Tour Confidential: How has Tom Watson maintained his game? Plus, Tiger vs. Federer and the ultimate golf links trip

Tour Confidential: How has Tom Watson maintained his game? Plus, Tiger vs. Federer and the ultimate golf links trip

Tom Watson shot a 1-under 69 in the final round of the Greenbrier Classic on Sunday.
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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. At age 64, Tom Watson made the cut at the Greenbrier and finished T35. In this age of super-athletic golfers, what is it about Watson's game that has allowed him to compete at this high level for so long?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated:  As Sandy Tatum says of him, he has a swing that will not quit. Like Fred Couples, he hits it flush. He can control distance and direction. He makes the game simple, in practice and in play. It's awesome. I watched him at Hilton Head this year and he was hitting good shot after good shot, then struggling with the little shots. He can play. He loved how Snead played good golf through his 70s. He's going to try to do the same, on an artificial hip. Amazing.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? I'd credit a combination of good genes and desire. Ol' Tom loves to compete and, like Tiger, really hated losing. He's found a repeatable swing that is money, and outside of a hip replacement, has avoided the kind of back problems that knocked Tiger and many other pros out of the game. 

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): It's easy to point to his still fluid swing and impeccable ball-striking as the reasons why Watson continues to perform at the highest level, but I think it's more simple: his undiluted love of the game. Long after the putts stopped dropping and the trophies stopped coming, he's still out there because he enjoys golf, whatever triumphs and miseries it may inflict on him. We should all be so lucky to feel that way at 64.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Pair indomitable competitive spirit and a long swing with quick tempo and you have the physical and mental makeup needed. He's survived some putter yippiness, retains a superb short game and boasts formidable course-management skills. Giving up the booze, a hip transplant that's now five years old and keeping fit and flexible add up to success at 64. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): He has the kind of swing that ages well — long, fluid, beautifully rhythmic. What's more, he appears to have gotten technically better over time. It doesn't hurt that he knows the Greenbrier about as well as any course, and that its Golden Age design — not super-sized but long on subtlety — presents the sort of challenges that he eats up.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Watson's incredibly fit for 64, and he might be the best course strategist in golf history, as evidenced by his links record. A golfer's mind can be the ultimate leveler of a playing field, and not many guys are mentally stronger than Watson. Also, the Old White TPC played less than 7,300 yards — short by today's standards — which negated the big-hitters' advantage.

2. Angel Cabrera won the Greenbrier Classic for his first non-major PGA Tour win. He also has two European Tour wins to go along with the 2007 U.S. Open and 2009 Masters titles. Is Cabrera an underachiever or an overachiever?

PASSOV: Can you be both? When he's on, "El Pato" has few equals. He's just not consistently "on" enough. He's like the old Japanese stars in that he just seems to be happier competing at home in Argentina, rather than maxing out his time on English-speaking tours. I remember in 2013 when he finished runner-up in the Masters, then went home to compete in some small-time Argentine event, when he could have headed to Harbour Town or to Europe. His another-trip-through-the-buffet-line physique, his thunder-filled driving (still my lasting memory of the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont) and his manner and style are really appealing.     

SENS: Let's see. His father was a handyman. His mother was a maid. He grew up dirt-poor in a country that is far from a golf power and built a homemade swing while working as a caddie. Went on to win the Masters and the U.S. Open. You'd be hard-pressed to say this guy has underachieved.

RITTER: Hard to peg Angel as either one, so let's just say he has a knack for great timing.

LYNCH: He was born in poverty in Argentina, learned to play while caddying as a kid, and now owns two majors (and would have three if Steve Williams hadn't pipped him in a playoff at the 2013 Masters). By no definition is Cabrera an underachiever.

VAN SICKLE: Cabrera is an achiever. He has wins in other countries, he just hasn't won much in the U.S. outside of the majors, and that may be more related to not wanting to travel as much as some jet-setters. He's a big talent. I remember watching him play his first Masters in the early 2000s and he pounded a drive at No. 1 that ended up maybe 50 yards short of the green. It was unbelievable, and I've been intrigued to watch his power game ever since.

BAMBERGER: I don't know, but he'll be in the Hall of Fame before he's through. He'll play well for a long, long time. His swing puts no pressure on anything and his personality is perfect for golf's ups and downs.

3. Tiger Woods' friend Roger Federer lost a five-set heartbreaker at Wimbledon to Novak Djokovic on Sunday. Federer and Woods have been linked throughout their careers as they dominated their sports and now again in the autumn of their careers. How does Woods' accomplishment in golf compare to Federer's in tennis?

