Tour Confidential: What to Make of Tiger Woods Practice Sessions

April 25, 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.) Footage surfaced last week of Tiger Woods taking full swings with a driver, as did anonymously sourced reports that he could be targeting a return to the PGA Tour at the Wells Fargo Championship in just two weeks. Given Woods’s dire physical state earlier this year, are you surprised to hear that we could be seeing him playing competitive golf in early May?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Well, hitting driver at a kids clinic isn’t exactly an Oakmont Open, but does surprise me that Woods may be building to a May comeback. I still think taking the entire year off is the better play, but no one knows Tiger better than himself. If he does return, it’s gonna be a circus for a while. I hope he’s healthy, in form, and ready for it.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It’s great news if it’s true that he’s healthy enough to play. I’ll believe it when I believe it but it just makes me that much more excited about the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Not surprised. When it comes to Woods and competition, anything short of his returning from the dead to tee it up isn’t much of a shocker. As Gary says, great news if it’s true. Even greater news if he is actually physically ready and not jumping the gun.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): After I tweeted about that footage a top swing coach DM’d me a withering analysis of Woods’s action, saying it was the worst swings he’d ever seen Tiger make. And this was on a driving range, at a private clinic. Tiger’s back may be healed physically but his swing and short game still have serious flaws, and after last year his psyche has more scar tissue than his back. He should take his time and piece things together slowly. What’s the rush? All of the major championship venues are tough, old-school tracks. What does he accomplish by rushing back and getting his teeth kicked in yet again?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I’d second that, Alan, but only to a point. I’d rather he not repeat past mistakes and rush back into action before he’s ready. That said, I have no idea if that’s what he’s doing here. It also seems inevitable that his early swings are going to be a mess. I’m sure his body feels totally different now. He’s going to have to work through it, and in front of everyone, because that’s just the way it is. 


2.) Patrick Reed birdied the 72nd hole at the Valero Texas Open on Sunday but came up one stroke shy of Charley Hoffman. No one is denying that the fiery Reed is a serious talent, but he hasn’t won in more than 15 months and has never finished top 10 in a major. What’s holding back Reed from becoming a truly elite player?

Ritter: I love Reed’s fire, but wonder if his intensity holds him back a bit at the majors. He’s perfectly suited for match play, and his college pedigree and early Ryder Cup results suggest that he’s not a guy you want to face one-on-one. Currently he’s outside the top 150 in strokes-gained putting, so those putts that seem to drop in match play just aren’t falling this year.

Van Sickle: Last year it was his driver. This year it’s been his putting. I also thought it was an odd coincidence that right after a book came out showing him in a very unflattering light and he foolishly threatened to sue last year, he vanished from the leaderboards. Coincidence? Doubt it. The putter is the most important club in everyone’s bag. Patrick has to get his going.

SCORES: Final Leaderboard from Valero Texas Open

Sens: Interesting point about the unflattering book and the dip in his play, Gary. You are much closer to the day to day doings on the Tour than I am, but the impression Reed leaves with me is of a guy who actually enjoys a little acrimony, or at these some contentiousness. Makes me wonder if a little public rhubarb wouldn’t help him thrive.

Van Sickle: He sure comes off that way, Josh. Maybe he figured out that this was a match he couldn’t win.

Shipnuck: Reed has always been fueled by being an outsider, by having something to prove. Suddenly he won a handful of tournaments, a huge pile of money, had a baby … it’s so easy to lose your edge out there. Hopefully his fallow period is over and Reed will again be a fixture on leaderboards because the Tour is much more interesting when he’s in the mix. 

Morfit: Reed is still the last guy you want to face in straight-up match play, but in stroke play, week in and week out on Tour, he’s learning what everybody else (except Tiger) learns: It’s hard to win at that level. 

3.) Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman vacationed at sun-splashed Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas last week. We know this because they posted their rowdy, shirtless escapades all over social media. Should we applaud their willingness to share their personal lives with their fans, or in this case did they reveal too much?

Ritter: Oh, you have to applaud this one. They’re rich, successful 20-somethings out having a blast and burning off some steam. It was fun to follow, and it all flew in the face of the stereotype that pro golfers are bland corporate robots. The countdown to #SB2K17 begins now. 

Van Sickle: We should applaud them for letting the fans in. This is how you build your brand in the 21st century … if you don’t spend the summer chasing the Grand Slam, anyway.

Sens: Good on them, I say. Certainly there are legions of fans who eat that sort of thing up, so I doubt it matters that for me, watching those guys “get wild” is a bit like watching grandma dance. 

