PGA Tour Confidential:
Northern Trust Open

PGA Tour Confidential:
Northern Trust Open

"We've played a bunch of times, and he's gotten better," Woods said of Manning. "You can see he's been playing all summer, actually all winter. Now it's time for him to start focusing on football."
Chuck Burton/AP

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.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Tour Confidential rises again, like a certain Mummy movie series. In addition to our usual lineup, Geoff Shackelford of fame will be joining us.

In my opinion, the L.A. Open, as some of us still call it, remains one of the most captivating televised golf events because of Riviera. While scores seemed to be a little lower than usual, the course has retained its defenses against scoring and technology over the years. That usually means a bunched field and a close finish.

It was no different this week as Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Steve Stricker and others battled it out to the end.

It’s also one of my favorite courses to walk. Its old-style charm is still there, and so are its old-style shotmaking values. I don’t think anybody is going to shoot 34 under at Riviera, ever. The only shame is that Tiger seems to have little interest anymore (OK, he was hurt this year) in playing his old hometown event and trying to snuggle up next to Ben Hogan in the event’s history.

At least Phil was on hand to provide his usual dose of the unexpected.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: As a native Angelino, I couldn’t have said it better, Vans. This course has it all. Year after year the tournament provides great finishes. It has maybe the best par 4 in golf and one of the all-time great 18th holes.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: One person I was watching Sunday was J.B. Holmes. Not normally the kind of guy you would expect to do well among the tree-lined fairways and kickin’ kikuyu at the Riv. Was J.B. playing small ball this week? Has he learned to control the driver, or was it an off week for the course?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I got to spend some time with J.B. recently, and ended up talking to some of his old friends and coaches, and the one constant with that guy, aside from his length, is that he has been underrated. Maybe that’s actually a byproduct of his length. Players who do one thing exceptionally well tend to be dismissed as one-trick ponies.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: All I know is that J.B. Holmes is one of the slowest players in the history of the game. He’s underrated because we’re still waiting for him to pull the trigger.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The Tour would be more interesting, and golf would be better, if more tournaments were played on classic courses like Riviera. It brings out the best in the best players, it makes for more interesting shotmaking — like Fred’s driver off the deck on 17 — and it builds history right into the event. J.B. Holmes probably learned more about how to play golf this week than when he bombed all those drivers and wedges to beat Phil in the desert last year. Crenshaw used to say he can only play well on courses he likes. I’m sure the same is true for Fred Couples.

Hack: Couples says Riviera is his second-favorite course on the planet. Augusta National is his first. I can see Couples contending there this year. He’s lost nothing off the tee, but that long putter is unreliable.

Morfit: Actually, I eavesdropped on one of Freddy’s interviews with local TV. Strangely, he told those guys Riviera is his No. 1. Go figure. (The man knows what the people want to hear.)

Hack: How about that approach shot on 18 from Couples? Pushed it right into the eucalyptus. Riviera asks questions of a player for 72 holes.

Bamberger: When Phil and Fred played in the last group on Sunday at the Masters in 2006, I kind of thought that would be the last time we’d see those two in that kind of setting. Then it happened again Sunday at Riviera. If Fred had Greg Norman’s putting stroke, he’d be top 5 in the world. He’d do himself a favor by naming himself to his Presidents Cup team and leaving the lineup to his old buddy Jay Haas. To me, the story of this week’s event, as much as anything, is Fred.

Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Couples had a very tough week off the course. His estranged wife, Thais Baker, died of breast cancer on Tuesday.

Van Sickle: Fred has proven that he’s one of the great team guys, and one of the great match-play players. Remember when he asked for Vijay in the Presidents Cup and took him down in singles? If only the Presidents Cup was on an old-style course in California so Fred would get the same feeling he gets at Riviera. Wait, it’s at Harding Park in San Francisco! I’m writing in Fred on my Presidents Cup ballot.

Morfit: I agree that Couples was a revelation this week. It makes you wonder what might happen if his back holds up until Augusta. He told me last week that he plans to play through the West Coast swing in 2010, and then start playing full time on the Champions tour.

Gorant: So, are we avoiding the temptation to say that it took Tiger’s return to get Phil’s interest. After all, Phil’s last win was Colonial, in May, just before Tiger went out. Since then he’s been largely mediocre. Anyone taking the bait?

