PGA Tour Confidential: Arnold Palmer Invitational

PGA Tour Confidential: Arnold Palmer Invitational

Fred Couples and his golf sneakers have been dominant on the senior circuit this season, but will his success carry over to Augusta?
Darren Carroll/SI

Every week of the 2010 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Rain and thunderstorms may have stopped Sunday’s action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, but PGA Tour Confidential boldly marches on. With just four holes remaining to be played Monday, Ernie Els, who won two weeks ago at Doral, holds a two-shot lead over Kevin Na at Bay Hill. After Corey Pavin shot a course-record 63 on the Punta Espada Golf Club in the Dominican Republic on Saturday, Fred Couples answered Sunday with a 62 to win the Cap Cana Championship. That’s his third win this season on the Champions Tour.

So who’s in better form heading to the Masters, The Big Easy or Boom Boom?

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Tough call, but I’ll go with Els. Couples has been impressive, but the regular Tour is a different animal.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I would actually say Fred, because he has shown a little more down the stretch in his (admittedly) much easier events. Both should play well at Augusta.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I’ll take Ernie. He beat a world-class field at Doral. Now he’s closing in on another victory on a quality track. Nothing against Fred, but winning on the senior tour just isn’t the same.

Joe Posnanski, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s got to be Ernie, right? Seems to me Couples was born for the Senior Tour … relaxing world, not a lot of people bothering him, nice checks waiting at the end. Ernie really does appear to be back in prime form, and in a Tigerless world he might come into Augusta as the favorite. How much would that mean if Els DID win the Masters? Then he would have won three of the four majors.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Couples was wearing sneakers with ocean waves lapping up and relative teddy bears like Corey Pavin in his sights. Fred might win every week in those conditions. No comparison to the big leagues.

Herre: Also noticed Fred’s sneaks — way cool.

Dusek: Has there ever been a cooler player in golf than Fred Couples? Maybe Walter Hagen, but the list can’t be too long.

Bamberger: He wore those shoes in Hawaii in February — and on the practice range at the B.C. Open in ’85. He’s been trying to protect that back forever. Tough to play Augusta in tennis shoes. Too hilly and wet in the morning.

Dusek: Ecco makes a sneaker/golf shoe with tiny nubs on the bottom that provide traction. There has never been a piece of equipment that better matched a player.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Fred’s Eccos were all the rage down here in the Dominican. I kept waiting for him to slip. I asked him about them and he said the nubs of the soles dig into the turf and provide traction. At 313 yards a pop off the tee this week, pretty cool technology.

Posnanski: Fred Couples would play in slippers if they let him. My favorite Fred quote, undoubtedly, was when he said that he never liked answering the phone because he felt sure there would be someone on the other end.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Freddie looks good, but you can’t compare beating Corey Pavin on a resort course to fending off the pack at Bay Hill.

Bamberger: You can’t compare the leagues, but the real point is that Fred is doing everything, including short putting, well enough that he should be able to contend at Augusta if his nervous system can handle it. He only looks super cool.

Dusek: So you wouldn’t be surprised if we got another performance from Freddie like we saw in 2006, when he contended before losing to Mickelson by blowing tons of short putts?

Bamberger: He’s putting short putts much better on slow greens. Whether he can continue to release the head on the short putts on super fast greens will be the question.

Godich: That’s what has been so impressive about Ernie. He has rediscovered his putting stroke. Even the putts that don’t go in look good. His speed has been excellent, and we all know how important that is at Augusta.

Hack: It felt like 1992 today watching Fred, Corey and Nicky Price. I know I talked about the relaxed vibe of this tour earlier in the year, but these guys were going after it and each other. These courses may be too small for Fred. They’re par 68s for him. He didn’t miss a shot all week. Gotta save some stuff for the magazine, but needless to say, Fred is pretty pleased with his game right now. His 10 birdies — 5 in a row on the front, 5 in a row on the back — play well anywhere. This was a clinic.

Lipsey: I don’t recall anybody tuning up successfully for majors by stomping around the geezer tour.

Gorant: Tom Watson, ’09. How quickly we forget.

Lipsey: That was a fluke. Watson wasn’t gearing up for anything. He’s a senior who cherry picks the British and Masters, and he had the week of his life. Of any life.

Herre: Bernhard Langer thinks a senior could win on the regular Tour — on the right course. He said that and many other things in a great story on him by Michael Bamberger in our Masters preview.

Dusek: Isn’t winning tournaments habit forming? Pundits knocked Michelle Wie for not 'learning how to win' early in her career. Maybe Couples can keep the habit going at Augusta?

