PGA Tour Confidential: Playoff Storylines

PGA Tour Confidential: Playoff Storylines

Webb Simspon calmly went bogey-free in the final round to capture his first PGA Tour victory.
Chuck Burton/AP

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.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Hello everyone, and welcome to the final PGA Tour Confidential of the regular PGA Tour season. Next week the FedEx Cup playoffs kick off with the Barclays. I’m really curious to see how the pros fare at one of my favorite courses, Plainfield (N.J.) Country Club, a delightful Donald Ross gem, but I’m also interested to see what the level of interest will be without Tiger Woods in the field. What’s your guess? And are there other storylines we should be watching?

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: This is the opportunity for a young gun to separate himself from the field. Maybe Rickie Fowler breaks through. Perhaps Webb Simpson follows up with another victory. Or maybe Keegan Bradley makes a statement for Player of the Year honors.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: We’re used to life without Tiger. Interest will be high because all the other players we care about will be there. And a lot is up for grabs, not least player of the year.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: When you say “we,” do you mean those of us who cover golf? Because Joe Sports Fan was planning to watch because he wanted to see Tiger, but now he’ll enjoy one of the last weekends of summer.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think it’s a tough sell without Tiger. The format was designed to compel the big boys to play more. Even a diminished Tiger is still the biggest selling point in the game. The TV ratings will tell the tale.

Shipnuck: Sure, having Tiger would help. But this season (and last) has helped wean golf fans. There are more guys to root for now than before.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Other than player of the year — which is pretty meaningless because McIlroy’s not eligible — it’s hard to see many storylines for the FedEx Cup playoffs. But consecutive events with strong fields always build interest and momentum. As Shipnuck said, everyone’s gotten used to the Tiger-less Tour.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s hard to gauge the interest levels. I’ve heard from two regular golf fans who said they have zero interest in watching golf the rest of this year. The tournaments are always interesting because they have good fields and appealing courses, but I’m not sure how fired up the average fan will be. Pretty sure the folks in N.J. will be very excited to see the pros tackle Plainfield.

(Read Gary Van Sickle’s mailbag and ask him a question.)

David Dusek, deputy editor, The interest among golf fans will be high because plenty of good players will be on hand and the pros will love Plainfield, but the FedEx Cup was not created for golf fans. It was concocted by the PGA Tour in order to create buzz among “general sports fans.” With pre-season football in the air and Tiger not playing, those fans aren’t going to tune in.

Van Sickle: If Phil Mickelson wins or contends in any of the events, TV will be saved.

Dusek: Agreed. When Tiger’s controversy broke, Tim Finchem told every person holding a TV camera that the PGA Tour’s ratings were always good and that when Tiger played they spiked. The FedEx Cup Playoffs without Tiger will give us a chance to see that theory put to the test.

Wei: I’ll be watching to see how many players tinker with a belly putter. First, Adam Scott won the Bridgestone with the broomstick putter. Then Keegan Bradley drained a bunch of clutch putts with a belly putter to capture the PGA Championship as a rookie and become the first player to win a major with a long putter. And now, Webb Simpson takes the Wyndham Championship with a belly, too.

Shipnuck: Yes, the disease is spreading. Seemed like everyone in contention at Greensboro had a long wand.

Godich: I went to a long putter a few months back, and though I have played little since, I absolutely love it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Herre: You think we’ll see more belly putters on the local, amateur level? Personally, I could never get the feel for one, and traveling with the thing was a hassle.

Hack: It’s such a bad look, isn’t it? I’m waiting for someone to walk onto a practice green with a long putter anchored between his teeth. The USGA missed the boat on the long putters.

Wei: It was already bad after the Masters. When I showed up to the practice green at Hilton Head two weeks later, I couldn’t believe how many guys were messing around with a belly. Ernie finally put aside his ego and switched. Bill Haas and Camilo Villegas both used one that week for the first time. I can’t wait to see how many there are at Plainfield!

Van Sickle: These are young guys using the belly, not desperate old guys who need a putting crutch. I don’t think a groundswell of ams will switch, but the topic is probably worth researching.