Hack: In the spirit of Oscar night, I’m thinking Phil Mickelson is the new Sybil. One minute, he can’t find a fairway. The next, he’s banging it 320 down the middle. The guy is a thrill ride every time he steps onto a tee box.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: To update a bit: The Curious Case of Phil Mickelson. Or: Doubt.

Gorant: What about Slamdog Millionaire?

Van Sickle: It seems apparent that, nearing their second anniversary of working together, Phil and Butch Harmon still haven’t found a permanent solution to Phil’s driving issues. At least not Friday and Sunday at Riviera.

Herre: I thought Peter Kostis did an excellent analysis of Phil’s “legs problem” on Sunday. Great video and just the kind of inside baseball breakdown that swing geeks go for.

Van Sickle: CBS finally found a replacement for Tiger, just before they hand off to NBC for a while — Phil and Fred dueling to the 72nd hole. I guess Phil is always going to be Arnie, capable of dramatic charges in both directions, to Tiger’s Jack, relentlessly excellent. A good show.

Morfit: After watching Mickelson maneuver the ball left and right at will with his driver Saturday afternoon, I figured this tournament was over. It’s been very strange to watch Lefty chase his 63 on Thursday with a 72 on Friday, and his 62 on Saturday with another so-so performance Sunday. Maybe people relate to Phil because we relate to that kind of wild inconsistency.

Bamberger: Since losing the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Phil has won on thick grasses: at Pebble, at Sawgrass, at Riviera. I love watching Phil and like him personally, but I worry that the scar damage of Winged Foot is still with him, and these other wins, which help with the healing, aren’t enough. I hope I’m wrong. Golf’s better with Phil in the hunt.

Van Sickle: What do we make of this Phil win? He looked to have it almost won on Saturday, then managed to have it almost lost to Stricker on Sunday, then came back to win it with a good run on the finishing holes and a dead-in-the-middle putt on the 72nd? Sure, Stricker opened the door for him by making bogey at 18, and Fred threw it wide open by blocking his fairly easy approach shot. Phil kind of earned this win, and kind of didn’t earn it. Is Phil back? Yes. He plays erratically at times even when he wins. Live with it, enjoy it.

Hack: I can’t help but smile at the leader board. Steve Stricker and K.J. Choi shoot four rounds in the 60s. Mickelson goes 63-72-62-72. Years from now, it’ll just be one of many wins, but that guy had a two-way miss going in two rounds and still found his way to a trophy. His slow start, his funky practice contraptions, his constant tinkering — Phil’s got guts. He showed that on Sunday if nothing else.

Geoff Shackelford, Two things stood out from inside the ropes: Phil hit the ball pretty awful for two days, including a vile snap hook on No. 3 Sunday, and still won. Even more amazing, Fred Couples shanked his second shot on the 72nd hole of a tour event, as Darren Carroll’s image will prove when he sends it in. What a shame, because it was a great run for Freddie. Van, to your question on Phil’s win, I say the boys should be terrified because he really didn’t play even close to his best and just shot 15 under at Riviera.

Ponder this: He shot 62 on Saturday and hit balls after the round with Butch, and he hit it awful! The new 3-wood came through big time for him Sunday, and if he will just use it more and keep the ball on the planet, he’s going to be tough to beat.

Van Sickle: One more thing on Phil: we made fun of him for taking driver out of the bag at Torrey Pines last summer. Then he stepped up on the monster 18th hole at Riviera with the tournament on the line and teed off with … the 3-wood.

Shackelford: Phil told us scribblers that the 3-wood essentially saved the day for him. Can’t say I disagree since his snap hook off No. 3 was one of the worst drives I’ve ever seen a great player hit. It’s also fascinating how the win here, the Match Play and everything else are clearly secondary to him behind The Masters. He’s just repeated at Riviera, which used to mean something, and all he can talk about is how it was great to be in contention to prepare him for Augusta. And the Match Play? He says it’s like six final rounds, which is great preparation for The Masters. I don’t ever remember someone winning here and viewing it that way. Got to love his focus on the big prize, but it’s not like this is a silly season event.

