Tour Confidential: Do pros owe it to Arnie to play Bay Hill this week?

March 13, 2017

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 by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Only 10 of the top 25 players in the World Ranking will tee it up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which prompted Billy Horschel to tweet: “Disappointing. Totally understand schedule issues. But 1st year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn’t be in position we are today.” While the turnout might seem underwhelming, only nine of the top 25 played last year at Bay Hill. Do the pros owe it to Arnie to play at the event that bears his name? Or is a cramped schedule that features a couple of WGC events in the run-up to the Masters to blame?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It would certainly be nice to see a bigger turnout from the top-ranked players, but the rerouted “Florida Swing,” which now passes through Mexico City for a WGC event, throws a wrench into travel plans for the top 60. Arnie deserves all the tributes that can ever be given, but players also need to do what’s best to prepare for Augusta. The API is in a tough spot on the calendar. Hopefully it can slide to a friendlier week when the Tour re-works the schedule.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): I hate to drift into the area of moralizing “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” but this was a big symbolic miss for professional golf, to say nothing of a blown PR opportunity. Yeah, schedules are tight, but these guys had plenty of time to adjust theirs. When Palmer passed away, it could have been a time for everyone to do everything they could to show up at the first one. A big show of force in support of the man who did so much to shape the game. I understand the idea of gearing up for the Masters. But there was a time when gearing up for the Masters meant showing up in Augusta and playing practice rounds. What’s wrong with that?

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Players simply cannot play every event, especially with the Masters on approach. The top players set a schedule that gives them the best chance to compete at courses that fit their game, as well as in terms of being in the right frame of mind and physical condition to compete at the Masters, and all of the majors. Would it be wonderful if everyone got together to play at Bay Hill this year to honor Palmer? Sure. But the schedule is very cramped, and you can’t blame the guys who don’t play.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The best way to honor Arnold is to be genuine with fans, play with some flair (if you got it!), talk to the writers (and the TV people) and remember that the game made you, not vice-versa. Going to Bay Hill is a one-off gesture of no particular consequence.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): I’m torn here. The same thing happened at the AT&T Byron Nelson a few years back. When Byron was alive, all the top stars showed up at his tournament, even though there were few fans of the host course, simply because they had so much respect for the man himself. After his passing, the top names stayed away in droves. I’m almost persuaded by JW’s argument that the players need to do what’s best for them and their careers, especially in regards to the Masters run-up, but ultimately, I’m with Josh on this one. At least show up this very first year after the King has left us, pay your respects, and whatever you do in 2018 and beyond, fine.

2. Showing how hard it is to win on the PGA Tour, Adam Hadwin limped home at the Valspar Championship, but he locked up his first victory when he parred the 72nd hole while Patrick Cantlay made bogey. Hadwin, a 29-year-old from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, has plenty of game; lest we forget, he shot 59 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January. Are we looking at a star in the making? Or will the runner-up, who had a decorated amateur career, be the bigger star?

Ritter: Hadwin and Cantlay are both great stories, and they made Sunday afternoon a blast to watch. I’d guess that Hadwin might become a bigger star because he’s been on Tour longer and has enjoyed better health. But given all he’s endured to get back on Tour, I’ll be pulling for Cantlay every time I see him.

Sens: Predicting what’s going to happen one tournament to the next is a fool’s errand, never mind forecasting an entire career. But I’m a fool. So I’ll bite. Hadwin has taken more of the journeyman’s path to the winner’s circle, which shows he’s got the battle-hardened spirit for the long haul. But given just how good Cantlay was before his injuries and other setbacks, I have to give him the edge.

Wood: Both are fine players with a lot of potential, but to talk about either being a capital S-Star (one win between them) is a bit of a stretch and very premature. When you’ve got far younger and more accomplished names (Spieth, Matsuyama, McIlroy, Day, Thomas, Reed, Fowler) with multiple wins and a few with multiple majors, I’ll reserve the “Star” for that lot.

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Bamberger: Hadwin’s swing looks very pure and athletic but so do 30 other guys on the range. I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I do wish the players had fewer logos, and I’m thinking of Hadwin. I know some people didn’t think the long putter looked golfy. That whole walking billboard thing is way worse.

Passov: I’m in total agreement with the “cloudy crystal ball” assessment of both Hadwin and Cantlay. Neither has displayed a recent stretch of consistency to indicate these are stars in the making. Cantlay is another of those “can’t-miss” guys who did, even as injury was the main culprit. He’s still writing his story, however, and yes, it would be a feel-good story if he continues his fine play. Hadwin has had a nice run in 2017, but has played in just two majors, making just one cut. Let’s see how the next six months roll out, and we’ll re-ask the question.

