SI convened a panel of experts -- senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack and Alan Shipnuck as well as special contributor John Garrity -- and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to take up these and other questions.
TOAST THE HOST
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome back to the Olympic Club, gentlemen. How do you like this course for a U.S. Open?
John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I love it, and not just as an Open site. I'd go there for a picnic, a funeral, a walkathon or a kite-flying competition. I'd pay to walk those cypress-lined fairways for the scenic value alone.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's not my favorite course, but it's such a great test of golf. It's good for an Open, and it'll look great on TV.
Van Sickle: Olympic probably does look better than it plays, but I love its look.
Shipnuck: The entire course plays off one hill. You're going up and down and across the same hill. It's an excellent test, though. It's like 18 punches to the nose.
Anonymous Pro: It's a fantastic course. How Olympic plays is more about the mowing patterns and the setup and where they put the bottom of the fairways. On some holes that won't matter because balls are not going to stay in the fairway. So many dogleg holes run the opposite direction of the way the fairways are pitched. The true art of Olympic is curving your ball into the slopes so you can maybe hold the fairways.
Van Sickle: In 1998 the course was exposed for being a little too Royal St. George's-like: Balls wouldn't stop in the bouncy fairways no matter what. It's funny that the course plays better in the winter when it's damp and chilly.
Garrity: Yeah, there are always setup issues. Too many balls rolling into divots at the bottom of a hill. Boomerang putts that wind up back at the player's feet. But please, bury me on the day I nitpick a track as distinctive as Olympic.
Van Sickle: I'll get a shovel.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Olympic has the greatest collection of par-3s anywhere. Unfortunately, I'm talking about the club's nine-hole par-3 Cliffs course across the road.
Shipnuck: It's kind of a shame that the best land on the property is the par-3 course.
Van Sickle: Is everybody O.K. with the 18th being a nondescript finishing hole?
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Nondescript? That hole has so much history. It's the site of Payne Stewart and the ball rolling back to his feet after his putt, Ben Hogan losing the playoff to Jack Fleck.
Van Sickle: History doesn't make the hole any less nondescript.
Hack: Well, that entire green has been redone. Mike Davis of the USGA says Tom Meeks set up 71 of the 72 holes perfectly in '98, and all anyone wants to talk about is the one bad hole. I'm glad Olympic is back. There's nothing better than an Open in San Francisco.
Anonymous Pro: My only complaint is that a lot of the holes didn't need to be lengthened. The par-5 on the back now is, what, like 670 yards? What a waste. When is it going to end? Wouldn't it be easier to roll back the ball instead of redoing all these courses? Lengthening Olympic is ridiculous. It has already stood the test of time.
Van Sickle: Maybe the USGA still does care about the winning score, especially after Rory McIlroy embarrassed Congressional by getting to 16 under last year.
Anonymous Pro: What was second place last year, eight under? One guy was remarkable. The added length here is a total overreaction to the USGA's lack of governance on technology. Don't overreact to something you should've corrected 15 years ago.
LUKE VERSUS RORY
Van Sickle: We have a nice back-and-forth for Number 1 between Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy. Are you concerned that Rory is slipping or that Luke hasn't won a major championship?
Hack: Rory is an awesome and unique talent. Is he a transcendent talent? We won't know the answer for at least a decade. I'm not saying he isn't, but he has a life full of decisions to make, joys and setbacks to encounter, and moments that will mark him for better and for worse. He is still in his golfing infancy.
Shipnuck: It's such a fine line with Rory. We lament how tragically Tiger has been warped by living in a bubble, yet we're concerned that Rory is a citizen of the world, living what looks like a really fun life at the expense of his golf. I'm fine with him not playing a heavy schedule; that'll stave off burnout. The key is that when he does turn up he needs to be prepared and focused, as Tiger always was.
Hack: I was surprised to hear Rory say that he hasn't practiced as hard as he should recently. That set off alarms for me. Makes me wonder if he has enough "nasty" in him, to quote Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Anonymous Pro: A lot of these young guys, Rory included, have success and then they stop playing. That irritates the heck out of me. Who in their right mind takes three weeks off before the Masters? You have to play. Some of these guys play the Masters, then don't play again until the Players. The young players in our game are so spoiled. They have success and immediately start playing the Superstar Schedule -- the World Golf Championships, the majors, a couple of events in China and the Middle East for appearance money, and that's it.