PASSOV: I've been a huge Federer fan since I first watched him play. Big edge to Woods, however, in terms of actual achievement. At every major, RFed had to beat seven individuals, with both men competing under the same conditions. Woods had to beat 75 or 143 or 155 other guys in every major. Some guy teeing off hours earlier (or later on a Thursday or Friday) might benefit from much better conditions, and who might be under little pressure to produce a great score if he was starting well back.  

BAMBERGER: Tiger's is more impressive, and Federer is one of the most impressive athletes of all-time. But in tennis, you're beating one guy at a time, and if you're better than that guy you're going to win, what, 85 percent of the time? In golf, if you're playing a hundred or so near-equals, any one of whom can play better than you on any given day, or even for four days in a row. I lean towards Tiger's 14 over Roger's 17.

SENS: During today's broadcast, John McEnroe said that one of Federer's remarkable traits is that he loves winning more than he hates losing. I don't think we can say the same about Woods, which may partly explain the difference in their public personas (the soulful-seeming Federer; the surly Woods). The knock, if you can call it that, against Federer is that he won the bulk of his majors in a kind of tweener era between giants — after Sampras/Agassi and before the rise of Nadal and Djokovic, beating up on the likes of Andy Roddick and other less-than-folkloric talents along the way — and that he has lacked a certain mental toughness in the closest and most bruising matches, like today's five-setter at Wimbledon. The parallel critique levied against Woods is that he has failed to come from behind to win a major. Another similarity: they're both now battling Father Time and a generation of talents that they helped create. But back to the differences. The biggest one, I think, is that a decade from now, we will still, without question, be calling Woods the greatest player of his era and the eras immediately before and after. No one has been close, and no one will come close in the years to come. In tennis, by contrast, Nadal has already made a debate of it. Apologies for exceeding 140 characters in my reply.

RITTER: Woods-Federer is interesting. I remember voting for SI's Athlete of the Decade about five years ago, and it was a tough call between Tiger and Federer (and Phelps and Armstrong) for No. 1. I ultimately voted for Tiger, but if we're comparing their full careers today you'd have to go Federer. He's played at a higher level for longer than Woods, remarkable given the shorter prime of a tennis pro. Roger also now stands alone as the undisputed best player in the history of his sport; you can make a case that Tiger is the best golfer ever, but it's certainly debatable. Today both guys are entering their respective twilights, but lately Woods hasn't matched Roger's record in his four biggest events each year — Fed has won five Slams since Woods won the '08 U.S. Open. Right now Federer's career record is more impressive, but, health permitting, Woods should have several more years to reel him in.

VAN SICKLE: Tennis and golf don't have a lot in common. Your opponent's ability directly affects your shot in tennis. In golf, it's you versus the course and you compare scores at the end. There is no doubt of either man's dominance, the likes of which we probably won't see again for some time.

LYNCH: Much connects Federer and Woods: the sublime skills that redefined excellence in their sports, the utter dominance for sustained periods, the psychological ownership of many of their would-be rivals, the constant comparisons to greats of previous eras. What separates them is two characteristics that have been admirably constant in Federer's career, and too often absent in Tiger's: grace and humility.

4. Graeme McDowell managed to defend his French Open title, coming from eight shots back when Kevin Stadler coughed up a 76. Does the win mean as much when you post a good score with little pressure, or is a win a win?

BAMBERGER: An interesting question. Phil, based on his performance last year at the British Open, posting a Sunday 66 early and winning from the house, will tell you a win is a win.

RITTER: Sleeping on a lead and then trying to win while staring at your own name atop a leaderboard might be the toughest task in golf. All Ws look the same in the stat sheet (and the bank account), but it's more impressive when a golfer builds an advantage and successfully defends it for the final 18.

LYNCH: It's not as though McDowell posted a score and started packing for home before realizing much later that he had a chance to win. He held the lead for much of the back nine and knew where he stood. The pressure was there. Stadler's collapse doesn't diminish McDowell's performance.

VAN SICKLE: A win is a win is a win. Tiger used to say, "It's all about the W." That's why you never saw him shooting for a record score (except for that first Masters win in '97) or taking any chances coming down the stretch when he had a lead. He did what he had to do to win and he didn't care how it looked. 

PASSOV: Credit McDowell for stating that it's not the way you like to win (Stadler three-jacking from 30 feet, his second miss a simple 3-footer — and that was after watching Jaidee hit a 35-foot putt earlier from the same line), but that he really needed the win. So many wire-to-wire and third round leaders have messed up this year, it's hard to take any lead for granted. Enjoy the win no matter how it comes because they're really hard to get. For McDowell, mired in legal issues with his management team and countryman Rory McIlroy and enduring a mediocre year, the win is pretty sweet.