3. Excerpts are out from The 1997 Masters: My Story, the much-anticipated book on Tiger Woods’s historical win at Augusta National. Did anything pique your interest?

Sens: I’ll reserve final judgment for when I read the entire book. But the portions I’ve seen so far haven’t exactly brimmed with riveting detail or candor. That’s the longstanding fan frustration with Tiger, right? The sense that we’re getting the anodyne version of events. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe what you see is what you get. And it’s not realistic to ask for more. But if you’re going to write a book, why hold back? I’m looking forward to reading the whole shebang, and hoping that the excerpts I’ve read give way to something more.

Ritter: I agree that it would be fascinating if Tiger fully pulled back the curtain, but I still look forward to plowing through the book. It was a tournament that changed golf forever, and I’m sure there will be a few interesting insights and anecdotes from Woods’s week, and Lorne Rubenstein will help him weave together a fun read. Woods can always save the bombshells for his career memoir — and another publishing deal. (Ka-ching!)

Wood: Well, I haven’t seen any of the excerpts yet, so it would be difficult for me to comment. I will say that I don’t expect Tiger to give away any of his secrets to success just yet. Maybe when he decides his playing days are over and he doesn’t have to beat any of these guys anymore he will open the curtain for a big reveal of how his mind worked and how he controlled his emotions on the biggest stages.

Passov: Mostly, the excerpts have confirmed what I already knew. Tiger likes to compete with a chip on his shoulder, and he’s been incredibly successful doing that. When Monty made his ill-advised (in hindsight) comments at the halfway point of the 1997 Masters about Tiger’s lack of experience, it gave Tiger extra motivation. I, too, look forward to a complete read to see what reveals Tiger has.

Bamberger: Reading it now and reserving judgment. But I’m glad Tiger’s trying something new.

4. USGA executive director Mike Davis floated the idea of “variable distance” golf balls as a possible solution to several pressing issues in the game. Is this an indication that we might actually see the governing bodies roll back the ball for pros in the not-too-distance future?

Ritter: Sounds like Davis is opening the door. I’m in the camp that golf is long overdue for a “Tour ball.” Bring it on.

Sens: Not likely. Davis made it pretty clear afterwards that he wasn’t pointing toward a mandatory roll-back. He was offering the concept up as a possible option, one of many ways to grapple with the challenges facing the modern game. I say bring it on.

Wood: It has to come at some point … but I don’t see the USGA as the ones who will lead the charge. It’s only a caddie’s opinion, but I think that the gentlemen who hold a pretty big tournament in Augusta in April will be the ones who inform their invitees of their specifications for a conforming golf ball. Either that or the USGA, R&A, the Masters, PGA of America and the PGA Tour will get together and bifurcate the rules so as not to take enjoyment away from a 15 handicapper who hits his drive 10 yards farther, but limit the best in the game from regularly crushing 350-yard drives.

Passov: I’m encouraged by the fact that Mike Davis is even floating the idea. It still seems like most of the game’s top brass are opposed to any bifurcation, and I’m not sure you’d get golf ball manufacturers to go along, but in the interest of preserving the classic courses in the sport, I wish we could find an agreeable solution. The maintenance costs, slow play issues, liability issues and more would be alleviated if we could roll back championship courses from 7,500 yards to 6,500.

Bamberger: If you think the problem is primarily with the driver, and I would say it is, you could change the specifications for that club–any club with loft of 12 degrees or less, for instance. Require a thicker face, less trampoline effect, leading to shorter drives, shorter courses, faster rounds. I do like the idea of a tournament ball, but I get a headache just thinking about the ensuing fighting.

5. Amid claims from a protest group that says it has more than 100,000 signatures asking that the U.S. Women’s Open be moved from Trump Bedminster, the USGA appears unfazed. Is the organization playing with fire?

Ritter: The USGA is going to take heat for staying put, but at this point it’s probably too late to make a move. Shortly after the election, I had hoped they would come out with a decisive decision one way or the other, but instead it feels like they’ve said as little as possible while running out the clock. Effective, but I wanted more.

Sens: No doubt the USGA is going to take a lot of flack. But it will also get plenty of support, or at least a shrug from people who think the petition-signers are overreacting. Like pretty much all things Trump-related these days, I don’t expect a huge sway in public opinion one way or the other; people’s views will only harden deeper into what they are.

