SI Golf Group convened a panel of experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle along with special contributor John Garrity and a Tour player who participated on the condition of anonymity — to tackle these topics ahead of the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
1. Will Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson be a factor at Royal Liverpool?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Their games are miles away. It's far more likely that they'll both miss the cut than that either one will contend.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Ooh, strong statement. I don't think they'll be a factor either.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Tiger and Phil are the kings of spin. What they say is going on doesn't match what we see. Neither one of them knows which way his drives are going.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Tiger plays extremely well on courses where he's had success. He's finished top four a number of times at Augusta, even when he's arrived with his game in tatters. I expect nothing less from him at Hoylake — a top four or better. As for Phil, I'm not looking for much. Which means he'll contend as well.
John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated (@jgarrity2): I'll counter that Hoylake isn't going to be the course Tiger won on in 2006. The wind didn't blow then, there was no rough, and the course was baked so hard that he used driver only once. It'll be an entirely fresh layout for everyone.
SHIPNUCK: I agree with Michael that these guys are most dangerous when you count them out. Even taking that into account, I guess I've lost my belief. We've had the great pleasure and the curse of having seen Tiger at his best. We have this institutional respect for the man and his talent, but a lot of that has eroded along with his body. I don't think that Tiger Woods exists anymore.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Tiger clearly wasn't ready at Congressional. The one part of his game that we thought could be ready, his short game, was horrendous.
VAN SICKLE: Forget the shots. Tiger didn't even look good picking his ball out of the cup.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Tiger's iron play is always decent, and that has saved him the last few years. He is still hitting double crosses off the tee. He had five months off, he comes back and plays two days, and then says he has to rest? I don't get it.
BAMBERGER: I think he gets bored hitting balls at home or losing $50 to Rickie Fowler in a money game. Tiger wanted to see what he had, and at Congressional it wasn't much. When he found out how little he had, he must've thought, Well, that doesn't make me want to play again. In the past, it would've been, I've got to figure something out and quick.
SHIPNUCK: Tiger was motivated last year to prove he could get back to No. 1. Was that his last gasp? Was that his one last run? Those are legitimate questions. The early reports say Hoylake will be more penal, with ankle-high rough. That doesn't suit Tiger or Phil.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Phil has no top 10s this year, and his putting is horrible, especially inside five feet.
VAN SICKLE: Being consistent is overrated if you're consistently poor, as Phil has been on the greens.
GARRITY: We don't know what's going on with Phil. Until last year the Open hadn't been his cup of tea. It's hard to imagine him suddenly turning into Tom Watson and being a factor again.
SHIPNUCK: Still, there's an element of romance to Phil's golf. He gets inspired at Augusta and Pebble Beach and certain places. When he said winning at Muirfield was his most satisfying victory, that tells you something. He may find some magic at Hoylake. We thought he'd find it at Pinehurst, and he didn't, which clearly hurts that theory.
2. There's a temporary void at golf's summit. Who do you nominate as the Open favorite?
BAMBERGER: He has already won the first British Open of 2014, at Pinehurst No. 2: Martin Kaymer.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Kaymer has to be the obvious favorite because of how he performed at the Players and the U.S. Open. Any favorite almost has to be a Euro, because no Americans are doing anything. If not Kaymer, then it should be Justin Rose, based on his wins at Congressional and at the Scottish.
SHIPNUCK: Start with Rose or Graeme McDowell, who are both coming off victories and have world-class games. Rory McIlroy has proved that being unburdened suits him, but hard and fast courses haven't been his forte. Adam Scott has a good Open record but hasn't been able to close on the final nine.
VAN SICKLE: Kaymer is the de facto best player in the world despite what the slow-moving World Ranking says. He won the biggest tournament in May and the biggest tournament in June, and now here comes the biggest tournament in July. Anyone else see a trend?
GARRITY: Based on recent Opens, the favorite should be somebody old. Darren Clarke won it. Greg Norman and Tom Watson nearly won it at advanced ages, and even the last two champions, Ernie Els and Mickelson, aren't exactly kiddies. Watson said at Turnberry that the Open was the only major where he could still contend because shotmaking makes the difference. So give me an old guy. How about Bernhard Langer?
SHIPNUCK: How about Tom Watson himself? He had three rounds in the 60s at the Greenbrier. And the fact that he's Ryder Cup captain and people go to him to hear him pontificate — it's put a real spring in his step. Why not Tom Watson one more time?
3. Does Royal Liverpool belong in the Open rota?
VAN SICKLE: No. For one thing, I can't remember any of the holes from 2006. For another, I keep calling it Loyal Riverpool, which I actually like better.
BAMBERGER: It is totally not memorable. There is no particular reason it will excite us. I would not rank it among the best links.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm not sure I could find the course with GPS. It's insanely boring if the last winner there hit one driver in 72 holes. I'm not sure that makes it major-championship quality.
SHIPNUCK: It's the English Carnoustie, only without the memorable three finishing holes. Royal Liverpool is a good test of golf, but it's hard, flat, tactical and definitely not Turnberry or Birkdale.
GARRITY: In the immortal words of Bernard Darwin, "Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions." There have been some mighty champions at Hoylake — Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson, Roberto De Vicenzo and Tiger Woods. One reason to hold the Open at Royal Liverpool is the history. It's one of the remaining valid 19th-century venues. That's justification enough for keeping it in the rota.
