PGA Tour Confidential: Northern Trust Open

February 20, 2012

Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in our all-new live Readers' Confidential or in the comments section below.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Greetings, Confidentialists and enthusiasts worldwide. What can I say about my hometown? Los Angeles knows golf, it knows drama and it knows how to throw a party. Riviera in the gloaming? I'll put it up against any walk, anywhere.

Before we get to Billy "Big-Game" Haas, I want to know precisely what you will take away from this week. I have to admit, I'm ready to give Phil everything: Player of the Year, a major title or four, and No. 1 player in the world by the time the Ryder Cup hits the city of big shoulders. What are you taking from Riviera?

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Besides everything from the last hour … Dustin Johnson still needs a lot of work from 125 yards and in.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: The PGA Tour seems to be doing just fine without Tiger in the hunt every week. Sure, it has helped having Phil in the hunt the past two weeks, but we've had four nail-biting finishes in a row. What a West Coast swing!

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, I'd say Tiger brought the most buzz last week by a mile until that final round, and even then he was part of the story. The Tour still needs Tiger.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Exactly Mark. The golf the last two Sundays has been riveting, and it had nothing to do with Tiger. Is Phil a bigger star now? Just watching the commercials you'd sure think so.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: I love Haas's pace of play, and how he keeps his cool. Could see him having a big year. Also impressed with Bradley. He's the real deal.

Godich: After what Haas pulled off in the Fed Ex finale, with $10 million and change on the line, this was probably like a Tuesday practice round.

Shipnuck: I'm always bummed when the West Coast swing nears its end. The courses and the scenery are amazing. The Match Play is always a highlight, and then it's a bunch of flat Florida courses that look the same. Sigh.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: A reminder that Phil the Thrill remains the most exciting player on tour, or at least on a par with Tiger. You don't know what he's going to do. A mix of great shots and, on Sunday, a couple of poor approach shots that left him ocean-liner putts that he couldn't get down in two. If Phil shoots one under on Sunday, he wins. He didn't do it.

Have a question for Gary Van Sickle's mailbag? E-mail [email protected] or ask it on Facebook.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: He really is exciting. It's impressive that he didn't even have his best stuff other than on Thursday and had to scramble his way around. I was standing next to the CEO of Northern Trust when Phil and Keegan made their putts in regulation, and I think he nearly had a coronary. (My eardrums are still ringing!)

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, If Mickelson can add one major, 2012 will go down as the Year of Phil. If we're identifying disappointments, A.K. warrants a mention for his showing in his hometown. He would've missed the cut with 78-77 but was instead disqualified for signing an incorrect score. What gives?

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What do you take away as the big story from Riviera?

Bill Haas, Riviera champion

Michael Zito / Zuma Press
Bill Haas won the Riviera playoff to earn his fourth career PGA Tour victory and first of 2012.

Hack: Seems like it was only yesterday that Haas had trouble closing the deal. Now he's getting up and down from water for $10 million and taking down Phil and Keegan in a playoff. Herre mentioned that he liked his pace of play and demeanor. Give me your best assessment of Haas.

Herre: It's a pleasure to watch Haas play. He makes a decision and hits the shot. Bradley's game is impressive, but all the tics — spitting, stepping in and out, the three mini practice swings — are kind of annoying. Thankfully, once he settles over the ball he immediately pulls the trigger.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I know I'm a broken record, but get a spittoon, kid.

Wei: Yeah, Haas's pace of play deserves major props. Phil's isn't too bad, either. Stutter step…well, that's another story. With the spotlight on Phil and Keegan, I loved how Billy dropped that 40-foot bomb on them.

Hanger: Haas seems steady and smart. That second shot on the final playoff hole was really savvy, realizing what his opponents were facing. Bradley was intense but he looked nervous as a cat.

Godich: That said, I wonder why he didn't lay up off the tee.

Hanger: Fair question. He did at least get it on the left side.

Shipnuck: What's not to love about Haas? He hits it long, is a great iron player and has turned into Mr. Clutch.

Godich: I like his demeanor. It's the same whether he's shooting 66 or 76. Oh, and he seems to be another guy who has gotten quite comfortable with the belly putter.

Wei: Haas switched back to his short putter at the Humana but didn't like it, so he cut an inch off his old belly in San Diego. Apparently, that made all the difference. His wife, Julie, says he sees the line better, and Jay Jr. says he's more comfortable over the ball.

