Tour Confidential: Without Tiger Woods, Who Is Masters Favorite?

April 4, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1.) All right, folks, at long last Masters week is upon us. Make your case, with as much conviction as you dare, for who will slip on the green jacket next Sunday evening.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Jason Day. When the best player in the world is playing his best, on a course that suits him beautifully, how can you bet against him?

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I think I started off last week in Tour Confidential agreeing with AS, and I’m doing it again this week. No one has more confidence going into the Masters as Jason Day. His prodigious length and unflappable scrambling abilities are ideal for Augusta, as his track record shows and his play of late—beating the best in the world two weeks in a row—means he’s the one.

Shipnuck: This shows how smart you are, Joe—not that you picked Day but that you are consistently agreeing with me!

Passov: Next week, I’ll change course. Maybe.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Seldom does the obvious prediction actually come to fruition. In this case, though, I’ve got to go with Jason Day. He’s long, he’s a wonderful putter, and he’s filled with belief. That’s a dangerous combination. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): I’m no genius, which means I don’t always agree with Alan. But I am smart enough to know that when three consecutive pundits on a roundtable concur on something, it can’t possibly happen. Plus, I’ve been saying for weeks that Mickelson is going to pull off some middle-age magic. I’ll say it again. Fourth green jacket for Phil. 

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): No love for Jordan Spieth? I’ll take the defending champ and the guy who finished T-2 in his only other appearance. Jordan has shown signs of life over the past two weeks, and a return to the National will only genereate good memories. Plus, how many players does he have to beat—maybe 30? Last I checked he romped in his last two limited-field events, at the Tour Championship and the Tournament of Champions. 

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s an even-numbered year, so give me a parlay of the Giants to win the World Series and Bubba Watson to take another green jacket. Bubba has a win and has otherwise looked great this year, and Augusta has become his playground. 

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): While my Tiger Woods bobbing head doll picked Adam Scott, I agree that Phil Mickelson is on a mission of relevancy and I, too, think the Masters will feature a case of Phil-harmonic convergence.

Godich: I’m confident that Phil will give us plenty of thrills, but I also fear that at 45 he won’t be able to sustain it for four days. That said, I wouldn’t mind being wrong. 

MORE MASTERS: Visit’s Masters Hub

2.) At the Masters tune-up otherwise known as the Shell Houston Open, journeyman Jim Herman prevailed in what was his 106th PGA Tour start, but a host of more familiar names also had stellar weeks, including Henrik Stenson (finished 2nd), Dustin Johnson (3rd), Patrick Reed (T-10), Rickie Fowler (T-10), Phil Mickelson (T-13), and Jordan Spieth (T-13). What was the biggest takeaway from the SHO?

Shipnuck: Watching all of these familiar names make so many mistakes on Sunday. Herman played great but Spieth and Johnson in particular didn’t close. I guess it’s helpful they put themselves in position but they’ll have to be much sharper in crunch time to have a chance at the jacket. 

Morfit: For a while I was thinking maybe Mickelson was going to sneak into Augusta and win a fourth green jacket, but I was disturbed by his inability to keep the big number off his card in Houston. Stringing four straight good rounds together is the last piece of the puzzle for him, and—what a difference a year makes—Jordan Spieth. 

Passov: I’m most intrigued by the Jim Herman show. Remarkable background story, having been an assistant pro at Trump Bedminster. Sure, a little luck involved chipping in at 16, but that’s fate. The larger point is that this true journeyman hung in against a stellar field. I can’t knock Spieth for shooting 70 or Dustin Johnson for shooting 69, though it’s undeniable they missed many opportunities, but my takeaway from that as is that at least they’re playing well going into Augusta. That was as important as getting the W.

Morfit: A touch of Vaughn Taylor at Pebble in the Jim Herman story. Good for him. 

Sens: True, Cam. And the tears. Hard not to pull for a guy who sheds them so freely he has to slip on sunglasses. Regarding other takeaways, is it time we started picking out a nice bridesmaid dress for Stenson? He’s been looking quite comfortable with close calls.

Godich: Talk about your feel-good story. Who wasn’t rooting for Herman? My wife, Leigh, was such a nervous wreck she couldn’t even watch. MG

Van Sickle: Can’t ever get enough underdogs on the PGA Tour. Those stories are always way more compelling than the ones about the multi-millionaires racking up one more win or getting better position for the FedEx Cup. Go Herman.


3.) Tiger Woods will not be in the field for the 80th playing of the Masters, although his agent, Mark Steinberg, did say that Woods “absolutely” will be back on the course at some point this year. Will Tiger’s absence from Augusta take anything away from the tournament, or are we officially beyond that point? 

Shipnuck: Way beyond.

Godich: Agreed, Alan. We’ve been beyond that point for a couple of years now. Funny, but everyone wondered whether the game could survive without Tiger, and now we’re looking at the most intriguing Masters in years. So many plotlines.

Morfit: Tiger was the gold standard as far as drawing eyeballs to golf telecasts, and it’ll take something special this weekend to make everyone forget him. That said, it’s the Masters. Something special almost always happens, and I’d guess the game’s new superstar, Jordan McRickie Day, is up to the task. 

Sens: Tiger will be missed by many, myself included, right up til the start of the first round on Thursday. Then he will be forgotten. Until the U.S. Open rolls around. 

