PGA Tour Confidential: Buick Invitational

PGA Tour Confidential: Buick Invitational

"We've played a bunch of times, and he's gotten better," Woods said of Manning. "You can see he's been playing all summer, actually all winter. Now it's time for him to start focusing on football."
Chuck Burton/AP

Every week of the 2009 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.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Welcome, all. What a difference seven months and one major reconstructive knee surgery can make. The story going into the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines was Tiger’s absence, since he practically owns the place, and nothing happened in the actual tournament to make headlines. Phil was a nonfactor, Padraig was a nonfactor. Even Rocco Mediate was a nonfactor, since he bowed out after a knee surgery of his own. (Somebody’s got to tell this guy the match play with Tiger is over.) That left the stage to John Rollins, Nick Watney and Camilo Villegas.

But at least men’s golf had a better week than women’s golf, where cover model/pro golfer Anna Rawson got in trouble for saying the public still thinks of the lady pros as “dykes.” Oh, and LPGA founder Betty Jameson died. On the bright side, Michelle Wie will make her 2009 season debut at the SBS Open in Hawaii this week.

David Dusek, deputy editor, For me, the Buick Invitational always felt like the start of the season. Not a major, or a Players, or even a Wachovia Championship … but a solid tournament with a good field. But this season, with no Tiger, and as Cameron pointed out, Mickelson and Harrington becoming non-factors, it feels like just another event on a lackluster West Coast swing. And that’s a shame, because a little drama broke out when Watney sank that birdie putt on 16 and Rollins made bogey. I’ll be really curious what the TV ratings for this year’s event will turn out to be.

John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: I spent the afternoon at the Kansas City Golf Show, and there was only one TV tuned to Torrey Pines — and the only attendees watching Rollins, Watney and Villegas were the ones sitting down to eat their pulled-pork sandwiches, and then only because their chairs faced the screen. Quite a contrast from last year’s U.S. Open playoff, when traveling businessmen risked missing their planes to watch Tiger and Rocco on wall-mounted monitors.

Morfit: The Tour feels flat right now. The biggest news of the week was announced on Tiger’s website, that he’s playing 'full-bore' and close to returning. I really can’t see him returning at L.A., and the WGC-Match Play doesn’t make sense as a place to knock the rust off. Bay Hill seems most likely, since it’s his hometown and he loves the golf course. He’d be defending one of the more memorable titles he won in 2008.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Tell me, guys… was this a Watney win or a Rollins loss — or a little bit of each?

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Watney? You mean that wasn’t Bill Haas I was watching today? I think it’s both a Watney win and a Rollins loss. That putt on 16 by Watney was clutch. (I won’t say it was Tigeresque, but it was damn close). This is two wins for Watney now, and that means he’s worth paying attention to. The tough thing for golf is, next week at Pebble, it’ll be somebody else. Feels a lot like the pre-Tiger era.

Dusek: If Rollins doesn’t dump his tee shot on the 16th short and left into the bunker, but instead walks away with a par, I can’t see Watney chasing him down. Gary McCord said on the broadcast that he’d bet everything he had that Rollins would stay well right of the pin and was shocked that he missed left. Poor execution of the proper shot, or extremely poor strategy. Watney was good, but a good closer would never have given him the chance down the stretch.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Nick Watney looks like the rest of the Tour: great swing, long, wide angles, long hitter. God save us! We’re cloning Davis Love III.

Morfit: I agree that Watney is, um, not thrilling. He reminds me of an old Steve Rushin line about Mark O’Meara: He suffers from male pattern blandness.

James Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Nice-looking player, though, Cameron. Watney’s only 28 and seemed to be on the way up until hitting a wall last year, his fourth season on Tour.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s all relative, I guess. A guy makes a 40-footer on the 16th hole to tie for the lead, then drives the green on 18 and two-putts for birdie and the win. If Tiger does that, it’s a great finish. If it’s not Tiger or Phil, it’s not interesting. There’s the problem with golf in a nutshell. The finish had some drama but the audience didn’t like the cast. I don’t know what the cast can do about that.

Herre: Good point, Gary. It’s like the people who say the Match Play is boring if Tiger or Phil don’t make it to the final. Sometimes we forget that golf is a competition, not simply a TV show.

Garrity: I agree with Damon that a series of random winners will make it feel like the pre-Tiger era. But Villegas was a strong presence this week, playing in the final group and exuding a lot of Latin charm. An early win from him and he’ll fill the vacuum.

Evans: Villegas is like a matinee idol. How long does that act last? Swashbuckling, handsome. Who does he think he is? Seve?

