Every week of the 2010 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.
YEAR OF THE MOLINARIS
John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome, fellow One Worlders, to the Asian edition of PGA Tour Confidential. Our headline story comes from Shanghai, where restaurant suppliers are cranking out placemats heralding 2010 as the “Year of the Molinaris.” Seriously, if you’d told me a decade ago that Italians would be dominating pro golf and that China would be building more golf courses than the U.S., I’d have questioned your sanity. So let’s start with Francesco Molinari’s unblinking dismissal of a star-studded field at the WGC-HSBC Champions. Are you guys as stoked as I am about the Molinari brothers’ emergence as international stars?
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: As stoked as you? No, probably not. But that’s probably only because I haven’t written a feature about them. Judging by your enthusiasm for these guys, to know them is to love them.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Impressive how Francesco closed the deal. Capped a great year by the Europeans.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Just what the European Tour needs — more twenty-something studs. It just shows how one great player from a country can inspire the next generation and start a wave. Greg Norman helped turn Australia into a golf factory. Nick Faldo certainly inspired the current crop of English stars. Martin Kaymer probably discovered golf only because of Bernhard Langer. And now, 15 years after Costantino Rocca put Italy on the golfing map, here come the Molinaris. They really seem like a breath of fresh air, two guys who enjoy the competition and show it.
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: There is so much depth over there it’s crazy. A few years ago there was speculation that the Nationwide Tour might be the second-best in the world. You don’t hear that anymore. The best players are always attracted to the big-bucks of the U.S. tour, but week-to-week European Tour events are getting stacked with highly ranked players — homegrown highly ranked players.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: The Molinari brothers are good young players, but there are a lot of good young players from all over the world. The talent well is as deep as it’s ever been from a worldwide perspective.
Morfit: Maybe I’m forgetting a year somewhere, but I can’t remember a season where we saw the emergence of more exciting players than 2010. Rory. Ryo. Rickie. Matteo. Bros Molinari. And of course Ben Crane.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree that the story of this year is the emergence of so many strong young players. Tiger and Phil combined to win only once, and that vacuum created a lot of opportunity. Even if both get back to where they were, they’ll find it’s harder to win because all these young studs are just gonna keep coming.
Morfit: I have to say the result dispelled one myth: Edoardo was supposed to be the brother who was clutch and could actually putt. Now it seems that description applies to both of them.
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: That half-point they stole on the 18th hole at the Ryder Cup had to do a lot for their confidence.
Morfit: Good point, Mark. And Francesco said getting demolished by Tiger in singles actually helped him in a weird way.
Shipnuck: They’re definitely a breath of fresh air. How cool will it be when they go head-to-head to determine a big tourney?
Morfit: If they’re like the Williams sisters in tennis, it’ll be a pillow fight.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think it would be more like the Mannings than the Williams sisters. The brothers would spend 18 holes trying to take each other down. Would be compelling theater.
Shipnuck: Both of the Molinaris are swell guys, but they seem to have an admirable competitiveness. I think each would love the chance to beat the other.
WESTWOOD COMES UP JUST SHORT
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Although he didn’t close the deal (again), I thought it was a nice response to gaining the No. 1 ranking by Westwood. Especially since I was one of the guys who said last week that I didn’t think he was quite worthy.
Garrity: You’re right, Jim. In his first tournament as No. 1, Lee Westwood went 18 under par, made a bunch of clutch putts and totally humbled Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson, his closest challengers for the top spot in the world ranking. On the other hand, Westwood finished second for the umpteenth time, making him eligible for the Nobel Prize for Irrelevancy. How weird is it to have a No. 1 who can’t fill the shelves in his own trophy room?
Morfit: It is a bit odd that Westwood is winning so infrequently. On the other hand, he’s played golf pretty infrequently, so maybe finishing second this week isn’t so bad. I’m a lot more worried about a few other players who got a lot of publicity coming into the week.
Shipnuck: I’m way past the point of getting excited about Lee Westwood racking up another lucrative top-5 finish. To paraphrase “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he needs to put down the coffee. Coffee is for closers.
Hack: Second place, a set of steak knives.
Shipnuck: Third place, you’re fired. That means you, Luke Donald.
Van Sickle: In case we’re wondering how Luke Donald got into the top 10 of the world rankings, see Shanghai. He finished third. He’s like Westwood with consistently good finishes but on a smaller scale. Westwood stacks up seconds; Donald sneaks up for fourths and fifths.
Dusek: In some ways Westwood reminds me of Don Sutton … a compiler. Sutton is in the Hall of Fame but was never dominant. So far, Westwood has shown that no matter where the tournament is being played, he’ll be in the mix, if not near the lead. He’s enormously talented, but also the perfect player for a flawed ranking system.
