PGA Tour Confidential: HSBC Champions

Phil Mickelson won his second WGC event on Sunday.
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

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.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Let’s start in Shanghai. Pretty exciting stuff, on the final three holes especially. At 16, Phil Mickelson whiffed a flop shot, chunked the next one and holed an 18-footer to save par. Tiger Woods fluffed a flop on the same hole, dumping his into a bunker, then clanged his bunker shot off the flagstick to save par. Ernie Els shot a closing 63 but put his second shot in the lake on the reachable par-5 finishing hole. That bogey cost him a chance at winning.

Should we read anything into this? Is Mickelson going to have a monster 2010?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: It’s interesting the way Phil and Tiger’s long, multi-faceted relationship is trending. Tiger used to own Phil like Hideki Matsui owns Pedro. Not anymore. At this moment in time, Phil is clearly the best player in the world. The question is, can he sustain it into 2010 and someday overtake Tiger in the ranking? The way Phil is putting, anything is possible. He seems reborn.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: More clutch putting from Phil has to be a good sign for him in 2010.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Seems to me Phil has become a lot more comfortable seeing the red shirt on Sundays. Deutsche Bank a couple of years ago, the Masters in April and now Shanghai. Phil has always been Tiger’s biggest threat, and now he’s starting to cash in some chips.

Van Sickle: Making putts again will rejuvenate anyone. See Payne Stewart and Vijay Singh (briefly) for details. I believe Phil is poised for a big 2010, a strong late-career run and maybe, finally, even a U.S. Open.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil’s best golf has always been good enough to scare Tiger. The big difference is that Tiger plays at a high level every time he tees it up, while Phil usually only shows up for three or four weeks a year. I’ll believe Phil is the best player in the world when he can sustain this level of play for a full season. (And pick off a couple more majors.)

David Dusek, deputy editor, It’s so much better for golf to have a real challenger for Tiger in the No. 2 spot. Mickelson wins at East Lake, has a great Presidents Cup and now wins in China with a star-studded leaderboard. Can we just play the Masters next week, after Disney?

Morfit: The most amazing part of the week was not something I saw but something I read, that Phil said mid-round Saturday, “Someone’s got his putter back!” I can’t believe he said that out loud. Everyone knows not to taunt the Golf Gods like that. And yet he still won. He clearly feels bulletproof.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I loved the action at the HSBC and loved the names in the mix (Big Easy! Young Rory!), but I also loved that it was Saturday Night Live — the end of prime time here in the east. The LPGA especially, with its large Asian contingent and prospective schedule, should take note for Golf Channel purposes.

Shipnuck: I thought it was one of the best rounds of golf of the year, or maybe millennium, with wild momentum swings among an all-star crew. If this is golf in China, sign me up!

Ryan Reiterman, producer, Not sure if Tiger feels the same way. He didn’t look happy to be there all week, and the cameras never stopped clicking in his backswing. It was shocking how fast he was out of the tournament on Sunday.

Van Sickle: I have to give a little credit to rust for the miscues. Doubt if Phil and Tiger honed their games to get ready for China. Probably didn’t touch a club until they had to after the Prez Cup.

Shipnuck: Tiger is always fully prepared to play whenever he shows up at a tournament. No way rust is an excuse. For sure he got nailed by a bunch of itchy trigger-fingers among the camera-wielding hordes, but so did all the players, and Woods has many years of practice dealing with jumpy galleries. He just didn’t get it done, plain and simple.

Hack: Tiger showing up means Tiger’s ready to win. No rust talk, please.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I’ll accept that Tiger might hit one bad shot because of a shutter click, but one of the TV guys kept pushing “the distractions of the big crowd are hurting Tiger.” Huh? Woods faces those distractions every time he plays, and besides, he’s the guy who was trained to block everything out. I don’t buy it.

Dusek: The same broadcasters compared Tiger’s meltdown on the ninth hole of the fourth round to Greg Norman’s at Augusta. Let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?

