PGA Tour Confidential: WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

PGA Tour Confidential: WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

Tiger Woods won his fifth title of the year and seventh at Firestone.
Fred Vuich/SI

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.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: This is too much. Tiger’s front-nine 30. Tiger’s hiccup after making the turn. Tiger’s 8-iron. We need some sane voices here, folks. Brad Faxon, the Tour veteran and in my opinion one of the most insightful people in all of golf, is joining us today. Welcome, Brad, and welcome back everybody else. Let me start with this question: If there was one player I thought was in position to stand up to Tiger mentally, it was Padraig Harrington. Did Tiger get in his head, or did he just make bad swings, or what? We’ll get to Tiger, but let’s start with Paddy. Thoughts?

Brad Faxon: Thanks for inviting me to join you guys. Maybe it wasn’t Tiger that got into Padraig’s head as much as the rules official on the 16th tee.

Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Interesting that when Paddy and Tiger were put on the clock on the back nine, CBS said it wasn’t the first bad time for Paddy. Brad, does Harrington have a rep for slow play or was he just slowing down because of the situation?

Faxon: Padraig used to be very slow, but I really believe he has sped up his game and slow play isn’t an issue anymore. But couple that with playing in the last group with Tiger, and everybody would just naturally slow down.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: In Padraig’s press conference, he said yes, the official telling him they were on the clock did, indeed, rattle him slightly on the 16th tee. In Tiger’s press conference, he blamed Paddy’s 16th directly on John Paramor, the European Tour rules official who put their group on the clock. Tiger said Paddy rushed his third and fourth shots at 16 because he had to. Asked if his own 8-iron shot at 16 won the tournament or if the on-the-clock incident won it, Tiger answered, “Both.” He really hung Paramor out to dry.

Faxon: Ironic a European tour official put one of his own on the clock. Our guys would probably have let that go.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think that was a classic example of how Tiger forces players to try things they otherwise wouldn’t. Paddy went for a spectacular par save because he knew that going one down with two to play against Tiger would be fatal. If he’s up against Phil, Harrington probably plays a safer shot to the fat part of the green, confident that he can still make up the ground if he takes bogey.

Faxon: Also, this was really Padraig’s first time in contention this year, so that might have something to do with it.

Shipnuck: I’m surprised Paddy was rattled by being on the clock. The Tour hasn’t imposed a one-stroke penalty for slow play in what, 10 years? You think they’re going to start now, gifting a win to Tiger? There’s already enough material out there for Tiger conspiracy-theorists!

Faxon: Padraig must have had a really hard fourth shot or he would’ve dropped from the same place rather than walk back across the pond.

Bamberger: Is that very uncommon, Brad, for a final group to be put on the clock?

Faxon: Yes, very unusual. Especially since their finish was a perfect 6 p.m. ending just like the network likes. I doubt either would ever get fined or given an extra shot in that situation.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Brad, how important is it to stay in a rhythm that you’ve naturally established on the course?

Faxon: It’s ABSOLUTELY important. Think of a baseball pitcher when he is pitching well, or a hot basketball shooter when he gets the ball. The rhythm is crucial, and the timing of this had to have an effect on Padraig.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Paddy’s rhythm wasn’t the problem. He just didn’t have that shot out the rough under pressure. Rhythm is important, very important, but he’s a slow-playing Tour pro who is accustomed to being put on the clock and playing in front of large crowds.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Regardless of the state of his nerves — and I thought Harrington looked like his beady-eyed, unblinking self — he’s still in the game if he doesn’t blade that hillside wedge into the water. Brad, do you have any thoughts on the shot Paddy tried to play with Tiger about to make birdie?

Faxon: I believe without a doubt any Tour player would’ve tried to hit the same shot Padraig did. It looked like he had a slight downhill lie, and he must have bounced the club into the ground before hitting the ball.

Van Sickle: A very tough shot at 16. I got a close-up look at the lie. It was not good. I don’t see anyone pulling off the short-sided flop shot more than one in 10 times, if that. It’s been a wet summer here and the grass is as thick and juicy as new grass in May. If he plays it safe and takes a 20-footer, maybe he makes it and is tied with two to play. At least he makes bogey and is one back with a chance. I’m not convinced it was a smart play by Paddy.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Paddy’s snowman at 16 won’t soon, if ever, melt from his memory. He now has a spot alongside the rest of the trophies on Tiger’s hunted-and-killed wall.

