Every Sunday night, the Sports Illustrated Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated, GOLF and GOLF.com (with the occasional special guest). Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. Tiger Woods fired a birdieless 77 in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic, said his back wasn’t an issue, then withdrew less than 24 hours later, citing back spasms. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being he’s done), how concerned are you about Woods?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): 10. How long can he keep doing this to himself?
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): 10, though I wonder if the mental issues aren’t just as big of an obstacle as the back. Only Woods knows the depths of his confidence issues, but I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t the Seve warning coming true: once a golfer loses his nerve …
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): 5. I’m not convinced that there’s enough evidence to rule at this point, though Josh’s Seve reference could prove very prophetic. I don’t want to state that Tiger’s done, because I don’t want to admit to myself that he’s done. Twenty-four birdies in 72 holes at the Hero tells me he’s not yet done. But I do remember how swift and tragic Seve’s plunge was. To see Seve’s genius reduced to having to scramble on every hole merely to remain competitive was dispiriting. I’ll wait until after the Honda to alter this number.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): 9 — Any chance he has at coming all the way back to competitive golf hinges on staying healthy long enough to put in the work. Also, why take a commercial flight halfway around the world with a balky back?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: 1. I have so many other worries right now, Tiger’s golf struggles do not register.
John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): 6. I hope his next few start show some promise and flashes of good golf like we saw at The Hero World Challenge, because although golf is in good hands with the younger generation, there is still nothing that compares to an event where Tiger is Tiger.
2. The big names surfaced on both the PGA and European tours. In Dubai, Sergio Garcia beat Henrik Stenson by three, while Hideki Matsuyama won the Phoenix Open in a playoff for the second straight year (with Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler all having their moments). The Masters is two months away. In you had to make a wager today, who on this list would you put your money on?
Shipnuck: Spieth. He’s been solid every time he’s teed it up the last few months but has yet to hit a hot streak. I think he’ll peak at just the right time for a course that suits him like no other.
Sens: Matsuyama. He’s been as hot as any golfer in the world, and he’s had the crucial experience of being in position before. This time he gets over the hump (assuming the putter holds up).
Passov: I’ve been on the Matsuyama bandwagon since 2014, and the ride is really smooth right now. He was only a solid darkhorse pick these past few years. Now, he’s soaked in confidence. Until he can break through with a top five (or several) in majors, there will be question marks, certainly, but he’s where my money is going right now.
Bamberger: I’m on the HBW, too. (Hideki bandwagon.) When it’s all said and done, Augusta is about power, about playing 8, 13 and 15 in five or six under over the four rounds. Plus, winning begets winning. Hideki for me, but it could be the Pizza 51 talking.
Ritter: Hideki quietly has back-to-back top 10s at Augusta, and he’d be my first wager. Two other guys I’m watching: Rose and Kuchar.
Wood: Phil. More and more I’ve been marveling at his career, and the quality of his game today at his age. I think he’s swinging it as good as he ever has, and I don’t know if anyone knows Augusta National in Masters conditions better. His experience and knowledge of that course is remarkable, and I think he can play very average (for him) there and finish 6th. If he’s got it, I always like his chances there.
3. TPC Scottsdale attracted record crowds, and the 16th hole was quite the circus. But it begs the question: Is the novelty of the rollicking par-3 wearing off? Or would you like to see more of the same on Tour?
Shpnuck: Way more! Why is the Tour allowed to have fun only one week a year? Lighten up, guys.
Bamberger: If anyplace else did it, it would look forced, like putting up a Green Monster at another ballpark. Leave it as is.
Sens: I love the 16th at Scottsdale, but scarcity is a big part of its success. A little goes a long way. Try to replicate it in too many places, and you wind up watering down the experience, or with an experience that is simply trying too hard. Like watching grandma dance.
Passov: Being a Scottsdale resident, who was around for the birth of this phenomenon, I’m partial to its existence and to its popularity. Now that the world has discovered it (well, Golf Channel), the 16th at the WMPO has to be careful to avoid being a victim of its own hype and expectations. Hey, it’s not for everybody. We couldn’t get Tiger or Jason Day or Dustin Johnson among others to come to our tournament this year. Yet, it’s what distinguishes this particular non-major–and the resulting charity bucks justifies it all. Keep it in Phoenix–and that’s it.
Ritter: Other tournaments can try, and some probably should, but there’s only one Scottsdale.
Wood: The novelty hasn’t worn off at all. During a round at TPC Scottsdale, there is so much anticipation as you approach that hole, and that doesn’t happen much for us. You hear these roars and groans and boos all day long and wonder what happened…and when you finally walk through the tunnel it’s really one of the funnest things we get to do all year long. It’s genius (and endlessly entertaining for us). I don’t know if anyone could exactly replicate it, but I would definitely encourage other tournaments to find a “niche” like this to make them stand out. The Phoenix Open knows what it is, and they do a fantastic job of branding themselves. I’d love to see other tournaments ask themselves, “What are we on the schedule, what do we want to be, and how can we exploit that to make our tournament stand out from the others?”
4. David Duval got a turn as the lead analyst in the Golf Channel booth. Give him a grade.
Shipnuck: I was in Dubai all week so I missed it. But he couldn’t have been as good as Sam Torrance on Sky. The prickly Scot was in rare form and the zingers were flying fast and furious all week — I haven’t laughed that much at a telecast in a good long while.
