Tour and News

PGA Tour Confidential: Is Rory McIlroy ready to challenge Tiger Woods at Augusta?

Photo: Steve Dykes / Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shot a Sunday 66 to finish along in second at the Texas Open. It was his best result of the 2013 season.


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.

This week we're happy to welcome a special guest to the panel, rising LPGA star Sandra Gal.

1. Rory McIlroy made the most of his last-minute Masters cramming. He played his best tournament of the season in San Antonio and finished second. Are you convinced that McIlroy has turned the corner and what do you expect from his this week at the Masters?

Sandra Gal, LPGA professional golfer: I think Rory is slowly building up his confidence again. The second-place finish is a stepping stone on his way back to winning. But I don't think he's ready to win the Masters this year because he will have to face lots of expectations, and this may put a lot of pressure on him again.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I have to admit that I was surprised by his play. That is not the course on which to be trying to find your game, especially when the wind starts blowing. That said, Rory has to be riding a wave of momentum heading into Augusta. Things just got a lot more interesting.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I expect McIlroy to finish top 15, which is a lot higher than I expected before San Antonio. Nice to see his name on a leaderboard.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Rory has to feel good about his game, but don't forget he's had his heart broken two years running at the Masters. I think he's still a little intimidated by that tournament. So the first round is massive for him. If he can ride the momentum from Texas and open with a good score I could see him winning, maybe easily. But if he's a little shaky on Thursday the doubt will creep back in and it could be another lost trip to Augusta.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I expect him to show up. After that, who knows? Still not sure how much he believes in everything. If things go well early, he could build confidence and play well. If he struggles early he could crumble. My guess: He'll finish T26.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: No doubt Rory has turned the corner. And even if he didn't play well this week, he'd still be one of the favorites this week. McIlroy has too much talent to ever count him out.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: There is no corner. There is on and off. He was on last week in Texas. What that means for this week at Augusta is ... nothing.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's nice that Rory played well just so we can quit talking about his adjustment to new clubs, a new home, a new country, big money and all that. He's had a couple of months to get ready. He ought to be close. And that's what I took from Valero Texas Open, that Rory is close to playing well. I expect him to make the cut in Augusta and play his way onto the leaderboard by the weekend ... but not win.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: I'm buying that he's turned the corner, but he's still not one of my top five picks to win this week. His best Masters finish is a T15 in 2011, when he melted down in the final round. The Texas Open was just what he needed, and I think he'll play well, just not well enough. I see a finish in the 8-15 range.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com It's less important what we expect of McIlroy at the Masters than what he now expects of himself. I think we can assume that his expectations -- as distinct from his aspirations -- are a lot more ambitious now than they might have been a few weeks ago. And confidence going into a major counts for a hell of a lot. I'd be surprised if McIlroy isn't within striking distance next weekend. He'll certainly be closer to the lead than any of us.


2. You are betting your house. You can take Tiger or the field. What are you gonna do and why?

Sandra Gal: I would not bet my house on him because he wants to win so desperately. His game will be hit or miss because he is not interested in 2nd place.

Van Sickle: First, I'm not betting my house on any kind of golf event. It's golf. You can hit a perfect putt and it hits a spike mark or the cup liner or a deranged squirrel and it stays out. Normally, I'd take the field -- strength in numbers and all that. This time, I'll take Tiger. He's putting well. Historically, that means Game Over. Also, nobody else is exactly sizzling hot. Well, except Martin Laird.

Gorant: For my house I'd bet the field, because statistically the odds would be in my favor. For some more reasonable wager I'd take TW.

Lynch: The field. Tiger is playing better now than he has in quite a while, but let's not confuse that with how he played during his peak. He is still struggling to hit draws off the tee with his new swing, and that makes life at Augusta National tougher for him than it used to be.

Godich: I'll take the field. It only takes one player going nuts to spoil Tiger's week. Look no further than what Martin Laird did to Rory this week.

Reiterman: When you talk about the roof over my head, I have to go with the field. But if we had a smaller wager (say a beer) I'd go with Woods.

Morfit: Field. Lot of guys can have a hot week.

Ritter: The field. Tiger pressed at the majors last year, which clearly contributed to his subpar weekends. If he does it again this week -- and there's no reason to believe he wants this Masters less than last he did last year -- it's going to hurt his chances. When in doubt, back 93 guys to save your house instead of one.

Bamberger: My house is important to me, as yours is to you. Tiger has played in 18 Masters, as a pro and amateur. He has won four of them. That is incredible. His golf has been superb. He's the best player in the game. I'm taking the field.

3. Would you rather be watching the Masters live on TV or live in person?

Sandra Gal: Nothing is better than an afternoon on the couch watching the Masters. You have a great overall view of the action, instead of trying to catch glimpses of swings amongst the crowds. But it's still my dream to be on the course live. I want to experience the magic of the place.

Bamberger: Live in person. I'd rather feel it than see it.

Reiterman: If you've never been to the Masters, you have to see it in person at least once. Now that I've been fortunate enough to do that, nothing beats watching the drama unfold on TV. Now if I had Jim Nantz walking around with me and narrating the action? Perfection.

Morfit: Live for sure. It's a good course for viewing with all the hills and slopes and the lack of trees.

Gorant: In person. It's a great week. Although TV might be better on Sunday because there's often so much going on.

Ritter: It's great in HD, but there's nothing better than seeing it in person. First, you can spend all day on the course instead of limited to those few precious hours of TV coverage. Plus, you never know when you might stroll past a legend like Arnie or Jack, and hearing those roars rip through the pines on Sunday is something that just can't fully be appreciated from your couch. Golf fans should do everything they can to experience Augusta in person at least once.

