PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

GAME OF SHADOWS: Rory McIlroy (above), Lee Westwood and maybe Tiger Woods will bypass the Stadium course this year.
John Biever/SI

Every week of the 2011 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: Last we heard, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood were planning to skip the Players. Should the PGA Tour be concerned about their absences?

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Yes, losing Westwood and McIlroy definitely hurts the Tour. The two big U.S. tournaments with inferiority complexes – the Players and the PGA Championship – boosted their status in recent years by saying they had the best fields in tournament golf. The Players can’t do that now. Heck, even the World Match Play probably has a stronger field than the Players.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s a dangerous precedent for the Tour, that’s for sure. If Rory is the Number 1 player in the world two years from now and he never plays in the PGA Tour’s flagship event, that’s a problem.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: You could argue that Rory may be the most compelling figure in golf right now. I was watching Malaysia way more carefully the week after the Masters because of his presence. Westwood may be back to Number 1, but he’s never really connected with the U.S. golf audience. Losing Rory hurts more. People really want to see Rory now.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: They saw him in Malaysia. Malaysia’s gain was our loss. There’s a lot of that going around.

Shipnuck: Especially in the customer-service area.

Hack: After Tiger, Rory is probably the one person people are curious about. They want to know how he’s going to respond to his Masters hangover.

Shipnuck: If Lee and Rory are missing, that’s going to add a little tension to the Players narrative. It kind of explodes the Tour’s mythmaking. How great can the tournament be if two of the world’s best players don’t bother to show up? It’ll be fun to listen to commissioner Finchem and his lieutenants try to finesse that one.

Anonymous Pro: When two of the world’s top 10 players skip your event, it’s a big hit. The Tour will deflect it and spin it any way it can. When the Players was in March, all you saw for two weeks on TV were ads for the tournament. Now what do you have? Craig T. Nelson doing a spot. That shows you this event doesn’t have the magnitude it used to.

Hack: Even worse, I don’t think Lee and Rory will be the only guys making this choice in the future.

Tell us what you think: WIll the Players Championship lose its prestige in the future?


Van Sickle: What’s the most important thing we learned from the Masters?

Hack: I had forgotten about Adam Scott. It’s hard to look cool with a long putter, but he did. I was shocked. He had fallen off that list of major contenders. I’m glad he’s back.

Van Sickle: I love that line, It’s hard to look cool with a long putter. That’s like, it’s hard to look cool driving a minivan.

Bamberger: Between King Looey (Oosthuizen) winning the British Open, three guys contending for the PGA and that whole crowd at six o’clock in Augusta, we learned that golf is absolutely wide-open at the moment. That makes it really, really exciting.

Shipnuck: The revelation at Augusta was how much depth there is. Charl Schwartzel and Jason Day and Bo Van Pelt – those guys will pop up and win a Hope, no big deal. We used to think there were maybe 12 guys who could win the Masters – everyone else was too intimidated or overmatched by the course. Now a lot of guys are ready to do it at Augusta National.

Bamberger: I totally agree. We’ve been out of the Tiger era for a while, but Tiger made us forget this until Y.E. Yang beat him at the PGA: It’s hard to close an ordinary Tour event, but it’s really, really hard to close a major. McIlroy had a commanding lead and couldn’t get it done.

Anonymous Pro: Just look at the last few pairings from Sunday. When Tiger was making his charge, the young guys blew by him on the back nine like he was tied to a tree. Check out the shots Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel played coming in. In years past a guy might have folded if Jack Nicklaus or Phil Mickelson or Tiger was on top, but none of these guys so much as flinched. They’ve taken over.

Van Sickle: There’s no fear of Tiger.

Anonymous Pro: There’s no fear of anything or anyone. It’s no surprise that a young guy won the Masters. You know what would be a surprise? If these young guys don’t keep winning majors.

Tell us what you think: What was the most exciting part of the Masters?


Van Sickle: We know Tiger Woods has a recurring Achilles problem. We know he can win a major on one leg, but isn’t this new knee sprain a concern?

Shipnuck: Hopefully, this is minor and doesn’t linger, but I doubt it. Tiger is an old 35. For all the talk about his swing and his putting stroke, it’s his delicate frame carrying around all that muscle that will determine whether he summits Mount Nicklaus.

Hack: With 14 majors, Tiger is already at the base camp, but now he’s in a race against time, nature and guys like Dustin Johnson.

Bamberger: Team Tiger has such a long and distinguished record of subterfuge, I’m guessing this issue is much more serious than they’re letting on. I admire that Tiger doesn’t make excuses but on injury reports, and other matters, he has no credibility.

Van Sickle: Did his Masters showing change your opinion about how far along he is in reclaiming his game?

Bamberger: I feel very strongly that he’s on his way back to contending and winning majors. I’m sure we all agree that he’ll never be the Tiger of 2000, but he’ll be a factor in golf for the next five years.

Shipnuck: The electricity on the front nine [at Augusta] was so fun. For Tiger to miss a short putt in a crucial moment, and then do it twice around a horrendously soft par at the 13th, he simply doesn’t have that killer instinct. Maybe the nerve endings in his fingertips are fried.