Faxon: I disagree wholeheartedly. Padraig is a big boy, and after the year he’s had, he was probably very happy to be in contention against Tiger, even though the result wasn’t what he wanted. I think Padraig will have a very strong finish to this season.

Shipnuck: Big picture, it’s huge for Paddy to have been back in the hunt, and for 15 holes he effectively fended off Tiger. Two weeks ago Harrington was my pick to win the PGA, and I think this was a huge step back toward where he was. I think he’ll accept the snowman as a gamble that didn’t pay off and keep moving forward. Now I like him at Hazeltine even more.

Herre: I think Harrington will use Firestone as motivation for Hazeltine, as one of the CBS guys (Jim Nantz, I believe) pointed out.

Garrity: I have to agree with Alan that this week is a positive for Harrington, not some confidence-breaking tragedy. Every time Mickelson or Garcia or whoever doesn’t convert a victory or has a disaster hole, we write that they are permanently scarred and will probably never recover. Then they come back a month later and win a major or the Players. It’s not the top-10 finishes that cause brain damage; it’s going a month or two without making a cut.

Van Sickle: Harrington wasn’t mortally wounded. It’s a mere glancing blow, lessened by the fact that next week is a real tournament, with a full field, and a major.

Bamberger: Unfortunately for Harrington, he won two of his three majors without Tiger in the field. Had he won today, you would be less likely to think about that 8 on 16. Given what happened, it may spring to mind.

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Shipnuck: Phil and Vijay and Ernie won all three of their majors when Tiger was a non-factor. I don’t think what happened today devalues Harrington’s accomplishments.

Bamberger: When Tiger stiffed that third with the 8-iron, there was hardly any response from him. What do you make of this new austere Tiger? What does it say about him?

Faxon: He has definitely been less emotional to the positive lately. Maybe he’s still pissed about Turnberry. His expectations are so high that winning maybe isn’t as fun anymore?

Evans: How can we say that he’s less boisterous or whatever after seeing one shot? There is nothing new or old about him. He’s an emotional guy whose temperament changes from shot to shot.

Lipsey: Yeah, a few weeks ago, Tiger let it fly at the British with his cussing and club-slamming.

Herre: Tiger was obviously angry with his tee shot at 16, but he didn’t curse or slam his club (although he came close). Maybe he’s working on keeping an even keel.

Garrity: My guess is that Tiger’s relative calm tells us that he’s focused on next week; these two victories are gratifying, but they’re no more important than a first-round 64. He’ll pump that arm if he’s in the hunt at Hazeltine.

Lipsey: Does Tiger care much about Snead’s record 82 wins? Or is it only Jack’s 18 majors that he wants.

Faxon: Yes, Tiger cares. No. 1 is winning majors, and more majors than Jack Nicklaus. No. 2 is winning tournaments, and sure, getting to 70 is a big thing for Tiger, and passing Jack Nicklaus on the all-time-win list will be huge. But he wants to own all the career records by the time he’s done. Winning the Buick Open also meant a lot to him, especially after missing the cut at the British.

Dusek: The more records he holds, the less people like us will be able to have the greatest-of-all-time debate. If he passes 18 majors, gets 83 wins, earns a few more Ryder Cup points, Player of the Year, awards, etc. — it gets tough to say he’s not the best ever.

Lipsey: Does Paddy get four majors before he’s done?

Shipnuck: Four is a magic number in the Tiger era. No one’s been there since Faldo.

Faxon: I would say yes. It could even be next week playing with Tiger in the last group.

Dusek: Nick Faldo said that the club that helped Woods the most at Firestone was his putter. (It certainly wasn’t his driver.) Brad, as someone known to be one of the game’s best putters, what are your thoughts on Tiger’s stroke? You once told me it was just about the best on Tour. Still true?

