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.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: OK, let the nonsense begin. First up is the Transitions, where Retief Goosen took control with an eagle on No. 11 and played pretty airtight golf to close it out on a tough track, finishing with a very clutch par putt on the 72nd hole. This was his third victory in his last 11 worldwide starts. None have been against big-time fields, but a win is still a win. Are we ready to declare that Goose is back? (Even I won’t dredge up the Big 5, circa 2005.)
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He was the Shinnecock Goose this week, getting up and down from everywhere and making a mile of putts. He recently dropped 20 pounds after being guilted into it by Gary Player, who still does pushups and situps daily. He’s worked hard on his game. Add a narrow course and dying greens, and the Goose comes to life.
Shipnuck: Hmmm, a narrow course increasingly sounds like Augusta. Goose has never been the same since self-immolating on Sunday at the 2005 U.S. Open, but he now has to be considered a threat at Augusta — after all, dude has finished in the top 3 at four of the last seven Masters.
Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: The Big Play in this week’s Golf Plus will include a cool drill on short putts — Goosen was 55 of 55 from five feet and in, and something like 61 of 63 from 10 feet and in.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: He could be the big winner in this whole financial crisis. If courses stop watering greens to save money, Goosen will become the best putter on Tour.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree that Goosen is back to being a very good tour player, but I’m going to have to see him contend in a major to convince me he’s back to being a top-5-in-the-world-type player. He had some problems the last few years, including the broken pelvis (jet ski) and the Lasik eye surgery problem, and he lost his putting stroke, which is always a concern for those approaching 40. How many guys go to a belly putter, revert to the standard length and return to being a great putter? Goose would be one of the few, but you can’t argue with results. He’s trending upward.
Shipnuck: It’s amazing how one round can change a career. If Goosen closes the deal at Pinehurst, that’s three Opens in the span of five years, and he’s a fist-ballot Hall of Famer. Instead it’s taken him four year just to climb back to respectability.
Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Not to diminish Goosen’s accomplishment, but might it have helped that Tiger, Phil, Padraig, Ogilvy and the rest were not on hand to at least put the pressure on? They’ll all be at Augusta.
Van Sickle: I don’t know that blowing up in the ’05 Open really fazed him. This was a guy who has been hit by lightning. It wasn’t as traumatic as what Phil and Monty suffered at Winged Foot. Goose couldn’t break 80 the last day. It was like losing a baseball game by the 10-run rule. If he can regain the confidence in his putter, once his deadliest club, he can be a factor in majors again.
Friedman: Before we make the transition from the Transitions … Don’t know about you guys, but the highlight for me was the appearance on Saturday of ’70s TV icon Erik (Ponch) Estrada, who was doing promotional work for the sponsor. Considering how many guys had to get up and down, we had CHIP’s as well as chips.
Herre: How do we categorize Charles Howell’s week — glass half empty or half full?
Shipnuck: It’s always half-empty until he wins. He doesn’t need any more lucrative near-misses.
Van Sickle: At this point, any upwardly mobile finish has to be positive for Chaz.
Definitely a showing worth being optimistic about.
Hack: Just left Charles, and he was pretty pumped about his work with new coach Todd Anderson. “Starting to trust it,” he said, and I believe him. He said he’s been like a fastball pitcher learning how to throw curve balls and sliders. He says he feels like he’s becoming a complete golfer. He looked like one this week.
Herre: Yes, Damon. Loved the half-shots Howell was hitting into many greens. Never thought I’d see the day.
Shipnuck: Solid reporting from the front lines. But we’ve been hearing for years and years from Howell that he’s close to figuring things out. Gimme a couple W’s and I’ll start to believe it.
