Every week of the 2011 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.
BIG WEEK FOR THE BELLY
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Greetings, fellow Confidentialists. Another interesting week in our global golf village. In Boston, Webb Simpson (and his long putter) wins again. In Ponte Vedra, the Tour players win again (with their new TV contract). On the Euro Tour, the Great Dane, Thomas Bjorn, wins again.
But the news of the week really has to be long putters. Golf’s original Independent Thinker, Mr. Phil Mickelson, went to the long wand in Boston, and the stigma against the broomstick is fading fast. What do we think, folks, about the belly putter? Is it good for the game? Will it someday become as commonplace as the 60-degree wedge? I, for one, can’t stand it. I’ll be buying one immediately.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: There was a point this weekend when I thought to myself, “I wonder if I should try a belly putter?” I guess that says it all.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I’m not buying that it’s an advantage, but it certainly works. So does The Claw, as Chris DiMarco once proved. The guy who is selling an extension to turn any putter into a belly putter is a guy in the right place at the right time with the right product. I will be writing about him shortly.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s a bad look but ultimately not that big of a deal. It’s legal and available to everyone. Time to stop kvetching and get used to it because at this rate half the Tour will be using one next year.
Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: I hate it. But if my livelihood depended on making five-footers, I would use everything under the rules of golf to make ’em.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I can’t stand the belly putter. I think it should be abolished. Putting is a difficult skill, and the best putters always seemed to overcome those tingling fingers and hands we all feel over a short putt. The broomsticks and bellies fundamentally change what that all-important 14th club is supposed to do and be.
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: So many guys are rock solid from tee to green, but we all know that tournaments are usually won or lost on the greens. With so little separating the guy who wins from the guy who comes in 30th, why wouldn’t you try a belly or long putter? I’m only surprised that it has taken this long for a run of long-putter wins to happen.
Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: This weekend I stuck a club in my belly and made some practice strokes. Now I understand what everyone means when they say you can’t miss short putts. I’d consider trying one now, and I wouldn’t have a few months ago.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: The long putter has been around for what, 30 years? It’s here to stay. Look for a long-putter guru to make a killing showing us civilians how to use it.
Wei: Was anyone really that surprised Phil turned to the belly putter this week? C’mon, you all had to have seen it coming!
Herre: I didn’t. Phil was, arguably, the best putter of his generation. A sea change.
Van Sickle: Had Phil used a belly putter well at the British Open, he might have won it by four.
Bamberger: It’s asking a lot to think any of us are just going to put it in our bags and get some putting magic. It’s a different thing, and as Jim says it requires instruction. It was only two years ago that Phil was loving what Dave Stockton was telling him, re-emphasizing the forward press. Now, with the belly, no forward press. It sounds much more scientific and logical. Do we think Phil will stay with it? It’s hard to imagine him using it at Augusta, isn’t it?
Van Sickle: Yes, Phil will stay with it. He’s never admitted to having some form of the yips, but based on his short putting in recent months, it’s clear he’s got some kind of glitch or flinch. That said, he can’t afford to go to Augusta without the belly putter. No place has scarier three-footers than Augusta.
Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Golf.com: Phil is always changing things around, but if it’s working for him come April, I don’t think he’d hesitate to bring it to the National.
Herre: If Phil has consistent success with the thing, he’ll stay with it. Augusta, with its fast undulating greens, will be the acid test for the belly boys. Conventional wisdom holds that the belly is great for shortish putts, not so much for big-breaking, longer feel putts.
Dusek: People don’t realize how often Phil changed traditional-length putters. He’s used several different models this season, but it all comes down to commitment. For a while Phil was committed to Dave Pelz’s methodology, then he drifted to Dave Stockton. If he is truly committed to the belly putter and gets some success with it in the coming weeks, then I think he’ll stick with it for a while.
Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: There was a time when Phil would tee it up with two drivers in his bag — one for a draw, one for a fade. Maybe he’ll be the first to use two putters in the same round — a standard stick for lags, and a belly for the short ones.
Hack: Maybe one for the right-to-left breakers and one for the left-to-righters?
Gorant: Phil seems to be endlessly tinkering: two drivers, five wedges, etc. I bet he switches back and forth a few times over the coming years.
