Tour Confidential

Tour Confidential: Can Tiger Woods Contend at the Masters?

Tour Confidential: Does Golf Need a Dominant American to Challenge Rory?
This week our Tour Confidential panel debates whether golf needs an American nipping at Rory McIlroy's heels and, if so, who fits the bill.

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. This week, we are joined by special guest Stephanie Wei of Wei Under Par and Fox Sports Asia.

1. Tiger Woods decided to take some time off to get his game tournament-ready. Based on what you’ve seen of Tiger this year and his history at Augusta National, does he have enough time to fix what ails him to contend at the Masters?

Stephanie Wei, Wei Under Par (@StephanieWei): Easy answer: No way. Watching him shoot that 82 in Phoenix was absolutely painful and then seeing him wince in pain at Torrey before withdrawing wasn’t much better. There’s less than two months before the Masters and given his “indefinite leave,” I don’t think he’ll get in enough “reps” before Augusta. What’s also ailing him is clearly between the ears and he needs to come to terms with that (not to mention his chipping yips) before we see him back in contention anywhere.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Tiger has plenty of time to get straightened out, at least six weeks. Contending is a tall order, however, given the state of his game as we last saw it. He'll have to make a massive turnaround and, I think, play at least one good tournament before then, presumably Bay Hill.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com (@eamonlynch): More than any other major championship venue, Augusta National exposes weaknesses in a player's short game. Tiger might show up at the Honda or Bay Hill, and he might even muster a passable short game performance. But it's a quantum leap to go from where he is now to contending in the Masters, where he hasn't won in a decade. The biggest question about Tiger and Augusta is whether he plays, not whether he contends.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): With its super tight lies and crazy greens, Augusta National is the hardest chipping course in the world. It's frightening to think what could befall Tiger there if he doesn't somehow find a way to retrain his brain.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger first flashed the chip-chops (I think that's catchier than chip-yips) at the World Challenge in early December, so he had seven weeks to correct it for his 2015 opener in Phoenix -- and they only got worse. Tiger has a lot of pride, and we all know majors matter most to him, but I don't think 50 days enough to elevate his short game from shoddy to elite. I expect to see him play at Augusta, but contend? Don't think so.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): He's close. He just needs more reps. Wait. Sorry. Tiger's publicist hacked my email. Before the Phoenix event, I would have said yes. But that frightening showing wasn't just a result of rust or a swing change. Given the severity of his yips, and the apparent depth of his denial over them, I'd say there's a better chance of my joining Augusta than Tiger contending there. I hope I'm wrong.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Ben Crenshaw came into the 1995 Masters playing like garbage. Early in the week, his longtime caddie, Carl Jackson, gave him a tip about ball position, and everything changed. Once Ben got it going at Augusta, he knew he could bring it home, knowing every blade of grass at the place. That's how I feel about Tiger. It's improbable that he'll solve all of his problems by April. Yet, something could click that week and boom -- green jacket number five.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: What Tiger's looking for you're not going to find on the range. Life. It's a process.

2. Brandt Snedeker won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am by three strokes. When he won this event in 2013, he became No. 4 in the world before being sidelined by a rib injury. Is a healthy Snedeker still one of the top players in golf?

PASSOV: It's so easy to like Brandt Snedeker that the easy answer is "yes." His affable personality, distinctive style, honest emotions and rapid pace of play makes him someone you want to see in the winners' circle a lot. If he's healthy, if he has his confidence back and if his putting prowess has truly returned, he's definitely one of the top players in golf. That loose swing, however, caused some inconsistency even at the height of his powers, and he gives up a bit of distance off the tee to the game's young studs. Still, a healthy, hot-putting Sneds is a Top Tenner.

SHIPNUCK: Definitely. He's a great putter (again) and his long-game is underrated. More than that, Sneds wants it in a big way. He's one of the few guys out here you can say cares more about trophies than money. He's gonna win a lot of both.

WEI: Brandt is a great player, but to put him up there as one of the “top players” is giving him a little too much credit. I’d say he’s one of the top putters and scramblers, but I don’t think he’s in the same league as Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth or Adam Scott, just to name a few. He just seems to lack a certain X-factor. However, he’s certainly has one of the best-kept secrets in golf with his stats man Mark Horton, who told me before the final round that Snedeker was going to win (FYI: he’s correctly called the last four winners on Tour based on some formula he has). Horton is very discreet about his actual work with Snedeker (and Horschel), but I do know he’s helped Brandt get the most out of his game. If I’m a Tour player, I’d put Horton on my payroll!

