PGA Tour Confidential: Tiger’s march to Augusta, relationship with Lindsey Vonn

March 25, 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.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Tiger Woods is in control at the rain-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational. What's impressed you most about Woods's play this season as he heads into the Masters?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I am most impressed by Tiger's happiness. I am happy for him.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Two key things for Tiger are that his wedge game is back — he's been deadly with those 60-, 70-, 90-yard wedge shots — and his putting. Whether you thank or blame Steve Stricker, Tiger is rolling his putts great. Mix great putting in with excellent iron play and Tiger is back to being in the mix every time he tees it up. Yeah, uh-oh!

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Well, he is obviously making putts, but what has impressed me most is his iron play. And he seems to be putting a lot of 2s on the scorecard. That is never a bad thing.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: He seems more at ease out there — not so much stress about the insult of the rare bad shot. He's doing what he's done throughout his career, playing well on the courses he likes the most.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, His putting. When he's confident on the greens he is very tough to beat.

Stephanie Wei, I really like Tiger's demeanor and quiet confidence. It's different than what we've seen in the last few years. He doesn't have that same invincible aura as he did pre-scandal, but it's pretty darn close. When he has the lead going into the last round, there's that sense he's not going to royally mess up, so he'll be tough to beat.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: We all talk about his putting and short game, which are looking much better, but he's really bombing it again too. Woods plays a power game and during his injuries and swing changes, he wasn't getting his usual advantage with the driver. In 2011, he was 71st on Tour in driving distance at 294 yards. This year, he's 11th at 300 yards.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Wish I had something new to say because I feel like I've said this a bunch already: putter. That was the biggest thing missing.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, He's all but eliminated his misses to the left off the tee. Last year, he fought a hook when under pressure, especially during those disappointing weekends at the majors. This year when he's wild, it's almost always a miss to the right, and he's still able to play through it.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: For all the obsessing about Tiger's long-game, what I like most about his game this year is that he's relearned the art of scoring. His wedge game from 100 yards has been terrific, he's more efficient getting up and down and he's putted at times like the young Crenshaw. All of that takes tons of pressure off his ballstriking, which, by the way, has been more consistent, too.

Reiterman: Last year, Tiger was in the mix at the majors, but he faded over the weekend. This year he looks to have everything in order as we head to Augusta. Has your opinion changed on how many majors Tiger will win this year?

Bamberger: Tiger's issues in last year's majors remain. He wants it too much.

Godich: I seem to recall that Tiger had things pretty much in order last year as well. That said, I maintain that his stellar play in 2013 means nothing until he takes that same game with him to a major — and wins. If he doesn't deliver, I say it's a sign that he is no longer immune to the pressure.

Ritter: I wrote earlier that I wouldn't pick Tiger to win a major until I see his game actually hold up under the pressure of a major weekend. It's tempting to revise this, since he's clearly improved several phases of his game this season, but for now I will stubbornly, and perhaps stupidly, maintain my stance that Tiger gets shut out in the majors this season. I'm fully aware that I might end up eating a giant plate of crow. Is it OK if I deep-fry it first? I'm just guessing it would taste better deep-fried.

Lynch: He doesn't have everything in order. Check his driving stats this week: he is hardly distinguishing himself in that category. A hot putter can disguise that at a run-of-the-mill Tour venue like Bay Hill or Doral, but a major tournament set-up is more likely to attach a cost to errant driving. I still say he grabs one this year.

Gorant: Well, Ryan, not to toot the ol' horn, but I believe it's you and me who have never wavered on the "Tiger will break the record" position. So I don't have a projection for how many he'll win this year in particular, but I'm once again repeating my belief that he will break Jack's record.

Shipnuck: This Masters sets up as one of the most important tournaments of Tiger's career. He's healthy, his game is in great shape, he's in love … basically, he's out of the excuses that have been trotted out in his post-scandal major championship drought. If he wins the Masters he's back to being Tiger Woods, more or less. If he fails to perform, you have to say the mental scar tissue is so great he'll be a question mark at every major going forward.

