PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: Players Championship Preview

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After winning at Bay Hill, Woods never broke par during four rounds at the Masters.
Kohjiro Kinno / SI

What's the deal with Tiger? Should the Tour kill sudden death at the island green? What did we learn at the Masters? And who will win the 39th Players Championship? SI convened a panel of experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle as well as special contributor John Garrity — and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to take up these and other questions.

THE BOOK ON TIGER
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Sean Foley asked everyone to quit talking about Tiger Woods. So let’s talk about Tiger.

Anonymous Pro: I’m sure Tiger watches everything, and Brandel Chamblee is very outspoken and brutally honest. Maybe Tiger is thinking, What we’re doing isn’t getting me where I want to go. Maybe he’s not blaming Foley yet, but…

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Tiger is closing in on two years with Foley. It’s deep into the process for a guy with as much talent as Tiger to have his swing fall apart the way it did at Augusta. If you can’t figure it out after this long, there has to be some doubt creeping in for both of those guys.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: My sense is that Tiger won Bay Hill playing beautifully, but afterward, as Damon reported, he got in his car with his turkey sandwiches and drove home. I think Tiger is finding out there’s more to life than golf. What I got out of Hank Haney’s book, The Big Miss, is that Tiger isn’t as hell-bent to get to 18 majors as he once was. Maybe the Bay Hill victory confirmed that for him in some way.

Van Sickle: The book gave me the feeling that he’s fed up with being famous and his attitude is, You vultures don’t deserve me. I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of watching me make history so you can profit from it.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Tiger’s chase of Nicklaus is starting to remind me of Barry Bonds’s chase of Aaron and Ruth. There’s an underlying unhappiness to the whole scene. Part of Tiger must think, I’ve done so much great stuff in this game, but it’s never enough. I know Barry felt that way.

John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: After reading the book, I think what bothers Tiger is the world knowing how little confidence he had in his own game, how desperate he was to find answers for his swing problems and how dependent he was on his coach.

Anonymous Pro: One thing I’ve heard a few times from guys who used to hang with Tiger at Isleworth is that Tiger doesn’t really know a whole lot about the golf swing or what’s causing bad shots or how to fix it himself.

Hack: I talked to Foley after Bay Hill, and he said, “Hey, Tiger is only halfway there to being comfortable with his swing.” Tiger proved that at Augusta. I have to believe Tiger will get there eventually, but maybe he’s gone through one too many swing changes in his life.

Anonymous Pro: I’ve been saying this for years—I’m not convinced that he’s back until he can drive the ball in play. Bay Hill didn’t convince me. And at Augusta, holy Toledo, I’ve never seen him so lost.

Van Sickle: The book shows Tiger as being a lot more fragile than we would’ve thought. He really is, in his own words, kind of a Ranger Rick. Maybe his success was based more on his fantastic technique than his mental toughness.

Anonymous Pro: I agree with what Butch Harmon said, that Tiger’s nerves aren’t as good. If his nerves were good, he’d still be putting as well. The game is a whole lot easier when you’re making putts.

Hack: I was amazed how Haney said he sent Tiger notes about needing to practice more. Tiger was known as the guy who worked the hardest, and for a time he was.

Bamberger: To me, the most interesting thing in the book was when Tiger invited two friends from his sex-addictiontherapy group in Mississippi to the Masters, then went over to the ropes to say hello. That was the most poignant thing I’ve ever heard of Tiger doing. It spoke volumes about Tiger’s almost desperate need to connect with people, and—this is tea-leaf reading—he isn’t a fully developed person in that way. He doesn’t know how.

Van Sickle: I thought a telling quote was Tiger saying, “When I come back, I’m playing for myself, not for my mom or my dad or Stevie or the fans.” What? He somehow thought he was playing for us? He never gave anything to the fans or media, not an ounce of respect or acknowledgment. It showed how isolated he is from reality.

Bamberger: Maybe he discovered that when you play for yourself, who cares, it’s really not that great. It must be very lonely being Tiger Woods. Maybe it’s like us writing. We write for an audience. I doubt if any of us go home and write private game stories for our own amusement.