Van Sickle: Remember when Ernie Els was outraged after Trevor Immelman won using a long putter? Ernie is now a convert. A very interesting phenomenon. Wonder how many of us amateur hacks are actually going to pick up belly putters to try out?
Gorant: Ernie still says it should be banned, but as long as it’s not, he’s going to use it.
Wei: They won’t be banned now. Golf’s governing bodies missed the boat on that one. Plus, if it were such an advantage, why isn’t everyone using one? Why was Keegan Bradley the first to win a major with a belly?
Van Sickle: It’s funny how things have changed. The club has gone from being perceived as a crutch to making players wonder if it’s actually an advantage.
Hanger: It can’t really be as easy to use as it looks on TV, can it? Who among us has tried it, and what did you think? (Beyond the impracticality of packing them for trips.)
Bamberger: I think they are difficult to use, but maybe I need more instruction. The pros can make anything look easy. I feel even MORE uncoordinated with it.
Herre: I’ve tried it a few times with no success, but I’m not much of a putter with a conventional club.
Van Sickle: I’ve always thought there’s a pretty big learning curve to get good with a belly or a long putter. I use the claw grip, almost no learning curve there. But you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. If you can’t putt, you can’t play golf.
Shipnuck: Phil is close to Couples and maybe sees him as a cautionary tale, a guy whose all-around game is superb into his 50s but who kicked away countless wins with spotty short putting. If this extends Phil’s run as a big-time player, then I’m OK with it.
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I watched Adam Scott’s stroke with the belly, and he barely holds onto it at all with his right hand. He has two fingers barely on the club. One-putt Webb seems to have it figured out.
Van Sickle: Not sure Adam Scott has it all figured out. This was his second bad finish in a FedEx Cup event. He was in contention at the Barclays, then shot 42 coming in and dropped out of the top 40. He also faded in Boston. Not necessarily due to putting but still a cautionary tale.
Bamberger: This whole long putter discussion is another reminder that change in golf comes from the top. Pros made the 60-degree wedge acceptable, and the 7-wood and the massive driver, and now the long putter. For good or for bad, we take cues from them.
Herre: Right, Michael. That’s why most leading manufacturers of golf equipment are against bifurcation.
Bamberger: Webb Simpson looks like he walked off the set of Caddyshack as Danny Noonan’s understudy or something. He’s obviously a very good golfer, with two wins and a second in New Orleans, a handsome kid with nice manners and a good head on his shoulders. My question is this: does he do anything for you? Will fans go out of their way to watch him?
Herre: They will if he keeps winning. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between Web Simpson and Keegan Bradley.
Morfit: Funny moment. I was behind 18 standing next to his wife, who was holding their baby boy, when Webb rolled in that birdie putt on the first playoff hole. The ensuing roar and her reaction led to total baby meltdown.
Van Sickle: Same thing happened when Webb won Greensboro. Crowd roar made the baby cry.
Gorant: I can’t say what it is, but I do see a difference between Bradley and Webb. Bradley somehow seems to have more charisma. Maybe he comes off a little less privileged and a little more fiery. (Although Webb was pretty fired up after making those putts.)
Hanger: Yes, Webb is a rosy-cheeked, country-club-looking guy. He doesn’t exactly exude tough guy aura, but he was pretty inspiring today. Mickelson has basically the same look and he’s done all right with the fans.
Van Sickle: Webb may be just the baby-faced assassin the U.S. needs for the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. He and Jeff Overton would make a cute cherub-cheeked couple.
Wei: Maybe he’ll inspire Bible study groups, but I don’t see Webb moving the needle.
Shipnuck: I like Simpson’s wife. Very telegenic, and she can cry on demand better than Demi Moore in her prime.
Morfit: This week only underlined how deep the Tour is in the post-Tiger era. Of all the names within four of the lead going into Monday, we get Webb and Chez in sudden-death? Show me someone who saw that coming.
Van Sickle: That’s the beauty of golf, something we completely forget during a dominant-player era. A lot of these guys are capable of winning when they have a hot week.
Bamberger: I am simply not feeling any sort of playoff anything. A nice golf tournament in Boston, but what was playoffish about it? Where was the win-or-go-home quality? Week 2 of this FedEx thing is maybe the most problematic. I really believe it is a marketing disaster and has to be re-thought. How about you all?
Herre: As Alan likes to point out, the best stories during the playoffs are those that deal with players at the cut line. We’re used to looking at the top of the leader board, not the bottom.
