What can we expect from Tiger Woods after a 12-week hiatus? Why did he fire his caddie? Is pro golf entering a new era? Who’s the player of the year? What’s the deal with the Atlanta Athletic Club? And who will win the final major of 2011? Sports Illustrated convened a panel of golf experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, as well as special contribautor John Garrity — and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to take up these and other questions
The Firing Line
Van Sickle: The wait is over. Tiger Woods comes back this week to play the Bridgestone in Akron and then the PGA Championship in Atlanta. What should we expect?
Hack: Who knows what to expect from Tiger? Does Tiger even know what to expect from Tiger? In the old days he wouldn’t show up unless he thought he could win. These days it may simply be about finishing a tournament.
Bamberger: I’m not surprised by Tiger’s return. The boredom must be killing him. Tiger wants his old life back — the good bits, as David Feherty would say. The only way to do that is to play golf, win valuable prizes and shower in the applause of the awed.
Shipnuck: That’s right. Tiger has had enough time watching SportsCenter. Dude must be dying to play golf. In Tiger’s mind he’s going to win the PGA to salvage his season and silence his critics. That’s how the guy thinks.
Hack: I’m surprised he’s coming back in 2011. But he can’t catch Jack if he keeps skipping majors. With the rust, the swing changes and the potential for reinjury, I don’t see how Tiger winds up in contention. It would be a great story if he did, but this feels like a lost year to me.
Garrity: Have we forgotten that Tiger finished fourth in the last two Masters with his C-minus game? I get it that he’s only a shadow of the golfer he was in 2000, but Tiger’s shadow can spot most pros a stroke a side and still get it done if it’s fit. If Tiger’s shadow limps to the 1st tee, all bets are off. I can see him contending in Atlanta. Yes, he’s rusty, and yes, he has to ask Human Resources to hire him a new best friend. But he’s still Tiger.
Shipnuck: Tiger would have a better chance if this were the Masters, where he has a home field advantage and the short game is paramount. You have to figure that Tiger’s chipping and putting will be sharp, given that’s all he’s been able to do the last two months as far as we know. But Atlanta Athletic Club is long and tight, mandating good ball striking. Tiger used to have the best head in golf. If anyone can fix his swing simply by thinking about it, Tiger is the guy.
Garrity: He may still have the best head in golf, but he has the worst tempo. When he fixes that, he won’t need to use his brain so much.
Van Sickle: Well, he won’t be able to rely on caddie Steve Williams. He has been deep-sixed. What do you think about their breakup?
Garrity: If Tiger had fired his caddie and dumped his agent in the wake of the sex scandal, it would have been a smart move and proof that Tiger was shaking up his roster. But Tiger chose Mark Steinberg over IMG, so dumping Stevie can’t be interpreted as cleaning house. It looks like Tiger settling another score for some perceived act of disloyalty. If I were Tiger’s dog, I wouldn’t get too attached to that oceanfront doghouse.
Anonymous Pro: I think Tiger made a big mistake. Steve was the one constant in all of those majors they won together.
Van Sickle: I don’t see one of his entourage of buddies as a long-term solution.
Bamberger: Tiger and Stevie had an unbelievable run, the most successful caddie-player partnership of all time. Steve is a brooding, negative presence who didn’t make Tiger better with the public or the media. Tiger should have a caddie who helps his public life. I think it’s time to hire Notah Begay, his college teammate.
Shipnuck: Begay would be great. He knows golf, obviously, and more important, he knows Tiger. They’re almost blood brothers. Tiger talks about Stanford like it was the two best years of his life. Notah took Tiger under his wing. He would be a great de facto spokesperson for all things Tiger.
Anonymous Pro: Stevie did a lot more than just caddie. He was bodyguard, traffic control, paparazzi watch. Tiger has to train a new guy to do all that. I don’t see him finding a guy in the parking lot to do what Stevie did. Nobody else on Tour needs what Tiger needs in a caddie. He doesn’t need help with his golf. He needs a bodyguard who can maybe read putts. Hell, I’d caddie for him.
