What have we learned this year? Is the Kiawah Island Ocean course a quality venue? What’s your strongest memory of the War by the Shore? Are Tiger and Phil up to the task? And who will win the PGA Championship? SI convened a panel of experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle as well as special contributor John Garrity, Golf Magazine senior writer Cameron Morfit and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) — to take up these and other questions.
Van Sickle: Three majors down, one to go. What’s the most important thing we’ve learned in 2012?
Garrity: That nobody — not Rory, not Luke, not Tiger — is ready to dominate. We discovered that golf pundits like ourselves overreact to every new winner. It’s the age of Geoff Ogilvy! No, it’s the Charl Schwartzel era! No, it’s Webb Simpson!
Van Sickle: It really is the Webb Simpson era, John. I named it that last year.
Garrity: No. What it is, actually, is a different guy winning every week.
Anonymous Pro: That’s right. We’ve had 16 different winners in the last 16 majors. The top players are doing nothing. To me, the biggest thing is that Luke Donald hasn’t even contended in a major. If you’re the Number 1 player in the world, you ought to contend.
Shipnuck: We learned that Tiger has scar tissue. He has proved that he can play spectacular golf — enough to get three wins. But he gets to the majors, and he’s vulnerable. It makes the Tiger question more interesting. Can he win the tournaments that really matter? We don’t know.
Morfit: You can say the same thing about Rory. Everyone said, Golf has a new boy king, we’re in the Rory era. I now doubt that he’ll get to that point. We knew he was streaky, even when he won the U.S. Open. But we got so excited. Garrity is right. Rory is not the next coming of Tiger. That’s a good thing in some ways, and also a disappointment.
Shipnuck: Rory’s regression is one of the big stories of the year. He’s looking one-dimensional. Give him a soft course, he can hit it long and high and contend. Give him firm and fast — typical major conditions — and he’s out of his comfort zone. It’s going to be harder for him to win majors than we thought. Then there’s the celebrity aspect, which he seems to enjoy maybe too much.
Bamberger: I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Rory came out of his funk and won the PGA. It’ll be hot; the fairways and greens will be soft. Those are conditions that he likes.
Van Sickle: My concerns are his putting and his drive. I don’t think he’s a great putter. If you’re even thinking of being dominant, you have to be a great putter. Being pretty good isn’t good enough. Second, it’s a new world out there, where you become a superstar after one major, get more money than you’ll ever spend and hang out with gorgeous tennis players. That’s way more fun than pounding balls and working on your game.
Morfit: A guy who wants it is Lee Westwood. He is abandoning the farm in England and moving his family to Florida. He’s throwing everything into golf for one last-ditch effort to get the most out of his talent.
Shipnuck: Too bad he’s pushing 40.
Van Sickle: We’re headed for Kiawah Island’s Ocean course for the PGA. I confess, I don’t think much of the course. Do you love it or hate it?
Garrity: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it in 20 years. All I remember from the 1991 Ryder Cup is that there was an ocean on your left or your right, depending which nine you were walking. Also, there was about a $26 cab ride from the 9th green to the 10th tee.
Anonymous Pro: South Carolina in August is an odd choice. What, was Southern Hills booked? This PGA is going to be a sauna.
Van Sickle: Or a steam bath.
Anonymous Pro: Maybe both. The course is going to be Whistling Straits South. Too much target golf, too many forced carries and semi-blind shots. There will be train wrecks galore.
Van Sickle: Pete Dye had the chance to build America’s best links course, but he didn’t do it. You build a course exposed to the ocean, where it’s windy most of the year, but you design the holes so nobody can play a low shot into the green. It doesn’t make sense.
Morfit: The course was supposed to be less exposed and play behind the dunes, but Pete’s wife, Alice, said, Look at all the views you could have if the course was raised. Lo and behold, it became more exposed.
Bamberger: We view these courses as if we were playing them ourselves. The TV and Tour officials don’t. There’s nothing exciting about Lytham, but it has made for great golf. Kiawah feels so manufactured. You could say the same of Harbour Town, which is a total pleasure.
Van Sickle: They aren’t golf tournaments anymore, they’re TV shows. I don’t think it’s a good layout, but I guarantee the Ocean course will look great from the blimp. That’s probably what is important to the governing bodies. That and maximizing profits.
