Tour Confidential: Is Tiger the favorite to win at Hoylake? Plus, Wie's big breakthrough and a U.S. Open age limit

Tour Confidential: Is Tiger the favorite to win at Hoylake? Plus, Wie’s big breakthrough and a U.S. Open age limit

Tiger Woods 1.jpg
Tiger Woods played his last competitive round at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in March.
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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. Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour next week for his own event at Congressional. What are your expectations for him? Is he your pick to win the British Open?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): I expect Tiger to have flashes of brilliance and flashes of rust. Unless he wins next week, he is not my pick to win the British.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): The only thing I can guarantee we'll get from Tiger is a volley of press conference platitudes. Last we saw him, Tiger had swing issues as well as back issues. Hard to imagine he has resolved the former. Then there's the stiffer competition. Henrik Stenson is my pick in the Open this year.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: One of Tiger's things used to be ‘Only play in a tournament thinking you can win,’ but here I think here he's primarily looking to play four rounds of golf on a good golf course. As for the British Open, I would predict that he would play. To pick him to win just seems…sentimental.

Jessica Marksbury, assistant editor, Golf Magazine (@Jess_Marksbury): I am totally surprised that Tiger is already returning to competitive golf only three months removed from back surgery. Does anyone else think that could spell disaster? To me, it seems a bit shortsighted. Why the rush? I really think he should take his time with this recovery because his re-entry into the competitive world isn't enough to keep the spark alive for golf fans for long. We want to see him win again! At the moment, I can't say he's my pick for the British Open, but I would certainly love to see him contend. Will be interesting to see how he plays at Congressional, a course he knows well and where he's enjoyed great success in years past.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): My expectations are that he'll make the cut, and move the TV ratings needle well to the right. I don't think he'd come back right now unless he felt he was truly ready, yet this could also be a goodwill gesture to the tournament that benefits his charitable foundation, especially because he's had the misfortune to miss the event a number of times over the past six years. He's not my pick at the British Open, but after next week, he sure could be.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger's return is surprising, since we only recently learned that he's hitting full shots. This week I expect him to play 36-72 holes without wincing from back pain — anything more than that feels like a bonus. He's not in my top 5 for Hoylake yet, but I reserve the right to revisit that once we get a look at him at Congressional.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): It's the start that matters, not his finish. His return ignites a season that has thus far been a snooze. But factor in the rust, the fear of re-injury that inevitably must shadow his first start, and the fact that his swing wasn't exactly on song before his break, and its hard to expect much. No matter how he plays at Congressional, he's always a threat to win the Open, especially on a course where he doesn't need to hit driver.

2. U.S. Women's Open champion Michelle Wie has gone from child star to fading star to superstar. With her first major victory under her belt, is Wie the new face of women's golf?

MARKSBURY: No question that the answer is yes. Wie has always been the face of women's golf. We've been scrutinizing her every move for over a decade. She showed incredible composure throughout the final round — especially after a double bogey on 16, which she followed up with a birdie — and she is a very deserving champion. Must be incredible to finally have the major monkey off her back.

LYNCH: Every sports update I heard on my car radio today covered Wie's quest for a major, which is hardly standard practice for a Women's Open. She never really stopped being the face of women's golf, even as she struggled throughout her career. Among the casual fans, she remained the most famous female golfer in the world. Now her game has the stature of her reputation and her brand.

BAMBERGER: Michelle Wie has not won enough to be regarded a superstar. Her power and her ability to hit shots high and low and with fade spin or draw spin, to say nothing of her improved putting, gives her enormous upside. In terms of stature in the game, she's way ahead of Rickie Fowler, but miles behind, say, Inbee Park.

VAN SICKLE: Wie has been the biggest name in women's golf for quite some time, she just hasn't had the wins to go with it. She's definitely the face of American women's golf until she piles up a few more wins, but she's a dream for LPGA marketing.