Bamberger: Don’t you think it makes him more interesting?

Shipnuck: Without a doubt. The difference-maker for him was always the putter, but he hasn’t been putting well for a while.

Anonymous Pro: That’s right. Tiger relied on his putting to make up for a lot of bad ball striking in recent years. That’s why I don’t understand why he went to a putter that’s harder to putt with, a putter with a face that releases even more. Most people go to putters with less face rotation, not more.

Van Sickle: He doesn’t look comfortable over the ball. He looks like a guy hoping to make a five-footer instead of a guy who absolutely, positively knows he’s going to pour it in.

Shipnuck: With the turmoil in his private life, is his putting suffering from neglect or has something changed forever? He has to start making putts before I’ll believe he’s back.

Garrity: Tiger has a kind of pressure now that he hasn’t faced in a while. Until he wins again, it’s going to be like chasing his first victory. You can’t get rid of those doubts until you bag one.

Anonymous Pro: The two most important clubs in the bag are his two biggest weaknesses – the driver and the putter. His long game is getting better, but he’s still gun-shy with his driver. I watched him at Bay Hill, and he’s still hitting a ton of three-woods. He’s not longer than everyone else off the tee anymore, and his putter isn’t what it was. Until one of those clubs comes back, he isn’t going to win a major.

Hack: The Masters showed me that Tiger is going to win again. It’s a new world order, all these kids can bang it past him, so it’s going to be harder. He has to win in a different way.

Van Sickle: What happened to golf’s best short game? The fact that Tiger has changed putters and stances tells me he has deeper, more serious problems than we think.

Shipnuck: Actually, Hank Haney dropped a mini bombshell in one of his recent interviews. He said Tiger’s work ethic has slipped. The last three years, Hank said, Tiger didn’t work nearly as hard. We all had this belief that Tiger was in a lab somewhere at midnight improving his game while everyone else was sleeping. We now know that Tiger was doing other things at midnight. If he’s not going to dig it out of the dirt like he did, that’s going to make it even harder because Rory McIlroy is working on his putting, and so are Luke Donald and Jason Day and Rickie Fowler and dozens of other highly motivated players.

Hack: One of the most revealing things Tiger said at the Match Play was, “I’m a divorced father.” That said volumes about his new life. He probably can’t be the range rat that he was.

Van Sickle: Goodbye, Ranger Rick?

Bamberger: If Earl was his putting guru, who can Tiger really go to for a putting conversation? He probably doesn’t have anybody.

Shipnuck: That’s a great point. Butch and Hank never got into the putting. It really was Earl. Despite being a single father, Tiger spent nine days in Augusta, then jumped on a plane to China for a big Nike junket. He’s trying to rebuild his business side, and he has created more off-course work for himself.

Garrity: I was surprised that Tiger got so much adoration from the Augusta National crowds. Those fans were all over him.

Shipnuck: I think everyone has had enough of this struggle. At this point, we miss Tiger. When he’s playing his best, there’s an electricity. It’s the best show in all of sports.

Van Sickle: The Yankees are the most exciting franchise in baseball, just like Tiger is the most exciting franchise in golf. After a dry spell, people want to see them win again. They want to see history made.

Bamberger: I hate the Yankees.

Shipnuck: We all hate the Yankees. But when they’re in the World Series, the volume is definitely turned up.

Tell us what you think: Will Tiger’s knee hold up long enough for him to beat Jack’s major record?


Van Sickle: Are you getting used to the Players in May? It’s been several years since the move from late March. Personally, I think it’s lost some buzz, or is that just me?

Garrity: It’s just you. I much prefer May. It bridges that long gap between the Masters and the U.S. Open. You need a monthly biggie from April to August, otherwise your casual fans lose the plot.

Shipnuck: The month after the Masters was deadly. I like the rhythm of the new schedule.

Anonymous Pro: As a player, I think the old schedule was more exciting. The Players was the first big event of the year, and if it were still played in March, McIlroy and Westwood wouldn’t miss it. May has helped how the course plays tee to green – although I think the bermuda greens are worse now – but has totally killed the buildup. I hate to agree with Van Sickle, but the Players is totally buzzless. The players don’t talk about it at all.

Hack: I do think there was something special about winning the Players in March. There was a reason you had Fred Couples and Davis Love III and Greg Norman winning it – they were preparing for Augusta. The Players was a nice appetizer. For me, the Players was the first time in the year I got to see pine needles. I’d be thinking about Augusta that whole week. Part of me misses that buildup.

Shipnuck: There’s no doubt that the amphitheater at 16 and 17 is one of the great spectator spots in golf. I always wander out there. There’s fun golf plus the carnage that we all enjoy, but the relentless hype by the Tour and NBC is off-putting. It’s like new money. They have to flaunt it and tell you how great they are. If they would just relax, the media types might warm to it more readily, but to be spoon-fed, “It’s so great, it’s so wonderful,” you naturally want to throw up.

Tell us what you think: Do you prefer watching the Players in March or May?


