PGA Tour Confidential: Is Rory McIlroy Running Out of Time?
Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.
1. Rory McIlroy barely made the cut in Houston and decided over lunch with his caddie to add San Antonio to his schedule next week. Why add San Antonio and not Bay Hill or Tampa, and do you still consider McIlroy a serious contender at the Masters next week?
Shane O'Donoghue, CNN Living Golf: I spoke with Rory when he arrived here in San Antonio and he's in great spirits. Everything is in place with his swing and he is very happy with how he's striking the ball. Course management is the only issue and he's aware of it. Between himself and his loyal bagman J.P. Fitzgerald, it's the only aspect that needs attention. The bottom line is that he needs more competitive play, hence the late decision to play the Valero Texas Open.
His coach Michael Bannon is not here this week, as further proof that all the recent work on his game has been beneficial. He now just needs to golf his ball and have a scorecard in his back pocket. Neither the Arnold Palmer Invitational nor Tampa were ever in his schedule and he steadfastly refused to change until that moment on Friday at Houston when, having made the cut, he recognised the need to get another event in before Augusta. Rory's not perfect, he makes mistakes like the rest of us and learns from them.
The bottom line is that he was not fully ready for the start of the season and with the hoopla over the Nike deal, the inevitable scrutiny and imperfect start to the season he felt under pressure. Only he can hit the shots and like last year, when he had a midseason slump, it became clear that he needed to work harder. He's struggled this year and, like Texas' most famous golfing son Ben Hogan always advised, you have to 'dig it out of the dirt' and that's what we're seeing here. Is it too late to be ready for the Masters? Quite possibly, but we are certainly witnessing a turnaround in Rory's form and that augurs well for the long season ahead.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Obviously Rory should have played more in February and March, but I give him credit for not being obstinate about it and making this schedule change at the last minute. Still, Augusta National is not a place where you can find confidence -- you better have it when you show up. It’s hard to imagine Rory can turn it all around in one week on the quirky TPC San Antonio, but he’s such a streaky feel player you can’t entirely count him out. I’d love to see him put together four low rounds just to add more intrigue to the Masters run-up.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He's playing Texas because he needs rounds. I applaud him for his flexibility. He is certainly a contender. He's the kind who can turn it around quickly
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: His season has been nothing but turbulent and it continues with this late add of San Antonio. He's freewheeling it, which is fun, but it inspires little confidence. I doubt he does much more than make the cut at Augusta.
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com: Presumably he was more optimistic about his progress and didn't think he needed the extra event when Bay Hill and Tampa passed by on the schedule. It would be a brave or foolish man who would dismiss him as a serious contender at Augusta.
Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: He’s absolutely a serious contender. He seems to have found some game after being totally lost for the first part of the season. Remember, something clicked for him a week before the PGA last year. It could easily happen again this week.
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Rory's late schedule addition reeks of desperation, and for that reason it is hard to take him seriously at the Masters. And I think he's in for a surprise when he gets to San Antonio. That's not the most popular course on Tour, and if the wind starts howling (we're talking Texas in April), it could turn into a lost week.
Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: It's easy to forget that before storming to the PGA and the No. 1 ranking late last year, McIlroy looked lost for several weeks last summer. So you can't totally rule out his chances of quickly getting locked in again and winning the Masters. That said, he's not one of my top 10 picks to win this green jacket, where he's never had a top-10 finish.
Stephanie Wei, WeiUnderPar.com: When Rory came off the golf course on Friday, he told us that he wasn't going to play in it, so it was clearly an eleventh-hour decision. I think he realized that he needed more competitive rounds under his belt -- which I'd agree with. He was actually swinging it quite nicely this week, but like he said, he didn't score. His short game also looked great, so if he has a solid week in San Antonio and gains more confidence, I don't see why he won't be a contender at the Masters.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: As we've seen many times, these guys are so good they can find their games in a week. McIlroy can turn it around, just like he did last summer when he went into a brief slump. I think his equipment issues and switching to a different ball will impact his feel shots just enough to be a factor at Augusta. So yes, Rory can contend at Augusta, but I'm not putting any money on him.
2. The "Dufnering" craze took off when Deadspin posted a photo of Jason Dufner looking out of it at a classroom charity appearance, and Keegan Bradley tweeted it to his followers. What quirky personalities from golf history would have become social media stars like Dufner if they were playing today?
Morfit: If Trevino had had Twitter he could've ruled the world. Tom Weiskopf would've brought the heat on Twitter. Jerry Pate would've been prolific.
Reiterman: There would have been a thousand GIFs and YouTube videos of Tommy Bolt breaking stuff and having temper tantrums.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Doug Sanders and his long-lost son Jesper Parnevik. There are some good stories about Lloyd Mangrum. Snead knew how to work the public. Trevino.
