Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods Shakes Off the Rust
1. A rusty Tiger Woods finished in last place at the 18-player Hero World Challenge, his first event since the PGA Championship. What did you think of Tiger’s play this week -- and what’s up with all those flubbed chips?
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Woods' swing looked more natural, and I didn't see him doing all that "casting" stuff, which was nice. He hit some bombs, cut some doglegs, all of which was encouraging. The worst shot I saw him hit was on 18 Friday, when he set up for a big cut but hit a straight one. That was due to a mud ball after the rain delay. As for the flubbed chips, Zach Johnson told me it was happening to all of them, not just Tiger. Clearly, though, it was happening to Tiger more. Woods cited his "different release pattern," and Steve Stricker, his playing partner Sunday, pretty much echoed that: "He's always been one where his long game gets into his chipping and putting." It got in his head and it was painful to watch. I hope this is just a one-time deal and not the start of a trend -- something akin to Steve Sax suddenly losing the ability to throw to first base.
Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): If Tiger finished the four rounds pain-free, he did great. Hey, he was last place, but he had company there (thank you, Hunter Mahan) and it's not like he shot a million. He was even par, pretty respectable after a first-round 77. And Tiger wasn't the only one flubbing chips on the tight, into-the-grain lies on shots that often played steeply uphill. Zach did it a few times and Bubba took three efforts to reach the green Sunday at the par-5 17th. It's a shot you must hit with conviction -- or use a hybrid, like I would.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): When you make a swing change, you spend all your time on the long game fine-tuning the swing and not on the short game. He was rusty -- and sick on top of that -- so I wouldn't really make anything out of his performance other than he played 72 holes and his back seems fine. His swing didn't look bad, either. This was just a warm-up.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It was a rusty performance and fitting end to a rust-bucket season. The good news for Woods is that he seemed healthy. The bad news is that his major-winning window is closing quickly, and the pressure is only going to be ratcheted up in 2015. He and Chris Como have a lot of work to do.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It was interesting, especially after Woods said he had been looking at his boyhood swing. But he grew up on a soft balata ball and a steel shaft, and he was so skinny. I'm guessing he can take inspiration from it, but more than that, I don't know. As for his flubbed chips, it's like his new old line: Father Time is undefeated.
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com (@eamonlynch): Woods was as rusty as you'd expect given that he hadn't hit a competitive shot in four months. His full swing will be a work in progress for some time, but that was the kind of ghastly short game showing that can leave scars. We heard about the mitigating factors -- tight lies, grainy Bermuda rough -- but he chunked nine times. That suggests poor technique, not tough conditions. His struggles around the greens also served to obscure how mediocre his putting performance was. The spotlight has been on Tiger's full swing for quite some time, but this week was a stark reminder that his once spectacular short game has been badly degraded. That's what used to turn those likely 77s into 72s or 73s on bad days. Not now.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): You could say the flubs were rust, but by all accounts he chipped beautifully in practice rounds. So they're more significant than they seem -- another sign of vulnerability from a player who years ago seemed impervious to pressure. Throw in a bunch of missed short putts in recent years and the scar tissue from “The Big Miss” and it may be that Woods' biggest challenges going forward are going to be mental, not physical.
2. Jordan Spieth torched the field at the Hero World Challenge, shooting 63-66 for a 10-shot win just a week after winning the Australian Open. How much weight should we give these two late-season wins and will this momentum carry over to next year?
PASSOV: Spieth is beating big names and lapping great fields with head-scratchingly awesome low numbers. As great as he has been at age 21, he hadn't been able to close much as a pro. Now he's doing that, and in spectacular fashion. These wins -- even if they aren't official PGA Tour wins -- carry sledgehammer impact going into 2015.
MORFIT: I give him more credit for winning in Australia, against Rory and Adam Scott and a full field of players. But the Hero win will also help. Playing with a lead isn't that easy, and he handled it well. I look for him to play better on the weekend next year when he gets into contention.
LYNCH: Separate the form he showed in winning by 10 from the impact of winning by 10. Spieth is taking a long break now. His hot form may not be with him on his return, but a runaway win against a quality field fortifies the psyche. The confidence and belief he earned this week will be with him for some time.
RITTER: Spieth is on a great run, and you can't sneeze at 10-shot victories. If the Masters was next week, I'd make him the favorite, but a lot can happen in five months. This is the best stretch of Spieth's career -- I have no idea how long he can keep this going, but it'll be fun to find out.
SHIPNUCK: They mean a ton, to Jordan if nobody else. And that's all that really matters. This kid has all the tools, the only missing piece was confidence and now he has that in spades. Watch out.
