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.