PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview edition
Now who's the best player never to have won a major? What's the best hole at Sawgrass not on an island? Are you taking Tiger or Stevie in the race to 18? And who will be the 2013 Players champ?
SI Golf+ convened a panel of experts — and a Tour pro who participated on the condition of anonymity — to tackle these and other questions.
Adam Scott won the Masters, so now who's the best player without a major?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Luke Donald. Lee Westwood was probably the best five years ago. Now he's not winning as regularly; he's slipping into a slow twilight. I'd vote for Luke.
John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: It's got to be Westwood, based on seniority. He's been trying longer. Luke is definitely a close second. So I don't think Alan is crazy at all — I don't care what people say.
Anonymous Pro: Westwood played well again at Augusta this year until the weekend. How much longer before he's like Monty and it's time to put an old horse out to pasture?
Garrity: Westwood still has game and can contend. It's the same with Sergio García. We've given up on him, yet he still pops up on the leader board. Lightning can still strike.
Shipnuck: The difference is, Sergio has given up while Westwood is still chasing it. Based on the heartbreak factor, guys who have come close, it's definitely Westwood. Donald has had plenty of top 10s and backdoor top fives, but he hasn't really let one slip through his grasp at the end.
Anonymous Pro: Westwood is a U.S. Open type because he's got a short game where you just open the face and beat it out of the rough. That's why the Open tends to favor ball strikers like Lee. His short game doesn't work as well at Augusta.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I rank the major-less players based on who's playing the best at the moment. So I'm going with Brandt Snedeker, who's number 6 in the world and has had chances to win two of the last three majors.
Shipnuck: Are we giving Steve Stricker any votes? Or is he out because he's semiretired?
Van Sickle: If Stricker wins anything, it should be an Emmy or a Clio for the new Avis commercial in which he talks about mentally gearing up to play golf. The punch line has him arrive at the course and deadpan into the camera, "I'm a savage."
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I'll say Steve Williams. You may say he's not a player. I'll say otherwise.
Van Sickle: Brilliant. So who's the best player who hasn't won a Players?
Bamberger: Again, Steve Williams. He's reading greens well and pulling good clubs, and I think this may be the year he breaks through there.
Shipnuck: Rory McIlroy. He's also the best player who ever boycotted the tournament.
Anonymous Pro: Jim Furyk. It's hard to play at home, which can be a contributing factor. Furyk is longer than Tim Clark and Fred Funk, who have won there, and he's every bit as straight. He has played 17 Players now, but for some reason he and fellow Ponte Vedra Beach resident Vijay Singh never fare that well.
Shipnuck: Vijay is a good one. He's a Hall of Famer who practically lives on the range there.
Garrity: It's interesting that Tiger and Phil have each won once, while seven of the last eight Players winners are nonmajor champions. It doesn't seem like the Players is identifying major-champion-quality winners.
Shipnuck: Rory and Ian Poulter have described the course as fiddly, a Euro term that means quirky or funky. Despite its fearsome rep, the Stadium course is a short, position track where you manage all this weirdness. It's rather fiddly. It's a fun tournament, a fun course, but not much more than that.
Van Sickle: It wins the award for biggest clubhouse.
Shipnuck: You think Tim Finchem was overcompensating for something?
What's the Stadium Courses's best hole that doesn't have an island green?
Garrity: The 18th because it's borderline iconic. It's not quite the 18th at Pebble Beach — it certainly isn't close — but I'd rank it with Kapalua, Bay Hill and Doral for strong closing holes. Water all down the left side; there's trouble at the green; and you're playing it after you just survived the trauma of the 17th hole.
Van Sickle: How about that shot Graeme McDowell hit in 2011? He missed right, playing it safe, and the ball kicked onto the green, ran all the way across and trickled into the lake.
Shipnuck: He got what he deserved.
Bamberger: Spoken like Pete Dye himself.
Anonymous Pro: My favorite is the 13th, a cool par-3 that is overlooked because everyone focuses on 16 through 18. You can make anything from 1 to 6 there. The green is crowned right in the middle and falls off left, right and toward the back. It typifies how the course demands great iron play more than anything else. Phil made a sweet 1 there; a lot of guys have come close; and we've seen Charley Hoffman's putter go into the lake. It's a cool hole, even if the green is a little unfair.
Shipnuck: I like the 16th. It's the quintessential risk-reward hole. It often determines the winner. It's part of the lake amphitheater with 17, and it comes at a critical juncture in the round.