Hack: That’s fair. Not being exempt for the Masters has been a wake-up call for him. He said he thought about it all day today, but in a good way, as inspiration. He didn’t get it done this week, but it’s on to Bay Hill and Houston from here. And if he doesn’t get in? He said he’d watch every shot on TV. Howell is an admitted golf nerd. Says he loves GOLF.com, by the way. Reads and enjoys our Press Tent. He saw that I picked Goosen or Lehman out of the final group today, and he gave me some grief. We had a good laugh.
Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Charles Howell is a good PGA Tour player: he’s rich, hardworking and makes a lot of cuts. He’ll win some more tournaments, but who says he has to be great? Being consistently ordinary and proficient at staying on the tour for 25 years is not a bad way to be remembered.
Shipnuck: Since Howell and Goosen are both Orlando guys, we would be remiss not to mention golf’s fifth major, the Tavistock Cup. Was anyone else grossed out by all the conspicuous consumption on display? Did they really need to commute in helicopters? I mean, it’s 15 minutes in a Maybach. And that parking lot of on-course giveaway cars for a hole-in-one was a bit redundant, too. These guys are all millionaires — do they really need another Audi? Is anyone here brave enough to defend the Tavistock?
Ryan Reiterman, producer, Golf.com: Is it even played for charity? I think it’d be less stomach-churning if they were raising some money for a good cause.
Herre: The Tavistock Group does a lot of community charity in the Orlando area and beyond, although I’m not sure if the Tavistock Cup is a fund-raiser. I would guess that it is.
Shipnuck: The point is, there is no point. Nothing is at stake, and no one really cares, which makes for bad TV. It’s basically a couple of practice rounds they get paid for and we have to suffer through.
Van Sickle: Tavistock remains a TV show without a real purpose. I don’t think there’s any real estate left to sell at Isleworth, and there’s one phase left (houses starting at $1 million, last I checked) at Lake Nona. What’s it really all about, since these guys don’t need the money or exposure, and the courses don’t, either?
Shipnuck: It’s time to move on. Tiger’s $3 million appearance fee to play in Australia in November has created a lot of buzz, with apologists and shrill critics aplenty weighing in. No doubt his presence will be a huge boost to the event and generate a certain amount of economic benefit for the region, but does that justify a government body giving three million bucks to the world’s highest-paid athlete?
Gorant: If things get worse over there, it would be interesting if Tiger showed up and got booed or picketed by protestors.
Van Sickle: It’s capitalism at work. Does he deserve the $3 million? Someone thinks he’s worth it, therefore he does. Hopefully, the money didn’t come from AIG.
Friedman: Tough call when it’s taxpayer money. If I were Down Under and economically down under, I’d vote no.
Herre: Not all the dough is from taxpayers, about half is. And Tiger will be leaving a chunk in Australia as he will be taxed there on the $3 million. The reality is that he isn’t making that much off the trip. I think it’s one of those “expanding the brand” things. Also, heaven knows the Australian tour could use a lift. It’s been hurting for years.
Gorant: It’s 48% in taxes. Interesting side note on Tiger’s motivation: the event is run by IMG.
Shipnuck: My favorite part of the blowback was Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, saying that his famous client was basically going because he really, really wanted to play Kingston Heath. I’ve been there, and it is indeed a great course, but I don’t think that’s why Tiger is getting on the plane.
Van Sickle: Tiger’s trip Down Under should be a lesson to those trying to recruit Tiger for their own tournaments. The only way to get this guy to play is to buy him. Either a $3 million appearance fee overseas, or an endorsement deal (like AmEx and Buick) or have a tournament run by IMG (Deutsche Bank, AT&T). Judging by his last-minute entry even into the WGC event at Doral, he’s not going to be pro-active on Finchem’s request for the tour’s stars to play more. Pay him and he’ll play.
Shipnuck: I’m guessing in a year or so Tiger will announce a design project in Australia, and his motivations for this trip will be clearer.
Shipnuck: Other recent news items: Fuzzy Zoeller has said this will be his last Masters, and Annika has a bun in the oven. I’m not suggesting there is a correlation, but …
Herre: Guess this means we won’t be seeing Annika playing golf anytime soon.
