PGA Tour Confidential: PGA Championship Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: PGA Championship Preview

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<strong>Northern Exposure:</strong> The site of three previous men's majors, Hazeltine National Golf Club, near Minneapolis, has been stretched to 7,674 yards.
James Schnepf/SI

SI convened a meeting of its golf experts — senior writers
Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and
Gary Van Sickle, plus contributing writer John Garrity —
and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition
of anonymity) to address those and other issues.

CAN WE SALVAGE ’09?

Bamberger: I’m having a hard time getting over Tom Watson’s heroic British Open. It was such a special course and situation. I’m sure our editor doesn’t want to hear this, but it’s hard to get psyched for this PGA.

Hack: I know what you mean. We’ve had three compelling majors, but the winners weren’t the guys the public wanted. You still need Tiger in the mix on Sunday.

Shipnuck: It’s been a squirrelly year. This PGA needs a marquee champion, whether it’s Tiger or… who else is there? We could’ve had three epic major winners. Instead we’ve had three nice players; good guys who create zero buzz outside of our little golf world.

Garrity: The British Open wasn’t a total downer. It will stick in our memories because it was so extraordinary with Watson. In that regard, it’s a little like Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie. No one remembers Paul Lawrie’s win, but we’re still talking about that Open.

Van Sickle: What would be the best story at the PGA?

Anonymous Pro: If Tiger comes back from missing the cut at the British, that would be big. What a feel-good story it would be if Phil Mickelson won after what his family has gone through. Phil would actually be the bigger story. Tiger is struggling to hit fairways, but Phil’s family has real-life struggles that tug on your heartstrings. The next best story would be Kenny Perry, or anyone who lost one of the other majors, bouncing back and redeeming himself.

Shipnuck: If we had Sergio Garcia winning his first major, that would be big. Or Paddy Harrington finding himself or Ernie Els coming back from the dead. We need a guy with star power. That would help the tournament and give the year some definition. Everything is wide open right now — player of the year, all of it. It’s the year of what could have been.

Bamberger: In ’99 Tiger hadn’t won a major all year, and going into the PGA at Medinah, we thought, Eh, how interesting can this be? Then we get Sergio and Tiger. Whenever Tiger wins, it’s interesting. I’m going to Hazeltine with low expectations, but if we get there and Tiger plays well and wins number 15, we’ll talk about Jack and 18 majors and who’s the greatest of all time.

Shipnuck: After that ’99 PGA, Tiger won a bunch of tournaments to end the year and then launched the greatest season of all time. If he does that again, it could change everything really quickly. If not, 2009 will go down as a year of missed opportunities. If Phil had won at Bethpage with Amy fighting cancer or if Watson had pulled off the British, they’re on the covers of Time and Newsweek, never mind Sports Illustrated.

Hack: The Watson story was so deflating. We’re golf writers and golf fans. I felt like, doggone it, that was a moment for golf to be up there with football and baseball and Kobe and LeBron. When Tiger wins, golf is above the fold on the front page. If Watson wins, it would’ve been the same. That’s why I felt a sense of loss.

Shipnuck: All this heartbreak underlines how difficult tournament golf is and why it’s so compelling. The pressure on the final holes of a major is excruciating. Watching these great players not get it done time after time is like watching a car accident. You can’t take your eyes off it. It’s a reminder how cruel tournament golf can be.

Van Sickle: So does that make the PGA more important than usual, or less?

Bamberger: If Tiger wins, it’s huge. If Steve Stricker wins, it’s nice for Stricker but not so big.

Garrity: To answer Gary’s first question, the best story would be if Robert Karlsson comes back to win the PGA.

Van Sickle: You mean your pick to win the last three majors who hasn’t played in the last two? What’s your second-best scenario?

Garrity: It would have to be Tiger knocking off another thing from his to-do list. Every year we talk about whether Tiger can win the Grand Slam or do this or that. Fact is, all he has to do is win one major a year for four years, and he matches Jack’s 18. How hard can that be?

TIGER 3.0

Van Sickle: I’ll be blunt. What’s up with Tiger?

Garrity: Well, we never know because he won’t say. He tells us two years later, then lectures us for being obtuse and not recognizing what was going on at the time.

