Tour Confidential: Is Jason Day the Best Player in the World?

March 28, 2016

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. When the Official Golf World Rankings are updated Monday, newly minted WGC-Dell Match Play champion Jason Day will replace Jordan Spieth as World No. 1. Rankings calculus aside, who do you believe is the best player in the world?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): We need the Masters to help sort it out. Day has clearly been the best player over the last eight months, but it’s not fair to discount what Spieth did the first half of last year. Of course, Day did blow him away on Sunday at Whistling Straits. If they tussle again at the Masters the victor is the undisputed heavyweight champ. Failing that, we need to let this season play out and then make the call. 

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I’ve got to go with Day right now, given what I saw at the Dell. He seems to have more self-belief than the other two guys, and self-belief is so huge. He seems to have total trust in his short game, which sees him through the good and bad ball-striking days. And when he’s on he’s going to beat most of the field in strokes-gained tee to green. It’s a potent combination. 

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Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): It’s tough to argue in favor of anybody other than Jason Day … right this minute. Two weeks ago, I was questioning whether he even belonged in the Big Three conversation. Right this minute, he’s dominating that conversation. I’m with Alan: let the Masters sort it out.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Not sure I need the Masters for this one. Day has now won a preposterous six titles in his last 13 starts. He stared down Spieth at the PGA Championship and took out Rory at the Match Play. You always wonder about Day’s injuries, including his balky back that flared up again last week, but he’s No. 1 until someone takes it from him.

Morfit: Day said he preferred the old format, and yet he’s now won the whole enchilada under both formats. That seems to argue in his favor as the best player, not just the nominal No. 1. Reminds me of my favorite quote from Apollo 13, “If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.”

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): On the one hand, Day’s play of late calls to mind what Mugatu said of Hansel in Zoolander: “He’s so hot right now.” Then again, he’s obviously not just a fleeting fashion. He’s been on the verge of this for some time. And now that getting the pressure of that major is behind him, the floodgates have opened. The official rankings don’t always get it right, but I’ve got no good argument against Day’s top billing today.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Day beat McIlroy head-to-head and Spieth remains hitting on only five cylinders. I’d put Day No. 1, Adam Scott No. 2 and the rest in potpourri. Day’s best looks better than anyone else’s best… but check back next month.

2. The Match Play’s new site (Austin Country Club) and newish format (a round-robin first round that protects players from elimination after a single match) produced a final four featuring two of the top three players in the world and a champion who is your new world No. 1. Is there any reason not to like the event’s new format and venue?

Morfit: Austin C.C. looks beautiful on TV, which is big. The three-match minimum is great. It’s probably what brought Phil Mickelson back to this event as he tries to play his way into shape for Augusta. But I’m still not sold on having 16 “pods,” with just one winner advancing from each. That seems predicated on the idea that each pod is equal and deserves to graduate just one guy, when in reality there are pods full of hotter players and pods full of colder players. That seems off.   

Shipnuck: The course is great for match play and on TV and had a much livelier atmosphere than that track Finchem found in the wilds of Tucson. It’s great to see so much more golf in with the pool but the first day has been rendered mostly meaningless and by Friday more than a third of the field were lame ducks. Most damning is that the win-or-go-home urgency has been lost. So, put the old format back in play but keep the event in Austin and it’s a home run.

SCORES: Check Out Final Scores from WGC-Dell Match Play

Sens: I’m with Alan here. I get the appeal for the players and the networks. But there’s no substitute for the excitement of a do-or-die match. Just last week, we were talking in the forum about the frenzied excitement surrounding March Madness. Yeah. I know. Different sport. Different marketing dynamics. But those early pool-killing upsets are a big part of what make that tournament so great. And it’s not like these guys have to deal with the cruelty of single-elimination all that often. They can take it. If we lose a few big names along the way, so be it.

Ritter: Didn’t enjoy seeing all those halved matches on Wednesday-Sunday. Can we at least go to sudden death and get a winner each day? The new format has watered down the event, and I miss the old blood-and-guts, single-elimination setup. Agree that Austin CC was a worthy venue, especially that driveable par-4 13th, where bombers banked it off the grandstands (or found the lake) while others laid up. Perfect hole for this event. 