Van Sickle: We have a new member of the majors club. Is Charl Schwartzel the real deal?

Garrity: Everything I saw Charl do in Augusta says yes. His swing, his course management, his nerves.

Van Sickle: He’s not considered a big hitter, but look what he hit into 18 on Sunday – a freakin’ pitching wedge. That’s supposed to be a long hole, boys.

Shipnuck: Geoff Ogilvy said Charl has the best swing in golf. Phil Mickelson said the guy is a closer, and he can clearly putt under pressure. That shot he hit on the 1st hole on Sunday was maybe the greatest bump-and-run in Masters history.

Anonymous Pro: Charl’s upside is tremendous, better than some other one-hit wonders who have won majors, like Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. Schwartzel’s swing is more conventional, it’s better and he’s only 26. Wow!

Hack: When Geoff Ogilvy, who has a beautiful swing, talks about envying Charl’s swing, that suggests staying power. And those four birdies in a row at the finish is the stuff of legend.

Bamberger: Everything we’re saying about Schwartzel, you could say about Martin Kaymer and it would be accurate. In Chubby Chandler’s stable alone, Charl is probably the fifth or sixth best guy. What we need to figure out is, Who’s the next Charl Schwartzel?

Garrity: Isn’t one enough for now?

Tell us what you think: How many more majors, if any, will Masters champion Charl Schwartzel win?


Van Sickle: As we prepare to return to the Stadium course, what’s your favorite hole there that doesn’t have an island green?

Garrity: My favorite is the par-5 16th, for a lot of the same reasons we like the 17th. It’s picturesque and has a big risk-reward element. The main thing is, it shares that huge gallery with 17. Players feel as if the whole world is watching them.

Shipnuck: I like 18. It’s such a tough drive and such an unforgiving hole. You’ve just survived 17 with all the nerves and the drama, but you’re not done yet. It’s a fun way to finish. You can’t miss either shot at 18.

Van Sickle: Alan, you’re definitely the first guy to use the word fun to describe the 18th.

Bamberger: I liked the 18th better when Jack Neville built it at Pebble Beach.

Van Sickle: I don’t know that it’s a great hole, but number 4, that short par-4 with the crazy green, is entertaining. Watching balls land is like watching a Ping-Pong match. They put the tees up, it’s drivable. You see guys putting for eagle, you see guys chunking wedge shots from awkward lies into the pond and making doubles and triples.

Hack: I like 4 as well. You can hit anything from six-iron to driver off the tee. Plus, that approach is a tough little shot.

Anonymous Pro: One of my favorites is number 13, the par-3. It’s a medium-length par-3 (181 yards), not the ridiculously long 230-yarders that we’re seeing all the time on Tour. It’s a nice six- or seven-iron, and the green is convoluted with assorted humps and bumps. You see 1s there, you see 5s and 6s there. It’s one of the more fun holes we play all year.

Bamberger: The coolest thing the Stadium course has is an absolutely kick-ass driving range. Between the range and short-game area, you could spend the whole day there. Vijay Singh wears out that place.

Shipnuck: My favorite spot is the player parking lot. Every player has a designated spot. Lot of guys drive their own wheels. It’s fun to see their heavy metal and pimped-out rides.

Bamberger: And then you see Furyk’s minivan among the hot cars.

Hack: Davis Love has that huge black Hummer-slash-Army tank. That thing is a beast.

Shipnuck: I think he may be overcompensating for something.

Tell us what you think: What’s your favorite hole at TPC Sawgrass?


Van Sickle: I’m going with Bo Van Pelt, who made a belated and overlooked run for a green jacket at the Masters. My dark horse is Paul Goydos. Mainly because I’m hoping Bob Costas interviews him again.

Shipnuck: I’m going with Luke Donald, and not just because I’ve done a feature on him. You don’t have to bust it off the tee at Sawgrass, and he has the best short game in golf. He’s playing well right now.

Anonymous Pro: That’s a brilliant pick. I’m also taking Luke. Look at the guys who win the Players. The course is so penal it produces boring winners – straight-ball hitters like Fred Funk, Tim Clark, Adam Scott. You don’t have to be long, only straight, and that fits Luke.

Hack: I’m picking Robert Allenby, a great ball striker, and my dark-horse pick is Sergio Garcia. He’s getting close, you can see it. He’ll play soccer on Monday of tournament week. Sergio will be loose. He’ll be comfortable because he has won on this course.

Bamberger: I like Scott too. He putted beautifully at Augusta. I don’t care how long that putter was. And Charles Howell has been shooting better scores. He’s my surprise.

Garrity: You’re expecting me to pick Robert Karlsson, but I’m going with Vijay Singh, who has shown flashes. I can’t see him ending his career without winning on his home course.

Van Sickle: Sawgrass is his home practice range, not his home course. You think he ever goes on the course with all those tourists?

Garrity: Maybe that’s why he hasn’t won there.

Bamberger: That’s a terrific call, John. Who’s your dark horse?

Garrity: Kevin Na. That guy never makes a mistake.

Tell us what you think: Who will win the Players?