Van Sickle: You’re so wrong. “Under a bluegray October sky, I resumed playing Angry Birds.” Period, graf.

HAPPY RETURNS
Van Sickle: Fill in the blank, please. I can’t wait to get back to the Players because _____.

Anonymous Pro: Of the 17th hole. Nothing beats playing the 17th in the heat of competition, especially on Sunday. There’s the hoopla, the wind and the anxiety. You’re thinking about that shot as soon as you get on the back nine because you can hear the people over there.

Van Sickle: Just watching it is pretty good. I’d vote for that.

Anonymous Pro: It’s like playing the par-3 16th in Phoenix with that crazy crowd. The 17th hole is one of the highlights of the week.

Hack: I can’t wait to go back because I think 16, 17 and 18 are phenomenally fun. Say what you want about the manufactured nature of the course, that finish is exciting. Those three holes are so muscular. I love the tournament’s final half hour.

Shipnuck: I love a small, classic, understated clubhouse like they have at Sawgrass. Its quiet elegance reminds me of all that is pure and simple about the game.

Bamberger: Well, I don’t know. . . .

Van Sickle: Just say it’s because the Players is the fifth major. I finally admit it.

Bamberger: [Laughing] No, no.

Garrity: I can’t wait to go back because I left my sunglasses in the pressroom.

DEAD AT 17?
Van Sickle: The Players is the only event I can think of that starts its sudden-death playoff on a par-3 hole, the famous 17th. Love it or hate it?

Bamberger: If you’re going to exploit that 17th hole, you might as well go whole hog, which they’re doing. It’s the right call.

Hack: It’s a hole for TV on a course that ’s made for TV. Embrace who you are. There’s no other hole like it in golf.

Shipnuck: There’s so much on the line; it’s a big green, and you probably have only a nine-iron in your hands. It shouldn’t be that hard, but with so much at stake no shot is more frightening.

Bamberger: The only thing better than going 17–18 in the playoff would be going 17-17-17-17.

Garrity: They should add an island-green par-3 to every Tour venue and use it just for the playoff.

Anonymous Pro: I don’t like it. If Tim Finchem wants his event to have the magnitude of a major, he should have a playoff like a major—a three-hole aggregate. You have 16, 17 and 18, a par-5, a par-3 and a par-4, and they’re all exciting, risk-reward holes. That’s a perfect playoff setup.

Shipnuck: That’s delayed gratification. Even in a three-hole playoff, 17 is still going to be the key moment. You might as well start there.

Van Sickle: I don’t like it. It reminds me of the old Tuesday- afternoon Merrill Lynch Shoot outs at Tour events. One player got eliminated on each hole, and to break a tie, they had a chip-off around the green. Beginning at the 17th feels like a chip-off.

Anonymous Pro: Look, you’re not running out of daylight, and a three-hole playoff takes only 45 minutes. If it’s still tied after three holes, go to 17.

Van Sickle: You know what they should do with 17? Take Wednesday’s unofficial caddie tournament and turn it into a fullblown, closest-to-the-pin contest with prize money. Instead of a boring practice-round day, you’d have an instant TV show, like the par-3 contest at the Masters.

Anonymous Pro: That’s a good idea. How hard could it be to find a sponsor for that?

 

HUBBA, BUBBA
Van Sickle: What do you guys think of Bubba Watson? Is he the story of the year so far?

Hack: It has to be Bubba. He won the Masters with a shot for the ages while his wife was home with their newly adopted baby boy. That’s more Cinderella than Cinderella. And I don’t think even Cinderella can hit a 40-yard hook off pine needles.

Garrity: Well, the TV announcers have been going wild over Bubba for more than two years. They love the way he plays the game, the way he spins the ball and all those unusual swings and shots.

Shipnuck: Bubba has been on the radar for a while, but it was a surprise that he won the Masters. It was amazing that he was able to hold it together on those greens. He has definitely been the defining moment so far this year.

Van Sickle: I’ve been impressed by Bubba’s post-Masters media blitz. Bubba has guested on all these TV shows and killed it every time.

Anonymous Pro: He’s eccentric. The world is attracted to people who are different. As much as Bubba says he doesn’t want to stand out, that’s all he does. If you don’t want to stand out, do you paint your driver pink? Do you put the hashtag #awesome at the end of every tweet?

