Tour Confidential: Rory McIlroy’s SI Cover, Should Tiger Make the Ryder Cup Team, and Who Will Win PGA’s Long-Drive Contest?

July 29, 2014

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. 2014 British Open champion Rory McIlroy made the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, the first non-Tiger SI cover since McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open. Where does pro golf currently stand in the American sports firmament? Is there more, less or the same interest in golf as there was before Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Way less. Bring back Hubert Green, John Mahaffey, Lou Graham. Golf needs closers. Golf needs hungry players. Also Twitter is killing golf. Our whole society is on speed.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Golf has greater exposure than ever before thanks to Golf Channel and the PGA Tour's television contracts. Does more exposure lead to more interest? I don't know. With some runaway majors this year, interest in golf seems like it's down, just as golf participation is. Is that because of Tiger, because of fantasy football and fantasy baseball, computer gaming or some combination of assorted factors? But my gut answer is interest is less.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): I'll redirect this question to older colleagues with kids: back in 1997, were you at risk of being considered a piss poor parent if you didn't attend your 5-year-old's every sports game? That seems the case today, and that decreased leisure time robs the game of casual fans. Core fans remain committed, however, so I'm not subscribing to the doom-and-gloom scenarios being painted this week. Perhaps the game isn't measurably better off, but I'm unconvinced that it is significantly worse off.

Mike Walker, Assistant Managing Editor, (@michaelwalkerjr): Golf feels less central to American sporting life than it used to be. Hogan and Palmer appeared on the cover of Life and Time, not just SI. Part of that’s the rise of soccer and extreme sports, part of that’s the noise of modern life. But the game still belongs just outside the big four of football, basketball, baseball and hockey. The Masters is one of the premier events on the sports calendar and Tiger’s 2008 U.S. Open Monday playoff victory affected Wall Street trade volume.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Toward the bottom of the top 10, after football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, tennis and hockey — well above badminton but not so distant from bowling and MMA. But its hold on the general public is stronger than it was pre-Tiger. The Eldrick bump was powerful enough that we're still enjoying its residuals.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Golf won't bump the NFL off its pedestal, but there's more interest now than in March '97, and it's still largely thanks to Tiger, even as he fades into his twilight. Look at the prize money. Look at the equipment. Look at the companies involved (Nike!). Look at Golf Channel. Look at the Olympics. Look at (cough, cough) the websites. He's taken the game to new heights, and even as courses close and ratings sag, golf is still bigger now than pre-Tiger.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I'm guessing less interest now than in the pre-Tiger days..or at least less momentum. Back in the early (pre-Tiger) '90s, golf was already gaining steam via the cool factor. Rock stars and athletes (think Alice Cooper, Michael Jordan) were going public with their obsession for the game, equipment innovations from companies such as Callaway (Big Bertha) and TaylorMade (Burner Bubble) were attention-getters and the economy was humming along, providing for spectacular new courses to emerge, along with new golfers and others who had the time and money to play them. These days, not so much.

2. Jack Nicklaus said this week that Tiger Woods should “absolutely” be on the Ryder Cup team and that he expects Team USA captain Tom Watson to pick Woods. Do you think that Watson will pick Woods — and do you think he should?

SENS: I don't think he will and I don't think he should. Even when he's been in form, Tiger's impact on the team has been mixed. Sweet in singles, but sour in partner play, and not just because of his losing record. How much time and energy has been expended over the years agonizing over who should be paired with Tiger? It's ridiculous, and though it may not be Tiger's fault, it's still bad for team chemistry. Give me a feisty squad like the Tiger-less one we had at Valhalla, where no individual seemed larger than whole.

LYNCH: There is no love lost between Woods and Watson, so this coy dance they're playing — Tiger saying he wants to play, Tom saying he wants him if he's healthy — is more entertaining than illuminating. I don't think Tiger's form right now (nor his past record) justifies a pick, but that could change quickly. In any event, Watson won't be listening to advice from the cheap seats. But I'm sure the suits at the PGA of America and NBC have some strong views on a potential Ryder Cup without Woods, and Watson will give those folks more of a hearing than he'd probably care to admit.