Van Sickle: It’s pretty simple. Westwood is a terrific ballstriker, but his short game is suspect under pressure. You saw him come up just short on that par 5 and then totally decelerate, barely clearing the bunker. He saved his par, but that was pure bad short game. And he’s kind of got a never-on-Sunday thing with his putting in majors when he has a chance to win. (Of course, like all the Euros, he makes everything in the Ryder Cup.) But that’s nitpicking. The guy is damn good. He is No. 1.
Morfit: If there’s only one guy who is consistently top-five, top-10, in almost every tournament, and that guy is No. 1, then maybe the system isn’t a total mess.
Van Sickle: I agree it’s not off that much, just some. I’d like to see those year-ago results depreciate sooner in value. Does it really matter where a guy finished at an event in January of 2009?
Godich: Well, he did shoot 67-67 this weekend, and he was nine shots clear of third place. He plays a lot of good golf but always seems to run into a buzz saw. See Mickelson at the Masters, Tiger and Rocco at Torrey.
Herre: The thing you must appreciate about Westwood is how far he has come in the last years. He looked washed up not long ago and fought his way back. You have to respect that kind of tenacity. He reminds of Steve Stricker in that way.
Morfit: I agree, Jim. Westwood has got to be an inspiration for a lot of guys who can’t find it at the moment.
Shipnuck: Yes, reminds me of Steve Stricker, too. Another guy who can’t win a major.
Herre: We have an interesting chart in this week’s SI — the World Ranking based only on 2010 results. Westwood is not No. 1.
Shipnuck: Gotta be Kaymer, right?
Herre: You’ll have to read the magazine.
Morfit: The incredible thing is it’s Morris Hatalsky.
Van Sickle: It is stunning that the new No. 1 hasn’t won a major, ever, and won only one tournament this year. Time to tweak those world rankings again.
Shipnuck: And that was a very ugly win in Memphis.
Godich: So we criticize the guy for not winning when he plays well, and when he does win we have a problem with it?
Shipnuck: Yes, tough crowd.
Van Sickle: Yeah, nothing wrong with a guy handing you a victory like Garrigus did to Westwood in Memphis. Too bad he can’t catch a break like that in a major, the way Graeme McDowell did at Pebble Beach.
TIGER AND PHIL’S FUTURES
Garrity: I’d love to skip the weekly redundapalooza about the comeback status of Tiger and Phil, but we all know who pays the bills around here. Woods tied for sixth in Shanghai for his first top-10 since June, but he finished 12 strokes behind Molinari. Mickelson was 20 back and T-41. What’s next for our erstwhile superstars — a joint appearance on “Donald J. Trump’s Fabulous World of Golf?”
Van Sickle: Clearly, Tiger is making progress with his swing overhaul. Progress is good. Not sure what Phil’s story is, other than he’s already switched over to off-season mode.
Shipnuck: These tournaments have meaning for Tiger, who’s in full grind mode. Phil is only over there for the appearance fee and to check on a huge golf course/real estate development. So Tiger’s good play is meaningful; Phil laying an egg is not.
Dusek: Phil’s game was a mess. He missed a ton of short putts, his iron game was not sharp, and I seriously doubt if he cared a bit. But I do agree that Tiger was mentally into it. He’s into the process now, which bodes well for his 2011. Let’s see how he plays in Australia.
Evans: Tiger is learning a new golf swing, and Phil is focused on his family until a month before Augusta. I think they both have bright futures as middle-of-the pack players at most tournaments, settling into form only a few times a year for greatness at the majors.
Godich: With all that is going on in Phil’s life, I find it hard to believe that he flew halfway around the world to pick up a check. When is he going to turn it around?
Shipnuck: Factor in the real estate project, and it has to be an eight-figure check for Phil. Most guys will get on their G-IV for that.
Herre: I was asked a couple of Tiger questions earlier today: Will he win again, and will he break Nicklaus’s record? I said yes, definitely, on the former, and no on the latter.
Shipnuck: Oh jeez, let’s save the breaking-Jack’s-record question for 2016 Confidentials. Please.
Godich: I’d be concerned about Tiger’s putting. He struggled on the greens and barely hit the hole on short putts that used to be automatic.
Evans: Right. We’ve placed so much emphasis on Tiger’s battered golf swing that we haven’t paid much attention to his putting, which hasn’t exactly been great when it’s mattered most this season.
Godich: Of course, the putting struggles are due to his focusing on his latest swing change.
