Every week of the 2010 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 and join the conversation in the comments section below.
WESTWOOD ON TOP, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Happy Halloween to the only people I know who would appreciate my Ben Crane costume (bucket hat, move very slowly). The No. 1 topic is of course the new world No. 1, Lee Westwood, who unseated Tiger Woods from the top spot he held for 281 weeks. Westwood’s been outstanding the past two years, but he’s barely played since injuring his calf before the PGA Championship. He has never won a major, and he’s won only five tournaments in the last seven years. How deserving is Westwood of the top spot, and for how long will he keep it?
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: The World Ranking is all about mathematics. In the real world, Tiger hasn’t been No. 1 since mid-summer. Westwood is No. 1 only due to the vagaries of the formula. My guess is that his reign will be a short one.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Westwood is as deserving as anyone, but I don’t think he’ll stay in that spot for long. It looks like a potential game of musical chairs with Martin Kaymer, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, for starters. Now that Woods has backed way up, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, among others, are within striking distance of No. 1.
Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: The money list and the victory list are the best ways to identify the best player in the world. But the ranking is what fans look to and know about, no matter how wacky it is.
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Truth is that Kaymer and Westwood will play way more than any of the other contenders over the next three months because the Euro tour is just starting up. Either of those two could build up a nice cushion if they play well.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: In the minds of his competitors, Tiger lost the No. 1 ranking long before Sunday. I agree with Vans. Westwood is as worthy as anyone to wear the crown. I also think the crown will move around.
Gorant: As for Westwood, I don’t think he’s worthy. Just doesn’t feel like a guy who has done enough. Phil is the disappointment here. From the Masters to the end of the season, all he had to do was win to be top dog, but he couldn’t get it done. It should have been him.
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Well, Westwood always seems to be in the hunt, and he does seem to play his best golf in the majors, even if he can’t finish.
Walker: Westwood looked like the best player in the world at the Ryder Cup.
Godich: He’s done that at pretty much every Ryder Cup of late.
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: I agree that there will be a lot of movement at the top in 2011, and in a way I think it will make the season more compelling. Big-point events like the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February will mean more if several players can become No. 1 by winning it.
Hack: To me, Vijay is the only guy who really took the ranking away from Tiger. He beat him straight up in Boston in ’04. I’m surprised Phil didn’t capitalize on his Masters win and salt away the ranking for the rest of the year.
Van Sickle: Damon raises a good point. Going into 2011, Mickelson may be an even bigger question mark than Tiger. Phil had every opportunity to steal the spotlight and the top spot in ’10 after his Master win, but he fumbled every one of them. If you think the Tiger Era is over, and I’m not ready to say that, what’s that say about the Phil Era? Maybe we’re witnessing a complete changing of the guard.
Dusek: I think we are. Kaymer, Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald. Europe has a lot of muscles to flex. At the same time there are plenty of young Americans like Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, who’ve shown flashes of excellence but nothing sustained. Maybe it’s Europe’s time for a few years.
Lipsey: Asia could get into the mix too. Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers all say they have droves of great young Asian students. The men’s pipeline could someday match the influx of Asian players on the LPGA.
Herre: Tip o’ the hat to the Euro tour. Not long ago we wondered if it was viable. Now it’s in the catbird’s seat.
Lipsey: And the PGA Tour is playing copycat to the Euro tour by staging events all over the world.
Van Sickle: Which is a potentially big, USA-audience-killing mistake.
Gorant: The Tour’s motto has been follow the sun, but in reality it’s follow the money, and the money, in terms of sponsorships, is moving out of the U.S. Thus the Tour’s move to expand its borders.
Van Sickle: We’ve seen with the LPGA how following the money around the world results in a proportionate lack of interest here at home.
Gorant: Do you think the LPGA ratings are that different between the U.S. and foreign events? I honestly don’t know the answer, but most of their events don’t air live anyway, and the viewers are the hardcore golf fans who likely watch either way. I bet there’s not that big a difference.
Van Sickle: I don’t mean just ratings. I mean the general interest level in the LPGA. Out of sight, out of mind — that’s the Tour’s biggest problem now.
Herre: It’s pretty clear that the PGA Tour puts a premium on the U.S. audience. Globalization is great, unless it negatively affects interests — ratings or sponsors — in the U.S.
Van Sickle: Maybe No. 1 will be like a traveling trophy for a while. I think the strongest contenders for a long-term reign are a resurrected Tiger, whose tee-to-green game will be much improved next year, and Kaymer, my upcoming nominee for SI Sportsman of the Year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kaymer get hot in the Middle East early next year and sprint to a quick lead, and back up his PGA title with at least one more major. Kaymer could be the next big thing we’ve been waiting for.
