Tour Confidential: Who is most likely to challenge Tiger Woods as the world’s best?

May 6, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Tiger Woods’ biggest threats, Rory McIlroy’s outlook for his 30s, Bubba Watson’s newest sponsorship and more.

1. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said only two players can challenge Tiger Woods as the best in the world right now — Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. (Three-time major winner Brooks Koepka wasn’t fond of this opinion from Chamblee.) Did Chamblee get this one right? If not, who are your picks?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): Both Dustin and Rory are special talents but they’ve also shown plenty of vulnerability in the biggest events. Why does it only have to be two? It’s bizarre not to include Koepka in this discussion, and Justin Thomas has as much firepower as anyone on Tour. This seems like an unnecessary construct for a debate.

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): Well said. I’m with Alan on the odd construct. Even odder is omitting Koepka, who has all the tools DJ and Rory bring, and seems more immune to the brain cramps that have plagued those other two from time to time.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@jeff_ritter): Brandel skipped several guys, including those above, plus Frankie Molinari, who took down Tiger at the Open before faltering against him at Augusta, and Jon Rahm, who clipped Woods at the Ryder Cup. Or, heck, Phil, who beat him at The Match in Vegas. The broader point is that Tiger is once again firmly entrenched in the upper part of golf’s upper crust, and I agree with it.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: The whole concept is half nutty, the anointing of the best player in the world “right now.” The best player in the world for the week of the Masters was Tiger; at the Players it was Rory; at the Ryder Cup, it was Tommy Fleetwood; at the Open it was Molinari. Needless to say, at the U.S. Open and the PGA last year, it was Koepka. Had Molinari taken a more conservative line on 12 on Sunday at Augusta, the conversation would be can Tiger win another major, not is he the best in the world. Molinari would be the best player in the world, alongside BK and the Sunshine Band. Is Woods the best of all-time? That’s a real question. Over the course of a year, you can identify a best player, on the basis of wins and times in contention.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): I actually like the question — who holds the championship belt?! It’s an awesome debate. But Big Game Brooks does belong in that conversation, especially as Rory and D.J. continue to show they’re hardly perfect. I think there’s an upper crust that currently includes Rory, D.J., Koepka, Tiger, Molinari and, maybe a half-step back, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas. That’s largely recency bias and gut feeling talking — but that’s partly the point, isn’t it? Side note: When Koepka retweeted a joke I made on Saturday about this take, I got dragged into Brandel Chamblee’s mentions for about 24 hours and man, that’s an unhealthy place to spend time. I think Chamblee does a great job; he researches hard and always guns for an engaging, entertaining angle. Sure, sometimes he takes things that extra 20% (i.e. Dustin Johnson’s “greatest shot in the history of golf”) but the level of vitriol has me perplexed.

2. Rory McIlroy, who turned 30 over the weekend, headed into the final round of the Wells Fargo as the favorite to win but shot a disappointing 73 to finish eight strokes back of Max Homa. It was McIlroy’s eighth top 10 in 10 starts this season, but wins have been much harder to come by (his sole victory came at the Players in March). Will McIlroy be more or less successful in his 30s than he was in his 20s?

Shipnuck: Less. Rory used to make golf look so easy. Now it’s often an almighty struggle.

Sens: He won four majors and a Players in his 20s. That’s a lot to match in a career, never mind a decade. Throw in the likelihood that he’ll have kids to distract him, and the growing potential for injury that comes with age — he’ll be hard-pressed to equal what he’s already achieved.

Ritter: Four more major titles is doable given Rory’s talent — I mean, Koepka’s won three in the last two years — but it’s a big ask. I think one mark Rors could surpass is the 15 PGA Tour titles he won in his 20s. He’ll play more here because he and his family are Florida-based, and if he keeps putting himself in the mix, I think it’ll lead to more Ws.

Bamberger: Most — not all — of the true greats play better and win more in their 30s than their 20s, from Trevino and Floyd to Phil and Watson, to Nicklaus and Hogan. I’m going with more wins for Rory in his 30s, provided he can play a full schedule for the next decade.

Dethier: In some ways I think his game is steadier now than ever. That may mean more top 10s. I don’t think he bags four more majors, but as fun as it is when he’s in the mix, I’d love to be wrong.

3. Bubba Watson announced a partnership with cbdMD last week, which comes less than two months after the PGA Tour reportedly issued a warning to its golfers about the use of CBD, a natural compound found in cannabis. Bold move by Watson, who said he uses CBD to help him sleep, or nothing to see here?

Shipnuck: I live in California, dude — they’re practically dispensing CBD in the school cafeterias. If the Tour is going to sanction alcohol and gambling, it’s crazy to take a stand against CBD, which has so many health benefits.

Sens: Hold on. Let me finish chewing my gummies… Okay. Nah. A reported warning is not a ban. And I don’t see a ban coming either.