Van Sickle: Tiger’s putting will be a big story in 2011. I’ve had Friends of Tiger tell me he’s a long way from getting his nerve back with the putter. If Tiger putts only mediocre, he’s not going to be a five-win-a-year-guy, and he’s not going to get to 18 majors. Worse, if his putting woes persist, he could get caught in the Sergio Garcia quandary, putting poorly followed by constant questions about why he’s putting poorly. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.
Dusek: There are only so many hours in a day, and the more he works with Sean Foley on developing and honing his swing, the less time he’ll have to get his putting in order. Mickelson has been dealing with the same dilemma for a few years … The more he works with Butch to find fairways, the worse he putts.
Godich: And I’ll bet both of these guys thought, “Even if I struggle with my full swing, I’ll still have my rock-solid putting stroke to fall back on.” Who knew?
Van Sickle: Don’t you remember when Dave Stockton fixed Phil’s putting a year ago and Phil was going to dominate golf in 2010, especially with Tiger off the course for the first quarter? Didn’t quite work out that way.
Shipnuck: Putting was always the difference-maker for Tiger. His putting has been inconsistent for the last couple of years, and it really let him down this season. Dude is almost 35, with a lot of frayed nerve endings. It’s doubtful he’ll ever putt again like he did circa 2000. How he putts will determine if, going forward, he can be transcendent, great or merely really good.
Herre: I would say TW’s already great and arguably transcendent. All that’s left for him is best ever. I used to think he would be. Now I don’t.
Shipnuck: Agreed. I meant whether his golf from here on out will be transcendent, great, etc. He’s already played at a higher level than any player ever. Whether his career is judged to be better than Jack’s will be determined by what he wins from now on.
Morfit: You’ve got to figure he’s got about 10 years left, or about 40 majors, to win five. That’s a big ask, the way the last five years have gone. Given how much your overall happiness plays into your golf scores, even for Tiger, I’d say he’s got to remake himself on and off the course. It looks like he’s doing the on-course part; we’ll have to wait and see about the rest of it. Early signs not terribly promising.
Godich: Don’t forget that the fear factor is gone as well. Remember how guys used to wilt when they saw Tiger’s name on the leader board. Nobody fears him anymore. You can thank Y.E. Yang for that.
Dusek: The win by Yang was big, but for me, seeing Tiger give up at Quail Hallow, then utterly implode at Firestone completely changed him in other players’ eyes.
Shipnuck: I agree with Dusek. Those are two key tourneys in the changing perception of Woods.
Godich: Agreed, but it all started after everyone had conceded him the PGA at Hazeltine with 36 holes still to be played.
Morfit: That PGA at Hazeltine was the most eerie thing I’ve ever covered in sports. I remember after it was over, watching Tiger pile into his car with Elin and the kids, not saying much, and seeing Shipnuck and a whole lot of other people out there watching the same thing. Everyone was thinking the same thought: Did that really just happen?
Van Sickle: Tiger’s mojo has been gone for a couple of years, ever since he gave up hitting his driver, which he used to pound 30 yards past everybody, and tried to keep his tee balls in play. He lost his distance edge because of his errant driver. Even worse, he lost the intimidation factor that came with those monster drives.
Herre: Nothing has changed with either of them, IMO. Woods can’t put together four rounds, and you can count on Phil to hit a few loose shots.
Morfit: Tiger and Phil are in totally different places. Mickelson’s dealing with this psoriatic arthritis problem that could diminish his quality of life, to say nothing of his golf. I’m far more concerned about him. Woods is coming up on the first anniversary of hydrant-gate, and he’s still trying to trust a new swing. Physically, though, he’s probably fine, suggesting many good years to come.
STATE OF THE WOMEN’S GAME
Garrity: Let’s move on to another Asian country and a different gender. Jiyai Shin defended her No. 1 status by winning the Mizuno Classic in Shima, Japan. The runner-up was Yani Tseng, who has three victories this year and leads the LPGA player-of-the-year standings. So who can guess which LPGA star our colleague Damon Hack has nominated for SI Sportsman of the Year? (Hint: She doesn’t speak Korean.) And what does his choice say about the current state of women’s golf?
Shipnuck: And you didn’t even mention Ai Miyazato, who has a tour-best five wins, or Na Yeon Choi, who’s merely the hottest player in golf. The LPGA has so many top players bringing the heat every week. It makes every tournament exciting, even if most American fans are apathetic.
Van Sickle: Didn’t Ai Miyazato win five times? How is she not leading the player of the year race? Of course, it’s the LPGA, the same tour that isn’t going to count Lexi Thompson’s U.S. Open finish toward keeping her card. Hey, it’s only the U.S. Open. Why count that?
