Tour Confidential: Bubba’s Return, Olympic Golf and a Tiger-less Match Play

February 18, 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. After finishing second in Phoenix, Bubba Watson broke through at the Northern Trust Open for his first win since the 2012 Masters. Is Bubba back? If so, where did he go?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Bubba is too unpredictable to swear that he's back. That said, Riviera was a great reminder that Bubba's best golf is as good as anybody's best golf, maybe better. He's tough with his irons, very good around the greens and he putted like a few Masters champions who don't need to be named. When Bubba is on, he is something to see. It's just what this golf season needed since we couldn't expect Jimmy Walker to carry the PGA Tour on his back for the whole year.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Bubba's back. He should have won Phoenix, and he won at Riviera in very solid fashion. Where has he been? If you've witnessed his jittery moves and rabbit ears in action at the Waste Management and the Northern Trust, you can see he's among the most easily distracted players in the game. Post-Masters — and with a new child — the distractions had to be off the charts, and he didn't cope too well. He enjoyed the spoils of his major victory, perhaps a bit too much, but all credit for righting the ship in 2014.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Bubba is back as Phil is back after each of his wins. Once, Phil won Atlanta and Augusta back-to-back. More often, he wins and splits the scene for a while. I think Bub will be much the same, but more so. Where did he go? To the nursery, the car dealership, the Tim Tebow charity outing, etc. Fame and fortune and family came calling.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): He played beautifully on Sunday, and that 72nd-hole birdie to lock up the win was all-world. If you can win at Augusta National and at Riv you can win anywhere. Dude's back.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): Saying Bubba is “back” suggests a level of consistent performance that I doubt he will really ever muster. He is too erratic, too unpredictable, too irritable, too easily distracted and too emotional to deliver solid finishes regularly. He seems destined to be a guy who shines brightly but briefly, and just often enough to remind us he's still there.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Bubba never left. Things happened so fast. The win at the Masters was unexpected, and it came not long after he and Angie had adopted their son. Talk about a life-changer. Now Bubba couldn't be happier. He'll continue to have his moments on the golf course, but family is so important to him. We may be asking a similar question about Bubba in a couple of years, and that's when he'll surprise us with an-out-of-nowhere win.

Mike Walker, assistant managing editor, (@michaelwalkerjr): Bubba is definitely back. He’s a much more mature player than he was at the 2012 Masters. When he can keep his cool on Sunday like he did at Riviera, he’s really hard to beat.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Bubba's a quirky character, so I imagine he went wherever Mark Fidrych used to go between pitches. Then again, it's not unusual for a guy to win a huge event and then suffer a hangover. Throw in that, plus the fact that top players like Bubba play in fewer and fewer events these days, and it's no wonder he went dry for a while.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Oh, he's back. Everyone reacts to his first major title differently, and for Bubba it was a big adjustment on and off the course, because he also became a dad at the same time. Now his life is in order and after some bumps in the road, including in Phoenix a few weeks ago, he's relearned how to win. Watch out for him at the majors this year.

2. The Winter Olympics are in full swing in Sochi, and in two years we’ll have golf in the Summer Olympics. What will golf bring to the Olympics, and what will the Olympics bring to golf?

SHIPNUCK: It's already the most international of sports so golf will fit in quite nicely. The exposure will be huge for the sport — not in countries where the sport is already established but in marginal markets like China and India. We can kvetch about the format, but the bottom line is this is a big deal for golf.

WALKER: The often obscure Olympic Games get the star power of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and maybe even Phil Mickelson, and golf gets the passion of international competition. We’re underestimating how exciting this tournament will be. It’s going to be like having a fifth major in 2016.

