PGA Tour Confidential: The Northern Trust Open

Thursday September 20th, 2012
Fred Couples made a run at becoming the oldest PGA Tour winner in more than 35 years at the Northern Trust Open.
Reed Saxon/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.

COUPLES AND THE HALL OF FAME
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome back to Hogan's Alley, which this week nearly became the Couples Corner. We are pleased to be joined by Tom Patri, one of Golf Magazine's Top 100 teachers and someone who has known Fred Couples since they competed in the 1980 NCAA Championships at Ohio State.

Fred has teased us a few times recently — at Riviera and Augusta National in particular — and he is the unquestioned big dog of the Champions Tour. At 51, his star power remains undimmed. Is he already a Hall of Famer, with 15 wins, including the Masters and two Players Championships, or does he need a final flourish?

Patri: The Masters, two Players, 15 Tour wins, Presidents Cups, Ryder Cups, Presidents Cup captain... come on, he's a lock. Plus, he's Freddie.

Morfit: I think he's done enough, and the fact that he's done it for so long helps, too. You could also argue that there are lesser players than Fred already in the Hall.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Every Hall of Fame has guys who aren't quite worthy. They shouldn't be the standard. Being a nice guy and charismatic are also not relevant.

Click here to submit a question for Alan's next mailbag.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Strictly on golf, he probably shouldn't be, but the guy is beloved by golf writers, so he's a lock.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: Freddie's an automatic HOFer. It's amazing how talented and cool that guy is without putting in any effort. Or hardly any.

Shipnuck: He's not a Hall of Famer, except in the category of unfulfilled potential. Everyone loves Fred, and he's had a very good career, but I don't think he's Hall worthy.

Tom Patri, Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher: Unfulfilled potential! Spoken like a true 15-handicapper. Armchair athletes have no clue how good Fred's kind of good is.

Shipnuck: And Fred has no idea how hard it is to write 2,000 words in 12 hours for millions of readers.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group : And we armchair athletes do the voting.

Patri: That's why players should vote players in — because they know who has the stuff.

Gorant: It's not about who has the stuff. It's about who has the results.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I'd agree that Fred probably comes up short for the Hall on his golf. I wouldn't count on him to get in by the writers, because I'm not so sure the percentage of voters who are writers is that huge. Given that the Tour has made the Hall induction into an annual ceremony and TV show, they are going to need inductees every year. Fred will get in because the number of remaining legit Hall candidates has seriously dwindled. That's why Davis Love and Mark O'Meara and probably Colin Montgomerie will all get in eventually, too.

Morfit: He could have won a lot more than he did, but you could say that about any bold-name Tour pro, including Jack.

Gorant: The point is, Jack did win more. A lot more. So have many of the others in the Hall. This guy could have been one of the all-time greats.

Herre: Cam, I don't doubt that Couples will get in, and probably soon. But he's the very model of the type of golfer you described in your recent Dustin Johnson column. Big talent, doesn't take responsibility.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Could you tell the story of professional golf in the last 25 years without talking about Fred Couples? No. That's why he belongs in the Hall of Fame despite a borderline resume.

Hack: That's a great point. Can you write the history of the game without him? Probably not.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I don't know about that.

Van Sickle: I'm with Godich. Could you write the history without Fred? Probably. Could you write it without his ex-roommate, Jim Nantz? Probably not. The numbers don't lie. Fred's victories don't stack up favorably against very many of the current HOF residents.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Doug Ford had to wait 40 years with much better credentials. Few golfers have been more fun to watch than Fred, but I don't see him as a Hall of Famer, not yet.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Freddie's career is comparable to those of Payne Stewart (8 wins, 3 majors), Hubert Green (17 wins, 2 majors), Lanny Wadkins (21 wins, 1 major) and Larry Nelson (7 wins, 3 majors). All those guys are in the Hall of Fame. So why not Couples?

Herre: I agree that Fred's a marginal HOFer and one of the great underachievers. Before the back went out, he was constantly in contention but couldn't close. As Michael Bamberger pointed out today on Golf.com, Couples needs to take some senior tour scalps to get over the top.

Van Sickle: I disagree with Mr. Herre that anything Fred does in senior golf would get him over the top. Nothing that happens there changes whether he's in the HOF or not.