Dusek: If weekend players get used to seeing pros winning with belly putters, they’ll be more apt to try one. The tough part is getting the right fit for a belly putter because, well, there are a lot of different sized bellies out there.

Van Sickle: The phenomenon is just a sign that the stigma is gone. Damon says it’s a bad look, but I think the percentage of traditionalists who would agree with him is shrinking by the year. Now, if we can just get them to quit thinking rangefinders are a bad look, we can make some progress and speed up play.

Dusek: Charles Howell told me in Atlanta that he’s never seen someone who used a belly putter and putted poorly, which is one of the reasons he converted.

Godich: Matt Kuchar was one of the top putters on Tour in 2010, and even he switched.

Van Sickle: As a long-time user of The Claw grip, I can vouch for the fact that golfers do what they have to do to make putts. I wonder how many players on the AJGA circuit and junior golf are using belly putters or long putters? That would indicate a possible trend.

Hack: I don’t recall seeing a long wand on my trip to the junior circuit last year. Those kids were fearless and played fast, God love ’em.

Godich: They played fast because they knew the rules officials would enforce the slow-play rules.

Dusek: Belly putters are all over the Nationwide Tour, which makes a lot of sense. If they really are beneficial, then the guys who are trying to earn a PGA Tour card would be the most motivated to try one.

Godich: The difference in ball-striking between a PGA Tour player and a Nationwide player ain’t much. It’s mostly the putting, along with the mental aspect, of course.

Tell us what you think: Is the FedEx Cup going to be interesting despite Tiger’s absence? Will you watch?

Herre: Fred Couples won a playoff with John Cook at the Senior Players. Let’s have a show of hands: who found themselves sneaking a peek at Fred Couples and the seniors this year?

Van Sickle: I watched the Couples-Cook finish and the playoff.

Wei: I went through a Couples phase last year, but since Freddie’s been on the DL so much, I can’t say I’ve tuned in this season.

Shipnuck: I did…but only because it’s a job requirement!

Dusek: My hands are remaining down.

Godich: Not so much. The senior majors got my attention, and it was great to see an event back at Westchester. But, sorry, the Champions tour’s 54-hole events on ordinary tracks are a tough sell.

Walker: Generally, I think the Champions tour is more for watching in person than on TV, but I got sucked in by the playoff.

Van Sickle: I agree with Mike. The Champions Tour is fun to watch in person, but without a compelling superstar front and center (Greg Norman could’ve made the Champions Tour relevant), the events lack significance and history.

Herre: I thought the blood-spinning Couples had done in Germany was pretty interesting.

Godich: Saddest development of the week was watching Fred grimace after swings on Sunday, three days after saying how rejuvenated he felt.

Shipnuck: Fred always says the worst thing for his back is flying, so to go all the way to Germany shows how desperate he is.

Herre: Good point. Couples made it clear this week that he is nearing the end of his career because of his back problems. Too bad.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Interestingly enough, Couples said after the tourney that it was his hip, not back, that was hurting today.

Shipnuck: The hip bone is connected to the…

Van Sickle: No doubt Fred underperformed during his career due to the back problems. Nobody’s iron shots sounded better than his, and he always made the flip wedge and the super flop look so easy. He really was the coolest player for the better part of a decade.

Godich: How ’bout the one-handed follow through on bunker shots? Way cool!

Tell us what you think: Does the Champions Tour interest you? Did you watch the Senior Players?

Herre: Couples walked back his original statement that he would definitely make Tiger a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup. Now Fred says he needs to see Woods play before picking him. If you were Couples, would you pick Woods regardless?

Shipnuck: Nope. Tiger has to show some form. He also has to prove he wants to be on the team by listening to his captain and getting in some reps.

Dusek: Fred and Tiger are pals, but there are several young Americans who deserve consideration. Keegan Bradley won the PGA and Webb Simpson won this week in North Carolina. Couples has plenty of choices, and some guys who are hot. Sorry Tiger, hit the pines.

Godich: Nope. He’s got to play, and play well. If not, make him an honorary assistant captain, like Sergio was to Monty at last year’s Ryder Cup.

Herre: Elegant solution, Mark, but I can’t see Tiger going the honorary assistant captain route.

Hack: Guess he could always hang with M.J.

