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.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Greetings, fellow dimple heads, and welcome to Tour Confidential, where all opinions are created equal, except that some are more equal than others. I don’t know about you, but I’m loving this Fall Series. It’s grind-city in beautiful weather, with spectacular shot-making, good and bad. You can listen for an hour and never hear the name Tiger Woods mentioned (except in the promos for the so-called Tiger Tour). It’s a great reminder that golf does not begin and end with Woods, or with the four majors.
We’ll get to Mr. Excitement (Rickie Fowler) and the wild finish at the Frys.com, but let’s start by remembering one of the great swingers of all time, Payne Stewart, who died 10 years ago in a plane crash. I loved watching Payne swing and play, and he was great to talk to, too. Twenty years ago, I was talking to him about Kenny Green, who had a club-flipping routine with his caddie. Talking about Green’s club-tossing, there was a flash of anger in Payne. He said, 'If he flips that putter in front of my nose one more time, it’s coming back to him in two pieces.' Payne was moody and real, and he’d still be a force in the game today — for sure. He had a swing, like Tom Watson’s, that would not quit. Anyone want to share a favorite Payne moment?
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Not that the NFL needed the exposure, but when he wore those team-color knicker outfits, he got written up in the paper every day in every city. (Unlike when Ben Curtis did it and nobody noticed.) The constant questions about his outfits fed his peacock personality, and he had great fun with it, sometimes intentionally wearing the clothes of a city’s arch nemesis. We joked that he was doomed the last day at Shoal Creek in the PGA because he wore the Packers’ colors, back in the days when they were big losers. And he did, indeed, shoot a big number. Payne enjoyed the spotlight. The whole knicker thing turned out to be genius. For years, when he left the course in jeans and a T-shirt, he was unrecognizable. At least until he became so famous that it didn’t matter anymore.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Payne’s other fashion contribution: He launched the sleeveless rain jacket at the 1999 Open. It misted all weekend at Pinehurst, and when Stewart cut the sleeves off his jacket, a trend was born.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: I did trunk duty with Payne at Pinehurst after the ’99 US Open, following him from his last putt until he left the grounds. I was with him when he shed a tear in the locker room speaking to me about his rebirth (religious and otherwise). He had his foibles, as we all do, but the guy was all heart and soul, something the Tour sorely lacks today. He was the epitome of everything today’s robot pros lack
Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Would anyone dare to be a Payne Stewart nowadays? Is there anyone on the horizon who could be the total package — flaunting the game, the stylishly fun look, the rapport with the fans? Some guys have two of three. Ian Poulter has game and great duds.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Poulter has flashy clothes but little on-course charisma. And call me when he wins a coupla majors.
Friedman: Agreed. That’s my point.
Van Sickle: I like Poulter, and he has the same look-at-me personality, and he wears flashy clothes. But Stewart had a feel swing with a sweet tempo, a la Sam Snead or Colin Montgomerie. It was among the best of his generation. If Poulter is going to reach Payne’s heights, he’d better get started winning something soon.
Herre: Payne’s swing was a thing of beauty. Isn’t it the model for the PGA Tour’s logo?
Bamberger: I posed that question, Jim, at Tour HQ this year and was told it was a composite swing.
Van Sickle: I don’t know, I seem to recall somebody admitting when that logo came out that it was based on Payne. Maybe they’re worried about legal liability now.
Herre: Sergio Garcia could fit the bill as the next Payne — if he ever wins a major.
Shipnuck: Sergio doesn’t connect with people the same way, though maybe a major or two will loosen him up. The point is, there was only one Payne. The guy was a true original.
Lipsey: Payne talked to everybody, anytime — even a dummy like me. Sergio won’t talk to you if you’re 10 feet away unless you speak to his manager, who could be 1,000 miles away.
Van Sickle: I beg to differ. While Payne was usually outgoing, he stiffed us writers plenty of times, especially after he kicked away tournaments. He also stiffed us on days when he just didn’t feel like it. That was his prerogative. My point is, he wasn’t Mr. Good Times all the time to the media. He didn’t deal well with having his ego bruised.
Bamberger: What Gary says is what I remember: he ran hot and cold. He was moody, like a lot of artists are. Brad Faxon once told me that nobody on Tour knew less about the mechanics of the swing than Payne. He didn’t need to.
Shipnuck: Here’s a story: I was standing behind the 18th green at Pinehurst 10 years ago. There were a handful of reporters nearby, and as Payne was eyeing his potential walk-off putt, I asked, “Does anyone here think he might miss this?” All the assembled scribes agreed it was as good as in. And that was far from a gimme. The guy just oozed a certain something that made him fun to watch and left you convinced that he could pull off any shot at any time. I’m glad he made that putt because the ensuing celebration left an indelible image that perfectly captures who he was, as a competitor and a person.
Bamberger: The closest thing to Payne today is Phil.
Friedman: But without the fashion or, dare we say, the figure.