Morfit: What do you get for getting into the Hall of Fame, anyway? A T-shirt? I'd rather get into Augusta every year, and Fred has that.

Hack: Fred also would have won a lot more with a good back. Sandy Koufax made the Hall of Fame despite retiring at 30 because of arthritis. I wonder if injury should be factored into Fred's career, too.

Bamberger: Sandy Koufax completely dominated his era, brief though it was. Al Geiberger and Ken Venturi and Tony Lema were great talents who fate treated unkindly. Hall of Fame voting is based on what you did, not what you might have done.

Tell us what you think: Is Couples a lock for the Hall of Fame?

DOES THE HALL OF FAME NEED STANDARD CRITERIA?
Morfit: The problem with this argument, and the reason it's so tiresome, is that everybody's looking at different criteria. It would be so much easier if there were some hard-and-fast rules, like you've got to have 15 Tour wins, including three majors, or 20 including two majors, or whatever. Isao Aoki had a bunch of wins in Japan and no majors, and he's in. Maybe Fred should've gone and played over there.

Gorant: For a while the sort of unwritten rule seemed to be 20 wins and one major. If you had fewer than 20, you had to have more than one major. That hasn't totally held up, which is too bad because it makes a muddle of everything.

Van Sickle: The LPGA got it right, almost. It set standards — and then lowered them. Its HOF members are cut and dried.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: If you go for the "specific criteria" approach, you wind up like the LPGA Hall of Fame, which had embarrassing "will she make it" watches for great players like Amy Alcott and Betsy King.

Van Sickle: I didn't think those watches were embarrassing; they were cool. It was only embarrassing when the LPGA decided the players couldn't finish the chase and lowered the bar for them. On the other hand, the flaw of straight stats is someone like Laura Davies, who should be in the Hall but isn't. For a long time, the LPGA didn't recognize some of her major championships.

Garrity: I get that, Gary, but the LPGA system put the spotlight on great players for struggling when they were on the arbitrary threshold of the Hall. That's not what a Hall of Fame is supposed to do. It's supposed to HONOR the stars, not make them objects of pity.

Patri: Hall of Famers are those who pave the way for the next generation in any sport, the ones who set standards. That's something this generation no longer respects.

Herre: Tom, that's a pretty harsh thing to say about an entire generation. Assuming you teach kids, I'm sure you've run into some who you think the world of.

Patri: I have some wonderful juniors, but I have asked many who Boros, Littler, Casper, Player, etc. are, and they have no clue. But worse than that, they say, "Who cares, why should I know who they are?" This generation has little respect for the history of the game. I think we need to do a much better job explaining why the past is important. In teaching, a perfect example is how one-dimensional the average junior's short game shot selection is. Don't ask them to hit a bump and run or a partial wedge shot, because it isn't happening.

Evans: Juniors don't have to know Littler, Casper and Player. It's hard enough for them to know Couples and Faldo. Tom, I think you're asking too much from kids with parents who aren't even old enough to know these players.

Patri: I learned a ton as a kid reading and asking about Hogan and Snead. This generation needs to learn form the greats that came before them, and as a rule they don't.

Garrity: My fallback position is that if you're going to call it a Hall of FAME, fame has to be considered. That is, you honor the players who've done something to call attention to themselves in a big way. That's why Jumbo belongs, and I guess Freddie qualifies, as well. I mean, all I have to say is "Freddie" and you know who I'm talking about.

Hack: Mercury?

Tell us what you think: Should the men's tour adopt a standard set of criteria for Hall of Fame admission, like the LPGA?

WHO IS DUSTIN JOHNSON'S KEEPER?
Hack: Folks, this is golf's golden age of law breaking. Dustin Johnson — of PGA Championship Bunkergate fame — arrived late for his tee time at Riviera on Thursday, incurred a two-shot penalty and was seconds from disqualification. Dustin says his caddie gave him the wrong time. Who's at fault here, Dustin or his looper? And who's worried that Dustin might arrive to the Masters first tee with 15 clubs in his bag?

Herre: As much as I love Dustin Johnson, the 15-club thing, it could happen.

Morfit: They're both at fault, as was Jim Gray for asking about it in the middle of Dustin's round. Too many of these young guys have their best friends on the bag instead of guys whose caddying skills match their playing skills.

Bamberger: Jim Gray is hyper-aggressive, and it doesn't suit on-course golf reporting.

