Tour Confidential: Jason Day Returns to Form; Masters Favorite?

March 21, 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. With his wire-to-wire win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Jason Day reminded us why he’s a member of the so-called Big Three. What impressed you most about Day’s play at Bay Hill, and given his excellent track record at Augusta (two top-3 finishes since 2011), is he now the Masters favorite?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): I loved his resiliency on Sunday. He made some costly mistakes early in the round but never stopped battling, and then he did what he had to do down the stretch to get the win. We know Day is a momentum player and when he has his A game he’s going to cruise to victories. If he learns to grind out wins with his B game on Sundays that’s a very potent player. Given Bubba’s back and Jordan’s funks, there is no clear Masters favorite, which makes it more fun. I fully expect Day to be in the mix on the back nine on Sunday. 

SCORES: Check Out the Final Leaderboard from Bay Hill 

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I disagree about there being no clear Masters, favorite, Alan. I believe Day just became the favorite, because if he can win at Bay Hill hitting it like that, then I believe he could win at Augusta—where he’s done everything but win—going away.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I’m with Alan. When you can drive it like Day has been driving it, you don’t need to do all that much to shoot 68 at Augusta National, except keep executing all the way around. I can see Day more likely to do that than anyone else, including Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): The A game. Remember how Tiger used to irk people by saying he didn’t have his and then winning anyway. But as Alan and Cameron say, that’s exactly how Day won. And that birdie-sand-save finish was absolute nails. Vegas still favors Spieth, but those odds are in part a popularity contest. Based on recent trends and past performances, I’ve got Day and Scott as the two guys to beat. But if I’m making a longer play with better odds: Matsuyama. 

RELATED: Visit’s Masters Tournament Hub

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I’m with Josh on this one, in that it’s hard to bet against Adam Scott. He owns a pretty stellar Masters record in his own right, and with two wins and a runner-up already this year, that’s pretty strong stuff heading to Augusta. Of course Augusta’s greens aren’t regular tour greens. Maybe that’s where Scott stumbles. All credit to Jason Day, however. I chided him last week for being MIA as a Big Three member and then he does this. To close in this fashion, when he hadn’t been in the hunt in what feels like ages, is impressive.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Closing on Sunday without your best game (aside from a few very clutch moments) is vintage Tiger territory. Day admitted afterward that he texted with Woods Sunday morning, so he’s clearly looking for a Tiger-esque approach to finishing off a lead. Day would be on the short list of Masters favorites if a short list still existed. Like Shipnuck said, there are many big names that have a shot this year. Augusta can’t get here fast enough.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): How is Adam Scott not the favorite after back-to-back wins? So he had three screwup holes at Bay Hill, I’m not holding that against him. But Day should probably be at least a co-favorite. It’s not just his length, it’s his short game and his putting, which look to be the equal of or maybe better than Jordan Spieth’s. Day’s hard work may pay off big time in 2016. We could be en route to The Big One.

2. Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer, said he was “disappointed” more big names didn’t play at Bay Hill. (Among the players who didn’t show were Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson.) Should the game’s headliners feel obligated to play in the King’s event?

Morfit: The API was doomed to miss out on some big names, given its place on the schedule right in front of the WGC-Match Play, followed by Houston and the Masters. Mickelson hasn’t played Bay Hill particularly well in years, Spieth needed a break, and Rickie is free to set his own schedule as he sees fit. To quote an eight-time winner at Bay Hill, it is what it is. 

RELATED: Arnie Remains the King of Bay Hill

Sens: Exactly, Cam. And with a gesture like Fowler made to tell Arnold in person, the decisions were made respectfully. Cool as it would be to have all the top guys there, it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t understand. 

Shipuck: It’s clear Arnold is slowing down. It would be awesome if all these guys cleared their schedule in the short-term to honor him with their presence. Once he’s gone it’ll be much easier to take a pass, as we’ve seen with the Nelson. But with the Masters so close players have to do what’s best for them, even if that means a little blowback.

Van Sickle: It’s Arnold damn Palmer and he may not be here next year. So your Match Play preparation is interrupted? Tough crap. Every top player should’ve been here to play and say thanks possibly one last time. And if Arnie’s here next year, you come back and do it again. Sorry, fellas, no excuses here. None. You messed up.

Passov: Lots of scheduling problems with the Florida Swing these days, especially this year. Tampa (Valspar) used to be skippable, but word has finally spread as to how good the Copperhead course is and how convenient the resort to golf course access is. Honda was once totally skippable, when it was played at the TPC Heron Bay. Now, with Jack Nicklaus and PGA National involved, it’s hard to pass up. Throw in the Match Play and that spells trouble for committing five weeks in a row. Yet, yet, yet … this is Arnie, folks! You wouldn’t be playing for this kind of cash if weren’t for the King. Show some respect and show up. 

