Tour Confidential: What's next for Tiger Woods? Plus, Rory McIlroy's hot streak and the PGA Tour's drug policy
Every Sunday night, Golf.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.
1. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Bridgestone Invitational on his ninth hole Sunday after jarring his back, three months after having back surgery, which he described as “way more debilitating than I thought.” So why did he come back so soon, and what’s next for Woods -- this year and in the future?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): That's how Woods is wired, and his biological clock is ticking. He'll be 40 next year, so rushing back to play two major championships on courses where he'd won before made a certain amount of sense, especially knowing that worst case he could shut it down for six months and then try to patch himself up for next year's Masters. Of course, if this is a major setback that carries deep into next year, then the plan failed. Going forward, this is the new reality for Tiger. He's always going to be fighting his body.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: After the five wins last year, I thought Tiger was going to have a monster year this year, no matter how poorly he drove it. As I always am with Tiger, I was wrong. A back is a golfer's engine. He'll figure out a way to make a swing, just as Trevino did, and he'll win again, I would think, but from here on out my guess is it will be only when everything aligns just right for him. That and $4 will get you a small coffee.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Only Tiger can answer why. I've said repeatedly that three months was too soon to return from back surgery. Is Tiger's newest injury related to his surgery? We don't know yet. Obviously, Tiger didn't want to let this year go to waste especially with two major venues -- Hoylake and Valhalla -- that he'd won at. Tiger needs to get healthy, first and foremost. If that means skipping the PGA, the FedEx Cup and the Ryder Cup, that's what he needs to do.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): I’m not a doctor. I just play one on this forum. But the awkward moment from the bunker’s edge did not look too awful, so let’s say, after looking through rose-colored glasses at his MRI, that his withdrawal was a precautionary measure to protect his chances of playing in the PGA Championship. I’m also not a psychiatrist, but even an armchair one can diagnose Tiger with a case of hyper-competitiveness. Throw in his surly, stubborn eagerness to prove the doubters wrong, and he was destined to come back almost as soon as he could make a shoulder turn. Lastly, I’m no fortuneteller, but you don’t need a crystal ball to perceive that Tiger is an aging, ailing great who has changed to a swing that does him no favors. I foresee no more majors for him, unless he goes back to Butch.
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com (@eamonlynch): If he doesn’t play the PGA -- and that seems unlikely given his obvious discomfort Sunday -- then U.S. golf fans probably won’t see him until Torrey Pines next year. For more than six years, Tiger has been collecting scars at the pace he once collected majors: ACL, Achilles, bulging disk and recurring back issues. Two factors make it reasonable to wonder if he is finished as a dominant force: his physical frailty and his unreliable swing. Even before he tweaked his back, his play was woeful. It may take longer to fix the swing than the back, and at almost 39 he doesn’t have many prime years left.
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I would guess he came back too soon because he's been able to perform superhuman feats in the past (with a club in his hand) and figured this was just one more way he was above average. To some extent every world-class athlete has to believe that. What's next is very likely shutting it down for the rest of 2014.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): The majors set up so well for Tiger this year, it had to be a driving force in his rushed return. As for what's next, judging by the way he was carted out of there, he's likely hit his last competitive shot of 2014. When Woods returns, the pressure to bag major No. 15 will be just as intense, and the odds of him pulling it off will be slightly worse thanks to Father Time and the continued emergence of so many young and talented competitors. For Woods, Sunday looked like a surreal ending to a lost season.
Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Tiger has always been stronger than most, and superhuman when it comes to pain tolerance. Maybe he thought he was ready, maybe he felt he was close -- close enough to attempt to play at Congressional (Quicken Loans), the Tour stop that supports the Tiger Woods Foundation. Did he come back too soon? Perhaps. But can any of us say for sure? I don't know the extent of his immediate injuries, so I can't predict what's next. I just wish he wouldn't go at it so gonzo on funky lies.
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Returning three months after major back surgery raised eyebrows, but this is a man who's on a desperate quest to catch Jack. Is anybody surprised that Tiger's having issues? I think it's safe to say that we've seen the last of him in 2014. Backs are tricky, so who knows when he'll be back. What we do know is that Tiger turns 39 in December. And he'll be an old 39 at that.
2. Rory McIlroy overtook Sergio Garcia in an exciting final-round duel to win the Bridgestone Invitational. Is McIlroy just on a hot streak or are we watching the emergence of the game’s next dominant star?