Shipnuck: I never thought we would. She’s not one to do things half-way. Please resist any pregnancy jokes here.
Van Sickle: Last I saw of Annika, she was racing a Lexus with Ray Floyd, Chi Chi and Chuck Howell. Next thing you know, she’s pregnant. Maybe we need to see the rest of that video to find out what really happened.
Shipnuck: My money is on Raymundo. He had a way with cabaret girls back in the day.
Gorant: I was at the press conference when she announced her retirement, and I immediately noticed she never used the word retirement, only the phrase “stepping away.” I had the impression she’d take four or five years, pop out a few kids and then look to dip a toe back in.
Evans: I’m really proud of Annika for attempting to be the Steffi Graff of golf. Not many women athletes get to have Hall of Fame careers and the family.
Van Sickle: I agree with Gorant. She’s going to find that her brand name fades quickly when she’s no longer in the golf limelight. For business reasons, she may need to play more someday. Annika never caught Tiger in majors, and she’s already two down on kids. So this will cut his lead to one.
Shipnuck: How about the end of Fuzzy at Augusta? No one can defend his insensitive remarks from ’97, but it’s tragic that one of golf’s most beloved figures has been in semi-exile ever since. I’ll certainly miss talking to him under The Tree — he was a great interview.
Herre: Fuzzy’s announcement wasn’t a surprise. The guy’s not even competitive on the Champions tour anymore. Maybe he got a letter. The episode in ’97 was a career-killer. Fuzzy’s still a little paranoid about it, and I don’t blame him. The full story about what happened that Sunday is yet to be told.
Van Sickle: Augusta has made the course too tough for the ceremonial golfers like Fuzzy to enjoy it. I applaud him for realizing that now and not doing a Doug Ford, although I did enjoy watching Ford hit 3-woods into a bunch of par 4s to scratch out a 94.
Shipnuck: Big finish on the LPGA tour. Pat Hurst, not known for her ability to close, birdied the final two holes to steal a win in Mexico. The big loser was Yani Tseng, who bogied the last hole to finish tied for second with the unofficial hostess, Lorena Ochoa. Annika predicted Tseng would be the next player to reach No. 1, but Tseng hasn’t been getting it done lately on Sunday afternoons. Any thoughts on Ochoa’s reign, which may or may not be complicated by her recent engagement?
Van Sickle: I look for two-time Golf Plus Dominator of the Year Ji-Yai Shin to be the first to pass Ochoa. Tseng may, too. Ochoa has been going at it pretty hard for a long time. She could use a serious challenger for motivation, and I don’t think Michelle Wie is in that neighborhood yet.
Shipnuck: An LPGA source told me that after the event in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of players went to a nightclub and Tseng was partying like a rock star. That’ll make it tougher to catch Lorena, whose only vice is chocolate cake.
Herre: You would know better than me, Alan, but a case could be made that Ochoa is a bit on the fragile side. Remember how long it took her to finally break through? And then last year she was derailed by family matters. Marriage and kids would be a big change. BTW, if memory serves Hurst played quite well while pregnant and after.
Shipnuck: I think Lorena will be hyper-focused for the next four years, and then she’ll retire at the end of 2012, when she’s put in 10 years and is eligible for the Hall of Fame. No way she hangs around until her late 30’s like Annika.
Gorant: It’s tempting to say Ochoa has dropped a step, and wonder if the engagement has sapped some of her intensity, but it’s probably too early in the season for that. She’s had chances but simply hasn’t gotten it done this year.
Shipnuck: Uh, Lorena won in Thailand a few weeks ago, with a sporty little 66 on Sunday. That’s getting it done in my book!
Gorant: Yeah, but she had chances in the other two events she was in but was stopped by uncharacteristically poor rounds, like the Saturday 73 this week.
Reiterman: Anyone think Paula Creamer will be a serious challenger?