Dusek: If you think about it, Woods can gather a lot of world ranking points easily if he plays well. Tiger could replace a lot of zeroes with points since he skipped Torrey Pines, two WGCs, and Doral last season.
Van Sickle: Funny that a Golf Channel promo for next week’s event in Shanghai hyped it as the last showdown of the year between Tiger and Phil … as if they’ve been a factor in anything in six months. Classic bad hype. If the Tiger and Phi Eras are over, the TV geniuses aren’t going to know what to do. They might have to resort to showing the actual golf tournament.
END OF THE WOODS ERA?
Walker: Tiger Woods’s downfall, both professionally and personally, has been the dominant storyline in golf this year, and finally losing the No. 1 ranking feels like a fitting close to the chapter. What’s next for Woods? Does he regain the No. 1 ranking and resume his role as the alpha dog of golf, or are we entering a new era of competitive parity at the top of the ranks?
Van Sickle: Golf better hope he bounces back strong. If he’s permanently damaged goods, the upcoming TV deal for the PGA Tour is going to be a lot less. I think Woods can get his swing in order fairly quickly with Sean Foley. Can he regain his putting dominance? If not, he’ll never be a dominant player again, just a really good one who wins some of the time. I think regaining that mysterious “score-ability” will be his toughest challenge, and that may take a while.
Lipsey: The Tiger Era is over. He’ll probably win some, and maybe get Jack’s record, but dominance is highly unlikely.
Gorant: I think he’ll win multiple events next year. Whether or not he ends up No. 1 depends just as much on what the other guys do, which says a lot about where he is now.
Godich: Among other things that he threw away, Tiger lost the fear factor. Nobody is afraid of him anymore.
Van Sickle: The world rankings are now like a NASCAR race that has been yellow-flagged, so everybody is back on the same lap with Tiger, who once had a big lead. A lot of guys are one big smashup away from the top spot.
Walker: I expect Tiger to take back the No. 1 ranking in pretty short order. Working with Sean Foley instead of Hank Haney was an important move (and an admission from a pretty stubborn guy that what he and Hank were doing wasn’t working). He’s only a year removed from winning nine times, and I don’t think Kaymer, Westwood and the rest are in his class yet.
Herre: Mike, I wonder why TW kept Foley at arm’s length for such a long time. We were writing about the Foley-Woods thing last year, when Foley had so many Friends of Tiger in his camp. It seemed like a natural relationship, yet TW seemed reluctant to go there. I can’t help wonder if Woods struggled to buy into what Foley is selling, and if the choice is a good one.
Van Sickle: If nothing else, having some new swing thoughts to work on should rejuvenate Tiger and get him excited about playing again. Working on new stuff, especially for a pro who had mastered the game, is always a little bit exciting and motivating.
Herre: I think we are entering a transitional period. You never know with golfers — Tiger could come back strong, or he might be on the downside. He’s been center stage for a couple of decades, when you count his high profile as an amateur. That’s forever. He could have a career arc like Seve’s. Ballesteros was basically through when he reached his mid-30s.
Van Sickle: Jim is so right. Tiger is almost 35, and he’s been playing elite-level golf for a solid 20 years. Most of history’s best players played their best golf in an eight- to 10-year window. Jack Nicklaus was the most notable exception, spanning good play over a quarter century. Tiger played about a dozen exceptional years of professional golf. He’s way past the average, but like Nicklaus, he seems to be an exception to every rule. With his knee problems and the psychological hurt of the past year, you might assume he’s an old 35. But he’s made a career of making people who utter “slump” eat crow. There may still be some gas in his tank.
Godich: I want to see how he handles the pressure when he gets in the hunt again.
Walker: Hogan, Nicklaus and Mickelson all had plenty of success after 35, and it’s hard to imagine Tiger’s going to lose his competitive fire. If the knee holds up (and that’s the big if), he has a bunch of really good years left.
Dusek: Now that Tiger’s aura has been broken, it can’t be rebuilt. I agree that he’ll win again, but I don’t think he can become the six- to eight-wins-a-year player he was. That player is gone.
Gorant: Disagree. This guy is on another level, and once he gets it all back together and wins, all the other psychologically battered runners-up out there will say, “here we go again.”
Hack: But this is a whole new generation of guys who aren’t psychologically battered by Tiger, and may never be. The youngsters never lost by 8 and 12 and 15 to Tiger. The Rory generation isn’t the Ernie/Sergio/Davis generation. Call them generation TMZ.