VAN SICKLE: You can give weight to the Aussie Open, that's a nice win against an international field. At Isleworth, you can credit Spieth for some impressive play, but c'mon, that's not a real golf tournament. Eighteen guys? It's a travesty that world-ranking points are awarded. They shouldn't be. But it does signal that Spieth has turned his game around from a disappointing finish to last season and maybe, just maybe, he's going to be the guy to beat on Tour in 2015. We should be so lucky.
BAMBERGER: Winning begets winning. Except when it does not.
3. Keegan Bradley had a great week on the greens at the Hero World Challenge after ditching his belly putter in favor of a regular wand. One year away from the start of the anchoring ban, should all the anchorers follow Bradley's lead and switch right now, or should they wait until they absolutely have to?
SHIPNUCK: They pretty much have to already -- I think it takes a whole season to adapt to such a change. If Bradley keeps putting well he'll speed up some other guys' timelines.
MORFIT: If I anchored I'd change now if at all possible. By using the long wand in the months leading up to it being abolished, players are only leaving themselves open to second-guessing if they win a major with it.
PASSOV: Tough call. It has to be an individual decision. All credit to Bradley, but I'm thinking that if I'm a professional trying to earn the best living I can, I'm going to putt with the belly putter until the final hour, provided I'm a better putter via anchoring.
BAMBERGER: Customer personal preference. Adam Scott looks like a different man with the broomstick, and so does Michael Allen on the senior tour. I suspect they'll hang on right through the expiration date.
LYNCH: It depends how confident they are that they'll have a meaningful Tour career post-ban. I'd place more faith in those looking for workarounds or alternatives now than in those who will ride the anchor all the way to the bottom.
VAN SICKLE: The anchored putters should putt the way they think they can play the best. There's plenty of time at the end of the season to work on a new style. But they should at least be thinking about it.
RITTER: Depends on the player, but credit to Keegan for getting out in front of the rule change and demonstrating that a comfortable transition can happen. Two guys on the regular tour I wonder about are Adam Scott and Tim Clark. Can they make the adjustment? Will they start the transition in 2015 or ride their brooms to the end? Several Champions Tour pros are also affected, so this will be a story to watch in the upcoming year.
4. Rory McIlroy is everyone’s choice for men’s player of 2014, but you can make a case for Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, Michelle Wie or Lydia Ko as women’s player of the year. Who is your pick and why?
LYNCH: Wie. Player of the Year awards are often as much about impact as performance, and her U.S. Open win was the standout moment this season. The fact that legitimate POY cases can be made for four Tour stars is proof how good this season was for the LPGA.
VAN SICKLE: Winning the U.S. Open doesn't make you Player of the Year. It's the whole body of work and unfortunately, injury derailed Michelle's momentum. I like Stacy's consistency, I think that earns her the honor.
RITTER: Lewis was the best player in the first half of the year, Park had the strongest second half, and Wie scored the most resonant victory. But Ko's three wins came early, midway and late, and her season-ender clinched the tour's year-long points race. I'd give it to the 17-year-old by a nose.
MORFIT: Inbee Park. She was consistently better than the other names on this list, she won a major (LPGA Championship), and she finished the year No. 1 in the world. Now as far as whom I'm buying stock in for 2015, I'll go Ko.
BAMBERGER: Hmmm. Difficult because I don't follow it closely enough. I will go with Lewis, because, like Tiger in his prime, she seems TO bring it every time out, and that she be rewarded.
PASSOV: Inbee Park gets the nod. Three wins, including one major, the Wegman's LPGA Championship and a Tour-leading Top-10 percentage (74 percent) edges Lewis, who had three wins, but no majors. Kudos to Lewis for winning Scoring and Money crowns as well, but Park was a close second in both categories. Wie won the biggest title, the U.S. Women's Open, but had only one other win, and missed a few important events due to injuries. Had she been healthy and played, she might have catapulted over everybody.
SHIPNUCK: Wie moved the needle more than anybody else, Ko is the most intriguing player in the game, but Lewis has to be player of the year. She won the scoring and money title and spent most of the year at No. 1 in the World Ranking. She earned it.
5. Two multiple major champions ended long win droughts this week, with Padraig Harrington winning the Indonesian Open and John Daly winning the Beko Classic pro-am event in Turkey. At age 43, can Harrington find his way back to the top of the game? And what do you expect from Daly in the years ahead (he turns 50 in 2016)?
LYNCH: Harrington was ranked 385th in the world going to Indonesia, so a climb back near the top at his age seems unlikely. Still, what he has lacked in results of late he makes up for in resolve. He said Sunday that he's using his upcoming 49 days off to make 10,000 practice swings, which hints at why he has fallen so far. His steely determination may at least make him a semi-regular contender again. As for Daly's win, a glance at the quality of the field he beat in Turkey suggests that his $8,000 check for the win was about right. Daly and the Champions Tour need each other -- he for the money, it for the exposure -- but it’s difficult to imagine him ever being more than an erratic (if occasionally brilliant) sideshow.
