Tour Confidential: Can Tiger Fix His Swing Before the Masters, and Is Rory Back?

March 5, 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. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic after 13 holes on Sunday with a bad back after shooting 65 on Saturday. Once his back is healthy, what does Tiger need to do to get back to his winning ways, and does he have time to do it before the Masters?

ANONYMOUS PRO: He will need to add a tournament to his schedule to get his swing organized, but San Antonio is not a good course for him and Houston is the week before the Masters, so he’s unlikely to play there. Given his back and swing issues, I doubt he will be able to get ready for the year’s first major.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Tiger has plenty of time before the Masters to recover, if he's healthy. As usual, a Cone of Silence is draped around Tiger, so we don't know how bad his back is or might be. His game was pretty close to impressive Saturday. Bigger questions: How soon can he get healthy, and how healthy can he get?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): What Tiger needs to do can only happen AT the Masters, not before it. He needs to put himself in good position after three rounds at a major, as he has a number of times in the Post Scandal Era, and then follow through with a strong final round. For all the talk of swing changes, short game woes, etc. and so forth (and yeah, he should go back to Butch), the biggest hurdle is a mental one that he hasn't been able to clear.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): His back isn't the problem. He stands on the tee with a driver in his hands and doesn't trust it. It is hard to win on Tour like that, and harder still to win majors. Good swings beget confidence, lousy swings beget doubt. Right now he's riddled with doubt, and that isn't something easily fixed in the six weeks to Augusta.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): It is what it is. There are no easy solutions. The biggest issue: A player who needs his reps on the range is dealing with a bad back. Paging Fred Couples.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): He can start by getting healthy, and we've seen him bounce back quickly from past WDs. In 2012, he withdrew from Doral and won Bay Hill two weeks later. So it's possible he'll feel fine at Doral, and it's possible this thing lingers. For Tiger to contend at Augusta, it all starts with health.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Obviously, Tiger's 65 proves he's closer to where he wants to be than he was earlier this year. Provided he gets the back healthy, he should be fine. He doesn't have to fret these preliminaries too much. We all know that for him, it's all prep work for Augusta. No matter what his results are between now and then, Augusta will elevate him. He knows every blade of grass there, and he knows he's chasing history. He'll be in the mix for sure.

2. Entering the final round of the Honda Classic with a two-shot lead, Rory McIlroy shot 4-over on Sunday and lost in a playoff. Are we sure Rory’s back?

ANONYMOUS PRO: Rory is back. He is consistently contending in events and won just a few months ago in Australia. He has always been prone to highs and lows, but his highs are still the most exciting shots in golf, as they were when he won majors by eight.

GODICH: It's not that he shot 74 on Sunday. It's that he played the last 12 holes in 5 over par after stretching his lead to three shots. It was refreshing to hear Rory's post-round comments, when he said a victory would have been somewhat hollow based on the way he played on Sunday. He'll be the first to admit that he's not all the way back.

PASSOV: Yes, he's back. Except for Tiger, who has been the sport's greatest frontrunner, everybody has lost leads and playoffs and such. The bigger question is how often you put yourself in the hunt, and Rory seems to be doing this with genuine regularity. Let's not forget that while Phil Mickelson had an amazing year in 2013, he did mess up the 18th at the Scottish Open before winning in a playoff, and seemingly had the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow in his grasp…oh, and there was that U.S. Open thing at Merion. Most significantly, though, he was right there on Sunday, over and over. That's when you know a guy is "back."

LYNCH: This "He's back!" argument is parochial. He won a riveting showdown with Adam Scott in Australia a couple of months ago. Does it only count if he performs on the PGA Tour? He isn't playing at the level he did in 2011 and 2012, but that's not exactly easy to sustain. Ask Tiger. But compared to much of 2013, McIlroy's form is demonstrably better.

SENS: He played himself into a playoff on the PGA Tour. I'd say that's pretty darned "back." If not, then it's at least a far cry from faking a toothache to get out of a tournament because he was afraid he was going to shoot 90.

