PGA Tour Confidential: Shell Houston Open

PGA Tour Confidential: Shell Houston Open

Brady Riggs Chipping Tip

Every week of the 2009 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.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Happy April everybody. Houston had wicked wind that blew Phil Mickelson right out of the tournament after 36 holes. He was my Masters pick, but now I’m worried. What’s everybody make of Mickelson’s unsightly swings and early exit? Is he toast for Augusta or was this just a blip? He’s never won a major after missing the cut the tournament before.

Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Playing in high winds the week before a major? Could be a problem.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It was funny listening to him rationalize his week — that he was glad to get those swings out of his system. I didn’t hear him say that at the BellSouth in 2006, when he won by 13 shots before heading to Augusta. Those swings meant he was locked in.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: It’s hard to say with Phil. After the first-round 77, he may have mailed it in with the 76, but I wouldn’t put too much into it. Momentum is overrated. Trevor Immelman had played terribly all year before he won the Masters last year.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: If he did mail in his second round, it could be like North Carolina losing in an early round of the ACC tournament before the NCAAs: rested and ready.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I would never accuse Phil of quitting, but I’m sure he was happy to leave Houston early, avoiding further weather problems and scrambled tee times. I’m guessing he forgot all about his week long before it was wheels-up in the G-V.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Alan nails it: Phil’s got Houston in the rearview mirror. No carryover.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: As a high-ball hitter, Phil rarely fares well in the wind. That’s why the British Open figures to be the most difficult major for him to win, although the U.S. Open has turned out to be pretty tough for him too. I think Phil writes it off due to the weather, and it’s forgotten.

Herre: Only problem, Alan, is that the next two days in Augusta are supposed to be cold and wet.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: I know Butch flew in Friday night, and they did a little work on Saturday after Phil finished. Maybe that will help you sleep tonight Damon.

Hack: Few players can go from the outhouse to the penthouse (and back) as quickly as Phil. I’m sticking with him as my pick for the Masters, but I wonder if his performance had anything to do with Tiger’s triumph at Bay Hill. It was as if being so close to that No. 1 ranking was like being to close to the sun. Same thing happened to Sergio.

Evans: I really don’t think the No.1 ranking is that important for the major championships. Phil and Sergio understand that being No. 1 is purely a vanity thing unless you win the majors.

Gorant: I don’t think Phil would trade a green jacket for No. 1, but if you don’t think he’d love to steal that title, even if only for a little while, you’re crazy.

Hack: I agree with Gorant. I think being No. 1 in the world means something to these guys. It’s not as big as winning a major, but it says something about your body of work, no matter how cuckoo the ratings system is.

Gorant: Plus, the list of guys who have been No. 1 is short, and getting your name on that list during the Tiger era means something.

Hack: OK, everybody, Masters picks. Any changes after this week or last? I know I said I’m sticking with Phil, but I keep seeing that Tiger putt on the 72nd at Bay Hill. Phil didn’t inspire any confidence this week.

Van Sickle: I’ll stick with Tiger if he tweaks his position at the top of his backswing. Or even if he doesn’t.

Shipnuck: My boy Ogilvy had another good week. He’s a lock.

Evans: I like Tiger Woods or a Cinderella like Rory McIlroy. If Tiger shoots 68 on Thursday, the tournament is over — 280 will win.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I’ll go with Phil. Lefty always has an advantage when he can play those power fades, and Augusta still likes that shot shape, even with the changes.

Bamberger: I had high hopes for my close personal friend Davis M. Love III, but as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play. A shame for Trip, as he is (at times) swinging and playing so well now. I’m somewhat nervous about another of my favorites, Dustin Johnson. Yeah, he can dunk. I’m more concerned about his DWI arrest hangover. I think, Damon, what you’re really asking is: who will win if Tiger doesn’t? It won’t be Fred, it won’t be Paul Casey, it won’t be Ernie or Padraig or Vijay. That leaves someone out of the Trevor tradition, or Phil. I’m going with Phil.

Friedman: Shipnuck has brainwashed, er, persuaded me. I’m going with the Big O. But again, no love for Padraig? No looming excitement over the third leg of the Paddy Slam?

Herre: I like Paddy, and think he’s right on schedule. Plus, I’d love to see him in the final pairing with Tiger on any Sunday. He wouldn’t back down.