Herre: I like the way Villegas plays — he hits shots and is very aggressive. Now that he has an OK short game, I think he’s dangerous.

Dusek: The back-to-back wins to close last season were huge for him. Sure, Tiger wasn’t in either field, but everyone else was. He’s always been huge off the tee and hits towering iron shots that can land softly on firm greens. As his short game improves, that’s the recipe for wins on the modern PGA Tour.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Watching Villegas on my DVR, I thought I had left it on fast-forward, but he actually swings that hard every time, even with shorter irons. His swing is a violent lash that has none of the rhythm you might expect from a Latin lover type. His distance control was off most of the round, and I wonder if he wouldn’t benefit from a little more languid tempo, which Nick Watney possesses. Watney is a nice player who will make a ton of money in his career but I’ll remember this Buick for Villegas’s inability to keep up on a demanding course. Three bogeys in the first seven holes and then killer mistakes at the 17th to end his bid should turn down the volume on the hype machine, at least for a little while.

Morfit: One thing I’m perplexed about is Mickelson, who basically hasn’t shown up in his first two tournaments. He said at his presser at the FBR that he’d been working hard, getting it all in synch for 10 days. Working hard on what? He looks like an impostor. An MC at FBR, an also-ran at Torrey, his backyard. Maybe it’s not really him, it’s actually one of those Phil look-alikes from that Crowne Plaza ad campaign. It’s too bad we can’t do as so many companies are doing to their employees and make professional athletes take unpaid vacation. I’d tell Mickelson to take as much time as he needs and come back when he’s absolutely certain he’s done with his Jay Williamson impression.

Hack: A few years ago, when Phil was taking majors at a once-a-year clip, he started saying how cool it would be to win 10 majors and 50 tournaments in the Tiger era. He’s got some catching up to do.

Evans: Phil has a weird Bernie Madoff, pathological streak to his personality. He’s a great salesmen and a charmer, but I’m not sure there is much behind the curtain. I think he’s playing badly because he really doesn’t care that much. I mean, he had a four-putt today!

Shipnuck: It’s been painful watching Phil hack his way through his first two tournaments, but we collectively seem more bothered than he does. His whole attitude is that he’ll be fine as long as he peaks for Augusta, but devaluing regular Tour events leads to bad habits. No one cares more about the majors than Tiger, but he plays to win every week and won’t show up unless he’s all there physically and mentally. Maybe Phil should treat the West Coast as tournaments that actually matter instead of spring training.

Garrity: But there’s that star-power thing again. We talk and talk about a slumping Phil — and he’s been playing better than Padraig Harrington, the reigning British Open and PGA champ. Obviously the expectations for Phil are much greater, and that much harder to meet.

Morfit: Here’s the thing about a PGA Tour golf tournament: It really is a TV show. If it’s not a TV show, those guys aren’t playing for anywhere near that much money. And the CBS guys were bored out of their minds Sunday. I wish I’d counted the references to clinical psychology/imbalance, whatever. They also gave us the obligatory look back at Craig Stadler’s “build-a-stance” mistake under the tree, showed Ian Baker-Finch hitting a shot in his boxer shorts, and at one point started hyperventilating about Shakira, the sultry, hip-swiveling singer, who is either a fan of Villegas or vice-versa. I never did figure out what they were trying to tell us. Anyway, that’s what desperation looks like on network TV.

Hack: The CBS crew couldn’t hide its boredom this week. A few years back they began every year with Tiger playing Torrey, Pebble and Riviera, guaranteed. That’s not happening ever again.

Herre: I agree the CBS crew seemed to stray today. All those accents — Faldo, Feherty, Baker-Finch — can wear you out after a while. Poor Jim Nantz’s head must’ve been spinning.

Friedman: Maybe Nantz’ll draft Phil Simms as a guest commentator.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think the excitement was getting to the CBS crowd. I was standing, as it happened, next to a port-a-loo (for our British readers), when out burst Nick Faldo his own self. Nick was wearing a smart (for our British readers), baby-blue dress shirt, for the benefit of his TV audience, with his shirt tails out and high-fashion jeans and ass-kicker black shoes. Not exactly David Letterman. He looked to me like he was eager to get the hell out of Dodge, and with those protagonists, and a prolonged U.S. Open hangover, who could blame him?

As for David Feherty, he’s the best ambassador CBS could possibly want. As he wrapped up for the day on Sunday, an elderly fan came up to him, shook the Irishman’s hand and thanked him for his work. Feherty said, “I love a man with low standards.” He then noted the military hat the man was wearing and said, with utter sincerity, “Thank you for your service, sir.” If you want to read a special piece, check out the long story he wrote in 2008 about a military goodwill trip he made with Butch Harmon and others. If more people in golf had lives outside of golf, as Feherty does, the game would be enriched.