SENS: A win's a win, especially for a guy like McDowell, who has already proven that he can perform under pressure.

5. TPC Harding Park in San Francisco snagged the 2015 Match Play event, the 2020 PGA Championship and the 2025 Presidents Cup. Is the course worthy of this much love?

PASSOV: I called the course two weeks ago, looking for confirmation on the PGA news and the guy in the pro shop who answered asked me what I had against their course. I was pleased he had read my reviews, but wasn't expecting the question. I don't hate TPC Harding Park. It's a good, fair, handsome test in a great location. I'm a huge fan of the Cypress trees that frame most fairways. It's also great that the PGA of America is emulating the USGA in giving public courses some well-deserved spotlight. And August for a PGA will be heavenly for players and fans, on course and off, compared to some of the other hot and humid venues we see. Geez, though — aren't there any other West Coast candidates? Most of the holes and greens at Harding look and play alike and the one that doesn't, the 475-yard, par-4 18th, doesn't fit in at all with the rest of the course. All I'm saying is that my preference would be to see a more architecturally interesting or varied course rewarded.   

VAN SICKLE: I haven't seen the updated course but other than having some great trees and a great location in San Francisco, I've always been underwhelmed by Harding Park. It was a tremendous public course, even when it was beat up and poorly maintained, but really, do you remember one hole from when the Presidents Cup was played there? It's a nice little course. I wouldn't put a major championship there, but from a marketing and financial viewpoint, it'll probably be a huge success. Maybe that's good enough.

SENS: Depends how we're defining "worth." Great course, right in my backyard. Some 25 years ago, I thought it was worth sleeping in my car in the parking lot to ensure myself a tee time, and that was long before they spiffed it up. In this case, though, the quality of the layout isn't the deciding factor. We're talking the potential for big-time, tech-fueled sponsorship dollars. Can't buy me love? Right.

LYNCH: On a good day, TPC Harding Park might be the fourth best course in town, after San Francisco GC, Cal Club and Olympic. There is a wearying sameness to the procession of mild, tree-lined doglegs that define the layout, but tournament venues are almost always chosen for infrastructural reasons, not on design merits. With plenty of space for corporate hospitality, a location in a major media market and a guaranteed prime-time finish on the East Coast, TPC Harding Park is 3-for-3 in the only criteria that matters.

BAMBERGER: Probably not, but the city is.

6. It's Dream Golf Week on, when we celebrate the game's great links courses. What would be your dream links golf destination? Tell us what courses you'd play.

VAN SICKLE: Crail and the front eight (that's right!) at Girvan are a riot. I'd play them again. I've heard so much about Askernish and Machrihanish from my SI colleagues John Garrity and Michael Bamberger that I'm itching to play them, too. A return to Ballybunion Old would be nice. So many great links, so little time

BAMBERGER: I'm giving "links" a wide berth here. Sankatay Head, Nantucket. National Golf Links, Long Island. Fishers Island, New York. Ellie, Scotland. Old Course, Scotland. Machrihanish, Scotland. Dinner at the Golf Tavern, Ellie.

RITTER: Never been to Ireland, and it would be great to try Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Royal Dornoch, among others. But if that trip never pans out, I'd happily return to St. Andrews and just play the Old Course on a continuous loop.

PASSOV: Southwest Ireland has the drama and the fun, with an all-star lineup of cliff-top, dunes-heavy stunners such as Ballybunion, Tralee, Lahinch, Doonbeg, Old Head and Waterville as well as off-course sightseeing and pub-crawling that make it well worth the trouble to brave the travel and the elements. Yet, give me a tee time on the Old Course at St. Andrews and accommodations in town, and that's where my dream links golf destination starts. 

SENS: I've never played the granddaddies of Long Island (Shinnecock, National and company) so those would rank high on the wish list. But for a dream with a better chance of becoming a reality, I'd make another trip to Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm in Tasmania. Great setting. Killer layouts. All that, and wallabies! On my way, I'd revisit the great Sandbelt courses of Melbourne — Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan and their kin.

LYNCH: I've been fortunate enough to play most of the links courses ranked on our Top 100 Courses in the World, but Lahinch and Cruden Bay are the two links highest on my most wanted list. For dream venues, nothing beats the Old Course for me. I will play it again next week and continue to hope that one day it will love me as much as I love it.

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