Gorant: No, but they’ve grown up watching Tiger dominate. And how many combined tournaments have those guys won?
Hack: Watching Tiger dominate other players on TV is not the same as being pummeled by him in the ring. Reminds me of Larry Holmes. He grew up worshiping Ali when Ali was in his prime. When Holmes finally met Ali in the ring, he wore him out.
Gorant: Larry Holmes was a terrible putter.
Hack: Bad putter, but big hitter.
Van Sickle: I’ve said it before: TigerMania is one major championship away from being back at full force. All the talk about the scandal and the psychological profiling by us amateurs will go out the window if he wins the Masters. The media reaction will be a breathless, “Ohmigod! He’s only three behind Jack’s record now!” And the Tiger-Jack countdown will resume in earnest as if nothing happened. In fact, it could burnish Tiger’s playing reputation for overcoming all this assorted adversity.
WILL MICKELSON EVER GET TO NO. 1?
Walker: As Damon and Jim have mentioned, the clear loser in all of this is Phil Mickelson, who missed many chances to take the No. 1 ranking this summer. While Mickelson consistently downplayed his desire to be No. 1, it clearly meant something to him. Why wasn’t Mickelson able to close the deal, and will he get another shot at it?
Godich: I don’t think so. He had a chance to build some momentum with that Masters win and instead went in entirely the opposite direction.
Dusek: It’s not our place to make excuses for Phil, but do we know how healthy he was throughout the summer? Announcing his arthritis, dealing with the recoveries from breast cancer of his wife and mother … I wonder how many events he played at 100 percent.
Walker: I don’t think Mickelson played any events at even close to 100 percent after the U.S. Open, but it wasn’t like he had to win a tournament to take that No. 1 ranking. If he couldn’t become No. 1 this year, it’s hard to imagine a time when he will.
NO. 1 CONTENDERS
Walker: Graeme McDowell won the Andalucia Masters Valderrama on Sunday, cementing his claim to being one of the game’s elite players. We have Westwood, Woods, Mickelson, Kaymer and McDowell in the mix. Who are some of the other players you think could spend some time at No. 1 over the next 24 months?
Gorant: In terms of the points right now, it’s Woods, Mickelson, Westwood and Kaymer. Either Fuyrk or Stricker would have a chance to take the top spot with a win next week in China, but they aren’t playing. As for others, it’s wide open. Anyone who steps up and starts to win consistently will get right into the mix.
Lipsey: Matteo Manassero is my pick to be top dog, maybe not in 24 months, but not long after that. He’s been a big winner at every level. The really great players, like Tiger and Phil, won everything since childhood, like Manassero.
Van Sickle: Stricker and Furyk could get a cup of coffee at No. 1, but a better bet might be Dustin Johnson. Everyone seems to have written off Louis Oosthuizen, but here’s a piece of trivia: he won the par-3 tourney at this year’s Masters. It wouldn’t surprise me if he succumbed to the post-major win jinx this year, then bounced back and played some more good golf and won another major in the future.
Dusek: Rory McIlroy. If he hadn’t been caught in tough weather at St. Andrews on Friday afternoon, he might have won the British Open. No one would have been shocked by it. I think he’ll win a major and be sniffing around the No. 1 spot in 2011.
Van Sickle: Rory is an obvious pick, but I was less than impressed with his putting stroke and lack of clutch play at the Ryder Cup. The kid is very good, but now I’m not sure that his putting is good enough for No. 1.
Dusek: I agree that he didn’t play his best at the Ryder Cup, but I think that much talent just can’t be denied for too long. He was amazing in Charlotte, and instead of pouting after shooting in the 80s at St. Andrews, he sucked it up and nearly came back to win the British.
Godich: And he’s how old? There was a time when many were saying much the same about Tiger’s stroke.
Van Sickle: I don’t recall a time when anyone questioned Tiger’s putting skill for any serious length of time. The guy was an amazing putter even as an amateur. He’s had weekly ups and downs like everyone, but for his pro career, he’s been the best putter of his era, a great clutch putter and arguably the best putter of all time.
CRANE WINS IN MALAYSIA
Walker: The PGA Tour hosted a road game of sorts in Malaysia this weekend at the Tour-sanctioned, 40-man Asia Pacific Classic, which was won by Ben Crane, who’s also starring in a humorous workout video that has gone viral on the web. Two things: Crane has had a quietly successful 2010 with a win at Torrey Pines among his five Top 10s. Should we expect more from him next season? Also, we had Malaysia this week, the HSBC Championship in Shanghai next week, and November events in Singapore and Australia will attract Mickelson and Woods respectively. Has the real Fall Series moved to Asia?
