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PGA Tour Confidential: Is Tiger Woods heading for breakout in majors this season?

Photo: Robert Beck / SI

Tiger Woods is closing in on his eighth career title at Torrey Pines.

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.

To sound off on all the topics in this week's edition, join our Readers' PGA Tour Confidential Monday at noon ET.

TIGER OWNS TORREY PINES, AGAIN
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it "marine layers." Despite the fog-out Saturday, Tiger Woods appears headed toward his eighth career win at Torrey Pines. By now it's not exactly a dog-bites-man story. And Rory? Not there. Neither is Luke Donald, Justin Rose or Lee Westwood. Give me your prediction: Does this portend a breakout 2013 for Tiger, or is it more of what we saw in 2012?

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: The only thing that will change perceptions is a major win by Tiger. Otherwise, this is 2012 all over again.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: It's more of 2012. Yet again, he is winning on a course where he has dominated. Tiger will be the first to tell you that his season is measured by how he fares in the majors. I want to see how he handles the pressure there when he gets in the hunt again.

Herre: In short, nothing matters until Augusta.

Morfit: I agree. There was a sense of inevitability to Tiger’s winning from the very start of the week. The guy has won five of his last six starts at Torrey. That is a totally insane statistic.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: This would be a nice win, but we saw Woods ring up three similar Ws in 2012. The breakout can only come at a major. I don’t think we’ll really know if this is a vintage Tiger Season until Sunday at Augusta. Can’t wait to find out.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Golf.com: Agree with those who point to the majors. A multi-win season would be more of the same. A major is what he desperately needs to take the next step.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: Tiger's performance has been impressive, but not flawless. He's won seven times at Torrey Pines, six PGA Tour events and one U.S. Open, so another impressive finish isn't really surprising. His wins in 2012 were also on courses where he's had a lot of success. If he wins the Match Play (his next event), then I’ll say we need to buckle up for something special in 2013.

Godich: Disagree on the Match Play. He could run into a buzz saw one day and be done, even on a day when he goes low.

Morfit: One thing I did see that I liked was his ability to clean up those eight-footers for pars to keep the round going. As Paul Azinger tweeted today, nobody but maybe Mark O'Meara putts those bumpy greens as well as Tiger.

Herre: Woods grew up on them.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Tiger's 2013 will be better than his 2012 (which was pretty good). Despite his gaudy record at Torrey, he hasn't won here in five years. Even more important is that he looks healthy and confident.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: What we saw in 2012 was a preview of things to come in 2013. Except this year, Woods will be more comfortable with his swing and it will hold up under major pressure. To think Tiger will keep collapsing in majors is crazy. He’s got 14 of them; he’ll win plenty more if he stays healthy.

Godich: I'd agree with that, except I wonder if he is no longer immune to the pressure. That said, he may have one of those weeks like he had at Augusta in '97 and at the Open at Pebble, where he lapped the field.

Stephanie Wei, Golf+ contributor: I think winning at Torrey Pines will definitely boost his confidence, but unless he wins a major, it's going to be 2012 all over again.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Are we heading for a vintage season from Woods?

PHIL’S SORRY DISPLAY
Morfit: Tiger’s playing well at Torrey isn't news, but the Farmers provided plenty of headlines thanks in part to Phil Mickelson's apology for his tax comments. I was there at his press conference, and I was among those who were a bit stunned that the whole thing was "live" and he took all questions. In the end, I thought he played it quite well: He kept the issue in play, while at the same time apologizing to those who don't have jobs or are living paycheck-to-paycheck. What was your take? Why did he bring this up in the first place, and how do you think he did on the damage-control front?

Hanger: I thought he handled this week’s presser perfectly, making fun of himself a little and delivering a pretty good line about missing way right this time. I don’t know that he really needed the formal apology that he issued before the presser. After all, he basically just said that his tax bill has gone way up and is making him reconsider some things. Granted, he doesn’t get a lot of sympathy from most because of his massive income, but complaining about high taxes isn’t exactly the exclusive territory of rich golfers.

