Tour Confidential: Bubba's Return, Olympic Golf and a Tiger-less Match Play

Bubba Watson
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Bubba Watson shot 64-64 on the weekend at Riviera to capture the Northern Trust Open title, his first since the 2012 Masters.

Every Sunday night, 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. After finishing second in Phoenix, Bubba Watson broke through at the Northern Trust Open for his first win since the 2012 Masters. Is Bubba back? If so, where did he go?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Bubba is too unpredictable to swear that he's back. That said, Riviera was a great reminder that Bubba's best golf is as good as anybody's best golf, maybe better. He's tough with his irons, very good around the greens and he putted like a few Masters champions who don't need to be named. When Bubba is on, he is something to see. It's just what this golf season needed since we couldn't expect Jimmy Walker to carry the PGA Tour on his back for the whole year.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Bubba's back. He should have won Phoenix, and he won at Riviera in very solid fashion. Where has he been? If you've witnessed his jittery moves and rabbit ears in action at the Waste Management and the Northern Trust, you can see he's among the most easily distracted players in the game. Post-Masters -- and with a new child -- the distractions had to be off the charts, and he didn't cope too well. He enjoyed the spoils of his major victory, perhaps a bit too much, but all credit for righting the ship in 2014.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Bubba is back as Phil is back after each of his wins. Once, Phil won Atlanta and Augusta back-to-back. More often, he wins and splits the scene for a while. I think Bub will be much the same, but more so. Where did he go? To the nursery, the car dealership, the Tim Tebow charity outing, etc. Fame and fortune and family came calling.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): He played beautifully on Sunday, and that 72nd-hole birdie to lock up the win was all-world. If you can win at Augusta National and at Riv you can win anywhere. Dude's back.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): Saying Bubba is “back” suggests a level of consistent performance that I doubt he will really ever muster. He is too erratic, too unpredictable, too irritable, too easily distracted and too emotional to deliver solid finishes regularly. He seems destined to be a guy who shines brightly but briefly, and just often enough to remind us he's still there.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Bubba never left. Things happened so fast. The win at the Masters was unexpected, and it came not long after he and Angie had adopted their son. Talk about a life-changer. Now Bubba couldn't be happier. He'll continue to have his moments on the golf course, but family is so important to him. We may be asking a similar question about Bubba in a couple of years, and that's when he'll surprise us with an-out-of-nowhere win.

Mike Walker, assistant managing editor, (@michaelwalkerjr): Bubba is definitely back. He’s a much more mature player than he was at the 2012 Masters. When he can keep his cool on Sunday like he did at Riviera, he’s really hard to beat.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Bubba's a quirky character, so I imagine he went wherever Mark Fidrych used to go between pitches. Then again, it's not unusual for a guy to win a huge event and then suffer a hangover. Throw in that, plus the fact that top players like Bubba play in fewer and fewer events these days, and it's no wonder he went dry for a while.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Oh, he's back. Everyone reacts to his first major title differently, and for Bubba it was a big adjustment on and off the course, because he also became a dad at the same time. Now his life is in order and after some bumps in the road, including in Phoenix a few weeks ago, he's relearned how to win. Watch out for him at the majors this year.

2. The Winter Olympics are in full swing in Sochi, and in two years we’ll have golf in the Summer Olympics. What will golf bring to the Olympics, and what will the Olympics bring to golf?

SHIPNUCK: It's already the most international of sports so golf will fit in quite nicely. The exposure will be huge for the sport -- not in countries where the sport is already established but in marginal markets like China and India. We can kvetch about the format, but the bottom line is this is a big deal for golf.

WALKER: The often obscure Olympic Games get the star power of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and maybe even Phil Mickelson, and golf gets the passion of international competition. We’re underestimating how exciting this tournament will be. It’s going to be like having a fifth major in 2016.

VAN SICKLE: Has tennis done anything for the Olympics and has the Olympics helped tennis? I'm not a tennis guy, but as far as I know (and I may well be wrong), it hasn't made much of a ripple. Golf is apparently in the Olympics to grow the game globally, which is why only about half the field of 60 players will be marquee names, while a number of competitors won't rank among the top 100. Other Olympic sports have heats to weed out pretenders. Olympic golf should do likewise and open the event to more players and then thin the herd through qualifying play. I don't think it'll bring anything to golf other than a jarring interruption to the PGA Tour season.

GODICH: Sorry, but I don't see either doing much for the other. We already see players from around the world competing against each other. I'd be willing to bet that in 2020, we'll be doing Google searches to find out who won in Rio.

RITTER: Golf will add some highly recognizable athletes to the Olympic mix, like tennis and basketball, and that will be fun to see. But the Olympics will do even more for golf -- showcasing the game to an international audience can only be a positive. I'll be interested to see if there's a spike in new courses, junior academies, etc., once the Rio Games are over. It could happen.

LYNCH: I think it is shaping up to be a missed opportunity. Golf will earn a lot of attention for returning at Rio '16, and some dedicated folks in the golf world put in a lot of work to get to this point. But instead of a compelling format to match the occasion, we are facing a 72-hole stroke-play event. That barely distinguishes it from any other week on Tour. The Ryder Cup gets the attention of casual fans because it has familiar players in unfamiliar formats. Olympic golf should do the same. The current plan is a failure of imagination.

BAMBERGER: Golf's impact on the Olympics will be minimal. The Summer Games are about gladiator sports, and golf is not such a sport, not in the conventional sense. Neither is baseball, which never worked in the Olympics, nor tennis. The Olympics will bring a sense of grandeur for the athletes lucky enough to be competing. The whole thing is ill-considered. It should have been -- and this never had a chance -- an amateur team competition.

SENS: Golf in the Olympics is sure to send the same ripples of excitement through the sport as those generated by the Sunday skins matches I play with friends. There may be a tiny spike in interest from an out-of-nowhere underdog (golf's equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team) or some decent TV ratings for when the biggest names flash on the screens. But very few fans, and surely none of the players, will see it as anywhere close to golf's top honor. Rio will also get a nice course, but it's hard to buy into the idea that this is going to spread golf to the masses there. Or anywhere else.

PASSOV: I suppose it will be cool to see, say, Tiger and LeBron hanging out as U.S. Olympic athletes, but it's going to take quite a few years to have Olympic golf mean much of anything. If the golf course is finished in time, it will be a compelling venue, but politics are making things really tough for Gil Hanse and his team to finish the course. I do think the Olympics will help boost participation and interest in countries where it has traditionally lagged, but overall, I'm guessing that golf's eventual popularity in Brazil and South America will wind up rivaling the interest curling and skeleton generate in the U.S.

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