PASSOV: Yes, Woods should absolutely be on the Ryder Cup, and no, I'm not entirely sure that Watson will pick him. One the one hand, it's tough to pick a guy who's off by so much with the driver right now. On the other hand, Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods. He's got two months to figure things out. I'm not passing final judgment on the state of his game based on six post-back surgery rounds. Also, it's match play. A few bad holes or poor shots doesn't hurt as much as in stroke play. Finally, this is Tiger. See what the TV ratings were for a Rory British Open win, without Tiger (or Phil) in contention? Dismal. Golf needs Tiger on every big stage right now, and that includes the Ryder Cup.

VAN SICKLE: Tiger has to show some form and have a high finish in the PGA or at Bridgestone. If Tiger doesn't do anything in either event, I think Watson has to take a pass on him. You want Tiger if he's still Tiger. We haven't seen enough to make a fair determination.

BAMBERGER: I think he won't and I think he shouldn't. Unless he wins somewhere between now and D-day, no way. He's not shown that he's close.

WALKER: 100 percent yes Watson should pick Tiger and 100 percent yes he will. I don’t understand why this is a debate. Tiger’s not in a slump, he’s recovering from back surgery. If the Ryder Cup was held last year, he’d be at the top of the qualifying list. By this September, he will be one of the 12 best American players. He belongs on the team for many reasons, but that’s the biggest.

RITTER: Watson started hedging at Hoylake when he said he'd pick Tiger with the caveat that Woods show well in his upcoming events and qualify for the FedEx Cup. Tiger didn't do Tom any favors when he said he's ready to go and that Watson should pick him, but I think Watson now has it right: No free rides. Not even for Tiger.

3. Tim Clark birdied five of the last eight holes to overtake Jim Furyk and win the Canadian Open. Furyk is now 0 for 7 with the 54-hole lead since winning the 2010 Tour Championship for the last of his 16 PGA Tour titles. Why can’t Furyk close anymore?

BAMBERGER: Because he's annoying slow and he endorses that awful product that I cannot believe he believes in. Golf gods are pissed.

VAN SICKLE: You don't win on the PGA Tour without putting great. Furyk looks like his game is as solid as ever. Nothing wrong with his final nine that a few putts dropping wouldn't have fixed. But they didn't. To me, it's a worrisome sign that Furyk feels like he needs caddie Fluff to help him align his putts. A confident putter doesn't need to do that.

SENS: Golf can mess with anyone's head, and Furyk's no exception. If it had only happened once or twice, you could chalk it up to bad luck or a few loose swings. But the consistency of the pattern suggests that Furyk is losing the battle between the ears.

RITTER: I have no explanation for why Furyk can't close, but here's what we do know: he's a borderline Hall of Famer, he's an inspiration to golfers with homemade swings, and he's going to lose a bunch of matches at Gleneagles.

WALKER: Furyk has always struck me as a brooder. When you take the losses hard, they have a tendency to stay with you.

PASSOV: If I had the answer to that, I'd take up a second career as a high-falutin' sports psychologist. Furyk shoots a respectable 1-under-par 69, yet seemed to do absolutely nothing on an easy day for scoring with soft conditions and no wind. Okay, give Tim Clark some credit, too. He was the only one who was anywhere near Furyk and all he did was hole every putt he looked at on the back nine, while Furyk holed nothing more than a 4-foot birdie at 17. Furyk didn't gag this one away, but he didn't have the gas pedal pressed to the floorboard, either, and it cost him.

LYNCH: Winning is tough, and even tougher when you're in the autumn of a Tour career. Anyway, he's won $12.5 million since that last win in 2010. He can't close his wallet either.

4. Bernhard Langer won the Senior British Open at Royal Porthcawl in Wales, which some say would make a great British Open venue some day. Which course outside the current British Open rota would you most like to see host the Open?

PASSOV: Royal Portrush is going to get one, so that's a given. Royal County Down in Northern Ireland is the greatest links course in Ireland, but I'm not sure if its many blind shots and weak finish would work with Tour pros and television coverage. I'll go with Trump Scotland as the course I think would make a great British Open venue — notwithstanding Trump's blustery pre-opening pronouncement that it is "the greatest course in the world." It's so long and demanding, and its bunkers so deep, that it wouldn't necessarily require wind to make it a great test. Its sea views are spectacular and the potential for breezes is huge, along the North Sea. Aberdeen has solid airport access and hotels, and the elevated tees would make for compelling television. And hey, it would be fun to see Entertainment Tonight cover the British Open.

