PGA Tour Confidential: Sony Open

PGA Tour Confidential: Sony Open

Charles Howell III didn't win on Sunday, but he generated the most conversation in this week's roundtable.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome to PGA Tour Confidential, Volume 2. Want proof of my dedication to the cause? I worked on this little e-mail exchange from the one living room in the Pittsburgh area that did not have the Steelers-Ravens game on. Let’s start with two items on the Golf Channel. First, Kelly Tilghman and Nick Faldo seemed awfully disinterested for a final round on Sunday. On a replay of George McNeill holing a bunker shot, they barely said a word. A few moments later, Zach Johnson drained a 30-footer for birdie. Again, not much reaction. Hello, anybody home? Words I never thought I’d say: Mark Rolfing is the bright spot on this week’s telecast.

Second, some of us roasted Rich Lerner last week when he failed to ask Adam Scott about the Kate Hudson rumors. But you have to give Lerner a big tip of the journalistic cap this week for asking Tadd Fujikawa’s grandfather, during an interview, about Tadd’s father and his drug-dealing arrest. Maybe Golf Channel isn’t going to be all marshmallows and softballs this year after all.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Vans, to the point you make about Lerner showing some spine in his interview with Fujikawa’s grandfather, it may be a product of the weekly critiques that Golf Channel’s Tom Stathakes has pledged to hold with all staffers, as described by Jim Gorant in this week’s Backspin. Stathakes: “We’re going to work with the talent, sit down with them and say, What were you thinking here? … They’re not used to that here, but I think it’s good. People like to get feedback.”

James Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Had a beer with Stathakes not long ago, and I was impressed with his energy and professed journalistic aggressiveness. I think he’ll press the Golf Channel talent to ask the tough question, which should be quite the balancing act considering that the network is in bed with the Tour. I bet Tom and Ty Votaw have some interesting conversations this year.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: In his Web column, Lerner said a member of the host club got in his grill about that interview. The GC needs more of that kind of reporting — the channel offers way more boosterism than actual journalism, and adding a harder edge can only help their talent establish a little more credibility.

Van Sickle: Speaking of credibility, a lot of players seemed to re-establish themselves at the Sony. It turned into a weekend of comeback specials, with strong showings by Zach Johnson, who was back on his game and won; David Toms (T2), who has fought back problems, a heart issue, the distractions of Hurricane Katrina, and who told the Golf Channel that he had lost interest in his golf game; and Adam Scott (T2), who so far hasn’t won enough to satisfy all those demanding journalists. There was also Charles Howell III, who has switched to a new teacher, Todd Anderson, after years with David Leadbetter. Three of those four guys weren’t in anybody’s pre-season previews for ’09. Guess we’ll have to reconsider.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Yo, Gary, so we are not going to get a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Super Bowl. On my side of the Keystone State, there will be mild depression over the Eagles’ loss, but the good news is that pitchers and catchers report in a couple weeks, and in the meantime golf’s one-week spring training was on the tube. The Sony Open — the Hawaiian Open for you old-schoolers — really is one of the best events on the PGA Tour schedule.

It’s the first full-field event of the year; guys shaking off the rust, trying new clubs and gizmos and caddies; hot drives sailing in the trade winds into groves of palm trees. We can turn up the electric heater, adjust the color and let the good vibes in. Charlie Howell was all beefed up, little Tadd Fujikawa came close to making a really big check and David Toms nearly won again. Don’t forget Brad Faxon, who missed the cut and is trying to come back from surgery. Welcome to 2009.

Herre: Nice week for Howell, who is one of the good guys on Tour. But I cringe every time I see him hit a shot and then immediately start checking positions on his takeaway. Faldo, another player fixated on mechanics, had some interesting things to say about how a mechanical player like Howell can “learn” feel. Frankly, I don’t believe it.

Van Sickle: Great point, Chief. I’m not sure Charlie Howell even believes in feel.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: I’m with Jim on Howell. I followed him around at the Masters two years ago, and it was painful to watch him finish a round and then spend 45 minutes working on putting drills, smoke curling out of his ears. His work ethic is admirable, but he makes golf look like a penance.

David Dusek, deputy editor, At last season’s Players Championship I spoke with Howell about his equipment changes. He parted ways with Callaway after 2007 and signed on with Bridgestone. However, he used drivers last season from four different companies — TaylorMade, Bridgestone, Nickent and Adams. So, he’s been tinkering with his gear as well as his swing.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: If Howell isn’t the most underachieving Tour player, who is?

Herre: I don’t view Howell as an underachiever. He is what he is, and he was probably overrated coming out of college. We saw how far he could hit a sand wedge and how long he had worked with David Leadbetter, and we came to the mistaken conclusion that he was a great player.

Van Sickle: Howell hasn’t been a financial underachiever. He’s near the $8 million mark in career earnings. I’d like to underachieve like that. But yes, Charles would be first to agree that he has yet to accomplish anything close to what he hopes to accomplish on tour.