Van Sickle: Bubba Watson won the Masters. Does anyone know if he is still playing golf?
Anonymous Pro: Exactly. Look at Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler. They play all the time, and guess what? They're pretty consistent. Other guys are able to make so much money off the course that they forget they need to be on the course. You're a golfer, play golf.
Bamberger: Golf is different from other sports. Golfers are cowboys at heart. They make any schedule they want. Rory is doing it his own way.
Van Sickle: After winning a playoff at Innisbrook and then dominating the BMW PGA at Wentworth, Luke looks a lot tougher than Rory right now.
Shipnuck: It's too early to fret about Luke's missing major. He has learned how to consistently peak for majors. Couple that with his growth into a cold-blooded closer, and I have no doubt that he'll win one soon, maybe very soon.
Hack: Luke has been on a run of sterling play, but I won't get excited about it or remember it until he wins a major. I can't call him stone cold without one of the big trophies. Can't do it. It's a tough metric, but those are the rules of the game. He's 34, right in his golfing sweet spot.
Garrity: You're all forgetting one very important thing. Rory has better hair.
Van Sickle: Any ideas on how to cure slow play on Tour, other than banning Kevin Na?
Garrity: I'd order the networks to stay live on a player through the entire club selection and preshot routine. No jumping to a Kyle Stanley tap-in while Keegan Bradley is start-stop-rewinding behind his ball for the third time. The resulting plunge in ratings would motivate the Tour to punish slowpokes.
Shipnuck: Use checkpoints, as in, you have to reach the 6th hole or the 12th hole in a certain amount of time, or there are ramifications and penalties.
Hack: That's exactly what the American Junior Golf Association does. If the group doesn't hit the first checkpoint in time, the players get a card. The next checkpoint, they get a shot. And it works.
Shipnuck: That way if you hit a ball OB or look for a lost ball, you still have a few holes to catch up. There's no perfect system -- the slow player is always going to hurt the entire group.
Van Sickle: That's right, the problem is giving the penalty to the right person. Everyone said it was Azahara Muñoz who was playing slowly in the Sybase, but it was Morgan Pressel who got the penalty.
Anonymous Pro: If your pace of play is affecting your fellow competitors, you're in the wrong. Look at Zach Johnson. His chance of winning the Players was toast on Saturday because he had to play with Na. Zach is one of the most patient guys in the world, but TV showed him standing by the water on the 18th with his back to Na like he was thinking, Get me out of here.
Bamberger: We need something radical to change the way we play golf. It's a massive problem for the game's future.
Anonymous Pro: The difference between where Na finished at the Players and one shot worse was $49,000. One shot meant a lot more than fining him $5,000 or even $20,000. A penalty stroke is the only way to get a player's attention.
Garrity: What was that? I wasn't listening.
Anonymous Pro: They put Nick Faldo on the clock at Weston Hills in the Honda Classic, like 20 years ago, and he said, I'll sign a check right now, I don't give a crap, just leave me alone, I'm trying to win a golf tournament. If they would've said, Nick, one bad time and you get a shot penalty, it would've gotten him moving because he doesn't want to give up a shot. The fine doesn't matter to guys trying to win.
Hack: The players have so much power. That's why something objective, like a checkpoint or a shot clock, is better. It's not personal then, it's just business.
Garrity: If you want to go sadistic on the slowpokes, how about a rule that says you can't back off a shot once you've addressed the ball? Didn't baseball ban stepping out of the batter's box between pitches? This would definitely speed up play. On the other hand, it would put Jim Furyk in a nursing home.
Van Sickle: San Francisco is a special golf town. Where would you play if you could -- excluding, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point?
Bamberger: I'd go to the Pacific Grove, where I've spent many happy hours.
Van Sickle: Yeah, PG gets my vote for most fun per dollar in America. I wrote about it years ago in a budget travel piece headlined, Monterey for $200, Alex. You start with back-to-back par-3s -- come on, who has that? You have drivable par-4s, a couple of tough 4s, a lighthouse on the back nine, ice plant, dunes, scruffy conditions and a par of 70. If you can't break 80 there, you can't break 80. It's a blast.
Garrity: As an alum, I'd spend an afternoon at the Stanford University course. It's wonderfully scenic, set in the foothills above campus, and it has everything -- uphill, downhill, doglegs right and left, great par-3s, firm greens and room enough for long hitters to unwind.