PASSOV: The only woman that truly moves the needle is Wie, and her win is great for women's golf — and great for golf, period. She's never NOT been the face of women's golf for the past 10 years, but it hasn't been a happy face. Women's golf has a real possibility to regain the momentum it had a couple of years ago. You've got young, attractive, athletic players such as Wie and Lexi Thompson who have a chance at a legitimately interesting rivalry, plus the best fighter in the game, Stacy Lewis, plus the cool, remarkable putting prowess and repetitive swing of Inbee Park, and a very solid supporting cast. In some ways, it's more compelling than the current different-winner-each-week PGA Tour.

RITTER: Wie's been the face of women's golf, for better or for worse, for about eight years — ever since she burst onto the scene at a teenage prodigy. And at last, she's delivering on the hype, which is extremely cool to see. Stories of redemption are sweet, and in this case it's obviously fantastic for women's golf. Is the LPGA having a great season or what?

SENS: You mean, it isn't Paulina Gretzky?

3. 11-year-old Lucy Li was the story of the U.S. Women's Open for the first two rounds, but even as she charmed the media and played respectably with 78-78, her appearance renewed discussion of an age limit at the U.S. Open. Should there be an age limit? If so, what should it be?

VAN SICKLE: Any age limit would be discriminatory. If you can shoot the scores to qualify, you should be allowed to play. Why is this even up for debate? Nobody gave Li a spot in the Open. She went out and earned it.

SENS: She played respectably and seemed roughly as mature as Bubba Watson. Setting an age limit strikes me as arbitrary and unnecessary. Are there irresponsible golf parents out there, pushing their kids too far, too fast? Sure. But golf is going to put an end to that by treating tournament eligibility like voting rights.

RITTER: Nothing about last week makes me think there should be an age limit on open qualifying. Li was awesome. Age should only matter when buying a beer in the clubhouse.

MARKSBURY: I count myself as a reformed skeptic. The idea of an 11-year-old competing against adults was initially very troubling to me, but Lucy Li showed incredible poise. Plus, she earned her place in the field as the medalist of her qualifier in California. She displayed a maturity beyond her years in dealing with the media and handling a very difficult golf course. If you play well enough to get in, you deserve a chance to compete, no matter how old you are.

PASSOV: I seem to be in the minority on this one, but there should be an age limit at the U.S. Open. Lucy Li was utterly charming. Her swing was gorgeous, her results admirable, her personality mature and adorable at the same time. Yet, she's not even old enough to be eligible to play in American Junior Golf Association sanctioned events. I understand that her parents are brilliant, successful and not pushy, and that she didn't seem stressed at all. Yet, there's a reason we have age limits. Just because a kid is tall, smart and mature at 11 doesn't mean we should give her a driver's license. If she's this good at 11, that means all she was doing at age 8, 9 and 10 was playing and practicing golf. Specialization might be the modern way, but it's not the right way. The USGA should impose the same limits as the LPGA and PGA Tours.

LYNCH: Had the USGA had randomly handed her a questionable exemption then the age question has merit. But it didn't. She qualified, playing her way in. Sure, golf and other sports (notably tennis) are littered with stories of kids who rose quickly and then succumbed to the pressures, the lifestyle or the deranged parents. But the failures of some shouldn't automatically be used to deny to others opportunities they have earned.

BAMBERGER: There should an age limit to join the LPGA, as there is. But for U.S. Open –open — qualifying, I don't think there should be. It is really, really hard to say if it makes sense for an 11-year-old to be competing in the U.S. Open. It depends on the kid, and on the parents.

4. Were the back-to-back National Opens at Pinehurst a successful experiment?

LYNCH: These two weeks arguably identified the two best players in the men's and women's games right now, so yes, it was hugely successful. But so much could have gone wrong — weather playing havoc with the schedule, rules controversies in the waste areas, the women's leader landing in a divot left by the men — that I think the USGA will be breathe a sigh of relief that it's consigned to the record books. I'm not sure we'll see another double bill like this anytime soon, but here's hoping the setup and course conditioning are regular features going forward.

BAMBERGER: It was great, having the two events back-to-back. I don't believe the unique conditions of Pinehurst was the thing that made it possible, either. The USGA says rough can't be cut quickly enough to go from a men's event to a women's event. I'm not pretending to know anything about agronomy, but I've cut a lot of lawns in my life, and lawn mowers are amazing things.

SENS: Yes. Great fun to watch the women and men take on the same track back to back, and a good way to shine a brighter light on the women's game.