Herre: Phil put out the fire expertly. I was totally shocked when he first made the tax comments. First, he leads the league in philanthropy. Second, he is smarter than going public with what amounted to political views so close to inauguration day. But he did a great job diffusing the issue by meeting it head-on.

Dusek: I have no idea why any athlete or celebrity would start talking about politics, taxes or religion. It's asking for trouble, but Mickelson handled the fallout perfectly. He didn't apologize for his opinion, but he used self-deprecating humor to apologize for offending those who disagreed with him. The story is almost dead already because he was so effective on Wednesday.

Reiterman: I love that Phil’s never afraid to stir things up, but it’s usually been about grooves and Tiger’s equipment. It was a bit surprising that he chose to air his frustrations with the tax code given the current economic climate, but he handled it with his usual self-deprecating humor, so it’s all good. And judging by the comments and tweets from our readers, he had nothing to apologize for, anyway.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Some things really push Phil’s buttons: taxes, grooves, cup liners at the Ryder Cup, mandatory pro-am appearances. Sometimes he can't help it, he's just got to speak his mind.

Godich: Just like on the golf course, it was Phil being Phil.

Morfit: I was at the pro-am party Wednesday night. Granted, this was a moneyed crowd, but they were all in Phil's corner, saying he's right on taxes. And of course he's pretty outspoken on issues of math/science and wounded veterans. I'll give Mickelson this, and it's not a small thing: He's more engaged with the outside world than most of the guys on Tour.

Hanger: I think it’s a nice change of pace when guys talk about non-golf issues. Tiger’s been criticized his whole career for punting on issues outside the game. You might not like Phil’s tax opinion, but I kind of admire him for speaking his mind. And like Ryan said, our Golf.com commenters were largely on his side.

Wei: I was there for that initial media scrum, and my jaw dropped when Phil started his mini rant on taxes. It felt like he was trying to start a movement against the State of California. But he sure handled his presser as well as the best of politicians. (After spending almost an hour consulting in the parking lot with his PR man and a Tour media official.) I'd be surprised if Phil doesn't run for office someday.

Van Sickle: Phil should've known better. Most everyone agrees that California's taxes are too high, but when he complained about "my taxes," he strayed too far. In America today, being wealthy and proud is practically a criminal offense. His escape was as good as one of his flop shots.

Walker: He brought it up because he thinks he's paying too much in taxes, which is a position 99 percent of his peers agree with. Then he saw that his initial remarks came across as insensitive to people who are really struggling financially, and he apologized for that. Mickelson doesn't need any lessons in public relations. What I don't get is the people saying Mickelson was wrong about the amount of taxes he's paying. I'm pretty sure he's in position to know.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: How did Phil do in terms of damage control?

ADOPTING THE ANCHORING BAN
Morfit: In another juicy bit of news to come out of Farmers week, the players met for the first time since the USGA and the R&A announced their proposed ban on anchored putting. Tim Clark, who wasn’t in the field at Torrey Pines, flew in just for the meeting. In a press conference, Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem seemed to be trying to come down on every side of the issue. He seemed genuinely anguished about it, calling it "a distraction" more than once. Did we get any clarity from the players meeting and/or Finchem, or do we still have no idea where this is going?

Walker: It's over. On Jan. 1, 2016, anchored putting sleeps with the fishes.

Dusek: That's also the day I plan to start using one in protest.

Hanger: I think we have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. I predict lots of debate, but in the end the Tour will choose to adopt the rule, and they’ll do it at the end of this season. Too many big names are for the anchoring ban, and waiting until 2016 doesn’t make sense.

Dusek: Waiting until 2016 makes plenty of sense to the guys who use belly putters and want to earn as much money as they can before a ban kicks in.

Godich: They certainly need to do something about the date because January 2016 is a few months after the '16 season has started.

Van Sickle: Excellent point. You'd be changing rules mid-season.

Hanger: The larger issue for me is that waiting until 2016 will reflect badly on people who win using anchored strokes between now and then.