Van Sickle: It was another exciting FedEx Cup finish, once again entirely unrelated to the FedEx Cup points race. You can’t argue with the results, though.
Wei: I thought it got kind of intense with guys on the bubble to make the top 70. Ernie Els had to birdie the 18th. So did Geoff Ogilvy. They both made it. Ernie said the pressure he felt on 18 today was more intense than being in contention. If you screw up with the lead on 18, you still get a nice check for second place, whereas he would have been sent packing.
Van Sickle: It was only sort of intense since we didn’t know for sure. The point totals are mere projections, not final facts. Pretty hard to get excited about who might finish 70th while the tourney leaders are duking it out on the course. It’s a small sideshow, that’s about it.
Morfit: Jobe birdied his last four to make it to Chicago, and was told so by a Tour official, but the last I saw him he was gazing into the computer in the locker room, seemingly mesmerized by the FedEx machinations.
Dusek: I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the word “playoff” coming from the PGA Tour folks. The Golf Channel was still talking up the concept of “win or go home,” but it isn’t fooling anyone. We’ve seen more big-name players competing after the PGA Championship in recent years, and that’s a great benefit, but I think it’s about the only benefit. No mas!
Shipnuck: It’s four great tourneys at a time of year that used to be dead. The points are fun to follow as guys are fighting to survive. But as far as capturing the imagination of the average fan, it’s a total dud.
Hanger: They’re never going to make it feel as interesting as a major, and it’s never going to compete with football, and fans are never going to get too into the idea of the “playoffs.” That said, I think the Tour has done pretty well considering all the cards stacked against it. Like we say every year in September, at least there’s something to talk about.
Wei: For real playoffs, I think the format needs to be match play, but that would never happen since it leaves too much chance for someone like Tiger or Phil to get knocked out in the first round. Oh wait, Tiger didn’t even make the so-called playoffs. There was definitely less buzz at TPC Boston without him this year.
Hack: Bingo, Stephanie. The Accenture Match Play Championship feels more like the playoffs than the FedEx Cup.
Ritter: Good call on the Accenture. If they went to match play at the Tour Championship — and maybe even one of the earlier playoff events — that would add some serious juice.
Hack: Three stroke-play events leading into a match-play event — I’d be all over that.
Van Sickle: If you had to make the cut each week to advance, that would be intense. But the networks don’t want to risk losing Tiger (well, back in the old days) and Phil in the first week, so we have this watered-down version. I still think it’s more watchable if you just use the money list to ID the top 120 for the playoffs, then use cumulative scores vs. par during the actual playoff events. That way we’d know at all times where every player stood in relation to the FedEx Cup leader. Better than what we have now. The big question is, who’s going to put up the big money that makes the FedEx Cup attention-getting? Is FedEx going to cough up $50 million a year again for six more years? Not too sure.
Dusek: I would love to see a real playoff in golf, and the one Gary outlined would be very easy to understand. What I can’t wait to see is how the PGA Tour is going to schedule the “playoffs” after the PGA Championship and the Olympics in 2016, along with the Ryder Cup. Talk about a busy autumn!
Van Sickle: Funny how the PGA Tour held tournaments in the fall for years in the 1980s and ’90s without any problem, but suddenly golf can’t go up against football. That’s because the Tour made all of them big-ticket TV buys, effectively eliminating their viability in the fall. The Tour needs to be a little more creative in scheduling, otherwise the season is going to get shorter and shorter, which is not what the rank and file players want.
Reiterman: The Tour should never have made this about winning $10 million. People see enough of the rich getting richer in everyday life. Why do we need it rubbed in our faces while we’re watching sports?
Shipnuck: Right. Who cares which multi-millionaire wins another 10 large? The prize is meaningless. The players should have to give to charity, and that would give people a rooting interest.
Wei: Maybe I’d see it differently if I were the one playing for $10 million, but I don’t want to hear about a millionaire golfer becoming even richer.
Gorant: I don’t think the money matters one way or the other, and charity wouldn’t make it any better. (Probably would be worse because it would feel like some forced PSA. If you think it lacks intensity now, sheesh…) I still believe the biggest problem is a lack of clarity and caring. Not enough clarity for the fans and not enough players who really care. I do enjoy the juiced end-of-year fields, though.
