PGA Tour Confidential: Tiger’s challengers, McIlroy’s rebound and the absolute worst golf shots in history

Rory McIlroy notched his first win of 2013 at the Australian Open, denying Adam Scott the Aussie Triple Crown in the process.
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Every year, we like to speculate about the most likely suspect to supplant Tiger Woods. But as 2014 approaches with Woods in the top spot, THREE players — Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy — look like the main contenders. Of them, who do you think will have the best year?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It's got to be Rory. When he's right, he's got the total game. Remember, the main reason Tiger got back to No. 1 this year is because Rory vanished without a trace until Sunday. Stenson historically is a streaky player, and Scott is not a great putter. Those two are capable of very good years, but Rory has potentially great years in him.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Tough call, but I'll go with Adam Scott. He's had some painful losses, but he seems to handle everything with grace and calm, and comes right back the next week and contends. He's at or near the top every week and with his Masters victory, the proverbial monkey is off his back. Until he's forced to abandon his present putting method, I see him having him several more monster years.  

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): I need to see a bit more consistency out of Rory to put him on a level with the other two. I can imagine Stense winning four or five tourneys, but with Scott playing better in the majors -– he’s turning into a real big-game hunter. So it could lead to the kind of debate we had this year, weighing season-long consistency vs. the import of majors. If I have to choose, I’ll say Scott.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I like Rory to bounce back in 2014. I think he'll win Tiger's tournament at Sherwood this week and keep going. He's going to be hungry and a little angry after the year he just had. 

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Just have a hunch Rory is going to bounce back in a big way. Scott and Stenson are two of the hottest players on the planet, but it's a cyclical game. Rory's year was a bust, but it's not like the talent disappeared. More wins are coming.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): McIlroy. With Stenson distracted by his part-time radio host duties and Scott rattled by the news of Stevie Williams' part-time retirement, how could either of them possibly compete? Seriously, though, I'm a believer in the bounce-back effect, and I expect McIlroy to enjoy it.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think Stenson. Overall, I just think there's less pressure on him than the other two, meaning he might have a better chance of getting out of his own way. Sounds like a good theory until you have to make the shots down the stretch. 

2. Rory McIlroy came from four shots back to capture the Australian Open, birdieing the 18th to win by one over Adam Scott. How much do we make of Rory's win — and how much do we make of Scott's sloppy bogey on the 18th to lose?

BAMBERGER: Closing has always been hard for Scott — it's part of his DNA. McIlroy's win just has a great sound to it: the Australian Open. He won a great national championship. Two down, many to go. I've been lucky enough to caddie in national championships for the United States, Canada, Spain, France, Italy, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and some others. There's a little something extra there.

PASSOV: Nobody should declare that Rory's ready to ascend to No. 1 until there's evidence he can do this again fairly regularly on big occasions — but this win is huge. This wasn't some T2 at the Texas Open. This was a 65 in a significant national Open against the game's hottest player on his home turf. This has to be a massive dose of confidence for Rory, which might be enough to catapult him back to rarified air. Scott didn't hit a great shot into 18, but it wasn't a miss, either. He got a bad bounce into a worse spot, then hit a semi-horrendous chip. Admittedly, it was a tough shot, but he never should have been down there. Not much to criticize about Scott. He was one unlucky bounce away from an Aussie Triple Crown.  

SHIPNUCK: Well, it’s massive for Rory … and golf. This has to free him up, and it propels him into the new year with such a different mindset. We know the kid’s streaky — it would be awesome to see him rip off a few more wins here so we know he is, in fact, back. Per Scott, fatigue (mental, physical, spiritual) was probably a factor, so I’m not inclined to make too much of it. His run down in Oz was truly awesome. But to blow the triple crown on the last hole does reveal that he’s not quite yet a ruthless closer we can always count on.

RITTER: It's continues Rory's recent trend of improved play and offers more evidence that he's coming out of the fog. Not worried about Scott — he's a deserving No. 2 in the world right now.

MORFIT: Scott's many misses with the putter were a reflection of the caliber of player chasing him. As for what we should read into this, I don't normally put much stock in the Australian Open, but I think with everything that's gone down, it's a big deal for Rory. He really needed a win. 

VAN SICKLE: Rory was able to swipe the title because Scott couldn't hole any big putts and because he made the one mistake he couldn't make on 18, and that's hit it long. There, he's on a tight downhill lie chipping back uphill to a pin behind a slope. A bump-and-run chip might've been a better choice, but the real problem was, you can't hit it there. I'd call it a mental mistake as much as anything. 

SENS: The sensible answer is "not too much." But since hyperbole is more fun, let's say it's a sign of doom for Scott, who will soon be on the road to Ian Baker Finch-ville, and an indication that McIlroy is poised for a meteoric rise back to No. 1.