SENS: Now that Portrush is on the ledger, why not County Down? Or if you really want to generate headlines and rankle the game's tweediest guardians: Trump's course in Scotland.

LYNCH: Now Royal Portrush, since it hasn't actually been awarded an Open yet. If we're not splitting hairs, then Royal Dornoch.

BAMBERGER: Royal Dornoch or Prestwick. And if those clubs are not interested, I bet Trump could make his place available.

WALKER: Porthcawl would be my pick. It’s a fantastic course with a stunner finishing hole that plays toward the sea, and Wales would be a great host.

VAN SICKLE: Kingsbarns. It's just up the road a few miles from St. Andrews, so some of the infrastructure is already in place nearby. It has also been part of the Dunhill tournament so it's already stood up to pro play. It's a remotely realistic candidate, unlike courses I'm tempted to name such as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Old Head and others.

5. Spain won the inaugural LPGA International Crown event Sunday when Belen Mozo sank an 8-footer to clinch victory. However, the U.S. team didn’t make it to the final day, being bumped by South Korea on Saturday. After seeing how a multiple-team event works in practice, do you think the Olympics made the right or wrong call by choosing stroke play in 2016?

VAN SICKLE: The Olympics should be a team event with stroke play. I won't go through my whole Olympic golf rant again but the field is too small — only 60 players — and more than half of them don't deserve to be there. Other Olympic events don't get all of the top performers, either, but at least they have qualifying heats to weed out of stiffs. Olympic golf lets the stiffs into the final. Really, should golfers outside of the top 200 in the world rankings be competing in an Olympic final? I say no.

BAMBERGER: The Olympic golf is wrong every which way it could be. It should have been an amateur team competition.

PASSOV: Stroke play is still the fairest test, so I have no quibble. However, match play, especially among nations, is much more fun, with more strategizing and more actual teamwork. But the Olympics is full of sports that have weird team components and scoring. Let's get golf going first, and we can adjust at the turn.

LYNCH Stroke play is a disservice to the opportunity presented by the Olympics. The only thing that distinguishes Rio '16 from a regular Tour event is the awarding of a medal, not a check. I think not opting for a real team or match-play element is a mistake.

RITTER It's great that golf will return in Rio, but almost any format would've been better than 72-hole stroke play. Team golf is, and always will be, golf's most exciting format. It's still hard to fathom how golf's power brokers whiffed on the chance to bring that to the Olympics.

WALKER: I admired the International Crown for trying to capture the Ryder/Solheim Cup spirit while including more countries, but the event also underscored how complicated any team match-play format would be. Olympic golf made the right call with stroke play. Golf’s an individual game and the Olympic gold should go to an individual player. A team Olympic golf event would make the FedEx Cup look straightforward.

SENS: Wrong call. Golf was brought back to the Olympic to inject more global interest into the game, and match play is the more compelling format. It's easier to follow and carries more moment-by-moment excitement. It also allows greater opportunities for dark horses and upsets, which feels more in the Olympic spirit to me.

6. The PGA of America is bringing back the Long Drive Competition at this year’s PGA Championship. During Tuesday’s practice rounds, players get one drive at the 10th tee and the ball needs to stay in the fairway to be eligible. Which of the PGA Tour’s big hitters would you pick to win and how long will the longest drive be?

RITTER: I think the PGA would like to see a 400-yard drive to maximize buzz, so I'll say they set up the hole for a fast track and Bubba rips one 401 to win.

VAN SICKLE: There's a good chance that the longest hitters all miss the fairway. Gary Woodland pounds the ball as hard as anyone, though. He and Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson would be my favorites. Depending on wind and roll, I'd expect something around 360 yards.

WALKER: I love this idea – it reminds me of when the NBA slam dunk contest was still cool. I’ll take Keegan Bradley at 350 yards.

BAMBERGER: Gary Woodland. He has the most in reserve. This is all about going all out.

SENS: Winning distance will depend on how firm they get the fairway, but it's easy to imagine Bubba taking first with a 360-yard baby fade.

LYNCH: Part Major, part silly-season Skills Challenge. I'm going with Corey Pavin. Wait. What do you mean he's not eligible?

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