Is Rory McIlroy Peaking? And Why Can't Henrik Stenson Seal The Deal in This Week's Tour Confidential
1. Matt Every birdied the 18th hole to repeat as champion at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational, edging Henrik Stenson by a shot. The perennial Best Players to Have Not Yet Won a Major usually have a fatal flaw that derails them, for example Sergio Garcia's putting or Lee Westwood's chipping. Why hasn't Henrik Stenson won a major already?
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Stenson is not a great putter on Sunday and he's not made of steel. He complained about being put on the clock for slow play with Morgan Hoffmann in the last group, and may have a legit gripe, and said he felt rushed and that's why he made a mess of his putts at 15 and 16. As a savvy vet, Stenson shouldn't have let the rules official with a stopwatch get to him... but he did.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: What I like best about this question is that it makes no allowance for the Players as a major. What I like least about this question is that I don't have an answer-Henrik's game is so complete he looks like he should have won a U.S. Open, the hardest of them all to win, by now. Of course, Chad Campbell looked like a U.S. Open winner, too.
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): Like Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, Stenson's career has sort of been split in two. He was awesome from 2007 through 2009 or so, then dropped out of sight for several years, suddenly reemerging as one of the world's best in 2013. To be that good, you don't have any major weaknesses. It's a confidence problem. Putts don't drop when you absolutely need them, three-putts appear out of nowhere. Stenson simply has to emerge from that cave.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Can a fatal flaw be timing? I don't see an Achilles heel in him. Unlike Garcia or Westwood, Stenson has demonstrated that he can dominate in all facets when it matters. He's got four top fives in the last eight majors, and in a few of those cases, he simply ran into a buzzsaw. For Stenson, it seems less a matter of 'whether' than 'when.'
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@jeffritter): The biggest reason for Stenson's major shutout is Phil Mickelson, who had the best links round of his life Sunday at Muirfield in 2013. Stenson was solo second that day, and it remains his closest brush.
Coleman McDowell, assistant editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@ColemanMcDowell): I think that is what is most maddening about Stenson. His best is really, really good. Perhaps just a notch behind Rory's best stuff. He's on a short list of players I watch on the driving range because his ball flight is so superb. Stense was second in strokes gained putting through the first three rounds but was last in the field on Sunday. His putter failed him, as it's aught to do on the back nine of a big tournament. Why hasn't he won a major? This question could easily be moot in three weeks.
2. The King, Arnold Palmer, led the Tour in charisma, sex appeal, popularity with his peers and had a Hall of Fame playing career as well. Who's the current PGA Tour pro that most closely matches -- or is capable of matching -- that description?
PASSOV: In his prime, Greg Norman came close — though I'm not sure how beloved he was by his fellow competitors. Seve was there — maybe even more than the Shark. True that most, though not all, American tour players weren't always enamored with Seve's antics, but the Euros looked at him as their "King." Right now, I see a bunch of guys who possess two of those characteristics, a handful who go three for four, but nobody who can match Arnold Palmer's four of a kind.
BAMBERGER: There is no one on Tour like Arnold. Phil comes closest, because of how he plays and his ease with his fans. But what set Arnold apart was that he walked such a fine line between the outlaw golf he played and his I-shop-at-Sears persona. In a sentence, and excuse the cliche, he never forgot where he came from. He never got fancy.
SENS: For that, we'd need a government-funded genome project to create a composite character, maybe a hybrid-cross of Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, with a possible blood transfusion from Paul Goydos for sex appeal.
VAN SICKLE: Phil Mickelson is the player who has the best relationship with the fans of any tour player but he's not nearly as authentic as Arnie. No modern stars are anywhere near Arnie's class. Rory McIlroy seems pretty normal, given all the fame and fortune he's won, I'd rate him pretty high. Arnie is on Mount Olympus.
RITTER: Today's closest comparison is Phil, who captivates a gallery like no one else today. Tomorrow I could see it becoming Rickie, but he needs more Ws soon to validate the hype.