3. Charl Schwartzel defended his Alfred Dunhill title at South Africa's Leopard Creek, his first European Tour win in a year. Are you bullish that Schwartzel can be a top 5 golfer again, or is he one of those mysterious South Africans (see, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace) who flashes brilliance for a spell and then retreats?

VAN SICKLE: I have to admit that Charl and Oosty are enigmas. Their swings, their games and their demeanors say world-beaters, but that obviously isn't happening. Sometimes we underestimate the difficulty of bouncing back from life-changing major championships and the fame that goes with it, especially if the winners are from small towns or are introverts. It's hard to get that same urgency and desire back after winning a Masters, say, as Charl and Bubba Watson did. Nobody wins a Powerball jackpot and says, “Boy, I can't wait to go out and win another one!”

MORFIT: I'm not holding my breath. He seems a bit too mercurial to get up there in the top five, and it's going to get crowded at the top in 2014 with the players mentioned above. 

SHIPNUCK: He certainly has top 5 talent. His struggles this year may be an aberration because he was nicked-up with various physical maladies. I think Grace overachieved there for a while — he’s not in the same class as Charl and King Louis. Oosthuizen’s interest level comes and goes, whereas I think Charl is more dedicated to maximizing his considerable potential. Let’s see what a healthy Schwartzel does in ’14 before we render a verdict.

SENS: The only really mysterious thing here is why he spells his first name like that. Other than that, Schwartzel's varied results have less to do with nationality than they do with the fickle nature of golf. Lots of guys show flashes of world-beating brilliance only to retreat back into the pack. It's just so hard to stay dominant, and it makes you marvel at what Tiger has done all the more.

RITTER: He's got a sweet swing and one major title, but not sure I see Charl as the next Ernie. I think he'll continue to pop up on leader boards and snag the occasional title … but how bad does he want it? Top 5 guys need that extra drive.

PASSOV: In winning the 2011 Masters in such dramatic, impressive fashion, Schwartzel looked like he had top five written all over him for years, given that pure swing and alpha attitude. He and Oosthuizen have battled on-and-off serious injury problems, and I know that in tossing away the South African Open title the week before, it came to glaring light that he's had real trouble in fourth rounds this year. Perhaps this win will kick-start his campaign to regain his elite status.  

BAMBERGER: Charl is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, or his golf scores are, anyway. He always looks like he's shooting 68. 

4. In a casual round a couple of weeks back, Bubba Watson went around California's Pelican Hill in 81 strokes — using only a hybrid. Fifty years ago, the British pros staged a 7-club event at Turnberry in Scotland. The winner finished 4-over-par for 72 holes. Would you watch a silly season event using such a format? What inventive shotmaker on tour would be the favorite?

SHIPNUCK: Oh, hell yes! That’d be great TV. Bubba would be tough to beat, but I’d also like Phil’s chances. Tiger, too, if he was into it.

BAMBERGER: Silly season? How about in the prime of the year? Four clubs would be ideal, seven tops, and I'd put the players on a strict shot clock and watch them shoot 70 in about three hours. 

SENS: Yes. I'd watch. Just as I watched in the '80s when Faldo and Seve went head to head in the one-club classic, armed only with 5-irons. It was good fun then, and it would be good fun today. What I'd really like to see, though, is more every-day golfers playing with fewer clubs. It would speed up play (less indecision) and increase creativity, and I doubt many people would score much worse.

RITTER: Sure, why not? There's more room for silly season to become sillier, and an 18-hole event like this would be a blast to watch. Bubba would be a runaway favorite, and I'd love to see Phil challenge him.

VAN SICKLE: One-club tournaments were revived in Milwaukee during my sportswriting days at The Journal and I covered (and competed in) a couple of them. I saw Tuckaway CC pro Terry Beardsley win the first one with an impressive 76 using only a 4-iron, as I recall. I'd watch a one-club silly season event, although I'd prefer to see the pros be allowed to putt with an actual putter for scoring purposes. I'd make Tiger Woods the favorite, in the unlikely event he could be enticed to play.

PASSOV: You ever watch the glee that these guys display when they're asked to show off these types of skills? How could this not be totally entertaining? It's hard to pick against Tiger, so I would envision a three-way playoff with Woods, Mickelson and Bubba, with Tiger taking the crown. If we held it at Turnberry, I'd put 64-year-old Tom Watson in the mix. He'd love this format.

MORFIT: I'd watch a one-club challenge. As for who would win, I'd pick someone with a lot of patience and a sense of humor. Maybe Graeme McDowell?

5. Alan Shipnuck's recent Golf Magazine story about Eddie Lowery asked the question: why isn't Lowery, caddie to Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open, member of the USGA executive committee and organizer of the legendary Match at Cypress Point, in the World Golf Hall of Fame? Should Lowery be in the Hall? What about other caddies?