RITTER: If he was all the way back, he would've closed it out. But, to borrow one of Tiger's favorite cliches, he's close. That was a tough day for the entire field, and each of the contenders made his share of blunders over the final holes. As of today, I have Rory on my top five list of Masters favorites.

VAN SICKLE: Rory has a few kinks and a few lingering bad swing thoughts to iron out. It's disturbing that he's opened two tournaments with 63s this year and hasn't won either one of them. He needs a closer. Mariano Riviera is available.

3. Russell Henley joins Patrick Reed, Harris English and Jason Day as this season’s under-30 winners. What stands out to you most about this new generation of stars, including McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler?

ANONYMOUS PRO: That they are all long off the tee, aggressive into the greens and putt very well. They all look very natural and confident and not over-coached.

SENS: In most of these cases, their length, aggressive play and their athleticism, the first two being a byproduct of the third. That's really what this era is about. Real athletes playing golf who bring that mentality and those physical abilities to the course. Not coincidentally, they came of age at a time when Tiger had changed the game.

GODICH: One word: Fearless.

LYNCH: Their inability to close tournaments. These guys aren't exactly making the engravers work overtime, which is why McIlroy doesn't belong among them. Two majors and a handful of other wins elevate him above players whose potential on the biggest stage is untested.

VAN SICKLE: I like Henley's intensity and his aggressive style. Yes, he had a few bobbles, but he's pretty steely. He made a nice run at Pebble Beach during the Open there as a college player, I recall.

RITTER: It's interesting to see the steady progression in all of them. Each has gone through near misses before breakthrough victories. Maybe the close call part isn't that remarkable, but to find a way to actually win multiple times, as several of them have, at their ages is impressive. We haven't had a youth movement like this since Tiger's one-man version in the late ’90s.

PASSOV: I'm not sure to what extent I can generalize, but these young players seem to have both poise and personality, as well as incredible talent. It used to be said that it took years to learn how to win on Tour, but this group seems to be proving otherwise.

4. On the NBC broadcast Sunday, Jack Nicklaus said that when McIlroy’s playing well, “I don’t think there’s anyone that plays as well as he does in the game — well maybe Tiger.” Which Tour player do you think has the best A-game?

ANONYMOUS PRO: I still think Dustin Johnson has a blow out win in a major in him. He and Rory, at their best, make all of us look average, which is humbling but still fun to watch.

VAN SICKLE: Right now, I'll go with Phil's A-Game, because we just saw it at Merion, mostly, and at the British Open. We haven't seen Tiger's or Rory's in a while. I'm not sure what Tiger's A-Game looks like now.

RITTER: Rory's the only pro to win two majors by 8 shots each in the past three years. I agree with Jack.

PASSOV: In the not-so-distant past, I don't know how you could pick anybody except Tiger. It wasn't just that he won, it was that he won so often by ridiculously large margins. Rory's heaven-sent swing puts him up there — who am I to argue with Jack Nicklaus — but even at his 2011-2012 best, it didn't seem like his putting was always up to his ball-striking, so I'm not sure he had the best A-game.

GODICH: I'll still take Tiger. That said, it's disappointing we aren't seeing his A-game on a more regular basis.

LYNCH: There are only two names in this argument: Woods and McIlroy, who have shown that their 'A' game can win majors by wide margins. The best Woods can produce now isn't as good as the best he used to have, so I'd give the edge to McIlroy.

SENS: Thank you, Jack, for that bold, outside-of-the box thinking. The majors and margins of victory tell you that he gave the obvious two answers. If he'd said Jonas Blixt, we'd have something to debate.

5. We heard a lot about the Bear’s Trap at PGA National — Nos. 15-17 — this week. Is the Bear Trap an exciting wrinkle or an example of what's wrong with modern architecture?

ANONYMOUS PRO: There have been many poorly designed golf courses in the last 30 years, and unfortunately we play several of them on Tour. PGA National is not one of them. The Bear Trap gives a player “outs,” or safer plays but also gives a player room to “show off,” which is really all you could ask from a PGA Tour course.