Garrity: If a guy is going to be a genuine star, he needs to accept what goes with stardom— the attention and being comfortable with it inside the ropes and out. I’d say Bubba aced that.

Anonymous Pro: Humility goes out the window when Bubba goes on these talk shows, but it plays well. I dare say the pages don’t match the cover, but he’s enjoying the spotlight, as he should.

Shipnuck: I hope this New York media tour is how Bubba is going to be the rest of his career. I think he learned he doesn’t have to be anybody else now. He simply has to be Bubba.

Bamberger: Television doesn’t lie. Bubba became a star in about a 30-minute period in Augusta. The power of TV to tell a story is amazing. It may not be a true story, but the power to tell that story is amazing.

PASS THE GREENIES
Van Sickle: What did you learn from the Masters?

Garrity: That Augusta National chairmen aren’t as omnipotent as we thought. First, it’s apparently a myth they can control Mother Nature. Ice didn’t keep the azaleas in bloom, and that pricey underground system that’s supposed to keep the greens firm didn’t.

Van Sickle: They may be asking SubAir for a rebate right now.

Garrity: Number 2, Billy Payne wasn’t able to shut off the whole membership controversy simply by stonewalling the media. I thought they could control everything at Augusta National but apparently not. I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes, but he may be wearing only a pair of shorts and Crocs.

Shipnuck: You can add the mud-ball problem to that. You’re not going to identify the best golfer in the world when mud on the ball is such an issue on so many shots.

Van Sickle: That’s a great point.

Shipnuck: You have to question cutting the grass so short and mowing it back toward the tee to limit roll. That really backfired. What we saw with mud-ball shots squirting off in all directions was disgraceful.

Anonymous Pro: I learned that Augusta’s course apparently really fits lefthanders. Phil Mickelson has obviously had success, and even Mike Weir, who’s not a long hitter, won there.

Van Sickle: Remind me to pick Ernie Gonzalez in the Masters pool next year.

Anonymous Pro: I ran into him recently. He’s a beer distributor on the West Coast.

Hack: I learned that the Masters remains the most exciting major. There was Bubba’s hook shot, the double eagle— AugustaNational gives and takes like no other course. The magic at that place is superior to any other tournament’s on the planet.

THE WINNER IS…
Anonymous Pro: I don’t know how you even try to pick a winner at the Stadium course. Honestly, almost anyone can win there—Tim Clark, Craig Perks. I’m going with Justin Rose. He played well at Augusta, he won at Doral, he has a great swing, and he’s a good-enough putter. He’s trending up.

Bamberger: I’m going with Bubba Watson. He’s hot, he’s confident, and superhigh and supersoft is a great way to play a course that’s usually firm. My dark horse is Mark Wilson. It’s hard to call him a dark horse because he’ll probably be in this year’s Ryder Cup, but he has that Fred Funk quality, and this is a position golf course.

Hack: I like Hunter Mahan. The guy has turned into a big-game hunter. He’s winning regularly now. My long shot is Bo Van Pelt, who seems to hang around leader boards a lot.

Van Sickle: I’m going with Brian Gay. He’s been slightly off the radar lately, but when he’s on, he’s really on, and his game seems to be on the upswing. Plus he’s not afraid to wear bright-pink slacks. My long-shot pick is also Brian Gay. Basically, I want more Brian Gay.

Shipnuck: I’ll take Luke Donald. Sawgrass is not a power golf course. It’s all about precision. I know Luke is smarting after his showing at the Masters. He’s a determined guy. He’s not ready to have his reign at No. 1 devalued.

Garrity: I’m picking Rory McIlroy because he always seems to bounce right back after blowing up in the Masters. My dark-horse pick is Kevin Na. He has only one career win, but he’s been in the top 10 with regularity. He seems like a Paul Goydos–type who can hang with the stars on a tough track. Plus, I love that his grandfather was a Supreme Court justice in Korea.

Van Sickle: Do you think it helped that Kevin left an offering to the golf gods last week in San Antonio— his shirt on a hanger in the trees where he made that 16 last year?

Garrity: Well, it can’t hurt.