BAMBERGER: I like what John said. I love that the R&A will just go play the course without worrying about the conditions. If it's soft, we could see 15 under, but a champion is a champion. The R&A shows so much confidence in the course. I wish the USGA would pay attention.
SHIPNUCK: If it's good enough for Hagen and Jones and the others, it's good enough for me. Hoylake is a chance to reminisce about old times. John has made me a believer.
4. What are your midsummer Ryder Cup concerns?
BAMBERGER: It's weird that the Ryder Cup is going to Scotland and they're playing a totally American-style Jack Nicklaus course at Gleneagles. That probably favors the Europeans, who have so many Florida residents on the team.
VAN SICKLE: Very funny, Michael. I hate that the Ryder Cup winds up at luxury European resorts with lame modern courses. Celtic Manor. The Belfry. The K Club. I guess if you're holding it in Scotland, though, there's no way to go somewhere with a tiny bit of history like, say, the Old Course.
BAMBERGER: How cool would that be?
SHIPNUCK: Very cool, but they're not playing the course at the Ryder Cup, they're playing each other. The course doesn't matter as much as in stroke play. We all know what a show the Ryder Cup is. You've got to pick a course for the infrastructure now. We've had good Ryder Cups on so-so courses before.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm not loving America's chances. The European team is much stronger. Kaymer, [Henrik] Stenson, Rose, McIlroy — they're all playing well. You look at our top five, and it's like, Where are they? I'm tired of hearing before every Ryder Cup about how the U.S. team looks better on paper. This year the Europeans look way better on paper and in real life.
VAN SICKLE: There is a strong possibility the U.S. won't have Tiger or Phil. Right now, I don't see how you could make either one a wild-card pick.
SHIPNUCK: Picking them comes with risk. With Phil's arthritis and Tiger's back, they're not going to play five matches anymore. They might not even play four. It'll be interesting to see what Captain Watson, the ultimate iconoclast, does.
GARRITY: I'd like to see Watson shake things up, go with a youth movement and not pick Tiger or Phil. Watson said he takes experience into consideration, but the U.S. Ryder Cup experience has been about losing and more losing. The younger guys don't carry the heavy burden of Ryder Cups lost. We should turn them loose, let them freewheel and show their talent.
SHIPNUCK: Watson has been choosing his words carefully to lay the groundwork for not picking Tiger, which would be bold. Postscandal, Tiger has been better in the team room and more like one of the guys, but he's still hard to pair up. If he's not on the team, it might help our chances, strangely.
VAN SICKLE: That would underscore this era of transition. It's time to reboot the U.S. lineup.
5. What do you think about the World Match Play's new date, new venue and new format?
VAN SICKLE: Most players hated the Ritz-Carlton course in Tucson; the weather was spotty in February, and half the field went home after one round. Now they'll be at San Francisco's Harding Park in early May with a round-robin format that guarantees each player three matches. It's an upgrade.
SHIPNUCK: I'm not as excited about the format as you are. The event's essence was its brutality. It was all about surviving and advancing. They've watered that down. You can lose a match, and it has no meaning.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm not sure about Harding Park, but anything is better than the venue in Tucson. I get it that the Tour wants star players to stick around longer, but that's going to happen at the expense of the do-or-die drama that made it fun.
BAMBERGER: Golf in cities is always great. The FedEx Cup's redeeming value is that it goes to real golf cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. Tucson, for all its many charms, is not San Francisco. On that basis alone, it's a great move.
GARRITY: Even though I enjoyed Tucson, Harding Park has an atmosphere. It sparkles in the sunshine, San Francisco has those fog banks that roll in, and it's just up the street from Olympic Club.
SHIPNUCK: I'm happy the tournament will endure in a better city and on a better course, but the format is so much weaker.
GARRITY: Exactly, Alan. Last year none of the four top seeds got past the second round. Now, nobody gets eliminated until Friday.
VAN SICKLE: Friday will be an interesting day. I can't wait to see the inevitable lame-duck matches, where players who are 0–2 and have no chance to advance go out to play a meaningless third match. That's going to provide some awkward, get-me-to-the-airport moments.
6. And the winner is….
GARRITY: Graeme McDowell is back in form after his win in France, but I will pick a nonobvious player — Brooks Koepka. He's a Florida kid who cut his teeth on the European Challenge Tour, so he knows how to play in all kinds of conditions, and he has played his way onto the PGA Tour, which is no small feat. He's appeared in only four majors but quietly finished fourth at Pinehurst. He's got enough game to make a big splash soon.
SHIPNUCK: Tiger proved Hoylake is a second-shot golf course. A premier iron player will thrive there, and that's Justin Rose. He's going to win an Open sooner or later. He's from England, this Open is in England. It's a good match.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm also going straight chalk with Rose. He's a really good ball striker, which you need in an Open. You've got to drive it well. Justin is never too far off-line, and that's key, especially if the rough really is deeper.
VAN SICKLE: Rory McIlroy's two majors came in soft conditions, and if Royal Liverpool is going to be rainy and waterlogged, as forecasts suggest, it might be in his wheelhouse. If the forecast is wrong, I'm leaning toward Sergio García, who is putting better than he has in a decade, still hitting his irons superlatively and being largely ignored.
BAMBERGER: Martin Kaymer has to be on such a golfing high from the way he won at Pinehurst. It was stunning. The quality of the shots he played for 72 holes was even better than McIlroy's were in his two runaway major wins and the closest thing we've seen to a Tiger-like performance since Tiger was still Tiger. That's good enough for me.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.