Tour Confidential: Was This the Year of the Changing of the Guard on Tour?

September 28, 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. This PGA Tour season had it all: Spieth’s ascension to superstardom, Jason Day putting himself in the Tour’s top tier, Rickie Fowler proving he isn’t as overrated as his peers believe, Rory teasing us with streaks of peak form, young guns like Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed winning, and it all happened without any victories from Tiger or Phil. We’ve talked about the changing of the guard on Tour, but is this the year it actually happened?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Tiger and Phil haven’t been much of a factor for a few years now, but this was the first year in which it really didn’t matter. If they pop up a few more times in the majors, so be it, but after the season we just had it’s pretty clear the game is in good hands without them. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): For a fair while, claims that “golf will be fine without Tiger” had a whistling in the dark quality to them. They always seemed to come with an undertone of worry, followed by predictions as to when Woods would return to dominance. We’re past that now. Tiger remains the unrivaled needle-mover. If you could crystalize the general mood into a refrain it would be: “The king is dead. Long live the kings.”

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Yes, this really was it. Jay Haas’s selection of Phil to the Presidents Cup team was proof – and I think it was justifiable – about how hard it is to break with the past. But this was the year, just as 1986 was the year the modern corporate PGA Tour was born, just as the Tiger era, the real one, ended in 2007. This was an important year. I can’t stand this “wrap-around” season. Sports fans like to talk about years.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, SI Golf Group (@JeffRitter): The changing of the guard started last year, when Tiger and Phil went winless and Rory McIlroy took the mantle. But this year the new era took shape, thanks to all the players cited above. McIlroy still has lead-dog status thanks to his four majors, but his two chief rivals, Spieth and Day, have also arrived. This was a fascinating and exciting season for golf fans. The game is in great shape.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): I’m always hesitant to anoint anybody as “the next Tiger” or “the next Big 3.” We’ve done that so often in recent years. Remember the Class of ’08, when Camillo Villegas won two FedEx Cup events and Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan were poised for Hall-of-Fame careers? This time, however, it’s a little different. Day has been in the Majors mix for five years. He finally has turned the corner. McIlroy weathered a horrible slump in 2013 and has rebounded superbly and consistently. Speith’s career arc resembles something launched by NASA. Tiger and Phil can still bring it, but are fighting so many injury issues. Consider the guard changed.  

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It totally happened. We’ve got a New Big Three or at the very least, three great players who are marquee names. Fowler could join that group with a major. Phil and Tiger may be relevant again or they may not but this year, they weren’t. Golf has moved on although it certainly wouldn’t mind the occasional encore or cameo from Phil and Tiger.

Brendan Mohler, assistant editor, This PGA Tour season was thrilling for so many different reasons and the guy who people expected to provide the most excitement ahead of the season (Rory McIlroy) took a secondary role. Imagine if McIlroy had stayed healthy through the summer and contended or won at St. Andrews or Whistling Straits? The McIlroy/Spieth/Day era has potential to be more exciting than that of Tiger/Phil, as there will likely be more head-to-head battles amongst these three than we ever saw between Phil and Tiger. Oh, and don’t tell Rickie I left him out.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): No doubt we will look back at 2015 as the season in which the torch was passed. What a year. Golf is in a good place.

2. Jordan Spieth capped off a five-win season with a Tour Championship victory, also pocketing a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup to complete the richest PGA Tour season in history with more than $22 million earned. Even with Jason Day and Rory McIlroy lurking, did Spieth put to bed who is the best player in the game this week?

PASSOV: Jason Day may have been the best player of the past two months, but Jordan Spieth is the best player in the game RIGHT NOW and for 2015. Every player knew what was at stake this week. East Lake is a course that doesn’t really favor one style of play, so no real advantage or disadvantage from the venue perspective. Spieth beat everybody, period. On the game’s biggest stages, the four majors, he was the best and most consistent and to cap off the season in this fashion, Spieth proved clearly and convincingly that he’s the best.

BAMBERGER: I think Rory has more golf skill, more talent, more shots. But no question about it: right now, Jordan Spieth is the best player in the game. By dusk on Father’s Day 2016 we may or may not have a different answer. Which is great.

VAN SICKLE: The best part about this question is, there is no right answer. And no wrong answer, at least as long as you said Spieth, Day or McIlroy. Spieth won the Tour Championship without his best ballstriking, the sign of a great player. Rory and Day can do that, too. I’m not going to worry about who’s the best. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy.