Bamberger: The Ocean course made for a great Ryder Cup in ’91. Anytime you have a course where things can go wrong makes for a great tournament. The negative is, it encourages copycat design. That’s a downside of Pete Dye’s legacy, and it has been bad for architecture and how long it takes to play a round of golf.
Van Sickle: I was at Kiawah for the Senior PGA in 2007, but most of us haven’t been there since the ’91 Ryder Cup. What was your favorite War by the Shore moment?
Morfit: It’s hard to remember any image beyond Mark Calcavecchia looking so stricken, like a poster for The Blair Witch Project. All the color drained from his face after his horrifying finish against Colin Montgomerie, which he feared would cost the U.S. the Ryder Cup. It’s hard to forget something that horrendous.
Garrity: I was about to say Hale Irwin scooping his chip shot on the final hole of the final match, which nobody remembers because Bernhard Langer then missed his famous putt. But my real fave moment was Paul Azinger calling Johnny Miller “the biggest moron in the booth,” and then taking it back the next day by saying that he had been misquoted, that he had actually called Miller “the biggest Mormon in the booth.”
Anonymous Pro: I remember the sheer tension of watching Langer hit that last putt. As an American, you didn’t want him to make it but as a human being, you didn’t want him to have to deal with missing it.
Bamberger: When Calc hit that shot into the water on 17, Johnny Miller said, “That might’ve been the strangest shot by a pro that I’ve ever seen.” That was a wake-up call on the level of pressure that exists in the Ryder Cup.
Morfit: There was something about Monty in those matches. He was hard to take and hard to beat.
Shipnuck: There are some guys you want to beat so bad, they take you out of your game. You think, God, this guy is irritating, I can’t wait to drill him. And the next thing you know you’re 2 down. Monty had a lot of Danny Ainge in him.
Van Sickle: My favorite moment was the foursomes match in which Azinger and Chip Beck got caught switching to a ball with a different compression. Early on the front nine, Seve Ballesteros hit a ball into the foliage. A search ensued and 20 seconds after the match official announced that the allotted five minutes were up, Seve’s ball was found — and he was allowed to play it. Azinger was irate. That typified the shenanigans that went on and only inflamed the already hard feelings between the teams.
Shipnuck: My favorite images are the photos afterward, when captain Dave Stockton and all the players in their blue blazers and bare feet waded into the surf to celebrate. They had some colorful personalities — Azinger, Payne Stewart, Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins. The look on their faces was pure joy. On a lot of teams, the winners simply look relieved. I could look at those pictures all day.
Morfit: Wasn’t that the Ryder Cup during which Corey Pavin and others wore camouflage hats in honor of Desert Storm?
Van Sickle: That’s right. Those teams did not like each other. The rivalry had escalated in ’89, when clearly there was no love lost between the captains, Tony Jacklin and Raymond Floyd.
Bamberger: Those were real Euros then too, not the nine-months-in-America Euros like we have now. There was Seve, José Maria, Monty, Faldo, Woosnam. Our boss, Jim Herre, came up with the War by the Shore catchphrase. Some weeks after the event, I got a note from Herb Wind, the famed golf writer. He wrote, “I used to think of the Ryder Cup as a nice golfing get-together. Not anymore.”
Van Sickle: Despite this streak of different winners in the majors, we still have four prominent majorless stars: Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Lee Westwood. Who is most likely to get his major, and who’s most likely to fail?
Anonymous Pro: I like Dustin once he matures a little more and learns how to rely on strategy. Having Butch Harmon as his coach should really help him.
Garrity: I don’t see how Donald retires without a couple of claret jugs and a green jacket. My second choice is Johnson, simply because no one calls him the best player never to have won a major. That’s good for at least a stroke a round against the others.
Morfit: The guy to break through is Dustin or Adam. Dustin is too talented not to. Eventually there will come a course that suits him, and he’ll get hot. He’s too long and too good.
Bamberger: Dustin has the biggest upside, by far. He could easily shoot 65 on a Sunday and win from the clubhouse.
Shipnuck: He is also significantly younger than the others, so he will have more chances. I still like Luke, though. He’s there all the time, and the level of his game has gotten so high.