VAN SICKLE: I'm not sure why any resort golfer would want to play the Bear Trap a second time. This is a no-fun resort course and an example of why players are leaving the game. Golf is too hard, too expensive and takes too long. This place hits for the Triple Crown.

PASSOV: For golf fans who enjoy train wrecks and car crashes, the Bear Trap is fantastic. However, it's not tough to build hard golf holes. There's really no bailout on any of these holes, and when you have water and wind in tandem, there's not a ton of strategy. It's kind of hit-and-hope. For me, this isn't a shining spot in modern design, but for the average fan, it's unquestionably must-see TV.

SENS: Both. It's an entertaining wrinkle, but only in the way that the slam-dunk contest is a diverting spectacle in basketball. Fun to watch the top guys execute aerial shots over daunting water hazards. But it's not great architecture, and it's not the best way for the game to be played. It is, in fact, an emblem of a badly misguided era in golf that made the game more costly, more difficult, less walker-friendly and helped drive away huge numbers of players. That said, the name itself — the Bear Trap, oooh, scary, I wanna play it — has to be one of the best marketing gimmicks around.

GODICH: I see nothing contrived about the Bear Trap. It requires the execution of quality golf shots. Isn't that what we want to see from the best players in the world?

RITTER: It's exciting to watch the Tour pros suffer through it, but would you want to face those holes yourself? It doesn't appeal to me, and if it doesn't appeal to most working, paying golfers, it probably isn't great for golf.

LYNCH: It's only an exciting wrinkle for the pros, not the rest of us. Great courses and holes offer options, different ways to play it, a variety of recovery options. The Bear Trap offers about as many recovery options as a plane crash.

6. PGA of America president Ted Bishop suggested that Kentucky’s Valhalla, site of the Team USA’s rousing 2008 Ryder Cup victory, could someday become a permanent Ryder Cup site. What do you think of the idea of a permanent Ryder Cup venue? Which course would you choose?

ANONYMOUS PRO: For a number of years, the Belfry was home to the European side, and even though that course isn't considered the best design, it offered fantastic drama. Not sure Valhalla has enough exciting risk-reward holes to be a permanent site. I would go to Kiawah Island, which is not a course I like for medal play, but a course I would love to see Ryder Cup return to over and over.

LYNCH: Ted Bishop's tenure as PGA president has been groundbreaking and entertaining. If he wants to further his reputation as a maverick going against the norm, he ought to demand that the Ryder Cup be played on decent golf courses, on either side of the pond.

SENS: Gong! Sorry, Chuck, I'm going to have to vote against. Part of the huge fun of the Cup is the shifting venues, the excitement of the new, the demands of fresh strategies, the opportunity to learn about sporting subcultures (as a Brookline native, I never realized the people I grew up with were such belligerent a-holes until '99), all of which was lost when they kept going back to the well at the Belfry. Let that be our cautionary tale.

RITTER: I like moving the Ryder Cup around because it adds to the event's unpredictability. But then again, if they want to stage it at Cypress Point and St. Andrews every time, it would be hard to argue against it.

VAN SICKLE: I'd agree that Valhalla is more interesting for match play than for stroke play. I'll take it as a permanent Ryder Cup home if they promise to quit taking PGA Championships there. But really, why tie down the Ryder Cup to any one course? Especially when it's not in a major market. Note the difference in atmosphere between Chicago (Medinah), Louisville and Boston (The Country Club). All three had vocal crowds, but Chicago and Boston were off the charts.

GODICH: I'd start by looking at Bethpage Black. But while we're dreaming, I'll nominate Augusta National. Imagine the shot-making possibilities in better-ball and alternate-shot. Valhalla? It wouldn't crack my top 25.

PASSOV: I've walked Valhalla for the 1996 PGA Championship and 2008 Ryder Cup and finally got to play it last fall. I like the course more and more as a tournament venue, and the good folks of Kentucky come out in full force to support events there. But please, please, please, do not make it a permanent venue. Fans in other parts of the country deserve this special event as well, and different styles of design, from classic to modern, deserve to be represented, as history is made.

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