Passov: Although I liked the golf course, I’m not as enamored with it as others seem to be. Ill-defined landing areas, too many irons off tees, too many short irons into greens. The rock walls, however, did add some cool match play tactics and drama that I would have disliked for stroke play. I missed the gasps and the wows and genuine tension of single elimination, but I’ll sacrifice in the name of getting some recognizable names through to the weekend.

Van Sickle: More than 1/3 of the field was playing dead in Friday’s third round. And 32 matches each day, while a better bargain, seemed like too much golf to watch. You can’t credit the format for getting the big names through because it was similar last year and McIlroy was the one with marquee power. Beautiful setting, great fan support and course was a delightful video game, perfect for match play, but a stroke-play event there would lead to a lot of dull bail-out shots.


3. Four American players advanced to the quarterfinals of the Match Play, but none made it to the semis. For U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, is this cause for optimism, or concern?

Shipnuck: Neither. Thirteen of the top 24 in the World Ranking are American—versus only four Euros—so Love has to feel good about how his squad is shaping up.

Passov: Anything that happens week in and week out on the PGA Tour is cause for concern, because no matter how Americans have fared in the WGC-Match Play in the past, it usually added up to an L come Ryder Cup time.

Morfit: I agree with Joe. Tiger is an American, he won the Match Play three times, and, uh, it didn’t seem to really translate at the Ryder Cup. It’s apples and apples, but they’re different orchards. 

Sens: True, Joe and Cam. And I don’t put any stock in this week’s event as a predictor of what will happen come the fall. But if you’re Love, you’ve got cause for optimism in the changing face of the U.S. squad. The Americans won’t be going into this one with the same team we’ve grown accustomed to seeing getting stomped. There’s good reason to think this Cup is going to feel quite different, and that it will produce a different result. Not that I’m rushing to Vegas to place a hefty wager, but I’ll bet you a hotdog at the turn that the U.S. wins this one. 

Ritter: This week has no bearing on the Ryder Cup as long as the RC doesn’t mirror this match play pod system. Actually, we shouldn’t give the Ryder power brokers any ideas. Pretend I didn’t say that. 

Van Sickle: Nothing in March has a bearing on what happens in October. Nothing.

4. After Jason Day edged Rory McIlroy in their semifinal match in Austin, Nick Faldo said on the air that McIlory is still “the yardstick,” the player against whom all other players still measure themselves. Do you think that’s true?

Shipnuck: Yes. For now. Spieth has to win two more majors just to get to where Rory is right now. That’s the entire career of Langer, Olazabal, Crenshaw, Norman, Strange, J. Miller, H. Green, O’Meara, Burke Jr., Lyle, and Zoeller, just to name a few. But Rory has been shaky since Charlotte last year, a swoon that has coincided with Spieth, Day, Fowler, Watson and now A. Scott going to another level. It’s time for McIlroy to start playing to his potential or someone else will in fact become the yardstick.

Passov: Fair point, but Rory’s hardly the yardstick that others in his position have been, notably Tiger. He’s had a very shaky fourth-round record as of late and doesn’t seem to hole the big putts, well, anywhere near as many of them, as Spieth and Day do.

Sens: Took the words out of my keyboard, Joe. How can anyone but Tiger be the modern player’s measuring stick? 

Morfit: I would guess that Jason and Jordan are very aware of the fact that Rory has four majors. But saying he’s the yardstick seems off. Tiger is the yardstick, and he will be for decades if not centuries to come. 

Van Sickle: If you’re saying Tiger is the yardstick, then you have to say Nicklaus is the yardstick. Rory is the leader of the “active-players pack” for now. But Rory is going to have to bounce back and win tournaments this year because Day, at his best, looks like he’s got more firepower than anyone.

Ritter: Rory’s the only active player to win multiple majors in runaways, so I understand the logic. But Gary’s right: Day clearly has a second gear, and he’s making a case to be the new yardstick. But do they use yards or meters in Australia?


