PGA Tour Confidential: The best Tour player under 30, Tiger's major drought and how to fix slow play

PGA Tour Confidential: The best Tour player under 30, Tiger’s major drought and how to fix slow play

At 29, Dustin Johnson has already won eight times on Tour, but a few memorable major collapses have deprived him of a signature victory.
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Every Sunday night, 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. Is HSBC Champions winner Dustin Johnson the best player under age 30?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Right now he is. Rory still has the best resume, but he's been wounded for a long time. Spieth will ultimately hold this honor, but he needs to win more than once before he eclipses Dustin, with his eight Ws.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine, (@joepassov): Whoa, there, bandwagon jumpers. Rory's had a terrible year, but he's still the best player under 30. Maybe not right this minute — on this particular Sunday — but overall, he's still my pick.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Is best the same as most accomplished? Dustin Johnson is the most accomplished player under 30, unless, like me, you are a major-phile. (I'd rather be Rory McIlroy today, with his two majors, than Dustin Johnson, with his eight Tour titles.) Johnson is likely the most lavishly talented player under 30, for pure talent maybe ahead of McIlroy. If I could have Dustin Johnson's future in the game or Jordan Spieth's or Rory McIlory's, today my order is Spieth, McIlroy, Johnson. But don't hold me to it for long.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): The best player under 30 based on career achievement is clearly Rory McIlroy, not DJ. Rory has a 2-0 edge on majors. But those two players stand out among the twentysomethings, no doubt. Who's third best? Who knows? But DJ has the kind of tantalizing potential that makes us wonder just how good he can be.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, (@Jeff_Ritter): This week, sure, Dustin is king. But Rory McIlroy still has the most talent of any pro under 30 today — and more major titles. I think he’ll win Comeback Player of the Year in 2014.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Umm. Last I checked, Rory McIlroy has two majors. I'd take Jordan Spieth over DJ as well.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): This year notwithstanding, Rory McIlroy is still miles ahead of Dustin Johnson in almost ever aspect save for off the tee, with the driver. Just to pick one facet of the game, in the interest of time, let's talk about the mental game. Johnson still comes and goes like the weather, but McIlroy, when he gets in a groove, has proven he has the ability to stay groovy for more than one week at a time.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Last time I checked, Rory McIlroy has two major championships on his resume, a handful of other PGA Tour victories and a No. 1 World Ranking not so long ago

2. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series by being greater than the sum of their parts and despite sometimes looking like the lesser team on paper. They overachieved, in other words. Has Dustin Johnson underachieved? Why or why not?

PASSOV: Yes, even with this win in Asia, DJ has underachieved. Between his superior length and crazy athletic ability, he should have won a bunch more times by now. Plus, his misery in the majors is hard to dismiss. Still, he's young. Let his career continue to progress before final judgment is rendered.

GODICH: DJ is only 29, so I think it's a bit early to label him an underachiever. And he does seem to find a way to get in the winner's circle just when we're about to write him off. He could certainly help himself if he'd get back in the hunt at a major — and close the deal.

BAMBERGER: Well, the question of over and underachievement is a funny thing. In golf, as in life — and how often can one use that phrase — you achieve exactly what you achieve because achievement factors in EVERYTHING, including desire, discipline, nerves, talent, health (mental and otherwise) and so many other things. I'd say Dustin Johnson is exactly where he should be, even though the obvious temptation is to say he could have done more but this point, because he's had chances in major events, because he makes it look so easy when he plays well and because he's disappeared for long periods of time. But I for one am not going to say that.

MORFIT: I would say yes, and I would guess that's because of extracurricular activities, and for that I can't say I blame Dustin. He's doing what most Tour pros that age and even older have done, taking advantage of his opportunities and having what I assume from all those Twitter pics is a pretty excellent time. 

VAN SICKLE: I don't see how you can call a player with eight wins in his 20s an underachiever. He wasn't a college star. He wasn't a high school star. He was a virtual unknown with great talent. Yeah, he has let a few majors slip through his fingers, but he does have a bunch of wins. A lot of supposed hotshots haven't done one-tenth what DJ has. So no, he's no underachiever. He's an achiever.

SENS: Judging by the usual standards of greatness — majors — he has underachieved. Thanks to his romantic life, though, his social media profile is beyond what anyone could fairly expect.

RITTER: Eight Tour titles before 30 is a great accomplishment. DJ has only underachieved in the majors, where you could make a case for him owning three titles if not for final-round blunders.

SHIPNUCK: The guy has proven to be a consistent winner, which is more than most of the other overhyped young players can say. It's true Dustin has almost unlimited potential, but the results are there. The next step is obviously to win a major. He still has a lot to prove in that kind of pressure.

3. There's been some conjecture that Rory McIlroy might be "back" after a second in Korea, outdueling Tiger Woods in an exhibition and his T6 finish in Shanghai. Is he back, and if so, how did he turn it around?

