PGA Tour Confidential: Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods at the British Open, plus Jordan Spieth and Muirfield controversy

July 15, 2013

Every Sunday night, writers and editors from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine have an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below. This week PGA Tour pro, British Open contestant and amateur astro-photographer Jimmy Walker joins our panel.

1. Which Phil Mickelson shows up at Muirfield: the one who sloppily three-putted the last to fall into a playoff at the Scottish Open or the guy who played a brilliant chip shot to beat Branden Grace in the playoff?

Jimmy Walker, PGA Tour pro and British Open contestant: Phil is one of the better golfers of all time, and I know he wants to contend and win. I'm pretty sure he will show up ready to roll. Takes serious stuff to 3-putt and then hit the shots he did. That's why he has so many wins.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Both! That's what makes Phil so exciting to watch: you never know what you're going to get from one hole to the next. But clearly he has a new affinity and flair for links golf and I expect him to contend.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The question about Phil is, Can he focus for 72 holes at Muirfield? It's asking a lot. You don't have to play genius golf to win there. But you can't call asleep for a moment.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine: The brilliant Mickelson will show up at Muirfield. True, he's still nursing his U.S. Open hangover (to a degree) and has but two lifetime top 10s in British Opens, but you know what? He's played great this year on the PGA Tour — one smashing win and several close calls. There's truly no pressure on him here. With the weather expected to be mild, he'll contend.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Sorry, but after seeing what happened at Merion and on the 72nd hole at the Scottish Open, I just don't see Phil winning. He's a lot like Tiger — he wants to win majors too badly. The three-putt at Castle Stuart was inexcusable. What's going to happen when the pressure is really ramped up?

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Flip a coin. On the surface, the short-game creativity required to win an Open would seem to favor Phil, but he's only come close in this event once. And yet he belongs on the short list of favorites, because of how well he's currently playing, and for his flair for surprising us when we least expect it.

Mike Walker, senior editor, I think we’ll see Good Mickelson at the Open. It’s taken much longer than it should have, but links golf has finally captured Mickelson’s imagination. More important than his Bad Mickelson moments on Sunday was how he responded, especially on the playoff hole.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: What will Phil do next, in other words? I'm pretty sure both Phils will show up at Muirfield. If he was a hockey player, his plus-minus rating wouldn't be good but you'd never look away when he took the ice.

2. Jordan Spieth outlasted Zach Johnson and David Hearn in a playoff at the John Deere Classic to become the first teenage Tour winner in 82 years. Afterward Spieth said he was excited to punch his ticket to the British Open. Johnson has said that the British Open is his favorite major as well. Is it possible to prepare for a Scottish links on a parkland course six time zones away in Illinois?

JIMMY WALKER: Congrats to Jordan! Pretty amazing. It seems he is at the top every week. As for Zach and preparing for British, Ive never played in one so it is hard for me to talk about preparing. Golf is golf. There is a tee box and a green with a hole. It is about executing shots. So far I can tell there are many more options on how to play a shot in an Open compared to golf played at home.

BAMBERGER: Sure you can, because if you're hot you're hot. Good vibes trumps sleep.

VAN SICKLE: How many players at John Deere are really hell-bent intent on winning the British Open? Not that many because it's better prep to already be over there, adjusting to the firm turf and the surroundings and the time change. Jack's plan was always to spend a couple of days at the course a week before to get the surroundings figured out and that worked pretty well for him. Showing up Monday badly jet-lagged for a couple of days is poor prep for any tourney.

PASSOV: I would think you'd want to have a week in the same time zone and have your links adjustments already made by the time the Open starts. I mean, these guys ARE good, but they're even better with preparation.

GODICH: I don’t think it will be that big a factor. Golf is all about hitting shots and making putts. There's no reason Zach can't take the momentum he built across the pond.

MIKE WALKER: There are many quirks in the PGA Tour schedule, but the Illinois-to-UK jump is one of the strangest.

