Is Tiger all the way back? Is Bubba coming back? Why is Rory in such a funk? What's the best hole at Augusta? And who will win the green jacket? SI Golf+ convened a panel of experts -- senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck, Gary Van Sickle; special contributor John Garrity; and a Tour player who took part upon the condition of anonymity to tackle these and other questions.
Question 1: Tiger Woods has already piled up three wins, and he looks Masters-ready. Surprised?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: His wedge play is so much better; he’s controlling the ball better. Clearly, he’s back to being a dominant golfer. The next step is to win a major.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I don’t think he’ll ever putt in majors the way he used to. No one ever putted like he did. He’s coming off good weeks on the greens at Doral and Bay Hill after getting that tip from Steve Stricker, but you can’t compare those to the slopes at Augusta.
John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: Tiger had a career-low number of putts at Doral, and he was holing 15-footers like they were tap-ins at Bay Hill. I’d check that putting tip he got from Stricker for PEDs.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree, John. Tiger has convinced me. He looks like he’s putting great, and historically he wins whenever he putts great.
Anonymous Pro: You can’t say Tiger is back, just like you can’t say he was really ever gone. But you can say this: The Masters is suddenly much more exciting now that he’s won a couple of times. If he putts well at Augusta, I’m not sure it even matters how well he hits it.
Garrity: I was among the incorrigible skeptics until Bay Hill. Tiger has his tempo back, and if you ignore his interminable practice swings, he seems to be thinking less about technique. And he hit controlled draws at Bay Hill, so he won’t have to play that low fade when it’s not the shot, as he had been doing of late. I felt like I was watching vintage Tiger, the guy who won to the point of monotony a decade ago.
Shipnuck: This is a massively important Masters for Tiger. He’s had excuses two or three years running—swing changes, scandal, too much time on his long game and neglecting his short game. His personal life is settled; he’s at the top of his game. If he’s going to be Tiger Woods, he needs to win this Masters.
Anonymous Pro: Our standards for Tiger are so high. My concern is, he still has that big miss. All these courses where he’s won umpteen times—Bay Hill, Doral, Torrey Pines, Muirfield Village—you can miss it huge on one side most every hole. You can’t do that at Augusta or in most majors.
Bamberger: Tiger was brilliant at times last year, but on the weekend in majors there was zero Tiger Woods mystique. His mystique is gone. The question is whether he can gut it out over 72 holes in a major and shoot the lowest score.
Anonymous Pro: We’re talking about a guy who has won 77 tournaments. It doesn’t matter if he’s all the way back or not. His worst is still better than most.
WATSON, ARE YOU THERE?
Question 2: What ever happened to Bubba Watson? Is he a one-hit wonder or the second coming?
Shipnuck: Bubba knows the 2012 Masters may always be the highlight of his career, but he’s not going to stop trying to win it. Length and touch are the two most important things at Augusta, and he has both. Bubba got a master class in course management playing with Phil Mickelson and Tiger at the U.S. Open last summer. He’s got the belief and the game. He’ll be hanging around the Masters leader board for the next 15 years.
Garrity: We said a year ago that Bubba couldn’t win a major because of his personality, that he was too high-strung. He disproved that. Most of us like him because he’s a throwback to the age of the self-taught golfer. He’s got a caddie-shack, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead type of swing that people find refreshing. It seems like fatherhood has been a pleasant distraction for Bubba, and it’s not clear if he’s ready to make a full commitment to golf again. I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.
Van Sickle: Who doesn’t like Bubba? He’s the opposite of some golf-academy guy. He makes it up as he goes. Now that he’s got one major in the bag, the rest is gravy.
Anonymous Pro: For a guy who says he doesn’t want all the attention, Bubba has sure enjoyed the limelight. His TV appearances, commercials, the Golf Boys videos and all that have far outstripped his on-course performance since Augusta last year. He deserves to enjoy the fruits of victory, but at some point he’ll have to get serious about golf again.
Shipnuck: Bubba is such a flighty character, he’s going to lay a few eggs over 25 weeks. He’s like Phil and Tiger and a few others, though. When he gets to Augusta, something changes. He’ll play his best golf in Augusta or any of the majors.