Herre: Great point, Mike. Yes, I think the Fall Series is toast and the real golf will be played in Asia. But, guess what, the best tournaments have always been played in the southern hemisphere this time of year. Used to be they were all in Australia. Now the tours are opening up new markets in Asia.
Gorant: It’s the Appearance Fee Series.
Dusek: It’s not convenient for TV, but I am a lot more excited about the event in Shanghai than I was for any Fall Series event. And I’ll be curious to see what happens in Australia … Where Tiger is the defending champion.
Van Sickle: Crane winning a small-field outing posing as a tournament doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, just a nice cash grab for him. As for Asia — here we come! Unless the PGA Tour wises up, cuts the size of purses and lowers the cost of sponsoring a tournament to a level that is more attractive and realistic.
Godich: I still don’t understand why they don’t drop the purses. You telling me that these guys won’t show up if the winner only gets paid $750,000 instead of $1.1 million?
Gorant: I would guess it’s appearances. They don’t want to give any credence to the idea that they’re struggling.
Walker: Ernie Els calls it “wheelbarrow time,” and he was out there in Malaysia putting as much cash in his wheelbarrow as he could. But these events are great for growing the game. The other American-based sports leagues would kill to put on a high-profile event in China like the HSBC tournament in Shanghai next week.
Dusek: I was not crazy about golf becoming an Olympic sport, but it is one now. And with that in mind, I see the necessity for events like the Asia Pacific Classic, the WGC in Shanghai, etc. Of course they’re money grabs for top pros, but they also create interest in the game were there’s money and sponsorship opportunities.
CHAMPIONS TOUR: BULLISH OR BEARISH?
Walker: The Champions Tour finished its most exciting season in years Sunday at the AT&T Championship at San Antonio’s Oak Hill Country Club. New Tour member Fred Couples added a real spark at the beginning of the year, and as Michael Bamberger keeps reminding us, Bernhard Langer submitted a season for the ages. How bullish are you on the future of the Champions Tour? Also, if you want to vent about the Tour deserting the beloved Tillinghast-designed Oak Hills course near downtown for the remote, corporate TPC San Antonio, this is your chance.
Herre: A qualifier wins on the senior tour — isn’t that the result that launched a thousand debates? Of course I love it, but the powers were pulling for Jeff Sluman.
Van Sickle: The Champions Tour is the hardest of all to get on. You make it through Q-school, and what do you get? A free pass to Monday qualifiers and no exemptions. None. You win and you get 12 months, starting now, that’s it. Only top 30 (or 31?) are fully exempt. It’s a closed shop and a tough nut to crack. I hope Mr. Spittle gets to cash in.
Dusek: I’m not bullish or bearish on the Champions Tour. It is what it is … a series of events for hardcore golf fans. That core audience isn’t big, but it isn’t going anywhere either.
COMEBACK POTENTIAL: OCHOA AND SORENSTAM
Walker: We had a Lorena Ochoa sighting this week as she won a celebrity pro-am event in China, for which she pocketed a cool $1.28 million. Ochoa will play next month at her tournament in Mexico, and in China she said she might “play some tournaments for fun.” So the final question of the evening is: Who comes back first, Ochoa or Annika Sorenstam?
Lipsey: Neither. Motherhood seems to have won them both over.
Herre: Used to be that older LPGA players would hang on as long as possible because their playing, and career, options were limited. That has changed, to a degree.
Walker: Annika will play more once her daughter is a little older. I think she’s bored with the business stuff. Making your own wine is a cry for help.
Van Sickle: Annika isn’t coming back. So if you have to pick one, it’s Lorena. But I don’t think she’ll be back unless her family/marriage situation somehow changed. She’s just moonlighting.
Dusek: Lorena is younger and Annika has nothing left to prove. If one is coming back for anything more than a here-or-there appearance, it’s Ochoa.
Gorant: If it’s in spots, I’d say Ochoa, but as a full-time player it would probably be Annika, although I don’t know if she even works on her game any more.
Hack: Would love to see Annika and Lorena return together. I’ve missed them both. And how good does Annika’s legacy look now? She had a long, dominant run at the top, while the current crop of LPGAers are playing hot potato with the No. 1 ranking.
Godich: When Annika hears about that $1.28 million, she’ll be back in a heartbeat.
Dusek: Do you realize that result alone would rank Ochoa seventh on the LPGA Tour’s 2010 Money List.
Godich: That pretty much says it all.