SENS: That unofficial title got passed around like a hot potato this year. Rory had it, and tossed it to Spieth before it jumped over into Day’s hands. This is the peak-Tiger era, when there was no doubt or debate. All we can really say for certain is that Spieth is the best player. For now.

MORFIT: Spieth won because he was very, very comfortable on the greens, he is mentally strong and no one else had a great week. That won’t always be the case. Get used to three or four guys dominating. 

MOHLER: Absolutely. Spieth’s consistency is what gives him the edge. He may not beat McIlroy or Day in a tournament where each has his best stuff for four rounds, but Spieth’s 15 top 10s to Day’s 11 and McIlroy’s seven this season put the argument to rest—and that’s without mentioning major championships.

GODICH: Yes, let’s put this debate to rest. In addition to the performance in the majors and the five victories, don’t forget that Spieth missed the playoff at the Northern Trust by a shot when he bogeyed the last after (rightfully) thinking he needed a birdie there and gunning his chip shot well past, was second in San Antonio, lost in a playoff at Houston and was a shot back at Colonial. Finally, with $10 million on the line in Atlanta, Spieth never blinked, demoralizing Henrik Stenson every time the Swede appeared to have an opening. Case closed. On another note, how can such a nice guy be so ruthless?

RITTER: This will be remembered as the season Spieth transformed from rising star to superstar (not to mention Player of the Year). It was fitting that he rose to one final challenge at the season finale. This was his year, and he closed it in style.


3. What was the best non-major moment from the 2014-15 PGA Tour season?

GODICH: I’ve been as hard on Rickie Fowler as anyone, so I’ll have to go with his scintillating win at the Players. Even his mother and his then-girlfriend had given up on him, having bolted for the airport before turning back. All Rickie did was play the last six holes in six under par (2-4-3-3-2-3!), birdie the island-hole 17th twice more in the four-hole playoff, then celebrate with his gal in a manner that was, well, interesting.

VAN SICKLE: The playoff at the Valspar Championship with Spieth, Patrick Reed and Sean O’Hair. There were some great shots and Spieth finally won it, of course, by holing an unlikely long birdie putt in a playoff. It was an omen of things to come for Spieth but Reed kind of stalled out after that.

BAMBERGER: Rickie at the Players.

PASSOV: Lots of great moments, but one stands out: Rickie Fowler’s sensational shotmaking down the stretch and in the playoff to win the Players Championship made for one of the best, most entertaining non-majors ever. The bravery displayed by non-winner Kevin Kisner and the 43-foot bomb drained by Sergio Garcia at 17 would have made for W’s almost every time, but with Fowler draining every big putt and permanently shredding his “overrated” label, it was Rickie’s week–and the best non-major event of the year. 

SENS: The U.S. team’s Sunday comeback in Sunday singles at the Solheim Cup made for pretty stirring drama.

MORFIT: I followed on foot as Spieth first made his clutch putt to get into a playoff at the Valspar, then beat scramblin’ Patrick Reed and unlucky Sean O’Hair with a long, curling birdie putt on the third hole of sudden death. Electric. 

RITTER: This year the Players really was golf’s fifth major: Rickie Fowler pulling off those great tee shots on the island 17th in regulation and sudden death to win the biggest event of his career was compelling TV for several reasons and a transformative moment in Rickie’s career. He’s overrated no more.

MOHLER: Jason Day’s late run won’t get the love it deserves, but it was the most dominant stretch of golf we saw all year. He didn’t just get rid of his major championship demons; Day dominated some of the best fields all season. The hardest time to win is when you’re expected to, and Day did just that at the BMW Championship. With or without the PGA Championship victory, Day’s recent stretch of golf revived what could have been a lackluster playoff stretch.

4. Would the Tour Championship be better served by rotating to other courses in different locations, or is East Lake a worthy permanent host?

VAN SICKLE: East Lake is as good as it gets and I’m not sure when it happened, but the Tour Championship has become a good draw. I remember when you could count the fans on Thursday and Friday, they were so few. This week, Atlanta fans came out in huge numbers even in the rain and mud and quagmire. You’re not going to find a better spot. Leave the tourney at East Lake, puh-leeze! Barring the majors, there aren’t two other golf courses on Tour better than East Lake. Riviera and Pebble Beach, perhaps, but East Lake is as fine a shotmaker’s track as there is. Any real golfer would love to be a member here and be humbled by it every day.

BAMBERGER: No. East Lake is one of the best courses in the world. I wish the tournament had a much bigger field – it would make it more exciting. But Atlanta is a great golf town, I love seeing so many African-American spectators at East Lake, and I wouldn’t even think about moving it.