Mick Rouse, editorial assistant, SI Golf Group: Long off the tee and top 10 in GIR percentage? I like that combo.

Reiterman: Love Bill's long, fluid swing, kind of like watching Vijay in his prime.

Van Sickle: If I'm Davis Love, I already have Haas and Bradley written in ink on my Ryder Cup lineup card. If they don't make it on points, they're picks. Rickie Fowler, you'd better make the top eight this time. The wild card may not be coming your way.

Wei: But the good news for Rickie is that he will still be signing the most autographs and have the most doppelgangers following on the course.

Van Sickle: Until he starts winning regularly, Rickie is the Natalie Gulbis of men's golf. That's not a bad thing. Golf needs recognizable stars, and Rickie is certainly one of the top five drawing cards in men's golf in America. He's young, and he has time to develop.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What do you see in Haas's future? Do you think he'll win a major this year?

Dustin Johnson

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Dustin Johnson shot an even-par 71 in the final round at Riviera and finished tied for fourth.

Hack: Dustin Johnson has cool sideburns and he makes the game look easy from the tee, but he hit some loose wedges and poor chip shots that made Peter Kostis and Nick Faldo squirm. We've sort of assumed that he has the stuff to win majors, but you need a short game to win majors. Do you still believe in big Dustin?

Shipnuck: Butch has been questioning his work ethic for years. If a guy has the same weakness year after year, you have to wonder how hard he's trying to achieve his potential.

Godich: Dustin has piled up around $14 million in PGA Tour earnings. Maybe that's the problem.

Bamberger: Yes, I believe. Butch can teach those shots, and an athlete like Johnson can learn them.

Hack: Kostis and Faldo basically said the action that makes Dustin so great off the tee hurts him around the greens. He may not have to be great around the greens, but he at least has to sniff average. He's not there.

Godich: A lot of guys are making it look easy off the tee. Until Dustin shows he can close — and that's all about what you do on and around the greens — I'm not buying.

Van Sickle: Once again, golf is all about scoring, and therefore about putting. Phil didn't make squat on Sunday, which is not necessarily his fault. Nobody was running them in from all over, except maybe Sergio. Riviera's greens are grainy and mysterious, and they're the reason scores are never low. You need to putt great to win. Rory McIlroy figured that out last year. He went to see Dave Stockton after his Masters meltdown and bingo, he ran away at the U.S. Open. Dustin needs to improve. After watching him at the Presidents Cup, I was almost scarred for life.

Hanger: Johnson has shown that his nerves are questionable in major championship situations. If he can't execute those basic shots this week, I'm betting he won't be able to do it in the really big ones either.

Reiterman: Johnson could easily win on a softened course, like Rory at Congressional. But a firm-and-fast Augusta National? No chance.

Van Sickle: Right. Not Augusta, but maybe the British Open or a U.S. Open with deep rough that turns into a game of pars. Pebble Beach, definitely.

Herre: Johnson is a mystery. His technique looks good in all phases, yet he makes the same mistakes over and over. I'll cut him some slack because of his injury, which may limit his reps.

Van Sickle: We're all impressed with D.J.'s power and raw strength, but his swing? I'm not a fan.

Wei: I believe in Dustin, but I think he has to believe in himself a little more. On the bright side, he didn't have his best stuff and still notched his second top five in a row.

Rouse: Golf is like any sport. You've got your power guys and your finesse guys. Dustin is clearly a power guy. Very rarely do you see a player in any sport able to command both power and finesse.

Godich: There are plenty of power guys out there who are finding ways to win — Haas, Bradley, Kyle Stanley. Dustin needs to find some semblance of a short game. And fast.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Do you believe in Dustin Johnson? What does he need to do to start winning more events?

Keegan Bradley, final round, Riviera

Chris Condon / Getty Images
Keegan Bradley used a long putter to bury a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole and qualify for the playoff at Riviera.

Hack: Watching Haas and Bradley in that playoff was like one long advertisement for belly putters. Even Ernie Els believes they should be banned (while continuing to use one). Fred Couples says the governing bodies will do the right thing, whatever that means. Where do you see this controversy ending? Are the governing bodies going to nix "anchoring" putters even as the golf companies have them flying off their assembly lines and players continue to win with them?

Bamberger: I cannot imagine the USGA banning the long putter. It is too late.

Herre: Tom Lehman came out with a spirited defense of alternative putters this week. His main point was that the powers that be had the chance to do something about long putters decades ago, and it would be a joke to revisit them now.