Evans: What conditions favor Tiger? What conditions favor the field?

Garrity: Tiger is usually the favorite on an Earth-based golf course.

Hack: How about the ladies? Golf has a new major champion, Brittany Lincicome, after a dazzling finish in the desert. What did everybody think of that ending? One year, Karrie Webb holes out. Another year, Aree Song makes an eagle, forcing Grace Park to make birdie. On Sunday, Brittany Lincicome hit one of the prettiest approach shots you’ll ever see under pressure, and then rolled in the putt. The Dinah is to the LPGA what the Masters is to the men. It rarely disappoints, and the ’09 version was no different.

Van Sickle: On a course that otherwise comes off on TV as mostly condo-ball, the 18th is the perfect made-for-TV finishing hole, a reachable par 5 with water in front. Eagles are possible, as are bogeys and doubles. Factor in the pressure of a major, and that one hole pretty much makes this tournament a winner. If all you watched of the Nabisco was the 18th on Sunday, you were very entertained.

Bamberger: Brittany’s a pleasure to watch, but she has to do more, now. She has to let fans — and reporters and TV interviewers and corporate types — know who she is and what she thinks about. Lorena showed a side of her we’ve never seen before, and she’s more interesting for it. That Nabisco course is so ordinary except, as Gary notes, at the finish. The women really need to go to first-rate courses, and, except for the British Open, they don’t. They’re missing some basic ingredients in their effort to get us to care. Or care more.

Garrity: Gary is right about that red-tile-roof look on TV, but I’d add that Mission Hills is the very best of condo-ball. The course is lush, the eucalyptus trees provide both shade and challenge, and the mountain views are magnificent. And don’t be misled by the Desmond Muirhead signature; he designed Mission Hills before he went goofy, and it’s a great, traditional parkland course.

Van Sickle: Mission Hills is a good course; it just doesn’t look good on TV because of the homes. Pebble has homes too, but they don’t cheapen the background. Maybe because they start at about $10 million.

Shipnuck: There are only three dozen homes on Pebble, and they only really come into play on the 4th, 12th, 14th and 18th holes.

Friedman: I hope that Lincicome shot is replayed far and wide. Might be the leader in the clubhouse for shot of the year on any tour: 72nd hole of a major, up the slope and back down. Brilliant!

Van Sickle: I think TV rules prohibit the shot of the year from being struck by anyone but Tiger. Also, I keep expecting OSHA to step in and prevent the winner from jumping into that pond for safety reasons.

Shipnuck: Just back from a dip in the pond at the Dinah. What a finish. Reminds me of how exciting major championship golf is supposed to be. Isn’t it refreshing that the LPGA has setups that allow the players to display their skill?

Hack: I’m a little bit mystified by Lorena Ochoa’s week. According to the New York Times, she was “[smashing] her clubs on the ground as if they were cigarette butts, which is as out of character as Carrie Bradshaw going out for a night with the girls dressed in J. Crew.” I know she’s won already this year, but she was a little grumpy this week. She has a new life, is a stepmom now, and says she’s been pulled in a lot of different directions of late. I know Gary says Jiyai could supplant Lorena as No. 1 at some point. Maybe that point is sooner than later. Is Lorena’s reign coming to an end?

Gorant: I think it’s too early to say that, but she hasn’t looked the same this year.

Van Sickle: Like with Phil, it’s easy to overreact to a good player’s bad week, even if it’s at a major. It’s much too early to call Ochoa’s reign over, but Shin could get to No. 1 before this year is over if she keeps playing like gangbusters, and I think she will. She is very driven. It sounds as if Lorena simply needs a vacation, a few weeks away from golf, after all her life-changing alterations.

Shipnuck: Lorena struggled most of the second half of last year, too. She loves golf, but it’s not her entire life, and her life continues to get more complicated and, presumably, happier. She’ll figure it out. She won’t give up the No. 1 ranking easily. Someone will have to take it from her.

Hack: What’s everybody’s take on the Golf Channel asking Ben Crenshaw to serve as an analyst? Personally, I liked him at the ’96 Masters. When Norman was losing it, he was right on the money saying, “You can’t leave the ball short on 9. Anywhere but short.” Norman hit it short, the ball rolled down the hill, bogey. I thought that was good color commentary. Might have been his only highlight though. Anybody else like Crenshaw’s Texas-isms for TV?