Morfit: Gary and Joe, you guys make a strong case, but I wonder whether those who skipped were fully aware of Palmer’s weakened condition. Guys make their schedules well in advance sometimes, and Spieth had already committed to fly to NYC and help promote the Drive, Chip & Putt, so it’s hard to fault him for that. 

Ritter: I agree, Joe. Tour pros play golf for themselves 51 weeks a year (the one exception: the Ryder or Presidents Cup). With Arnie ailing, it would’ve been nice to see more guys rearrange their schedules to tee up this week and pay their respects. 

Bamberger: I don’t know, but if I were a Tour player, and the choice was the playing in the Match Play or Arnold’s event, it’s no-brainer: Orlando, baby.


3. Rory McIlroy had six double-bogeys at the API—the most he’s ever had in a PGA Tour event—and was 10 strokes better on Sunday (65) than he was on Thursday and Saturday. Is it officially time to start worrying about McIlroy?

Shipnuck: That time was a while ago, actually. Rory has always been streaky, and he can have a great season with one hot stretch at the right time, as we saw in 2014. So it’s far too soon to call this a lost year or anything of that sort. What’s alarming to me is it doesn’t seem like he’s having much fun out there. He’s always played with such an admirable insouciance and lately he’s looked more dour than Jim Furyk with a raging hemorrhoid. 

Morfit: Rory will figure it out and win some big tournaments again. But when? Waiting for him can seem like agony, but watching him at his best is so thrilling that it’s worth the wait. In the meantime we’ve got all those workout videos to tide us over. 

Passov: Rory’s talent is so immense, he makes golf look so easy when he’s on. Maybe he’s needing to learn that golf isn’t quite that easy, and to not be so hard on himself when things go awry.

Gary Van Sickle: Maybe our guy Brandel Chamblee isn’t wrong. Rory wasn’t making this many doubles before he started trying to win the Mr. Universe title. Maybe a few more minutes on the range and a few less minutes in the weight room (which won’t affect his power a bit) would be helpful. Rory needs to find that optimal swing level (85%), Davis Love’s dad used to tell him. Try that, Rors.

Bamberger: When a player of Rory’s talent makes that many double bogeys I think there’s one main culprit: disinterest. If he had shot 69-67 and then made a bunch of weekend doubles that would be one thing. But I just have the feeling he is not super engaged. Nicklaus made an interesting comment last week: Arnold won 62 Tour events, and seven majors, in an era when the majors weren’t as major as they are now. But the way the golf culture is now, it’s all about the majors, and I think Rory, in particular, feels that.

4. Tim Hart needed a bogey on the 18th hole to shoot 59 and win the PGA Tour of Australasia’s Coca-Cola Queensland PGA Championship on Sunday, but he stumbled to a triple-bogey and later lost in a playoff. He still shot 61, but given what could have been, where does this gaffe rank among the most calamitous 72nd-hole meltdowns?

Shipnuck: It’s not exactly Van de Velde at Carnoustie or Phil at Winged Foot or Sam Snead at the ’47 U.S. Open but oh man, that hurts. Poor bastard.

Morift: Well, that’s sports. 

Ritter: And golf is the cruelest sport of all.

Sens: Lots of guys have lost tournaments with final hole meltdowns. It’s the missed shot at 58 that makes an international headline out of relatively minor event. Less painful to have shot 69 and lost instead.

Van Sickle: Steve Allan had a sand wedge into the last green at Reno-Tahoe Open and needed a par to win. He somehow made double bogey. It was awful. You probably don’t remember that. You probably don’t know who Steve Allan is. I rest my case.

Passov: Doug Dunakey (Is that how you spell his name?) once shot a 59 in a Nike Tour event, and that was done three-putting the final hole. Can you imagine if he had birdied the hole to shoot 57? Now he’s just a semi-forgotten guy, at least by me, because I’m not sure how to spell his name [editor’s note: Joe got his name right]. Great scores, but do you count that as a meltdown? For me, it’s all about the stage. Van de Velde still clinches it because of how he did it and what was at stake.

Bamberger: It’s likely in Tim Hart’s top-3. It doesn’t rank for me.


5. During last week’s Valspar Championship a fan boasted on Twitter that he heckled Ian Poulter, and that Poulter asked him to be removed from the gallery. Poulter later tweeted at the man’s employer, Florida Southern Univeristy, and a few days later it was reported that the man was no longer employed as the school’s assistant athletic director for development. Did the fan have it coming, or did Poulter go too far by reporting the fan’s behavior to the school?

Shipnuck: Both. It’s definitely a good reminder for sports fans that being a schmuck has consequences, but losing your job seems way harsh. And it’s a cheap victory for Poulter. I think this will only embolden other yahoos to see if they get a rise out of him. Basically, everyone lost here.

