PGA Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods, Barack Obama play golf, John Merrick wins Riviera

February 19, 2013

Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome, teammates. I was planning a ho-hum session devoted to the winner of the Northern Trust Open, but the week went rogue on me. Let's start with President Obama's fantasy-golf weekend at the Floridian, which featured a playing lesson from Butch Harmon and a round with Tiger Woods. First, give me your take on the Prez's bachelor weekend. Second, pretend you're the Leader of the Free World. What combination of course, coach and golf partner would you choose for your dream outing?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's great that the Prez is such a golf junkie. As Bamberger has pointed out, the more he plays, the better it is for all of us who love the game. For my presidential weekend, I'd probably pick Butch, too. If nothing else he's an amazing storyteller. And my playing partners would Jack, Arnie and Tiger. With Blair O'Neal as first alternate.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Obama has played more as the First Golfer than I have as a working golf typist. I'm jealous. Course? National Golf Links of America. Coach? Bill Harmon, for spiritual insights. Partner? Does it have to be a living person in this fantasy? I'll say it does not, in which case I'm going for Spiro Agnew, Frank Sinatra, along with John Garrity.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It's funny how President Bush was compelled to give up golf as long as our fighting soldiers were serving in the Middle East, but it's been okay for Obama to go for the most-rounds-by-a-President-in-office and not a word of complaint. He went to the right guy for help in Butch. Wonder if Tiger voted for Obama? If I'm President, I'm going to Coyote Springs (near Mesquite, Nev.) because it's isolated and unique, and I'm playing with Rocco Mediate, who's going to tell me more stories than I can remember.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Good for O. Everybody needs a getaway weekend. After a short-game tune-up with Dave Stockton I'd go to Augusta National with Arnie for a trip around the par-3 and then the big course.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, One can argue that the President deserved that Nobel Peace Prize if Tiger and Butch announce a reconciliation tomorrow. But that's about as likely as me running the world. In the event I do grab control I'll keep my existing Swing Whisperer (Mike Adams at the Medalist Golf Club and Hamilton Farm), and opt for Cypress Point with a childhood friend.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I hope the President Obama-Woods game will help them both, but for selfish reasons I'd love it if Obama could mentor Woods a bit. I think Tiger has been missing that in his life. If I were leader of the free world, I'd play Pebble with Sean Foley and Andres Gonzales 'cause it sure wouldn't be boring.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Great to see Obama get out and enjoy a good old-fashioned guys weekend, and the fact that he played a round with Tiger tells you all you need to know about how far Woods's image has progressed. As for my presidential round, I'll play Augusta National with my old high school golf coach, Al Johansen, and to complete the group, we'll play with the tiny green alien that only I, as president, and a handful of other people know exist. I wouldn't want to finish last in my group, and I'm guessing Marvin the Martian has no game.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: It's fodder for his critics. It's one thing to get away from the pressure of the job with 18, but getting lux lessons and goofing off with TW while Rome burns doesn't look good. Especially while noted Twitter hater Charlie Beljan was almost winning in L.A. As for part two, what's the standard reply-Augusta, Claude Harmon and Bobby Jones?

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: I think it's great that President Obama played with Tiger, but he was smart to wait until after the election. Obama picked the right player and teacher, but I'd be at the Old Course.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, I like that the President is getting serious about the game. I just hope he speaks publicly about what Butch told him to work on! And if I ruled the world for a day, I'd also go with Butch and Tiger, but my venue would be Cypress Point.

Stephanie Wei, Well, first, I'm pretty jealous of the President's golfing weekend! It's always funny to me when people/press criticize Obama for playing golf. I think it's great he's trying to get better at the game. Second, I'll take Cypress, Joe Thiel (my swing coach in junior/college golf and I haven't gotten a lesson in probably five years, but I'd never cheat on him), and my partner would be my old buddy Andres Gonzales (also took lessons from Thiel as a junior golfer).

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: What's your take on the Tiger-Obama pairing? And which course, coach and partner would you tee off with if you were president?

Garrity: Meanwhile, a 15-year-old girl continued to draw our attention to the Antipodes. Amateur Lydia Ko finished third at the Australian Open in her attempt to win back-to-back pro tournaments (and a second LPGA title), but her brilliant play over three rounds prompted Golf Channel to go with live coverage. Is this a women's version of Tigermania? And speaking of Tiger, were his teenage feats more or less impressive than Lydia's?

Godich: I don't remember Tiger beating the professionals as a 15-year-old amateur.

Van Sickle: Ko, while a delightful player, isn't the amazing mix of power, miracle shots and thousand-watt smile that Tiger was. And let me know when she wins six straight national amateur championships, signs for $40 million when she turns pro and plays her way onto a pro tour in six events. I'll stick with Tiger on that one.

Lynch: The Ko story only echoes 'Tigermania' if the networks start to pay attention and it moves beyond just the confines of the golf world. She's beating the best in her sport, not the best in her age group, at 15. Tiger didn't do that until he was 21.

Morfit: Tiger's teen-age feats were more impressive. He won the U.S. Junior three times followed by the U.S. Amateur three times. That's almost impossible.

