What’s ahead in 2009? We convened a meeting of SI senior writers Michael Bamberger, John Garrity, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, plus a PGA Tour player (who participated on the condition that he remain anonymous), and analyzed next season.
THE TIGER FACTOR
Anonymous Pro: There isn’t a player on Tour who doubts that Woods will continue to dominate. He’ll be as good as ever, probably better. It’s going to be a long year for the other top five players in the world.
Van Sickle: So Tiger simply picks up where he left off?
Shipnuck: His record was phenomenal during the 11 months after he hurt his knee and before he had the surgery. I don’t think he hit balls once after a round. It really cut into his preparation and practice time, yet he still won. He can work harder again, which is a scary thought.
Bamberger: Maybe Tiger comes back smaller and takes two miles per hour off his clubhead speed. His only real weakness is erratic driving. I could see him slowing down the driver head slightly, hitting more fairways and winning that way.
Anonymous Pro: The injury might change his swing, but if it does, it’ll make it better. What caused the problem was the aggressiveness of his lower-body action. Notice at the U.S. Open that he never winced on an iron swing, only on his driver swing. If he can get his driver swing to match his iron swing, he may gain more control.
Van Sickle: When will Tiger actually return?
Shipnuck: Everyone thinks Tiger wants to play a couple of tournaments before the Masters, but I could see him showing up at Augusta for his first event. The accompanying buzz would be deafening. He’d make the statement of all statements that, Yes, I am back.
Bamberger: That’s a great call. That buzz and intimidation factor would probably be worth a shot and a half a day to him.
Shipnuck: Tiger likes being Tiger. He knows when he’s creating a Tiger moment, even as it’s happening. If he blows into Magnolia Lane for his return, it’ll be the golf event of all time.
Van Sickle: Didn’t Mark O’Meara say Tiger could be back by Torrey Pines?
Shipnuck: No one knows, but Elin’s due date is around February. So that could be a factor.
Garrity: I’ll take March 3 at 7:30 a.m.
Van Sickle: Are you starting a pool on the baby’s birth or on Tiger’s return?
Garrity: Both. I remember Johnny Miller saying that the most difficult thing for him was having his second-youngest son, Andy, bawling at the end of the driveway when he was leaving to go back on Tour. It’ll be interesting to see whether having a second child makes a difference for Tiger, although I doubt it. Don’t forget, Charlie Chan solved a lot of his cases with honorable Number Two son at his side.
Anonymous Pro: I don’t care that Tiger hasn’t won 18 majors yet, he’s the best player of all time. Tiger won five of seven last year all while his leg was a mess? The only person who’s going to beat Tiger is Tiger, and I don’t see that happening.
Shipnuck: Give him Augusta this year, and then he has a home field advantage at Bethpage, where he won before. Tiger could go from question mark to exclamation point in a hurry. I think he’ll win Augusta. It’s one of those things that’s fated. All the questions about whether he can come back? Augusta will be his answer.
IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Van Sickle: These are scary times. Wall Street has spiraled down. Buick quit supplying courtesy cars and dumped Tiger as spokesman. What’s going on? Is this 1929 in golf terms?
Shipnuck: The Tour is solid for next year, but the economy has to have some glimmers of hope by next summer. That’s when the Tour will be negotiating anew. The Tour was foresighted enough to lock into long-term contracts. It’s really about 2010 and beyond. They can wait out the bad headlines, but if the economy stinks a year from now, that’s a problem.
Anonymous Pro: The economy could affect the Tour more than the Tour lets on. We’re fooling ourselves if we think an event is safe because we have a signed contract. If a company has to lay off workers, defaulting on a $12 million golf-tournament sponsorship instead is an easy choice.
Garrity: During the congressional hearings on the Big Three bailout, what if some senator had thought to hammer the automakers for their frivolous involvement in pro golf and courtesy cars and parties and millions in payouts?
Bamberger: Like Dan Jenkins once wrote, there’s nothing wrong with golf that a good recession couldn’t fix. Fewer tournaments for less money bring out the dog-eat-dog mentality and survival of the fittest. It’s good for us.