Shipnuck: Oh, it was good fun. But I agree with Josh, it was a bit too tame. Hopefully next time they’ll invite Dustin.

Morfit: Interesting contradiction between these guys frolicking in Baker’s Bay, with all the time in the world, and the other big news of the week, guys bailing on Olympic golf because they’re overscheduled. I guess that’s the difference between being in your 20s, with no kids, and being in your 30s and 40s. 


4.) A week ago this panel discussed Vijay Singh’s decision to skip the Rio Olympics. Since then, two of the top-15 players in the world, Adam Scott of Australia and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, also have announced that they will sit out the Games. Should golf be worried?

Ritter: Maybe just a little. This competition got off to a rough start with the controversy around the new course and the decision to go with a stock 72-hole stroke-play format. Stars dropping out won’t exactly help build excitement, and more names will undoubtedly follow Adam and Louis. I still think things will work out. Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko have gushed with enthusiasm about the event. There’s still a lot to like, and I think once it all shakes out Olympic golf will be a win. But stars need to show up.

Van Sickle: No because no matter who skips out, somebody is still going to win a gold medal and there’s going to be a TV show of it. But between the scheduling crush, the zika virus and the serious blood-testing, I don’t blame anyone who bails out. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who brought the zika virus to my home country.

Morfit: The golf establishment is worried (seemed obvious the moment IGF president Peter Dawson’s statement landed in my e-mail in box) and rightfully so. Players now have backup if they also want to bail out, i.e., “Well, if Adam and Louis aren’t going…” The Oly Golf effort may well last only for two Games, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be a failure. It’ll change lives. 

Sens: I don’t think golf itself needs to be fretting; the game will be just fine whether or not Olympic golf is a bust. But as someone who used to live in Brazil, and who maintains close ties to a lot of people there, I can confirm that a lot of Brazilians are worried about how their country will show in the Olympics, exciting golf or no. To me, more interesting than the Olympic golf competition itself will be to see what happens to that course after the Games. Six months from now. A year from now. Whether it truly delivers what was promised, or whether it becomes another emblem of endemic corruption and is regarded in retrospect as just another boondoggle for the rich.

Shipnuck: I agree with Nicklaus and Player: it’s bad for golf. And the problem is that it now becomes easier for other guys to bow out. What’s ridiculous is citing scheduling issues; the Olympics comes after the majors. What are these guys resting for? As long as Jordan, Rory, Jason, Rickie and Smylie–spring break elevated him to one-name status, no?–remain excited we can withstand the loss of these other lesser lights. But don’t forget, golf is in the Games essentially on a trial basis. Surely these defections are being noticed by the IOC.

5.) During the third round of the Valero Texas Open, Hoffman hit a tee shot unbecoming of a tour pro. What’s the worst shot you’ve seen struck between the ropes at a PGA Tour event?

Ritter: Had I witnessed one of the events in person where Tiger had the chip-yips, that would probably stand alone. As it is, I remember seeing Woods top-hook a drive on the front nine at Doral a few years ago. It worm-burned for maybe 100 yards. Then he smashed a three-wood about 280 onto the green and two-putted for par. Those were the days. 

Van Sickle: The scariest was one by Tom Kite. I don’t recall what tournament (Riviera maybe?) but Kite hit a low bullet off-line and it rocketed into fans lined up along the ropes well ahead of the tee box and clocked someone. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened more often. Worst? Well, there was Tiger at Carnoustie, Tiger at Oakland Hills, Tiger at Augusta several times, Tiger at Royal St. George’s and Tiger at Torrey Pines, to name a few.

Shipnuck: I’ll go with a recent example: Spieth’s third shot on #12 at the year’s Masters. The tee ball was a mental error and a bad swing but the drop was a horror show. He straight laid the sod over it.

Sens: Took the words out of my keyboard. Was just about to type Spieth’s drop at the 12th. Though it’s probably not the worst (Constantino Rocca’s chili-dipped chip at St. Andrews was pretty bad, as were a couple of Greg Norman’s water balls at Augusta in ’96, and Calcavecchia’s tee shot on 17 at the ’91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah), given the man and the moment, it ranked among the most surprising. 

Morfit: I saw Steve Stricker, in the throes of his slump, smother-hook his tee shot about 100 yards dead left into the soup on 18 at TPC Sawgrass. As bad shots go it was a jaw-dropper, especially since I was still mentally replaying his up-and-down par from the footpath to the island 17th green.