Anonymous Pro: I think we asked last year, Does Bubba win this Masters and ride off into the sunset, or does he have the drive to win more? He’s a natural, but if you don’t put in the work, you can fall into a rut.
Bamberger: The thing about Bubba is, a lot of fans are invested in him. I was buying stamps at the post office the other day and a woman at the counter saw my envelope, which had Sports Illustrated on it. She had no interest in golf, but she watched the last round of the Masters and she started crying just talking about how Bubba won the tournament.
SHOTS TO REMEMBER
Question 3: What’s the best shot you’ve ever seen at the Masters?
Anonymous Pro: Given the situation, I like the Jack Nicklaus five-iron to 16 when he won in ’86, the one that landed by the hole and almost went in. The shot, the situation, the drama, the fact that it was Jack—it’s all wrapped into one unforgettable package.
Bamberger: I’d say Tiger’s much-replayed chip-in at 16 against Chris DiMarco in 2005. I’d rate that higher than Bubba’s shot out of the pines last year. To have all the insight Tiger needed to play that shot, that’s significantly better than Bubba’s shot.
Shipnuck: Tiger’s shot was great, but it wasn’t even original. Davis Love III did the exact same thing six years earlier.
Bamberger: Was there ever a more dramatic shot than Larry Mize’s chip-in?
Shipnuck: You could say the same thing about half the shots Nicklaus hit on the back nine in ’86. Phil’s shot from the pine straw on 13 in 2010 has to be a contender. Tiger’s chip-in, any of those other shots, they weren’t in sudden-death playoffs. They weren’t do or die. If Bubba doesn’t pull off that crazy wedge shot, he doesn’t win the Masters. He had one chance and he did it. A sudden-death playoff raises the stakes.
Garrity: I didn’t see either shot, and I don’t know anybody who did, but Nicklaus made two eagles on number 5 in the same year [’95], a couple of days apart, on one of the course’s most difficult holes.
SO FAR SO GOOD
Question 4: What have we learned about the PGA Tour in 2013?
Shipnuck: We learned the Rory McIlroy era is going to be complicated. He’s a little more fragile than most guys who get to No. 1 in the world.
Van Sickle: You mean like the invincible Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald?
Shipnuck: Everyone has peaks and valleys. To see Rory be completely overwhelmed by life has been a little stunning. It seemed like he had it all figured out last season. We all believe in the kid’s talent. You get to the top, it’s difficult. It takes a certain personality type. He might be too sweet a guy to be No. 1. He’s gone from being a huge favorite to being a huge question mark.
Van Sickle: He’s not all golf like Tiger was. Rory is going to take the time to enjoy his life. He reminds me of Arnold Palmer a little there. He’ll be streaky great, and he’s got other interests. He’ll have a better quality of life, and if that means a couple fewer major wins in the long run, that’s all right.
Bamberger: I concur.
Shipnuck: It complicates the future, though. Rory looked so confident at the top. Now you have to wonder if he’s got the stomach for it. If you look at the guys who have been No. 1 in Rory’s lifetime, he’s probably closer to Fred Couples, personality-wise, than anyone.
Anonymous Pro: We’ve learned that it’s impossible to predict a winner. Parity is more prevalent than ever. You’ve had rookies leading and so many young talents emerging—Russell Henley, Jordan Spieth, Michael Thompson, John Huh.
Garrity: We were on the verge of writing off Tiger and Phil, but Tiger has three wins and Phil had a great week in Phoenix. We also learned that Brandt Snedeker isn’t a one-hit wonder. He’s for real.
Bamberger: We learned again that past performance has very little to do with present or future results. Thompson played lousy on the West Coast and came back to win the Honda. We’re always so worried whether Tiger or Rory is on form, and the fact is, you can figure it out in a day. Not us, of course. Tour players.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
Question 5: What’s the best hole at Augusta National?
Shipnuck: I’d say the par-5 15th. Thirteen is prettier, probably the prettiest hole out there, but it’s so short. You hit a decent drive, even with a three-wood, and you can reach in two. Somebody hit nine-iron in there last year on Sunday. It’s really just a hard par-4.