Garrity: Tim Finchem could wind up as the Alan Greenspan of professional sports and going before Congress to say, Darn, I didn’t see this coming.
Bamberger: The only way Finchem goes down in flames is if all the pension money goes down with the stock market because General Motors is trading at $3.
Shipnuck: As long as Tiger is healthy and hungry, the Tour is fine. Ten years from now when he has 25 majors and quits, the Tour may be vulnerable. He makes the Tour somewhat recession-proof. He’s the biggest star in the world and moves the needle like nobody else.
Anonymous Pro: There’s some validity to that. What we learned when Tiger didn’t play the last half of ’08 was that nobody watches golf if he’s not playing — especially other players. The FedEx Cup wasn’t interesting and nobody paid any attention to the Fall Series. Personally, I had football on. Long live Tiger.
Bamberger: There are fewer players for Tiger to beat now than there have been at any time in the last 10 years.
Shipnuck: Go back three or four years. Anybody remember the Fab Four? Retief Goosen must be in the witness-protection program or something. Ernie Els is basically done. Vijay Singh hasn’t been a factor in a major in years. And Phil Mickelson‘s career hasn’t been the same since Winged Foot. Yes, we all want Anthony Kim to be the guy, but he may still be a few years away. Sergio Garcia has a lot of brain damage from his close losses. Look at the best of the best who are supposed to challenge Tiger in ’09 — they’re nothing but question marks.
Anonymous Pro: Sergio is the only one of the top players who made significant strides in his game.
Shipnuck: Sergio is on the upswing. His putting is a work in progress but it’s gotten better.
Bamberger: Sergio drives it better than Tiger and probably hits his irons every bit as well. His chipping is close, and he hits it so well, he barely needs to make putts. Vijay won a lot without being a great putter.
Garrity: Does that mean we’re writing off Phil?
Shipnuck: A few people close to Phil said this was the worst putting year he has ever had. You can’t dismiss the fallout from Winged Foot. He hasn’t contended in a major since.
Van Sickle: When he showed up at Torrey Pines without a driver, it made no sense.
Shipnuck: Phil is the alltime great feel player. He’s working with Butch Harmon and Dave Pelz, and he’s almost paralyzed by too much information. Phil and Pelz have a device that measures slope. They’re trying to turn putting into a science when it’s an art. When Phil was winning majors, that was the right formula. Now it seems like the problem.
Garrity: Changing from an instinctive player and doing all that preparation were what got him to winning majors, though. You can’t turn your back on that.
Van Sickle: Phil started winning majors when he mastered a cut shot, got his driver in play and quit putting himself in position to have to hit go-for-broke shots. Maybe the torch has already passed, since Sergio has inched past Phil as No. 2.
Bamberger: How about what Phil did for Anthony Kim at the Ryder Cup? That was unprecedented.
Shipnuck: It reminds me of Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples at the ’91 Ryder Cup. Raymond took Fred under his wing, and in ’92 Fred played his best golf. There was definitely a carryover, and Kim could have that next year, too.
Garrity: I nominate Boo Weekley as a breakout performer in ’09. In the past Boo has used his act as a kind of shield to deflect pressure — “I’m just a country boy with no expectations.” At the Ryder Cup he embraced it the way a showman does and exhibited a whole new level of confidence. Now he might be saying, I don’t need this image as a crutch anymore, I’m Boo Weekley, and I can beat anybody.
Shipnuck: I like Hunter Mahan’s game. When he made that long birdie putt on the 17th hole at the Ryder Cup and went nuts, that was passion no one had seen from him. That could be his missing piece. He has a lot of Couples in him. That emotion could lift him to becoming a great player.
Bamberger: I’ll nominate a blast from the past. Why shouldn’t Adam Scott finally step up?
Shipnuck: It’s a perennial question. There’s no reason he shouldn’t win majors other than he simply hasn’t. I like Robert Karlsson, who played like a madman in the Ryder Cup and won Europe’s money title. John camped out in his mind for a story. He’s a delicate flower.
