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Tour Confidential: Are Golf's Stars Ready for Oakmont and the Open?

Tour Confidential: Who To Watch At The U.S. Open
With one week until the U.S. Open, our panel gives a rundown of who they expect to be on top at Oakmont.

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. William McGirt beat Jon Curran in a sudden-death playoff to win the Memorial, which represents the last time we'll see the game's best players together before the U.S. Open two weeks from now. With an eye on Oakmont, what was the biggest takeaway from how things unfolded at Jack's place?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): It was another rough ball-striking week for Spieth, which has got to be a worry for him headed toward the Open. He was able to Houdini his way out of some tough spots with his short game at Colonial, but if his driver stays wayward, it's going to be a long week for him in the Pittsburgh area. Or, rather, a short one.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Yes, Spieth is in a spot of bother with his long game. While McIlroy's scores looked decent, remember that it was primo scoring conditions. Ten under par was never in the hunt. Day seems to cycle down before he peaks again so he seems OK but Spieth's game is a concern. And Dustin Johnson made just enough mistakes to not win… again.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I agree with Josh that Jordan's up-and-down play is a concern heading into Oakmont. Day has never really found his mojo at Muirfield Village, so his Sunday fade isn't a huge concern. I think the takeaway from the Memorial was the inspired play of bashers Dustin Johnson (3rd), plus Rory McIlroy, J.B. Holmes and Gary Woodland (T4, with Matt Kuchar). Oakmont seems to agree with long hitters, so you've got to believe at least one or two of those guys contends in two weeks.

SCORES: View the Final Leaderboard From the Memorial

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It's never ceases to amaze me how many guys spit the bit on Sunday. The course was playing easy and it seemed like all the big names were having a contest to see who could make more bogeys. Oakmont is going to be a bloodbath.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports IllustratedI think Oakmont will set up beautifully for Spieth--fast fairways will mean few drivers for everybody. The greenside shots are so, so tricky at Oakmont, I don't see how they cannot play to Spieth's greatest strength.

Photo:

Will Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth tame Oakmont to win the second major of the season?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It's always nice to see a guy break through for his first title, so congrats to McGirt. But the bigger story is the evolving state of golf's three top players. Spieth was the only one to seem a bit out of sorts, and I still wonder if he's a fit for Oakmont. (I also wouldn't be shocked to be proven wrong.) Day is still the Open favorite, but Rory is closing fast.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): I share the concern about Spieth, but I'm not THAT concerned. He just won at Colonial, which isn't the test it used to be, but its narrow corridors do demand that you work the ball and get it in play, much like a U.S. Open course. I think the Big 3 are still in fine form heading into Oakmont and that's compelling. What struck me as a negative was how many players stunk it up down the stretch. I can't remember seeing so many 6s on par 5s.

2. Rory McIlroy won the Irish Open with a left-hand low putting grip, then reverted to a more traditional putting style at the Memorial, where he continued to roll his rock well en route to a T4 finish. McIlroy is clearly finding his form but is it a troubling sign that he is experimenting with putting grips just two weeks before Oakmont?

Sens: In a lot of cases, with a lot of players, putter-tinkering is a sign of trouble. But McIlroy is just reverting to the style he used to employ, which, if memory serves, helped him to four majors, among other things. That he's rolled the ball so well with this recent switchback seems more a cause for optimism than concern.

Ritter: I like the switch, too. More importantly, so does Rory. After starting the week ranked outside the top 100 in strokes gained, he finished second in putting for the week at Muirfield. Match that at Oakmont with a stock ball-striking week and I think he's your winner.

Morfit: I agree with the honorable Ritter and Sens. Rory is finding his game, and not a moment too soon.

Van Sickle: Enter Debbie Downer or as I prefer to call it, the voice of reality. There was a reason Rory switched the first time. Because something was amiss. Going crosshanded didn't fix it so now he's gone back. Guess what? Whatever was wrong the first time is still in there. I'll believe he's fine when I see him pour in putts from all over Oakmont's slick slopes. I still consider his putting a long-term issue that remains unresolved--but I hope I'm wrong.

MORE: World No. 1 Jason Day Sets Sights on U.S. Open

Shipnuck: There's no right or wrong way to putt. If Rory feels more comfortable and confident this way that's all that matters.

