Tour Confidential: What Should We Expect From Tiger Woods' Return?
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. Tiger Woods returns to action at his own Hero World Challenge this week for the first time since the PGA Championship. What do you expect from Tiger and what would you consider a good week for him?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think you will see a super-relaxed Tiger Woods. I just have the feeling he's entering a new, less intense, more open phase. I don't know if his golf will be as good as it was in '13, but it will be better than in '14. He's shot some super-low scores at Isleworth. I imagine he'll play extremely well, likely contend, possibly win.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): I expect Tiger to get a massive amount of attention and shoot at least one reasonably low round, maybe even get into contention. That would be a good start for him.
Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): This seems like deja vu all over again. Hasn't this question already been asked and answered several times in 2014? Hey, there are only 18 players -- though they're all world-class. A top 10 would be nice. I would consider it a good week if Tiger played pain-free and finished all four rounds. I could also see a Top 5 here. There's no pressure, as there are no FedEx Cup points up for grabs, and few know the Isleworth course as well as Tiger does. I'm rooting for him. Golf needs him back.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): You know how Woods often says, "I just need more reps," and it always sounds phony? This time it's true. For a change, I doubt he's worried much about results. Just looking to get back in the flow, maybe even testing out any tweaks that he and Como have worked on.
Eamon Lynch, managing editor, Golf.com (@eamonlynch): The event moves this week from California to his old home club of Isleworth in Orlando, and he's been hitting balls for weeks at his new home club, Medalist. With a small field on a familiar course, a healthy Woods can certainly contend and even win. Given the year he's had, finishing 72 holes in decent shape (in both health and score) ought to be considered a solid showing.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Woods' layoff has been long and the stakes this week are relatively low, so I look for him to show some rust, flash a few good shots and finish middle of the pack. The biggest thing: get through it without re-injury. The cameras will be watching for any sign of a wince.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): A good week for Tiger is to complete four rounds injury-free and to look somewhat explosive and supple. A great week would be to hit more than half his fairways and not miss any putts inside four feet. I've stopped trying to predict what will happen next with this guy, so let's just sit back and enjoy the show.
2. Jordan Spieth became the forgotten young star late in the season. Where does his breakthrough win at this week's Australian Open place him on the PGA Tour pecking order going into 2015?
VAN SICKLE: American golf doesn't have a No. 1 player at the moment. Tiger is coming off the DL and Bubba Watson is freakishly inconsistent. Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk aren't racking up wins. All Spieth needs is a couple more wins to go from being a player with potential to being America's top gun. The space at the top is currently vacant.
SHIPNUCK: It's very important but not quite enough. Spieth clearly has the game and determination to get himself in contention regularly. Getting out of his way and going low was quite impressive, but I still want to see him prevail in a Sunday dogfight. Once he shows he can do that, the sky's the limit.
LYNCH: The daunting fan expectations for Spieth in '15 won't be any higher than his own hopes, but American golf could really use breakout years from him and Rickie Fowler in the big events. It’s easy to forget that he's still just 21, but his performance in Australia -- not just winning, but the grace with which he treated fans and media obligations -- was very impressive. Winning breeds confidence, which breeds wins, as Rory proved by using this event as a springboard to a career season.
PASSOV: So much end-of-the-year talk about Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk and of course, Rory and Rickie, deservedly so. In the first half of 2014, however, Jordan Spieth was the PGA Tour's big story, already one of the pre-tournament favorites in every event he entered, even the majors. He became the "nearly man," with close calls at the Masters and at the Players, yet posted only one top 10 after that. Growing pains? Sophomore slump? I don't know, but I wasn't worried. Spieth's T3 at Japan's Dunlop Phoenix last week and his incredible win at the Australian Open reinforce that he's the best Under-25 player in the game.
BAMBERGER: Spieth and Patrick Reed are steely. They are from another era. I think those two are way above the others, among the under-30 crowd, except of course for McIlroy.
RITTER: He's already won on Tour and threatened at the Masters, so Spieth was already on the short list of favorites to win a first career major this season. Australia only further illustrates that his time is approaching.
SENS: Spieth had what felt like a sophomore slump last season, but only because his rookie year was so huge. It's easy to forget how ridiculously young he is, but not hard to imagine him closing the deal on a major this year.
3. Gary Player won seven Australian Opens, Jack Nicklaus six, Greg Norman five. Adam Scott won it in 2009, Rory McIlroy in 2013, and now Spieth this year. Where does the Australian Open rank in terms of golf's most prestigious events?
SHIPNUCK: I believe it's the fifth most important tournament in golf. The roll call of winners is tremendous, and so is the rota of courses.