Van Sickle: Who is, Garrity or Karlsson?
Garrity: Both. Robert blew a tournament in Europe early on, and with his tender psyche that might’ve hounded him in years past. Instead he came back and had his best year.
Anonymous Pro: Karlsson is a great player, but he’s no spring chicken. He’s 39.
Van Sickle: No one has mentioned Camilo Villegas after his late-season charge.
Anonymous Pro: He was overrated before he won those two FedEx Cup events, and a lot of players still think he’s overrated.
Shipnuck: Camilo hits it solid, but he looks mechanical on the greens. I don’t know if you can make yourself a great putter.
Van Sickle: I’ve never seen anyone get so much mileage out of the Spider-Man thing. He wants to look at his putt from ground level and simply doesn’t want to soil his canary slacks.
Shipnuck: So we’re celebrating him for being kind of a sissy?
Van Sickle: Yeah, I’d rather see grass stains and skid marks.
ABOUT THE MAJORS
Bamberger: Augusta National sets up for some semiobscure guy — like Zach Johnson or Brandt Snedeker — to have a great driving and putting week. To me, they have taken the emotion out of the tournament by toughening the course so much.
Van Sickle: The course negates ability because now you make birdies only by accident. They pushed the course to the brink of difficulty, and weather conditions can push it over the edge.
Garrity: If they fix the course the way we want, they may be left, once again, with ridiculously fast greens as the course’s only defense. I didn’t like that, either. Ease back on the course, and a Masters-regulated ball may be the only solution.
Anonymous Pro: I hate to say this, but Augusta is now one of the purest majors we play. With the length, the rough and especially the trees, it’s less of a bomber’s paradise. The trees have changed the course. They have Tiger-proofed it. They’ve taken a lot of the risk out of the course. You have to plod along and play to point A and B and C.
Van Sickle: At the Bethpage Open, Garcia and Harrington were in the mix. It might be fun to see Sergio take another crack at Harrington in a major, maybe in a playoff.
Shipnuck: It’s hard to pick against Tiger. There are courses he has romantic attachments to. Pebble Beach is one. St. Andrews is another. Strangely, Medinah is one. He’s like the first man on the moon. He won the first Open at Bethpage, and he doesn’t want anybody else getting into his little circle.
Bamberger: You’re hitting a lot of long irons into those greens, so you really need height on those shots. Bethpage identifies skill like few courses do because of its elevation changes. It’ll be Tiger or Padraig or Sergio or a big-time player.
Anonymous Pro: I agree. You won’t get a first-time major winner, other than Sergio. It’ll be a proven player. Bethpage is a bomber’s paradise. It’s built for big hitters.
Van Sickle: What about Turnberry?
Bamberger: It’s very easy to sneak on. I’ve done it.
Anonymous Pro: All I know is that the rooms there will probably be $800 a night.
Garrity: It’s ironic that we remember Turnberry for the Duel in the Sun with Nicklaus and Watson and three days of dust, heat and sunburns. People forget that there was a storm in the middle of that week. It can have Birkdale weather — brutal.
Bamberger: I could see Greg Norman getting into contention again there.
Garrity: Absolutely. It’s not about who can hit a specific club on the same trajectory every shot to within half a yard. With the wind whipping and conditions changing, you have to find a way to flight the ball to the hole. Norman demonstrated what a player with those skills can do even if he’s not playing full time.
Van Sickle: If he could get the 54-hole lead in a major just once…
Shipnuck: Here’s the thing on Turnberry. Watson won there. Norman won there. Nick Price won there. The course has a history of identifying the best player at that time.
Bamberger: That’s brilliant.
Van Sickle: So you’re saying Tiger wins that one, too? Three in a row?
Shipnuck: Yeah, then he goes to Hazeltine, where he has big payback for Rich Beem. At the start of this session, we asked if he’ll be the same Tiger. Now we’re considering the Grand Slam.