Morfit: Social media can be a wonderful thing, as it was when I helped some German girl get her driver’s license back earlier this year. Social media can also be a toxic lagoon of idiocy. If you get into hot-button issues like presidential politics, it’s primarily the latter. But Ian Poulter? C’mon, people. If we can find nothing better than Ian Poulter to lose our jobs over, then we’re in worse shape than we thought.

Sens: First Ted Bishop. And now this guy. Clearly, the lesson is, don’t harass Ian Poulter on Twitter. Given all the silly noise on social media, you’d think Poulter would have been big enough to turn a blind eye to the guy’s doltish commentary. But maybe it’s the reduced number of characters you’re allowed: gets people thinking small, and acting so as well. 

Van Sickle: Social media reminds me of a universal truth: A lot of people are stupid and a lot of people have no manners whatsoever. You can hide both of those behind the anonymity of the Internet. That’s what should change. You can’t put a pack of dogs in a room with a pork chop and expect them to behave. And by the way, Ted Bishop’s tell-all book is going to sizzle. I hear the PGA of America is demanding to see a pre-publication manuscript. The heat is on.

Passov: Gary, I’m totally old school and totally with you on this. If you’re going to act like a colossal jerk—at a golf tournament—it’s gratifying to know that there are still consequences, potentially. It’s like watching that idiot who cut you off in traffic and then seeing his car a mile down the road pulled over by a cop. Did Poults go too far? Probably. But am I gleeful about seeing colossal jerks like that so-called golf fan get a comeuppance? Absolutely.

Bamberger: If you behave like that at a golf tournament, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that your behavior at work might have been odd, too. I’m sure the school had other reasons and maybe Poulter did them a favor.

6. Which two players do you most want to see face off in the WGC-Dell Match Play next week?

Shipnuck: Jordan vs. Rory, obviously. Dustin vs. Bubba would be epic. Phil vs. Rickie would be amazingly fun. Which is to say, we’re likely to get Soren Kjeldsen vs. Jaco Van Zyl.

Ritter: And if that match happens, put me down for $10 on Van Zyl. It’s match play. Entertaining clashes can happen when you least expect them.

Bamberger: Soren vs. Bubba would be cool, as Bubba has shown signs of xenophobia and Kjeldsen is from, you know … Denmark. 

Morfit: We’ve seen Phil vs. Rickie at the 2011 Match Play in Arizona. Fowler won 6 & 5. Would the result be any different today? Well, yeah; it’s match play. I’d like to see Troy Merritt vs. bearded wonder Graham DeLaet in a battle for supremacy among Boise State alumni who have flirted with Ws the last two weeks on Tour. Alas, neither man qualified to go to Austin. 

Sens: Ah, yes. Nothing like a facial hair-based rivalry. Though I’m not sure the networks would be so keen on that one. Spieth and Day as World Number One and Two makes for an appealing match on paper, if only the two weren’t so dang friendly. Any of the so-called Big Three or Big Four meeting head to head would be swell as well. But can we get a little bad blood here, even if it’s polite golf world bad blood? Always makes things more interesting. Failing that, a preview of a Ryder Cup singles match would be good. Mickelson v. Rose, say? Or better yet, Patrick Reed vs. any of the top Euros, since he seems more capable of getting under the opposition’s skin.

Morfit: I like both of those, Josh, especially Patrick Reed vs. the Euros. Reed is such a saucy match play guy.

Van Sickle: The round-robin format still turns me off of what used to be my favorite non-major tour stop. I have a dramatic fix. Go back to single elimination and turn the Monday pairings show from a random draw into a draft. If Jordan Spieth is No. 1, then he chooses his spot on the bracket and his opening-round opponent. Can you imagine if he says, “I’ll play… Phil Mickelson!” Thus the Match Play gets personal right away and it’s game on! Even TV would drool over that Monday night show.

Bamberger: Oh, a brilliant idea Gary!

Morfit: I agree, Gary, that the round-robin format needs a fix. Last year was such a hot mess, and to make only one change, introducing the prospect of halved matches, seems like too little. As for letting guys choose who they want to play, yeah, it would make the selection show way more interesting, but it seems like now, a year after Keegan and Miguel nearly came to blows, is not the right time to get that bill passed.

Passov: Mostly, the Match Play matches have been abysmally dull, compared to the intensity of Ryder Cup contests. At the very least, let’s inject some rivalries into this. We’re in Austin, so I’ll go with serious Longhorn fans whooping and hollerin’ for Jordan Spieth, against say, another Big 12 foe…and since I can’t think of anybody from Oklahoma or Texas A&M off the top of my head, let’s make the villain Rickie Fowler from Oklahoma State.

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