Wei: From the players I spoke to, it sounds like the Tour would put it in effect as soon as possible. The Tour doesn't want players who use anchored strokes getting heckled or called "cheaters." Also, every time the telecast shows Webb Simpson or Keegan Bradley, an announcer will bring up the USGA’s plans to ban the stroke. Do you really want that mentioned for the next three years?

Herre: I have no doubt that the USGA will go ahead with the ban. The question is: will the Tour go along? Sounds as if the PGA of America would follow the Tour. If that should happen, voila! Bifurcation.

Van Sickle: Finchem was obfuscating as usual, but it seems like he is clearly leaving the door open for the possibility that the Tour might not go along. I thought there was only a 2 percent chance of that before. I'm up to 20 percent now. Mickelson had a great point about not letting the players govern a sport. But there's also something to be said for controlling the rules of your own game instead of letting outsiders -- basically a bunch of amateurs with different business goals -- do it.

Dusek: The players I spoke with on Wednesday morning said there weren't too many fireworks. Geoff Ogilvy said Mike Davis was impressive and well prepared, whether you agreed with him or not. Clearly there is division among the pros, so while I thought the PGA Tour might adopt the anchor ban early, I'm not too sure it will anymore.

Morfit: I agree that the Tour will probably go along with the rule, and much sooner than 2016. When I listen to Finchem, I listen for words he repeats over and over again, and the one I heard in his presser at the Farmers was "presentation." It will look bad to have Tour pros using something that's been banned, and it doesn't look that great to have them using something that's under a proposed ban.

Wei: From the players I spoke to who were inside the room, it sounds like the USGA is going to go ahead with it. Will the Tour follow suit? Finchem, in the players meeting, was asked if he was in favor of different sets of rules for pros and amateurs. He gave a long, meandering answer, and the player said, “Well, is it yes or no?” Finchem then said, “It’s in our favor to have the same set.”

Van Sickle: I agree that the lag time might be embarrassing if the Tour waits until 2016. At the same time, these guys have been using belly putters for a decade. To not give them a reasonable period to adjust doesn't seem fair. I don't have a problem with three more years of anchored putting.

Godich: A three-year adjustment period for the best players in the world? I'd give them three months.

Dusek: If the PGA Tour adopts the ban early, we’ll be in a weird place. As an amateur, I’ll be able to use big-grooved wedges until 2024 and an anchored putter until 2016, but Keegan Bradley won’t. And loads of golfers say they don't want bifurcation? This makes absolutely no sense.

Walker: If the whole argument is that the PGA Tour wants to follow the rules of the USGA, then why would the Tour start the ban earlier?

Morfit: "Presentation." If the Tour adopts the ban, it will implement it earlier. Having sat in on Finchem's presser, that's the only thing I'm reasonably sure of.

Walker: That's the worst of both worlds. If he's so anguished, then why not give the Bradleys, Simpsons and Clarks the maximum amount of time to adjust?

Hanger: This ruling is different from grooves or some other equipment-based ruling. The USGA thinks this is cheating, plain and simple. And if the Rules of Golf are going to consider anchoring to be cheating in the very near future, the PGA Tour should either reject that ruling or adopt it post-haste.

Dusek: But even Mike Davis said, after someone yelled “cheater” at Keegan Bradley, that wins earned by players using anchored putters should not be seen as lesser achievements. Remember, the USGA and the R&A have never said that putting with an anchored putter makes it easier to get the ball in the hole.

Hanger: Davis said that, but I don’t think he meant it. The USGA and the R&A made this ruling because they think anchoring provides an unfair advantage. If you do something that gives you an unfair advantage, you’re cheating. I don’t agree with the ruling or the heckling, but the ruling bodies can’t have it both ways.

Dusek: No way. Don't you think if Davis had a study, ANY STUDY, that showed improved performance with anchored putting methods, that he would have trotted it out by now? No one should change the rules based on what they think; you change a rule like this because of what you can show and/or prove.

Hanger: I agree, but that’s exactly what the USGA and R&A did. They changed the Rules because they think it’s not proper to anchor the club.