Patri: I agree with Cameron. Great caddie skills are an art form and are slowly being lost. Bamberger can testify; he did it. Michael, how hard is it to do at a very high level? I have done it, and it is not easy.

Bamberger: I think the art of caddying has been replaced by the science of caddying, which makes the lateness even more surprising.

Evans: It's not that hard to show up and give a guy a number and make sure he knows his tee time, if he needs you to do that. The best caddies — Bones, Tesori, Fluff, Steve Wiiliams, Andy Martinez — have that extra something that makes them special to their players.

Morfit: It's fine to be a space cadet as an athlete, but you'd better have the right people around you. Fred Couples is a space cadet very much in the Dustin Johnson mold. It's just that Fred and his guy, Joe LaCava, have figured something out that Dustin and Bobby haven't.

Patri: Dustin clearly doesn't read much — rules sheets, tee sheets, etc. It is the player's responsibility to be informed. Caddies should simply double and triple check things.

Bamberger: Publicly, the golfer must always take the blame. Privately, the golfer may blame the caddie. The caddie should keep the trains running on time. It's part of the job.

Evans: The player is always responsible for knowing his tee time. It sounds too me like Dustin has too much busy work for his caddie. Ask any good player and he will tell you that his caddie is insurance and support in all facets of his golfing career: not his butler or Man Friday.

Shipnuck: Both the caddie and player are at fault. But ultimately shouldn't a player know his own tee time?

Godich: I blamed the caddie for not being aware of the bunker at the PGA, but a missed tee time is all on Johnson. Wouldn't you want to know which tee you're going off, who you're playing with?

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: I think we're seeing the good and the bad of Johnson's ability to forget the past. It's great when you need to block out the memories of blowing a major tournament; it's bad when you need to remember a tee time or a rules sheet.

Hack: A tee time seems so elementary. The player's gotta know that one. This is on Dustin.

Van Sickle: It's the player's fault. You never abdicate responsibility to someone else for something so important. You know your tee time and so does your caddie, for the same reason you set two alarm clocks to get up on time — because one might not work. A player who doesn't know his tee time isn't treating his job like a profession. No excuse.

Wei: The player is responsible for knowing his tee time. It seems a little ridiculous to me that he never looks at the sheet. I mean, really? Checking your tee time is one of the first things they ingrain in you in junior golf. If he had an arrangement with Bobby, then of course some of it is on him. But it's preposterous that D.J. has had three blunders in less than a year.

Tell us what you think: Who's at fault for Dustin Johnson nearly missing his Thursday tee time: the player or the caddie?

WILL VINTAGE TIGER SURFACE AT MATCH PLAY?
Hack: After a dudes' day out on the links in Orlando, John Cook says Tiger Woods is back in vintage form. I don't put much stock in practice rounds or range sessions, but the word "vintage" caught my eye. Anybody buying this assessment from a FOT? (Friend of Tiger). Is a Tiger resurgence imminent? This week's Match Play, maybe?

Godich: Sorry, but until I see Tiger do it in competition, I am not buying it.

Patri: I agree. Tiger to me mechanically looks really lost, and I'm not buying him being anywhere near back. The ball is going everywhere, and nothing looks tight at all.

Morfit: Cook's statements are not relevant. It's one thing to look good in practice, but quite another to get it done under pressure. Competition is still the gold standard and the only standard, even for Tiger. I've got to see him hit some fairways and make some putts with something on the line.

Gorant: I think TW himself said the same thing after Dubai. He's doing it on the range but not when it counts. I'm among the wait-and-seers.

Herre: Tiger has to do it in competition, simple as that. His performances to date indicate that he is far from "vintage."

Hack: I agree. Cook said similar things about Tiger before the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Tiger missed the cut.

Van Sickle: Maybe by "vintage," Cook meant 2004. Or 1998.

Wei: I don't care what Tiger looks like during his range sessions at home with his buddies. Practice and competition are two totally separate beasts. If players hit it as pure on the course as they did in practice, they'd all be as good as vintage Tiger Woods.

Bamberger: A big part of Tiger's greatness is that he takes his practice tee golf to the course.

Hack: I remember him talking about that at St. Andrews in '05. Splendid Sunday range session followed by splendid final round. Seems like a million years ago.

