Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle convened a panel of six Champions tour players--Fred Funk, Jay Haas, Gary Koch, Tom Lehman, Steve Pate and Curtis Strange--to address these and other questions.
THEN AND NOW
Van Sickle: I know it’s comparing apples and armadillos, given the changes in the game, but what do you think about the talent level of today’s Tour versus your heyday?
Koch: The modern high-tech equipment has lifted more players closer to the top. There’s less separation. When we played in the ’70s there was a big discrepancy between Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson and the rest of us. They were far superior at striking the ball.
Lehman: Play is way more one- dimensional now. There’s one style of play, one launch angle, one spin rate. Everyone is trying to build swings that maximize distance versus working the ball, hitting three-quarter shots. I see fewer and fewer guys who know how to play the game, but more guys who are better athletes with the ability to really hit the ball and do amazing things with it.
Strange: The last generation, which is me, and this generation, which is now, are probably as different as any two generations of golfers ever when you talk about balls, clubs and athletes. How are you going to compare Dustin Johnson to somebody on the senior tour?
Lehman: Today’s players, when they’re on, are better than the group 30 years ago. But when they’re off, they’re not as good. That probably means there were more great players 30 years ago. There may be more good players today but not as many great ones.
Strange: If you gave today’s equipment to any of the top players of my day—Hale Irwin, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman—there’s no doubt they’d be just as good or better. Give persimmon woods and balata balls to today’s players, they’d find a way to excel. Tiger would still have been Number 1. Would he swing at it differently? Yes, he’d have to.
Lehman: In pitching terms, we have a lot of guys today with really good fastballs, but they don’t have the three other pitches you need to be a superstar.
Pate: So we have a lot of great throwers, not as many great pitchers.
Lehman: That’s not to diminish their talents. It’s simply the way the game is taught now and the way you’re forced to play the game with today’s equipment, plus the design and setup of the courses. That’s why the British Open is the greatest equalizer—it’s all about the line, not about distance. At the Open the ball is bouncing and rolling, and if it’s not on the right line, you catch the pot bunkers and it turns into a long week. That’s why Tom Watson still has a chance to win, because he hits his lines and makes putts.
Funk: It’s a deeper Tour, top to bottom, and it’s a world tour. That has made a difference.
Haas: Like Fred said, the entire world has joined the fray. Somebody asked me what the difference was between the time I started in golf and now. I said, “Spike marks and accents.” Now every other guy on Tour is Australian or South African or English or Irish.
Van Sickle: What one change would you like to see made on the Champions tour?
Lehman: How about if we played for $7 million a week and the young guys played for $2 million?
Funk: I’m in favor of that! We need a better TV package. Right now, the seniors are the afterthought, shown on tape delay. I don’t like that.
Van Sickle: How about a Monday or Tuesday finish? You’d be the only live golf on Golf Channel.
Funk: That’s a great idea. That said, TV isn’t going to make or break our tour. It costs us a lot of money for that coverage, and I don’t know if we really benefit from it the way we’re being shown.
Strange: That’s a good point. The senior tour survives because of the social interactions with the sponsors. Our tournaments aren’t really TV events. Sponsors support us because they can entertain clients and guests with Mark O’Meara and Steve Pate and the rest of us at dinners or cocktail parties. We embrace that, so we feel as if we’re part of the success.
Koch: I’d like to see more interaction between the player and fans, and even between the players, like it was in the mid-’90s, when the prize money wasn’t great and a lot of players were simply happy to be playing golf in front of people.
Pate: I’d like a few more events—28 or 30 tournaments. We have a lot of empty space on our calendar. Officially, September is still blank, although I don’t think it’ll stay that way. I’d like to play a little bit more.
Strange: You just don’t want to go home.
Pate: Pretty much.
Haas: We have to make this tour as fan-friendly as we can. We have to beware of big golf courses. Last year at the Quarry in Naples, you could hardly even drive a cart around that course, much less walk it. You know, our fans aren’t 25 years old. Neither are we.
Van Sickle: How about we replace the cart paths with moving walkways, like at the airport?
Haas: That’s a no-brainer.
Van Sickle: The USGA may take a second look at belly and long putters. Are you in favor of banning anchored putters?
Haas: Anchored putting is not a true stroke and not in the spirit of the game. Now, if I were better at it, I’d probably do it.
Pate: I’ve tried them, but I don’t think they should be legal, either.
Koch: I don’t think swinging from a fixed point is a stroke. Just put a legal limit on the length of putters, that solves a lot of problems.
Funk: I want them banned, but I don’t think they will be. It’s too late.
Haas: It’s funny, Arnold [Palmer] did an interview last year and explained why he was against the long putters. Then he was asked if he’d use one if he thought it would help him. He said, “Absolutely.” That’s the dilemma we have as players.
Strange: The cat’s too far out of the bag. Times change. For example, I never thought I’d say this, but range finders speed up the game. Make them legal. As far as I’m concerned, long putters are legal as hell. If I give you a stick and a ball and rules, I don’t tell you how to hold the stick.
Haas: The rulesmakers are probably all old guys who use those putters. Initially it was only old-timers with the yips, but now 25-year-olds are using them. Brad Faxon likes to say nobody hit two- handed backhand shots in tennis 25 years ago, and now almost nobody hits one-handed backhand shots.
