Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they discuss the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Tiger Woods’s first start of 2019, putting-with-the-flagstick-in phenomena, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed reuniting and more.
1. Bryson DeChambeau, who has become the poster boy for flagstick-in putting, picked up his first European tour victory when he dominated the field at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and won by seven. Meanwhile, at Torrey Pines, Adam Scott — another flagstick-in proponent — shot 65-68 on the weekend to finish runner-up behind Justin Rose. Are these guys on to something? Why haven’t more people followed suit yet?
Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak): For starters, let’s be careful what we attribute success to. If the flagstick helps Adam Scott, great, but it’s way, way, way too early to act like he’s onto something. He gained eight strokes simply approaching the green. Why haven’t a lot of players followed Bryson’s almost-always-in mentality? Well, they’re creatures of habit, far more than you or me. Give them some time.
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Most of these guys will give anything a try if they see someone else having success with it, be it a new shaft, a new driver, or a different way of eating their breakfast (LEFT hand rather than right). It’s something so new and so foreign, it’ll take some time for guys to adjust and give it a whirl. You gotta realize these guys have been incredible at golf for anywhere from 10-40 years, all the while putting with the flagstick out. I foresee more and more people giving it a whirl with Adam and Bryson having high-profile success with it. It’ll be interesting to me when we play events (Augusta and the U.S. Open come to mind) that use thicker, heavier metal flagsticks with no give. I think they would be more prone to having a ball ricochet off them than the fiberglass flagsticks we use day in and day out on tour that have some give.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): Whatever Adam Scott is doing is going to inspire other pros to try the opposite. But Bryson is the bellwether — if he keeps piling up Ws other folks will certainly try it, because why not?
Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): I’m with Alan here. As much as they are creatures of habit, they are also always on the lookout for an edge. And if the flagstick in gives them one — be it real or perceived — we’ll be seeing more and more players go to it with every passing week.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): Nearly every study and piece of research done so far — save the USGA’s “Eh, it should be about the same” handwave – shows this gives a slight advantage. If the only thing working against it is muscle memory, it’s only going to get more popular.
2. Tiger Woods saved his best for last at the Farmers, birdieing five of the final eight holes to shoot 67 on Sunday and tie for 20th. What should golf fans take away from Woods’s 2019 debut?
Zak: It was an impressive start to the season for a 43-year-old man. I kind of expected him to need some warm-up to really get going before playing well. But nope, not with Tiger. He played really well, even at a course where he’s expected to. Golf fans should expect him to be hitting the ground running and rightfully aiming to contend at every event.
Wood: That Tiger is healthy, and he has a good understanding of what his body can do and will set his schedule accordingly. I wouldn’t expect him to chase any points lists. The rest of his career will be focused on four weeks a year. But I’m excited to see how healthy he looked and how much he seemed to be enjoying it.
Shipnuck: Just another reminder that Tiger will always, always grind it out. It was a nice start – now let’s see him build on it.
Sens: This was a rare example of where Tiger actually performed as most of us in this roundtable predicted. A solid early season showing. Not his finest stuff, but good reason to believe that better stuff is soon to come.
Dethier: I am offended on behalf of the Tour at J. Wood’s suggestion that Tiger isn’t chasing FedEx Cup points (although deep down he surely has Presidents Cup points on the brain), but the solid showing reminded us that last year wasn’t a mirage. This felt like an engine rev and then a natural continuation.
3. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were grouped together on Saturday at the Farmers, and all eyes were on them as they stepped out together in public for the first time since Reed’s incendiary post-Ryder Cup comments. How did it go? They hugged. “[The hug] was more kind of sarcasm towards y’all [reporters],” Spieth said. “We’ve seen each other plenty of times at Sony and here and everything’s been the way it normally is. We knew the cameras were on and we knew people were interested in that, so I just thought it would be kind of funny [to hug].” Was this a savvy PR move by Spieth, or a blown out of proportion feud we can officially say is over?
Zak: I think it was the typical version of the Spieth we’ve seen ever since his breakout (2015) season. I don’t think he likes playing along with media storylines, whether they truly exist or not. He hasn’t liked all the questions about his putter, or the 12th hole at Augusta National or all the other things we’ve deemed important as a media group. Sure, it was savvy because the cameras were on. But his answer undermined it. We know that there was a Spieth-Reed story. We know they both weren’t seeing eye-to-eye in Paris. Sarcasm toward it doesn’t make it go away. Coming out and talking about it publicly at any point in the last four months might have made it easier on him Saturday.
Wood: It was fun, and it was funny, and it was something out of the ordinary, which I’m always for. I know they’ve seen each other and been around each other since the Ryder Cup, but this was the first meet-up on any kind of a public stage, so to get it all out of the way and relax the whole group, I thought it was a great gesture.
Shipnuck: It was exquisitely awkward, just as we all hoped!
Sens: Doctor Zak puts it well. Dare we call it almost Trumpian? At least in the way that it used deflection as a form of entertainment that might or might not have illuminated anything real.
Dethier: Reed said afterwards that Spieth is still one of his best friends. Spieth did not say the same. All this showed was media self-awareness, but it was a smart move all the same.
4. The European tour’s Saudi International begins on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, which has been heavily scrutinized since agents of the Saudi government assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. (Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post, was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.) Paul Casey withdrew, citing “human rights violations,” but stars such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Justin Rose are in the field. “Obviously, that was a concern with our team,” Johnson told the AP. “I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. It’s my job to play golf.” Brandel Chamblee ripped into players and the tour for holding the event. Should more pros feel compelled to sit this one out?