Bamberger: If Tiger is working as hard as Cook says, and I think Cook really knows, I completely believe he will come back in a big, winning way. I can't believe how his golf has been diminished by his private life. This guy is the single greatest talent in the history of the game by far.

Evans: Tiger has to bring that "vintage" form to the Match Play. As I have said many times, I have no doubt that Tiger will win this year, but I don't have a lot of faith in him ever becoming more than a guy who gets a lot of Top 10s with a win sprinkled in here and there.

Shipnuck: The Match Play is a good format for Tiger. When he blows one off the planet, it doesn't hurt as much as in stroke play. But until he starts making the crucial putts, it's kind of a moot point.

Godich: Good point, Alan. He can hit off the world for stretches and still put together enough shots to advance. I wonder how much we'll learn this week.

Van Sickle: Alan is right. Tiger isn't a big fan of desert golf. But at this point in his life, I'm sure he's still a big fan of beating an opponent one-on-one. If you're having a pool on this event, he's got to be a first-round pick.

Morfit: The Japan tour-playing Aussie who played Tiger in his first match a few years ago, Brendan Jones, has to play Phil in the first round this week. Poor guy can't catch a break. But I give him credit for humor. He was several down in his match with Woods when he looked into the camera and said, "I've got him right where I want him."

Van Sickle: I'll buy that Tiger's ballstriking may be in vintage form, but we won't know whether his putting stroke is vintage until he starts making them when they count — under pressure when he's in contention on Sunday. But does anybody really think the guy with the most talent, who's also the hardest worker in the game, isn't going to come back strong eventually? Unless Tiger has putting demons in his head, his return to form has always been a question of when, not if.

Tell us what you think: What do you expect from Tiger at the Match Play?

CAN VIJAY SINGH MAKE A LAST RUN AT 48?
Hack: Who remembers Vijay Singh? I'd forgotten about him. He turns 48 on Tuesday and says he's never putted better. He played great in LA. No one works harder than the hulking Fijian. Anybody think he has one last run in him?

Herre: Maybe on the Champions tour.

Godich: Why not? And I see Vijay as one of those guys who will keep grinding until he takes his last breath.

Van Sickle: Apparently I am guilty of underestimating Vijay's recuperative powers. On CBS, they said he ranked No. 1 in putting for the week. If he can start getting the ball in the hole again, yes, indeed, he can make another run. I wouldn't believe it except we just saw it. And remember, this was the rarest of all weeks, a week when they raved about the condition of the greens at Riviera. Maybe TW will be enticed to return next year.

Herre: Maybe TW should go to the long putter.

Bamberger: I think Vijay does have another run in him. What else is he going to do?

Morfit: I think he has one last win in him. Not so sure about a "run" of wins.

Shipnuck: There's no one in golf I'd rather watch swing the club more than Vijay. Such effortless power. It'd be cool to see him make one more run on the big stage before he goes to the Champions tour and wins 12 or 13 times per season.

Van Sickle: I seriously doubt Vijay is in any hurry to play senior golf. He'll stay on the big Tour as long as he's competitive. And that may be quite a while. What's the record for most tour wins in your 50s? Vijay could take that one down.

Patri: He looked great in Phoenix and really good in LA. I would never write Vijay off; hard work and awesome talent are a great combo. He might have several good runs left!

Evans: Vijay is in great shape and his golf swing is as fluid as it's ever been. Now that he's putting better, I have no doubt he can win from time to time. But he'll never the player he was in 2004, when he won nine times.

Gorant: Don't know about a last run, but I bet I was the only one rooting for him. Probably because I never had to interview him.

Garrity: I root for Vijay, and I'm near the top of his media hit list. He's often the coolest cat on the course.

Morfit: My all-time favorite Vijay moment: Vijay, can I ask you a quick question? Sure. Who do you think is going to win the Ryder Cup? The Americans. Why? That's two questions.

Godich: Here's the big question: Does Vijay have the patience to stick with his latest putter/grip/technique the next time he starts to struggle with his stroke?

Herre: Right, Mark. And that will be probably be next week.

Garrity: The minute Vijay starts making putts, he's a top-10 player again. So yeah, he's back. I mean, we've been arguing about whether Couples is a Hall of Famer for contending at 51, and here's Vijay with more wins in his 40s than Freddie has for his career.

