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.
WILSON AND WAIALAE
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: After a soggy start, the Sony Open in Hawaii provided some drama down the stretch as Mark Wilson held on to win on the back-nine at Waialae Country Club. A huge par-saving putt on the 17th helped him keep a one-shot lead, and then a birdie on the 18th gave him a two-shot win over Tim Clark and Steve Marino. In an era when seemingly everyone nukes it off the tee and courses double as marathon routes, do you find it refreshing to see tracks like Waialae and contenders who actually hit fairways like Wilson, Clark and Matt Kuchar?
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: It is good to have a track like Waialae every so often, and I think a guy like Clark would be in a different tax bracket if there were more such courses.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Love Waialae — beautiful old-school course with palm trees to die for.
Morfit: Agree with Jim, but it didn’t look as great as usual with those gloomy skies. I drove to the Hon airport in a flash-flood warning Thursday.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Golf in Hawaii isn’t usually spectacular for the course quality, in the vein of Pinehurst or Winged Foot. It’s all about the atmosphere, and Waialae has it.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Waialae is one of my favorite courses on Tour. Easy on the spectator, beautiful, sensible. Just lovely, and a course that gives players like Paul Goydos and Mark Wilson a chance.
Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: I played Waialae years ago in college. I remember liking it, and after this week, I know why — all the dogleg lefts were perfect for a draw! But I found myself falling asleep a few times when I walked with rookie Nate Smith’s group the past few days because so many holes look the same. There’s a stretch on the back nine — 14, 15, 16 and 18 — that are ALL dogleg lefts. I mean, switch it up a bit! Some players called it a “bunter’s paradise.” Sets up great for shorter hitters, especially those who hit draws.
Brad Faxon, eight-time PGA Tour winner: I am not in Confidential this week, but the fade or dogleg right holes (5, 6, 9, 12, 13) make it seem pretty balanced to me! Also, just because a hole dog legs in one direction doesn’t mean the shot has to bend that way.
Morfit: I noticed Rickie Fowler, who hits a draw, didn’t bother to play this year after last year’s forgettable performance. Ryan Moore is also not a huge fan of the way the course fits his game.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think we all enjoy close tournaments, and Tim Clark made this one close with his 66-64 finish. It was fun watching Wilson hole the clutch putts he needed. It’s also nice to see that these guys are human, as Clark was hobbling around afterward with painful blisters after walking 36 holes.
Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Golf.com: It’s always nice to see little guys like Wilson and Clark show that golf can still be played at its highest level without having overpowering distance. Efficient might not be thrilling, but like a masterful pitching performance, it’s a big part of what the game is about.
Morfit: I like Clark. He’s a good guy, and I’m sure Mark Wilson is a nice guy. It was just tough to find any traction following this thing.
Van Sickle: We don’t get too many chances to see a leader playing against a score that’s already been posted. Wilson knew exactly what he had to beat, and he did it, thanks especially to that clutch par putt at 17. Putting is the strength of Mark’s game and he proved it.
Wei: Tim Clark said Sunday that at courses like Waialae, he knows he has to come out and take advantage of the shorter length.
Lipsey: There are no short hitters on the PGA Tour, so distance is not really a relevant issue. Mark Wilson was the Tour’s best driver in 2010 and Clark had the best average distance from the flag on approaches. Stats like those cash checks.
Bamberger: Mark Wilson is really an exceptional person. When he won his first Tour event, the Honda in ’07, he called a penalty on himself when his caddie shared information with Villegas’s caddie. He’s a smart player, he’s fit and he carries himself like a true pro.
Dusek: He graduated in 1997 with a math degree from the University of North Carolina. I think we can assume he wasn’t taking “Rocks for Jocks” or “Darkness at Noon.”
Hanger: You also don’t see many guys with their ministry (Time of Grace) front and center on their shirts instead of a sponsor.
Dusek: Wilson said after his win that he wasn’t watching the leaderboard down the stretch because he didn’t want to alter his strategy, which was simply to make birdies. We’ve heard plenty of guys over the years say they avoid looking at the leaderboards while others are seeking them out. Down the stretch, do you think it’s better to sneak a peak or avert your eyes?
Morfit: It seems like it would only complicate matters for me.
Hanger: It seems like not knowing would be just as nerve-racking.
Bamberger: These players reveal so much about themselves with the look/don’t look decision. Every single big-time player looks.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: It’s stupid not to know where you stand in a tournament. Any guy who says he’s not scoreboard watching will never become a great champion.
Van Sickle: In golf, it’s always you against the golf course. You don’t need to see the leaderboard until the 71st or 72nd hole. Watching the board is the caddie’s job. The caddie can keep track of what’s up and alert the golfer, if need be, to the situation. Otherwise, just keep hitting fairways and greens and putting for birdies.
Wei: I think it depends on the player. Some want to know where they are so they know how many birdies they need. For others, it’ll just mess with their heads. But no matter what you try to do, unless you’re in a complete zone, I think it’s hard not to look at the leaderboard.