Van Sickle: That’s more of the Tiger Effect. Only the majors matter to him, and therefore to the rest of us. The Hogan history at Riviera, and also at Colonial, has very little meaning for the players two generations removed. Too bad.

Evans: The more Phil talks about Masters buildup, the more golf will become like tennis. Can anybody remember watching tennis outside of the Grand Slams? Golf is headed in that direction, despite reports to the contrary from the Golf Channel.

Herre: OK, what do we expect to see at Dove Mountain this week? I’ll state the obvious and say that the best time to get Tiger is early — Wednesday or Thursday. After that, he could be trouble. I’m also a bit puzzled why Tiger chose the Match Play to return. Seems like a potential seven rounds is biting off a lot after eight months off.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Rumors are still swirling here in Arizona about when Tiger will actually arrive. Right now, it sounds like it will be Tuesday. That would mean only one practice round before the competition begins Wednesday. I know the guy is Superman, but making a comeback on a course you’ve only played one practice round on seems a little crazy.

Friedman: Maybe losing on, say, Thursday won’t be so awful for him. It’ll be like getting a few at-bats in spring training. (Of course, after the baseball players do that, they play golf!)

Morfit: Here’s the skinny on Brendan Jones, courtesy of the guy who’s going to carry his bag, my friend Ron (Bambi) Levin: Jones, who plays in Japan, hasn’t been playing very much competitive golf, either. He didn’t think he was going to make the field in Tucson. He’s got nothing to lose, obviously, but he’s also a long hitter. This will be a new course for everyone, but according to Levin it’s a long hitter’s golf course. (Okay, that pretty much describes 95% of the courses on Tour, but still.) But I don’t think Tiger has anything to lose, either. If he bows out in the first round, he’s got the perfect excuse — he was rusty. Plus he’s made an official start.

Van Sickle: Match play is less pressure because he doesn’t have to shoot 64 out of the box. He just has to beat Brendan Jones.

Bamberger: I agree Match Play is a good week to come back. If he loses early, he goes home and works on whatever wasn’t sharp. If he wins, he wins. He plays a lot of golf in a short time to see what kind of golf shape he’s in. The key for long days on the course, whether it’s in match play or a six-hour U.S. Open round, is mental fitness. Tiger’s king there.

Hack: Paddy Harrington said it best. Tiger doesn’t need us or anyone else to tell him when to come back. He’s swinging pain-free, Charlie Axel has seen a few days and nights now, so what’s left for Tiger to do but come back and play? He won the U.S. freaking Open playing on one leg. You think Brendan Jones, J.B. Holmes, Phil Mickelson or anyone else is going to scare him?

Van Sickle: TW is 31-6 in this tournament (the same, I believe, as Denny McLain’s record for the Tigers in ’68). Two out of three matches are over before he gets to the first tee.

Friedman: I’ve never before seen TW and Denny McLain in the same sentence! A first, Vans!

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: C’mon, guys, you’re missing the obvious: Tiger’s at the Match Play because the timing is nice and, maybe more important, Accenture is one of his sponsors. Appearance fees are alive and well on the PGA Tour, no matter what Tim Finchem says.

Van Sickle: Lipsey nails it. If Northern Trust wants to recruit Tiger, quit sending him e-mails and buy him. It worked for Buick, Accenture, American Express, AT&T, Deutsche Bank and those events in Germany and the Middle East.

Herre: But is there anyone left out there with Tiger Money?

Gorant: Along those lines, it came out this week that Tiger will have AT&T on his bag. Think he’s getting extra for that, or is it a thank you to the guys who are footing the bill for his tournament?

Van Sickle: AT&T can’t be a freebie. No way. As for the money, was anybody ever more worth it? Nike owes its entire golf business to him.

Bamberger: Tiger’s way underpaid. He proved that during his eighth-month absence. Chi-Chi Rodriguez used to have this line about how every player should kneel and pray to Arnold Palmer before going to bed. Tiger’s all that, and more. Everything sagged without him. He’s keeping the whole thing afloat. Chad Campbell should be sending 10 percent of his paycheck to Tiger.