Anonymous Pro: Luke does well in majors because of his short game. He can hit eight fairways a round and grind out a decent score. The problem is, majors are usually ball-striking contests and the way he’s hitting it, I don’t see him winning one.
Garrity: Westwood is a great player, and I rank him higher than dozens of guys who have won majors. But he’s so far down Colin Montgomerie Lane that a big win now is almost unthinkable.
Bamberger: He’s building a cottage at the end of the street.
THE DYNAMIC DUO
Garrity: Shouldn’t we make some observations about Tiger and Phil, as we always do?
Morfit: Well, this idea we had in 2009 that Tiger was going to come back and be Tiger again is looking more doubtful than ever. He is back, and this is it; this is all we get.
Anonymous Pro: As I’ve said before, you can tell by his divots that Tiger’s swing is too steep on his short irons. He’s trapping the hell out of them, and the ball is squirting. He’s hitting his nine-iron from 175 yards now — and that’s a problem. He never used to hit it that far, but now he’s delofting the clubface and has a huge distance gap between his wedges.
Bamberger: Tiger should probably be given more credit for where his game is now. When you’re on your way down, it’s difficult to get it back north of the line again. Very few have done it. Vijay Singh did it. Westwood. Langer. And now Tiger.
Garrity: Can Phil do it? I haven’t a clue.
Van Sickle: I believe the arthritis is a much bigger problem than he lets on.
Morfit: Especially the medication. That could have something to do with his concentration wavering.
Shipnuck: Phil is now part of the business elite. Greg Norman hit that point in his early 40s, when he became more interested in being a businessman than a tournament golfer. Phil is in the same boat. He’s busy buying baseball teams and Waffle Houses and Five Guys franchises.
Van Sickle: What are the odds he’s going to feel good enough for four straight days to win another major? It doesn’t take much to ruin a finely tuned scoring touch.
Bamberger: The 4th hole on Sunday at Augusta, where he made the triple bogey, screwed up his entire year. That really had to grate on him. What does Phil have left to achieve? A U.S. Open? More Masters?
Morfit: These guys are human, and their lives get a lot more complicated as they age. It’s not as if they’re in their 20s and can go after the game like a dog chasing a tennis ball with no other cares.
Shipnuck: Golf is the only sport you play into middle age. Look at Michael Phelps. He’s so burned-out in his mid-20s that he can’t wait for the Olympics to be over. The pursuit of excellence is very lonely, whether it’s swimming laps or hitting balls on the range. Most sports, you go hard for 10 years, then you’re done. In golf you play on. And on.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Anonymous Pro: Dustin Johnson. He’ll get Whistling Straits redemption at Whistling Straits South. He’s getting healthy; he’s playing well; and he’ll be comfortable in that sauna semi-home game. My dark horse pick is Zach Johnson, who is swinging and putting great right now.
Bamberger: I like Dustin too, but I’m going with Rory McIlroy. He doesn’t want this year to be a waste and probably wants to shut up some people.
Garrity: After a disappointing decade of picking Robert Karlsson, I am picking Karlsson to not win the PGA. I’m not dumping him; I’m picking him to lose. There’s a difference. My dark horse to not win the PGA is Francesco Molinari because he could actually win it.
Shipnuck: John, you’re such a contrarian. I’m picking Graeme McDowell for the obvious reasons. He’s a scrapper, plays best with his back against the wall, knows people question him and plays well in the wind.
Van Sickle: One of the Charleston locals told me August is a month when the wind lays down.
Shipnuck: Great. That means there are going to be a million bugs. My long shot is Phil Mickelson. I know he’s a Hall of Famer, but when was the last time the guy broke par in a major? There’s only one way to make this a good year for him.
Morfit: I like Keegan Bradley to successfully defend. He’s not the type to rest on his laurels. My dark horse is Bill Haas, who is a South Carolina guy now and was one good final round from being in the mix at the British.
Van Sickle: I’m torn between Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson, but I’ll go with Dufner to keep the different-winner streak going. Plus, he’s the Duf. My dark horse is Kyle Stanley, whose game is doing a Carly Simon—coming around again.
Bamberger: Charles Howell is my dark horse selection.
Shipnuck: Wow. That’s darker than an editor’s heart.
Van Sickle: If the readers only knew how dark that is.