5. Lydia Ko quietly picked up her 11th LPGA title at the Kia Classic on Sunday. (Ko also has won five events on the Ladies European Tour.) Put on your golf historian hat and put into perspective what Ko has achieved at the ripe old age of 18.

Shipnuck: Well, how about this: Annika didn’t win her first LPGA event until she was 25! Mind. Blown.

Morfit: Isn’t golf supposed to be hard? I can’t fathom being that much better than everyone else at such a young age. And she looks like a nice person, too. That counts for a lot in my book.

Passov: She’s a phenom and could ascend even further. It’s too bad she doesn’t possess a clever nickname or ferocious temperament or some other marketing tool that would elevate her stature, because she’s deserving of much more press than she gets. Now she just needs to take care of business in more majors and we’ll see how history treats her.

Sens: Exactly, Joe. Can you imagine the frenzy around her if she were a guy? Or the sort of player who posed for the body issues of glossy magazines?

Van Sickle: Ko is off to a great start, and got an earlier start than Tiger. I can’t wait to see how high she can go and how long she can sustain it.

Ritter: She’s the greatest young golfer in the history of the game. But don’t take it from me.

6. Tim Finchem announced that he likely will step down as PGA Tour commissioner at the end of 2016. What will be the enduring legacy of Finchem’s more-than-two-decade tenure, and what could the commish have done better?

Shipuck: His legacy is cash dollar bills. Was Finchem a great commissioner? Ask Snedeker, or Haas, or Horschel, each of whom got a check for $10 million thanks to the commish. A guy like Furyk could have $100 million waiting for him, thanks to the best retirement plan in sports. So he’s a god to the players, or should be. Finchem has been a pioneer in exporting the game globally, creating the Presidents Cup and the WGCs and helping to get golf back into the Olympics. His tireless support of the First Tee has brought the game to many thousands of kids and he has relentlessly pushed the Tour’s philanthropic efforts, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars back into local communities. All of these efforts are home runs. The culture of silence around PEDs and player misconduct is a blackmark. The penal policies limiting how reporters can use social media to better connect with fans is a disgrace, and a missed opportunity. His kowtowing to Augusta National during its boys-only membership controversy was embarrassing. The ostentatious clubhouse at Sawgrass is a crime against humanity. But all in all you have to give Finchem at least an A- for his tenure. He’s certainly in the conversation for the greatest commissioners in the history of sports, if anyone cares to talk about such a thing.

Passov: Alan, I’ve got to run to Easter dinner. And there’s no way I could add anything meaningful to what you’ve stated here. He’s deflected the arrows magnificently, and the PGA has managed to stay relevant and to prosper, even during a down time for both the economy and the sport. Well played, Mr. Finchem.

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Morfit: It’s hard to accurately evaluate Finchem’s reign because of Tiger Woods. Imagine there’s a regatta with a staggered start, and one boat clearly gets the best wind and wins going away. So was it the best boat? I had lunch with an agent who said if David Stern had been Tour commissioner these guys would be playing for even more money than they are now. True? Ludicrous? I have no idea, and we’ll never know. Finchem will certainly leave the Tour in better shape, financially, than he found it, and he’s a shrewd guy so I’m sure he’s done some smart things. But he had very, very good wind.

Sens: All true, Cam. Better shape financially, but also with an infrastructure of brands and events that are well-suited to take advantage of the next generation. After a lot of early handwringing about what golf would do in Tiger’s absence, you now hear a lot of players and pundits saying that the game is in a healthier place than ever. Finchem certainly gets partial credit for that. I don’t see how anyone could say that golf is more exciting in Tiger’s absence. But it also doesn’t seem like the fragile bubble we were fretting about either. 

Van Sickle: When Tiger is carrying your sport, you’re going to look like a smart commissioner. That said, Finchem didn’t mess it up. He capitalized on Tiger brilliantly. Without Tiger, there’s a chance Golf Channel goes under after a few years and the landscape is completely different right now. Remember, Finchem has shepherded a sport that doesn’t get big TV ratings and yet he still landed big TV money. Impressive.