MCDOWELL: In Michael Bamberger's new book, the Men in Green, he references Jack on Arnie: No one loves being himself more than Arnold Palmer loves being Arnold Palmer. I think the closest match is Rory. He embraces his life in the public eye and takes full advantage of being Rory McIlroy — whether it's donning a fur coat at a prime time NFL game that he knows will grab headlines or working out in Augusta National's gym with Peyton and Eli after a quick practice round with Tom Brady. He loves being Rory McIlroy. All he needs is a Jack.
3. Paul McGinley said this week that having Tiger Woods in the Masters will help Rory McIlroy by taking the focus off his pursuit of the career grand slam. Is McGinley on to something, and how confident are you that Rory McIlroy’s game is peaking in time for Augusta?
BAMBERGER: Coo-coo. Is there a new clock in the McGinley home? I don't think for a minute that Tiger playing in the Masters would in any way make it easier for McIlroy. For one thing, Tiger in the field is one more person to beat, and Woods has shown he can contend no matter how he comes in.
RITTER: It was an interesting revelation: not only is the Tiger Intimidation Factor completely obsolete, but Woods' presence (and resulting circus) is actually an asset to his competitors. And I think McGinley is right--if Tiger returns to play Augusta, he'll be the most dominant story...until Saturday morning.
MCDOWELL: He's 100 percent correct. There were more eyes on Tiger's vacant parking spot at Valhalla before last year's PGA than anything happening on the golf course. The crowds, media, etc. will be focused on every wince, gesture and step of Tiger at Augusta.
PASSOV: I'm not buying McGinley's assertion that having Tiger around at the Masters would be a helpful distraction for Rory. Maybe I'd feel different if Rory had run the table on his lead-up events, but he hasn't. Dustin Johnson has been a better golfer than Rory in 2015. That said, Rory is playing well — not awesome, but well — coming into the Masters. Based on how he dominated the second half of 2014, how he has performed in recent majors and how well Augusta National theoretically suits his game, he should still be the Masters favorite.
SENS: Staying in the moment. Not getting ahead of yourself. All those press conference cliches apply here. Spending Masters week focusing on historical context is no way to win the tournament. But McIlroy surely knows that, and you've got to expect him to do everything he can to stay in a major-ready mindset. Whether Tiger's there or not seems irrelevant. If that's what McIlroy is thinking about, he's not thinking about the right things.
VAN SICKLE: Rory's game better be peaking for Augusta because it's not peaking now. His wedges are off, he seems distracted at times. Nobody ever won the Masters hitting weak wedge shots. He's got a couple of weeks to get his mind right, though. Maybe it's better not to peak too early. I'm bullish on Rory.
4. Keegan Bradley wore white pants with red shoes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday. Who's the best dressed player on Tour?
SENS: Given the serious dorkiness of what passes for golf "fashion," that's a pretty low bar. But I'll go with Ryan Moore on a good day.
BAMBERGER: I don't know, but Jim Furyk's looking better since he lost the 5HE hat. I prefer Hogan and his wild palette: shades of gray and blue.
PASSOV: A huge tie for first, followed by Keegan Bradley trailing the field. Not sure Danny Lee wouldn't tie him, though, with his one white shoe, one black shoe getup at Bay Hill. If he returns to action, I'll vote for Tiger Woods, who for a few years seemed to channel Hogan in his prime for dressing excellence, though his new comfort shoes pale (fashion-wise) compared to his classic black wing tips. Gotta say, also, that for personality pairing with clothing, nobody on the men's tour does it better than Ian Poulter.
VAN SICKLE: Everybody wears the same clothes from the four or five big outfitters. Nobody stands out from the crowd in a good way — sorry, John (Loudmouth Pants) Daly. Wherever he is now, Jesper Parnevik is probably wearing the shades of the future — tan, gray, black, brown and white. He's always two steps ahead.