Passov: Sorry Alan, I’m going to miss him, and so will a bunch of other folks. Remember, 2015 was crazy, one of the most amazing performances ever by Tiger. The same guy who showed the most painful chipping yips, maybe, ever, just two months earlier, and shows up at Augusta with them cured, on his way to a T4 after three rounds. His mere presence changes the aura. That said, there are plenty of worthy storylines this year that have nothing to do with Tiger, but here we are, still talking about him.

Shipnuck: No doubt it was a brave performance by Tiger but he finished 17th. That might be a best-case scenario going forward.

Passov: OK, good call on “brave” to define the performance. It wasn’t great, but it was amazing in that doomsdayers such as Brandel Chamblee weren’t sure he’d break 80.

Van Sickle: The Masters is never about those who aren’t playing, only those who are. That, plus whether the cut is an odd number so marker Jeff Knox can make another weekend appearance.

4.) In a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday evening, Bubba Watson admitted that among other fears, he’s scared of crowds, heights, and the prospect of buildings falling on him. Do these admissions alter your view of, or make you sympathetic for, the enigmatic Watson?

Shipnuck: This stuff is old news; I’ve written about it a few times, going back years. He’s a jumpy, quirky character who, in a lot of ways, picked the wrong job. But Bubba had been playing tournament golf his entire adult life. Shouldn’t he have developed some coping mechanisms by now?

Morfit: I agree with Alan that this is old news. What’s interesting is the public’s unending fascination with Bubba’s brain. He’s a compelling and complicated figure for many reasons.

Godich: Not much to see here. CBS was undoubtedly trying to appeal to the the non-golf fan, trying to draw a few more viewers into the Masters telecast. Mission accomplished. Best line came from caddie Ted Scott, who noted that, yes, Bubba is an artist and that he is merely carrying his brushes.  

Van Sickle: Did 60 Minutes accidentally show a rerun from six years ago or something? Old news on Bubba but interesting for fans who didn’t know anything about him

Sens: Anytime a major modern athlete shows a vulnerable side, it makes him/her more relatable. But the fears in and of themselves don’t make Bubba more sympathetic in mind. Everyone has fears of some kind, and not everyone responds to them in the churlish way that Bubba often has. What makes him sympathetic is that he has acknowledged some his unsavory behavior and has said that he’s working on being a better man.

Passov: I remain torn. I’ve seen and heard one too many examples of Bubba behaving like a jerk, so much so that it’s hard to forgive. Yet I get the biggest kick out of watching him hit a golf ball, bombing it, curving it, doing stuff at Augusta’s 13th that makes the club want to purchase extra land. Bubba’s social issues may be old news, but it’s interesting to put them in focus again, to help us better understand his peculiar genius.


5.) Has Sergio Garcia’s time to win a major passed him by? That’s what Lanny Wadkins told Damon Hack of the Golf Channel, adding, “You have to want to take down the best. I don’t know if Sergio has that.” Do you agree?

Shipnuck: Sadly, yes. Even Sergio has admitted as much in moments of candor. He’s an amazing physical talent who, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t have the mental game to survive the crucible of major championships. He could maybe go out early on a Sunday, shoot really low and win a major from the clubhouse but that wouldn’t really change much. Sergio is who he is. 

Morfit: Yep, Sergio has underachieved. That said, he seems like a reasonably happy guy. I can’t say the same about certain major winners, so in the game of life, he’s doing just fine. 

Sens: Ditto to that. But nevermind that we agree. More to the point, Sergio has suggested that he agrees as well. How much that bothers him is another matter. As Cam says, there are worse fates in life.

Godich: Exactly what I was thinking, Josh. It was in 2012 that Sergio offered that his game wasn’t good enough to win a major. What has changed in the four years since to give us any reason to think otherwise? 

Van Sickle: You can always change your game in a day, for better or worse, in golf, so it is unwise to ever write anyone off. The drive to win seems beaten out of him and he’s good with life in the real world.

Passov: Awesome talent and superb record … just not good enough. I remember watching him in 1999, at St. Andrews, two months after the PGA at Medinah and he hit one of the greatest shots I had ever seen, a low draw approach into the Road Hole that finished six feet from the flag. The shot never got more than three yards off the ground. I remember thinking he would win as many majors as Seve. Then Sergio missed the putt. Seventeen years later, that’s all the perspective I need.

6.) After winning the first LPGA major of the season, the ANA Inspiration, (still only!) 18-year-old Lydia Ko became the youngest two-time major champion in nearly 150 years (Young Tom Morris, 1869). Ko doesn’t wow you with her physical talents (she’s 40 yards shorter than the longest hitters on the circuit), so what about her game most sets her apart?

Shipnuck: To use a hip-hop term, she has flow. She just has a rare genius for the game, always playing the right shot at the right time. And her strength is that she has no weakness; she’s good at everything.

Godich: She understands her limitations, then plays to her strengths. So when she needs birdie at the 72nd hole and she’s got a 230-yard shot over water, there is no hesitation about laying up. Then she proceeds to stuff the approach shot.

Passov: I mentioned just last week that all Lydia Ko needs is time, and more majors. She’s on her way. She’s so strong mentally, and she’s supplanted Inbee Park as the LPGA Tour’s best clutch putter. That’s a strong combination.

Morfit: Wise beyond her years, Ko is becoming the Novak Djokovic of women’s golf. Or Novak is becoming the Ko of tennis. Either way, their autobiographies should have the same title, “There are no further questions, your honor.”

Van Sickle: There doesn’t appear to be anyone to challenge Lydia at this time. At only 18 and with five “majors” a year, she could be poised to rewrite the LPGA records. That tour needs a headliner and she is it.