Godich: Agreed. And they'd get quite the fight from the manufacturers.

Wei: Ernie really wants to switch back to the conventional putter. He's trying. He's had his short and belly putters out with him on the practice green before and after his rounds. On Friday his agent took the short putter back to the locker room as Ernie walked to the tee.

Hanger: I don't think they'll outlaw them, and I don't think they should. Lots of new inventions make golf a lot easier than it used to be. Why single out long putters? My nerves are a lot steadier looking at a 460-cc head than an old persimmon. Seems like pretty much the same thing.

Wei: I agree it's been too long, but I say ban them anyway. In what world is anchoring the club against your body a real golf swing or stroke? Isn't making a putting stroke without the putter anchored to your body a fundamental part of the game? I think quite a few players would deal with it if the USGA decided to ban them. I wouldn't be surprised if they made it happen by 2016. After all, Tiger is on a crusade for the cause.

Hanger: Where is it written that putting without the putter being anchored is a fundamental part of the game? If that were fundamental to the game, it would be in the rules already. Just because some people think it ought to be fundamental doesn't mean it is.

Van Sickle: The USGA is coming off the disastrous grooves issue. Banning square grooves made almost no difference in pro golf but made the game decidedly harder for average hackers, who are already leaving the game in droves. It cannot afford to turn off any potential new players by outlawing long putters, which have been around for 25 years. Let me repeat–25 years! Too late, USGA.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Will the belly putter controversy ever end? How do you see it finally ending?

Hack: Yani Tseng birdied the final two holes in Thailand to win her 13th LPGA title. She shot 73-65-65-65. She wins more than Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. What must this LPGA dynamo do to become a household name?

Van Sickle: She needs to win a major event on a major American TV network in the 4-6 p.m. time slot on a Sunday. And then she needs to do it more than once. Sad to say, her fastest route to household name-dom would be the carnival route: play in a PGA Tour event like Annika did at Colonial.

Shipnuck: The difference is, Yani would make the cut.

Godich: That's the $64,000 question, Damon. And LPGA commissioner Michael Whan is eagerly awaiting the answer.

Reiterman: She'd have to win more majors than Tiger and Jack. At the pace she's going, it won't take long.

Wei: Get a makeover and pose wearing nothing but body paint in SI's swimsuit issue?

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What must Yani Tseng do to become a major star?

Hack: I caught an interesting Twitter discussion between our Alan Shipnuck and LPGAer Anna Rawson about Natalie Gulbis's body-paint layout for SI. Alan said "her male fans certainly appreciate Natalie's 'exposure.' But is her nakedness really going to inspire girls/women to play?" Anna argued that a double-standard exists that hurts women, who make 10x less money than men. She said of Natalie, "She is an amazing talent that has done a lot more than just be pretty." What's everyone's take? Is Natalie's participation in the swimsuit issue good for the LPGA or just good for Natalie? Is this what LPGAers have to do? Serious answers, please.

Herre: It's not either/or. Of course appearing in Swimsuit was good for Gulbis, but it was also good for the LPGA, which needs all the exposure it can get. (BTW, Rawson would appear in the issue in a heartbeat.)

Reiterman: It's great for Natalie, but in 10 years, is there really going to be a young LPGA champion who says, "When Natalie Gulbis posed in the SI Swimsuit issue, it really inspired me to become a pro golfer."

Hanger: I don't think it will help or hurt women's golf, but is anyone seriously making that argument? I think some athletes, male and female, have the looks to cross over into modeling, so more power to them. It's good for the LPGA — they could use the publicity.

Shipnuck: The LPGA tried the sexpot route 30 years ago with Jan Stephenson. It's silly and marginalizing to other players who fail to conform to our culturally-mandated ideas of beauty (like Yani). The golf is enough for those of us who love the LPGA. Panting frat boys will never be the tour's core demographic anyway. I have three young daughters who are getting into golf. I don't particularly like the message that this is what they'd have to do to make it big on the LPGA.

Bamberger: Well said. The body paint on Natalie does nothing for the LPGA.

Hanger: I don't think that's the message at all, that they have to pose for those shots to get ahead on the tour or look a certain way to succeed at golf, any more than I think Kournikova's example teaches young girls that they have to be bombshells to play tennis. Quite the opposite – being a model actually seems to detract from success on the course or court. Of course, I have two sons, so it's easy for me to say.

Godich: And I'm willing to bet that the LPGA was the last thing on Natalie's mind when she agreed to do it.