VAN SICKLE: Has tennis done anything for the Olympics and has the Olympics helped tennis? I'm not a tennis guy, but as far as I know (and I may well be wrong), it hasn't made much of a ripple. Golf is apparently in the Olympics to grow the game globally, which is why only about half the field of 60 players will be marquee names, while a number of competitors won't rank among the top 100. Other Olympic sports have heats to weed out pretenders. Olympic golf should do likewise and open the event to more players and then thin the herd through qualifying play. I don't think it'll bring anything to golf other than a jarring interruption to the PGA Tour season.

GODICH: Sorry, but I don't see either doing much for the other. We already see players from around the world competing against each other. I'd be willing to bet that in 2020, we'll be doing Google searches to find out who won in Rio.

RITTER: Golf will add some highly recognizable athletes to the Olympic mix, like tennis and basketball, and that will be fun to see. But the Olympics will do even more for golf — showcasing the game to an international audience can only be a positive. I'll be interested to see if there's a spike in new courses, junior academies, etc., once the Rio Games are over. It could happen.

LYNCH: I think it is shaping up to be a missed opportunity. Golf will earn a lot of attention for returning at Rio '16, and some dedicated folks in the golf world put in a lot of work to get to this point. But instead of a compelling format to match the occasion, we are facing a 72-hole stroke-play event. That barely distinguishes it from any other week on Tour. The Ryder Cup gets the attention of casual fans because it has familiar players in unfamiliar formats. Olympic golf should do the same. The current plan is a failure of imagination.

BAMBERGER: Golf's impact on the Olympics will be minimal. The Summer Games are about gladiator sports, and golf is not such a sport, not in the conventional sense. Neither is baseball, which never worked in the Olympics, nor tennis. The Olympics will bring a sense of grandeur for the athletes lucky enough to be competing. The whole thing is ill-considered. It should have been — and this never had a chance — an amateur team competition.

SENS: Golf in the Olympics is sure to send the same ripples of excitement through the sport as those generated by the Sunday skins matches I play with friends. There may be a tiny spike in interest from an out-of-nowhere underdog (golf's equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team) or some decent TV ratings for when the biggest names flash on the screens. But very few fans, and surely none of the players, will see it as anywhere close to golf's top honor. Rio will also get a nice course, but it's hard to buy into the idea that this is going to spread golf to the masses there. Or anywhere else.

PASSOV: I suppose it will be cool to see, say, Tiger and LeBron hanging out as U.S. Olympic athletes, but it's going to take quite a few years to have Olympic golf mean much of anything. If the golf course is finished in time, it will be a compelling venue, but politics are making things really tough for Gil Hanse and his team to finish the course. I do think the Olympics will help boost participation and interest in countries where it has traditionally lagged, but overall, I'm guessing that golf's eventual popularity in Brazil and South America will wind up rivaling the interest curling and skeleton generate in the U.S.

3. Fred Couples was named an ambassador for the Northern Trust Open. Will Couples be able to convince Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott to commit to playing Riviera in the future?

BAMBERGER: The secret to Fred's popularity, as a person and as a Presidents Cup captain and I guess now as a Northern Trust Open ambassador (whatever that means) is that he doesn't ask anybody to do anything.

GODICH: Good luck with that, Freddie. Should a couple of guys with Southern California roots have to be begged to play in an event with the history that Riviera has?

VAN SICKLE: Tournaments are only as good as their dates (as they pertain to players' schedules) and their courses. Riviera is a classic that is very popular. But due to late-season play and appearance-fee chasing in the Middle East and Asia, February is no longer a great month to attract top players who are already looking for a break. Everybody loves Fred. He might sway some players.

WALKER: This event couldn’t have a better ambassador than Couples, and Mickelson will be back, but unless Northern Trust is hiring golfers as corporate “spokesmen,” we won’t see Woods, Scott or McIlroy at Riviera.

LYNCH: Players largely make decisions on personal schedules, not appeals from fellow pros. If Jack and Arnie have to battle to attract the biggest names each year for the Tour stops they created and nurtured, what weight will entreaties from Couples really carry? Anyway, I think there's a better chance of Cheyenne Woods playing Riviera than of her uncle returning.