Dusek: While he didn’t win today, Matt Kuchar, winner of the 2010 regular-season FedEx Cup points race, had a strong showing at Waialae, tying for fifth. Last week Graeme McDowell followed-up his amazing 2010 season with a strong showing at Kapalua. Does the lack of an off-season in golf make it easier for guys to extend their hot streaks?
Van Sickle: Two demerits — or should I say Demarets? — for mentioning the FedEx Cup after the first full-field tournament!
Dusek: I mentioned last year’s FedEx Cup, not this year’s. That’s only half a Jimmy.
Morfit: Yes, the short off-season makes it easier. And remember, Kuchar had that season last year while he was in the process of moving from Atlanta to Sea Island. He has a big upside, especially since the 2011 majors will fit his non-bomber game better.
Van Sickle: Great point about Kuchar, Cam. He’s somebody who figures to be in the discussion at the U.S. Open and maybe Royal St. George’s.
Lipsey: Usually, guys like Kuchar come back to earth for most of the rest of their careers. It’s the rare bird (Stricker is one) who rockets to the top and stays there.
Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: I’d say we’ll have a better idea this week when Lee and the rest of the top Europeans tee off in Abu Dhabi.
Van Sickle: Everybody’s different. Maybe some guys played til the end of the season at Disney. Maybe some hung up the clubs in September after the BMW. Even Disney is two months removed from Sony. That’s quite a break. Most Americans didn’t play much, if at all. Others, like Clark, teed it up in Australia or South Africa. There’s no pattern.
Bamberger: If you’re fully exempt, you don’t have to worry about one season ending and the next one beginning. You just keep doing what you’ve been doing and repeating the mantra, It’s all good. If you are making a big swing change or a big equipment change or you had a baby or a divorce or some other big thing in the offseason, then all bets are off.
Wei: I talked with some of the rookies (Chris Kirk, Jamie Lovemark, Nate Smith, etc.), and they weren’t really nervous about this week being their first event as PGA Tour rookies. They were more nervous about being rusty because they hadn’t competed in a while.
ABU DHABI OVERSHADOWING THE HOPE
Dusek: This coming week will feature the first big-time golf tournament of 2011, and it’s NOT on the PGA Tour. Scores of the game’s best will be in Abu Dhabi, including Graeme McDowell, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy. What are you looking for from this event and who are you most eager to see?
Lipsey: I’ll bet my 401K that an American won’t win…..
Herre: I’m eager to see if Harrington keeps his beard.
Wei: I’m looking forward to seeing if Rory’s blisters have healed and if his hair is still blonde.
Wei: Rory McIlroy pays attention to American football? He just tweeted, “Just woke up to find out the jets beat the patriots! Great way to start a Monday morning! :)”
Morfit: Now that is genuinely surprising, both the result and the fact that McIlroy gives a fig.
Herre: You think Rory had a few bob on the Jets?
Morfit: I am eager to see the best players in the world, including Westwood and McDowell.
Lipsey: Mickelson’s on a busman’s holiday, so I’d be shocked if he did anything. Other than that, players like Jason Knutzon and Todd Hamilton will battle for low Yankee.
Van Sickle: I can’t wait to confirm that Yogi Berra is still alive. That’ll be the Bob Hope Classic.
Morfit: This week really does say it all about the contrast between the U.S. and European golf. The Hope has a lot of “try,” to use a bit of rodeo lingo, but come on. It’s no contest.
Wei: I’m really eager to see McDowell play. It was fun watching him at Kapalua during that final round. But it’ll be even more interesting to see him play against the best in the world.
Van Sickle: Interesting (well, not really) that a guy like Mickelson skips the Hope even though he’s a past champion, just to chase some appearance money that he doesn’t need. Another message from him to Finchem, I guess.
Lipsey: It’s all about appearance fees. With no such fees, the Euros would be playing in the U.S. a heck of a lot more.
Reiterman: I want to see if the Euros can keep up their amazing play. McDowell and Kaymer have a legit argument for No. 1, and Westwood is No. 1 but hasn’t won a big event for more than a year.
Evans: I’d like to see if Kaymer, McDowell and Westwood can continue their solid form from last year. Abu Dhabi is a good tournament for the guys to measure their games at the beginning of the year against a strong field.
Bamberger: Abu Dhabi doesn’t seem like a serious golf destination to me, no matter how many big-name players it may draw. Except for that one weekend, you never hear anybody talking about the Abu Dhabi stop on the European Tour, do you?
Hanger: Abu Dhabi is making a push to compete for golf with their neighbor, Dubai. Yas Links made Travelin’ Joe’s best new international courses list. I’ve also got a buddy living there, writing for the English-language paper, and he’s playing a ton, a lot of it at night.
Dusek: OK, fess up everyone. Do you think celebrities help to bring more attention and buzz to the event in Palm Springs? The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (formerly Bing Crosby’s Clam Bake) seems to draw more attention. Does the PGA Tour need more than one pro-celebrity event per year?
