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.
PHIL RUNS AWAY, TIGER FALLS APART
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: What a week. Never mind that big names were dueling on the Euro Tour, and the LPGA opener went to a six-woman playoff. All eyes were on Pebble Beach and, more specifically, the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson pairing on Sunday. So what's the bigger story: Tiger's teasing the golf world again before a Sunday meltdown or Phil's closing, don't-forget-about-me 64 for his 40th career PGA Tour victory?
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Phil was simply magnificent. I haven't seen a better round from him in years. That said, Tiger has to be shaken after getting his doors blown off like that. A big step backward.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Biggest story: Phil's huge comeback and his taking down Tiger, head to head, in the process.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: A real toss-up question. Tiger's flop was clearly a setback for him. Phil played one of his best Sunday rounds ever, the best he's looked in a long time. Of course, he always plays his best when we least expect it, and vice versa. I think the pairing was huge for Phil.
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: Exactly Gary, I don't think Phil would have been as dialed-in today, especially with the putter, had Tiger not been paired with him, or at least in the mix. He had to have been motivated, and the message was emphatic.
Godich: Good point. The Masters can't get here fast enough.
Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: If you look at the last dozen times they've been paired together, including today, Phil has gone lower eight times, Tiger three, and one tie. Remember last year when Butch told reporters that he clued Phil in on Tiger's gamesmanship tactics? There were four different things that Tiger would do to throw his opponents off, including putting out first so the crowd would move and create a distraction. Once Phil picked up on Harmon's tips, Tiger started to bring the best out of him.
Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: One of the readers in the Live Blog said that playing with Tiger is like giving Phil Ritalin.
Dusek: After Mickelson finished on Thursday, I spoke with him in the parking lot at Spyglass Hill. He told me, "I feel like there is going to be one of those hot rounds where I go seven, eight or nine under par. I just have to be patient and let it happen. You know, when those putts start to fall, that's when the hot round happens." Still, I doubt he could have seen 65-70-64 coming after that 70.
Godich: Perhaps overlooked: Phil had to make about a 10-foot par putt at the 18th on Saturday to get into that pairing with Tiger. He chopped the hole up: laid up into a bunker, fatted the bunker shot, chipped past the hole. Wonder if things are different if he doesn't get that pairing.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: What's the bigger story? I can't disconnect the two, especially since they were playing together. It was riveting and surprising because Woods had been playing better.
Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: It's all one story. Playing with Tiger energized Phil, and it was surprising to see Tiger sputter from the seventh hole forward. Phil made a huge statement with this win. And although Tiger didn't take a step forward with his game, he did give a cordial post-round interview with Kostis. So he's progressing there, anyway.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Definite double headline. I'm shocked by both results. I saw neither Phil's brilliance nor Tiger's meltdown coming.
Godich: We're not looking for fence-sitters, Hack. Pick a side.
Hack: No fence-sitting, just appreciating the newsworthiness of both. At the Daily Hack, I'm running two large photos, one Phil, one Tiger. (A double truck, to use the newspaper lingo.) Then I'm dispatching my two lead columnists to write each guy. We'll sell papers.
Dusek: Mickelson's win is a bigger story because he'd seemingly been adrift this season, saying he was playing better than his scores would indicate. We've seen Tiger play well in Abu Dhabi and in the Chevron, and I assume he's going to continue to put himself in contention, but this was a fantastic win for Phil.
Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: Bigger story is clearly Phil. I loved how he said a few weeks ago that he's done tweaking his swing and fiddling with belly putters. He proved he has all the game he needs to still be a force.
Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Golf.com: Mickelson is surely the bigger surprise. I don't think anyone expected that kind of tour de force from Phil, especially given his play so far this year, but we've seen Tiger come up short in a lot of fourth rounds now.
Gorant: I think it was Faldo who said, at 41 with health issues, Phil only gets up for the majors, but this was like a major. Paired with Tiger with a chance to win, he was fired up.
Van Sickle: Tiger blamed his putting Sunday, but he hit some awful drives and approach shots to make those three straight bogeys.
Herre: Watching Tiger is frustrating. Just when you think he's going to break out, he breaks down.
Lipsey: If he breaks down at the Masters and/or the U.S. Open, serious doubts will be hard to shake.
Van Sickle: Tiger is curious because he does, obviously, look so close to being in form. He was for three days but not on Sunday.