Posnanski: Seems a little late in the career for Fred to be picking up the winning-majors habit.

Bamberger: Fred and only Fred could come off the senior tour and contend at Augusta National because he knows the course so well, he has good vibes there, he loves it and HE IS AS LONG AS PHIL.

Hack: With Fred, it will come down to that flatstick, just as it did in ’06 when Phil got him. Making putts on Sunday at Cap Cana isn’t the same as making them on Sunday at the Masters. He knows it; we all do. But there is something to be said for momentum and good vibes, too. Besides, is there a happier place on earth for Fred Couples than Augusta National? You know, other than watching NCAA hoops.

Lipsey: This isn’t Hollywood and Tin Cup. This is Tiger and company bashing out your brains. Good luck, Fred.

Gorant: Here’s the thing about Ernie. When I picture him coming down the back nine with a chance to win, it’s impossible to imagine that he really believes he can, which makes it impossible for me to believe it. Love to see it happen, but I know I’m lining myself up for heartbreak.

Godich: It’s no secret how badly Els wants to win at Augusta. At least he is showing that he can close in the regular events. That’s a start and gives him some real momentum.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: I like Els because he’s performing well in the Tour conditions that will translate to Augusta. I’ll know better about Freddie after Houston next week, where he’ll be back with the big boys on a big-league golf course.

Bamberger: And that means three straight weeks for Fred, which might be two too many.

Dusek: If Couples is feeling nothing but good vibrations these days, Phil Mickelson is on the other side of the spectrum. He added Bay Hill to his schedule to find some consistency and get ready for the Masters. But a 75-77 weekend can’t make Lefty feel very confident heading to Augusta. What does he need to do to give himself a chance at a third green jacket?

Herre: Phil is trying, but clearly his head is elsewhere.

Bamberger: My guess is that golf is not the highest priority for Phil right now. But if he gets in contention, as he did at Bethpage last year, he’ll be playing with more emotion than anybody in the field. (Along with Ernie and Tiger.) Part of Phil’s greatness is that he plays superb emotional golf.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, When Jimmy Roberts asked Phil if the family situation was impacting his game, Phil flat out said he didn’t want to talk about it.

Herre: Yes, that was pretty strong. I give Roberts credit for at least asking the question.

Evans: Phil’s head is not into golf. He seems out of sorts with every aspect of his game. After a good round here or there he convinces himself that he’s not far, but I think his heart is rightfully with his wife and her cancer treatment and how his kids are dealing with their mother being sick.

Posnanski: Am I the only one who finds it unfathomable that Phil will turn 40 this year?

Dusek: But isn’t 40 the new 30 in golf? Els turned 40 last October. Stricker is 43 and Furyk turns 40 in May — they’ve each won on the PGA Tour this season.

Bamberger: Tiger, I’m guessing, will play fewer and fewer events over the next five years or so, leaving the door even more open for Phil. I don’t think 40 will phase him in the slightest. He’ll just keep growing his hair longer.

Godich: I’m not going to disagree with the fact that he’s focused on his family, but he still finds the time to put in all of those sessions with Stockton, he is constantly making changes in his bag, his putting stroke looks different from round to round, hole to hole. Phil needs to stop thinking and tinkering so much and just go out and play. He needs to commit to something and stick with it. If I hear one more time about his spending four hours with Dave Stockton …

Gorant: Yeah, isn’t that half of Stockton’s point, not to overthink it and just go with your instincts?

Dusek: If you are listening to the advice and wisdom of three coaches, how can you possibly go with your instincts?

Tiger Woods announced this week that he’ll hold his first press conference on Monday of Masters week. Anyone think we’re going to learn anything new? Will he be willing to answer non-golf questions?

Lipsey: Next question, please.

Godich: “I’ll only answer questions about my golf game.”

Posnanski: I think he’ll answer non-golf questions for a little while … and we’ll learn absolutely nothing. The guy has the pattern down now. Everything is in the police report. That’s a private matter between me and Elin. I felt entitled. Getting back to my Buddhism roots has been key.

Herre: Could be interesting. Tiger said he would take all questions, and I think the press is ready to ask the tough ones. My fear is that the club member who runs the press conference will over-manage the thing, or try to protect Woods.

Dusek: But isn’t there a difference between taking all questions and actually answering all questions?

Herre: Yes there is a difference, but my hunch is that the media will not be satisfied with evasion and will aggressively press for answers. In other words, for the first time in his career, Tiger could get a grilling.

Dusek: I think that could happen, but I’m not sure it would happen at Augusta. So many members of the media walk around the place on eggshells as it is. Now, if Tiger plays at Quail Hallow three weeks after the Masters, I think the press would be a lot more aggressive.