VAN SICKLE: Rory has shown that his best golf is dominant. He hasn't shown the consistency of Tiger, but who has in the history of golf besides Nicklaus and a few others? Rory is your No. 1 player for the years to come. Who's going to challenge him? I don't see it right now. It'll probably be someone who's 14 right now.
LYNCH: Both. Today we saw the sad decline of the once king, and the inexorable rise of his successor.
PASSOV: He's approaching GOAT status on soft, windless courses, isn't he? Two or three years ago, we labeled him the same way -- absolute "can't-miss." That Sam Snead swing, so smooth and yet so powerful, was going to rule the golf world. It did, for a brief period, and then the real world intervened. However, he's made some tough, but heady decisions since then, and we may be seeing the successful results. Due to his length off the tee and his ability to put it in play when it matters, it's likely we're witnessing the next long-term No. 1 in our midst. Of course, I said that back in 2012. Let's just give him a little breathing room this time and see how it unfolds.
RITTER: McIlroy has always been streaky, but this feels a little different than his first charge to No. 1, doesn't it? McIlroy's driving has reached a new level, and no one can match him when he's at the top of his game. He's clearly the star of this new era.
GODICH: Rory is on a hot streak, all right. It's the kind of hot streak that the best player in the game gets on. Get used to it. I'd say he's just getting warmed up.
BAMBERGER: I am amazed by what McIlroy did at Firestone. I really thought he'd have an Open hangover. He's not on a hot streak. If he continues to drive it as he has been, no course is more than a par-69 for him.
MORFIT: Next star for sure. Glad to see things settling down in Rory's life and his talent re-emerging. Funny thing: No one I spoke to this morning thought Sergio would win, despite his three-shot lead. Says a lot about both guys.
SENS: He’s hot, but we knew this was coming. His recent romp only qualifies as an “emergence” if we’re measuring in geologic time. The guy won his second major two years ago, and greatness was forecast for him more than a decade before that.
SHIPNUCK: Both. Rory is the guy, and will be for the next two decades, unless he gets hurt, bored or marries the wrong woman. But he's always going to be streaky, and this is one of those molten periods.
3. Dustin Johnson announced that he was taking a “leave of absence” from golf this week and wouldn’t be playing in the PGA Championship or the Ryder Cup. Golf.com later learned that Johnson had failed a drug test for cocaine prior to his “leave,” though the PGA Tour refused to describe it as a “suspension.” Why is the PGA Tour -- which prides itself on its players’ honor and integrity –- so hesitant to publicize discipline against those players?
BAMBERGER: The Tour's drug policy is insincere. It developed its drug policy to keep up with other prime-time sports and be considered for the Olympics. Tim Finchem never really wanted a drug policy, and the Tour doesn't really have one. It only pretends to have one. The key word in its drug manual is "may." Faced with a failed test, the commissioner may do this, the commissioner may do that. Including nothing. The Tour must have found it tantalizing, the idea of having Tiger Woods play in the Olympics. What an opportunity to grow the brand! (Gag me with Gene Sarazen's spoon). But professional golf doesn't need the Olympics, and the opposite is true, too. As far as so-called recreational drugs, the Tour might have been better served to let the law and a player's performance address it. But if it wanted to come in on that issue, it should have come all the way in, and it didn't. As far as PEDs, their use is not only a danger to their users, PEDs also make a mockery out of any normal definition of fair competition. Their use also sends a horrible message to aspiring athletes. But the way the Tour tests for PEDs, with a haphazard request for urine samples, does virtually nothing to keep PEDs out of professional golf. For years, the Tour has tried to convince the public that the Tour players weren't like other people and other professional athletes. I don't know a person who was fooled.
SHIPNUCK: There's no rational explanation -- this code of omerta has always been part of the Tour's culture. Maybe when lawyer/master of spin Tim Finchem steps aside, there will be a philosophical change. The irony is that the institutional paranoia harms the players. If they publicized Johnson's failed drug test and leave/suspension, it's a one-day story. But thanks to our dogged reporting, it hijacked numerous news cycles -- questions about Johnson's character followed by days of hand-wringing about Tour policy.
LYNCH: The Tour’s refusal to even acknowledge -- let alone publicize --disciplinary sanctions has nothing to do with protecting players’ privacy and everything to do with sanitizing its product for corporate sponsors. And that lack of transparency -- particularly on drug testing -- serves only to enable repeat offenders who know there is no risk of public shaming by the Tour. Other major sports have enacted disciplinary systems that afford equitable treatment to players and respectful information for fans and player sponsors, who have an equal right to know about their conduct. In golf we are treated to Nixonian obfuscation and semantic gymnastics worthy of a low-rank banana republic.