RITTER: He proved it again this week that when healthy he's top-notch. And don't forget that Sneds has previously threatened at Augusta. He belongs on the short list of Masters favorites heading into spring.

BAMBERGER: I don't know where Brandt ranks, but he's one of my favorites. He steps in and hits it.

SENS: A good putter is a match for anyone. A great putter like Snedeker is a legitimate top 15 guy. His ball striking seems to get a bit too loose under pressure to win a U.S. Open, and I wouldn't put him out first or last in a Ryder Cup singles match, but it's not hard to see him having a long and lucrative Furyk-ian career, with a possible major thrown in for good measure.

VAN SICKLE: Snedeker looked good on Sunday but winners always look good. That's why they win. I never thought of him as one of the top players in golf. He was one of the better Americans in golf. Could he be among the top five Americans? I think so, but there are young guys with more firepower pouring onto the tour every year. I see Snedeker as more of a Ben Crenshaw type, a guy who wins on occasion and contends a fair amount. Can he win majors? We haven't seen that yet.

LYNCH: Isn't everyone who works with Butch Harmon?

Photo:

Brandt Snedeker hits a shot from the rough on the ninth hole during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am.

3. A round at Pebble Beach costs $495, plus you need to book two nights at the Lodge at $765 a night, so that bucket-list round will set you back $2,000. Is it worth it?

BAMBERGER: Not if you have two kids in college.

SHIPNUCK: Well, take it from a former cart boy, you don't really need to book the room. There's always a lil' space on the tee sheet to get out a few extra twos and threes and plenty of singles -- as an afternoon starter I made a ton of tips helping folks live the dream. For sure, $495 is a silly price, but you're gonna pay two or three bills for a mediocre course in Scottsdale, so in that context it's a bargain.

PASSOV: If you have "playing Pebble Beach" on your bucket list, it's absolutely worth it -- once. What are you saving your money for? You gonna live forever? When you're old and sick, you want some legitimate highlights to reflect on, and a day at Pebble Beach -- preferably with a loved one (buddies, wife/husband, dad/mom, son/daughter) -- qualifies in that department, especially on a sunny day. I could spend paragraphs nitpicking on issues I have with Pebble's design, but as a public-access/resort experience, Pebble Beach is the ultimate must-play.

VAN SICKLE: All things are relative. Two thousand bucks to me isn't the same as 2,000 bucks to Clint Eastwood. If you're a golfer, though, I'll say this: You've got to play Pebble Beach once in your life. Or, if that price tag is too high, you need to attend the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and at least walk the course. There is no place like it.

WEI: That’s a lot of money for the average person, but I’d say if you’re an avid golfer, it’s on your bucket list, so it’s definitely worth the experience. I think in some ways Pebble can be overrated -- by that, I mean, I think another course in the AT&T rotation is better, namely Spyglass. However, it’s still Pebble Beach, and if you gave me the choice to play Spyglass or Pebble, I’d take Pebble every time.

LYNCH: The price works out about $350 an hour with the pace of play. I'm not Pebble's biggest fan. A half dozen superb holes surrounded by 12 that are at best ordinary. Still, the resort is excellent and the setting is my favorite stretch of coastline in America. There are plenty worse places to spend six hours.

RITTER: Life is about experiences and a round at Pebble would be unforgettable … but they've priced me out. I'd rather play my hometown course, Olde Mill G.C in Schoolcraft, Mich., 100 times ($20 a pop!) than shell out $2K for Pebble.

SENS: I'd have to inspect your tax returns before I answer that for you. Would I want to spend that? No (I'd skip the room and try to get on same-day as a single). Would I recommend it to a serious golf buff of reasonably serious means? Absolutely.

4. You hit the lottery and one of your perks is an amateur spot in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Who would you choose as your pro partner? Who's the other amateur you'd like in your group?

SENS: I'd take a lively personality over a robotic top-ranked player any day, so let's go with John Daly. Or, going off the board, I'll take Steven Bowditch for 800, Alex. The guy seems to have a sense of humor. And for the amateur, how about Ray Romano. Doesn't take the game too seriously, and then I wouldn't be the worst player in the group.

SHIPNUCK: I'd take Phil. He works really hard to help his amateurs, as does Bones, and no one plays the course better than Mickelson. For my other amateur I'd have to pick either Kevin Price or Matt Ginella -- these are old friends with whom I've shared many, many golf adventures through the years.