Bamberger: Totally agree with Gary. Nobody with what Paul Runyan used to call "the gift for putting" was experimenting from week-to-week with different grips. For whatever it's worth, Arnold Palmer once told me that one of his life regrets was not going to left-hand low as a young man.

Passov: Even at Rory's best, we weren't anointing him as one of the game's best putters. Yet, he had to be pretty good to shoot the crazy-low scores we've seen from him at the big events. As long as he finds something that gives him confidence going up against Oakmont's sick, slick greens, that's all he needs. Nobody's going to be making a ton of putts at Oakmont. The winner just needs to make the big ones.

William McGirt Wins Memorial in Playoff
William McGirt picked up his first PGA Tour win by beating Jon Curran on the second hole of their sudden-death playoff at the Memorial Tournament on Sunday.

3. After inclement weather forced a suspension of play during the final round of the Memorial, CBS decided to air the tournament on a roughly 20-minute tape delay. Given fans could easily follow what was happening through various channels, including a sophisticated shot-tracking system on the PGA Tour's website, is there any defense for delayed TV coverage in 2016?

Sens: You mean, you didn't like That 70s Show? I thought it was cool and retro. Seriously, though, I can't pretend to know all the factors that went into the decision, but the network did nothing to win over more fans with the tape delay. The outrage on the Internet was pretty immediate, unlike the coverage.

Ritter: I'm sure the reason has something to do with licenses, contracts and legalese. But come on. What other professional sport does this?

Shipnuck: It's easily the stupidest thing that's happened in golf lately...which is saying something!

Morfit: I have to confess I have followed some of the biggest sporting events in recent memory on Twitter. It's quite entertaining to read people's responses to, say, the NCAA final match between Sulman Raza and Taylor Funk. I loved all the responses to the chef on the roof. Wait. What was the question again?

Van Sickle: Golf is different than every other pro sport. What other sport picks up the action Sunday midway through the event? Golf typically comes on with nine holes to go for the leaders. Football games don't skip the first half. I think those comparisons to other sports are not valid. CBS has commitments to other shows, advertising has been sold--it's a tough situation. So show it live on the internet for, say, $1.99.

Bamberger: This conversation is beyond my scope. Every time I have to turn on the TV I feel like I am reinventing the wheel. If this tape-delay business is bad for business, it will be dropped soon enough.

Passov: I'm with Michael in the dinosaur camp. I understand the outrage, but I don't feel it myself.

Photo:

Tim Finchem said the decision to move a WGC event from Trump Doral to Mexico City was based on the Tour’s inability to find a sponsor and was not politically motivated.

4. The PGA Tour said last week that it is moving the World Golf Championship previously held at Trump Doral to a site in Mexico City. Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said that the decision was based on the Tour's inability to find a sponsor and that it was not politically motivated "in any way, shape or form." Are you buying that?

Sens: Yes. Right after I complete my purchase of whatever bridge he might be selling.

Morfit: Agreed, Josh. It did seem a bit too perfect that the Tour left Trump's course for one in Mexico. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's just globalization. But the universe sure works in funny ways sometimes.

Shipnuck: It's true that WGCs cost much more to sponsor than regular Tour events and every indication is that Cadillac didn't want to pony up. And I believe Finchem when he says other companies are nervous about attaching themselves to a tournament where Trump is so prominent; his personal brand will always blot out the presenting sponsor. That the tourney is going to Mexico seems to me as nothing more than a delicious irony.

Ritter: The Tour did what it was always going to do: take the best deal it could get. My guess is the new sponsor, Grupo Salinas, and its power brokers were the ones motivated to dig deep, cut the check and spite Trump.

Bamberger: Well, the Tour had a great event at Doral for decades. When they changed the date and the format they killed the event. It had nothing going for it as a WGC event, before Trump and not much more with Trump. Finchem did say that sponsors didn't want to share billing with Trump, and I don't think there's any reason to doubt that.

Van Sickle: Sorry, I'm buying the fact that no sponsor wanted any part of Trump Doral and President--er, Mister Trump. So the choice was either find a new sponsor and move or lose a WGC. What's laughable is how Trump portrays this as more jobs exiting the country. What jobs are those? No jobs at Doral were lost. Any jobs related to the event are PGA Tour jobs and the same people will be running the event. As an aside, I love tacos. Who doesn't?

