Wie gets finished at Stanford, plays as a pro for a full uncluttered year and then see where she is. It's way too early to make judgments about her game when she is only a part-time pro.

Tell us what you think: What did you think of Stacy Lewis' win at the Nabisco? Can she become a star? Will Michelle Wie win a major soon?

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