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Tour Confidential: Is Rickie Fowler Making a Case for the Big 4?

Tour Confidential: Does Phil Have Enough Left in the Tank?
Phil Mickelson stormed out of the gates in 2016 with a T3 finish at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Does he have enough to bring home a win -- or even a major -- this season?

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. Rickie Fowler won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Sunday, moving him to No. 4 in the world. What impresses you most about Fowler's game? And is it premature to welcome him into the Big 4?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): His misses are a lot better since he started working with Butch Harmon and thus he's gotten much more consistent and better in pressure situations. Everybody in the Big 3 has a major so Rickie isn't quite in the Big 4 yet but he's threatening to kick in the garage door.  

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I love the way he plays. I don't know about how technically perfect his swing is, but it's so athletic and alive. Regarding the Big 4, he's close, but not there yet. He needs a major. Sorry, Players Championship.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): He's a big hitter for such a wisp of a guy, but no one aspect of his game stands out to me more than the fact that he seems to have the pressure gene. He can handle it. But yes, premature. Until he wins a major, he is merely a member of the Extremely Rich and Talented 4.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, SI Golf Group (@JeffRitter): Gotta love Rickie's grit and closing ability. In addition to a galvanized swing, Butch Harmon seems to have instilled some added swagger. But you can't call this a Big 4 until Rickie wins a—well, you know ...

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): Fortunes are so fleeting, aren't they? It seems like a long time since we've thought about Jason Day. Clearly, his 2015 slate earned him deserved Big 3 honors. Yet, it's been awhile since the PGA. Day has never really registered on a week-to-week basis, but he's been money in majors. Fowler is omnipresent, in TV ads on leaderboards. He's so good for golf. What impresses me most about his game is his aggressiveness. I'm still going to call him just shy of a Big 4 spot, however, until he wins a major. Having said that, he is certainly a legitimate No. 4 for now.  

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Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): His sense of the moment. All of his victories have featured final-hole fireworks. It's pretty clear now that Fowler has no fear when it's winning time. I don’t want to get hung up on his lack of a major—the guy has won four big-time events in nine months. He just needs to keep going.

2. Jordan Spieth said on Sunday that his travel schedule of criss-crossing Asia, the U.S. and the Middle East the past few months has left him "beat up, mentally and physically," adding that his worldwide tour "won’t be something I do in the future." Rory McIlroy seemed to warn Spieth of this in December. Did Spieth make a tactical error by biting off more than he could chew?

VAN SICKLE: Spieth made a monetary-based decision that any businessman wouldn't be able to pass up. You learn as you go in this job when you're a global attraction so now Spieth has a better idea of what's doable and what isn't. Where's a supersonic Concorde when you need one, man?

BAMBERGER: Live and learn. No big deal. Love the candor.

SENS: Maybe, but I'm sure he's not asking for a pity party and if he throws one, I will bring the world's smallest mariachi band. Lesson learned. Now he knows. Move on. 

RITTER: Spieth may have stretched himself a little thin, but I don't think it'll have any lasting consequences. He's 22! Assuming there's no actual injury, he should feel better in a couple weeks.

PASSOV: I can't comprehend why Spieth would opt for such a demanding early season schedule. I get the appearance money thing, but does he really need more cash right now? The Singapore Open instead of Torrey Pines? Spieth expressed a desire to experience new cultures. Couldn't he do that by actually seeing such places up close, say in November and December and just plug in some lucrative exhibitions, like Jack and Tiger often did, if he wanted the extra compensation? It's head-scratching to me why you'd potentially kill your momentum by traveling like a Delta frequent flier seeking Diamond status in one month.

SHIPNUCK: Obviously. The good news is that it's only mid-January and he has plenty of time to recover. Guys like Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie were making this mistake well into their 30s. If Spieth has already learned his lesson at 22 then, as usual, he's way ahead of the game.

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3. What's the more exciting story coming out of Palm Springs: Jason Dufner winning for the first time since the 2013 PGA, or Phil splitting fairways and T3-ing in his first start out with a retooled swing?

VAN SICKLE: Nothing against The Duff but if Phil is going to play well, that's pretty exciting. That Big 3–Fantastic 4 deal may have to expand to a Fab 5... if he can keep it up, close out a tournament and score some wins. That'd be huge.

BAMBERGER: This is a trick question, right? What could possible be more exciting than watching Jason Dufner playing golf? By the way, regarding the fine print ("winning for the first time since the 2013 PGA") who could possibly tell the difference between Dufner en route to victory or playing to a T62 finish?

SENS: Dufner has more of the feel-good, cup-of-Sterno under the heart warmth to it. But Phil's resurgence would far outstrip the Duf on the Excito-Meter. A lot at stake for Lefty as the clock ticks and yet another U.S. Open approaches.

RITTER: Phil has the Q-rating and it would be great to see him play his way onto the Ryder Cup team this year, but it's also fun to have the Duf back in our lives. How cool was that chip shot off the rocks on the 17th hole? 