Evans: The LPGA is a world tour that should play more in Asia if it wants to stay viable. Sure it’s a good thing that it’s a U.S-based tour, but Asia is its future. Maybe it’s the future of the PGA Tour, too. Who knows? In the end, the state of women’s golf might portend something for the future of all of pro golf.
Van Sickle: Playing more in Asia is only going to hurt the LPGA more in the U.S. Tough call if you’re the commish. Do you give up America if the lucrative sponsors are almost all overseas?
Dusek: Maybe the best thing for the LPGA is to bite the bullet, go where the growth is likely to be (Asia), and plan on going through the bumpy years. If the growth continues, maybe an Asian-based LPGA tour is the best viable option. The LPGA just isn’t making any waves in the U.S., and I haven’t heard of any great solutions to solving that issue.
Gorant: The LPGA has always been an attraction for hardcore golf fans. I don’t think that will change, but a few strong U.S. players could help it here. The upside is that it doesn’t take a big gain in number of fans to create a large percentage increase.
Godich: Here’s the LPGA’s problem. It seems like it was eons ago that Paula Creamer won the U.S. Open at Oakmont, doesn’t it?
Van Sickle: Michelle Wie winning a couple of events and getting to No. 1 would be just what the doctor ordered. When she finally gets out of Stanford and can focus on pro golf full-time, she might make a run at saving the LPGA.
Godich: But does she want to?
Van Sickle: Check back after graduation. Right now, I think she wants to go to college and be a real person. No one else has done that while trying to play a pro tour. No way of telling what she’ll do after she finishes school. But the potential for big improvement is there.
Garrity: Damon’s Sportsman pick, Ochoa, retired to be a wife and humanitarian. Great choice, but it probably doesn’t make the LPGA that happy.
Dusek: The two most recognizable female golfers in the world are both retired. Enough said.
Gorant: That creates opportunity for others to earn that recognition.
Van Sickle: They’re taking it. We’ve had a three-way race for No. 1 since Lorena left. Tseng likely will make it four. Maybe next year, Wie and Creamer will crowd in there, too.
Dusek: If the LPGA is going to grow and show off those players who are taking advantage of the opportunities — beyond the aforementioned hard-core fans — maybe it needs to think a lot more about basing itself outside the United States.
HARDING PARK JOINS TPC FAMILY
Garrity: John Cook successfully defended the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, and Bernhard Langer captured the season-based Charles Schwab Cup. But the real news out of San Francisco was that beautiful Harding Park, the tournament venue, is going to join the PGA Tour’s TPC network. Should we be throwing our hats in the air? Or should we worry that the Tour will put in spectator berms and an island green?
Van Sickle: San Francisco has a vocal and very anti-golf public sentiment. The tour probably had to put its name on the course in order to keep the maintenance budget up to par. Although the Tour’s history of running TPC courses is anything but stellar.
Morfit: It feels a bit like a big brand like McDonald’s taking over the quirky corner bistro, but I doubt the Tour will change it much, and it definitely bodes well for golf fans in the Bay Area. The Tour likes holding tournaments at its own courses.
Herre: Joining the TPC network is a good deal, long term, for Harding Park because it secures the future of the course. We’ve already learned that many politicians in San Francisco are not exactly golf-friendly.
Shipnuck: We can all agree that we don’t want the TPC network to gobble up classic old courses. But Harding was caught in political crossfire and the conditioning was suffering as a muni. This is a good move to keep it as a championship venue.
Garrity: Responding to a report that only 18 new courses opened in the U.S. this year, I played a solo round last Saturday afternoon at Hillcrest Country Club, a venerable Donald Ross layout in southeast Kansas City, Mo. And when I say solo, I mean solo; I was the only human on the course, and there was just one other car in the parking lot. Do you, my fellow golf gossips, have intensive-care courses in your own communities? Or is the American golf market starting to regain its vigor?
Van Sickle: The Pittsburgh area golf market has always featured courses in great numbers, many of them inexpensive, slightly maintained, mom-and-pop courses. Those kinds of places do fairly well in recessions. Lots of places here are offering 18 holes with a cart and lunch for $20. I can’t vouch for the high-end daily fee courses that charge $150 … I don’t play those.
Morfit: A friend of mine who runs a pair of courses in Idaho says it’s been a horrendous year.
Van Sickle: Lots of golf course owners, in general, are trying to get out of the business but can’t get what they consider a fair price. Those trying to buy golf courses on the cheap have trouble finding banks to loan the money.
Herre: I think the industry as a whole is weathering the storm. Yes, rounds are down marginally, but some club companies and other golf businesses are doing quite well. Everyone knew that there were too many courses being built in the U.S. A shakeout was inevitable.
Van Sickle: Unfortunate that the shakeout happened at the same time the U.S. economy had a meltdown.