Wei: I didn't see either storyline coming. My neck is sore from shaking my head so many times on the back nine. I couldn't believe the shots Tiger was missing, but mostly, I couldn't believe how poorly he putted. He looked like he had no energy, and as the day went on, Phil sucked more and more from him. It looked like Tiger was going to pick up some momentum on 12 after he holed out from the bunker, but then Phil dropped a 30-foot, downhill, curving bomb of a putt. Ouch.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What's the bigger story: Phil's win or Tiger's fade?
MICKELSON AT HIS BEST
Godich: Phil looked like his old self with the blade, but I was equally impressed by the way he controlled the spin on his approach shots. I'd become so used to seeing him back it up too much. The shots into the fifth and the 13th were special. What did you like most?
Hack: Phil's par-savers. They were vintage, um, Tiger.
Lipsey: Phil's long par putt at 12 after Tiger holed his sand shot. That was a blow Tiger and Phil will likely never forget.
John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I like that he protected a two-shot lead on the final hole by hitting two irons and a PW to make birdie. We all love his go-for-broke style, but it's good to see that he's thinking straight, too.
Van Sickle: Great point. Perhaps Phil, at 41, has finally learned the meaning of "lay up." Well played by him, and he still made birdie.
Godich: Well, he did have a quizzical look when Bones suggested hitting four-iron off the tee.
Hanger: Also, Phil hit driver on 16, and the announcers were aghast. He piped it, but it was risky. Tiger bunted one out there with an iron.
Dusek: If Phil weren't happily married to Amy, he'd propose to his driver right now.
Van Sickle: It sounds like the best money Phil spent all week was flying Butch Harmon in for a midweek lesson.
Wei: I liked everything about Phil's game. He could do no wrong. But I'd say his putting was most impressive. Amy brought that up, too, that he was stroking it well and he'd worked really hard on that in the off-season.
Herre: Phil was also very good off the tee. Playing from the fairway allows a player of Mickelson's ability to do magical things with his wedges. But really, I haven't seen him putt this well in a long time.
Van Sickle: Phil made all the short putts (he would've won the British Open by four last summer if he'd done that there) and poured in those two long ones. The tourney's best moment had to be Tiger holing that bunker shot and Phil pouring in the 30-footer for par on top of him. That's the highlight of the year so far.
Hanger: Definitely Phil's putting. It's been hard to watch him set up for five and six footers lately, so to see him draining them from all over, long and short, was really fun.
Dusek: It's tempting to say Mickelson's driving impressed me the most, because that's the part of his game that he's most excited about right now. He spent three hours at Callaway on Monday and walked out with a new shaft on his driver (for the first time in more than five years) and a tweaked head. He says he can bomb it or hit a fairway-finding cut (he hit 92% of fairways on Sunday). Still, I'll agree with everyone else that his putting stole the show.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What surprised you most about Phil on Sunday? Should he be favored in Augusta?
DO YOU BELIEVE IN TIGER?
Godich: Like everybody else, I continue to scratch my head about Tiger. Two questions: Does he walk away from Pebble with any additional scar tissue because he got dusted by Phil, and are you still as high on him as you were a month ago?
Gorant: I still believe, but today was hard to watch.
Godich: I'm beginning to wonder if Tiger is starting to show his age. He's an old 36. Think about how he would grind in his prime, even when he had a large lead. He would be emotionally spent. He would hit the occasional loose shot, but the putter was always there for him. I don't know if he gets that back.
Dusek: The way he lost to Mickelson and the way his putter let him down on Sunday has to hurt, but I could see Tiger gaining motivation from Pebble Beach. Right now I just hope that he keeps the tournament on his schedule because his presence, in that venue, made it a great event. There was real buzz out there starting on Tuesday. And yes, I'm still high on him for 2012 because he's consistently putting himself in contention now, and that wasn't the case at this time last season.
Van Sickle: I don't think losing to Phil will bug Tiger long term, but losing because he beat himself will. The next time he's in the hunt on Sunday, he'll have bad memories of how he performed. Mainly, he'll remember that he couldn't trust his swing on every shot. That's the opposite of a confidence-builder.
Reiterman: I'm still high on Tiger. He's light years ahead of where he was last year. Obviously his putting is still shaky, but so was Mickelson's until this week.