Morfit: Yes, my opinion has changed, largely because he just seems happier with his life whether he does or he doesn't. That takes a lot of the pressure off. I'll say he wins a major. I'll say he wins the U.S. Open at Merion by playing small ball the way he did to win the Open at Hoylake.

Walker: Tiger has dismissed the idea that he needed to learn how to win again, but that's what it's looked like so far. He was in the mix last year, and I think he breaks through at a major this year, though my guess is Merion, not Augusta.

Wei: Yes. How can you not be high on Tiger right now? He's not even hitting the ball that well this week and he's dominating.

Reiterman: What's been the story so far this year? Rory's lackluster start? Tiger's dominance? Or Stacy Lewis taking over the LPGA?

Van Sickle: Rory and Stacy have been stories so far but Tiger is about to make them old news. Five wins in the last year before Bay Hill. He's on the rise and all things Tiger, especially involving winning, dwarf everything else in golf. We're almost back to all Tiger, all the time in the golf news business, at the request of the readers.

Morfit: I'd say the story this year has been Rory's crummy start. Because of that, we really have no idea if the new king is the same as the old king. It looks that way, but we just don't know. I still think Rory's best golf is more explosive than Tiger's, but who really knows?

Bamberger: The biggest story of the year is how the fight to stop the anchored-putting ban died. Well played, Mr. Commissioner. An assist to the European Tour. It played out the way it should have. The PGA's position was honest, but not best for golf. We need a strong rules-making body. That doesn't meant the USGA can't be challenged. It should be challenged. But the rule change is a smart one and golf, I believe, will be better for it. We've strayed too far from the game's primitive roots as it is.

Godich: Tiger's dominance. Whenever he's in the hunt, that's good for golf. Just look at the ratings.

Walker: Tiger's return is the story. The American golf media care far more about Rory McIlroy than American golf fans do.

Gorant: Tiger hasn't dominated yet. If he wins this week he's in position to be dominant in my book. Rory just seems to be MIA.

Lynch: Rory's sluggish start is probably more surprising than Tiger winning three times before Augusta. But the stories that really matter start being written in two weeks after the Masters.

Ritter: Rory and Stacy have been interesting subplots, but the story of 2013 is Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.

Shipnuck: Stacy Lewis has been a massive lift for the LPGA but I'm not sure how many casual fans are tuned in to what she's doing. Tiger played dominant golf at times last year, so it becomes news only if/when he wins a major. So, to me, the big story has been Rory's fragility. It throws into doubt if he has the stomach to carry an entire sport. Fred Couples didn't, and they're pretty similar personalities. No one is doubting the kid's talent, but it takes a certain toughness and selfishness to be number one and that's not exactly who McIlroy is.

Wei: It's gotta be Tiger. He moves the needle unlike anyone else.

Reiterman: Earlier this week, Tiger and Lindsey Vonn publicly announced they are a couple by posting messages on their respective Facebook pages. What did you make of Tiger's attempt to diffuse the "stalkerazzi."

Wei: Such a Tiger move. It was pretty weird and creepy, but can't say I'm surprised Tiger chose to do that so he's devalued any other first pics of him and Vonn. I just don't know what I'd do if my boyfriend was like, "Hey, how about we have an awkward photo shoot and release them to make us Facebook-official?"

Bamberger: Tiger is smart to go public. There's less mystery, less for the stalkers to go after.

Morfit: I was happy for him, in some measure because it's a whole lot easier covering a guy who is happy and at ease with the way his life is going. The big question I have now is not whether the comeback is on or not, because it definitely is. The question is how many people will get behind it. Will his victories get the same attention, the same play in the media? The response so far seems slightly muted, but maybe the frenzy will return if he wins the Masters.