BAMBERGER: No, those two finishes are blips, not statements about where his game is. But it's always better to play well. It's always better to have some positive reinforcement.

SHIPNUCK: Well, the field in Korea was weak sauce, the exhibition with Tiger was utterly meaningless, and the T6 at the HSBC is okay but for the fact Rory failed to build on his first-round lead and pretty much got run over on Sunday. So, no, he's back quite yet.

MORFIT: He is most of the way back, and I say that because I didn't see that one outrageously high score among his four rounds — his bugaboo in 2013. He won't be all the way back, of course, until he wins a real tournament, not an exhibition match against Tiger. How did he turn it around? I can only assume the slight modification to his equipment — different driver, softer ball — has helped, as has taking the time to let his life settle back into place. Maybe he's getting his personal life in order — also good for golf.

VAN SICKLE: Rory is back when he starts winning tournaments against real fields. He got sidetracked by life, distractions and an ill-advised total equipment change that predictably has taken most of a year to adjust to. He's not back until he proves it but I think he will fairly soon.

RITTER: He’s on his way. McIlroy had his share of distractions this season — and maybe he’s finally making the on- and off-course adjustments — but good players do occasionally have bad years. What did Luke Donald or Bubba Watson do this season? What are their excuses? McIlroy entered 2013 squarely in the spotlight after claiming No. 1 and inking that Nike deal, and he experienced the scrutiny that comes with it. He has to start winning big events again before we can say he’s all the way back, but this China swing has provided some new reasons for optimism.

SENS: Back. Not back. It's not so black and white. Dull as it to hear Tiger say it, he's right. It's a process. You've got to think that Rory is on his way back into form. Why? Prolly playing less weekday tennis.

GODICH: Rory won't be back until he starts winning again. And I'm not talking about winning just one. 

PASSOV: I still drool, slack-jawed, every time Rory swings a golf club. He is NOT back just yet, however. We thought so after his T2 at San Antonio in May, and then he soiled the bed for five months. Let him post some Jordan Spieth consistency for two months and I'll be the first to say "he's baaaaack."

4. The PGA Tour announced this week that it is partnering with a new tour in China that will increase access for players, among others. How should we read this? As golf's globalization? Or the decline of the game here in the States?

SENS: Less about the decline of golf than the decline of the United States as source of sponsorship dollars. It's the Willie Sutton bank-robbing rule. They're going there because that's where the money is.

PASSOV: Except where it concerns money — and nothing else — I'm mystified by these globalization ambitions from the PGA of America and the PGA Tour. Is this like the NFL games in London? Expand the brand? Unless Tiger Woods is in the field, I don't understand why Asian fans or sponsors would have any interest.

BAMBERGER: This thinking does not come naturally to me, but it's time to think of golf in a global way and forget the natural borders by country. If viewed that way, the growth of Chinese golf does not come at the expense of American golf. I think the PGA Tour administers golf expertly and if T. Finchem and the Ponte Vedrans are taking that expertise to China, that's a good thing all the way around.

RITTER: There are a billion people in China, and some of them are interested in golf. The Tour can’t ignore it.

VAN SICKLE: The Tour is following the money. There are anxious sponsors, apparently, in Asia, and the Tour wants to get into their wallets since the American market is largely tapped out. Tournament golf is growing around the world, no doubt about that. That's not necessarily good for the game in America. See LPGA for details.

MORFIT: It's an acknowledgement of the vast population of a country, China, where golf is actually doing well. Like so much else that the Tour or any other business does, this is a calculated bet on the future. And that goes double for Augusta National deciding to start awarding a Masters invite to the winner of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. 

GODICH: Tim Finchem is no dummy. Growing the game means exploring untapped markets. Why do you think the NFL keeps going back to London?

SHIPNUCK: Nah, I don't think this will hurt golf in the U.S. at all. Finchem has always had a global vision — he midwifed the Prez Cup and WGCs — and this is the next logical step.

5. In an interview with Charlie Rose this week, Sean Foley attributed Tiger Woods’ major drought to the “random, arbitrary nature of golf.” So is Tiger’s next major victory just a matter of time or is something else holding him back?

BAMBERGER: I think Foley has developed a theory about Woods's drought in majors that makes total sense if you are Woods' teacher. I don't think Woods' barren spell here is random or arbitrary. I think he's not as good at golf as he used to be, for a bunch of reasons, including psyche. But he's still better than everybody else. And because he is, I would be very surprised if he never wins a 15th major. I think he will win another major before he turns 40, and I think he'll win at least one major in his 40s. I would never, ever be dismissive of this player. Too much talent, too much drive, too much experience. Sean Foley knows far, far more than I, but my guess is that Woods's finishes in majors since Torrey Pines go way deeper than randomness.