PASSOV: Love that Phil opened his 2016 in such fine fashion, but Dufner is the story here. He has really suffered some adversity, between a rocky divorce, poor play, a frighteningly balky putter ... but we love the guy. I mean, the he became a verb—and for awhile, we were all Dufnering in our spare time. His low-key, almost deadpan demeanor and superior ball-striking are back. A very welcome return. 

SHIPNUCK: Having the Duf back is big. I’d be more excited about Phil's brio except every year this time he's touting a new swing or new piece of equipment that's going to change his game in a profound way. Let's give it a few months and see how it goes.

4. What's more interesting for fans: one player, like Tiger, dominating the game or four players, like Jordan, Jason, Rory and Rickie, fighting for the top spot?

VAN SICKLE: Four stars are better than one but it's hard to compare anyone or any group to Tiger. He was one of a kind.

BAMBERGER: For the casual fan, a dominating player. For the nerds assembled here, a dogfight, for sure. Different personalities, swings, mental approaches. You have a different rooting interesting on different days with multiple players in the mix, depending on who did what last time out. The Tiger era was great. This is better.

SENS: Very nice to have an assortment of guys swapping spots at the top. But I doubt we'll see anything more compelling in our lifetime than the kind of dominance Tiger showed at his peak. 

RITTER: Tiger dominated for so long, I think this group of fresh faces is an exciting new twist. The TV ratings seem to support it.

PASSOV: Both are captivating, but Tiger's dominance was more interesting. His brilliance was breathtaking, from margin of victories to holing every clutch putt and all the rest. Plus, there was an overwhelming confidence about him that only greats like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali possessed. Today's Big 4 (or 3 plus 1) reminds me of the mid-1980s to the mid-'90s, when Faldo, Ballesteros, Norman and Price (and some great supporting players) fought for supremacy. It was compelling, but not in a drop-whatever-you're-doing way that Tiger commanded. 

SHIPNUCK: Ideally, it’s a mix, with one guy making history, to reel in the casual fan, while a host of likeable pursuers keeps things interesting. What Tiger did was mesmerizing but it was definitely a downer that he never had a worthy challenger, with the exception of Phil, from April 2004 until the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. 

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5. Do you expect the Euro Tour's slow play fines and public shamings will have any meaningful impact on pace of play? If not, what policy would you like to see put in place on the pro tours?

VAN SICKLE: I don't see the new policy having much effect. You've got to go all in on the public shaming and take away something other than money from players. Like, say, courtesy cars or preferred parking. Hit 'em where it hurts: in the perks.

BAMBERGER: Shots! That's the only thing that will speed guys up. Assess shots for a first offense. I think the players would find that if they played way faster, and more instinct, they would actually play better. They think things to death, at times.

SENS: I grew up in Puritanical New England, so I'm a huge fan of public shamings. But if you want players to feel the real fear of god, you've got to warn then assess penalties.  

RITTER: Fines and shames are a start, but the only way to make a real dent in slow play is to consistently hand out penalty strokes. During a round, I like being placed on the clock as strike one, and a one-stroke penalty as strike two.

PASSOV: Let's give it a chance. I don't think it's the ultimate solution, but it will definitely help and that's a great first step. The public shamings are important, more so than the fines, as eventually, the public will pick up on who the culprits are and will turn up the heat that way. Still, I don't get John Paramor picking on Jordan Spieth at Abu Dhabi. If you're keeping up, and no one's waiting, there is no harm, period. 

SHIPNUCK: Yeah, it’s going to have a massive effect. I mean, fining Spieth $3,000 is going to devastate him financially.

6. Shorts on the course?! It's true: the European Tour will now allow players to wear shorts during practice rounds. What's your feeling about pros baring their legs, and should shorts be permitted during tournament play?

VAN SICKLE: Nobody cared when caddies started wearing shorts after a big fight and claims that it was going to ruin golf. Nobody will ultimately care if players wear shorts, either. At least not until knee socks make a comeback.

BAMBERGER: Well, if you're going to allow them for practice rounds you should allow them for tournament rounds. But a certain formality, forced and out-of-step with the times it may be, is part of what sets golf apart. I'd say stick with the trouser requirement, except in extreme heat. 

SENS: Yes, golf could stand to rinse some of the starch out and relax on certain fronts. But is this really the way to show how hip to the times we are? How many players are really burning to abandon slacks, especially in this age of lightweight, moisture-wicking fabrics?  More to the point, do fans really want this? Does anyone feel a pressing need to see Keegan Bradley's thighs after a long winter? It is, as the politicians say, a distraction. 

RITTER: Just seems amateurish for pros to flash calf in tournament rounds, but I'm fine with shorts for practice rounds and pro-ams.

PASSOV: Golfers once wore ties and heavy woolen coats, right? Women at Wimbledon in 1900 played tennis in corsets and court-length skirts. Hey, cultural trends and societal norms change with the times. It would take some getting used to, but I'd be completely in favor of pros playing in shorts during competition. 

SHIPNUCK: I guess I’m turning into an old fuddy-duddy but I like the cleaner look of pants. Even at the U.S. Open or PGA, when it’s 100 degrees, I eschew shorts. Like the players, the golf tourney is my office, and unless you’re a lifeguard it’s kinda weird to wear shorts to work.

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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