Wood: I agree with JR … it feels exactly as he’s described.

Bamberger: Don’t these people get tired, standing on a rooftop all day with a finger in the air? As Jeff says, TAKE A STAND. Say … something. That is, something MEANINGFUL.

Passov: We addressed this in some form in the past two weeks and my thoughts haven’t changed. The USGA isn’t playing with fire. OK, they might be caught in a politically fueled crossfire, but there would be more fire if they yanked the event. Again, Trump had a great track record of supporting women’s golf, sponsoring several big LPGA events, and paid his dues by hosting the USGA Junior Girls (and Junior Boys) national championship. Yes, circumstances have changed since then, but it’s just too late in the process to remove the biggest event in women’s golf. Trump’s opponents are fierce and vocal, but again, he did win the presidency, and half the voters in the country picked him. The show must go on.

6. March Madness has arrived. Here’s another kind of bracket: Based on the tradition of college golf programs and the players they’ve produced, who’s in your Final Four? And who’s the national champ?

Ritter: Well, you have to include Georgia, for Bubba, Kisner, English, Swafford and Chris Kirk, among others. It’s probably the most dominant school on Tour today. I’d add Texas to the Final Four, thanks to Spieth, Crenshaw and Kite; and Stanford, for Tiger and Wie. But my national title goes to Wake Forest, which boasts Jay and Bill Haas, Curtis Strange and Lanny Watkins. Oh, and it’s anchored by Arnie.

Sens: Good calls, Jeff. I have Wake as the national champ as well, though I’d also make a Final Four case for Ohio State (not just the folkloric Ted Tryba and Chris Perry, but also Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, John Cook, Ed Sneed and Joey Sindelar). The University of Houston has a pretty deep roster, too: Fuzzy, Freddie, Elkington, Bruce Lietzke, Bill Rogers, John Mahaffey. Alumnus Jim Nance could call the action.

Wood: Well, I’m going to bracket up my Elite Eight matchups, fire up the time machine and the discussion can go from there. In the West bracket, No. 1 seed Stanford (Woods, Watson, Michelle Wie, Begay) meets No. 2 seed Arizona State (Mickelson, Casey, Mayfair), if only so we can see an 18-year-old Tiger Woods go up against an 18-year-old Phil Mickelson, before the millions (billions?) in endorsements. In the Midwest, perennial powerhouse but No. 2 seed Oklahoma State (Fowler, Verplank, Tway, Mahan, and others) takes on No. 1 Texas, with Spieth, Crenshaw, Kite and Justin Leonard. But before that match, all involved gather around the putting green for an 18-hole putting contest between Spieth and Crenshaw, which may turn out to be the highlight of the whole tournament. In the East, No. 1 seed Wake Forest, captained by the King and bringing Curtis Strange, The Haas clan, Webb Simpson and Lanny Watkins to the dance face No. 2 seed and at-large European “We Don’t Need No Education!” squad of teenagers who turned pro before they could open a bottle of champagne. How does a team of Ballesteros, McIlroy, Stenson, and Garcia grab you? And in the Southeast we will see No. 1 Georgia (Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner, Harris English, etc.) make the trip to East Lake to face Georgia Tech with David Duval, Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. Ohio State? Damn. I guess I’ll have to have them go up against the Euro squad in a play-in match. So my Final Four has nine teams. Certainly the NCAA has screwed up more than that at some point.

Passov: JW — How does anyone top your analysis? Man, that sounds like fun. I had to go back to the record books to take a crack at this one. It’s hard to go against Houston. The Cougars’ superior depth netted them 16 NCAA championships, though the last one was awhile ago — 1985. Oklahoma State is another Final Four team, with 10 NCAA championships and an amazing 16 runner-up finishes. Stanford with eight wins is another qualifier. And yes, JW, Michelle Wie counts if you want her too, even though she never played for them. If you’re including women, better to include the greatest champ of all, Mickey Wright. As far as the final entry, Florida with four NCAA wins, Texas with three, and Wake Forest with three are all compelling. Edge to Texas, thanks to Ben Crenshaw, who won or shared three NCAA individual championships, to Justin Leonard, who won the 1994 Individual crown and to Jordan Spieth, who beat Justin Thomas in the championship match when the Longhorns edged Alabama.

Bamberger: Any response I would offer after that would be inadequate, but if you’re talking about the patina of excellence over a lot of years, hard to argue against Stanford, Texas, Wake and John’s We Don’t Need No Education/Thought Control.