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.
SABBATINI PREVAILS AT HONDA CLASSIC
Rory Sabbatini needed all of his five-shot cushion, but he got it done for his sixth Tour win at the Honda, getting himself into this week’s WGC-Cadillac in the process. PGA National is clearly a major-worthy course, inducing three doubles in a row from the other Rory, McIlroy, and a horrific quintuple-bogey 8 from Adam Scott (77-82). Sabo has teased us at Augusta before. Should we look for him to win a major soon? And does all the carnage make for great viewing or would you rather see some more birdies?
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Rory winning a major wouldn’t be a shock. He’s a definite feel player, though, and reminds me of Colin Montgomerie. I think it’s more difficult for feel players to survive the final-nine pressure of a major. The adrenaline and excitement make it hard to keep the same feel. But Sabbatini could do like he did at the Honda — get to the back nine with a five-shot lead and just hang on.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: I could also see Sabo winning a major. He’s been pretty consistent so far this year and seems to have calmed down a bit. He obviously has the talent.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Rory has been on Tour for what seems like forever. He’s his own worst enemy a lot of times, but he has the game to be a consistent top 30 player. To me, the Honda is a top five tournament on tour. I put it ahead of Bay Hill, Memorial and Wachovia.
Van Sickle: Sorry, don’t see the Honda in the top five of tour events, certainly not ahead of Bay Hill and its pre-Masters buzz or the Memorial and Jack and the pre-U.S. Open buzz. Not even close.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: This was the least emotional I’ve ever seen Sabbatini. He was all business, really. This kind of play can get you into a U.S.-Open-on-Sunday-afternoon situation, for sure. What happens from there no one can say.
Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: Yang praised Sabbatini for being so emotionally stable today. When Sabo was asked if there was a “new Rory” out there who can control his emotions better, he said that he’s just a passionate golfer, but he’s not proud of everything he’s done. He said he’s trying to learn because he wants to be a role model for his children. To answer the major question, if this new Rory is here to stay, then a major win sometime soon wouldn’t be a big surprise.
Morfit: He was of course very emotional after he’d won, shedding tears with his wife, Amy. He seemed a bit less harsh, which was nice to see. I suppose it can be humbling to have the kind of year he had, with Amy’s pregnancy complications sending her to the hospital for two days, and with the cancer scare Rory had.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Sabbatini rubs some people the wrong way, but I’m happy to see him back on his game. I find his devil-may-care attitude refreshing, and I enjoy his hyper-aggressive style. He put a huge charge into the Masters a few years ago with a big Sunday run. I’d like to see him do it again.
Top 100 Teacher Mitchell Spearman: He shows guts, hits pure iron shots and putts beautifully. Good combination for winning.
Herre: I found the Honda to be a little tedious. With the wind and those tough finishing holes, no one could make a move.
Van Sickle: Personally, I love watching the pros battle the elements, especially wind. You see just how good these guys are, and you see who’s really playing well and who isn’t. Sure, a birdie-fest is fun, but players against Mother Nature, like the year Padraig Harrington won the British Open at Royal Birkdale, is even better theater.
Shipnuck: I enjoy watching the pros get beat up, but only in moderation. Seems like the Florida swing has become a contest to see who can have the most boring, penal setup. If the best players in the world can’t birdie a hole, there’s something wrong with it.
Spearman: Only 13 guys finished under par for the week. The Florida swing courses are now tough except Doral, which is a WGC tournament. There will surely be more guys under par next week.
Herre: I think the Honda was kind of a one-off, because of the wind and the course. Mitchell’s right — Doral will be more telling. I look for the durn ‘furiners to have a big week.
Wei: I was disappointed the course was playing easier on Sunday, softer from overnight rain and not nearly as windy. I wanted to see if the leaders could withstand the pressure of the Bear Trap coming down the stretch.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I prefer the West Coast swing. The courses are far more interesting. I know every place can’t be Pebble or Riviera or Torrey Pines, but my eyes kind of glaze over at these Florida courses. If you dropped me in the middle of PGA National or Doral, I could barely tell you which was which.
Wei: I’m with you, Damon. The courses on the West Coast swing are much more interesting. I’m not a big fan of the manufactured water hazards, etc., in Florida, but for some reason, I really enjoyed the Honda. There was a three-group pileup on 17 on Thursday while I was out there, and you could see the fear in the guys’ faces before they hit the shot. It’s already a tough hole even without 30-mile-per-hour gusts and stepping up to the tee after a 30-minute wait. I found it intriguing.
Hack: That’s just it. The par 3s on the Bear Trap, for example. They’re difficult holes, but are they great holes? Give me No. 12 at Augusta or No. 17 or 7 at Pebble. Give me the par-4 10th at Riviera. While the Bear Trap holes might scare people and ruin scorecards, they don’t move my golfing soul.
Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Agree that there’s not much to swoon over at PGA National, but at least the difficulty level of the course gives the tournament an identity, something missing at a lot of Tour stops.
Wei: No real complaining from players, which I thought was interesting. Pre-tournament, first word when guys talked about the course was “tough.”
Van Sickle: Agree with Damon. I’m not a fan of PGA National or the Bear Trap run. It can make for exciting TV, though. Maybe that’s enough, but it doesn’t make me want to pony up a hefty greens fee to play resort golf there.
Bamberger: Florida, of course, is a vast, flat, soggy state. None of that says golf. That it’s become such a golf destination is a triumph of marketing and some pretty mediocre use of bulldozers.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I thought it was more about the weather.
Bamberger: Oh yeah, and the weather.
FINDING A THEME FOR THE 2011 SEASON
Morfit: Ten events into 2011, where is this season headed? As soon as we think we’ve identified a theme (the return of Phil, the rise of the Europeans) it vaporizes just as quickly. Despite Graeme McDowell’s 64 on Sunday (T6) and Luke Donald’s 66 (T10), the Euros didn’t do much at the Honda despite all the pre-tournament build-up. The only thing that’s been consistent about this year is Tiger’s crummy scores. Is 2011 in the throes of an identity crisis?
Van Sickle: I think we do have a theme. As I wrote last week from the Match Play, the torch has been passed and we’re watching the battle to see who’s going to pick it up and run with it. It’s like horses jockeying for position as they enter the final turn at the Derby. There are a lot of possibilities. It just may take a while to settle. And it may end with Tiger or Phil reasserting himself.
Spearman: Sure looks like an identity crisis. The season is just warming up, but we have no standout player yet. Obviously Mark Wilson’s won twice, so let’s see where he can take it.
Evans: I think consistency and parity could be the major themes. The narrative is boring, but I think it’s good for the game. Instead of 10 guys dominating the Tour, or one or two, we have 50 with a shot to win every week.
Bamberger: You don’t know who is going to win or even contend before the event begins. I love it.
Van Sickle: Agree with Farrell that it’s good for the game in the long run. Very good. We’re star-building for the future, we hope.
REMEMBERING FRANK CHIRKINIAN
Morfit: Legendary CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian died of cancer at 84, but not before videotaping his acceptance speech for the May 9 Hall of Fame induction. What will you remember about “The Ayatollah”? He told me once that he hated Greg Norman’s hat, which surprised me since that was such a Norman trademark. “The eyes are the window to the soul,” Chirkinian said, “and I didn’t want that damn hat hiding his eyes.”
Bamberger: I will remember that he held court, like a mob boss, and that people listened to what he had to say, and that he wasn’t a corporate suit, and that he had a vision. Also, he had many purple sweaters in his collection.
Morfit: His legacy will live on not just through all the sports-television advancements, but also through the talent he hired: Nantz, McCord, Feherty, etc.
Van Sickle: CBS has had the best golf telecasts over the years. I don’t think there’s much argument there. Chirkinian is the reason, the man who built the model and got a lot of the right people in the right places, from Jim Nantz to the Gary McCord/Ben Wright duo to Tom Weiskopf (who had some great observations at the Masters) and others. Chirkinian turned telecasts from a collection of golf shots on the last few holes into a show, a story with an ending. He was a pioneer.
Gorant: A few years ago Mike Lupica wrote a My Shot for us arguing that Frank should get into the Hall of Fame. He and we were ahead of our time. I had to call Chirkinian as part of the editing process, and he could talk. Never boring though.
Spearman: I never met him, just enjoyed his work. I remember watching the Masters as a 12-year-old kid in the UK, live TV from America. That’s how Faldo decided he wanted to play golf, watching Jack on TV at Augusta.
Morfit: I like that he had the sod above the cups painted white. We take it for granted now, but it takes some cojones to get in there and start messing with the playing field so it’ll look better on TV.
Hack: Also never met him, but love that he instituted a “don’t talk while the ball is in the air” rule during the broadcast. Also, at the 1996 Masters, when Faldo was choosing between 5-wood and 2-iron on the 13th fairway, the broadcasters were mostly silent as Faldo and Fannie talked it over. You heard the birds chirping and you saw Faldo trying to figure out which club looked better behind the ball, and it was great television.
Walker: He was a visionary and one of the great characters of the game. The Masters has an almost mythical quality that’s unlike any other event in sports, and Chirkinian’s broadcasts are a major reason why.
Evans: I was fortunate enough to interview Chirkinian last year. As I was talking to him, I kept thinking that he would have been great in front of the camera. He was lively, slick, witty, polished and successful. I place him right up there with Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes producer, and Roone Arledge of ABC, as one of the truly innovative producers in TV history. But even more than that, he was a character and, as my mother would say, a sport.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Like millions more, I watched infinite hours of his golf coverage, and I enjoyed every minute of it all.