SHIPNUCK: Obviously it's not ideal, but Zach is supporting his hometown tournament and that's never going to change. The bottom line is good golf is good golf regardless of the playing field. He just needs to get over there and get used to the turf and the time zone change and he will be fine.

3. Tiger Woods says his elbow is fine and he's ready to go. He also says the key at Muirfield will be to stay out of the rough, which, left unsaid, could re-injure the elbow. What’s the more likely result for Tiger this week: A win, a missed cut or a WD?

JIMMY WALKER: Tiger is Tiger. I don't think we have gotten a candid response in a while. Who knows how he is doing? Only him. I hope he is fine and he shows up ready to play.

SHIPNUCK: Of those three options, a win. I don't see Tiger missing the cut or withdrawing, but I don't see him winning either. He'll probably grind out a backdoor top 10 and say he's close.

VAN SICKLE: Tiger has a history of thinking he's Superman and pushing through injuries. He's surely learned now that he isn't. Still, it's hard not to be concerned about his elbow. Maybe that'll give him incentive to hit every fairway. A missed cut may be the most likely of those three options but I wouldn't rule out a win. Muirfield's history is one of identifying the game's best player of the day. That's been Tiger until recently.

GODICH: Well, I don't see Tiger missing the cut and I don't see him winning, so I guess I have to take the WD by default. That said, he'll be smart when he plays shots out of the hay.

MIKE WALKER: Win is the most likely. As wise as he says he is about injuries now, if Tiger thinks he can win this Open, he’ll play with one arm.

PASSOV: A win. Now there's a guy who knows how to prepare for a major. With firm and fast conditions expected, he can hit all of his bunt shots and stay out of trouble.

RITTER: I just don't see Tiger ending his major drought now after a month away from competition. Almost feels like the planets have aligned for another lost major. He'll play through the pain, but an MC seems more likely than a win.

BAMBERGER: Well, to take the choices literally, a win. He's won 14 majors. He has, what, not even a handful of WDs and MCs in all 60+ majors in which he has played.

4. There is approximately zero conversation about Rory McIlroy's prospects for contending in or winning the upcoming Open. Would you be extremely surprised, somewhat surprised or not at all surprised to see Rory rediscover his game at Muirfield?

JIMMY WALKER: I walked by Rory yesterday — man, it seems he is getting thicker. Working out more? Not sure. I don't follow him much except that he signed a very large new contract. That is a lot to live up to. To me it's funny hearing people say, "Can you believe he did that?" I always say, "Yes, I can." He couldn't pass it up, and you wouldn't either. I think Rory will be all right. He has accomplished a lot very early and fast. He has a lot of pressure on him and I think he is still growing up. It would be good for golf for him to show up strong at Open.

VAN SICKLE: Rory has had time to get away from it all and regroup. I can't think of many players who have been able to put out two fires at once — the driver and the putter. So despite the last three years when he's looked like the game's new boy king, I won't be surprised if he doesn't contend. Also, Muirfield is nothing like the sprawling, soft courses he won his first two majors on.

BAMBERGER: I would not be at all surprised to see Rory contend or even win. Like the song says, it's just a shot away.

SHIPNUCK: Somewhat, given how lost he has looked. But we all know Rory is flammable and one of these weeks he's gonna find his old Dorm. It would be great for him and the game if it happens at Muirfield. But I'm not counting on it.

GODICH: The lack of chatter might be just what Rory needs, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him turn it around. Let's not forget this is the guy who imploded at the Masters in 2011, then won in a romp at the U.S. Open at Congressional.

MIKE WALKER: Even in the best of times, exacting Muirfield would really test McIlroy’s game. Wouldn’t be surprised to see him play well, but would be shocked to see him in final group on Sunday.

PASSOV: Extremely surprised. Sure, many veterans seem to rediscover the magic once they get to a site and get in the hunt (see “Crenshaw, Ben” and “Els, Ernie”), but there seems to be no positive mojo surrounding Rory and his game right now. He did turn it around last summer in eye-blink fashion, but even with benign weather, the Open is the least likely event to see a Rory recovery, given his lack of love for less-than-optimum conditions. He's the anti-Tom Watson.