Shipnuck: I agree Howell is robotic to a fault. He played nicely Sunday, but he needs a win more than anybody else on Tour. Even he’s labeled himself an “underachiever.” That’s the kind of insight and self-analysis that make him popular with scribes, and it probably holds him back, too. He’s definitely one of the top-5 quotes on Tour.

Bamberger: Charlie’s really very funny. Last year at the Masters, I was looking at the tee times in the players’ locker room. CH3 comes up and says, “Lemme see here, who am I going to rip today?”

Van Sickle: Howell had a good week, but that was a bad three-putt on the 18th on Sunday. He was so busy with his theatrics after missing the birdie putt that he didn’t watch his ball run past the hole. Then it looked as if he misread his par putt completely. Therein lies a lesson for all you players our there: Always watch a missed putt finish. But enough about him. Let’s talk Tadd.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Well, he limped in with a three-over 73 after Saturday’s 62. Isn’t that the first law of pro golf? A player who goes obscenely low one day almost always struggles to break par the next.

Shipnuck: I was sorry to see Tadd go backward. He’s definitely the sweetest person in professional sports, and it’s been a tough road for him, even before his dad’s legal entanglements. A victory was always a longshot, but I was hoping he’d stay in the top 10 and earn a spot in the field in Phoenix. He’s got plenty of heart and game, but he’s never been able to play enough tournaments to generate any kind of momentum. But that 62 was a thrill and should at least get him a few needed sponsors’ exemptions.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I just hope smilin’ Tadd is the next Justin Rose and not the next Ty Tryon. Fujikawa is good theater. Or, he could just be a sophisticated hologram produced annually by Sony Pictures, which keeps giving its quaint little Hawaiian golf event charming stories of teen precocity.

Dusek: When is Adam Scott going to get angry enough, or frustrated enough, to say to himself, “I’m not going to lose this tournament to these guys!” His talent is off the charts, but he seems to lack a killer instinct. Leaving that birdie putt short on 17 and making a tentative effort from the fringe on 18 were inexcusable errors. I wonder if losing doesn’t bother him enough.

Van Sickle: Scott did shoot 64 in the final round. I forget, why were we criticizing him again?

Shipnuck: Sure, he shot 64, but he needs another top-10 finish like he needs another date. He’s at that point in his career where victories are the only results that matter. Tough standard, but he would probably agree.

Bamberger: As usual, Tiger Woods made more headlines this weekend for not playing than anyone who teed it up in Hawaii. We should talk about his remarks in Washington on Sunday at the Obama celebration. He was brief but impressive: a golfer, speaking from the Lincoln Memorial, days before a historic presidential inauguration, introducing a Navy choir. Tiger didn’t talk about politics; he talked about the military. He already has his Boston event and his Washington event, and I understand that he’d like to have a hand in a third event, possibly in northern California, and involve a military charity.

Van Sickle: Maybe Tiger can take over Torrey Pines for his California event after Buick drops its sponsorships and/or ceases operations.

Lipsey: How in the name of TARP do Buick’s PGA Tour events get played this year? If the CEO gets shamed into driving back to D.C. and dropping Tiger from the payroll, shouldn’t he get shamed into killing the golf-sponsorship budget?

Gorant: It’s called contractual obligation. Short of declaring bankruptcy, they have no way out of the deal. They were lucky Tiger let them off the hook.

Van Sickle: The tour can prop up the Buick events. More amazing is this week’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. After announcing that it was dropping the once-popular PT Cruiser, Chrysler is now down to making only three cars — a minivan, a 300C and I forget the third. They may not be in business much longer. I don’t think the Hope will be on the Tour schedule in 2010. The 50th may well be the final, unfortunately.

Friedman: That’ll teach ’em for ditching George Lopez.

Van Sickle: Alan, any cause for optimism for Retief Goosen, who won the Africa Open? Or is the fact that he wasn’t playing in Abu Dhabi, where they actually had some players, a mitigating factor?

Shipnuck: Last fall he won some small-time event in Malaysia, his first win in nearly two years. He seems to be trying to bolster his confidence against B-teamers, which isn’t a bad strategy, I guess.

Van Sickle: How about our Hawaiian Open champion, Mr. Iowa, Zach Johnson?

Gorant: Zach stomped on any journalistic goodwill Lerner had built by rattling off a Nascar-like list of sponsors to thank. I get what he’s doing, recession and all, but if this is going to become a trend in golf interviews, we got trouble.

Van Sickle: Looks like this conversation has run out of steam. One final note on Johnson’s win. I hereby decree two demerits for every Website and newspaper that uses “Zach Attack” in a headline, and that will be alot of them, because AP was guilty of the crime. (The Golf Channel’s Kraig Kann used the phrase less than two minutes into the recap show.)