MIKE DAVIS TAKES REIGNS OF USGA
Morfit: Speaking of star-building, the USGA named Mike Davis as its seventh executive director in 116 years. (Okay, so it’s not exactly a revolving-door job.) What does this mean, specifically in regards to what we’ll see at the U.S. Open, where Davis has done his best work as senior director of Rules and Competitions?
Shipnuck: Davis will be an excellent boss because he’s a people person and universally respected, and he truly loves the game. But I’m sad to see him leave his old job. His setups vastly improved the U.S. Open.
Spearman: Agreed. U.S. Open setups have improved with graded rough, drivable par 4’s, etc.
Bamberger: A great hire. First of all, a very decent person whom people respect. He surely feels that golf should be fun and challenging and accessible, and if he can instill his golf values on the revolving door of USGA presidents, it will be fantastic for the game.
Van Sickle: I’m not sure there will be much change in the USGA. Certainly Davis has distinguished himself already and proven that he understands the game and tournament golf. The right man for the job.
Herre: It’ll be interesting to see how long Davis sticks with setting up the U.S. Open course, even though he says it’s his favorite task. It’s not like you blow in there a week before the Open and decide where to cut the holes. A lot of the job is scouting and recruiting years in advance of venue selection. Then once a course is chosen, you have to check its condition on a routine basis. Will Davis have time for all of that?
IS THIS THE END OF THE HILTON HEAD TOUR STOP?
Morfit: In other news, it looks like this could be the last iteration of the Tour stop at Hilton Head, unless a title sponsor comes to the rescue. Lots of short to medium-length hitters praised Hilton Head. Is this another case of a beloved, charming little Tour stop biting the dust, or is the PGA Tour schedule simply overdue to be truncated?
Spearman: I know the players love going there and playing. Would be a great shame to lose that tournament.
Bamberger: I will be very surprised if this turns out to be the final year for Hilton Head. The tournament is crucial to selling real estate there. Somebody stepped up in San Diego, and somebody will here, too. Golf on the water is always something you can sell.
Herre: Losing Hilton Head would be a tragedy, and it would be due solely to economics. If the Tour was interested in truncating its season, it could lop off any one of a dozen lesser events.
Van Sickle: This is the result of the new era of big purses and TV-revenue driven golf. The tour might have more potential sponsors if it cost $3-$5 million to put on a tournament instead of $7-$9 million. I’d like to see the WGC-Match Play move to Hilton Head, as some tour players talked about last week. It would fit in nicely the week after the Masters because the top players would already be around. I’m not sure that will happen, but Harbour Town is a great shot-making test. It would be a shame to lose it.
DOES CRENSHAW-COORE DESERVE OLYMPIC COURSE DESIGN JOB?
Morfit: Pinehurst No. 2 reopened last week following a year-long renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, with no rough and more strategic options, and supposedly a return to the original intent of Donald Ross. Are Crenshaw and Coore the best in the business, and should they be given the job of doing the course in Brazil for the 2016 Olympics?
Bamberger: The beauty of C&C is that they only want the job if the piece of land is good. They say no routinely.
Evans: The 2016 Olympics should be given to a Brazil architect or someone who has built courses in the country. I’m sure that won’t happen, but the decision shouldn’t come exclusively from people at the PGA Tour.
Spearman: It should go to Nicklaus and Annika. Having said that, Coore and Crenshaw are the best.v
Herre: Golf architecture is so subjective. Crenshaw-Coore have designed some fine courses, but so has Tom Doak, among others. And, frankly, the actual design work will probably be only part of the hiring criteria.
Van Sickle: Golf course architecture is in the eye of the beholder, and all golfers, including me, are sure we’re design experts. Never played a Crenshaw/Coore course I didn’t like. Not sure who should design the Olympic course. Not sure I even care.
EXPECTATIONS FOR TIGER AND PHIL AT DORAL
Morfit: Final question for today: What do you expect out of Tiger and Phil this week?
Bamberger: Each will play 72 holes.
Spearman: To make the cut … oh yeah, there isn’t one. Well at least one of them should be in contention. I’d pick TW over Phil.
Lipsey: I’m expecting more of the same blah, but I’m hoping to see fireworks and red numbers.
Herre: I’d like to be surprised by them, but I have no expectations.
Hack: I expect Phil to finish top 10. He can smell Augusta from here. As for Tiger, I haven’t a clue.
Evans: Tiger and Phil will both finish in the middle of the pack. Tiger is going to learn the hard way that he can’t get into tournament shape on the range at Isleworth. And Phil can’t wait to get to Augusta.
Morfit: I’m sensing Tiger-and-Phil fatigue. If their slumps continue, who else would move the needle at Doral? I’d say Villegas, but the guy can’t break an egg at the moment.
Herre: Jhonny Vegas!
Wei: Villegas can barely break 80 these days. Who can move the needle? McDowell and Dustin Johnson are my picks.
Hack Quiros. Alvaro Quiros.