Herre: Right, David. I know there’s a tendency in the States to fawn over the Euro tour broadcast crew, but I’ll take Johnny any day. I also don’t buy the idea that Tiger was distracted by the fans, but the crowds were immense, and as usual everyone wanted to get a glimpse of Tiger.

Garrity: They did, indeed. But it was Mickelson, with his smiles and eye contact, who won over the Chinese fans. Phil’s win has to make Finchem and all the other tour execs happy.

Dusek: Any Phil win should make everyone in the golf world happy. When Mickelson is winning, or at least playing well, there is more than one thoroughbred in the race.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: I always thought that was true too, but it’s amazing how many golf fans just want to see Tiger win. Over and over again, by as many shots as possible.

Shipnuck: Tiger will deservedly be player of the year in ’09, but his shocking stumble out of the gate in Shanghai — ball in the water, flubbed chips, 4 over on the first 7 holes — is of a piece with his Sunday meltdown at the PGA, the missed putt on the last hole at Liberty National and the Sunday beatdown Phil administered at the Tour Championship. When it comes to Tiger, Phil has never felt this emboldened, and I’m guessing he’s not alone.

Morfit: I wonder whether Tiger will get fed up and follow Phil’s lead by shaking up his support team.

Shipnuck: That’s a good question, Cam. Tiger was definitely looking at this year as a chance to recover from knee surgery, and in that regard it was a smashing success. Next year will tell the tale. If he keeps getting beat by Phil and giving away majors, anything is possible.

Van Sickle: There should be cause for concern in Camp Tiger. Not panic, just concern. Tiger is too smart not to address his issues before 2010.

Gorant: I don’t think he wants to admit that his support team has that much influence. Maybe he goes without a support team — just Stevie and his rabbit’s foot.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Tiger’s fine. He doesn’t need to shake up his entourage. One year without a major and a bad ending in China are not the end of the world for him.

Morfit: You have to admit Tiger hasn’t looked like Tiger lately. No majors in 2009 is not a huge deal, but the way Yang reeled him in at the PGA, the way he failed to make the big putt at Liberty, the way he backed into the FedEx Cup title, the way he took himself out of contention on the front nine at HSBC — uh, excuse me, my regular Tiger Woods has been replaced by Folgers crystals.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The players are still in shock over the PGA, more in shock that Tiger didn’t make that putt Sunday on 18 at the Barclays, and now this? It’s a brand new day.

Friedman: He did enough to win a batch of tournaments and the FedEx Cup. He hit some amazing shots in the Prez Cup. Maybe it’s simply that “you can’t win ’em all” finally applies to Tiger as well.

Morfit: You have to re-read that last sentence, though, to appreciate how odd it is. We’re saying Tiger is, in some golfing way, like “everyone else.” If you made that assertion most anytime in the last 12 years, anyone within earshot would have said, “Um, no, he is not.”

Bamberger: He’s not like everyone else. He’s like nobody else. He won a half-dozen times this year and contended in another four or five. Nobody’s even close.

Shipnuck: Yes, faithful Confidential readers know we hold Tiger to a ridiculously high standard. (Imagine what we’d be writing if Rory McIlroy had won six Tour events this year!) But Tiger holds himself to even higher standards than we do, so it’s all good.

Dusek: So aside from hitting more fairways with his driver, what exactly would we want Tiger to work on? Making more clutch putts? Honing his short game? Improving his ability to shape shots? It comes down to executing the right shot at the right time, and in 2009 he wasn’t able to do that as often as he has in the past.

Van Sickle: It’s all about Tiger hitting fairways with the driver (and not using the 3-wood or 5-wood as a crutch off the tee), getting his swagger back and unleashing the long-ball, which used to be his biggest weapon. Sheathing the driver has taken away his distance edge and worn the sheen off his invincible aura. See the Connell Barrett Q&A with Brandel Chamblee in Flyers — I thought Brandel was right on the money.

Gorant: I hate to hate on Ernie, but the final hole meltdown makes it feel like he’s back in all the wrong ways.