Wei: It's ridiculous to even consider an asterisk for players who won majors using anchored putters. They won those fair and square.

Reiterman: It is ridiculous to think that, but the reality is that players who continue to anchor their putters will get heckled, and they will be called cheaters by some boozed-up fans. Finchem knows this, and that’s why the Tour will adopt the ban waaaay before 2016.

Van Sickle: They changed the rule because they don't like the way it looks, the same reason they (and by “they” I mean Peter Dawson) don't allow rangefinders in competition.

Wei: And they don't want the anchored stroke to become the norm in the future, and they've seen more and more golfers on all levels who use one. The USGA and R&A's job is to protect the integrity of the game. In the players’ meeting, Mike Davis readily admitted that the USGA should have banned it a long time ago. But just because you make a mistake doesn't mean you can't "right a wrong."

Morfit: Well said. It's never too late to do the right thing. (Or something like that.)

Hanger: They’ve been doing the right thing all along, and now they’re screwing it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Van Sickle: Interesting. What if the USGA had done nothing about anchored putting? I don't think it would've had any grand implications on the future of the game one way or the other.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Will the PGA Tour adopt the anchoring ban, or go their own way?

BREAKING IN A NEW SET
Morfit: I followed Tiger for his first two rounds at Torrey Pines, and as a result ended up watching a bit of "Nike" Watney. I was curious to see how he was adjusting to his new clubs. Guess what? Watney was playing pretty well. I see this as potentially encouraging for fans of Rory McIlroy, who is trying to make the same switch. Should Rory be encouraged by his example?

Reiterman: The only thing I’m concerned about with Rory is the putter. Even Tiger didn’t quit on his Cameron for at least a decade after signing with Nike.

Godich: Every golfer is different with these things. Plus, Watney isn't playing under anywhere near the same scrutiny as McIlroy is.

Herre: Sure, although I doubt McIlroy is keeping up with Nick Watney's progress. McIlroy should be dialed in by the Masters.

Dusek: Watney and McIlroy have both switched from Titleist to Nike this season, but every player is different. Rory will get things worked out on his own schedule. Probably on Tuesday.

Hanger: I don’t think Rory’s paying any attention to Watney’s progress, and I don’t think he or his fans should worry. McIlroy will be in form with the new sticks soon enough, I’d wager.

Wei: I talked to a few guys this week, and they pointed out that when you change your entire bag and the ball, it can be tough because you lose your baseline. Sometimes you get lucky and everything matches up and it only takes you a few weeks, but testing and competition are two very different things. You won't know how it works until you play with the equipment under pressure.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Is Watney proof that the adjustment time to new clubs can be relatively short?

SNEDEKER OR JOHNSON IN 2013?
Morfit: Brandt Snedeker, who is coming off a season in which he won twice and copped the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, is cruising for another top-five finish at the Farmers after finishing third at the endless Hyundai TOC. Last question, for a new car, a trip to the British Isles, and a Sports Illustrated sneaker phone: Which American player is more likely to win his first major in 2013: Snedeker or Dustin Johnson?

Godich: I'll take the better putter. That would be Snedeker. Do I get my pick of colors on the car?

Van Sickle: Always go with the best putter, if given a choice. Snedeker.

Dusek: Snedeker, because he can do something that you've got to do to win majors that Johnson can't do. Putt.

Wei: Have to go with the guy who is best with the flatstick, so I say Brandt.

Hanger: Just to be contrarian, I’m going with D.J.

Morfit: I agree that Snedeker is the most likely American to break through with his first major in 2013. I think it might even happen quite soon, like at Augusta National.

Ritter: Can I pick Dufner as a write-in? If not, I’ll take Snedeker because this year’s major rota doesn’t really favor big hitters like D.J., and good putters can contend at any course.

Reiterman: I’d toss in Watney, too. Lots of good Yanks out there right now.

Walker: Dustin Johnson. He's got a big-time game, and he's been close in three majors.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: More likely to win a major this season: Snedeker or Johnson?

 

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