PASSOV: The glittering champions list is impressive. Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson are other winners at a national championship that dates to 1904. Australia is a fantastic sports country, golf especially, with its superb courses and disproportionate number of great players. However, the field isn't very deep and it's hard to rank it among the elite events when they have to pay appearance money to get the international stars to show up.
BAMBERGER: Well, it doesn't get you in the Masters, but when you look at who has won it and where it has been played, it's way, way up there. As far as national championships, I'd say it's No. 3, after the U.S. Open and the British Open.
VAN SICKLE: The Australian Open is a tournament with terrific history. While some great players have won the event, it's not an event that draws a strong worldwide field. It would be interesting to see the big Aussie events, which have struggled financially, turn into World Golf Championship events. That would draw more Americans (grudgingly and, no doubt, whining all the way) and pave the way toward a world tour, which, by the way, I'm not sure would be good for golf in America.
RITTER: I knew none of those stats before the question was posed. I think the Aussie Open ranks somewhere between the Skins Game and the Masters, maybe a shade closer to the former than the latter.
SENS: In the pre-WGC era, it carried more weight, but as big money international events became more and more prominent, its prestige became rooted more in nostalgia as its place was usurped by some of those cash-rich overseas events. But there's an obvious effort to bring back some of the old glory, and with recent winners like Scott and Spieth, it's working. Like the Scottish Open, it has always appealed to that breed of purist who believes a competition played on a cool, demanding course in a serious golf country matters more than the number of zeros in the purse. So let's put it on that level now: a next-tier major, a healthy notch below the big four and not at the level of the Players Championship, but gaining ground. Are you still awake?
LYNCH: Like most national Opens, its status is diminished due to the combination of money, scheduling and apathy that dictates where the talent shows up to play these days. It has always relied on appearance fees to draw top players -- from Jack to Rory -- but prestige is no longer a draw for players to commit. The Western Open was once widely considered a major but was subsumed into the FedEx Cup playoff series in 2007 and renamed. That’s what prestige is valued at in the modern game.
4. A New York Times article on high water usage in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., mentioned Phil Mickelson’s home putting green. Has golf done enough to repair its reputation as an environmental bogeyman? What more can golf courses do?
BAMBERGER: Golf IS an environmental bogeyman. I suppose the simple answer is use less water, more reclaimed water and redefine our expectation of what a course should look like. I loved Pinehurst in brown, but much more significantly, Donald Trump did not.
PASSOV: I for one am sick and tired of golf serving as a pincushion for every organization with an agenda. Golf has done an acceptable job of refuting its environmental bogeyman status, but it clearly hasn't done enough. Development means commerce -- and jobs. Would you rather see a parking lot built? At least the green space that golf yields has aesthetic value and, in the past two decades, often serves to establish or restore wildlife habitats. We're at least four decades removed from the "draining wetlands and paving them over" era. It's time for the lazy, mainstream media to give this easy target a rest. Still, courses should follow the Pinehurst lead, by yanking out superfluous turf and watering only enough to keep the grass alive in the key strategic, playable areas.
RITTER: Golf has done a lot to repair its image in this area, with the Pinehurst U.S. Opens as the ultimate showcase. Brown is the new green. It'll take time, but I think you'll continue to see more courses adopt the Pinehurst model.
LYNCH: Parking lots don’t need to be watered, but I don’t expect critics of golf would endorse paving over courses. Many golf courses can reduce water usage while also improving playability -- just look at Pinehurst No. 2. But many face tough obstacles, ranging from obstinate members who want their courses lush like Augusta National to lousy designs that can’t be made to play firmer and faster. There has been progress, but that won’t ever be enough for lazy critics who see a sprinkler and want to file a criminal complaint.
VAN SICKLE: Water is the new oil in the 21st century. It's going to be a valuable commodity. Golf will have to learn to get browner, not greener. If you saw the recent "60 Minutes" piece on how California is draining its underground aquifer at an alarming rate, you know water is going to be a four-alarm topic in arid areas like the West and Southwest.
SENS: Golf has come a long way since the height of its silly waterfall-in-a-subdivision design and maintenance days. Some of that awakening was forced upon the industry as the golf economy contracted. But give the game credit for recognizing that a great course doesn't have to be some surreal emerald extravagance. Now there's the matter of educating the American golfing public, which still complains too often about the slightest imperfections -- which aren't really imperfections in the end.
SHIPNUCK: Here in California the drought is so acute even a very exclusive private club like the Preserve has turned off the sprinklers, pretty much keeping only the greens and tees alive. It's only going to get worse, and not just here. Pinehurst offered a new template and golfers better learn to embrace brown courses with lotsa waste areas, because they're coming whether Donald Trump likes it or not.