Ritter: I just wonder if the gum might cause a PGA Tour drug test — or in two years, an Olympic drug test — to pop. Since there are apparently still some unknowns with what exactly is in this gum, I think Bubba and anyone involved with it is taking a needless risk — not to their health, but to their reputation if they eventually face a potential suspension.

Bamberger: Bold. He’s the first in. First in is a good place to be in any growth industry. The product should be used with care. Tourgum (registered trademark) is likely coming.

Dethier: Nothing to see here. These guys are all looking to chill out, one way or another. Carry on, Bubba.

Time for professional golf to take more real-world stands.

4. European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley said they’ll be back in Saudi Arabia next season despite the negative criticism. “It was the right decision for our tour,” he said. “We believe our role will help the evolution of the country.” This comes a week after a Ladies European Tour member was so heavily criticized for her partnership with Golf Saudi that she deleted her Twitter posts. Is Pelley making the right decision to return to Saudi Arabia? And do you see the most recent rounds of criticism deterring Tour stars from playing in the event?

Shipnuck: The Euro Tour’s entire business model depends on the filthy lucre of authoritarian regimes — Pelley simply can’t take a stand against Saudi Arabia if he wants to stay in business. But the game’s biggest stars have more freedom to make a statement by not showing up. It will be very interesting to see who can’t resist cashing in next year.

Sens: The European Tour has been in business since 1972. The inaugural Saudi event was last year. The Tour doesn’t need Saudi Arabia in order to stay in business, but it certainly wants the money. Pelley should at least be honest about that part, rather than pretending that he believes that playing a golf tournament there will help the “evolution of the country.” That’s cynical, and transparently so. I expect some big names to steer clear of the event, but not enough to make any real difference. Maybe that’s cynical of me as well.

Ritter: I’d love to see players — all players — take a stand and skip the event, which you’d think would sink it. Sadly, the lure of the almighty dollar, and the Saudi Riyal, is strong.

Bamberger: This bureau to Keith Pelley: Just Say No. Time for professional golf to take more real-world stands. One of the best things to happen this year, in off-course news, came when Jay Monahan stood up in favor of the USGA and the rules it makes. Things have been quieter, in terms of rule-dissing, since then. Golf’s leaders can make a difference, even when their charges might not see it at first. It’s their obligation.

Dethier: Things are generally going pretty well for big-money Tour players, so much so that “taking a stand” only happens when it comes to extremely consequential things looking dumb when dropping from knee height. I don’t know if that makes them wrong or just low on empathy. I think the calculus of a million-dollar appearance fee versus facing some awkward questions and a few critical columns still points in favor of attendance. I wish they wouldn’t.

5. A California high-school golfer made a 10 on the opening hole of a 36-hole tournament last week and yet still managed to storm back and win the event by six. What’s the most remarkable bounce-back-from-catastrophe you can recall from a pro golfer in a single event?

Shipnuck: The greatest bounce back in golf history occurred earlier this year on the 4th hole of MPCC Dunes, when I made birdie after having hit back-to-back shanks on the previous hole. That’s real courage.

Sens: Goosebumps. I look forward to reading the book. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single-round reversal more drastic than Tiger’s at Augusta in ‘97. Out in 40 strokes. An adjustment on the 10th tee and the rest is history.

Ritter: Tiger ‘97 is my pick, too, but here’s one catastrophe we all remember: Ernie Els six-putting for a 10 on the first green at the Masters a few years ago. He almost made the cut the next day, but just to finish that first round took serious resilience.

Bamberger: Curtis Strange at the ‘85 Masters, although he didn’t win. He went 80-65 in the first two rounds, then 68 and 71 on the weekend to finish two shots behind the winner, Bernhard Langer.

Dethier: In 2011, Kevin Na made a 16 and nearly broke 80 — that’s impressive. Probably edges out Team Dethier/Zak going 84-68 at the Gosling’s Invitational last fall.

6. Our Josh Sens broke down the nine putting-green rules every golfer must follow. What’s your No. 1 putting-green no-no?

Ritter: Lag putting is ripe for awkwardness: I feel uneasy while knocking putts across the green and potentially disrupting someone (but I do it anyway, because you gotta get that speed right!), or another player lagging balls at my hole as I’m grooving a few four-footers. A ball in someone else’s line = no bueno.

Shipnuck: Don’t steal my golf balls.

Sens: Never believe that your performance on the putting green will have any bearing on how you putt on the course.

Bamberger: When carrying a LH and RH putter on to a green, never use your lefty model when the putt is uphill and right to left. You want to hook those in, or at least finishing on the high side, and tapped with some oomph. Excuse me: I just read Josh’s instructive piece, about practice greens. Sometimes balls get mixed up. Don’t take the other person’s new ball and leave him or her with your gently used one, even if the make and model are the same.

Dethier: If you and another putter both end up making a putt in the same hole, and you fish your ball out first, you had BETTER remove that other player’s ball, too. Set it aside, on the ground next to the hole. Anything else is pure disrespect and basically begs the golf gods for lipouts the rest of the day.