RITTER: Doubt he can sway Tiger since it seems like Woods isn't a fan of the course, but the others? Sure, Freddie's presence can't hurt.

PASSOV: Phil nearly always plays Riviera and Adam Scott is a former champion, so they'll likely be back anyway. The great weather, firmer, faster conditions and smoother greens in 2014 had to impress a few of the folks who have stayed away. It will be hard to say no to Freddie, but Tiger is pretty resolute about where, when and why he plays, no matter how he feels about Captain Couples.

SENS: Sure, as long as he and a few sultans can get together and rustle up an acceptable appearance fee.

SHIPNUCK: Not Tiger, but yes on the other three. If we're lucky.

4. Speaking of absences, what does it say about the status of this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship when Woods, Mickelson and Scott are missing from the event?

SHIPNUCK: It says the course is lame. Get a better venue and they'll be back. Except for Phil, for whom spring break with his kids is more important.

BAMBERGER: It says that they cannot stand the course and that last-place money means nothing to them and, in the case of Woods and Mickelson, just a tiny little way of thumbing their noses at the commissioner.

GODICH: It's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the venue.

PASSOV: The WGC Match Play and Dove Mountain near Tucson really have a lame-duck feeling going on. Whether it was the Wednesday snow last year, the consistently chilly conditions in years past, or the lukewarm reception to the Nicklaus design, this event has not delivered on its promise. It's as if Woods, Mickelson and Scott have teamed up to say, "Enough." Doing your brackets is much more fun than watching the actual matches.

LYNCH: It says nothing about the stature of the event. It just speaks to the reality of Tour pros as independent contractors making decisions that work for them. I don't subscribe to the notion that these absences are based on a dislike of the course (though it is thoroughly mediocre). Golfers who play for a living like predictability, and match play doesn't offer that. The only guarantee for players this week is that they will make it to the 10th green on Wednesday. That's the real issue.

VAN SICKLE: It says that top players have so much money, money they'll never be able to spend, that even a guaranteed $40,000-plus payday means nothing to them. If they don't like a golf course (and they don't like this contrived, over-the-top desert design) and they don't love the site (the Ritz-Carlton is fabulous, but it's not near anything, including Tucson) and they don't love the weather (snow and cold twice in the last three years), they vote with their feet. Plus they've never been big fans of a tournament where they often are embarrassingly sent home Wednesday after a first-round elimination. Not cool.

RITTER: It's time for a new venue. Since Accenture is ending its sponsorship, that's almost guaranteed to happen. Here's what they should do: move it to July and play it in Michigan, where great golf fans and course options would all but ensure it becomes one of the season's best non-majors.

SENS: That they have too much money and the event has not enough pull.

WALKER: Is anyone going to miss Mickelson and Scott at a match-play event other than their projected first-round opponents? People are only going to miss Tiger, who’s probably the best match-play player of all time. In his case, he planned on being at the Olympics this week, and he apparently collected enough money in the Middle East and India to pass on a limited-field event with a $9 million purse.

5. Which format is better at identifying the best golfer, match play or stroke play?

BAMBERGER: Stroke play, by far. If PGA Tour events were 90 holes instead of 72, Woods would have 90 wins by now. Match play is great for us, and it's way more fun, but it's fluky.

LYNCH: Stroke play identifies the better player, but match play shows us the better competitor.

SENS: Stroke play. If match play were anywhere as good a barometer, this forum would be debating where Ian Poulter ranks among the all-time greats.

RITTER: Stroke play identifies the best golfer because you play the entire field at once, but I'd say match play is best for identifying the toughest competitor.

WALKER: Match play, because every day is Sunday.

VAN SICKLE: Match play is more fun to watch by a mile, but it's no way to determine a champion. A match-play champ has to beat six players, usually not including one of the top three players in the world. To win in stroke play, you've got to beat a full field, including Tiger Woods if he's playing, every day, over 72 holes. That's a far tougher task.