O'Donoghue: Can you imagine how funny David Feherty would have been had twitter been around during his playing days. Always quick with a sound byte that was manna from heaven for the press corps, he would have been hilarious to follow back in the '80s. If Poulter is one of the most popular tweeters today, then you'd have to think that dandies like Jimmy Demaret and latterly Doug Sanders would have embraced social media in the way that they embraced socializing
Bamberger: Jan Stephenson. A goddess. Or so the 1970s LPGA marketing department would have you believe.
Van Sickle: There's no doubt that Sam Snead would've been Boo Weekley squared. His hillbilly image would've played really well and Sam and his pal Freddie Corcoran would've been smart enough to play that up. Jimmy Demaret was quite a personality in his day. He liked people and that would've come across. I don't think Ben Hogan would've been tweeting, however. And if he did, his only tweet would've been, "You're away."
Shipnuck: Seve would have been awesome, he was so spiky and uncensored. Outsized characters like Walter Hagen, Doug Sanders and Jimmy Demaret would have killed. Payne Stewart was a preeminent trash-talker and would’ve stirred the pot like his buddy Paul Azinger does. Lee Trevino for the one-liners. Mac O’Grady for sheer lunacy. And Bobby Jones for his graceful, erudite observations.
Godich: Chi-Chi Rodriguez was quite the showman. I'm sure he would have been a Twitter star.
Ritter: Chi-Chi might've set all social media on fire.
Lynch: The glory days of the hard-living, louche Tour pro have never seemed farther away. Whatever old time pros might have been doing against the wall, it wasn't "Dufnering." But I'd still love to see what Arnie might have Tweeted about his off-course life.
3. Phil Mickelson once brought two drivers to the Masters and he's also played without one at the longest U.S. Open in history (2008 at Torrey Pines). He's unveiling a "special club" Monday to use at the Masters. Is Mickelson's mad-scientist approach to his game a help or a hindrance?
Van Sickle: There's nothing Phil likes better than trying to outsmart his opponents. All right, he likes outdriving them more. but he also likes to out-think them. He won the Masters with two drivers in the bag, then tanked when he tried a U.S. Open with no drivers. Consider this tinkering just part of Phil's mandatory major preparations. He has to feel like he has left no stone unturned, and therefore has a bit of an edge on his foes. He takes confidence from that. Whether the plan works or not is less important than getting him in the right frame of mind to play well. So I think it'll help.
O'Donoghue: This is show business, although most professional golfers tend to forget that fact. People pay money to see them and they want to be entertained. Nobody does that more than Phil Mickelson. The guy is box office and he is an example to all pros. The fact that he is quirky and experimental only adds to the allure. He's the best value in the press room when interviewed and is streets ahead of most of his peers when it comes to interacting with the fans. He can do whatever he likes as far as I'm concerned because it's fun to watch.
Morfit: I think it's a help to him. It keeps him engaged.
Ritter: It's probably both. The tinkering stimulates his creativity, but there have been times when he's outsmarted himself.
Wei: If you believe you found something that will give you an edge, the mental game is such a big component in golf that it gives you a boost. Phil has four majors, including three green jackets to prove it, not to mention 41 PGA Tour wins -- many during Tiger's golden era, too.
Bamberger: Total help. He gets bored. He needs toys. Planes, hamburger shops, upright putters (like he had in Houston). It's all good. It's fun.
Gorant: Help. Without the tinkering and challenges and crazy shots Phil would lose interest. Any thing that keeps him engaged is good for his game.
Godich: It's what makes Phil so intriguing, but I think he outthinks himself. Funny, but for a guy who has such feel on and around the greens, why doesn't he trust his instincts with other areas of his game?
Reiterman: Phil’s always searching for some little thing to kick-start his game. I love it. I hope he does something crazy – two putters, six wedges, three 3-woods, whatever.
Shipnuck: Phil’s been a prodigy since he was a kid -- he needs to do nutty stuff like this just to keep himself from getting too bored. (Tiger’s antidote to monotony is to redo his swing every five years or so.) Phil has definitely outsmarted himself a few times, but I’m just glad he still cares enough to try to keep solving the game’s riddles.
Lynch: The only club Mickelson should be worried about as he drives down Magnolia Lane is his putter.
4. Outside of the Big Three of Tiger, McIlroy and Mickelson, whose stock is rising and/or falling going into the Masters?
Bamberger: Dustin Johnson. He'll be playing a par-68. He can reach 'em all.
Van Sickle: I can't say anybody's stock is rising dramatically going into this Masters. At least, not anybody who's among the usual suspects we figure will contend at Augusta. Luke Donald hasn't won in over a year. Neither has Justin Rose or Adam Scott. Lee Westwood is using a long putter with middling results. Mickelson's tinkering with his putting -- claw grip, conventional grip, fat-oversized grip -- makes me wonder if he doesn't have a bigger issue with his stroke. But I still wouldn't count him out. Tiger's stock is rising dramatically because of three wins, and since no one else seems to be rising up to meet him, his rise seems that much bigger.