Anonymous Pro: You never have a flat lie on that second shot, though. The ball is way above your feet. Television never does justice to how tough that shot is. That green isn’t as easy to hit as it looks, and if you bail left, that swale is nasty. The grass is always thin in there. The green is ridiculously fast. You can hit a perfect drive at 13 and still easily make 7. Or 3. That’s why it’s the best hole.
Shipnuck: I like 15 because it’s a much tougher driving hole and it’s really a do-or-die second shot. Short is in the water, long is dead, and laying up is dicey. It’s the ultimate expression of what the course is about. As you said, you can easily make 7 or 3.
Garrity: I’ll vote for number 10. It doesn’t show up well on TV because it has too much shade, but in person it’s the most awe-inspiring hole on the course. That plunge from the tee down through the pines, then you’re hitting a middle iron back up to a testing green. It challenges your nerves, and it’s historically the toughest hole on the course. Case closed.
Bamberger: Given that new back tee, I think number 11 is the most demanding hole. If you’re really going to play it the way it should be played, you’re smashing some kind of draw, flirting with the trees on the right. You’ve got to let out some shaft because you don’t want to hit a long club into that green. Then you’ve got to hit a straight shot or a fade. If you miss the green, you’ve got to chip your rear end off to save par, maybe even to stay out of the pond.
Van Sickle: Nobody is taking number 12, the world’s most famous par-3? That’s an upset.
Anonymous Pro: Technology has made that hole easier. The ball we use today is better in the wind. How many guys do you see hitting right at the pin now? A lot. It used to be none.
Garrity: You can’t call number 12 the best hole out there. It’s a great fan favorite, but it’s so dependent on a completely unpredictable wind pattern. It’s all guesswork.
Van Sickle: That takes some of the skill out of the shot selection. Remember the study that SI commissioned, and those scientists determined that the wind often gusts in opposite directions and produces tricky crosswinds. It was too much chance, not enough skill. I have to agree with Garrity on number 10. The slope of that hill is astonishing, and the green is framed by pines and flowers.
Shipnuck: Plus it’s got that beautiful Mackenzie bunker down there, which isn’t really in play, but it’s so dramatic to look at as you walk toward the green.
GREEN JACKET PREDICTIONS
And the Winner Is . . .
Bamberger: Dustin Johnson.
Van Sickle: If you keep picking him long enough, you’re bound to be right eventually.
Bamberger: Dustin shows up at the weirdest times with the weirdest things going on in his life. He’s already won; he played dominant golf in Hawaii. He’s an unpredictable but immense talent, and he’s perfect for that golf course. Why not Dustin Johnson?
Shipnuck: His putting, that’s why. My winner is Phil Mickelson. He shot the third-lowest score in Tour history at Phoenix. He’s got a ton of confidence in his new driver and three-wood, and he plays his best golf in Augusta. Phil should have won it last year. My dark-horse pick is Rory McIlroy. It’s amazing how fast these guys can turn it on and off. It’s a great course for him. He’d be quite a comeback story.
Van Sickle: Comeback story? From No. 2 in the world to Masters champ? Do you understand the meaning of the words dark horse?
Shipnuck: That’s why it’s such a bold choice. You wouldn’t normally consider the No. 2 player a dark horse. I’m challenging our readers here.
Anonymous Pro: I like Phil. If he putts even decently, he’ll be in the final group on Sunday. He lives for the Masters. Ian Poulter is my dark horse. If he putts in Augusta like he did in the Ryder Cup, he’s got a chance.
Garrity: The Masters champ has to be someone with a long putter since the game’s ruling bodies have, as I see it, established that anchoring makes the game so much easier. I’ll take Adam Scott. I’ve got to believe he learned something from letting the British Open slip away.
Van Sickle: Maybe he learned he’ll never win a major.
Garrity: Scott is too good not to get one somewhere along the way. For a dark horse, I’ll reverse the order of the British Open finish and go with Ernie Els. He’s got a great record at Augusta, he’s still got enough game to win majors and, of course, he anchors.
Van Sickle: Now the British Open champ is a dark horse? I was leaning toward Charl Schwartzel, but Tiger Woods is too obvious a choice to ignore. My long shot pick is Tim Clark because I hope every major championship for the next three years is won by someone wielding a belly putter or a long putter.
Anonymous Pro: The USGA wouldn’t like that.
Van Sickle: Aww.