Mick Rouse, editorial assistant, SI Golf Group: You have to think that Tiger is going to come back wanting some revenge. It might be the extra motivation that really kicks Tiger back into gear.
Garrity: This definitely has to leave Tiger's doubt bin overflowing, and the fact that it was Phil swatting him down has to really hurt. But you can see how much Tiger's overall game has improved in recent months, so he's still my pick to win the Masters.
Herre: Has to hurt. This is exactly what Tiger did to hundreds of opponents over the years. Now he's on the receiving end. I think he'll win again, even some majors (not five, however), but he got beat up today. Will be interesting to see what effect this has on him going forward.
Gorant: I think he can shrug off the putting; it's well established how little he likes those greens this time or year. But the loose shots might stick in his head.
Van Sickle: Tiger didn't beat Phil, but I don't think Tiger has ever seen Phil as a rival, not the way Phil sees Tiger. Tiger also didn't beat Charlie Wi. Or Rickey Barnes. Or Kevin Na. We're back to a basic truth in golf: It's all about the putting. You've got to putt great to win. Period. Can Tiger still putt great? Some of the time, yes. But for 72 holes? We haven't seen it yet.
Wei: It just wasn't Tiger's day. He was in a massive divot on 13, got some bad bounces, couldn't buy a putt. It was so strange and a complete 180 from the other three rounds.
Hack: I'm lower on Tiger than I was. From Rock to Phil, it's more evidence that these guys just aren't scared anymore.
Van Sickle: Tiger's putter has always been the $100 million question. If he gets it back–for 72 holes–he can win anything and likely gets Jack's record. If he just becomes a so-so putter, he'll still win some and snag a major, maybe two, but he won't approach being dominant. If he putts like he did Sunday, he has a lot of thirds and fourths in his future.
Dusek: I give him credit for waiting to talk with Peter Kostis after his round, but Tiger's body language during the interview was that of someone who just learned that his puppy died. Drooped shoulders, hands buried in his pockets, downward gaze. He lost, so obviously he's not going to be happy, but he didn't look like an angry fighter, which is what we are used to seeing from him in similar situations.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Did your opinion on Tiger's game change on Sunday? Does Tiger suddenly seem less likely to win the Masters?
Godich: Following up on Dave's comment, I was impressed with the way Tiger carried himself this week. Until Sunday, anyway, he seemed relaxed, had a good time playing with Tony Romo and even tolerated the six-hour rounds. And he was awfully candid about his disdain for long putters. What do you think? Will the R&A and the USGA take the belly out of the belly putter?
Wei: My jaw dropped when he answered (my question) so candidly. I think the sooner they get rid of the belly putter, the better. It's not cheating because it's not breaking the rules, but anchoring the club to the body is against the spirit of the game. Now that Tiger's spoken out, I'd look for the USGA and the R&A to implement a ban within the next four years.
Dusek: I think the USGA and the R&A are feeling the heat, especially now that Keegan Bradley won a major using one. To my knowledge there hasn't be a long-term study that showed long putters to lower your scores by X%, but maybe something like that is in the works? Manufacturers won't like a ban because they're starting to produce and sell a meaningful number of long putters, but I have a feeling that changes will be announced in a few years.
Gorant: I don't see them turning back the clock on the belly putter. (And if you're having trouble getting it done on Sunday, Romo is not the guy to hang around with.)
Van Sickle: As of a month ago, the equipment guys were confident that nothing would be done. There wasn't so much as a murmur from the blue coats. I still don't see it. If you saw the stats I included in my recent belly putter feature, none of the players who used alternative putters last season to win finished among the top 50 in the final putting stats. Not Simpson, not Bradley, and not Adam Scott. Long putter turned Scott around? He ranked 143rd.
Banning the belly and the long putter now would be an admission that the USGA and R&A dropped the ball (again) on equipment. There was buzz in the early '90s about all the senior tour guys using long putters. Even banning it then would've been late to the party. Now it would be ridiculous and proof that the USGA is hopelessly behind when it comes to technology.
Herre: A year ago I would have said no way. Now I'm thinking the USGA may ban them before they really take off with the public, which would P.O. the big-boy manufacturers.
Dusek: Right. I think the blue coats are worried that junior golfers who are already using belly putters will never use a traditional-length putter. I know several Golf Magazine Top 100 Teachers who say that, for students who have never played golf before, they'd get a belly putter in their hands right from the start. That stuff must make purists cringe.