Van Sickle: I’m fuzzy about the site (I think it was the Memorial), but one year Payne’s buddy Paul Azinger holed a bunker shot on the last hole to beat Stewart. Azinger went back to his locker after all the festivities and was about to put on his street shoes when he noticed there were banana slices hidden in the toes. He barely avoided a mess. You have to like a guy like Stewart who tries to play a prank after a tough loss like that. If Payne had lived in the age of Golf Channel, he would have been a media superstar. He probably would have had his own reality show, and I would’ve watched.
Herre: He surely would have been a Ryder Cup captain sometime.
Herre: How about the break Lovemark got in the playoff? His approach on 18 popped OUT of the water hazard!
Van Sickle: That ranks with the luckiest breaks of all time in golf — Fred Couples at Augusta in ’92; Roger Maltbie hitting an out-of-bounds stake in a playoff with Hale Irwin; Irwin hooking a drive on 18 at Pebble that bounced off the rocks and into the fairway. Lovemark knew as soon as he hit it that he’d gagged it in the lake. It looked like the ball bounced off the bottom of the cement liner more than it skipped off the water. Let’s hear it for artificial lakes on a desert course!
Bamberger: I saw Seve in Spain in ’90 bounce one out of a water hazard that had a cement bottom. It happens.
Lipsey: Once every 20 years!
Herre: I liked the Golf Channel telecast. Pretty snappy with good on-course reporting. They quickly got to the bottom (so to speak) of the Lovemark shot.
Van Sickle: More kudos for Brandel Chamblee and his TV comments. He talked early in the round about Matteson’s weird swing and his trap-draw. That’s exactly where Matteson went wrong coming in, hitting an inexcusable approach left of the 18th green with a short iron. Luckily, his approach on the second extra hole called for the trap-draw. He pulled it off perfectly.
Herre: Even though he finished bogey-bogey in regulation, Matteson seemed to keep his cool. He had a little smile on his face throughout.
Friedman: If I had shot two 61s, it would be hard to wipe the smile off my face. On the other hand: shooting two 61s and still not nailing it down before the playoff?
Lipsey: No matter how easy the course, 61-61 is mind-jarring. To shoot the lowest 36 holes in Tour history is a spectacular feat.
Bamberger: Troy Matteson, nicely done. But if you haven’t been paying attention, you are now: Rickie Fowler is coming to the Tour with the full package. Not just talent, but style, too. He’s a cross between Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy. What are your early impressions of Fowler as a pro?
Van Sickle: All golfers look good when they’re playing well. When I walked 36 with Fowler last year in El Paso just before Thanksgiving, he wasn’t playing anywhere near this well, and he wasn’t all that long off the tee. There was no mistaking his swagger when he had a wedge or a putter in his hands, though, and those two clubs guarantee him a successful pro career. His ballstriking will determine whether he evolves into an elite player or just a really good tour cash machine. I sure wouldn’t bet against him after this latest run.
Herre: Good analysis, Gary. Fowler can work on the ballstriking. At least part of the short-game skill is God-given.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Fowler has a swashbuckling style, and I’m not sure that will work over 25 to 30 weeks on the PGA Tour. It’s probably too early for him to win. Let him make incremental strides on his golf swing and course management. And please let him escape the doomed tag of “next young gun.”
Van Sickle: Except for Tiger, golfers win (or almost win) tournaments because they played their best golf that week. The question is, how often can they play that well in a year? That’s a lot harder to predict. See Bryce Molder, Ryan Moore and many others for details. It’s way too early to anoint Fowler or Lovemark as the next big thing, but it’s not too early to congratulate them on great showings.
Lipsey: Fowler and Lovemark didn’t win a million times as collegians and amateurs, like Tiger and Phil and some others, so that could be a harbinger that they’ll be more cash-machine than elite player.
Bamberger: Let’s turn for a moment to the . . . British Open! It will return in 2010 to the Old Course, the home of golf, with a new look at the 17th hole — the Road Hole. Trevino once said it was the hardest par 4 in the world because it was a par 5. The draw shot over the Old Course Hotel lettering. The weird, rock-hard bunker. The trap left, the road and wall right, the history of the thing. For the 2010 Championship it will grow from 460 to 490 yards. What do you all think of the change? Blasphemy or necessary?
Lipsey: Trying to fit a playable (for pros) course into a relative matchbox is an impossible job. It’s necessary and blasphemous; there seems to be no other option.
Bamberger: I hate seeing radical changes to theses temples of the game. The Road Hole, typically, plays into the breeze, with your nerves on the line. They want the players to have to hit driver off the tee, or it will play like a par 5. They did what they had to do, but I’m typing with one hand and holding my nose with the other.
Evans: Given the choice of updating the Road Hole for 2010 or sending the course into retirement, I think your best option is clear.
Friedman: Leave it alone! So you have one hole that’s an anachronism — just like the Green Monster at Fenway. It’s part of the lore.
Lipsey: Sell enough toilets and you can buy a slice of the home of golf!