5. Some British officials have weighed in against Muirfield’s men-only membership policy. Will this controversy overshadow the 2013 British Open in the way Augusta National’s all-male membership threatened to overshadow the event before the club admitted two women members in 2012? Should it?

JIMMY WALKER: I had no idea about the club's policies. They are a private club and they should be able to do what they want. I personally think it is a dumb policy, but why would you want to be a member somewhere where you don't seem to be welcomed? I'm sure women play golf at Muirfield on a daily basis. People and groups get bored and look for a fight, and a worldwide event is always a good target. You have to be ready to deal with it. You have to own it. Augusta was fine before the media deal, and they are fine now.

PASSOV: Puh-leese! "I'm shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here," said Capt. Renault to Humphrey Bogart's Rick in "Casablanca." Is this really news? Open rota venues are announced years in advance. Where was the outrage that greeted the announcement? I'm in full agreement that this issue should be discussed and debated–but not now. It might be an issue next week, but it shouldn't be.

BAMBERGER : Muirfield can do what it wants (says a guy who is a member of a men's club and whose wife is a member of a women's club). The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, as administrators of the game, I think are in a different spot.

SHIPNUCK: It's less odious than Augusta's stance was given that Murifield is not a de facto ruling body like the National, but it's still pretty obnoxious. I think this year's Masters proved that these ancient institutions will not crumble if women are allowed to grace the grounds as equals. It's silly that we're even taking about this in 2013.

MIKE WALKER: The R&A needs to stop going to Muirfield and other clubs that exclude women for its Open Championship, which is really the world’s championship. The clubs are free to do what they like, but men’s-only membership policies are against the spirit of sports in the 21st century.

VAN SICKLE: It's already too late to overshadow this Open. Martha Burk hijacked the Masters months before the tournament. No one has done likewise in the U.K., where women's issues lag well behind the U.S. It'll be an issue, and maybe some celebrity will spice it up with some outspoken comments, but unless there are hundreds of protesters (I doubt that), Peter Dawson of the R&A has already dodged this issue for another year. Too bad. The R&A needs to join the 20th century already.

GODICH: Too late. The protesters should have made this an issue when Muirfield was awarded the event. Once the golf starts…

6. Who are your three dark horses for the Open Championship? (Can be to win, place or show.)

JIMMY WALKER: I like a guy born in windy Oklahoma who has played firm, drought-ridden golf courses in Texas for many years. I wouldn't consider him a "dark" horse, but maybe that's a good word to describe his hobby. If he finds the fairways he should be good to go. You guys are smart cookies. I'm sure you can figure out his name.

SHIPNUCK: Horschel, Grace, Harrington.

RITTER: I've been in Scotland now for a couple of days — it's been rough — and sources (read: gossipy caddies) tell me that Ernie Els was out playing Muirfield every day last week, and he looks great. Can you be a dark horse when you're the defending champion at an event, AND at the course? (Els won here in '02) I say yes, and he leads my list. Two others: Day and Dufner.

VAN SICKLE: My Three Dark Horsemen of the Apocalypse are: Jimmy Walker, easily the best astro-photographer in the field; Chris Wood; and underrated Canadian Graham DeLaet.

MIKE WALKER: Looking forward to watching Nick Faldo and Tom Watson battle for low geezer but I like the young guys Matteo Manassero and Jordan Spieth as dark horses.

PASSOV: Jordan Spieth to win, Rickie Fowler to place (31, T5, T11 the last three years) and Thomas Aiken to show (T7 in '12, 8 in '09, a win at the European Tour's Avantha Masters in '13).

GODICH: Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, of course.

BAMBEGER: Dark: Prof. Jimmy Walker! Darker: Mr. Ben Curtis. Darkest: Old Tom Watson.

Check back Wednesday for British Open picks in a special “British Open Confidential Extra!” on