Van Sickle: Folks from the FCWT (a big junior tour) told me that they're seeing almost no belly putter use among their competitors, so far.
Dusek: And that's just the way the USGA would want to keep it.
Rouse: The AJGA had about three to five bigger-name players using belly putters the last time I asked.
Hack: I don't like the belly putter, whether it's used by Romo, Couples, or the guy at the muni. I think it's unsightly and unfair. What's next, a belly driver? The game is hard. Putting should be, too.
Ritter: Sounds interesting. Where can I try a belly driver?
Hack: I'll send you an ad for 10 percent off a belly driver. It was in the Sunday Daily Hack.
Van Sickle: I don't see how they can ban just the anchoring part. Who's going to police that, especially with loose-fitting shirts? You have to ban the club, not how it's used, if you're going down that road.
Rouse: This might be the perfect time for the USGA and the R&A to also add some long overdue sartorial rules. They could kill two birds with one stone.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Should the belly putter be banned?
MCILROY COMES CLOSE AGAIN
Godich: Moving overseas, Rafael Cabrera-Bello rallied past Lee Westwood to win the Dubai Desert Classic. Westwood showed he still has problems with the whole chipping thing (what was that on 18?), but I am more interested in Rory McIlroy. He had the halfway lead but shot 72-71 on the weekend and finished tied for fifth. I know he's only 22 and already has a major under his belt, but is anybody concerned that Rory hasn't been able to close the deal of late when on or near the lead?
Van Sickle: I still don't think Rory has the putting genius gene and therefore will never be The Next Big Thing. He's very good, will win more tournaments, maybe another major or two, but putting is a huge part of the game. Yes, I'm concerned by Rory's close calls.
Dusek: Not. One. Bit. Rory is living in the top five these days. There is nothing wrong with Rory McIlroy.
Reiterman: Last 9 starts: T3, 3, 2, 2, T4, 1, T11, 2, T5. He's 22. He'll figure out how to close the deal more often very soon.
Rouse: Rory is an extremely good golfer, but I don't think he's as good as Tiger in his prime, which is obviously the gold standard for any young player. I'm not worried about him, though. He has what it takes to win, and win a lot.
Gorant: I agree that it's too early to worry, but it's worth noting. The guy doesn't have a whole lot of Ws yet.
Hack: The guy has a U.S. Open, and he'll have more majors, starting with April.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Are you at all concerned that McIlroy hasn't been winning more events?
Godich: Finally, the LPGA kicked off its season at the Women's Australian Open with a six-way playoff. Jessica Korda, 18, won with a birdie on the second hole. World No. 1 Yani Tseng is 22. Lexi Thompson turned 17 on Friday. Commissioner Michael Whan seems to be pushing all the right buttons. I say things are looking up for the LPGA. How about you?
Reiterman: I've said it before, it's now or never for the LPGA. They have plenty of young, talented ladies from all over the globe. They're engaging in person and on social media. Finally, they have a sharp leader in Whan. I'm buying stock.
Gorant: I think the big word is still Potential. Things are setting up in a way that could pay off, but it hasn't happened yet. Great as she is, Tseng has not connected with the U.S. audience. If Thompson and Korda emerge, they could break out. Still, the LPGA will probably always be a niche of a niche, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Herre: Whan is moving fast, that's for sure. Lots of people like the idea of the LPGA going global, but shoring up the U.S. portion of the schedule is critical.
Hanger: I think Gorant is right. No matter how many appealing young stars the LPGA gets, it'll always rely on a niche fan base. That niche might grow by a decent percentage, but it'll never be a major international sports league.
Rouse: The LPGA may produce a few big stars like Tseng, Lexi or Korda, but I don't think the tour as a whole can jump into the limelight … ever.
Hack: I enjoy the LPGA and I like Whan, but the game needs big personalities and breakout stories that no one can predict, a la Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.
Van Sickle: Ultimately, the public decides which sports get media coverage. Demand for the LPGA is limited. Just like demand for women's college basketball or men's college wrestling. You're successful within your own world. The LPGA is a success. It's just not going to challenge the NFL, despite what one former tour commissioner suggested.
Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Are you more interested, less interested, or equally interested in the LPGA this season compared to year's past.