PGA Tour Confidential: Northern Trust Open

PGA Tour Confidential: Northern Trust Open

Steve Stricker moved to No. 2 in the world with his win at the Northern Trust Open.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

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.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I Tweeted earlier that, while it’s a long way off, it would be pretty amazing if the next player who unseats Tiger Woods as No. 1 in the world is Steve Stricker. After four wins in the last 14 months, Stricker looks like America’s best with Tiger on the sideline. As a cheesehead myself, I’m pretty pleased to see Stricker take his game to new levels, and I think he’s good for golf as a kind of opposite to Tiger and Phil — a low-key, humble, unassuming guy from a small town. Your thoughts on the biggest celebrity ever born in Edgerton, Wis.?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: No question Sticker is a great guy who is beloved in the locker room, press room and caddie yard. But if he’s No. 1, golf is in trouble. The dude doesn’t exactly set the pulse of the average sports fan racing. Or even most hard-core golf fans.

(Alan Shipnuck answers readers’ questions every Friday in his weekly mailbag. Ask a question here.)

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I beg to differ with my esteemed colleague. If Stricker becomes No. 1, not only is golf not in trouble, but it’s actually a reminder of who makes it in golf: the guy who shoots the lowest scores, regardless of his Q-rating. Wayne Levi lives!

Van Sickle: Maybe Stricker is becoming a star before our eyes and is poised for a Vijay-like run in his 40s.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Stricker really impressed me when I wrote a feature on him a couple of years ago, a piece that asked if even HE believed he was the third-ranked player in the world. It’s pretty clear now that he is that good, and he knows he is that good.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: How can you not root for Steve Stricker? So humble and genuine. And is there a better putter on the planet? Even the ones that don’t go in scare the hole.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: His stroke really is a thing of beauty — so simple, just back and forth, no “swinging gate” to worry about.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I like the guy. Neat story, and if you saw how bad Stricker was hitting it six years ago, you’d be crying, too. Fun new parlor game would be to come up with lines that might set him off. Hey, Steve, look at the sunset!

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: It is beautiful, but it’s hard to give truly “amazing” putting props to somebody who’s never won a major. If Stricker were that good a putter, he’d have at least one major.

Godich: He’s one of if not the best putter on Tour — whether he has won a major or not. You don’t have to have one to be the other. And, he will break through sooner rather than later. He’s just learning how to close out Tour events. He’s ready to take the next step.

Van Sickle: Stricker’s biggest issue, since straightening out his driver a few years ago, has been finishing. He looked nervy even at Riviera but played through it. We’ve seen him spit the bit quite a few times, especially in some majors where he was near the lead on Sunday. The new Strick may be ready to face that pressure now and overcome it.

Bamberger: He looked more confident at the Presidents Cup than I had ever seen him before. I think the pairing with Woods really lifted him.

David Dusek, deputy editor, And the compliments from Tiger afterward must have helped too. Essentially Woods said that all he was trying to do was stay out of Stricker’s way because he was making everything in sight. And he was. But which major sets up best for a guy like Stricker? Is he long enough to win at Augusta or St. Andrews? Pebble Beach might not be a bad fit, but Whistling Straits could be awkward. If he’s going to win a major, where will it be?

Shipnuck : You gotta think Stricker will be a factor at the Masters, or what Johnny Miller used to call the Augusta National Annual Spring Putting Contest.

Dusek: For what it’s worth, Stricker has played in nine Masters. He’s missed the cut five times (including in 2007 and 2008), but his best finish was last year when he tied for sixth.

Van Sickle: Dennis Tiziani always thought Steve’s best major would be the Masters, presumably because of his precise iron play (it’s a second-shot course in most ways) and short game. He’s done well in U.S. Opens, too. I’d give him a good chance at Pebble. The PGA Championship at Whistling Straits will be a home game, which may help him or hurt him, not sure. St. Andrews seems like it has become a power-hitter’s track, but you never know.

Godich: You have to like him at any Open venue. His wedge and short game are that good.

Van Sickle: Maybe golf needs a squeaky clean good guy to be No. 1 right now after Tiger’s troubles and Phil’s wedge switch and stiffing the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Maybe someone who’s above the fray is better for the game now than a big name with issues.

Bamberger: That’s right, Gary, and Stricker was the first to say it would serve Tiger well to come back and be more open.

Morfit: I agree that it’s refreshing that Stricker just goes and plays the game. It seems like we’re always waiting for Tiger to come back from this or that, and Phil has had his own issues lately. Of course some of these issues couldn’t be avoided, but still … enough! Just play the damn game!