Friedman: This is something to keep an eye on. Much as many companies might want to sign Tiger, they just might not be able to justify it. I don’t want to compare him to Manny Ramirez, but last year someone would have met Manny’s price, baggage or no. This year, not so much.

Van Sickle: Tiger’s value is that without him, golf isn’t on the front page of the sports section anymore. In fact, a lot of newspapers went back to running blurbs in their news brief sections, not Doug Ferguson AP epics. Phil’s win in L.A. will warrant a story, maybe on the front page of sports, maybe not.

Herre: The Tour’s biggest short-term problem could be what Dick alluded to — in the present climate, sponsoring golf tournaments could be viewed as wasteful spending, especially if the sponsoring entity is shedding jobs.

Dusek: Hey Damon, as a So-Cal guy, were you a little disappointed that Anthony Kim played in Australia and skipped Riviera? What kind of preparation for a big-time event is that? I know he’s 23, but jet lag is jet lag.

Hack: I was thinking on Sunday how fun it would have been to have had Kim on this leader board. He is more L.A. than Tiger is. (Koreatown can claim much more of the city than Cypress can). I can’t think that Kim’s absence is going to be the routine, but you never know. Winning changes a lot of things.

Gorant: I don’t think Kim ever came back from Hawaii. Headed to Australia after the Sony. He’s collecting those appearance fees and qualifying for the Race to Dubai.

Evans: Anthony Kim wants to be a world player, and he has 20-odd more chances to play in L.A.

Lipsey: For Kim, like Tiger, it’s clearly all about the $$$$. Money chasing is a growing problem for pro golf because it’s luring the top players away from the PGA Tour. Now they’re either playing only when/where sponsors want them to play or where they get the biggest appearance fee. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a collection of maybe 20 events, from L.A. to Singapore to Dubai, that will have all the big boys. The rest of the events on the major pro tours will have fields composed of guys from the scrap heap.

Gorant: What do we know about/think of the new Match Play course?

Van Sickle: It appears to be another rambling Nicklaus desert job with crazily tiered greens. It will be better for spectating than the previous course, the Gallery, a John Fought design that I thought was pretty good, but maybe only slightly better. A bunch of front-nine holes climb into the adjacent foothills, which will not be an easy walk for cameramen, fans and aging hack writers.

Ryan Reiterman, producer, Can we show some love for Danny Lee? The kid is 18 and beat a very strong field at the Johnnie Walker. A lot of recent U.S. Amateur champs have fizzled away, but he seems like the real deal. Can’t wait for him to turn pro after the Masters. Anyone know if he plans to jump on the PGA Tour or European Tour?

Herre: Lee doesn’t have any status in the U.S. and has now won a Euro event — he plays in Europe.

Evans: Danny Lee is better than Ryo Ishikawa, who had 200 cameras on him this week in L.A.

Van Sickle: The sooner Danny Lee turns pro, the sooner Mike Van Sickle inches up another spot in the World Amateur Rankings.

Dusek: Looking at the brackets that came out Sunday night, there are some very interesting matches in the first round.

Friedman: Boy, Mickelson against Cabrera is like North Carolina drawing, say, Villanova or Marquette in the first round of the NCAAs.

Bamberger: A few weeks ago we were all agog about Pat Perez. But, really, Pat Perez against Padraig Harrington in match play, on a desert course, that should be good.

Herre: I think Stricker, who has played well on the West Coast swing, will still have the red ass from Sunday’s disappointment and be dangerous.

Van Sickle: Forget the matchups. I’d look for some of the usual suspects to do well in match play on a big desert course that will favor big hitters: Ogilvy, Stenson, Holmes and Woods. Maybe even Davis Love. Since putting is big in match play, I also like Justin Leonard. (Don’t laugh, he’s tough in match play.) Ditto on Stricker. It’s surprising that Phil hasn’t done better in this tournament, given his match-play reputation from amateur golf.

Shackelford: Here’s a prediction for you: look for Andres Romero to make it to the final four. I’m not prepared to be any bolder than that. But the guy is awesome, and other than a few hiccups, he should have won at Riviera. Match play should be ideal for him.

Dusek: Geoff Ogilvy won the Match Play in 2006 and finished second in 2007. He won at the Mercedes this year and has quietly had a nice West Coast Swing. He will be my pick.