Bamberger: Tiger winning the three straight junior ams followed by the three straight ams makes him a legend for all time even if he never turned pro. Lydia's whole thing is very cool and amazing, but she's not even on Tiger's junior radar.

Wei: I thought it was great Golf Channel adjusted their schedule to show the live coverage. (Takes a lot to switch things up for women's golf! — well done, Lydia!) I'm not a fan of comparing the men and the women because they're kind of different beasts. I mean, the junior and college ranks are comparable, but when you get to playing with the pros, it's a pointless exercise. Lydia's achieved more at 15 than Tiger, so I'll say she's more impressive, but again, it's like comparing apples and oranges.

Gorant: After Michelle Wie, I have decided to no longer comment on any player under 17 unless they have at least two USGA titles, can consistently drive the ball more than 330 yards, or can name every winner of the British Open, in order. But I'll offer this: she's got potential.

Ritter: Not sure if the golf world has full-blown Komania, but it's a nice start to a potentiall great story. But Tiger's feats were much more impressive because he remained at the top of the amateur game for so long, while Ko is on something like a six-month hot streak.

Walker: Tiger has the edge on teenage achievement right now, but Lydia's got four more years to catch up.

Reiterman: Whoa, there! Tigermania, like all other manias (Beatlemania, Hulkamania), transcended the game. While Lydia's play has been incredible, it's barely made a blip on the radar outside the golf world. And, no, six straight USGA titles is way more impressive than what Ko has done.

Shipnuck: Lydia is such a breath of fresh air. I don't know if she has the best swing in golf but she definitely has the best smile. And she clearly knows how to win, unlike Michelle Wie before her. I think winning three pro events by 15 is at least as impressive as Tiger's match play run. Yes, he had no margin for error, but he was competing against bankers and college kids, not hardened pros.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Whose teenage feats impress you more: Tiger's or Lydia's?

Garrity: We learned today that Ko is going to play alongside the men at the New Zealand PGA Championship. Good idea or bad idea?

Gorant: Bad idea — express lane to loss of confidence and bad swing habits.

Bamberger: Good idea. To develop golf skill, always try to play with better players.

Van Sickle: Ko playing with men is a good idea if she wants to raise her celebrity Q-rating and increase her potential endorsement payday, as Wie did. It's a bad idea if she wants to become a better player and practice winning. We're still waiting for Wie to do that.

Ritter: As long as the decision came from Ko and not from her handlers, I say let it rip.

Lynch: The comparison with Michelle Wie doesn't hold water. Wie hadn't won anything when she started competing against men. Ko is already a proven winner. If she brings something to the event, she should go for it.

Godich: That makes absolutely no sense. Let's see her sustain this success over an extended period of time before moving up in class.

Wei: Everyone is going to bring up Michelle Wie as a case against it. I'm fine with Ko playing alongside the men. Wie and Ko are not the same person — Ko has already won on the LPGA and LET. Playing in the Sony Open (as Michelle did) and the New Zealand pro-am event (which sounds more like an exhibition) are completely different. What Lydia is participating in is almost like Condi Rice playing at Pebble. What's the harm?

Walker: How many child stars have to fail before these parents wise up? Have Lydia's parents seen Macaulay Culkin lately?

Morfit: Why is she going to play with the men? Why doesn't she turn pro so she can play alongside the women and make some money?

Reiterman: I think Ko is getting plenty of positive attention from playing well in LPGA events. Playing against the men only invites the kind of scrutiny Wie's been living under for more than a decade now-especially since Ko said she plans on staying an am for a few years. Just let her be a kid.

Shipnuck: Sure, why not? It's not exactly the Masters. It's good for women's golf and it's good for the tourney. I don't see a downside.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Ko vs. the boys: Good idea or bad idea?

Garrity: John Merrick beat Charlie Beljan on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff to win the Northern Trust Open. What one memory will you retain from the week at Riviera?

Ritter: The course looked great in HD.

Godich: For three days that was one impressive leaderboard, and it looked as if we were headed for a fantastic finish. What happened? Merrick is a fabulous story, but I have to say the finish was anti-climactic.

Van Sickle: I'll remember Jim Nantz and the CBS guys gushing over how far these guys hit the ball as Charl Schwartzel delivered a 323-yard drive at the par-5 17th hole Sunday. The CBS graphic showed Schwartzel's drive carried all of 271 yards, not out of the ordinary, but on the firm fairways it rolled another 52 yards. Jimbo and Sir Nick didn't so much as notice that stat.

Lynch: That the 10th hole still stands as one of golf's greatest short par 4s, and evidence that you don't have to add 50 yards to the tee to defend a course against modern pros.

Bamberger: Bill Haas looking like he was going to shoot 80, trying to keep it together. And the course, which never looked better.

Morfit: I'll remember Merrick with his little boy in his arms, tearing up as he did TV interviews. As far as why he won, I'll remember the guy behind the 18th green who shouted as he and Charlie Beljan left: "Lay up on 10!" I'll also remember Freddy Jacobson, who'd just bogeyed 18 to miss the playoff, being told by one of his excited little girls, "Daddy, look at my tattoo!" Kids put it all in perspective.