Dusek: Having a squeaky clean No. 1 player may well be a good thing in light of all the scandals golf has seen recently, but I agree with Alan. If Stricker becomes the No. 1 player, I think it’s really an indication that players like Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy are not playing to their potential as often as they should.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s hard not to like Steve Stricker or his story: losing his game, finding it again through hard work. (Hitting yellow balls in the winter out of a three-sided trailer.) As for knocking Tiger from No. 1, it could happen. He just bumped Phil to No. 3.

Garrity: One minor point. It has become part of the Stricker legend that he practices in snow shoes and parka in a trailer near his home in Madison, Wis. The snow shoes and the parka I’ll buy, but it’s not a trailer — it’s a covered driving range across the road from Cherokee Country Club. Stricker usually practices off a mat in stall 6 at the Cherokee Indoor/Outdoor Golf Range. Why mat 6? “Because,” Stricker says, “it has a mirror.”

Godich: This is not exactly the way Phil envisioned his year starting. He’s moving in the wrong direction.

Shipnuck : The thing about Phil is that he regularly lays an egg, even when he’s ostensibly playing well. He might win five times this year, including a major or two, but there will be plenty of weeks when he’s a non-factor. That’s what’s so remarkable about Tiger’s body of work — even when he’s struggling he contends.

Van Sickle: Nailed by Shipnuck. Tiger’s consistency rivals anyone in the game’s history — Nicklaus, Hogan or Nelson. Greg Norman was a very consistent player, too. Phil has never approached any such thing, but he has his share of 10-shot wins. Stricker now seems to be at that consistently good level. It bodes well for a big year for him.

Bamberger: Tiger’s record for consecutive cuts made has to be one of the most impressive feats in all of sports, and proof of what Alan is talking about.

Morfit: It doesn’t make any sense, but the older he gets, the more Phil seems to need Tiger around to play well. Maybe it’s purely a motivational thing. Phil seems diminished without Tiger.

Van Sickle: Once again, the Phil hype outpaced the Phil reality. I think that’s the hazard of pinning the marketing and hype on one guy. Golf isn’t a game where you can predict who’s going to do well every week. (Not like, say, NASCAR.) It’s also the hazard of pinning the game’s focus on one player whose entire career has been built on spectacular inconsistency. Phil may win at Pebble by 12; it wouldn’t be a surprise. Or he may miss the cut, and that wouldn’t be a surprise, either.

Morfit: But he did sign a lot of autographs, which seemed to impress the boys at NBC. (Sign No. 127 that the action on the course is not thrilling: televising some guy signing hats.)

Van Sickle: What’s ahead for Pebble Beach this week? As near as I can tell from Golf Channel promos, it’s Phil and a bunch of celebs playing. Can Phil bounce back from his weekend Riviera debacle?

Hack: He’d better. With no Match Play for him, it will have been a lost West Coast swing.

Van Sickle: Can Dustin Johnson defend his abbreviated title?

Herre: Johnson’s fun to watch — big game, but pretty good around the greens, too. Plus he looks like an athlete.

Morfit: I think we’ve gone pretty deep into the season without a Phil victory. And I liked the way Love played at the Sony at Waialae, which shouldn’t even be his type of course.

Bamberger: As best I can tell, Phil is the biggest celeb playing at Pebble Beach.

Dusek: You mean aside from Huey Lewis and Kenny G?

Herre: The new course will be the biggest star this week.

Morfit: I’m hearing raves already from guys who are thrilled at the new track, and happy not to have to play any more “Sloppy Hills.”

Van Sickle: All my years of covering Pebble, I’ve driven by a couple of Monterey Peninsula’s holes along the ocean and lusted after a tee time there. Never played either course but would love to. Anybody played it and have a story to tell? (But not all 18 stories, if you get my drift.)

Bamberger: Well, on No. 1 … There are 36 holes there, and I’ve played both courses. The whole place is somewhere between good and spectacular. It’s also an extraordinary collection of wealth. It’s one of those places presidential candidates go to go get themselves elected.

Shipnuck : I’ve been doing a shameless amount of hanging-out at MPCC lately, and the Shore Course is going to be the star of the week, with some truly great holes and jaw-dropping views. It was completely sand-capped during the redo so it drains way better than Pebble or Spy. Even if it rains, the course will play reasonably firm and fast. But even converting two par-5s to 4s, it’s relatively scoreable. Without wind some guys will go deep next week.

Hack: I snuck in a few holes last year and can attest to its majesty. Starts inland, works its way down to the rumbling sea. I thought Walter Hagen would pop up from behind a Monterey Pine at any moment.