PASSOV: Stroke play is much better at identifying the best golfer. Make all your putts, keep the ball in play, execute smart recoveries. That said, match play is more fun to watch (at least in a close match) and more fun to play, but there's too much luck that can happen in match play to say that it identifies the best golfer over a week's competition.

SHIPNUCK: Stroke play will identify the best golfer, match play the gutsiest.

GODICH: Give me a 72-hole stroke-play event. I continue to be amazed at how Tour players are able to concentrate for four days. The potential danger the best player faces in match play is running into someone who gets hot for a round or even a six- or nine-hole stretch.

6. Our colleague Michael Bamberger wrote this week about playing a round at the storied Los Angeles muni Rancho Park. What’s your favorite muni or sleeper course?

PASSOV: I'm partial to Pacific Grove Links, the Poor Man's Pebble Beach. It's an easy walk, costs less than $50 and features a back nine complete with deer, dunes, ocean views and a lighthouse. Even cooler and more remote is another California track, Northwood, an Alister MacKenzie-designed nine-holer in Monte Rio that zigzags in and out of enormous redwoods. It's only minutes down the road from Korbel, making it easy to celebrate your round with some tasty sparkling wine.

SENS: Gleneagles, a nine-holer just south of San Francisco, is a great little track with a time-capsule of a clubhouse and a new set of greens that rank among the best in the area. Story is that Lee Trevino called it the best nine-hole course he ever played. Hard to verify that, but it's definitely among the best I've seen. A little farther west — five hours across the Pacific, I mean — Kahuku golf course on Oahu is as charming as they come. Great ocean views, low-key island vibe. With a bit of cosmetic work, it wouldn't be a sleeper anymore.

SHIPNUCK: Pacific Grove Muni, which is great fun, an easy walk, and has a glorious back nine in the dunes, all of it set to the soundtrack of barking sea lions.

BAMBERGER: The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland, followed by the Bellport Country Club course in Bellport, L.I., where I was a junior member in the 1970s, for $50 a year.

GODICH: I played my first junior tournament at Stevens Park in Dallas in the late '60s. I was 9 or 10. It was match play, nine holes. I got to the semifinals before losing to a kid named Mike, 1 up. Our parents walked with us. I remember taking seven shots to get out of a bunker on one hole. (Who knew what a concession was?) Stevens is a quirky layout tucked into a neighborhood in Oak Cliff. But I've been back to play it a few times over the years, reliving those childhood memories along the way. The place underwent a redesign in 2011. Can't wait to get back.

WALKER: The nine-hole course at Highland Links in Truro on Cape Cod has some of the best ocean views in golf, and at $35 to walk, you’ve got money left over for oysters and beer at the Wellfleet Beachcomber.

LYNCH: Does the Old Course count? I played many rounds at Van Cortlandt Park golf course in the Bronx, the oldest muni in America. The fairways were hardpan, the greens were shaggy, the architecture was nondescript, but I had a lot of fun there. I can still recall every hole in detail, despite not having played it in a decade. That's because I had plenty of time to memorize it since every round took six hours. I'll play it again some day, when I develop a tolerance for glacial play.

RITTER: Every July, the Ritter family takes a quick trip to northern Michigan, and the itinerary includes at least one round at Hemlock Golf Club, outside a great little beach town called Ludington. The course rolls over and along the sand dunes near Lake Michigan, it's immaculate, it's interesting, and you can play it for less than $40. What else do you want?

VAN SICKLE: It's been more than 20 years since I first wrote about the Pacific Grove municipal course, right up the road off 17-Mile Drive from Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach. It's got dunes, a lighthouse, ice plant, ocean views, quirky holes, scrawny deer, and did I mention ocean views? I still consider it the most fun course per dollar in America. Would you rather play 10 rounds at Pacific Grove or one at Pebble Beach for the same money? I know my answer.

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