Faxon: I agree with Faldo that Tiger’s putter helped him win this week, but when isn’t that the case? We’ve all seen Tiger make clutch shots, but nobody has made more clutch putts more often that Tiger has. He has won way more tournaments hitting it all over the place and putting well than hitting every shot perfectly and not making everything.

Lipsey: What’s your Peter Kostis-like analysis of what makes Tiger such a great putter?

Faxon: Fundamentally, he looks perfect standing over a putt — level shoulders, pendulum-like stroke, excellent rhythm. He looks like Perfy the robot, if you’ve ever seen him. Add to that, as Bamberger says, that Tiger is the all-time-best grinder. Every great putter to me, regardless of his style, wills putts in.

Bamberger: How do we like Tiger’s chances at the PGA?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I like them, and it won’t hurt that his mystique is back after Harrington’s gruesome wipe-out Sunday. You don’t see too many pros cough up a triple, but Tiger’s like that William H. Macy character in 'The Cooler.' Terrible things happen around him.

Dusek: I said last week that Tiger would win. I still think he hoists the Wanamaker a week from tonight.

Faxon: How could you not like Tiger’s chances? He silences his critics every time something seems to be going wrong. He fell to Rich Beem by one shot last time at Hazeltine, and he will remember that and use it for motivation. As if he needs any more.

Herre: Tiger was awesome on the back nine on Saturday and on the front today. That’s the best I’ve seen him play all year — beautiful tempo, cool shotmaking, great putting. Then a couple loose drives coming in got him into trouble. He’s the obvious favorite at the PGA, yet …

Dusek: If it’s NOT going to be Tiger, Stewart Cink looks as cool as a cucumber. Confident. I also think that Miguel Angel Jimenez could finally win one. He’s been playing beautifully this summer and had another good result at Firestone.

Evans: Tiger should dominate Hazeltine, but I’m afraid he won’t. He’s put too much pressure on himself this year at the majors. He knows he can control the outcome by playing his best. That’s some scary performance anxiety. Also, he didn’t drive the ball well again this week. That will hurt him at Hazeltine.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: My heart, as always, says Sergio, and one of these days I’ll be right! But my head says Angel Cabrera, who can manhandle Hazeltine with his length and touch. He’ll again leave English-speaking scribes grasping for quotes. And next year at St. Andrews, we’ll be speculating if he can achieve the career Slam.

Faxon: As long as Hazeltine will play at over 7,600 yards, I can’t help but think that some short, straight hitters will do well here, and I expect to see Tiger hitting lots of 3-woods and irons off the tee. Being in the fairway will be very important.

Bamberger: Before we sign off, let’s do the impossible. There’s a poll in the new Golf Magazine that identifies the 20 greatest golfers of all time. Define great however you like. Jack nipped Tiger in the voting. I voted for Jack, for his 18 majors, for the class with which he handled his whole long career. I look forward to Tiger passing him. How would you (or did you) vote?

Herre: I voted for Nicklaus. Tiger hasn’t passed Jack yet, although I fully expect Woods to break all of Nicklaus’s records, and soon.

Dusek: Voting today, Jack gets the top spot, then Tiger. Voting in five years, Tiger will get the No. 1 slot.

Van Sickle: I’d probably vote for Tiger. Except for the driver, he is Jack’s equal or superior with every club in the bag. Around the greens, it’s no contest. Maybe a draw on the greens. Tiger is a shotmaker on the order of Hogan. Jack was a great winner. Tough call, though.

Garrity: I did vote in the poll, and as much as I admire and respect Jack, I voted for Tiger. And I would have voted for Tiger a decade ago. I thought then, and I think now, that he’s the greatest who has ever played the game.

Evans: Tiger is simply the greatest golfer of all-time. Sure, Nicklaus won a lot of golf tournaments and he was a great champion, but he never had the highs in his game of a Tiger Woods. Plus, the Tour is so much deeper now than it was in 1975.

Faxon: Well said Farrell. I’d put Tiger above, Jack, slightly, akin to Jordan above Russell even though Russell had more rings.

Bamberger: That’s a wrap. Brad, thank you for your excellent insights. We hope you will be playing for vauable cash prizes on future Sunday afternoons, but any time you can join us we’d be happy to have you. Next week, Hazeltine.

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