Garrity: All Ernie has to do is avoid golf courses with water on the 18th hole.

Van Sickle: He’d better sign up for Riviera then.

Shipnuck: Vintage Ernie. That ball on the 72nd hole didn’t just trickle into the water, it was 40 or 50 yards short of the hole.

Morfit: Seems like Ernie is having to relearn how to be in contention. The question with him has always been his putting, not his ability to close. I just think he’s like most every other golfer who’s gone through a slump — he has to feel comfortable in the heat again.

Shipnuck: Ernie’s been doing this for five years now. I wouldn’t call it a slump. This is just who he is.

Hack: Agreed. Dubai a couple of times and now Shanghai for the Big Easy. Tough to find fault in a 63, but you can’t drown your ball on the 72nd.

Van Sickle: It was somewhat familiar for Phil, too. He decided to play smart on 18 and lay up with 3-wood, promptly blocking into the left rough. Then he tried to lay up and pushed that into the rough, too. Then he manned up, hit the green and lagged it close for the win. It’s never easy being Phil.

Garrity: I love that Phil “played it smart” and wound up in grass so deep and lush that you couldn’t see the ball. It’s the answer to the criticism that he should have hit 3-wood on the final hole at Winged Foot. Under final-hole pressure, the shorter club doesn’t necessarily find the fairway — and if you miss, the trouble is often worse than if you’d hit the driver.

Shipnuck: That’s such a good point, John. But, the problem at Winged Foot wasn’t the drive, it was the second shot. I was standing right next to Phil and it wasn’t that tough a play; he just got too aggressive and sliced it into a tree. This time he played a much safer second shot. I guess that’s progress.

Garrity: You’re right about Winged Foot, but Phil WAS criticized for hitting driver on the final hole. Johnny Miller all but called him an idiot before Phil reached that judgment on his own.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: It’s kind of amazing to see Tiger and Phil battling in China, and Billy Payne just flew there to give out a 2010 Masters invitation at the Asian Amateur. Who’d of thunk it?

Shipnuck: I don’t think any of us expect golf to change the Chinese government. It was a great show, nothing more. Kinda like the Olympics…

Friedman: I do like the way “In the hole” can be heard resounding throughout the People’s Republic the same way it does at Bethpage Black.

Dusek: One thing that will be interesting to see shake out: there are not nearly enough qualified golf instructors in China, India and all the other places where the game is supposedly going to grow in the next decade. Who’s going to teach all the new golfers?

Garrity: They’ll be taught by all the American assistant pros who have no future here because the head pro jobs are no longer expanding.

Van Sickle: Next to be rendered obsolete by the great recession: club pros. I hope I’m wrong, but I could see smaller clubs deciding to get by with just a club manager and some assistants to run the golf shop and handle tee times. They could cut the club pro’s salary and wouldn’t have to give up his cut of shop/cart sales.

Herre: Wow! That would be a shock to country club culture.

Dusek: Some clubs are looking into hiring pros as straight employees and making lessons part of the membership. Pros get a flat salary, club gets a sellable perk to dangle in front of prospective members.

Van Sickle: We’ve already suffered the biggest shocks to the membership rolls. Country club dues not being a tax deduction, and fewer companies are offering such perks. I think we’ll see more private clubs going semi-private or public to pay the bills in a tough economy.

Bamberger: If they don’t shorten the courses, widen the fairways and make the game faster, golf could go the way of bridge. People do not have time for the all-day country-club golf experience anymore, not before retirement, anyway.

Van Sickle: For a couple of guys who complained that the PGA Tour season should end a lot earlier, Phil and Tiger are suddenly playing a lot of golf in November. I guess that’s the magic of money. Tiger is getting $3 million for this week’s Australian Masters. That could be what really kills the PGA Tour’s fading Fall Series: appearance money overseas, great fields and the lure of staging more WGC or PGA Tour events in foreign lands. That’s where the money and sponsors are.