Van Sickle: I like the 3rd, another par-3. It's near the clubhouse; there's a hillside left where you can watch the action or, if you prefer, turn and study players pounding balls on the range. Anyone who misses the green has a demanding shot. It's a good place to see who's got short game and who doesn't.
Bamberger: I'll say the 18th because that means you're finally done playing this course.
Shipnuck: Are you saying that because you're bitter or burned out?
Bamberger: Yes. And because I made a 7 there once to lose 1 down.
Who's more likely to get to 18 majors, Tiger Woods or Steve Williams?
Van Sickle: Yes, I'm recycling this query from my Van Cynical Mailbag column.
Garrity: Steve will get far more opportunities than Tiger. He can lug some bozo's bag until he's 70 if he wants, and if the bozo is good enough, Stevie might win 20.
Bamberger: Williams told a reporter in New Zealand that Adam Scott will be his last bag, that he's planning to retire after the 2014 season.
Shipnuck: I don't see it happening. Stevie loves the action too much.
Bamberger: Alan, you are underestimating the importance of his philanthropic life.
Shipnuck: (laughing) He's also got cars to race.
Anonymous Pro: Since Scott isn't going to be able to keep using that anchored putter, maybe even after the end of this year, I've got to say Tiger.
Van Sickle: But Stevie could change horses. Who's to say he couldn't loop for Rory or Jason Day or some other young gun in two years?
Anonymous Pro: That's true. I still think Tiger is the answer. Because he's Tiger.
Shipnuck: It's definitely Steve Williams. Scott may pick off another one or two majors before he loses his putter. Then some other talented underachiever will pick up Stevie, and he'll snag a few more. There's no doubt he's a really good caddie. He read the putt in the gloaming that won the Masters for Scott. We've got to give him credit.
Van Sickle: Stevie is 49. As Michael pointed out, how much longer is he going to work?
Garrity: So you're saying Stevie is never going to be a ceremonial caddie? He's not going to caddie unless he thinks he can still win?
Bamberger: What I'd like to see happen is, once he retires from pro caddying, Stevie starts caddying for elite amateurs and picks up a few British Amateur or U.S. Am titles and rekindles the debate about whether national amateur titles should count toward the majors total. Maybe Stevie could get to 21 and pass Jack at 20.
Shipnuck: Scott said it best — that Stevie instilled in him the will to win.
Van Sickle: Notice how Scott suddenly became a regular contender in majors after Stevie got on the bag? That was no coincidence. Stevie is a big reason Adam won the Masters. That's exactly why Adam hired him.
One major down, three to go. What did we learn from the Masters?
Bamberger: The biggest thing, by far, we learned is that Tiger Woods does not care what you think.
Van Sickle: Didn't we already know that?
Bamberger: Yes, but the Masters confirmed that beyond any reasonable doubt.
Anonymous Pro: We learned that rulings should be left up to the PGA Tour and European tour officials instead of Fred Ridley, who's not involved with that sort of thing every day. There might have been a different result.
Van Sickle: Might have? How many other players in the last hundred years signed for a wrong score and weren't disqualified?
Anonymous Pro: I learned there's such a thing as karma. Once Tiger was around on the weekend, there was no way he was going to win. If he did, that would've been a Masters disaster. There was always going to be an asterisk next to that win.
Garrity: I can't leave the rules thing. We learned that only a golfer can love golf's rules. Anybody on the outside would think this is a nasty game of gotcha and that rules officials are pedants and Puritans and preachers. People are totally put off by it. There's the side of us that admires how the rules are so strict, so Calvinist, and everybody has to yield to them, but they're more complicated than the U.S. Constitution and the Magna Carta combined.
Van Sickle: Garrity scores bonus points for making the first mention of the Magna Carta in the roundtable. Class this place up.
Shipnuck: How complicated is it to drop from a water hazard? Tiger has done that a million times. The green coats messed this up. Tiger took a bad drop and should've been disqualified. This was a cut-and-dried situation, but Ridley and his cronies came up with a split-the-baby solution. The Masters missed a golden opportunity to say, We don't care if it's Tiger Woods. No one is above the law. Instead, we got this fishy back-room deal.
Bamberger: They had it right for half a day. The 14-year-old kid failed on the clock, badly, and he got a penalty for slow play. Then they got it wrong on Tiger. They blew it.
Shipnuck: That's why it was so jarring. They staked out the moral high ground, but because it was Tiger Woods, they let it pass. Just like they gave Ernie Els a drop in the trees and let Rory off after he kicked the sand. They bend the rules to protect players they like.