MCDOWELL: Jordan Spieth's Under Armour look never appears too grabby or boring. A nice combo. Golf writers aren't the best judges of attire usually given the state of any media center I've been in.
RITTER: Natalie Gulbis!
5. The Champions Tour returned this week to the Tucson National Golf Club, which hosted or co-hosted the PGA Tour 30 times from 1965 through 2006. Which former Tour venue would you like to see once again host a PGA Tour tournament?
PASSOV: Please take the AT&T back to Cypress Point Club, where it had a home from 1947 through 1990. Perhaps then they'd have a media day to play the course and I'd find my way to the first tee. With little wind, it's not a great challenge for the pros these days; Phil Mickelson had a recent round where he used 11 wedges for approaches to the 18 greens. When the breeze is up, however, it often played tougher than Pebble and Spyglass. It also offers the most mind-blowing beauty in golf, and with the par-3 16th, the most spectacular hole in golf. A guy can dream, can't he?
BAMBERGER: May I limit myself to three? Cypress Point, Westchester Country Club, Whitemarsh Valley, a George Thomas design on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
VAN SICKLE: There was something magical about the PGA Tour coming to a tiny little town in upstate New York, the old B.C. Open at En-Joie Golf Club in Endicott, N.Y. I'm sure the PGA Tour players would tear it apart now for its lack of length but the camaradie of the town and the pride it took to hold an event in a place like that reminded me of the Packers being based in a small northern city like Green Bay, a miracle in franchise-locating that could never happen today. I've still got a pair of B.C. Open golf shirts with the logo, created by cartoonist Johnny Hart, who drew the B.C. strip.
SENS: Cypress Point. Stock seven-iron for Bubba on the 16th.
BAMBERGER: I got up and down from the beach down the bluff and over the left side of the 16th green at Cypress Point. I guess that's two shots, particularly since the putt was a 50-footer. That par kept me at 22 over for the round.
SENS: On the par-5 second at Royal Melbourne, I watched an 18-handicap who plays maybe twice a year smoke a 3-wood from a sketchy lie nearly 250 yards for a double-eagle. One hop on the green. Nothing but net.
PASSOV: This is an awfully expansive category, but the first one that jumps out — and makes me wince and laugh at the same time — is Chi Chi Rodriguez' effort in front of competitors at a Big Break Puerto Rico taping, when the ball ricocheted off a glass plate and doinked him in exactly the worst place. Love the Cheech — but ouch!
MCDOWELL: I worked at a rural golf course in Montgomery, Alabama, throughout high school, and two members of the grounds crew learned the game from watching players tee off from the No. 12 tee, located next to the maintenance shed. They were brothers and had accumulated clubs from various clubs left behind by players. They had two 6-irons, a 9-wood, no clubs from the same brand and no head covers. Watching the two of them play golf was pure joy because they had no idea about strategy, shot shape or smash factor. They swung as hard as they could and hit monstrous cuts that soared in the air and flew 280 yards. So given that, any shot they hit was memorable. But the most awe-inducing was on the par-5 6th in a match against the pro shop staff, a double-dogleg about 540 from the backs. The play is a 3-wood in the left center of the fairway to set up for a layup. With an original Great Big Bertha, one of the brothers took dead aim at the right rough, flew the first dogleg, flew the second dogleg and had a mid-iron in. We lost the hole.
VAN SICKLE: A buddy (who shall remain anonymous) and I were playing at Milwaukee's Brown Deer Park a million years ago and on the eighth tee, he hit a worm-burner that smacked the tee block on the next tee up. The tee markers were squares set an angle on a metal spike. So it happened fast, Bam-bam!! The ball could've come back and killed us, the marker was so close, but it didn't. We looked, we listened, then looked at each other like, What the heck? About ten seconds of puzzlement ended when the ball landed in front of us with a thunk. It must've hit the tee marker and shot straight up, probably 150 yards, then came straight back down. You couldn't do it again in a hundred thousand tries, at least not without injury. Amazing. And now that buddy is President of the... kidding.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.