It’s hard for golf to be truly compelling, no matter what the stakes are, without those familiar players. That’s why the race for the top 125 this week, no matter what’s at stake, is a tough sell.

Friedman: Well, this year the race for the top 125 includes David Duval, who’s right at 125.

Shipnuck: And Rich Beem is 124. Definitely worth paying attention to.

Van Sickle: Duval has about a $10,000 edge. I think he’s still enough of a name that he can get 20 sponsors’ exemptions if he asks. I’m sure he’d like to stay in the top 125 so he doesn’t have to ask, though. Other names on the outside looking in are Chris Riley, Jeff Maggert, Tim Herron, Todd Hamilton, Stuart Appleby, Joe Ogilvie, Chris DiMarco and America’s sweetheart, Rocco Mediate. Of all those players, Appleby is the most shocking. He’s a guy with all the tools, physically, who’s never really achieved what he could have.

Bamberger: Appleby could be another Mark O’Meara, win his majors late in life. I watch him every chance I get, on the range and the course. No extra moving parts, solid everything, looks like he should contend ever week.

Van Sickle: Appleby is taking a pass on Disney to play in Australia, so he definitely won’t finish in the top 125.

Herre: Appleby’s swing is a thing of beauty, no doubt. But if you look at his stats he’s crooked off the tee, doesn’t hit greens and has a short game that’s mediocre at best. As they said in M*A*S*H — “Looks good, general, but can he fight?”

Van Sickle: Moving on to drugs and the PGA Tour. Bamberger wrote a thoughtful piece on the topic and Doug Barron. AP reported that Barron has struggled with 'severe panic disorder' and that he admitted in 2003 that he took beta blockers. We don’t know what he got caught for this time, but is this one-year suspension too stiff a punishment for the crime?

Morfit: I’m wondering if there’s a chance he’ll be reinstated. If he was on beta-blockers or something else for his anxiety attacks, it seems he has a good case for it. He’s definitely on radio silence. A guy I know who used to caddie for him can’t even get him to return messages.

Herre: Hard to say without knowing all the facts, but it sounds like Barron has had issues for a while now.

Dusek: He’s a professional golfer and athlete. His livelihood depends on his body.

If he genuinely needed to take a doctor-prescribed medication that is on the banned substances list, why didn’t he tell the PGA Tour right away? One year is NOT too much. Golf, like any other sport, should not tolerate failed drug tests.

Hack: The penalty is the toughest in sports besides track. Baseball suspends players for 50 games (out of 162) and football for four games (out of 16). But golf holds itself to a higher standard.

Van Sickle: It’s hard to have an opinion on Barron until we get all the facts, whatever they are. But Manny Ramirez got the 50-game suspension for his first-time violation. The Tour’s punishment seems harsh.

Bamberger: The Tour is really doing the public and the golfers a disservice by having a policy in which they do not identify the drug. I can’t figure out why they think that’s better.

Herre: It will be interesting to see how the Tour’s drug policy dovetails with the IOC’s, and when pro golf transitions into Olympic-style testing. I’ll think we’ll see more transparency from the tours when that happens.

Van Sickle: I find it hard to believe that no player has been caught for marijuana, cocaine, etc.

Bamberger: Those drugs are just handled in a different way. PEDs get special public treatment. It’s spelled out in the players’ manual.

Shipnuck: Recreational drugs don’t get an automatic suspension.

Bamberger: You smoke pot in your hotel room, that’s between you and hotel security and the housekeeper. You take something to improve your performance on the course, and it’s like lifting Benjamins out of 163 wallets.

Van Sickle: Which drug is proven to improve golf performance? It’s a gray area, at best.

Bamberger: Oh no, Gary, it’s easy. Anything that let’s you do more work in the gym is a PED. If you believe the gym makes you a better golfer, and most guys do these days, there are lots of motivations to take steroids, etc.

Shipnuck: Or something that helps your body recover from the wear and tear of hitting 500 balls a day.

Bamberger: Exactly, so you can go hit 600 the next day. PEDs are for fanatics only.