Van Sickle: No way Tiger is showing up if he’s not playing. Not without a sponsor’s appearance fee or a new design job in Australia.

Hack: If Tiger can get picked for the Presidents Cup ahead of all these kids grinding through August and September, then it really is a goodwill exhibition.

Dusek: The best thing for Tiger would be to do exactly what he said he was going to do — work on his game. Stay 100 percent healthy, commit to the new swing and ingrain it so he can trust it. Oh yeah, he should also work on his putting.

Van Sickle: Tiger has to show he’s got his game together. He showed flashes at times in Akron and the PGA, but that’s it. Overall, he’s a walking red flag right now. It would be quite an insult to pick him over anyone who’s had a good year and would be next in line. Besides, since when is Tiger dying to play in one of these team events? If he had his choice, he might prefer to stay home and get his game ready.

Wei: Tiger needs to show better form after the last few performances. There are at least a dozen other players who are more deserving.

Herre: Tiger says he wants to be on the team, which puts Couples on the spot.

Hanger: I don’t think he deserves to be on the team for his play, but I think it would be good for the event, which might be reason enough for Couples. The Presidents Cup is already off the radar for most sports fans, and having Tiger there would at least add some much-needed buzz.

Godich: Not if he continues to play like he has been. Plus, being in Australia, it’s going be a tough sell regardless.

Van Sickle: Picking Tiger when he clearly doesn’t deserve to be on the team would cast a bad light on the event, which is very competitive. It would be like giving Jerry Pate a spot in the PGA Championship when he hasn’t been competitive for years … oops.

Walker: C’mon, the Presidents Cup is an exhibition held to increase interest in the game internationally. The Australians haven’t hosted the event in 13 years, and like everyone else, they want to see Tiger. Not to mention, his contribution to the international game over the last 15 years is immeasurable. If he wants to play, you pick him. Which Couples is going to do.

Herre: Good point. What are Australian fans, chopped liver?

Dusek: I’ll bet you five push-ups that Tiger is NOT a playing member of the team.

Van Sickle: Using Mike’s logic, Greg Norman should definitely play for the International squad. It’s more than an exhibition. I completely disagree with that description, and I think most PGA Tour officials and players would, too. This isn’t some pro-am outing. It’s a serious (but fun) team competition.

Walker: If there was a Presidents Cup in 1990, Greg Norman would have been picked for the International team even if he was in a prolonged slump.

Van Sickle: Norman might’ve been needed then to put the event on the map. It’s firmly established now. No gimmicks needed. The best players only, please.

Dusek: The competition at Harding Park was not as intense as a Ryder Cup, but both teams wanted to win, and I think the Aussies on the International team will want to bring out their best game this time around. Adam Scott will probably be the main attraction, deservedly, but it’s been a lost season for Geoff Ogilvy. Doing something positive Down Under would mean a lot to him.

Tell us what you think: Does Tiger Woods deserve a spot on the team? Can he help them win?

Herre: This week’s Safeway Classic wrapped up qualifying for the Solheim Cup. I see Michelle Wie made the team. Any surprises or takes?

Dusek: My hands are still down.

Godich: For all of the depth on the PGA Tour, I’d say Wie’s making the team speaks to the lack of depth among the American women.

Wei: Right. It’s cool to see Juli Inkster, 51, become the oldest player to qualify for a Solheim Cup team. She’s an incredible player and person, but what does that say about the state of American women’s golf?

Hanger: Wie is still probably the most recognizable LPGA’er for the average sports fan. She brought some much-needed glamour to the event last time, and played well. I think it’s great she’s on the team.

Van Sickle: Wie should be on the team. Though she’s still a part-time pro and full-time student, there aren’t three (if any) American players with more talent than she has.

Herre: It’s fun to watch the ladies in the Solheim setting. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. It was cool to see Wie, who can appear to be a little detached, get sucked into all the excitement last time.

Godich: I watched a good bit of the Solheim Cup the last time around. There was no shortage of quality golf.

Wei: Who didn’t? The Solheim Cup was fantastic two years ago; I loved the energy and excitement. Even my friends who had never watched a second of women’s pro golf were captivated.

Shipnuck: Yes, the surprise is that this time around Europe should be the favorite.