Shipnuck: San Francisco Golf Club, a Tillinghast course, is my favorite place. It's a little short for a Tour event, but everything about it is wonderful.
Hack: I learned to play the game at Tilden Regional Park. Tilden has the hardest opening hole in the world. I never made a par in 100 tries. I was new to the game, but it was such a gorgeous walk. Lots of hills, dense trees and lush fairways. It was always a little soggy.
Shipnuck: Alister MacKenzie's course Pasatiempo is elegant and challenging, but Michael is right, PG is just so much fun.
Anonymous Pro: Spyglass Hill is awesome. It's a better course tee to green than Pebble Beach. And if Pebble didn't have the ocean views, it would be just another muni on the peninsula. The thing I like about Spy is that it's usually in better condition because it doesn't get the tourist traffic that Pebble does. It's a hidden gem literally a mile away from Pebble, and it's a nicer, quieter walk.
Bamberger: That Ocean course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club is fun too.
Van Sickle: We'd have to know somebody to get on there.
Bamberger: How'd we get on last time?
Van Sickle: I told them I was John Garrity.STORY OF THE YEAR
Shipnuck: The revelation that parity is a good thing. We've been lamenting not having a dominant player, but look how exciting it has been without one. So many close finishes. Last year this was a negative. Now it's O.K.
Van Sickle: I couldn't agree more, but there are a lot of people who think parity sucks. A number of them are golf writers and website editors who make it clear that if it's not Tiger or Phil, who cares?
Bamberger: Leads are so hard to protect on Sundays. The theater of sport is not knowing the outcome ahead of time. That's been mesmerizing this year. For people 35 and under, who grew up in the Tiger era, this has been a great wake-up call.
Garrity: There are so many compelling winners and a great mix of story lines, from Kyle Stanley blowing one tournament only to win the next, to Mickelson winning at Pebble Beach, Mahan at the Match Play and again in Houston, Rory and Tiger winning in Florida, and Watson's hook shot out of the trees at the Masters.
Hack: The biggest story has been the rise of American golf. A lot of people thought the Americans were in trouble, which was a way of saying, What's wrong with Tiger? There's much more to American golf than Tiger. With Bubba, Kuchar, Rickie, Dufner -- there's been a lot of red, white and blue wins.
Anonymous Pro: I'll second that. A year ago it was all Westwood and Rose and Rory and Luke and Poulter and McDowell. Now the Americans have stolen the baton and are running with it. If the Ryder Cup were played tomorrow, I'd definitely take the U.S. team.
THE WINNER IS...
Shipnuck: Despite what happened at Memorial, Mickelson has been playing at a high level. He's a Californian. He knows the grass and the fog. And I can't believe this Hall of Famer will never win an Open.
Bamberger: Dustin Johnson plays well in Northern California. He's extremely long, is supermotivated after being out and probably has a lot to prove for various reasons.
Garrity: The guy who reminds me of Lucky Lee Janzen, who won the last Open at Olympic when his ball fell out of a tree, is Donald. He's the kind of technician who solves Olympic. Oh, and he's also Number 1 in the world.
Anonymous Pro: I like Luke too. If he wins a major, it's going to be a U.S. Open. His driving isn't the greatest, but nobody is going to lace it down the off-kilter fairways at Olympic. Luke is probably the best scrambler in the game. Janzen was never a great ball striker, but he was a great scrambler.
Van Sickle: I'm on the Dufner bandwagon. I just hope he doesn't run out of gas before the Open. He's a fairways-and-greens guy in the Ben Hogan mold.
Hack: I love the way Louis Oosthuizen's game has come back. I love his swing. If he's putting well, he'll be on the leader board.
Van Sickle: Dark horses? I like Furyk, whose ability to work the ball both ways should be huge at twisty-turny Olympic. Plus he's tougher than a steel lunch pail.
Garrity: My dark horse is Lee Westwood.
Bamberger: I reject Westwood as a long shot. He's Number 3 in the world.
Shipnuck: Nick Watney is long and has great ball control.
Anonymous Pro: I don't think driving matters at Olympic. Nobody is going to hit that many fairways. I'll take Geoff Ogilvy, who's long, hits it high and is a great putter.
Hack: I'm staying in South Africa and taking Tim Clark.
Bamberger: So you're not picking anyone over 5'8"?
Hack: I guess not.
Bamberger: How about Padraig Harrington?
Van Sickle: Dark horse? He has won three majors, man!
Bamberger: That was long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.