Tour Confidential: Making sense of Tiger Woods’ 79 at Torrey Pines — plus Jordan Spieth, Scott Sallings, and plans to save golf

January 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. A 79 for Tiger Woods and a MDF (made cut, did not finish) at a place he's won eight times. Is this cause for concern, or should we just chalk this one up to off-season rust?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): He wasn't as far off as it seems from the score. Torrey was a beast, and a lot of guys struggled. I made a passing reference to his struggles to Sean Foley, who I think had the right take, that it was only the third day of the year. There's golf, there's tournament golf, and there's major-like tournament golf. Torrey South was major-ish. Tiger's just starting the season. Thus the 79.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): You can never rush to judgment after one bad round. Although it was a 79 with four birdies and a lengthy par-saving putt on the final hole, so it probably could have been worse. I heard a guy on the ASU Karsten Course putting green today say before he went out to play, "I just want to play as well as Tiger did yesterday." One man's 79 is another man's career low.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): It's certainly bizarre, but hardly unprecedented. Remember that 37-45–82 that Nicklaus shot in the final round at Pebble one year during his prime? I'm not ready to overreact just yet.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It's offseason rust — but it's concerning that he came into this event rusty. Still plenty of time to get it together for Augusta, but you can't completely overlook the contrast between last year's win and this week's dud.

Mike Walker, assistant managing editor, (@michaelwalkerjr): Definitely cause for concern. This wasn’t Muirfield in gale-force winds; Torrey Pines is supposed to be Tiger’s happy place. Even if it’s just rust, his limited playing schedule doesn’t give him much time to shake it off, especially if he has another early exit from the Match Play.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I'm certainly not concerned about Tiger Woods shooting 79 in his first Tour event of the year. I have other things to worry about.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): I wouldn't go pushing the panic button or flashing the Bat signal in the sky. But I also wouldn't chalk it up entirely to rust. The guy took a little time off, but you can bet he was still practicing. It's not like Boba Fett had him frozen in carbonite or anything. And do we get bonus points for two entirely unrelated pop culture references in a single answer?

2. There was talk about the rough being too thick at Torrey Pines this week with the implication that it led to Phil Mickelson wrenching his back and Tiger's early exit. Is that a valid point? Why or why not?

BAMBERGER: Rough? On a course set up for the best players in the world? I am shocked.

SENS: Pardon me while I lay down the world's tiniest violin. Sorry. No sympathy here. Tiger missed the cut because he played terribly all around. He didn't just hit wayward drives. He flubbed chips; missed putts. Phil's injury is a bummer and you hate to see it happen to anyone, but injuries are part of the game and, last I checked, the vast majority of the field walked away from Torrey unhurt.

MORFIT: Amazing how they got the rough so thick despite the drought in California, but I'm told Phil was actually sore even before he got here. I think the tournament committee did feel that the course was maybe playing a little overly hard. I say that because they moved the tee up so far on the par-3 third, from 200 yards on the card to 138. Charley Hoffman aced it. Erik Compton nearly aced it. It was like a gift to the players.

RITTER: Not sure I buy the concept of "Danger Rough." Guys have three days of practice rounds to test the rough. It's a shame Phil had to WD, but it's not the superintendent's fault.

VAN SICKLE: We went through this a few years back when every stop on the Florida swing tried to recreate the U.S. Open. All it did was drive players away. Even Arnold Palmer finally caved and toned it down at Bay Hill when his field started to lack some star power. Remember, the PGA Tour is a recruiting war in which every regular Tour stop is competing against every other Tour stop in an attempt to draw the biggest names. If your tournament has ridiculous, no-fun rough and brick greens, it's easy to scratch it off the schedule if you're a top player.

WALKER: It’s never good when a regular Tour stop gets compared to the U.S. Open, especially one so early in calendar.