Van Sickle: This Solheim Cup is going to put a spotlight on just how many of the world’s best players aren’t eligible to play in the event. Many of the top players are from Asia or places other than Europe and America. The LPGA needs to figure out a way to work in a third team of some kind, whether it’s Korea or Asia or Rest of the World. America vs. Europe feels like the undercard.

Herre: Right. The LPGA is really missing the boat here, and we talk about it every two years. A three-team event could be big for the LPGA, a point of differentiation, as they say on the biz side.

Walker: Agreed. A Presidents Cup of women’s golf would be excellent. Should it be Asia vs. the world?

Godich: I’d take Asia and give you a couple of points.

Van Sickle: It would be more than OK if Asia became the dominant Solheim Cup team. That would heighten the underdog American (North and South) or Euro-Aussie-World squads’ interest in dethroning them. Much like playing against the Yankees in the World Series. Plus, interest in women’s golf is by far the highest in the Asian markets.

Hanger: Asia vs. the world would make sense. I think the U.S. and the Europeans wouldn’t stand a chance without combining squads, and probably not even then.

Wei: Australasia vs. the world makes sense.

Van Sickle: Asia vs. the world would mean combining the U.S. and Europe. That would be odd, but a combo like that might be necessary to make the teams competitive. Otherwise Asia might blow everyone else away. I’d like to see an off-year qualifier where two teams square off and the winning team advances to the Solheim Cup the next year to face the defending champion. You’d have to expand the teams to maybe include North and South America on the U.S. team, and give Australia and Africa to the Euros. The drawback to my format is, of course, the possibility that the U.S. doesn’t get into the Solheim Cup, but that would build suspense for the next chance. Kind of like the America’s Cup.

Shipnuck: The Solheim is the U.S. vs. Europe. Period. Another event is needed to bring in the rest of the world. My guess is that LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan will make it happen.

Hack: I like the U.S. vs. Asia vs. Europe. They could do a round robin. If that doesn’t work, maybe they could just play Nassaus or ‘Wolf.’

Tell us what you think: Do you think Asians should be involved in the Solheim Cup? Will you watch this year?

Herre: Erin Hills makes its star turn this week at 7,760 freakin’ yards! Many of you have played the course. What do you think? Will Erin be the next great major venue?

Shipnuck: It’ll look great on TV, with lots of cool holes and interesting terrain. It’s a slog to walk because of the distances between greens and tees, but viewers on the couch won’t know that.

Herre: Somebody was saying the other day that it’ll be the parents of the contestants who will suffer at Erin. They will be exhausted after walking this hilly monster.

Van Sickle: I’ve played several rounds on the early Erin Hills, but I haven’t played the new, revised and polished version. I think the public will be underwhelmed by its look on TV. Erin Hills has almost no water holes, and except for its wonderful rolling moraine terrain, it may not seem spectacular to viewers. It’s a demanding track to play, however, and a bear to walk, especially from green to tee. Good luck to the U.S. Am entrants. Fatigue will be a factor on the 36-hole days.

Herre: Mike Davis is certainly high on the course. Maybe because he was so involved from almost the beginning. Lots of room for infrastructure, that’s for sure. And those who say it’s in the boonies are just wrong; Erin is an easy 45-minute drive from Billy Mitchell Field.

Dusek: The media and the fans get caught up in course yardages. Tournament organizers never set the tees so the course plays that long, but that much space gives you a lot of versatility. I think it could be a hit. It’s different from Whistling Straits, but Americans love the idea of wind-swept mounds and rough-edged layouts right here in the United States.

Godich: Good point, Dave. So they’ll be playing a course that is about 300 yards longer than Atlanta Athletic Club, the PGA Championship venue. That’s about 17 yards a hole. Players will hit eight-irons instead of nine-irons, six-irons instead of seven-irons. And everyone will be amazed at how far they are hitting it.

Van Sickle: Erin Hills has acres of tee boxes. Lots of room for Mike Davis to maneuver and adjust. He could have it play more than 8,000 yards if he wants to, but he won’t.

Tell us what you think: Do you think Erin Hills is too long for the U.S. Amateur? Do you think equipment for the pros should be more regulated?