Gorant: Don’t understand that. For all the controlling tendencies and insistence on tradition, I’ve never heard of Augusta National treating media members badly for expressing negative opinions about the course, the club or the tournament. They don’t do vendettas as far as I can tell.

Hack: I’m interested to see the flow of the conference. Will reporters be allowed follow-up questions? (They weren’t during A-Rod’s deal in Tampa a year ago.) Could be hard to really press him on anything if the microphone is moving around the room like a hot potato.

Evans: Tiger will be defensive and remote at his press conference. He’s back in a golf mindset. What we will learn is that Tiger is as good as any head of state or politician at sticking to talking points.

Bamberger: There has been an impression that Tiger has had this contentious relationship with the press. I really don’t see it. He’s formal and guarded, but since his amateur days he’s come in, taken the questions, been respectful. I think it’s way overstated, how bad his relationship with sportswriters is. It’s not satisfying, it’s not intimate, he’s no Nicklaus. But you know who he’s like? Watson.

Herre: I agree, Michael. Watson is one of those guys “who doesn’t suffer fools,” which to me has always meant that he can be a jerk.

Bamberger: Watson could be downright insulting. Tiger never has been. Just bland, and sometimes very good and very interesting.

Evans: I don’t think he has a bad relationship with the press, but when athletes don’t give exclusives and they micro-manage every phase of their relationship with the media, how can they really be friends? He should be happy with the press: We follow him despite his disdain and manipulation.

Posnanski: I would say this is the giant difference between Watson and Tiger. Say what you will about Watson — and he does NOT suffer fools — he has a deep and intimate fascination with the media. And that makes him much different from Tiger. The weird thing about Watson, the thing that took me forever to understand, is that he’s not much with open-ended questions. He will answer your question, whatever it is, but generally will not go any deeper. It takes a long time to get him to trust you enough to have a real conversation. Tiger, on the other hand — I think Farrell put it well — just has general disdain for the media.

Dusek: I think Tiger sees the press as a necessary obligation. He doesn’t have to like it, and he doesn’t owe anyone anything above and beyond the required interviews, so that’s what he does.

Bamberger: Next Monday, I think Tiger will say what kind of treatments he received from Dr. Anthony Galea. Too many people are talking about it.

Dusek: Really? Like the car accident, I’m thinking he’ll want to steer clear of the whole thing as much as possible.

Gorant: Steer clear, good one.

Bamberger: Galea is under investigation and facing charges, and it wouldn’t serve Tiger to be less than truthful, I don’t think.

Evans: Tiger will not talk about Galea, especially if there is a chance he will have to testify down the line about their relationship.

Dusek: Just like he doesn’t want to talk about the car accident. “It’s all there in the police report.”

Posnanski: There is no winning talking about performance-enhancing drugs. We’ve seen it time and again. If Tiger never used performance enhancers, he will probably be best to just not talk about it. If he did, then that would make the TMZ women stuff look like nursery rhymes in the public’s eye.

Bamberger: If he never used PEDs, including HGH, he should be really specific about what he did do with Galea and ease worried minds.

Posnanski: I’m curious: How many here, pushed to make a call, suspect that Tiger used something, and that’s why he was involved with Galea?

Gorant: Personally, I don’t think he used anything.

Dusek: I don’t either. He made a lot of personal mistakes because he felt entitled, but I think he would see taking PEDs as cheating on the game.

Hack: I’m not ready to say Tiger used HGH, but the fact that he was treated by Galea is just one more suspect decision in what has been a raft of them.

Godich: Great point. It all gets back to this question: Considering the way Tiger has so meticulously mapped out his career, how did he not surround himself with people he could go to for sound advice? Or has he just been too stubborn to listen to anyone?

Dusek: While a ton of attention is going to be paid to Tiger, and now Ernie, I’m thinking that this is the year for a European winner at Augusta. Of the top 16 players in the world, half are European. Anyone agree?

Gorant: Lots of worthy candidates, but only one European has won over here so far this year, Poulter.

Dusek: But we all assume that Tiger will have at least SOME rust, and agree that Mickelson hasn’t shown consistency. If players like Paul Casey, Lee Westwood and the aforementioned Mr. Poulter want to win a green jacket, they can’t ask for a whole lot more.

Bamberger: And when we say Euros, are we including South Africans who play the European Tour? If so, game is way on.

Lipsey: My bet: Somebody with a dwelling in Orlando or Scottsdale….

Hack: I’ll take South America at the Masters before I take Europe.

Herre: I can see an international leader board. There’s certainly not an American who really jumps out at you.