5. The Holiday Shopping Season started in earnest Friday. What new golf gear is on your list for Santa this year?
SHIPNUCK: Have you seen the ridiculously cool stuff at Tattoo Golf? They've brought a skate-punk sense of style to the links. I'm not sure I'm cool enough to wear it, but I'm gonna try. I also love the stuff at GFORE. They're pretty well known for making beautiful golf gloves, which you can customize in different colors, but their shoes are probably the most stylish on the market and super comfy. I've been testing out two new sets of irons and love them both. The TaylorMade RSi-1s are the easiest-to-hit clubs I've ever tried; if you don't cold shank it, the ball rockets off the face. Mizuno JPX-850s are almost too beautiful to get dirty. Almost. I feel like a boss just having them in the bag.
VAN SICKLE: Just saw a cool launch monitor that's portable, the size of a book, is operated by battery and gives you all the important swing data, even shot yardage (factoring in elevation about sea level). It's by Ernest Sports, the ES14, and at $595 it's way more affordable than launch monitors in the past. Do I need one? I don't know. Do I want one? Hell, yeah.
BAMBERGER: I am looking for a 6-hybrid that does not pop-up but do not know if such a club exists.
PASSOV: Baby needs new shoes. My nearly three-year-old Eccos have served me well, but it's time for some new ones. My 7-year-old irons and 15-year-old sand wedge are close to expiration dates as well, though I'm not going to pressure St. Nick too much. He's got enough on his plate.
LYNCH: I’ll be poking around all the new drivers and compiling a colorful wardrobe for ‘15. Anything to distract attention from the crap swing I take into every season.
RITTER: I could use a driver and a putting stroke. At least one of those would look good under the tree.
SENS: Have they come out with a putter that cures the yips?
6. Happy birthday to Lee Buck Trevino, who turns 75 on Dec. 1. What’s your favorite memory of Trevino and where does he rank among the all-time greats of the game?
PASSOV: Lee Trevino was the prime attraction at my very first PGA Tour event, the 1971 Cleveland Open at Beechmont Country Club. He had just come off his U.S. Open playoff victory at Merion and his autograph was tougher to get than Nicklaus' and Palmer's. Yet there he was, smilin' and signin' for all who thrust pen and paper in front of him. His background of poverty, his legendary betting matches and his one-of-a-kind ball-striking skills make him one of golf history's best stories. I'm a fan of his 1984 PGA Championship win, 10 years after he had last won a major, as if he were saying, "Remember me? I haven't forgotten how to play." His record of six majors and a bunch of minors is remarkable, given he accomplished this in the Nicklaus era. Overall, he's clearly top 15 of all time and I'll bet those who reward shot-making genius over number of wins would place him Top 10.
BAMBERGER: Lee Trevino talks golf better than anybody. He should still be on TV. I didn't see him win at Rochester at the '68 U.S. Open, but I have loved watching the replays. It was moving, at Fred Couples' Hall of Fame induction this year, to hear how much Trevino shaped Fred's life. Trevino called him Cupcakes and Fred never forgot.
SHIPNUCK: I was recently rereading some stories from his breakthrough win at the 1968 U.S. Open -- it's one of the great performances ever, on and off the course. Of the 10 best quotes in golf history, about half of them came from Trevino that week. What a legend. I think he ranks alongside Watson and Palmer and Sarazen, just below the Nicklaus-Woods-Hogan-Jones-Nelson-Player-Hagen tier.
LYNCH: Years ago I interviewed him for a story about Ray Floyd. He was one floor below me in a Los Angeles hotel, but would only talk on the phone. He spoke about their years partying together on Tour, how they would wake for the final round in their golf clothes from the day before with the ice still melting in the glass beside them. Then he grew wistful and said, “You know what the best thing was about those days? When you woke up and everything hurt, that wasn’t the best you were going to feel that day. Now when you hurt, it hurts all the way to bed at night.” Trevino is, by his own admission, a complicated and sometimes dark personality, but he hauled himself up from nothing to become one of the finest players the game has ever seen. And he never lost the perspective earned on that journey. Golf would be immeasurably better off if it had more guys like him today.
SENS: I like the time his playing partner (Sam Torrance, if memory serves) said, "I don't feel like talking today, Lee." And Trevino replied. "That's okay. I don't need you to talk. I just need you to listen." In the absence of a time machine, these all-time debates are just wild speculation, and I'm not sure you can really compare eras, now that the game is global and a lot more real athletes are competing. I'll put him in the top three of his era. And somewhere in the top 15 all-time.
RITTER: My favorite memory is the one time I've interviewed him -- he just got on a roll and started telling story after story. A character and true gentleman. There's no one else like him.
VAN SICKLE: Trevino's first U.S. Open win in 1968 made him an overnight superstar as The Merry Mex. His three-week stretch in 1971 when he won three Opens in a row -- U.S., Canadian and British -- remains a feat that has never been matched. That was pretty cool.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.