Hack: Meantime, with the PGA Tour lacking in winners with star power, can the LPGA steal a little of the spotlight? An early-season victory by Michelle Wie would help. Her game is coming around, despite all the wrist/parent/scorecard problems.

Dusek: If Wie can come through with a few good performances, maybe even that elusive win, the LPGA could steal the spotlight. But several of their upcoming events are going to be played in Asia, so the TV audience here in the United States will be small. They don’t really start playing events here in the United States until late March.

Evans: The LPGA is doomed by its unimaginative leadership and the general lack of public enthusiasm for women’s sports. Michelle Wie has to have a Tigeresque run to bring that tour to front-page attention.

Morfit: Granted the economy is terrible, but as a pro sports league, the LPGA strikes me as the opposite of Jim Furyk in that they do a little with a lot. Harrington (and to a lesser extent Vijay Singh and Villegas) took advantage while Tiger was gone last year, but it didn’t seem like the LPGA really capitalized. Is it just me or should they be generating more buzz considering the talent? And feel free to interpret talent however you want.

Garrity: The LPGA might have exploited the absence of Tiger, but both Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, their two superstars, slumped after great starts. Then Asians won the remaining majors, leading to commissoner Carolyn Bivens’s ill-considered move to make English mandatory. The LPGA has a knack for shooting itself in the glass slipper.

Herre: A Wie win would do wonders for the LPGA. I know we would treat it as big news.

Friedman: Wie’s the one who moves the needle for the general viewer. As accomplished and respected as she is, Ochoa doesn’t.

Morfit: I agree that a Wie win would be just what the LPGA and golf in general needs right about now. The big stars that every sport needs are just not taking up the slack on the PGA Tour right now. Geoff Ogilvy won the Mercedes and Zach Johnson won the Sony, which was nice since they’re both major winners, but Watney is not going to move the needle.

Hack: One win by Wie would make more waves than 20 wins by Ochoa.

Dusek: As someone who used to cover tennis, I can tell you that the women’s game was as great to follow as the men’s because you knew the stars would always play well on the biggest stages. Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and later, the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova always played to packed houses at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The LPGA’s stars aren’t that dependable, partially because the talent pool is so deep, but if stars like Ochoa, Wie, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Morgan Pressel win multiple majors, the LPGA will gain followers.

Shipnuck: I, for one, am jazzed about the LPGA season-opener this week in Hawaii. Love her or hate her, Wie is impossible to ignore, and I expect her to have a big year now that she’s committed to playing a full schedule against suitable competition. She will bring a huge jolt to a tour that has plenty going for it already. What I really like about the LPGA is that the stars factor at nearly every event. On the PGA Tour, how often do you get the really big names jousting on a Sunday? Not nearly enough, if they even bother to show up on a given week. With fewer tournaments, the LPGA has a more concentrated product, and I think the golf is often more exciting, in part because the course setups are less penal, leading to fewer Sunday slogs like at Torrey Pines. Throw in the undeniable babe factor and probably seven weeks out of ten I’d watch the LPGA over the PGA Tour.

Hack: A Wie victory would be a mini-boost, but still a boost. When Michelle Wie wins her first tour event, that will be big news in the sport and beyond. Whether it is deserved or not, it’ll make headlines, including at our place. Throw in CNN, SportsCenter, the newspapers, and the machine that built her up in the first place will be humming again.

Evans: You guys are really all very naive to think that Michelle Wie can give the LPGA a boost.

Herre: How so?

Evans: Well, we had Annika and her 59 and Colonial exhibition and all her major titles and she still couldn’t lift the LPGA out the doldrums. Wie is a great story but I just think it is awfully dangerous to trust a teenager with the keys to the store.

Dusek: I really disagree. Michelle Wie has the potential to be enormous. Huge!

Evans: Huge like disco.

Friedman: Wie is the only one who would be a rock star.

Hack: There is only one golfer on the planet who has a bigger
Q rating than Michelle Wie, and he’s on the disabled list. For all of Camilo’s tight clothes and Anthony Kim’s belt buckles, they can’t touch Wie when it comes to transcending the sport. I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying it’s true.

Morfit: Unless anyone has anything else to add, I move to adjourn until next week, when we’ll all be atwitter over those wacky celebs at the Crosby.

Dusek: Before we go … does anyone in the office have an advance copy of the SI Swimsuit issue? It hits the stands this week. I’m sure Camilo and the rest of the PGA Tour guys are fans of that. To heck with Shakira!