PASSOV: While attractive, Torrey is enough of a slog under normal conditions that there's no need to embellish it further with a veil of thick rough. I get it if it's the U.S. Open. For the Farmers, wholly unnecessary. I'm not going link dense rough alone as the cause of Tiger and Phil's ills, but it sure didn't help matters.

3. Jordan Spieth went out and dusted Tiger, head-to-head, 63 to 71 on Friday, after beating him by just a stroke on Thursday. This from a kid who had never been paired with the 14-time major winner. Is Tiger's so-called intimidation factor completely gone, or is Spieth just fearless?

MORFIT: Tiger can still intimidate, but he can intimidate far fewer players. Spieth just has so much self-belief after the year he had in 2013. He rose to the occasion. The worst thing that happened to him was NOT being paired with Tiger on the weekend. He just wasn't sharp.

VAN SICKLE: Jordan Spieth continues to show that he's special. Ever since he shot 63 in competition as a 12-year-old to his run at the Byron Nelson as a 16-year-old to last year's breakthrough onto the PGA Tour. He's the new best young American player and he looks like he could be the best American player, period, if he keeps this up. I'm a believer. Watch out for him at Augusta.

BAMBERGER: I really do think the intimidation factor is over, but when it was a factor it was a Sunday afternoon thing.

PASSOV: Tiger's stare-down prowess is long gone. These days, when he wins, he wins on talent and guile, not via intimidation. That said, Spieth is special, and always has been. When you're a 16-year-old schoolboy and handle the top-10 heat of your hometown PGA Tour event, you likely have a bright future — and indeed, that bright future is now.

WALKER: When you’re off with your driver and your putter like Tiger was Friday, it’s hard to intimidate anyone. But it does seem that players like Mickelson and Zach Johnson relish a final-round matchup with Tiger. That was never the case during his glory days.

SENS: I think Tiger still has the potential to intimidate some players when he plays well, but there's no doubt he's regarded more as a man than as the mythic figure he used to be. That happens when you shoot 71 on a relatively easy course like he did that day. As for Spieth, he's 20 years old, with many millions in his bank account, playing a game he loves. Maybe he'd be scared if he watched “The Blair Witch Project” without parental supervision, but on the golf course? Come on.

RITTER: Spieth's success as an amateur pointed to a big-time career as a pro. Can't see him backing down from anyone, and man, is he going to be a fun addition to the Ryder Cup. Tiger's intimidation factor is on hiatus until he wins another major, and possibly forever.

4. Scott Stallings made a birdie on 18 to separate himself from a crowded leaderboard Sunday afternoon and win the Farmers Insurance Open. What was your most memorable moment from a wild final day at Torrey?

VAN SICKLE: Guess I've got to go with Scott's birdie to separate himself from a crowded leaderboard and win. What tops that? Stallings, by the way, is a terrific iron player and way underrated. It wouldn't surprise me to see him play his way onto the Ryder Cup team if he stays healthy all year.

MORFIT: I will remember all the missed putts from inside six feet. I'm guessing it was the greens. I hope it was the greens. Leishman, Spieth and Woodland each missed so many short putts it was hard to watch.

WALKER: Really exciting final round and Stallings was steely down the stretch, but I’ll most remember CBS Sports interrupting the back nine for an interview with an executive from Farmers Insurance instead of showing viewers a Stallings’ birdie.

BAMBERGER: I was on a driving range, working on my own wildness.

SENS: My most vivid memory from a wild Sunday remains Tiger's 79 on Saturday.

5. Sergio Garcia won the Qatar Masters on Sunday, following a solid 2013 season that ended with a win in Thailand in December. What's behind Garcia's resurgence?

MORFIT: I wrote years ago that the more Garcia is loved, the better he plays. I don't think he liked that story very much, but I stand by it. He's loved — by the fans, by his girlfriend — ergo he's happy, ergo he plays well. Golf is a very simple game.

BAMBERGER: For one thing, he seems to be semi-settled on a putting style. For another thing, he seems to have figured out that being Sergio Garcia is a pretty good thing.