Herre: Ben was a disaster for CBS. He’s a thoughtful guy but seemed a little slow on the uptake and fell back on cliches.

Friedman: The one place that Crenshaw’s style might work nicely is Augusta, where the decibel level is muted and the premium is on pithiness.

Evans: Gentle Ben has an ear tuned for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, not live major championship TV.

Bamberger: My guess is that Ben can be quite different now in the booth than he was more than a decade ago. He has really strong opinions about what’s been done to the course, how the holes should be played, how the players should carry themselves. I think he’s ready to really talk. Alan Bastable’s fascinating interview with Ben in GOLF Magazine shows some of that. All Ben needs is a performance-enhancing drug — strong coffee to speed him up.

Shipnuck: Nobody is better for a print interview because he’s so thoughtful and passionate, but it takes him a while to articulate what he’s thinking and he’s got that slow, Southern cadence. TV is simply the wrong medium for him.

Van Sickle: Well, Ben talks kind of slowly, and well, I guess, kind of not that succintly sort of. On TV, being able to speak in sound bites, like Feherty or McCord or Miller, is a must. Faldo doesn’t fit the profile completely, either.

Herre: If Crenshaw is going to criticize the course, it’s a good thing he’ll be working for the Golf Channel. Word is that ESPN and CBS have already been told to chill about the course.

Van Sickle: I don’t foresee anyone who’s broadcasting the Masters from on-site seriously criticizing the golf course or the setup. As Jim said, that topic has already ordained off-limits. As if any of the TV types need to be reminded. They’ll be too busy gushing over the blooming azaleas and magnolias.

Friedman: Right. CBS is always one bikini-wax reference away from losing the most coveted property in TV sports.

Hack: Folks, we also have a first time winner on the PGA Tour in Paul Casey. He teared up on TV after beating J.B. Holmes in the playoff. “Winning the week before Augusta isn’t a jinx like winning the Par 3 contest is,” Casey said. Watch out, Tiger and Phil. Paul Casey is on the move!

Van Sickle: Casey’s has the game we used to think Augusta winners needed: long, high shots, a draw and a better-than-average short game. He has long been a wunderkind who has under-achieved; maybe he’s finally coming of age. Could be married life, could be trying to keep up with Geoff Ogilvy. Casey is a good pick for a week when Augusta may be wet, long and cold.

Bamberger: I think there was more in Paul Casey’s emotion than we could know. He really got killed some years ago for his “we properly hate them” comment about Americans. He lives in Scottsdale and he married an American girl, and he’s been walking on eggshells in his interviews ever since. The win for him is huge. I don’t think he can win at Augusta this year, though. Too spent. That was a long four days in Houston.

Shipnuck: Casey used to be my perennial Masters darkhorse. The course is perfect for him, and in the early 21st century he had some very strong finishes. It’s nice to see him finally break through over here after lots of success in Europe and Asia. I did the first long feature on Casey after the anti-American firestorm of a few years ago, and there is no doubt that had a powerful effect on him. For years afterward he was uncomfortable playing in the U.S. I think only with this victory has he truly exorcised those demons. He’s a sweet guy with a lot of game. Now it’s time to start contending in majors. I think this will be the year.

Hack: That’s a great point by Bamberger. Every story written about Casey in the last few years led with that comment. Now, it’ll lead with “PGA Tour winner…” Good for him.

Hack: It was tough watching Fred Couples finish bogey-bogey-bogey, but he had a good week. Is it too much to say he’s a strong dark horse to put on a green jacket next Sunday at age 49?

Shipnuck: Freddie is always a good pick to finish 7th at the Masters. With that yippy jab, no way he could ever close the deal.

Evans: Couples has as good a chance as anybody at Augusta. He’s not a great putter, and I’m not sure he has the mental endurance at this point in his career, but he loves Augusta.

Hack: I agree. Couples is a lock for the Top 10 at Augusta, although his back took a pounding with all the starts and stops at Houston, I’m sure.

Bamberger: Fred winning at Augusta? Without making the six-footers on Sunday? It’s asking too much.