Bamberger: They've been overcompensating for Roberto de Vicenzo for 40 years.
What has been your favorite fabulous Players finish in the 21st Century?
Bamberger: I like the one Paul Goydos won.
Van Sickle: Goydos didn't win. He lost in a playoff to Sergio García.
Bamberger: I liked that one until the last part.
Shipnuck: Gary, are you asking which one is better than most?
Van Sickle: That's exactly what I'm asking, Alan.
Shipnuck: That's my answer. Tiger did win the year he made that crazy putt with Gary Koch's famous call on 17, didn't he? Really, other than Tiger's putt, Craig Perks's chipping in on 18 or Hal Sutton's approach to the last hole, can you even remember any other shots?
Anonymous Pro: Perks was ridiculous. His win was a clinic in scrambling all four rounds.
Shipnuck: Think how many times you've heard someone say, "Be the right club ... to-day!" So it has to be Hal Sutton's win when he uttered that iconic line.
Bamberger: I'd like the record to show that in the history of Northern California, nobody has done a worse Southern accent than Alan just did.
Garrity: There are two choices. One is Perks. The guy played the last three holes with one putt. He chips in for eagle at 16, makes a long birdie putt at 17 and chips in for par when it looks like he's blowing it at 18. He missed two two-footers earlier. It was hysterical, one of the greatest finishes of all time.
Anonymous Pro: What's the other choice?
Garrity: I don't remember any shots Stephen Ames hit when he won [in 2006], but he was beaten by Tiger in the match play tournament that year 9 and 8, and that result became his nickname. It was one of the great humiliations because Ames had said something derogatory about Tiger before the match. Well, Ames shoots 67, wins the Players by eight and beats Tiger by 15. That was a great role reversal.
Anonymous Pro: I liked the year Davis Love III won . It was cold and nasty the last round, and the tournament was still played in March when the greens were better and the rough was tougher. Davis hit some clutch shots that day, especially the one at 16 from the pine straw under the trees.
Van Sickle: I'll go with Adam Scott, who had the Players wrapped up after a perfect drive at 18. Then, unbelievably, he yanked his six-iron shot left into the lake. Then, even more unbelievably, he played a good chip to 10 feet and holed the putt to win. His finish had disaster written all over it.
Garrity: What did he say afterward?
Van Sickle: He said Greg Norman taught him that. How to play that chip, I mean.
And the winner is ...
Shipnuck: Matt Kuchar, the defending champ. He's having a terrific year, and he obviously knows how to play the course. He's cracked the code. For a dark-horse pick, I'll take Tim Clark, another former champ who has played well this year. This whole long-putter thing, it's got these guys fired up.
Bamberger: I like Hunter Mahan. He completes the important double that Kuchar has, winning big events on two horrible courses — the match play in Arizona and the Players at Sawgrass.
Shipnuck: I bow to your saltiness, Michael, but have you seen Hunter's scores lately? He's having trouble breaking 80.
Bamberger: I noticed on the range at Hilton Head that Hunter hit several shots that went straight and in the air. So he's turning it around. My dark horse is Guan Tianlang, assuming Tim Finchem does the honorable thing and creates a spot for the low am at the Masters, provided he or she is the winner of the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
Anonymous Pro: I'll take Brandt Snedeker, the best putter on Tour. Picking a winner at this event is pot luck. It's not majorlike in its setup. You may as well pull out a bingo ball with a guy's name on it. Like Bo Van Pelt. He's my long shot. He's a good iron player, and he needs to win a big one to move up to the next level.
Garrity: I'm picking Adam Scott, if only to remind everyone I finally got one right.
Bamberger: You did?
Garrity: Yes, I picked Scott at the Masters, and a certain roundtable host ridiculed me for it. I said Adam had probably learned a lot from his close call at Lytham, and Gary piped in and said, "Yeah, he learned that he's never going to win a major." I also predicted the Ryder Cup would end in a tie last year, and it would have happened if Tiger hadn't lost interest on the last green. So I feel like I'm on a hot streak.
Van Sickle: The phrase, Garrity is streaking, should send readers running away, screaming.
Garrity: My dark horse is John Huh, last year's top rookie. He tied for 11th at the Masters.
Van Sickle: My hope that the next 12 majors will be won by players with anchored putters is going as planned, thanks to Scott. So I'll pick Tim Clark, the sharpest iron player on Tour. My dark horse is Russell Henley, who won in Hawaii and is a rising star from someplace who is destined for something.
Van Sickle: No. Henley.