Tell us what you think: Does Vijay have a late-career run in him?

LPGA'S LACK OF BUZZ
Hack: While we were sleeping, the LPGA had a crackling opening event in Thailand, where Yani Tseng continued her dominance of the tour in general and of Michelle Wie in particular. Will the LPGA generate any buzz this season with so many tape delays and dead spots in the calendar? It's like they're on another planet.

Evans: I think you answered your own question. The LPGA has too much to overcome to make itself viable in the near future, at least in the U.S. It's sad.

Reiterman: Can't generate buzz when there's an entire month between events.

Shipnuck: Yani Tseng winning the Grand Slam will generate some buzz.

Van Sickle: The LPGA will not generate any buzz if their telecast is on Golf Channel at the same time the PGA Tour is playing on a major network like CBS. The only buzz potential is if one player runs off and starts winning everything. Like Yani Tseng, for instance. Michelle Wie still looms as the only major buzz potential for the tour in the U.S., but if Tseng wins 10 in a row, that'll be buzz.

Morfit: It's tough to get too excited about the LPGA. Seems like there were a whole bunch of really talented, telegenic Americans who just haven't really brought it or have just been outplayed.

Patri: Clearly outplayed outworked outsmarted.

Gorant: I don't know about buzz, but tape delay isn't a problem. The LPGA gets better ratings when it's not on at the same time as the PGA Tour. Golf fans need to watch something when Finchem's boys are off the course.

Patri: I spent almost 10 years of my life coaching out there. There is more talent than ever, but most speak little English, and most don't create much excitement. I often ask my female club members to name five women on the LPGA Tour. Not a shot, not even close.

Herre: But I bet they all know who Michelle Wie is. The LPGA needs a star, preferably an American star.

Shipnuck: I don't want to pick on Damon (just Patri), but it seems like every other week we do some hand-wringing about the LPGA and its viability. To quote the great philosopher Eldrick Woods, it is what it is. Those of us who like the LPGA will seek it out and enjoy it. Everyone else can go on not caring.

Van Sickle: The LPGA's popularity and buzz in America may no longer be the most important factor for its success. It's a world tour now, and probably destined to be an Asian-based tour in the future. It could be very, very successful. It wouldn't be the first American outfit to relocate overseas.

Wei: I spoke with Yani a few days ago. She would like everyone to know that she can speak English and fans can chat with her. In the short off-season, she took English classes five days a week for four weeks because she wanted to improve her language skills. Mind you, she already spoke very well. People have no idea how funny and charming she is, which is a shame.

I think she's going to stay at the top. Annika predicted two years ago at the British Open that Yani was going to be No. 1. When the media asked her about it, she laughed because she thought they were messing with her. When she realized Annika really said that, she was speechless that her childhood hero had such a high opinion of her talents.

Patri: That's great to hear. She needs to encourage her fellow players to get on board.

Wei: The LPGA encourages the Asian players to take English classes, and I know some of them have private tutors, but understanding the language and feeling comfortable enough to engage with fans are two different things. Yani is from Taiwan, and she doesn't isolate herself like most the other Asian-born players do. She's also not shy and will talk to anyone, which is unique for many of the Koreans who stick with each other.

Tell us what you think: Are you interested in Yani Tseng's hot streak? What can the LPGA do to generate more buzz?

MATCH PLAY PICKS
Hack: Guys, give me your Match Play winner. I'll take Paul Casey. He's peaking.

Gorant: Dustin Johnson.

Reiterman: In honor of John Garrity, I'm going with PGA Tour rookie Robert Karlsson.

Van Sickle: Rickie Fowler. He excels at match play.

Godich: Graeme McDowell.

Shipnuck: McDowell.

Morfit: I'd take David Duval, but he's not playing. I'll take Poulter to repeat. Dude's a match play terminator.

Patri: I like Casey and Bill Haas.

Morfit: Haas shot 67 today and tied for 12th. He's this year's Matt Kuchar.

Walker: Lee Westwood.

Wei: McDowell or Casey.

Evans: Casey.

Herre: I'm gonna go all Europe in the semis: Lee Westwood over Alvaro Quiros, and Martin Kaymer over Rory McIlroy, with Westwood taking down der German in the final to solidify his spot atop the World Ranking.

Tell us what you think: Who's your pick for the Match Play this week?

 

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