GODICH: You'll have to ask Tim Finchem. Doesn't the Tour owe it to its fans and sponsors to be candid about PED use and failed drug tests?
VAN SICKLE: The best deterrent against drug use -- or slow play, even -- is publicity. Nobody wants to be branded with those. It would be in the Tour's best interests to disclose the failed tests and the slow-play fines. But the Tour is all about image. It thought it could stonewall its way around DJ and that didn't work. Meanwhile, Vijay Singh's lawyers are licking their chops. His lawsuit is looking more and more like a slam dunk.
MORFIT: Money. It's bad for business if it gets out that golf is not squeakier and cleaner than every other pro sport.
RITTER: It appears that the Tour has one motivation, and it isn't Dustin Johnson's well-being: it's to protect its own image and keep the corporate sponsor cash flowing. They seem willing to do whatever it takes to avoid rocking the boat. By treating player disciplinary issues as state secrets, the Tour weakens its brand and looks woefully out of touch. You'd hope the DJ mess might spur them to reevaluate a few things. We'll see.
PASSOV: Image is everything. Honestly, Tim Finchem and his henchmen have done an outstanding job at presenting a picture of perfection to corporate sponsors, and succeeded magnificently, thriving in an awful business environment. He's presented the Tour as an entity that rises above all of the other scandal-plagued major and second-tier sports, and it's worked -- but at a cost. Compared to the NFL, NBA and the Olympics, golf has been perceived with the purity of a fresh snowfall. I'm not defending how the PGA Tour does business, but you've asked why they do it that way. That's why. Avoid the taint, keep the cash register ringing.
SENS: The Tour is an organization of the players for the players, so everything is done to spare its stars from embarrassment even if it means presenting a facade. Call it a Clinton marriage, a sportsworld Potemkin village. You get the drift.
4. How does the absence of Dustin Johnson -- and possibly Tiger Woods -- affect the U.S. Ryder Cup team? Does Tom Watson have enough talent to choose from to match a stacked European side?
SHIPNUCK: Phil, Keegan and Sneds -- the probable picks this minute -- are all studs, even if their form has been iffy. Europe is stacked and will deservedly be the favorite, but the U.S. will have more camaraderie without Tiger on the team and should put up a good fight.
SENS: Clouds with silver linings, at least for Watson, as it saves him from having two distractions on his team. The U.S. will have less firepower on paper, but there’s a positive in that, too. The Americans will relish coming in as underdogs.
LYNCH: Johnson’s absence will hurt more. He was unbeaten two years ago, and his teammates would have been lining up to partner with him in alternate shot. Not many would want to hit from where Tiger is driving it. Watson won’t be too worried, though. He has a solid lineup of qualifiers and more than enough talent to spend his picks on.
PASSOV: It always makes for good copy, but I can't figure out why we exhaust so much effort and speculation on Ryder Cup selections and match-ups. The U.S. almost always has the edge in talent and preparation, and we almost always lose. In 18 holes of match play, the 12th guy on the team seems to come through as often as the first. Captain Watson will be fine. Dustin Johnson will not be missed -- except that he deserved the honor, given how well he performed in the past 12 months. I would miss Tiger. His Ryder Cup record isn't stellar, and the U.S. won without him in '08, but he remains the most compelling presence in the game and the intensity of any event he appears in skyrockets compared to those where he's absent.
GODICH: Tiger may have done Watson a favor. Never mind the erratic play. The Ryder Cup is all about birdies, and Tiger hasn't been making enough of them. It's time to give the young guns a shot.
MORFIT: I love the whole underdog thing at the Ryder Cup. Think this sort of helps the Yanks, actually.
BAMBERGER: I think Watson is lucky, now that he doesn't "have" to pick Woods. Johnson's driving game will be missed, but you hope, for his sake, he is doing something far more valuable with his time.
RITTER: The U.S. team's uphill climb is now even steeper, mostly thanks to Johnson's absence. On the bright side, Watson should now be able to assemble two more successful veteran pairings through a combination of qualifying and his picks: Dufner-Zach and Mickelson-Bradley. That helps, but it's still advantage Europe.