O'Donoghue: Justin Rose has been my tip for the Masters since the end of last season. He never gets the attention that he deserves. In the UK, Poulter, Westwood and Donald get much more press. Rose is quieter but in my view, far more deadly. In the final event of the European Tour's season in Dubai, Rory was set for his coronation as No.1 in everything, but Rose went out to win that tournament and never backed off. He shot 62! Only for Rory's stunning 5 birdie finish, Rose would have been a wonderful Champion. Couple that with his putting display against Mickelson at the Ryder Cup, his solid record at Augusta and his World Ranking of No.3 going to Augusta, I'd look no further than him to challenge the Big Three for the ultimate prize of a green jacket.
Godich: Brandt Snedeker's rib injury couldn't have come at a worse time. He was on such a roll. I just hope the missed cuts at Bay Hill and Houston are rust-related. And it's no secret that Tiger Woods is the hottest player on the planet. This is his Masters to lose. After what happened last year in the majors, if he doesn't win at Augusta, I’ll have to seriously wonder if he'll catch Jack -- or even get anywhere near 18.
Lynch: Look toward South Africa: Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel are looking sharp. Not so hot: their compatriot Ernie Els, nor anyone else who won a major last year.
Morfit: Henrik Stenson's stock is rising. He's starting to resemble the guy who looked so good at the WGC-Accenture all those years ago. I'd be surprised if he's not on the leader board at some point at Augusta.
Ritter: I just have this funny feeling about three guys -- Matt Kuchar, Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel. All have had good stretches this year, and if golf wagering were legal and golf.com had an office pool, I'd try to put those three on my team.
Gorant: Snedeker looked like he would be a factor early in the year but his game is still shaky after the rib injury. Dustin Johnson looks like he's rounding into form at the right time.
Wei: Falling: Brandt Snedeker: Unfortunate injury killed his momentum. Rising: Keegan Bradley's game is shaping up nicely. So is Justin Rose's -- if his putter gets hot that week, then he'll be dangerous. Same goes for Dustin Johnson, who went low today and he left a few shots out there, too. Henrik Stenson showed some game, birdieing the last two holes to give him a shot at a playoff. For the first time, Stenson is going into the Masters feeling good about his game. He's a long hitter, which is always an advantage at Augusta.
Reiterman: Keegan Bradley and Bill Haas both lead the Tour with five top 10s, and they were in contention before fading in Houston. Also have to look out for Dustin Johnson, who nearly pulled off a Sunday rally in Houston. But keep an eye on Lee Westwood. Looks like he’s found something with the putter. And after starting off the season red hot, Brandt Snedeker looks rusty after taking five weeks off for a rib injury. Two straight missed cuts heading into Augusta.
Shipnuck: Keegan Bradley is definitely a threat to win -- he’s been playing well all season. Dustin Johnson is due for a big Masters and he’s also peaking. Both of these guys have perfect games for Augusta National. I also love King Louis’s chances. He’s a savant, and that place, like the Old Course, rewards genius.
5. The Masters is famous for ex-champs playing practice rounds with newbies. Who would you want to play your practice round with at Augusta and why?
Bamberger: If I was a rookie and really looking to learn something? Jack Nicklaus. The smartest of them all and the most generous in terms of willingness to share.
Shipnuck: Crenshaw, to really learn the greens. Arnie, just for the fun of it. And Tiger, because it’s so damn hard to get one-on-one interviews with him.
Morfit: I'd want to play with someone who could keep it light, so I'd play with Couples and/or Fuzzy.
Wei: Easy. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Do I have to pick one? Probably Phil would be more helpful, though I'd wonder if he would bombard me with extraneous info.
O'Donoghue: Jose Maria Olazabal is the man for me. Two Green Jackets and one of the greatest short games in the world. Augusta is all about the greens. They are slippery, confusing and downright frustrating. If I had the chance, I'd play every day with "Chema" every day in practice and pick his brains about negotiating those amazing surfaces. He's a fantastic guy too and great company. He knows how to get it done, so you could only benefit from his wisdom.
Reiterman: Phil. Between him and Bones they have every inch of that place memorized. Also, it would be fun to play a money game with Lefty.
Lynch: It would have to be Seve Ballesteros, just for insight into the greatest imagination the game has ever known.
Godich: Jack. He won six green jackets. I'd want to soak in all I could from the master of the Masters.
Ritter: If Arnie, Jack and Gary are looking for a fourth for their spin around the par 3 course, I can make myself available.
Van Sickle: I'd want to have a practice round with somebody who's a real student of the course. Ben Crenshaw would be a good one. I think Mickelson would be another, he's put a lot of work into studying where to miss these greens -- and where not to miss them. And Phil's rep means he'd be glad to pass on that information as much as possible. I'd like to get some of Vijay Singh's thoughts on some of those holes, too. Tiger is so competitive, I'm not sure how many big secrets (such as they are) he'd be willing to pass on.
Gorant: Hogan. I'd really enjoy the silence and I like to play fast.