Reiterman: I'll remember what I always remember about Riviera — that 10th hole is freakin' awesome.

Wei: I'll remember the wedge that Merrick hit into the tricky par-4 10th, the second playoff hole. He laid up with a 3-iron while Belgian hit driver (which wasn't the best course management with the pin tucked in the back right). So, Merrick's shot landed hard and on a slope and kicked left. Looked like he was going to get screwed with a crappy bounce, but then the ball had a ton of juice on it, and it stayed on the green about 20 feet from the pin. That really put the pressure on Beljan, who was long and left with a tough pitch … and the rest is history.

Shipnuck: Luke Donald's unbelievable 230-yard approach shot around a tree to three feet on the 14th hole Saturday. He called it the shot of his life. That and Charlie Beljan's lusty fist-pump after his must-make birdie on the 72nd hole. I love to see that kind of emotion.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: What's your lasting memory from the week at Riviera?

Garrity: The past week was notable for the comments of Hall of Famer Ray Floyd and course designer Tom Doak. Floyd, in a Golf Magazine Q&A, said, "Guys get into the Hall of Fame that don't belong"-a shot at his good friend, Fred Couples. Doak, meanwhile, deplored the trend of renovating iconic courses, citing Merion and the Old Course, in advance of majors. "I've spent years of consulting work trying to put back courses to the way they were designed," Doak said. "It's much easier to refrain from messing them up in the first place." Do you side with the iconoclasts or the establishment?

Lynch: Both are basically fighting the same battle here: the lowering of the bar in golf, the watering down of what used to stand as examples of greatness. The Hall of Fame can argue that on-course achievement is not the only criteria for admission, which is fair enough. But the criteria ought to be defined better. Obviously enough voters felt Couples deserves to be there. That's the key. There was at least a vote here. The honchos at the St. Andrews Links Trust sent bulldozers in to churn the greatest course on the planet with no public consultation or review period. That's Hall of Shame conduct, and Doak is right to slam it.

Bamberger: They both nailed it. Doak told me years ago, "Most clubs regret their renovations after the fact." My course is having a big makeover. I have my fingers crossed. Floyd is saying what Mike Schmidt says about Cooperstown: It's become the hall of very good. The first time I went to Cooperstown, there was a special exhibit on Babe Ruth, including a sample of his stationery: "Babe Ruth, New York City." A true star. To be in a Hall of Fame you should be a LEGEND. Like Dan Jenkins, Frank Chirkinian, Deane Beman, Bob Jones. But now the door is open and St. Augustine will become a depository for the very good. Maybe that's a good thing for the Hall itself, but it doesn't set well with those who dug a ton of dirt to get in.

Godich: Where's the rule that says somebody has to be inducted into the Hall every year? Baseball didn't elect anybody last month, and yet, best I can tell, the earth continues to rotate. With all of the parity in golf, we're going to get to the point where a middling player is going to be inducted one year, just for the sake of having a ceremony. And as for the golf-design debate, put me in the traditionalist camp. Why the concern about protecting par? Fans want to see good golf. Plus, at Merion, I'd love to be able to compare how the best players in the world fare against the stars of a generation ago on a comparable course. We might be surprised.

Walker: I'll take the establishment's side. The World Golf Hall of Fame is about celebrating the game. Couples and Montgomerie are part of the story of professional golf. That might not be enough for Cooperstown, but it's enough for Ponte Vedra Beach. And renovating iconic courses in preparation for majors is a necessary evil. If you want to have major championships at these courses-and it's important to do that-then they need to be lengthened and toughened to withstand modern equipment. It would be great if all course adjustments were handled with the care of Augusta National, and not done like a thief in the night, but that's another issue.

Morfit: Floyd is right. Good for Raymundo for speaking his mind. I also agree with Doak. Renovating the old course seems crazy. I'm less familiar with Merion.

Reiterman: I see where Floyd is coming from, but the fact is there won't be a Hall of Fame much longer if the bar isn't lowered a bit. If Rickie Fowler is inducted next year, then we know there's a problem. I agree with Doak. There's nothing wrong with a few nips and tucks but I wish we could leave these great courses alone.

Van Sickle: Iconoclasts rule, although I would've preferred a word that was easier to spell, Garrity. For the sake of producing a TV show and having an awards ceremony, the Hall is sweeping in five or six inductees a year. That's more than 50 every decade. We're fresh out of legit Hall of Famers. Couples is in with one major? Monty is in with zero. Long live Raymundo. As for Doak, it's unusual for him to state something so obvious. He's right on, again. Doak for Czar of Golf. Do I have a second?

Gorant: Agree and agree. The Hall of Fame is belittling itself every year, but as Gary points out, it will continue because they need someone at the ceremony every year.

Shipnuck: This is too easy. Clearly the Hall of Fame has been devalued in recent years, and only a Philistine like Peter Dawson thinks it's a good idea to muck around with the Old Course and other classic venues. Raymundo and Doak speak for us all.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Has the Hall of Fame been diminished? Are too many classic courses being torn apart?