MORFIT: I can see where Sean is coming from: the 15th hole at Augusta National, when Tiger hit the flagstick and watched his ball bound back into the water, which ultimately may have cost him as many as four strokes and which may have been the worst break in major championship history. That said, I can't agree that the "random, arbitrary nature of golf" is entirely to blame for Tiger's drought. It's in his head. 

SENS: If by the "random, arbitrary" nature of golf he's referring to the "relentless and far-from-arbitrary rise in the quality of the competition" and the "inevitable wear and tear of age and injury" to say nothing of the "not so shocking build-up of psychic scar tissue" coupled with some "painstakingly undertaken swing-changes" then, yes, I agree with him 100 percent.

VAN SICKLE: At his best, Tiger could hit every shot at any time with any club. That's not the case, now, and his driver has long since gone from being his greatest weapon to his biggest problem. He's lost that edge off the tee on the weekend in major championships, and thus he hasn't been the same old super closer he once was. Factor in those knee surgeries, the Achilles issues and what is obviously a fairly complicated swing, and that's why he isn't getting it done in majors anymore, even though he can still get it done on courses where he's comfortable.

SHIPNUCK: Does Foley know that Tiger won 14 majors in the span of 11 years? There was nothing random or arbitrary about that — he was the best player but, more than that, he was the toughest mentally. Clearly Woods lacks that same belief now. If he keeps hanging around leaderboards, he may be able to back into one more major championship victory, but to win them consistently again he needs to rediscover that old self-belief.

RITTER: Not to sound like Tiger, but if he keeps putting himself in position to win on Sunday, it has to happen eventually, even if he just backs into one. But he hasn’t broken 70 on the weekend in his last eight majors. Change that, and golf might seem far less “arbitrary.”

PASSOV: If not for that crazy flagstick play — and subsequent lunacy — Tiger may very well won the Masters, and who knows what other majors in 2013. The "random, arbitrary nature of golf," however, has more to do with the crushing amount of pressure he's under with every swing he makes in a major, not fate.

6. The USGA is hosting a slow-play symposium at its Far Hills, NJ, headquarters this week. What’s the biggest cause of slow play in recreational golf, and what if anything can be done about it?

SHIPNUCK: I'd rather hang out in a Turkish prison for the weekend than sit through that symposium. You can't legislate a cure for slow play — it's a deeply personal issue, and every single golfer needs to make a commitment to speed up. Since we know that'll never happen, I've stopped worrying about slow play and learned to enjoy the leisurely pace.

VAN SICKLE: Severely sloped greens are a leading cause of slow play. When your third putt still isn't in the gimmie zone, that's a problem. Pin positions, the speed of greens and the length of rough all contribute to slow play. I'd put looking for lost golf balls No. 1 on the list of reasons, however. Bad play, No. 2 — the more shots you have to hit, the longer it takes. Not being ready to hit when it's your turn, No. 3, and that includes when the carts pull up to the tee and nobody in the foursome makes a move to hit even though the fairway is clear because they're story-telling and/or lighting a cigar.

RITTER: Tricking up courses to be tougher than ever is at least part of the problem. I also think many recreational players take their cues from what they see on TV, like plumb-bobbed 3-footers and elaborate pre-shot routines. If we can squash slow play at the golf’s top tours there’s a good chance we’d see a ripple effect throughout the game.

BAMBERGER: I am fast player who is slow when actually standing over the ball. (Wish I could say otherwise.) The root of the problem is golfers not advancing to their ball at all times. This idea that you have to stay behind the golfer who is farthest away is criminally wrong. Of course, two players in a cart make it harder to advance. But you should. You should be grabbing clubs and advancing to your ball at all times, even if it means — God forbid! — you are abandoning your cart for a few minutes. Keep heading to your ball at all times, while being aware of your surroundings. Think about your shot en route to it. And miss 'em quick.

SENS: If only it were one problem. But if I had to pick the biggest, I'd go with common misconception that taking six practice swings and studying a putt from four sides will lead to better scores. As a remedy, I'm in favor of an unapologetic campaign of public shaming, but that's not very politically correct.

MORFIT: The biggest problem is around the greens, with guys looking at every putt from 10 different angles because Tiger does it that way and just look at the scores that guy shoots. Just hit the damn ball and let's go to the next tee.

PASSOV: I just polled a small crowd here at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where Jack Nicklaus won the 1971 PGA Championship. I'm hearing "gambling" and "wagering" as one reason guys take so much time; "not enough bunker rakes," "bad" or "no rangers," "hole is too small." Interestingly, they said in unison that pace of play is actually quite good here. I think modern courses are too hard — too many hazards, greens that are too fast for the amount of contour, folks playing the wrong set of tees, and spending too much time looking for balls in the rough.

GODICH: Ready-golf — or lack thereof!

The PGA Tour Confidential debate continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.