Shipnuck: I like her spunk, but she’s giving up 25 yards off the tee to Ochoa, Tseng and some other top players. That’ll make her the Furyk in this equation, always in the picture but never No. 1.
Herre: I like everything about Creamer’s game — except her short putting on Sundays.
Gorant: That begs the question: Whatever happened to Morgan Pressel? Is she washed up at 20?
Herre: Pressel is another short-knocker. She reminds me of Kelli Kuehne. Both are tough as nails but at too big a disadvantage to be frequent winners.
Shipnuck: She’s 20 yards shorter than Creamer! Pressel will be a contender in majors but will always struggle to keep up in the birdie-a-thons.
Shipnuck: The Euro tour had a B-list event this week, the Madeira Island Open. What’s notable is that it was won by 20-year-old Argentine Estanislao Goya, playing in only his sixth event on the circuit. Is golf becoming like tennis, where players peak in their late teens and early 20’s?
Herre: Used to be that a pro golfer’s prime was in his early to late 30s. That’s definitely not the case anymore. You’re a has-been if you haven’t done some damage in your 20s.
Friedman: The difference is, in tennis, as the struggling Federer is proving, once you pass your mid-20s, it is almost impossible to get back to the top. The golfer’s age window is much larger and allows for some dips and rises.
Van Sickle: To prove Friedman’s point, 50-year-old Tom Lehman had a chance to win the Transitions until midway through the final round.
Herre: True enough about Lehman, Gary, but if you would’ve been asked last night to
predict Lehman’s score on Sunday, what would the number have been?
Van Sickle: The over-under on Lehman for Sunday probably would’ve been a couple over par. Realistically, it’s three times tougher for the old war horses to pull out a win. They know it might be their last chance, and they know how much it means. Especially to Lehman, who was at the end of a medical extension, although I’m sure he’ll get plenty of sponsors’ exemptions if he wants them. It’s also very tough for older guys to string three or four good rounds together, especially three or four good putting rounds. Of course, Vijay is the guy who wipes out all the rules.
Hack: Goosen says Vijay has changed the players’ minds about what is possible after 40. All things being equal, my money is on a good fortysomething beating a good twentysomething most days. Sorta like what happened today. (And at Barclays last year when Singh beat Sergio.)
Shipnuck: I don’t think Lehman has been working as hard as Vijay has. Or that Sergio or Charles Howell or anybody else will in the future.
Shipnuck: Lehman’s an interesting case. Everyone thinks he had a great career, but it was basically three years, 1994-96, when he scored four of his five career wins. He’s spent the last decade plus just hanging around. Maybe the Tour should cap the number of starts you can make in a career, to ensure new blood.
Shipnuck: If Jamie Moyer is your rebuttal than I think my idea is sound.
Friedman: Last I looked, he was still getting guys out …
Van Sickle: It’s age-ist based on history. Look at Jack and Arnie and Watson and
Norman and Azinger and all the rest. The first thing that goes is the ability to play great for four straight days. Two or three days, yes. (Remember Nicklaus at Oakmont and Augusta and others?) But not four. Innisbrook has to be encouraging for Lehman, and he proved he can still hang with the young studs. Can he still beat them? We won’t know that until he does.
Reiterman: It’s amazing the amount of second chances guys get out there. I still don’t get the major medical exemption. Seems in every other sport, you get hurt and someone grabs your spot, them’s the breaks.
Van Sickle: Ryan’s point is good. The PGA Tour is Entitlement Central. Nobody ever talks about that.
Gorant: How very un-Republican of them. First change should be Q-school. It’s beyond me why the guys who washed out the year before get an automatic exemption to the second round?
Evans: After Charlie Sifford and other black pioneers brought down the Caucasians-only clause in the 1960s, the PGA Tour became the ultimate sports meritocracy. Major medicals and such are the tour’s way of allowing union-type activity without actually having a real union. Entitlement is a good thing in a worker-friendly society.