Lehman: If I were head of the USGA, I wouldn’t give this a second thought. If anchoring a club to your body is breaking a rule in some way, it would’ve been outlawed by now. I don’t see players out there picketing, saying, “I’m not going to play if belly putters are allowed.” This is such a nonissue that it’s almost comical.
Van Sickle: The Tiger Watch has resumed. Can he catch Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors?
Pate: It was a given four years ago that he would. It’s certainly not now.
Haas: That’s right, we were prorating it out that he’d get to 23 or 24. Now, it’s been three years since he won one. Jack had some windows like that too, but he also won at 46.
Koch: I would love to see Tiger have the chance, and because we do the U.S. Open at NBC, it’d be great to see him go for number 19 there. It would create a phenomenal amount of interest.
Lehman: I’d love to see Tiger get his game back to that level. It’s impossible to know if he can. What’s glaringly different now is his body language, which is a reflection of what’s between your ears. On Sunday at Pebble Beach he looked defeated and frustrated. I’d like to see the old Tiger’s confident body language return.
Funk: No matter how you feel about Tiger, it’s good for golf to watch him climb back up and search for the answer. Tiger is special. Everybody is curious about him.
Haas: The good thing about golf is that there’s no defense. We can’t double-team Tiger. If he plays well enough to do it, more power to him. I remember when Gary Player was asked if Tiger was the best player he’d ever seen. Gary answered, “He’s the best 30-year-old player I’ve ever seen. Until he gets to 19 majors, Jack is still the best.” That’s a good point. You can’t simply give Tiger five more majors. That’s a Hall of Fame career for someone else. He still has to do it.
Van Sickle: But do you want to see him do it?
Strange: I think some people who don’t want Tiger to break the record will come out of the woodwork if he gets closer. The waters have been muddied a great deal on Tiger.
Pate: I don’t know if I’m for or against him, but I’m certainly interested. It would be neat to see somebody I played with break the mark, I guess.
Strange: Do I think he’s going to make it? No. Do I root for him to make it? I want him to get close, so I can see the excitement. It would be unbelievable. And if Tiger starts winning, his intimidation factor will come back. Guys say, “Oh, these young kids aren’t intimidated by Tiger anymore.” That’s bull----. If Tiger starts winning they will be intimidated again, I promise you.
Van Sickle: The Masters is barely a month away. Any of you miss playing in it?
Funk: Actually, I don’t. The Masters was my favorite place for atmosphere and beauty, and it’s the one tournament I love to watch. But my record there wasn’t good, and they made the course so long.
Lehman: I miss it, I do. My whole family loved it. I loved it. You never think it’s your last Masters; then all of a sudden you’re playing and you realize, Hey, my chances of getting back here are slim and none. It’s kind of sad.
Strange: I still go to the Masters. I work all four days for ESPN. The first year I went back was two years ago, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it. Gosh, there’s so much history. The guys have played the same course, sort of, since the ’40s. I remember practice rounds with Sam Snead and Jay and Uncle Bob Goalby, and seeing Doug Ford, Art Wall, Byron (Nelson) and, geez, Arnold. It was pretty special.
Haas: The lure of the Masters for players and fans is that we all know the course. You may play only once at Winged Foot in your whole career, but if you’re decent, you may play 15 or 20 Masters. Everything there is so familiar.
Pate: I really miss the Masters and the British Open. Those were my two favorite events. I miss playing Augusta, although not under the current course conditions.
Koch: Me too. Those two tournaments are the ones I think back on the most. Especially the Masters. I played twice as an amateur and stayed in the Crow’s Nest. I got paired with past champions. And in ’86 I played with Bob Tway on Sunday in the twosome ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Sandy Lyle. We were trying to get out of the way because Jack’s fans were running up on us. We went to the grillroom after we finished and watched Jack win it.
Pate: On Masters Sunday, I make sure my butt is on the couch and the big-screen TV is on. It’s the one tournament I watch. Somebody either does something really good or pukes all over himself. It’s fun.
Van Sickle: Last year we had both.
Pate: Yeah, we did. It was great.
Lehman: I don’t miss a shot. I watch the whole thing.
Van Sickle: While we’re at it, who do you like to win this Masters?
Haas: Golf is such a hard game to predict.
Strange: Just pick your son and get it over with.
Haas: You’re right, I’ll pick Bill. He’s certainly capable.
Strange: I can’t believe you picked your son!
Haas: He definitely has the game, but there are probably 30 other guys who have the game too.
Lehman: If Phil Mickelson plays anywhere near the way he played at Pebble Beach, he has a great chance. Phil is all about enthusiasm and motivation. He has the perfect game for Augusta. Although so does Rory McIlroy.
Koch: I’m with Tom, I like Phil to hang in there and have a chance.
Strange: People have a habit of coming back at the place they fell apart. So I’ll take Rory McIlroy. What he did at the U.S. Open was amazing. He’s a hell of a player.
Funk: I like Tiger. The Masters is one major he always contends in. Last year was one of the best Masters ever. Who was in the middle of it even though he had been playing poorly? Tiger. At Augusta, it’s always Tiger.