Morfit: For what it’s worth, Reavie teared up in his presser when told he’d moved to ninth in FedEx Cup points and was good to go for the BMW and probably the Tour Championship.
Van Sickle: The Tour has nothing to offer except silly amounts of money. And those silly amounts help minimize the WGC events, which minimized the regular PGA Tour stops. It’s an odd marketing cycle in which the Tour continues to eat its young.
Hanger: Isn’t this the same group that was complaining a few years back that the $10 million was boring because it was an annuity, and suggesting that we cart out a plexiglass box full of cash, like the World Series of Poker? For Tiger and Phil, the $10 million is no biggee. For Webb Simpson, who for all we know might not have another great year for the rest of his life, it could be life-changing. The big pile of cash doesn’t offend me.
Wei: For some reason, I have a feeling that Webb Simpson’s finances are going to be just fine for years to come.
Van Sickle: The $10 million prize might be more compelling if more players were eligible to tee it up. Maybe you let the top 10 Nationwide money winners join in the chase, or more players who are further down the money list. Guys, in other words, who aren’t millionaires. I haven’t thought this idea through, but maybe it’s a way to get some real underdogs into the mix. Or maybe the Tour Championship needs to be a five-day event: stroke play for the first four days, then the top four players in points advance to Sunday’s finale. The winner of that one round gets the $10 million. One round for all the money would always be dramatic.
Morfit: How about whoever wins Big Break gets into the Barclays? Oh, never mind.
FINCHEM’S PRIME-TIME PERFORMANCE
Bamberger: Tim Finchem must take a bow. Details weren’t released, but the Tour got a TV deal for the next nine years and purses are going up. I think the players should be commended. Greed abounds in professional sports, but not on the PGA Tour, not this time. I’m impressed with the level of sanity. No pouting players, no sit-down strikes, no lockouts. Finchem and the players saw the economic reality and didn’t ask for the moon, and I think the decisions they made last week will serve the game well for years to come. Do you feel differently? Is golf on TV in a healthy place?
Van Sickle: I’ll be more optimistic when the hard numbers come out. That the Tour remains on CBS and NBC is quite a coup. Still, it feels like pro golf in America is shrinking. A global tour may sound exciting, but be careful what you wish for. Tourneys with marquee players, yes, but not in this country and not in our time zones for TV. The LPGA is already learning the downside of global golf.
Shipnuck: This deal clinches Finchem’s spot in the commish hall of fame. Somehow he always gets it done.
Wei: While we didn’t get specific numbers, there was an increase in the rights fee and a minor growth in tournament purses. And that’s despite the economy, and with no guarantee that Tiger Woods will regain his form. Well played, Commish!
Dusek: Finchem earned whatever golden parachute is in his contract. Golf will continue to be a Saturday and Sunday afternoon fixture on the networks. While we wondered how Finchem and his team were going to make that happen in this economic environment, they just went out and got it done.
Morfit: I second that. Finchem can retire now, secure in his legacy as a world-class dealmaker.
Herre: I have mixed feelings about the new TV deal. On one hand, the length is comforting, but on the other, we don’t know the terms. Plus, in most sports a long-term deal typically works in favor of the networks. The lengths of these contracts, as well as the even longer Golf Channel deal, make we wonder if the Tour was negotiating from a position of strength. Whatever, at least Finchem won’t have to go through this process again.
BJORN IS BACK
Bamberger: Thomas Bjorn has now won two straight Euro events. Amazing and inspiring, really. A few years ago, he was nearly dead, golf-wise. Are you putting him in your top 10 in the world? Is he ahead or behind British Open winner Darren Clarke?
Herre: I put Bjorn ahead of Clarke. An amazing resurrection. The brooding Dane has always had the talent. Unfortunately, he’s always had the demons too.
Shipnuck: He needs more than one hot month to make me a believer. But it is a remarkable renaissance.
Morfit: I think Bjorn’s gonna be in my top 10, yes, but maybe not in my top nine.
Van Sickle: He’s tied for 11th with a bunch of other guys. We should also do weekly voting for a new Top 10 Interview World Rankings. Bjorn is in my top five there. Maybe top three. Tiger isn’t on that ballot.
Reiterman: Bjorn is not quite there yet. He’s had a lot of missed cuts to go along with those three wins.