VAN SICKLE: Pat Perez is a native Californian who makes a ton of birdies and seems like he'd be a fun rollercoaster to ride. The other am? How about Charles Schwab, just in case he wants to invite me over for drinks in his palatial mansion where the old fifth hole used to be.

RITTER: Just so we're clear, this absurd golf fantasy is absolutely worth two grand. I'll partner with the new champ and all-around good guy, Brandt Snedeker -- and I will shamelessly lean on him to carry us above the cut line. Bill Murray joins our group as the am. With apologies to Kenny G, why would you choose anyone else?

WEI: For my pro partner, I’d take Rory McIlroy if he played Pebble. But if I had to take someone who regularly plays there, I’d go with Dustin Johnson because of his amazing record at the event. As for the other amateur in my group, this is a toss-up between an unknown portly CEO for the guaranteed TV time and Condoleezza Rice. But since I’m not sure I’d want a camera crew tracking my every move, I’ll have to go with Condi. She’s a badass and one of the best political minds of our generation, so I’d love to pick her brain and I’m sure the conversations would be stimulating (especially during the six-hour rounds). Plus, if all goes well, I might get an invitation to play Augusta National out of it!

PASSOV: For my pro, I'm torn between two very different players. I like Jack Nicklaus, who won here in the 1961 U.S. Amateur, won the 1972 U.S. Open, runner-up in '82 and won three Bing Crosbys, the precursor to the AT&T. I'd love to soak up his knowledge, stories and passion for the course and the event. Or, I'd pick Miguel Angel Jimenez, and toast to every shot, to every ocean view and to life itself. For my amateur, in sunny years, I'd take my dad. He's not fond of playing in rain, however. In those years, I'll take Charles Barkley. He'd make my swing look awesome by comparison, and I'd be cracking up for the entire round.

LYNCH: See the aforementioned comment about pace of play, especially during the week of the pro-am. With a lottery check I'd come a week later and buy a couple hours worth of tee times in front of me.

BAMBERGER: Tiger Woods, pro. Harper Lee, amateur.

Photo:

Jason Day followed up his victory at Torrey Pines with a top-5 finish at Pebble Beach on Sunday.

5. In the latest issue of SI Golf Plus Digital, Cameron Morfit wrote that we are in an era of long-hitters dominating the Tour, but he questioned whether those explosive swings create too many injuries. Is the modern power golf swing incompatible with a long career?

BAMBERGER: It likely is, but getting set for life on the basis of making 150 cuts is a bigger issue.

VAN SICKLE: Kenny Perry always busted it pretty good, and he's still going. Jack Nicklaus was the biggest hitter of his generation and he played great into his 60s. Even John Daly, who doesn't work out, is nearing senior tour eligibility. Maybe a more likely reason for the spate of injuries is how much these guys work out in the gym and focus too much on strength and not enough on flexibility, or as some say, activating the glutes.

LYNCH: Perhaps, but young Tour players who don't have a modern power swing probably won't have to worry about sustaining a long career either. The power generation coming through now probably will have shorter careers than past generation, whether through injury or motivation. Either the body won't hold up or the money doesn't matter. Neither scenario bodes well for the Champions Tour down the road.

WEI: That’s a very good question. I think there’s the danger of becoming too athletic and too bulky (a la Tiger in his prime and we’re seeing the consequences now), which undoubtedly leads to injuries with age. Plus, all that power and impact -- or rather, stress, you’re putting on your body could do it irreparable harm. But I do think there’s a way to balance between working out for injury prevention and gaining the proper strength to still maintain a long career.

PASSOV: Not enough time has passed for a definitive response, but I was just wondering earlier today, whatever happened to three long-ball specialists we were oohing and aahing about in 2012: Alvaro Quiros, Nicolas Colsaerts and Kyle Stanley? It seems like many of the big-bashing young guns with modern power swings face an inordinate amount of injuries. However, I look at them as I do today's top tennis players that are injury-prone: If you can make truckloads of cash in a short period of time with that technique, you're likely set for life, so go at it hard. A generation or two ago, you had to hold back something physically, so that your career could last.

SHIPNUCK: I don't think the swing is the problem so much as over-training in the gym. These guys should be doing Bikram yoga, not pumping iron.

SENS: No doubt. That's why I only flick at it with my wrists. Forget what Peter Kostis says: small, twitchy muscles are the secret to success in this game. You can play forever.