Shipnuck: Like it or not, the sport misses Tiger. With his body breaking down, we’ve all pondered his mortality as a player. I think people will be very happy to see him back between the ropes.
The Year That Was
Van Sickle: Three majors, three different winners this year. So what have we learned?
Shipnuck: It’s the most wide-open the sport has been in this century. Tiger’s absence created such a vacuum. The old standbys — Phil [Mickelson], Ernie [Els] and Jim Furyk — are in the twilight of their careers. You don’t know who the favorites are, even at the majors. The somewhat eclectic winners are proof.
Garrity: This year strikes me as a generational shift. It’s not only Rory McIlroy’s emergence. It’s also the solid play of Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson and the inability of the bigger names to dominate. When Ernie and Sergio García have sympathy fans, you know there’s been a changing of the guard.
Bamberger: If it’s one and done, like Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis, then it’s not very interesting. If it’s one and they’re going to be competitive for a long time, like Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf and Lee Trevino were, then we’re talking about a potential golden age. We don’t know yet which this is, but I’d guess Rory and Charl Schwartzel will be around for a long time.
Anonymous Pro: Golf has turned into musical chairs at the top. There’s no great gap between Number 1 and Number 2 or even Number 8. There’s so much parity, any of 50 guys could win a major. Before, there might have been 25.
Shipnuck: Parity is great for a while. You mint new stars, and players elevate their careers and gain confidence. That’s fun. But at some point you need a dominant player to drive the sport’s narrative. If we’re still trying to figure out the lay of the land two years from now, golf could be in trouble.
Hack: Is golf better when one guy dominates? I don’t think golf ever had better exposure or TV ratings or purses than since a certain dominant figure arrived in 1997. People like to root for dynasties and see them challenged, whether it’s Michael Phelps or John Wooden or the Lakers.
Van Sickle: King Louis [Oosthuizen] winning the British Open last year in a romp was fun, the baseball equivalent of seeing the Pittsburgh Pirates in first place. This is star-building time in golf. We know what happens when the Tour has two stars who become big — there isn’t room for anyone else. It’s exciting but not necessarily healthy.
Garrity: Tiger’s dominance was great for the media and the cult of celebrity, but he apparently didn’t inspire people to take up the game. He was this genius, a Mozart, who raised the bar so high that normal folk were left with nothing to do but gawk. And by normal folk I mean Tour players.
Hack: Someone has to emerge. We have guys at Numbers 1 and 2 who haven’t won a major.
Anonymous Pro: Look at Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman — the guys who used to be Number 1. They couldn’t go out in public without being recognized. Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer could walk into a GolfSmith store and hardly be recognized. Being Number 1 doesn’t mean what it used to.
Van Sickle: We still can’t figure out who should be the Number 1 player in the world. Here’s a tougher question: Who is the player of the year for 2011?
Bamberger: The player who has probably played the best is Nick Watney. There’s no question that Rory McIlroy has had the most impact. So my answer would be Rory.
Shipnuck: Sorry, boys, the POY has to be Luke Donald. He’s never out of the Top 10, has three big-time wins and in sudden death he slayed the then Number 1, Lee Westwood, to ascend to the throne. The big knock is that after Luke’s great run at the Masters, his U.S. and British Opens were disappointing. He needs a strong PGA to quiet the murmurs about his struggles in the majors.
Van Sickle: By strong PGA, I assume you mean he needs to win the PGA. I’m going with Luke, also.
Anonymous Pro: I don’t think there is a player of the year. Everyone I’d pick played like crap at the British Open. I guess I’d pick Rory. He was pretty good at Augusta for 54 holes, then he blew everyone away at Congressional, and he made the cut, at least, at the Open. He’s clearly the best player in the world.
Garrity: If Rory wins anything the rest of the year, and that includes the Rye Golf Club’s member-guest, he’s my player of the year. Otherwise, I’ll go with Yani Tseng.
Hack: I’m going with Rory. He had the Sunday meltdown at Augusta, he missed the cut at Quail Hollow and then won a major by eight shots in a U.S. Open. That’s the story of the year. No one is going to eclipse that.
Bamberger: No one who isn’t named Phil or Tiger, anyway.