PASSOV: An Indonesian Open title is nice -- I mean, who hasn't dreamed of winning the Indonesian Open -- but it's a lot like Harrington's wins in the Irish Professional Championship that he would use as a British Open tune-up: the trophy's great, but the field wasn't. Too much baggage for Paddy in recent years to find his way back to the top, but I'm rooting for him anyway. As for John Daly, he'll be one of the greatest additions to the Champions Tour in many years. Until then, I'm not expecting much.
MORFIT: Harrington is capable of getting back into the mix of elite players, at least every so often, but I think there are going to be fewer and fewer opportunities for the 40-somethings to pick off big tournaments, and that owes to the heroics of Rory, Jordan, Rickie, Billy Ho, Patrick Reed and the rest of the 20-something super group that made so much noise in '14.
BAMBERGER: Well, I don't know anything about how Harrington is playing. He had a good week. But if Daly can make it to 50 -- here's hoping, kid -- he should be a force on the senior tour, playing shorter, wider courses with slightly slower greens and no cut hanging over his head. Much like what happened with Jim Dent, with similar skills, when he turned 50.
VAN SICKLE: Harrington always needs to challenge himself to get better, and sometimes he's made changes that didn't pan out. Once you've made changes and chased them for a year or more, it's tough to get back to where you were before. He is dedicated and smart, but he's also at the age when a lot of players lose their putting strokes. You can't win a lot on Tour unless you putt great. Daly winning anything is a surprise, given his aversion to practice, fitness and moderation in all things. Daly still appeals to a certain segment of golf fans. If he can keep some game together, he can have a sweet run in senior golf.
RITTER: Doubt for Harrington will ever again be a consistent major threat, but it’s good to see him win again. As for Daly, I think his recent engagement, and the off-course stability that comes with it, have been good for him. He'll never be a consistent player in any shape or form, but maybe, just maybe, he can cash some checks next year and go on to build a nice career for his new family on the senior circuit.
SHIPNUCK: I did a Golf Plus story on Harrington from Pebble this year and it's clear he's still as motivated as ever. I think Harrington has one more run in him. The only prediction I'll make about Daly is that whatever happens going forward, it won't be boring.
6. Later this week, Golf.com will launch our new website. How has the Internet and social media changed pro golf?
MORFIT: Rickie Fowler and Butch Harmon have worked together largely by sending video back and forth on their phones. That didn't happen so much in Hogan's day. Also: shot-by-shot analysis of Tiger on Twitter. That turned into a trending topic and even a special Twitter account devoted to his chili-dipping at the Hero World Challenge. The poor guy. That didn't happen so much in Hogan's day, either.
LYNCH: The Internet -- and social media in particular -- is about removing barriers to communication, and some players have built a career on being more accessible to fans and more astute marketers for their sponsors. Exhibit A: Rickie Fowler. Once in a while we get a reminder that golf has plenty of people -- Ted Bishop and Steve Elkington, to name but two -- whose reputations were safer in an analog world.
VAN SICKLE: The Internet and social media have changed the way people follow golf, but the game itself is the same. What's different now is you can read tweets and photos from Rory McIlroy himself, unfiltered by some writer, and maybe feel a stronger connection to the player. Reading habits have changed, and many people are satisfied with a headline instead of a story, hence Conde Nast killing off Golf World magazine. It's not going to be good for readers in the long run.
PASSOV: We've gotten to know the pros much better personally. Now I know where Michelle Wie likes to shop and whether Ian Poulter enjoyed his airline meal. Consider me immeasurably enriched!
SHIPNUCK: The biggest thing, to me, is that it's brought the most international of sports into our living rooms, and pockets. When I started writing for SI in '94 it was virtually impossible to follow what was happening on all the tours around the world. Now we know everything, instantly.
RITTER: The depth and breadth of golf information and analysis has never been more vast. It's also never been available so conveniently -- once you fire up your first smartphone, there's no going back. The social media stuff can be fun and it can be nasty and for some (like Ted Bishop) it can be costly, but overall I don't think there's been a better time to be a golf fan, or fan of any sport.
BAMBERGER: The professional game is way less personal than it once was and all the tweeting, even though it gives the appearance of being personal, is actually the opposite. It's posturing, it's often untrue, and it's dull. I've never missed Dan Jenkins in SI, Herb Wind in The New Yorker and Jaime Diaz in Golf World (mailbox version) more. But good luck to us.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.