RITTER: Well, the high-octane swing move isn't working out for Tiger, but it's still TBD on this new wave of power players. They swing hard and hit it a mile, but they also stretch, lift and eat differently than past generations. Everyone's back is different, but I'm optimistic the McIlroys, Days and Bubbas of the world will find a way to play well into their 40s.

6. Rhonda Glenn, longtime USGA press official and ESPN’s first female anchor, died this week at age 68. There’s a lot of talk about how golf clubs and courses need to reach out more to women golfers. Does the golf media need to do more to encourage women journalists?

WEI: First of all, Rhonda Glenn is a true legend. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to ever meet her, but from what I’ve read, she was a true pioneer and gave a tremendous amount to the game. The question is a very intriguing one given my Twitter rant earlier today about the personal harassment and hostile work environment I’ve dealt with for much of the last 4-5 years while covering the Tour, and more recently, the cyber-bullying I’ve endured by an anonymous Twitter account (who sadly has to be an insider). It’s sad that I can count the number of females who cover the PGA Tour on one hand and it’s even fewer if we’re talking about those of us who cover the Tour regularly. But I shouldn’t be surprised because of the hostility I encountered when I first emerged on the scene. I’ll never forget the icy cold reception I received when I showed up to cover the Open Championship in 2010 for the Wall Street Journal. Now I don’t want to impugn the entire golf media corps, but I’ll say there are only a few who actively and openly stood up for me (and happy to say many of those were/are part of the SI Golf Group). I want to emphasize this isn’t just about me -- it’s about encouraging more women to cover golf. Others have undoubtedly experienced what I’ve dealt with, and I’m sure it has turned people away. From my discussions with other women who cover more than just golf, the sexism and the culture of the old boys’ clubs in the golf press corps is worse than it is in other sports. And this needs to change. It’s 2015, for crying out loud!

SHIPNUCK: Just look around any pressroom on any beat and the obvious answer is yes. Some of the most passionate sports fans I know are women -- it always baffled me why their voices were not heard in the print media, at least until I saw up close the endemic chauvinism. There are very few professions that are less welcoming to women. Every sport, and not just golf, needs to work hard to educate players, officials, locker-room rent-a-cops and others that female reporters need to be treated with respect and dignity at all times. Only then can things change.

LYNCH: At the U.S. Open last summer I watched a male golf writer smile at USA Today's Christine Brennan. Then when she was out of earshot he muttered, “I'm sure she's here to right a wrong against some woman.” Would the same comment have been uttered had Herbert Warren Wind shuffled by? Never. Golf is a pretty hidebound world with little diversity, and only lip service paid to doing anything about it. But golf media is a shrinking world, so we'll be lucky to see female journalists on Tour, period, regardless of whether they are made welcome.

VAN SICKLE: Have you looked at America's sports pages? It's not just golf, the media need more women sportswriters, period. I broke in at the Milwaukee Journal in an era of pioneering female sportswriters like Betty Cuniberti, Tracy Dodds (at my paper) and Lesley Visser, who all seemed like the leading edge of a promising trend. In the years that followed, while there were more good women writers who came along, the numbers we expected just never materialized. I blame it on the male domination of the sport, just like golf, where women are never made to feel welcome or comfortable and finally realize, who needs this aggravation? Frankly, golf still hasn't seen the light.

PASSOV: First, a nod to Rhonda Glenn, who was a fine player who became a superb historian. Her Illustrated History of Women's Golf sits in my A-list of books next to my computer in my den. Golf administrators and media should do more to encourage women journalists. The missing piece in golf's growth puzzle has long been "women," and that goes for the media, too. I thought that the toughest barrier to break down for women journalists would be the NFL. Women have made terrific inroads there, but there are always a few Neanderthals that cripple the efforts. Golf is likely no different. This is something to work on, for sure.

SENS: We definitely shouldn't dissuade anyone. Though I'm not sure it's in my interest to encourage a group of people who are generally smarter than I am to compete for my job.

RITTER: I'd bet that women are outnumbered by something like a 50-1 ratio on press row at regular PGA Tour stops (and if Steph Wei and the NYT's Karen Crouse are off, it's 100-1). Clearly more can and should be done here.

BAMBERGER: A note first about Rhonda Glenn: she loved -- LOVED! --the game, and loved people more. She gave me great, great guidance in a variety of ways and I will always be grateful to her. As for the ladies out there thinking about getting in the game: Become a reporter and you'll have the time of your life. Is that encouraging enough?

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.

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