Tour Confidential: The Return of Phil Mickelson

January 19, 2015

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. Phil Mickelson starts his 2015 season this week at the Humana Challenge, but he announced that he’s skipping the AT&T at Pebble Beach and the Northern Trust at Riviera, two of his favorite events at two of his favorite courses. Is this a sign that Mickelson’s easing into semi-retirement?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I’d say this is merely a sign that it’s a very long season. Phil doesn’t have to play Riviera and Pebble, just because he’s won there, just like Tiger doesn’t have to play Torrey Pines. These guys are of the age where even they realize it’s not all about them. It’s about vacations, rest, who has the kids that week, things like that. I’d guess one or both will still be in the hunt late Sunday at the Masters.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: No, it’s Phil making a grand family-first statement, and showing what we already know: that he is independently owned and operated.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): He’s a professional golfer. He’s been semi-retired for decades. Seriously, though, this is a progression of the cutbacks he’s been making. But given that he’s chosen these two events, you have to wonder if his health problems are flaring up again.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): I see it as a sign that Phil cares about the U.S. Open, and completing a career grand slam, above all else this year. He normally rips up the West Coast Swing (he has six wins combined at Pebble and Riv, both of which he’s skipping) in order to arrive at Augusta in peak form. I’m sure he’d still love to win Augusta, but it looks to me like he’s saving something in the tank to peak mid-summer.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Not quite. I’ll invoke what Chi Chi Rodriguez once said about Jack Nicklaus: “He’s a legend in his spare time.” Jack cut back to the bare minimum number of PGA Tour events at an even younger age than Lefty, so this isn’t unprecedented. It’s puzzling that the best West Coast player since Johnny Miller would omit Pebble, where he’s a four-time champ and L.A., where he’s won twice, but he’s citing “family” and that’s fine by me. Phil’s 44 years old, and has faced all kinds of issues in recent years. He’s earned the right to do exactly what he wants.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): No, it’s a sign that Phil has a Super Secret Plan in motion. What’s his plan? We’re not smart enough to understand it. Trust in Phil.

2. Martin Kaymer blew a 10-shot lead with 14 holes to play to lose the Abu Dhabi Championship this week. Is this the biggest meltdown ever?

BAMBERGER: It’s way up there, but I will still take Palmer at the ’66 U.S. Open, leading by seven with nine to play, because the stakes were so much more significant. But Martin’s thing here is epic and a definite keeper.

PASSOV: As impressively awful as Kaymer’s implosion was, this won’t make the Meltdown Hall of Shame. This was Abu Dhabi, not Augusta, and he found a couple of bushes with tee shots on the back nine. You need a bigger stage to earn “biggest ever” meltdown status. Arnold Palmer wasting a 7-shot lead with nine to play at the 1966 U.S. Open remains the standard, and Greg Norman’s six-shot squandering at the 1996 Masters is a close second.

MORFIT: Biggest meltdown ever? That’s a big title to be throwing around willy-nilly, and I think you have to consider the occasion, not just the size of the lead blown. I’ll still take Greg Norman at Augusta.

VAN SICKLE: It’s one thing for Jean Van de Velde to melt down but for a former World No. 1 and the current U.S. Open champion? That’s remarkable. For now, we’ll have to write it off to being early in the year — this is still the golf season’s equivalent to spring training. But, yikes.

RITTER: It’s certainly the biggest meltdown for Kaymer, who historically has been an excellent front-runner. But the all-time list probably needs to come from the majors. Faldo over Norman at the ‘96 Masters still stands alone for me.

SENS: It was pretty colossal. But it’s diminished by the stage. In that regard, I’ll stick with Norman’s meltdown at Augusta as the biggest.

3. Rory McIlroy ended up second to winner Gary Stal in Abu Dhabi. He also made his first hole-in-one in competition ever this week. Do you expect McIlroy to pick up where he left off last year, and does anyone have a chance of catching him at No. 1?

VAN SICKLE: I don’t see anyone with enough firepower out there to match Rory and win enough to catch him in the world rankings. It would take a Kaymer or a Bubba Watson or someone to rack up three, four or five wins. It’s always possible, of course, but who out there looks that potentially dominant? Not Kaymer at this moment.

BAMBERGER: Oh, sure — if he stumbles and Patrick Reed or Jordan Spieth or Adam Scott do a Jimmy Walker imitation. But I’d be surprised. Rory looks primed to pick up where he left off.

PASSOV: I fully expect Rory to keep the petrol pedal floored. Unless his legal issues derail him temporarily, I see no one catching him or even coming close. Tiger, please prove me wrong, and help catapult golf tournament results onto Page 1 again!

RITTER: Rory had a nice debut and certainly seems ready to pick up where he left off. His biggest hurdle to holding No. 1 all year might be the potential distraction around the court trial with his former management company. If he can handle that, he’s your No. 1 on Dec. 31.

MORFIT: I’d guess Rory will have a great year again, because he’s pretty much past the most seismic upheaval in his life: total equipment change, moving to South Florida, etc. As soon as the lawsuit with Horizon is over with, he’s free to think about nothing but his golf. That’s a scary thought.

SENS: Anything can happen. But I think what used to applies to Woods applies to McIlroy’s No. 1 ranking. The only thing that can stop him is a bad injury or a bad relationship.

4. Jimmy Walker returned to his winning ways of early 2014 at the Sony Open in Honolulu. What’s the reason for Walker’s emergence in his mid-30s as one of the Tour’s top American players?