GODICH: East Lake is a perfect venue for the finale. So much history there, and you don’t have to worry so much about the weather. Plus, there’s something to be said for returning to a course that golf fans are familiar with.

PASSOV: Personally, I’d like to see the Tour Championship moved around. I do understand that Atlanta is the home of Coca-Cola, the main sponsor and that there’s “can’t-manufacture-it” history in the form of Bobby Jones and neighborhood revitalization. That’s all fine. Because it doesn’t overly favor any one type of player, the course is an excellent tournament track, although its virtues were dulled considerably in 2015 by playing as soft as it did, due to heavy rains. I’m a fan of East Lake overall, but it would be great to see more classic courses get their turn, or at least courses that offer more risk/reward drama among the closing holes.  

SENS: Better to keep it as the permanent host. The FedEx Cup is a just-add-water (or rather, just add a deep-pocketed sponsor) playoff that still feels more like a late-season money-grab than an event with any real organic roots. It needs time, of course, but it also needs the sort of indelible moments that are more likely to happen when the finale plays out at the same venue over and over.

MOHLER: East Lake is certainly a worthy permanent host and offers arguably the best conditions all season on the PGA Tour. But the FedEx Cup playoffs needs all the help it can get in terms of popularity going forward, and a change in format or venue could help provide a lift. Courses like Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach and Olympic Club held the Tour Championship in the 80s and 90s—why not revisit one of those sites?

RITTER: I don’t find East Lake particularly interesting aside from the 6th, 17th and 18th holes, but I like the season ending at the same venue each year to create continuity and tradition. Begrudgingly, I vote to leave it alone.

MORFIT: I’ve never been a big East Lake guy, and I kind of like the way the BMW moves around the country. That said, Coca-Cola is pretty big in Atlanta so I don’t know if moving the tournament around will happen. 


5. The fifth hole at East Lake played as a par-4, measuring 530 yards or longer. Players routinely faced approach shots of 230-250 yards, and on a wet Saturday, some of the game’s longest hitters looked at 270 yards for their second shot. Is this hole fair or unfair? Would you like to see more par-4s on Tour that call for extremely long second shots to keep up with the advances in technology?

VAN SICKLE: It is fun to see tour players hit hybrids and fairway metals but honestly, as a fan or a viewer, I don’t really care what club they have to hit into a green. I care about the shots. The danger of going super-long is what happened Saturday, when conditions made reaching the green in two too difficult.  

BAMBERGER: It’s totally fair. Par-4, par-5 – these are just names. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. Two long shots to reach. So what?

GODICH: In the end, it’s still just a number on the scorecard. And it’s nice to see these guys challenged after watching so many hit three-wood, eight-iron on 475-yard par-4s.

RITTER: The U.S. Open has similar holes every year. The reality is that today’s technology has forced courses to stretch longer, and I’m fine with East Lake creating a few spots that beat guys up a little.  

PASSOV: East Lake’s fifth hole, especially on Saturday, may have been boring, but it wasn’t unfair. Bethpage at the 2002 U.S. Open had some unfair par-4s, when many players couldn’t reach the fairway even with solid drives. I love the idea of making today’s players have to hit shots like Hogan (1-iron into Merion’s 18th) had to. That would add some variety and call for some skills that don’t see much action these days. I guess that’s what 240-yard par-3s and mid-length par-5s are for–the long iron, hybrid or fairway wood approach. East Lake’s 5th was just a slog, however, without much character. 

MOHLER: Length doesn’t make a hole unfair, and par is an irrelevant number in this case. Total score wins tournaments, not relation to par. That said, more 500+ yard par-4s on the PGA Tour will only lead to more griping from players and chatter about rolling the ball back. They also diminish the subtle design characteristics that make some of the game’s best golf courses difficult. Golf club technology is about as advanced as possible with the current USGA/R&A limitations; hopefully the perception that we need ultra-long holes will die off.

SENS: Par, as they say, is a relative number; all that really matters is how you play the hole in relations to the field. Yeah, the 5th became a bit extreme in the wet conditions, but what’s wrong with making the world’s best stretch their limits on their approach shots. As long as the course offers a variety of demands, all is fair. It’s also a lot more fun to watch.

MORFIT: I don’t care if it’s called a par-4 or a par-5 for the Tour guys. I’m still going to get to watch them play the same shot in and scramble to try and get up and down. Just don’t ask me to play a par-4 of that length. Absurd.