SHIPNUCK: Lowery is a special case because of his many, many contributions to the game besides caddying. If you’re gonna have the likes of George H.W. Bush and Ken Schofield in the Hall, he certainly belongs. But I’d like to see a few true loopers make it, too. There’s no question they’re part of the folklore of the sport, and they have an effect on the competition at the highest level. I’d start with Tip Anderson and Bruce Edwards. Certainly Stevie and Bones warrant consideration, too.

SENS: Sure. Other sports halls have opened themselves to a wider spectrum of candidates (broadcasters, announcers, umpires, etc.) and the diversity has added character to the exhibits. Lowery has a good story and he left an important mark on the game. As long as the World Golf Hall of Fame is revisiting its criteria, it's worth broadening the lens. Carl Jackson is another who comes to mind. He had a lot to do with Crenshaw's second Masters win.

BAMBERGER: I'd put in Butch Harmon and Sandy Tatum and — years from now when the memories are not so raw — Steve Williams before Eddie Lowery. Eddie Lowery led a great golfing life, but it was in the shadows of the main stage. My friends Fred Anton and Jim Finegan have done about the same. Not every remarkable life has to be honored with a plaque. The joy of having lead the life should be enough. You can read about Eddie all day long. Plus, the man's on a stamp.

RITTER: Lowery's story is an important part of golf history, and therefore he deserves a place in the Hall. I'd apply this same test to other caddies. I think Stevie would go in, and there are probably a few others.

PASSOV: Sure, Eddie Lowry should be in the Hall. Why does the Hall have to be solely about the greatest players in tournament golf? The World Golf Hall of Fame should honor people who have made the most significant contributions to golf, whatever their relationship to the game.

MORFIT: Ouimet is part of the story of the game, as is Lowery, but to a lesser extent. The question is: if Lowery gets in, then where do you stop? There are a lot of famous caddies like Angelo (Jack), Herman (Trevino), Bruce Edwards (Watson). And most every great player has a supporting cast that becomes well known just by being constantly near the spotlight. 

VAN SICKLE: Eddie Lowery was part of an historic moment. Does the mere act of toting Ouimet's bag make him a Hall of Famer? Should Chi Chi Rodriguez be in the Hall of Fame for being an "ambassador" of golf? What about Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby? I'm not opposed to opening the Hall's doors to all sorts of golf-related types as long as they're placed in separate areas and not among the players, the real Hall of Famers. As far as including caddies, who really knows how good or effective any specific caddie is except for his or her player? The public, the media and even most other players would be ill-qualified to choose the honorees. 

6. Perhaps the shot of the year for 2013 (we didn't say which category) was Chi Chi Rodriguez's recent glass-backboard-to-groin effort in Puerto Rico. What's the worst result from a golf shot you've ever seen?

SHIPNUCK: I saw a dude kill a squirrel once at Rec Park in Long Beach, Calif. Furry little guy never saw it coming.

MORFIT: The worst result from a golf shot I've seen was either Van de Velde hitting the grandstand railing at the British, Phil hitting the railing at the Masters, or Tiger hitting the flagstick at the Masters. As for the type of result that befell poor Chi-Chi, I saw a guy blade one into another guy's shin at the VA nine-holer in Palo Alto, which sadly is no longer a golf course. 

RITTER: It was my buddy Brian Hutcherson, it happened three years ago, it was amazing, and it's right here.

VAN SICKLE: The Worst Shot Ever came during the Greater Milwaukee Open's media long-drive event on a Tuesday afternoon at Tuckaway CC. A sports department editor from the Milwaukee Sentinel took his turn and hit down on the ball so badly with his driver that he drove the ball straight into the soft turf and as the clubhead passed over the spot, the ball popped back and up and landed a foot behind where he had teed it up. He must've hit the ball with the driver's sole plate, I supposed, but the mechanics of that shot are amazing. You couldn't duplicate the effect if you tried.

PASSOV: I've seen the accounts of folks getting killed or maimed from golf shots, snapped shafts and such, which may or may not be funny, depending on what sort of sick sense of humor you have operating. If I had a few hours with this, I could probably pull some seriously wrong shots from my memory bank, but for now I'll go with my college roommate back in 1981, snap-hooking a tee shot on the third hole at Tucson's Randolph Park's South course (now Dell Urich Golf Course) onto 22nd Street, hitting a car windshield and causing a two-car accident. Ah, the fun we had as sophomores. 

SENS: In 1981, at Newton Commonwealth Golf Course outside Boston, I hit a giant banana slice off the elevated 18th tee and watched as the ball ballooned toward a parking lot crowded with cars. "Well," I said to my playing partner, "there goes somebody's windshield." I finished the round, had a drink in the clubhouse and went to my car a half-hour later to find its front windshield shattered and my ball sitting in my front seat. Poetic justice, I guess.

BAMBERGER: Same as Cheech. It was 1977. Still stings.

The PGA Tour Confidential debate continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.