5. The USGA and R&A co-published a study on driving distance that determined from 2003 to the end of the 2015 season, the average driving distance on four of the seven major professional tours increased about 1%, or 0.2 yards per year. The study described this increase as a "slow creep." Would you agree with that characterization?

Shipnuck: It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Sens: It certainly contradicts what the equipment companies have been telling us, not to mention cutting against the average fan's perception. If that's the case, why proliferation in 500-plus yard par fours and the general move to stretch out courses in defense against bombers? Maybe the leap in distance hasn't been as great as generally perceived. But slow creep? You know the old saying, if you torture statistics enough, they'll tell you anything you went them to.

Ritter: How many of those drives were with three-woods? Guys hit it so far now, fairways and hybrids have never been more popular. I agree with Josh. The data may be correct, but it doesn't tell the correct story.

Morfit: Rory blistered one nearly 400 yards on 17 at Muirfield on Sunday, Day hit a drive nearly 400 yards en route to winning the PGA at Whistling Straits, and Bubba? And Dustin Johnson? And Gary Woodland? The strength and flexibility of these players is maximizing the technology improvements in the ball and in clubs. It's the perfect storm, and these guys are absolutely crushing the ball.

Van Sickle: Can we talk? What a crock. Rory averaged 359 on four drives at the 17th last week. Maybe the short hitters didn't get any longer but the long hitters sure did. Last year, there were over 1,000 drives on Tour in excess of 349 yards. This looks like a report designed by the USGA to congratulate itself for its speed limits--which, by the way, have helped decrease interest among the public. The game has been losing players since, oh, gee, since right about exactly when the USGA put in the COR and MOI limits. And since Happy Gilmore hasn't won a tournament, yet, kudos to the USGA for another job well done. Sarcasm.

Passov: China, Russia and North Korea put together have never issued such one-sided, patently false propaganda. How many 308-yard 2-irons does Jason Day need to hit for the ruling bodies to see the light? The old test of a great course used to be, "Did you get to use every club in your bag?" Jack would have to add 1,000 yards onto Muirfield Village to satisfy that test. This is just goofy.

Bamberger: I believe drug-testing should be administered to the ladies and gents who put that report out.

MORE: The 18 Toughest Holes in Golf

6. An enormous alligator lumbering across a Florida golf course became an internet sensation last week. (Video of the reptile, posted to GOLF.com's YouTube page, has attached nearly 15 million views.) What's the most memorable wildlife encounter you've had on a golf course?

Morfit: I was playing with my wife once when she came upon her ball, having hit it just into a mostly empty water hazard. We walked up and peered over the edge to find a very large frog sitting on the golf ball as if it were incubating the Titleist.

Ritter: During a round in Whistler a few years ago a black bear plopped down about 40 yards ahead in the fairway as my wife and I prepared to tee off. I hit one over the bear's head and into the woods, lost the ball, and did not return to re-tee it. Never been so relieved to write an X on the card.

Shipnuck: At the Boulders I was looking for an errant drive when I startled a herd of javelina and they took off in a cloud of dust. Are they wild pigs or giant rodents? Still not sure but I couldn't believe how fast they were.

Sens: I played a course in South Africa called Hans Merensky, which runs along Kruger National Park, where a woman was once trampled to death by an elephant. Baboons were everywhere. Giraffes kept strolling up to me during my approach shots. I saw a leopard eating the remains of some sort of hooved thing in a tree. I also saw a few crocodiles that made that Florida gator look like a caiman. As the South African safari guide I was playing with said to me, "There are a lot of crocs out here that can kill you, and a few that can kill you properly.

Van Sickle: I played the back nine at Semiahmoo once with Sasquatch but he asked me not to mention it. He did brag that he could kick an alligator's ass if it came to that, though.

Bamberger: Most memorable wildlife encounter you've had on a golf course? Myself in a wild rage, on the 18th tee on an island tee at the Leatherstocking course in Cooperstown, after I pull-hooked my last five balls into Lake Otesaga.

Passov: I once hooked a ball into the Oryx Exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo. When I went to see if I could even think about retrieving the ball, a diamondback rattlesnake hissed at me in the desert. Cranking the steering wheel and flooring the golf cart the heck out of there was the best move I made all day.

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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