Ritter: It's nice to see Woods is happy in his personal life, and how he chooses to release the news is up to him. I thought the Facebook post was a little odd, but he reasoned that the photos would "devalue" paparazzi shots taken of him and Lindsey. That may be true, but it also exponentially increased the value of any new photos of Tiger with other women. I take it as a sign that Tiger's learned from his past transgressions and is confident in his new relationship.

Lynch: Let's be honest here. If you really want privacy and to be left alone, you don't seek out a celebrity girlfriend and then announce it on Facebook, complete with photos obviously taken with the same Vaseline-smeared lens used to shoot close-ups of Barbara Walters. It is another attempt by Team Tiger to control all coverage of him. Fair enough. He's entitled to try, but releasing lousy photographs isn't going to stop paparazzi from chasing him looking for more authentic shots.

Van Sickle: The average person — all of us — have no idea what it's like to be famous enough to be stalked by photographers 24/7. So I'll give Tiger a pass on anything in this area. If it helps reduce the stalking, great. If it's just to take money out of the paparazzi's pockets, I'm OK with that, too. If he really wants to take the edge of this situation, he should go out in public with Vonn, like, every day until it stops being news and becomes normal.

Walker: Good luck to him and Vonn. However, Tiger's hostility to the tabloids is just going to make them more aggressive.

Godich: I see it as another step in his attempt to rehabilitate his image. He had to get a boost from the Nike ads with Rory. This won't hurt either. The guy is at least making an attempt, however minor, to connect with fans. Good for him.

Shipnuck: It's the way of the world. My only critique is how cheesy those staged prom-style photos were. Where's Walter Ioss when you really need him?!

Gorant: The joke of it is that world-famous athlete releases photos of himself and world-famous athlete girlfriend and then asks for privacy. Ha! You want privacy? Date another nanny. Has he not been paying attention to the whole Wozilroy thing? Maybe he has and he's jealous of the attention they're getting. Whatever. At some point, the "here's my famous girlfriend, please don't pay attention to us" thing rings very hollow.

Reiterman: U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson's first "big move" as skipper was to reduce the number of picks from four to three. Good move or bad move?

Shipnuck: Yawn. If this is Watson's idea of reinventing the captaincy, the U.S. is in trouble.

Godich: Let me see who locks down the ninth spot and get back to you.

Gorant: Doesn't matter. Feels like Watson is out on the porch shaking a rake — "you kids get off my yard." He's going to show the younger generation how it worked back in the day — you know back in the days when the Euros couldn't hit it out of Jack's shadow.

Morfit: Yawn. The move takes some of the power from the captain and hands it back to the players, but it's more meaningful that Americans have won every tournament so far on Tour in 2013.

Lynch: We won't know if it's a good or bad move for another 18 months. But, man, Lanny Wadkins is gonna be pissed if he misses out on what would have been the fourth captain's pick.

Walker: Great move. The move to four captain's picks was unsporting. Give more guys a chance to play their way onto the team. I wish he had gone back to two.

Ritter: It's neither good nor bad. If Watson feels that nine automatic qualifiers is the right number for his team, it's his choice. The U.S. will be a big underdog no matter how many picks Watson makes.

Van Sickle: Watson is a smart man and a traditionalist. I think he likes the idea of players playing their way onto the team. Since Paul Azinger revamped the points system to make it much more current than the previous model, it should work just as well with nine automatic players as eight. Maybe even with ten. I don't see it making a big difference either way. So I'm fine with it. I rate John Daly's chances of making the team the same as they were before — zero.

Wei: Good compromise between 4 and 2? I am kind of indifferent, but given the U.S. team's dismal Ryder Cup record in recent years, it can't hurt changing things up a bit. I'm assuming he partly made the modification based on Hunter Mahan, who finished 9th in points but was not selected as one of DL3's four captain's picks. Had there only been three picks available, the thinking is that either Steve Stricker or Jim Furyk would have been left off the team and perhaps the U.S. would have prevailed. The only problem with that is the Americans should have won regardless — lots of guys didn't bring it home in Sunday singles.

Bamberger: Unnecessary move. He could just do it without saying a word about it.