Sens: B+. I’m biased. I’ve always liked Duval. I don’t look to him for laughs. But he’s smart, succinct and not afraid to be frank. Or maybe I just think he’s smart because he wears those cafe intellectual glasses.
Passov: So Josh, are you saying that Duval is the Rick Perry of golf broadcasting, due to his choice in eyewear? Anyway, count me as a fan as well. Yes, there are times I wish he were a little more animated, but I do appreciate his candor and his introspectiveness. A solid B.
Bamberger: Didn’t catch enough to grade and even if I did I wouldn’t want the highly literate David Duval grading my typing. I pass, while noting his deep knowledge of the game.
Wood: A+. David is my absolute favorite analyst in the game. David has BEEN THERE, fairly recently. He is in touch with the players, coaches and caddies today, he does his homework, he is very intelligent and able to communicate his thoughts in the way he thought as a player. Flashy, no, but if you want a real understanding into what’s going on under the gun in the hearts and minds of the guys inside the ropes, there’s no one better. Plus, he was a part of one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had in a Ryder Cup. Quick story, if you don’t mind, totally unrelated to the question. My first Ryder Cup was with Mark Calcavecchia at The Belfry in 2002. We were playing fourball with David, and we got to the 10th hole, which is a driveable par-4 but with a water hazard running alongside the front and left of the green. They had recently lengthened the hole and captain Curtis Strange had really discouraged the entire team from going for it. It was just such a difficult shot. Well, Calc hit first and laid up with a 6-iron. It was DD’s turn to play and he was just standing there, arms crossed, dark glasses hiding the thoughts he was contemplating. After about 30 seconds of complete stillness, he finally uncrossed his arms, looked at his caddie Mitch and us and said “Boys, I believe I’ve got to go against the captain here.” He pulled out driver and hit the prettiest high cut to about 10 feet. So I’ll always be a huge DD fan.
5. For The Knockdown, Alan Shipnuck did a deep dive with his profile on Paige Spiranac, whose young career hasn’t been without controversy. What did you take away from the feature?
Shipnuck: It was a spectacular piece of work! Oh wait, I should probably recuse myself from this question.
Sens: It reminded me of how sharp an edge you have to have to compete in any sport at the highest level. Given her success in multiple sports, Spiranac obviously has the athletic tools. She now seems caught in a bit of a vicious cycle–dependent on her place in the public sphere that she’s not entirely comfortable with.
Passov: Alan, you did a marvelous job with the Phil Mickelson interview.
Bamberger: That women’s golf needs to be covered much more closely.
6. The Tour heads to the Monterey Peninsula for the game’s most-celebrated pro-am. Who’s the best celebrity you’ve crossed paths with during your journey in golf, and if the folks from the Clambake called and offered you a spot in the field, which pro would you like to be paired with?
Shipnuck: I’ve watched John Smoltz play a little in person and he’s a stud. When Tiger was still Tiger he used to give him only two a side, which tells you all you need to know. As for pros, it’d have to be Phil. He’s won the tournament a bunch of times, he’s a preeminent storyteller and all week long he gets invited to the best dinners and cocktail parties, so it’d be great fun to be his wingman.
Sens: I followed Rick Rhoden a few times in the era when it seemed like he was either winning or threatening to win the celebrity event at Edgewood every year. It wasn’t an eye-popping game. He has a hand-made looking swing, across the line at the top, not especially powerful. But the guy could score. Anyone can put up a low number when they bomb 350 down the middle. I like watching players I can relate to. For pros, I’d take one of the older guys with a sense of humor. Stadler would be good. He’s funny. Self-deprecating. And refreshingly honest. You don’t always get that from the media-groomed, sponsor-pleasing younger guys.
Passov: I’ve enjoyed a few good pairings in my time, from U.S. presidents to Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers. If you’re asking for best celebrity, as in most highly skilled golfer, it’s a close call–mostly due to my fading memory. I played in front of actor/singer Jack Wagner at Bel-Air once and played behind saxophone star Kenny G at Spyglass Hill a few years after that. Both were pretty superb sticks. For my pro, given our common interest in fast-food roast beef sandwiches, I’d take a spot alongside Andrew “Beef” Johnston.
Bamberger: Best, as in most interesting to watch? Bill Murray. I’ve watched him, as most of us have, up-close-and-personal. I’ve been awed by the quickness of the wit and (now and again) have also been struck by the meanness of his spirit. The deep reserves of cool are a good and convincing act, until the shot means something to him, and then the great Murray is just like the rest of use. I’d like to be paired with Vijay. I caddied in groups with him in Europe in ‘91 and have always liked him.
Wood: If you’re talking about being a player, I was very impressed with Matt Cain (pitcher for SF Giants). He absolutely bombs it and has a really solid all-around game. He’s fun to be around and tells great baseball stories, which is like catnip for me. In terms of entertainment, nobody comes close to Bill Murray. He’s a solid player, but more importantly, he gets it. He is somehow able to walk that tightrope of being immensely entertaining, playing a lot of good golf, not distracting the professionals from their games and telling the stories we all want to hear. I can’t imagine weeks like this are easy for him, but he sure makes it seem that way. I mean, it’s Bill F*%ing Murray.