Van Sickle: Celebs are a way to attract casual and non-golf fans to a telecast for a while. Yes, it’s a gimmick, but the Tour needs variety. It makes for bad TV early in the week, though, when there’s only one pro in a group and a bunch of amateur hacks. I’m not turning on the TV to watch some dentists try to play golf.
Herre: One is enough. Some local fans might come out to snag a few autographs, and the amateurs pay more to play, so the tournament makes extra cash. But in general the players aren’t fond of five-round tournaments, like the Hope, or six-hour rounds, like the AT&T. And if you don’t have the top players, you don’t have a top tournament.
Lipsey: Celebrity buzz helps, but the Hope is so hopelessly lost I don’t think anything can salvage the event, save TW showing up.
Van Sickle: A Rickie Fowler-Jamie Lovemark playoff might create a little buzz, Rick.
Bamberger: One really good Pro-Star event would be ideal; two weak ones on the West Coast swing, as we’ve had for years now, makes you forget why the format was invented in the first place.
Wei: I’m not sure how much extra attraction the D-list celebrities bring. I’m a fan of Alice Cooper, but the guy is a little dated. If they brought back A-list or even B-list celebrities, that might create some more buzz. But I don’t think people are rushing to see Alice Cooper and Kurt Russell play golf.
Lipsey: Celebrities get so much publicity nowadays that events like the Hope and Pebble have lost a lot of opportunity. In days gone by, we didn’t see the celebrities in the news, internet, etc. every day, so it was a treat to see them golfing.
Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: The whole celebrity pro-am concept is lost on me. I wouldn’t want to watch Kobe Bryant play 3 on 3 with Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler before a Lakers game either.
Morfit: The celebrity thing, sometimes tedious, can also be fun. I once asked Joe Pesci to name his favorite course. Quoth the Vinny: “How should I know? That’s like asking me who my favorite gal is–I ain’t been with ’em all yet!”
Dusek: Not to forget the ladies, the LPGA Tour (Remember them?) denied the request of 15-year-old Alexis Thompson for 12 sponsor exemptions, double the number a limited membership would allow her. LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan said she would be able to pursue additional playing opportunities by trying to qualify on Monday. Right call?
Bamberger: I think Whan made the right call. She’s a great talent, but 15 is just too young to be playing close to a full-time LPGA schedule.
Reiterman: Yeah. But does anyone think she won’t make it through a Monday qualifier?
Van Sickle: It was absolutely the wrong call. Golf is not a subjective sport. If you shoot the scores to qualify, you should be able to play. Rules to the contrary smack of age discrimination. I’d love to have seen the late great Leonard Decof go to court with this case. Even at that, Thompson should still be eligible to play more this year. She won more than $334,000 last year but the LPGA acknowledged only $21,000 of it. Her finish in the U.S. Open, since it’s not run by the LPGA, didn’t count! Gee, it’s only supposed to be a major. Golf is a meritocracy. It should be that simple. The LPGA blew it.
Herre: It was definitely the right call. Whan made a good point when he said he didn’t want get into making case-by-case decisions on eighth-graders.
Morfit: I’d have done what I could to get her out there more. I am curious to hear the argument against granting her additional exemptions. Jennifer Capriati?
Walker: How about every child star except for Ron Howard? She’s only 15. Whan made the right decision.
Herre: All the sponsors’ exemptions didn’t do much for Michelle Wie’s career or reputation, and everyone thought she was the can’t-miss kid.
Dusek: I remember watching a 13-year-old Steffi Graf beat Chris Evert, and FrÃ¤ulein Forehand turned out OK. I also remember watching the aforementioned Ms. Capriati make Grand Slam finals as a teen, only to burn out young, get busted for dope and then try to make a comeback in her mid-20s. Just because a 15-year-old can shoot the scores, it doesn’t mean she’s ready for the lifestyle and the pressure of being a full-time breadwinner. What’s the harm in a minimum age requirement?
Van Sickle: What’s the harm? Somebody played well enough to quality and you tell them they can’t. How is that fair? Lexi might be able to file a restraint of trade action against the tour, which is preventing her from earning a living even though she clearly is qualified.
Evans: Whan is probably doing the best thing by his tour, but it’s too bad for Alexis and her family. Women’s tennis has done well by letting teenagers play.
Wei: The ladies that got through Q-school are only guaranteed 9 starts (or 8 if they cancel Tres Marias, which looks like is going to happen). I keep going back and forth w/ the controversy because it isn’t the LPGA’s job to parent. They should let rising stars play, but maybe the parents shouldn’t be subjecting their daughters to the pro ranks at such a young age. Lexi will have plenty of playing opportunities. She’s going to Australia for two events in February. She’ll get through the Monday qualifiers. With the six sponsor exemptions, international events, U.S. Open and British Open (if she qualifies), that’s plenty.