Van Sickle: Let's face it, golf is a difficult spectator sport. You can see way more golf on TV and with high-def super-sized plasma screens, it's enthralling. I'd vote for TV… except then I'd take the walk down the 10th fairway to the green, a plunge of some 100-plus feet, look back up toward the clubhouse and think, Never mind. In person, definitely. Also, the exotic flowers mean spring, which there's currently no sign of where I live (Pittsburgh).

Lynch: This year I'll probably be there in person, but truth be told I'd rather see it on TV. Even if the CBS announce crew is tediously reverent, the limiting of commercials makes it a good viewing experience. Compare that with CBS's atrocious broadcast of the PGA Championship, when you'd need a search party to find golf amid the commercials. I swear that National Car Rental "business pro" dude got more airtime last year than McIlroy. Be thankful for small mercies this week.

Godich: Now that the lords of Augusta have expanded the coverage, I'll take the TV option. You just can't beat the high-def.

Shipnuck: This year, I prefer to watch on TV.


4. At the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Michelle Wie was putting with her back parallel to the ground. What do you make of Wie's new putting style? Also, in the latest issue of Golf Magazine, Annika Sorenstam said of Wie, "The talent that we all thought would be there is not there." Do you agree? <

Sandra Gal: It hurts my back to watch her putt, but if it works for her, she should keep doing it as long as she sees results. But I don't think it's a long-term solution. I don't agree with Annika's comment, which may have been taken out of context. Michelle has struggled, but in my opinion she surely doesn't lack talent.

Van Sickle: I'd be interested to know how long Michelle is able to practice putting with that bent-over stance. Doesn't that have to limit her time? But you gotta do what it takes, whatever works. I'd agree with Sorenstam that Wie hasn't fulfilled her promise. She may have made a poor decision in switching swing coaches once but even bigger, it's a fact of golf that if you can't putt well, you can't play dead. If she can't solve the putting, she'll never be a factor. She's still young but it's an imposing task.

Bamberger: Regarding her putting: whatever works, although this one hurts my back just thinking about it. Regarding Annika's comment: I disagree. The talent is there. It is other things that may be missing.

Reiterman: Wie's putting stroke is ridiculous. She's going to destroy her back being hunched over that far. As far as Sorenstam's comments, I think it's a stretch to say the "talent" is not there. Wie's only 23 and still has plenty of time to have a great LPGA career. Will she dominate the LPGA Tour like we all expected her to do? That remains to be seen.

Godich: I applaud Michelle for trying, but this move reeks of desperation. I figure it will only be a matter of time before she's trying something different. As for Annika's comment, the results pretty much speak for themselves.

Ritter: It almost makes me feel sorry for her. How can she possibly practice for hours while in that position? And I agree with Annika -- Wie has had a solid career, but she's never displayed the game or the fire to be No. 1.

Gorant: Looks a lot like the way Nicklaus putted for a good portion of his career. He made a few. Another reminder that there have been lots of ways to get it done over the years and not all of them look like the carbon-copy methods taught by the modern swing guru cartel.

Shipnuck: It makes my back tight just watching her, but the history of putting is filled with weirdness. If it works, who cares how it looks -- Arnold's pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, elbows-akimbo stance wasn't exactly graceful either. But Wie piled up 3-putts at the Dinah, and her current look has more to do with desperation than her having discovered some kind of secret stroke. Until she can conquer her demons on the greens Wie will always be nothing more than an intriguing prospect.

Morfit: I don't know what happened to Wie except she wanted to have a life. That's neither good nor bad; it's just her personal preference.

Lynch: I'm not sure why Sorenstam felt the need to apologize to Wie: what she said was true. Wie's record over the past two years has been pretty miserable. That said, she's still only 23 and her time at Stanford probably made her a happier, more well-rounded individual than had she gone straight on tour full time. There is time for her to fulfill her potential, but she's going to have to try something more radical than a funky putting move, like starting afresh with a new coach. (If Annika did actually suggest to Wie that she was misquoted -- as Wie suggested she did -- then perhaps she'd be better off apologizing to her interviewer, Alan Bastable, since the tape recorder proves that's not true.)

5. Speaking of prodigies, will Lydia Ko be the next the next Michelle Wie or the next Se Ri Pak?

Sandra Gal: I'm so impressed with Lydia Ko. Golf hasn't seen anything like her. She plays like a kid now, but we have yet to see how she will play as an adult under the pressure of playing for a living.

Morfit: Se Ri Pak.

Shipnuck: What's exciting about Ko as a player is that she has no weaknesses. I can imagine her winning tournaments for a very long time. I also like her antipode mellowness and her ambition to still go to college -- having a well-rounded youth should help her stave off burnout. Winning five majors like Pak is a big ask, but I think Ko will bag at least a couple.

Lynch: Since Ko already has more professional wins at age 15 than Wie has at age 23, she seems more likely to build an enduring legacy. But the lesson of Wie is that we should beware placing onerous career expectations on a child.

Reiterman: Ko has all the talent in the world, so it's really up to her.

Godich: Seeing as how Ko has already won on the LPGA tour (at the Canadian Open, the same event where Wie picked up one of her only two victories) and she has another eight years to get her second, I'll say she has a better shot to be the next Se Ri Pak.

Van Sickle: I will have to see a lot more of Lydia Ko before I can asses her future. Let's hope she develops Michelle's star charisma with Se Ri's work ethic and success. That's just what the tour needs.

Gorant: She's already not either -- not as bold and ambitious as Wie and not a grinder who appeared out of nowhere like Pak to inspire a generation. Maybe if she wins a men's event she'll start a golf boom among young Korean ex-pats living in New Zealand.

Ritter: She's already won more events than Wie, so at this point her career arc is pointing toward Pak. Let's just hope she doesn't enter any PGA Tour events.

Bamberger: Lydia Ko will be the next Lydia Ko.

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