Zak: Should they feel compelled to sit out? Yes. Do pro golfers often feel compelled to make changes to their chosen schedule? No. See: 2016 Olympics.
Wood: In my personal opinion, yes, but it’s their career and I don’t think anyone who has a problem with them going sees it as unforgivable. It’s a personal choice. I don’t know that going to Saudi Arabia for a sporting event endorses anything they’ve done, but not going definitely sends a message.
Shipnuck: It’s interesting this one event is getting so much attention when a full quarter of the Euro tour schedule is played in authoritarian countries, including some of the biggest purses of the year. If the tour suddenly developed a conscience it would be in danger of going out of business.
Dethier: Money is everywhere within this — DJ gave a pretty obvious hint that an appearance fee was his main reason for going. Most of these guys like money and hate rocking the boat, and the path of least resistance in this case was honoring their agreement to play.
Sens: The world’s a complicated place and it’s unrealistic to expect pro athletes to fight every battle. But this seemed like a pretty easy opportunity to make a valuable statement. Not a lot of gray area here. Paul Casey is on the right side of a pretty clear line.
5. Haotong Li’s 72nd-hole birdie at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was changed to a bogey after he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for violating Rule 10.2b, Advice and other help. Officials ruled that Li’s caddie had stood on or close to Li’s putting line, which under the new revised Rules of Golf is a penalty. If Li would have backed off that putt and then went through his routine again, it would not have been a violation. While the flagstick and drop rule have received plenty of publicity this month, this was the first time the caddie alignment rule has taken center stage. Your thoughts on the rule, interpretation and punishment?
Zak: Based on the video I saw, it felt like a very aggressive implementation of that rule. I think the rule makes good sense, but I think what Li and his caddie did isn’t close to what the rule was made for. Then again, there’s only so much you can learn from a video.
Wood: This was PATHETIC. This was an overzealous rules official overstepping their bounds when they saw even the smallest opportunity to enforce one of the new rules. The caddie was in the final stages of reading the putt for his player, taking one last look and conveying what he saw to Haotong. They were conversing. Haotong hadn’t grounded his putter behind the ball. To the side, yes, but it’s more than a stretch to interpret his movement as addressing his ball. And why does intent matter for some rules but not for others? It boggles the mind that someone using a long putter can anchor it against their chest and make a stroke as long as they didn’t intend to anchor it, but in this case, intent is irrelevant. I know a caddie’s motions, and he wasn’t doing anything close to lining him up.
Shipnuck: It was an aggressive interpretation but the caddie was indeed helping him line up at some point during Li’s routine. At that level, that’s weak sauce. Line yourself up, pro.
Sens: John took the words out of my keyboard. This should boil down to intent, and the intent here did not appear to be to get an illegal leg up.
Dethier: Well covered above. My question — would this have happened if it wasn’t on the final green? Felt like the official inserting himself at a big moment. I like the rule, but if this was really a penalty I think it needs clarifying.
6. Golf fans were buzzing when South Korean sensation Hosung Choi, known for his amped-up on-course theatrics, received a sponsor’s exemption into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (Feb. 7-10), but not everyone was a fan of the invite. Right, Rory McIlroy? “He’s obviously a pretty good player,” McIlroy said at Torrey last week. “Whether that means he should be taking a spot away from a PGA Tour player at a PGA Tour event, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure a golf shot should mean that much to you that you’re doing that after you hit it, like it’s just trying a little too hard. You have to try hard at golf, but that’s taking it to an extreme.” Fair or foul take from McIlroy?
Zak: When are we going to stop with the “taking a spot away from a deserving player” talk? This happened with Steph Curry, too. Events are granted a certain amount of spots to do with what they please. Giving a spot in the field to a player who can clearly compete in Asia, and who will undoubtedly raise viewership that week without being a ridiculous distraction is EXACTLY what events should do.
Wood: I’m a big proponent of a tournament doing anything they want that they think will raise their value, or get them publicity. I believe there are 156 professionals in the field at AT&T. And let’s take a low number, say, 60 tour pros who were qualified will skip the event for one reason or another. That takes the field down to roughly the 215th player qualified for the event getting in. It’s an old adage, but it applies to almost every single problem in golf. You think Choi is taking your spot? Play better. He’s not taking Phil Mickelson’s spot, or Matt Kuchar’s spot, or Jordan’s or Patrick’s or Sned’s spot. It’s AT&T’s tournament, and they’re putting up a sizable chunk of money to sponsor the event. And inviting Choi is their prerogative. And we’re talking about it, so it seems a pretty shrewd decision from where I stand.
Shipnuck: Gotta love Rory, who always brings the heat. But I agree with Sean – there are dozens of ways a player can earn a spot in the field, irrespective of whether or not Choi is playing. He’ll add a fun element to what is already a loosey-goosey event. I’m looking forward to seeing him in person!
Sens: Since we’re living in the age of chanted slogans, I’ll borrow one from the Bad News Bears: “Let him play! Let him play!” Rory has given us a good quote, but not a great argument, for the reasons my colleagues have all pointed out above.
Dethier: Hosung is marvelous. His celebration twirls are magnificent! A true artist. We should be delighted to have him, Rory included. But the whole thing has seemed genuine so far — I fear the day when he gets too self-aware and plays up the whole thing. All twirling in moderation for maximum effect.