MORFIT: I credit his wife, Erin, for forcing the issue when Walker couldn’t seem to get together with Butch Harmon to start transforming his game and taking him to the next level. And of course I credit Harmon himself. Walker’s been a different player since the start of last season.

VAN SICKLE: Walker was slowed up by some injuries. You can credit his success to his driver — he hits it fairly long and fairly straight — and he’s one of the better putters on tour. And, the biggest reason of all, he started working with Butch Harmon. The knowledge and the confidence he gained from Butch made the difference.

SENS: Two words: Butch Harmon

RITTER: Walker’s emergence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago we celebrated the mid-30s rise of Jason Dufner. Phil didn’t win a major until he was 33. Some guys just take longer to figure it out. One thing is clear: Walker is here to stay.

BAMBERGER: I’m not sure, but it may have something to do with the alignment of Jupiter and Mars.

PASSOV: The answer is in the stars.

5. The PGA Tour won’t let players throw gifts to fans on the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, two years after it banned caddie races on 16. Does the Tour need to bring more decorum/safety back to rowdy TPC Scottsdale or is it sucking the fun out of one of its most popular events?

SENS: The latter. Silly decision. If the Tour were a frat party on turf every week, that would be another story. This is an entertaining exception. We have the other 51 weekends a year to keep our knickers in a bunch.

PASSOV: I haven’t spoken to any of the sponsoring Thunderbirds in Phoenix yet, but this decision is a head-scratcher. I’ve attended 25 Phoenix Opens, and everyone who competes or attends understands that the 16th hole is mayhem. It’s one hole, in one tournament, all year. The recent tradition of tossing items into the crowd showed players’ creativity, it helped them connect with fans in a unique way and it added further to the tournament’s aura. I heard nothing in the last 12 months to indicate that there were safety issues, though when you combine 80-degree sunshine and alcohol, hey, anything’s possible. What would have been better than celebrating Phil Mickelson tossing footballs, with the city hosting the Super Bowl the same weekend?

MORFIT: No one will ever fault the WMPO for being “not rowdy enough.” The Tour rightly recognizes this party is always on the verge of being out of control, and could easily detract from the golf if not held somewhat in check.

BAMBERGER: It’s tricky whenever there are issues of public safety, but I’d let it all hang out at Phoenix and try to maintain some vestige of the game as it was played by Byron Nelson and Leonard Thompson everywhere else.

RITTER: This is only a guess, but I’d bet a dollar that Scottsdale made this move in response to Tiger’s participation in the event. Not that Woods asked for it, but imagine the frenzy in the bleachers if Woods tossed out a few stuffed Tigers? Someone could easily get hurt. Now imagine the backlash against Tiger if he didn’t throw anything. Doubt Woods would sign up for that. In general the Tour could inject more fun in just about every other event on the schedule, but I think Scottsdale made the right move here.

VAN SICKLE: We’ve seen a few bad things happen in others sports — like baseball — when fans fight for objects thrown into the stands. It’s probably better to err on the side of safety. But in Phoenix, with a hole surrounded by mostly corporate boxes, they are walking a fine line between it being Fun City and it being just a boring par-3 surrounded by a bunch of box seats where nobody goes to anymore to have fun.

6. Jack Nicklaus turns 75 on Wednesday. Besides his surprising 1986 Masters victory, what’s the most memorable Nicklaus moment?

PASSOV: I was obsessed with Jack’s 1978 British Open win at St. Andrews, simply because I coveted the sweater he was wearing in the final round, an argyle number of dark blue, light blue and white diamonds against a darker blue background. I vowed that if I ever saw a version of that sweater for under $300, I’d buy one. Alas, another broken promise to myself. In truth, I’ll go with the “Jack is Back” U.S. Open win at Baltusrol in 1980, when he outdueled Aoki, both men playing brilliantly. Of course, his five consecutive birdies — including two chip-ins — on 14-18 to win the 1978 Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic is a close second.

SENS: It didn’t endear him to the masses, but his U.S. Open win at Oakmont in ’62, beating the King in his home state.

VAN SICKLE: It wasn’t that big in America at the time because the Ryder Cup wasn’t that big over here, but his conceding the putt to Tony Jacklin to allow GB&I to tie the U.S. in 1969 in an event that the Americans had laughably dominated was one of the game’s most important moments in the 20th century. The Ryder Cup might have been in danger of going away for good if Jack hadn’t conceded that putt. It was a gutsy call and a controversial call but history shows it was a brilliant call.

MORFIT: Two acts of sportsmanship also define Jack: The putt he gave at the Ryder Cup, and the draw he and Gary Player agreed to at the 2003 Presidents Cup. Nicklaus kept in mind that golf is a game, and he did whatever he could to make sure everyone went home with dignity intact. That’s not a bad legacy to have, next to the 18 majors.

RITTER: My favorite Jack moments are the only times I’ve seen him play in person — the Masters Par-3 Contest and ceremonial opening tee shots. I always try to find a few quiet corners where I can hear him b.s. with Arnie and Gary, and interact with the fans. It’s great. That reminds me, how many days until the Masters?

BAMBERGER: Four quickies: His play in the ’60 U.S. Open, in position to win as a 20-year-old amateur; everything about the Saturday finale at the ’77 Open at Turnberry; his T6 finish at Augusta at age 58; his let’s-call-it-a-tie 2003 captaincy of the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup in South Africa. Plus, his response to Tiger’s lady problems: “It’s none of my business.” Pure class, for about 55 years now. He’s about as sharp at 75 as a person can be. Mazel tov, Jack.

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