VAN SICKLE: The Pinehurst Opens were successful in re-establishing Pinehurst as a golfing destination and a desirable must-play site for avid golfers. The overly severe greens, the shots to ten feet that rolled off greens, didn't inspire me to think Pinehurst should host more Opens, however. Did more people watch the Women's Open because it was after the men's? I don't know, but I didn't get that feeling.

MARKSBURY: Absolutely. All the naysayers were proven wrong. The golf course held up incredibly well, the greens were perfect for two weeks straight. Two fantastic champions emerged in Kaymer and Wie. Potential weather-related disasters never came to fruition. I can't imagine a better outcome. I actually hope another back-to-back doubleheader is in the works sometime in the next decade.

PASSOV: Totally successful, except for the Kaymer runaway. The women received more attention than ever, and proved they could play a slightly softer version of Pinehurst No. 2 on par with the men. I didn't succumb to Pinehurst burnout as I thought I might, and the course held up beautifully, both as a test of golf and as a vision of the environmental and economic steps we can take to make golf more accessible and more affordable. Bravo, USGA!

5. Kevin Streelman birdied seven straight on the back nine to at TPC River Highlands to win the Travelers Championship. What's the best back-nine performance you've ever seen?

SENS: Tiger's Sunday on a broken leg at Torrey ranks high up there, as does Phil's close last year at Muirfield.

VAN SICKLE: There are plenty of nominees, but an obvious one was Jack Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine at Augusta in 1986.

MARKSBURY: That's pretty much as good as it gets. The only way to top that is to move the achievement into the final round at a major championship!

BAMBERGER: Does my 38 on the back nine of the Old Course count? No question: Big Jack, Sunday at the '86 Masters, when he shot 30. But nicely done, Kevin Streelman.

PASSOV: Jack Nicklaus, final round, 1986 Masters. Shot 30 with a bogey at 12 for a 65, which turned out to be good enough to win. I only saw it on TV, but it remains the most electric, emotional nine holes I've experienced.

LYNCH: I once played the hilly Straits course at Whistling Straits with Travelin' Joe Passov on an 85-degree day with not a breath of wind. That Joe made it to the 18th green under his own power — albeit about 20 minutes after me — was perhaps the most determined back nine rally I've ever witnessed. After that, Jack at Augusta in '86.

6. Royal Portrush formally returned to the Open rota this week. What other terrific links course would you like to see host an Open? What course would you like to see bounced from the lineup?

SENS: As long as we're up in that direction, how about Royal County Down? While we're at it, we could put the screws to Royal St. George's and say no Open until women are admitted.

VAN SICKLE: Kingsbarns outside St. Andrews would be interesting. Few players would be sorry to Royal St. George's go.

LYNCH: Let's pretend length isn't an option, in which case I pick Royal Dornoch, one of the most beautiful and intriguing links courses I've ever seen. For pure entertainment, it would be North Berwick, which stands alone as the most wildly fun course in the world. For a world-class course that can handle the modern game, I nominate Kingsbarns. Of the 10 courses now on the Open rota, I've played all but Royal St. George's, which is often derided as the worst. Based on my experience, I'd retire Hoylake. It's a nice club but a bland layout lacking in variety, and where the regular internal O.B. hazards are too prevalent to be chalked up as a charming links quirk.

BAMBERGER: Ballybunion, Dornoch, Gullane No. 2, Western Gailes. Prestwick! Royal Lytham does not make the heart race, but it is sound and has a great history. I couldn't bounce any of them.

PASSOV: Royal County Down, the world's sixth-ranked course and Portrush's leading rival for Northern Ireland golf supremacy, would be a thrilling venue. Scotland's Royal Dornoch is pretty remote, but playing the Open at Donald' Ross' old stomping grounds would be the links equivalent of Pinehurst No. 2. I'd also be very curious to see how the big boys fare with Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen. If the wind blew over its 7,400 yards and fescue-cloaked sand dunes, I wonder if it would be tougher than Carnoustie. I'm a history geek, so I'd keep all the courses on the rota intact. Save us, though, from the knuckleheads who want St. Andrews to be the permanent host.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.