Herre: Gulbis is a good soldier for the LPGA.

Shipnuck: You know what would be hot? Natalie winning another tournament. She looks great in her saucy golf outfits.

Wei: Like Charlie said, it's great for publicity and for the individual, but I'm not sure what it does for the LPGA. When I was growing up, a photo of Jan Stephenson in a bath tub filled with golf balls certainly didn't inspire me to pick up a club.

Van Sickle: It's great for Natalie and has resurrected her career as a celebrity, but it hasn't done anything to help her golf. It's called being savvy. Laura Baugh was a big name in women's golf for a long time despite not winning, just as Anna Rawson has become a name without accomplishing much on the LPGA. Business is a game, too, and Natalie is doing very well.

Ritter: It's obviously a coup for Gulbis, and it doesn't hurt the LPGA at all. She's essentially the closest thing there is to a star on the Tour. That doesn't mean a female golfer who wants to boost her Q-rating (or bank account) has no option other than freelance modeling – but playing professional women's golf alone may never be enough to become a mainstream star. I wish this wasn't true.

Godich: The closest thing to a star? If that's the case, the LPGA has a real problem.

Wei: I asked Anna Rawson to elaborate on her twitter discussion with Alan: Here's what she had to say: "Natalie posing in SI is great for inspiring women to play golf, and exposure is key. Many women read SI (or see the issue) and they will look at Natalie and maybe think, 'Wow, Golfers have that body?!….Maybe I should try to play golf now like my boyfriend and/or husband has been telling me to do…' The fact that a golfer was included is good for the game. It also shows that golf is relevant."

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Was Gulbis's appearance in the Swimsuit Issue for her, or good for the LPGA?

Butch Harmon, Phil Mickelson

Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Butch Harmon has recently detailed some of the tips he's given Phil Mickelson on how to beat Tiger Woods.


Hack: As he has done at times over the years, Butch Harmon detailed some of the tips he's given to Phil Mickelson for his duels with Tiger. Is this a dangerous game Butch is playing, tugging at Tiger's tail like this? Or does Butch have every right to crow a little?

Godich: Butch can say whatever he wants. He can even write a book. Remember, Tiger doesn't read about or listen to any of this nonsense, anyway.

Herre: The stuff Butch talked about has been common knowledge for years. Big deal.

Bamberger: I think Butch really helped make Tiger and resents that Tiger has never shown that he feels the same way.

Reiterman: The info that came out last week was nothing new. Phil's got the upper hand right now, but Tiger will have something to say about it. Let's see who's crowing come April 8.

Van Sickle: Butch already wrote a book: "Pro." It was about his relationship with his father, the legendary club pro, and about his beginnings with Tiger and everything else about Butch's life. It was damned good. I recommend it. Butch doesn't whitewash his past, he tells it like it is. Never anything wrong with the truth.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Does Harmon have a right to brag about Phil's recent success?

Bamberger: It's time to trade eucalyptus trees for desert cactus. Our first WGC event — the Match Play — is upon us. Please offer your winner and, if it pleases you, a defense of your pick. I'm going with Rickie Fowler, whose match play success in the Walker and Ryder Cups will lead to his first PGA Tour win.

Herre: I'm going to take a flier on Sergio Garcia. He has to feel good about the way he finished in L.A. and has, in general, been playing well for several months.

Reiterman: I'll take a flier on Webb Simpson.

Rouse: At the beginning of the year I would have picked Rickie without a second thought, but his last two tournaments have me on the fence. I'm going to go with Webb Simpson. I was impressed with his Thursday-Saturday run at the President's Cup and think he'll notch his first win of the season.

Bamberger: I'll ride the hot hand and take Bill Haas. He has to have a ton of confidence. He had the lead at Riviera, fell behind, took the lead and then bounced back after having to stomach those two birdies at 18.

Van Sickle: Match play is about chipping and putting. I'll take the defending champ and No. 1 player in the world, Luke Donald.

Hanger: Tiger is the master of match play. He breaks through this week.

Shipnuck: Phil. Kidding. I'll take Luke, too.

Wei: I know it's a totally different format and course, so I wouldn't be surprised if Luke won the Match Play, but was anyone else a bit surprised by Luke's scorecard today? He shot 78 with 42 on the back. My pick is Sergio.

Ritter: I have a hunch Match Play might be where Rory wins and makes his final push to No. 1.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Who's your pick in the Match Play this week?