Shipnuck: The PGA will tell the tale. If Tiger wins, all will be forgotten. If he goes 0-for-the-majors, that hasn’t happened since ’04, a year after going to Hank Haney. If Tiger gets blanked, all of a sudden he has to look for some new answers. Tiger measures success by majors. Not only has he not won one, he’s also mostly looked lost.

Garrity: I don’t buy the idea that Haney is to blame and Tiger should send Hank packing. Tiger is a control freak. Hank doesn’t tell him how to swing a golf club. He uses Hank as his eyes and ears to provide feedback. I don’t see Haney as a Svengali taking Tiger down the wrong path. Tiger is in control, and he goes where he wants to go.

Anonymous Pro: I don’t know who’s to blame, but it’s Tiger’s swing that’s the problem. If you’re the No. 1 player in the world, how can it be such a struggle to get the ball in play week in and week out? His win at Memorial isn’t surprising because those fairways are as wide as football fields. Congressional had room too, and he wasn’t required to hit driver a lot. Narrow it up, throw in some hay, like at Turnberry, and he can’t get it in play. He can’t even go to his cut shot — it’s turning into a double cross. The driver is a total lottery for him right now.

Shipnuck: It’s been more than a full calendar year since Tiger’s knee surgery. It’s not an excuse anymore. He wouldn’t use it as an excuse, and neither should we. He simply hasn’t executed.

Hack: Tiger has been tinkering with the driver. He’s gone to more loft and a shorter shaft. He’s trying to make it more like a two-wood. But at the top of his swing he doesn’t seem to know where the ball is going.

Anonymous Pro: When was the last time you saw Tiger with three or four drivers on the range, like he’s had a few times this year? I would hope he’d realize that the swing changes he’s made are not producing a result that’s consistent enough for the majors. His swing is flatter and more shut. It might be on plane better, but it’s not as efficient as it used to be. Now there’s so much more pressure on his short game that his putting hasn’t been as good. It’s all because of his tee game. When there’s more heat on you, you’re not going to make as many putts — I don’t care who you are. His whole game is starting to sag.

Bamberger: Anyone else think Tiger is more stressed out based on his outbursts of profanity?

Shipnuck: His ratio of profanities to bad shots is the same as always. He’s simply hitting more bad shots. I do think Tiger felt a new emotion this year — embarrassment. Like that opening tee shot at Augusta when he was paired with Phil and hit it 50 yards left. It was the same thing with his first swing at the U.S. Open, blowing it off the course.

Bamberger: The changes I’ve seen in Tiger this year have been away from the course. He’s better in press conferences; he’s more engaging with his playing partners; he’s more endearing.

Hack: You’re right. Tiger is happy. He’s married and has two kids. Sometimes I’ve been surprised how well he’s handled the losses. Maybe Tiger realizes he’s on a bit of a journey, like a redshirt injury season.

Shipnuck: Maybe we simply write off ’09 as an aberration. If Tiger doesn’t play well in the majors next year, it is definitely time to panic. The thing is, he has played well at times. Why can’t he do that in a major? I don’t think it’s the knee; I think it’s the head. And that has always been Tiger’s greatest asset. Maybe he’s realizing for the first time how hard this game really is.

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FORGOTTEN CHAMPS

Van Sickle: What if one of the Open champions, Stewart Cink or Lucas Glover, wins the PGA? Do we look at them differently?

Bamberger: Sure, we have to. It’s an elite group of players who have won two majors in a year.

Hack: With all due respect, Cink and Glover aren’t Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis. They already had street cred, especially Cink.

Shipnuck: Cink has a very solid resume. Glover, with only one victory, is no doubt a solid player, but he might have won his major a few years earlier than expected. A win by either would help define the year, but interest wouldn’t be off the charts.

Van Sickle: Cink is a rising personality. He read a Top 10 list on David Letterman’s show, and his tweets have become must-read material. He had a funny one from Turnberry about how cool it was that you could get anything from the vending machine at the resort — even condoms. After the Open he wrote about sitting at breakfast deciding if he should drink his orange juice out of a glass or the claret jug.

Shipnuck: It was great — he attached a photo of some glasses and the jug lined up. Stewart is rarely funny in press conferences, so it’s nice that he’s found a venue to express himself.