And Home of the Braves
Shipnuck: Atlanta is an O.K. town, but I sure as heck don’t want to be there in August. It’s going to be a sauna.
Van Sickle: So you’re not pumped for the PGA Championship?
Shipnuck: Besides the physical discomfort for the fans and players, it affects the playing field. You have to water the greens to keep them alive when it’s that hot, so AAC will play soft and easy. We already saw that at the U.S. Open. I’d like a more exacting test.
Bamberger: As a golf destination, Atlanta has three things I love. There’s the Bobby Jones muni course, very reasonable and playable and fun. There’s Druid Hills, an old-timey course that’s a lot of fun, if you can get on it. And there’s East Lake, home to the Tour Championship, which is fantastic. The course is terrific, and the clubhouse basically has a Bobby Jones museum inside. It’s brilliant.
Van Sickle: You’re leaving out College Park, a nine-hole public course by the airport. The 9th hole is a steeply uphill par-5 that bends left around the range. They had to put up huge nets along the fairway — a giant fence, basically — to avoid casualties. It’s so bad it’s good. But what about AAC and the PGA?
Hack: It’s not one of my favorite courses, but I do remember some shots from the 2001 PGA there. I recall Shingo Katayama, wearing that cowboy hat, skipping a shot over the pond. Plus, David Toms and that hole in one, and his decision to lay up on 18 on the final hole to win.
Van Sickle: Don’t forget the hole where a fan told Phil his putt was slower than it looked. That threw him off, and he three-putted.
Anonymous Pro: The course is just O.K., but I’m intrigued to see how it plays now. I read they’ve gone to a different grass on the tees and fairways that’s more heat-resistant and should stay firmer and faster. Before, your ball exploded when it landed on the soft bentgrass greens. They have a new grass that grows slower so they have to cut the greens only twice a week. It sounds interesting. But still, there are a lot of better courses the PGA could’ve gone to.
Hack: Exactly. When you have Augusta National a few hours away and East Lake a few exits away, it’s tough to get excited about Atlanta Athletic Club.
Garrity: Atlanta Athletic Club hosted the most dismal tournament I have ever covered, the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open, during which Patty Sheehan blew a gigantic lead in the last 27 holes to lose by a stroke to Betsy King. Both finished in tears.
The Nearly Men
Van Sickle: Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson had chances to win the British Open but came up short on the final nine. Do you view that positively or negatively?
Hack: I was impressed with how Dustin played. He does seem to have this fatalistic streak, though. The one hole with out-of-bounds at Royal St. George’s, he found it with a two-iron. That’s a little troublesome.
Shipnuck: What Dustin and Phil have in common is that they’re not tortured by their near misses, they just keep coming back for more. That’s an enviable trait in a sport in which you’ve had a great year if you fail in only 90 percent of your tournaments.
Bamberger: Dustin is a huge talent. His length is off the charts. He doesn’t have the maturity or sophistication of some players who are younger, like Rory. He’s more like a supertalented college kid. The way to win majors, at least for everyone but Tiger, is to contend. If you contend in enough majors, like Dustin is doing, you’re going to win one.
Van Sickle: Dustin has had a chance to win three of the four majors already. We saw that same trend before with a kid named McIlroy. How’d that turn out?
Shipnuck: Dustin is the straightest hitter among the megabombers. His putting is very streaky, which is another way of saying he has some lousy putting weeks. But he’s going to turn up at a major with a hot putter a few times and win going away.
Bamberger: Look how he has handled the disappointments, the U.S. Open and the PGA last year. He has really shown what they call “bounce-ability” in baseball.
Anonymous Pro: How many more chances can Dustin kick away before it starts to affect him? If he plays well at the PGA, everybody is going to be waiting on the final nine for the Big Screwup, even him. He’ll be thinking, What’s going to happen this time? Unless he has a huge lead, like Rory did at Congressional.
Van Sickle: What about his pal, Phil? He threw away four or five shots on missed short putts at the British. And he’s been doing that on a regular basis. It has to be discouraging for him.