VAN SICKLE: I'm not sure even Sergio knows what's behind his resurgence. Maybe he's just in a better place in his life, relationship-wise, maybe that claw putting grip has finally paid off in the confidence he needed on the greens (I'd vote that the biggest part) and maybe he was burnt out after 15 years of global golf and he needed the last two years to rebuild his fire. He's a popular player and golf is poorer without him.

SENS: Time off, refreshed attitude, diminished outward signs of self-pity, and the emotional relief of having apologized for his fried chicken remark for the 4,567th time.

PASSOV: I'd need a Ph.D., M.D. And maybe a few other degrees to pinpoint what makes Sergio tick. He's always had the talent, but rarely the maturity to climb to the top rung. Right now, he seems loose, happy and especially confident. With his skills, that's a recipe for success.

RITTER: He's been on the rise for more than a year — the only thing that's thrown him off has been that boneheaded "fried chicken" comment at Tiger. Maybe it's happiness off the course. Maybe it's better coaching. Whatever it is, it looks like he's going to be a big factor this summer.

WALKER: Garcia is now consistently playing well week to week, and with his talent, that means he’s going to get some wins, maybe some big ones. He’s still just 34 years old.

6. At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando this week, TaylorMade CEO Mark King led the call to change the game in order to attract new players. Among his ideas was to outfit courses with 15-inch holes into the greens, nearly four times larger than a standard cup (while offering a standard cup as well on the same green). Should the game be going down this road? What if anything should the game do to attract new players?

RITTER: I played in an event dubbed "the big hole open" in my hometown a few years ago. It was fun (never missed a 4-footer!) but cutting pancakes out of the putting surfaces was tough on the grounds crew and the greens, and eventually they discontinued the outing. I'm all for getting more people into golf. It has to start with making it more affordable and less of a time drain.

BAMBERGER: I was introduced to golf in an eighth-grade gym class in a public school. I wish there was more of that.

VAN SICKLE: Golf is too difficult, too expensive and too slow. I'm glad TaylorMade addressed one of those items since nobody else has. I don't know if those crazy-looking clubs and that trash can-sized hole will bring new players into the game. If Tiger Woods and his two decades of dazzlement didn't swell the ranks of golf, I don't know what will. Courses are struggling economically and don't have the money to redo architecture mistakes like building slow-play high-maintenance courses instead of fast-play low-maintenance courses. I say, aim small. If you're a parent, get your kid hooked on golf like our parents (well, mine) did. My son's playing minitours and trying to make the PGA Tour. I did my job. How 'bout you?

WALKER: Proposals like 15-inch holes miss an essential truth: Golf is appealing because it’s so difficult. Reaching kids when they’re in school would be a good place to start. It would probably help if golfers were a little more welcoming and less intimidating to novices on the course too.

PASSOV: I love golf for exactly what it is, and I don't know why I would care one iota about "growing the game." Why resort to desperate-sounding gimmicks to keep the sport healthy? Let's just turn off the water, to save money and bring the roll of the ball back into play, retrofit our courses by removing 50 percent of the hazards, thereby speeding up play, and increase the emphasis on walking and playing match-play. OK, now that I've said that, I admire Mark King and his forward-thinking colleagues immensely. I've seen the sobering numbers on play participation, especially the alarming decline in popularity in the 18-34 age group. Mark, I don't want to see golf bastardized beyond recognition, but I do want it to survive — so I'll support you 100 percent on this one.

SENS: Faster rounds and easier access are obvious answers. But it would also be nice if a charismatic player came along and utterly dominated, a la Tiger or Nicklaus at their peaks. Unlikely to happen in this age of deep and global talent. But parity has less power to inspire fresh converts than does a single all-powerful superstar.

MORFIT: There are two big obstacles to participation: The game takes too long, and it's too hard. So the game needs to go down this road, yes. As to those exact parameters, I'm not sure, but I like King's willingness to shake things up.