Van Sickle: What would Tiger write if he Twittered? “You lose again.”

Hack: No, he’d never let us in that far. It would be, “At the range. Hitting balls.”

THE CHALLENGERS

Van Sickle: How about the two players who made last year’s PGA so interesting, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington?

Hack: At Turnberry, Watson was talking about Harrington shortening his swing. Watson said that his teacher told him years ago to never shorten your swing, that you’ll need it when you’re older.

Shipnuck: Paddy had his greatest year and wanted to improve on it. Nothing in golf is as entertaining or enlightening as a Paddy interview. He’s brutally candid about his struggle, almost uncomfortably so. After Turnberry, that was the most optimistic I’ve heard him all year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he contended at the PGA.

Anonymous Pro: I really think Sergio is on the road back. He could be the best ball striker in the game. Right now he hits it better than Tiger. His whole game revolves around his putting, and he’s finally onto something with that mid-length putter. Hazeltine is 7,600-something yards with three par-5s of more than 600 yards. It’s not going to be a plinker who wins this PGA; it’ll be a bomber.

Van Sickle: It’s counterintuitive, but if everyone has to lay up on the par-5s, that favors the short hitters, who are good wedge players.

Shipnuck: Lee Westwood might give Sergio competition for best long, straight driver, but his short game is letting him down. Everyone focused on his three-putt on the last hole at Turnberry. Those bogeys he made on 15 and 16, one was a muffed chip, another was a bad sand shot.

Hack: How about Kenny Perry?

Van Sickle: Yeah, I’d second Kenny. Besides Phil, who else is even out there?

Shipnuck: Henrik Stenson hasn’t backed up anything in majors. Geoff Ogilvy has been an enigma. Jim Furyk may be on the downside. Where has Anthony Kim been? You have Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey, but they’re not on the same level as the others.

Anonymous Pro: The favorite for the PGA is anyone’s guess. There are 50 guys who can win it. Look who has won this year. Would you have picked any of those guys?

Hack: Give me Perry or Steve Stricker over these young guys. Perry or Stricker will win a major before Garcia or Adam Scott.

Van Sickle: Bold call. I’d like to see it.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Shipnuck: I’m going to take a flier on Paddy. I have a hunch. In the scrum of writers at Turnberry on Sunday afternoon, he had a twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something that we didn’t.

Van Sickle: He did win the Irish PGA right before the Open, so that had to help his confidence.

Shipnuck: It would save his year, be a cool story and lift him back to No. 2. Maybe I’m simply rooting for him because I’m writing the PGA story.

Bamberger: I’ll take Tiger as my real pick and Furyk as my dark horse. Hazeltine is a course that demands great iron play. Furyk is one of the few guys out of that John Mahaffey-Larry Nelson mold who’s not content with his major resume and wants more.

Shipnuck: Haven’t we banned taking Tiger as a choice? That’s too easy.

Hack: I’ll take Steve Stricker. I like his vibe, the way he’s walking and hitting the ball. He has two wins, and he’s been close in other majors. Plus the PGA is in the Midwest, so he’ll have a lot of friends and family there. To put it simply, he’s playing as well as anybody.

Van Sickle: He’ll be in front of people with accents similar to his, y’know. For the sake of historical balance, I like Justin Leonard. He had a three-shot lead going into the final round in ’02 and shot a 77. He couldn’t do anything the last day, totally un-Justin-like. History usually isn’t that neat, though. I have a feeling about Luke Donald. A second-shot course is good for him, and he’s been quietly piling up top 15 finishes.

Shipnuck: That’s funny, some guys in the British Open pressroom were running down Donald. He has the sheen of a star, yet what has he really done? He’s won only a couple of times on either tour.

Anonymous Pro: I’m going to pick Phil. He contended at Bethpage and damn near won it. He had a lot of heat on him that week and almost did it. He got the lead, then made a couple of bogeys coming in. Phil is going to have a lot to play for, he’ll be mentally fresh, and he’ll have amazing support.

Garrity: You’ll be shocked to learn that I’m sticking with Robert Karlsson, whether he shows up or not. He missed the U.S. Open with an eye infection. I’m not sure what happened to him at Turnberry, and I don’t know his status. You might think he’s rusty. I like to think he’s well-rested.

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