Bamberger: Who’s Exhibit A in that? Fred Couples. Even from age 40 to 51 and with all the back problems, Fred’s ball striking was so unbelievably pure, he could’ve won another Masters if he had putted like he was 35. The fact is, no one at 45 putts like they did at 25.
Anonymous Pro: I didn’t know how many short putts Phil missed until ESPN showed them in a highlight package. He must’ve missed a dozen putts inside five feet. That’s a glaring weakness. I’ve said it before, he couldn’t pick a harder putter for short putts. He might as well use Calamity Jane. Every putt he misses is a push because he’s trying to keep the toe from slamming shut and hitting a pull. He has a slow release on a 15-footer, so he can make those all day long. On the short putts he holds on to keep the face square. It’s like trying to stop a gate from swinging shut.
Bamberger: With good short putting, who’s your 2011 Masters champion? Tiger Woods. With good short putting, who’s your 2010 Masters champion? Tiger Woods. But he hasn’t putted like Tiger Woods used to putt. He’s the oldest 35-year-old pro golfer in history. Phil is the same way. They’ve both been playing hard since their mid-teens.
Shipnuck: Those close to Phil have been saying he’s finally back to being the old Phil after the cancer traumas with his wife and his mom. Phil was positively chipper on Sunday evening at Royal St. George’s despite that ugly back nine. With his talent and a rekindled desire, even if he does miss a few short ones, he can still win majors.
Van Sickle: Before we make our picks, who would you most like to see win the PGA?
Bamberger: Dustin Johnson. He has knocked on the door enough, he has earned the right and handled his near misses with remarkable grace.
Anonymous Pro: I’ll take Dustin too. I’d like to see him get redemption for a freaky run of misfortune in the majors, just so we can quit talking about it.
Garrity: The effusive Edoardo Molinari, because his celebration might rival that of Robert Benigni, who climbed over a dozen rows of theater seats to accept his Oscar.
Shipnuck: I’m feeling really sorry for Westwood. He has been busting his tail for years to peak at the majors, then his old pal Darren Clarke gets off the couch with a Guinness mustache and makes winning one look easy. Before that, all these snot-nosed kids that Westy mentored — King Louis, Charl, Rory — broke through. Westy’s face is going to break from all those forced smiles.
Hack: I’d like to see Rickie Fowler do it so we have matching 22-year-olds with major victories. In the last roundtable we talked about a possible Luke Donald-Rory rivalry. I’d much rather see a Rickie-Rory rivalry. They have a history going back to the Walker Cup. It would be great for U.S. golf, a tremendous return of serve to Northern Ireland. Imagine the buildup to Augusta.
The Winner Is…
Bamberger: I’d really like to pick David Toms, who won the last time the PGA was in Atlanta 10 years ago and hasn’t seemed to age. He has played beautifully at times this year but also has had nagging injuries. So by default I’ll go with his modern equivalent, Luke Donald. Like Toms, Luke plots his way around a course and putts out of a golf dream.
Van Sickle: Way to go out on a limb, Michael, and pick the Number 1-ranked player in the world. Gutsy.
Garrity: I’m officially off the Robert Karlsson bandwagon. Rory McIlroy is your winner. We know he likes soft, target-golf setups.
Shipnuck: The course is a great setup for Dustin Johnson, who can play pedal-to-the-metal golf. I’d love to see DJ snag a major and let him and Rory go at it for the next decade and a half.
Van Sickle: I like Dustin’s chances too. This is a big-hitter’s course, and Dustin is the biggest hitter out there.
Anonymous Pro: Along with Rory, Dustin has the best chance to do something crazy-good in this game. He is a high-ball hitter on a big course. It’s a good match. I’d just like to see him seem more motivated. Sometimes he looks like he’s in a hurry to finish so he can go boating or something.
Hack: Phil Mickelson is my pick. That front-nine 30 at Royal St. George’s opened my eyes. Phil unlocked something there. I think he brought that good mojo home with him.
Van Sickle: You have a loose definition of “good mojo.”
Hack: Well, Phil has some unfinished business at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Garrity: Really? Then Phil has unfinished business at a dozen other courses too. I’ll start with Winged Foot, then.