Van Sickle: Euro Tour time: Which was the most surprising? Alvaro Quiros putting away the lead, Lee Westwood’s short game failing him in the playoff, Miguel Angel Jimenez winning or Tom Watson shooting low round Sunday and tying for eighth at age 60? I’ll vote for Watson, obviously, but Jimenez beating these guys again is pretty cool.

Bamberger: Watson’s sometime caddie, Neil Oxman, has been trying for years now to get Watson to play a full schedule on the regular Tour, with stops at Colonial and Pebble and Hawaii and the other places where length isn’t so critical. Watson was dismissive, but I think Neil had the right idea. He could win, as he showed last year at the British Open, and he could contend one week out of every three or four. Maybe that’s not enough for him, given that he was once the best in the world, but it would be cool for us.

Morfit: Sorry, but Jimenez looks like he’s about the same age as Watson. Cool that he’s still out there doing his thing. No one has more fun at being a touring pro than he does.

Dusek: I just love the idea that Sideshow Bob can win a golf tournament while smoking cigars and sipping red wine. Jimenez is a classic.

Van Sickle: You had to love the way he lit up a cigar in the scoring area while waiting for Westwood to finish.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Jimenez understands that he’s playing golf. It’s not that serious.

Shipnuck : In all my years of covering golf one image remains more indelible than any other: at the World Cup, in Barbados, I was hanging out on the beach at Sandy Lane — tough life, I know — and Jimenez was strolling around in nothing but a black Speedo and pork-pie hat, smoking an enormous, phallic cigar. I’ve been haunted by that vision ever since!

Van Sickle: And is it just me, or has the Euro Tour seemed a little more compelling, with a little more starpower, than the PGA Tour so far this year?

Godich: Yep, that’s like three weeks running. It hasn’t helped that you’ve had winners such as Bill Haas and Ben Crane, rain delays and Monday finishes, on the West Coast, no less.

Bamberger: The play is more stylish and the players are, too, much like in the late ’80s, when Seve and Co. were all going at it.

Dusek: The best, most compelling thing on the Golf Channel week-in and week-out is the European Tour coverage.

Van Sickle: I agree, but I’m not big on the presentation, especially when Renton Laidlaw isn’t on the air. They also don’t put up a leaderboard anywhere near often enough. I find the Euro Tour crew talks almost exclusively about shots and lies and not at all about the players (the way the American crews do) — who they are and what they’re about. Not much inside information, in other words, but the golf is good.

Herre: Euro tour production values, on Golf Channel anyway, are also not up to U.S. network standards. The Euro players are simply better, or different, characters.

Dusek: In a Ryder Cup year, I think it’s fascinating to see players like Rory McIlroy, Ross Fisher and Lee Westwood on a fairly regular basis. The Euros play on such a wide variety of courses on their swings through the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the U.K.

Godich: It will be interesting to watch the Euro Ryder Cup team take shape. Luke Donald threw his hat in the ring this week.

Morfit: Donald’s so good from the sand he should aim for the bunkers. That said, I don’t know if that’s such a great commentary on the rest of his game.

Herre: Remember when Donald joined the Tour? Next Big Thing. I think his career has been disappointing to say the least.

Godich: Well, he has been hurt. Any injury in golf worse than a bum wrist?

Van Sickle: Luke’s wrist injury hurt. He also came along at the wrong time, right when driving distance got out of control. Bad time to be a short hitter. He could’ve been a Curtis Strange type, maybe, until that happened.

Herre: The wrist explains the last year or so, but what about the many just OK seasons before the injury?

Godich: He’s not unlike Stricker was. Donald needs to learn how to finish. Look at today. Stricker makes a great par save at 15. Donald sticks in close at 16 but misses the putt. There’s your two-shot difference. It was refreshing not to hear grooves dominating the telecast this week. Time to move on.

Herre: And how about Johnny? The CBS guys are more or less muzzled about Tiger, but Miller just comes out and kills him.

Van Sickle: I don’t like Johnny’s chances of getting an exclusive with Tiger when (if?) he returns, a la Bill Cowher and Plaxico Burress.

Morfit: The days of bowing to Tiger for some sort of hoped-for reciprocity are over.

Van Sickle: The last item: If somebody put a gun to your head and forced you to watch either John Daly’s reality show or Hank Haney trying to help Ray Romano on Golf Channel, which would you choose and why? I’ll take Romano. Over six or eight episodes, he’s bound to accidentally say one funny thing (and probably only one). Also, I like Haney. I feel like I’m done enduring the Daly saga, and after the PGA Tour effectively pulled the plug on his previous show, I still don’t know why Daly is getting another crack.

Herre: At least Romano takes golf seriously.

Dusek: I’ll choose neither and take the bullet.