VAN SICKLE: I always doubted that Woods would be well enough to play, so his loss, if that's the case, isn't unexpected. Watson is going to have to pick some hot hands who are untested…if he can find any. It was looking like this would be a good year to pass up Mickelson, but maybe Watson will have to take him now.
5. The PGA Championship starts this week, just two weeks after the conclusion of the British Open and barely long enough for golf fans to get a breather. What would be your ideal major order and schedule?
PASSOV: On at least six occasions in the 1960s, the PGA Championship was contested the very next week following the British Open, so the current arrangement isn't the worst it's ever been. I'd love to see the PGA played in September, not only for spacing but also for the venues it would open up that would be better fits than in early August. That said, a September PGA would get killed by football, as the Tour Championship in October seems to. Of course, it's still early in the football season, and the Ryder Cup seems to get plenty of eyeballs in September, so maybe this would work. I might lobby for February dates, as the PGA did in 1971, when Jack Nicklaus won at Florida's PGA National. We'd get some warm-weather sites into the mix and it would fill the post Super-Bowl void.
BAMBERGER: Mid-April for the Masters, mid-May for the PGA, mid-June for the U.S. Open, mid-July for the British Open. Return the Players to March. Take August off. In this regard, the French have the right idea.
GODICH: I've got no problem with the schedule: four majors over a five-month stretch is ideal. Once we get to Labor Day, it's all about the football.
VAN SICKLE: The majors are in the correct order. Moving the PGA to February or March would have a weird pre-season feel to it. If anything was going to move, it ought to be the Akron WGC event. It, the PGA, the British and the FedEx Cup make seven must-play events in nine weeks -- a bit much. That would ease the late-season load.
SHIPNUCK: I like it how it is. There's a great buildup to the Masters, and you can't beat the intensity of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am summer major season.
LYNCH: Keep the same order but bring forward the U.S. Open and push back the PGA.
RITTER: Why not slide the PGA back a couple weeks and sneak it in just before football season? That would stagger the summer's biggest events one month apart, which would be a (wait for it) major improvement.
MORFIT: I'm good with it. Let's get it played and call it a season, at least as far as the majors go. I'd guess Rory agrees.
SENS: You’ve got to start with the Masters, or what would CBS do with all that birdsong they play to herald spring? But after that I’d go with the PGA Championship, followed by the U.S. Open, then the Open Championship. As it stands, with the weak-link PGA closing out the rota, our major season ends with a whisper, not a bang.
6. Who’s your pick to win the PGA Championship?
PASSOV: The forecast calls for temperatures between 84-88 degrees, with winds less than 10 miles per hour each day. Middle of August, high humidity, small but legitimate chances of rain Wednesday and Thursday. All of this adds up to a soft golf course. I'm picking Rory McIlroy to win -- by 10 shots.
VAN SICKLE: I can't think of a reason not to stick with my British Open picks: Rory if it's soft conditions and Sergio if it's firm conditions. I should've bet that quinella at Hoylake.
BAMBERGER: Patrick Reed. Perfect draw course. He's overdue, the baby's sleeping through the night, he's over the embarrassment. P. Reed: The new Dufner, without the odd charm.
GODICH: Since we're headed to the town that hosts the biggest horse race in the world, a racing analogy seems applicable. I'll ride the hot horse. I also like that the guy has the ability to hit it exceptionally long and straight, a combination that will work quite nicely on a 7,500-yard track that figures to play soft. Rory wins in Secretariat-like fashion and gets halfway to the McIlslam.
RITTER: Rory deserves to be the favorite, but it feels like it's time for Adam Scott to cement his status as one of the stars of golf's new era and become a multi major-winner. He's done everything this year except win one of the big ones, and he's my pick.
MORFIT: I like Rory right now on any course that has 18 holes. And the way he's driving the ball -- like Tiger in his prime -- I especially like him at a course where Woods has won a PGA.
SENS: Joost Luiten. Sorry. Text-predict error. Meant to type Rory McIlroy. How can you go against the game's biggest talent when his head is screwed on perfectly right.
LYNCH: Losing seems to hurt Sergio less than it used to. I’m not sure if that is due to blossoming maturity or fatalistic resignation, but I think he’ll challenge at Valhalla. Dark horse: Geoff Ogilvy, who returned to the winner’s circle on Tour this week, not that anyone noticed with Rory’s performance.
SHIPNUCK: Well, you gotta go with Rory, especially since rain is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday. Long, hot, soft...that's right in his wheelhouse.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.