Every Sunday night, GOLF.com 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. Si Woo Kim, the youngest player on the PGA Tour, put on a ball-striking clinic for three days, then relied on his short game on Sunday to win the Players Championship. Explain how a 21-year-old who was outside the top 200 in key ball-striking categories coming into the week and had more missed cuts and WDs than cuts made this season won the richest event on Tour.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, I wouldn’t read much into that. I know this is an era of big data, but the fact is he won on Tour last year, he’s an outstanding golfer and sometimes little changes come together in golf in big ways. It’s happened many times before.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Because golf is famously and wonderfully fickle, and when something clicks for a guy good enough to have already won on Tour, anything can happen. Recent struggles are no guarantee of continued misery, just as victories aren’t a sure sign of more titles to come. Right behind our winner on the leaderboard this weekend was Ian Poulter, a guy who only weeks ago was on the cusp of losing his card. That, as they say, is why they play the events.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Like Bamberger said, Kim already had a win on Tour, so he had experience as a closer. He saw his name at the top of the board for most of the afternoon and never cracked. Nothing feels fluky about his bogey-free Sunday.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Big-time performance by the kid. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): I’m with Michael here. It just happens in professional golf—a lot. A putting tip here, a ball position change there, a new shaft in the driver—something just clicks, and boom, you’re suddenly atop the FedEx standings.
Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): James Hahn won a year ago after missing eight straight cuts leading up to the Wells Fargo Championship. Todd Hamilton beat Ernie Els in a British Open playoff. Y.E. Yang happened. Golf is silly and crazy and ridiculous, sure, and no other event requires a winner to be in complete control of his game for those four days like the Players. As Alan said, it’s going to be exciting to see where this takes him.
2. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee criticized Ian Poulter for the way he closed on Sunday, saying he “clearly did not play to win.” Chamblee’s biggest issue seemed to be with Poulter hitting a safe shot on the par-3 17th instead of attacking the pin when trailing by two. Is Chamblee right?
Sens: He certainly wasn’t pin-seeking. But only Poulter knows what was going on in his head. Maybe he wanted to play aggressively but could sense that his swing was fraying and wasn’t feeling confident enough (his approach on 18th, which he described as a shank, suggests that things were going amiss) to take dead aim. In that case, what looked to some like playing it safe might have simply been playing it smart. Either way, Chamblee’s willingness to play aggressive from his post makes for interesting commentary. I like listening to him.
Bamberger: I don’t think Poulter was even thinking about winning, unless Kim did something stupid. I think Poulter was thinking about the check, and the playing status that would come with it.
Shipnuck: This is what makes Chamblee so good—he calls it like he sees it, even if feathers get ruffled. Poulter hasn’t been in a spot like this in a long time; he was clearly playing cautious golf, trying to avoid mistakes. Given where his career is right now, he badly needed the World Ranking and FedEx points of a high finish and making a triple bogey on the 17th hole wasn’t going to accomplish anything. I don’t really fault Poulter for going for the middle of every green. But that doesn’t make Brandel wrong.
Passov: I’m a big Brandel Chamblee fan, but I’m also an Ian Poulter fan. Agree with Chamblee or not, he’s always worth listening to. Maybe how I’m looking at this one is that yes, Brandel is right, but I’m not really sure that matters in this case. As I was rooting for Poulter, I also had some negative recollections of his shank at the Honda in 2016, when he was in contention, and of other memories where things went terribly wrong in the final round in recent years. He had to be nervous, unsure of how he would hold up. Under those circumstances, I think he did the right thing with his solid, if extremely conservative plays at 16 and 17. His disaster at 18 only proved what I thought was going on with him. Then he hits maybe the recovery of the year. Good for Poults. Let this be a confidence-building catalyst for him, so that the next time he’s in this position, he’ll have the moxie to fire at the pins.
Bacon: I was a little surprised at his decision on 16 to lay-up, but Poulter had a lot to lose with a big number late in that round. We spend a lot of time talking about winners and losers in golf, and we forget that there isn’t just one winner a week in this sport. A second place finish, a top 5, even a top 25 for some is a huge win, and this was that for Poulter. Maybe he didn’t leave with the trophy, but this was everything Poulter needed and more, and he has to be thrilled with how it played out even if he wasn’t able to catch Kim and wasn’t willing to risk it.
3. At slightly under 7,200 yards, the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass is short by today’s Tour standards. So why do we see so many big numbers? And is the Players hard to win because the course is so tough? Or is it all about the players knowing how significant a victory would be?
Bamberger: Water hazards. It’s the only thing, along with O.B., from which the players cannot recover. That’s why the players (as best I can tell) have mixed feelings, or negative feelings, about the course. As Rory said the other day, it’s a course that dictates how it must be played. You’re playing not to make mistakes. That’s a recipe for high scores.
Sens: Witness what happened to J.B. Holmes. When it starts going a little sideways at Sawgrass, it’s easy to rinse shots. Before you know it, you wind up with an 84. But the difficulty of winning has less to do with the toughness of the course (our winner was 10 under, not exactly a U.S. Open score) than the pressure of the moment and the depth of the field.
Shipnuck: The greens were very firm, the wind was quite strong at times, and every miss is severely penalized. This is a recipe for big numbers. It’s a tough tournament to win because the field is so strong and the course demands exacting golf. Also, it takes the driver out of play for the longest hitters, so their primary weapon is neutralized.
Ritter: The 17th also presents its own mental test. Guys have said how it can weigh on the mind, even early in a round. There’s pressure to win any event, and of course the Players is a marquee opportunity, but the course messes with guys in a unique way.
Passov: Alan used the right word here: “neutralized.” That’s what then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman wanted Pete Dye to do with the design—create a layout that didn’t favor any one kind of player. So many tournaments on Tour are won by huge hitters who get hot with the driver and putter. That’s simply not enough to get it done at TPC Sawgrass. It can’t be overpowered by anyone, especially in this week’s setup and conditions. It’s patience over power at the TPC.
Bacon: TPC Sawgrass penalizes errant tee shots, and on today’s PGA Tour, it’s a driver-heavy world no matter the miss. Those two things don’t mix, and that is the reason we see so many, as I like to call them, psycho scorecards. And Jeff makes a great point on the 17th; the comfort of knowing “if I just get past this one shot it’s game over” doesn’t happen until the penultimate hole, and it has to be daunting. I think for PGA Tour players, it’s the second most mentally draining week of the year behind the U.S. Open.
4. Louis Oosthuizen hung around the lead for four days and tied for second, three shots back of Kim. Great things were expected of King Louie after his win at the 2010 British Open, but almost seven years later it remains his lone PGA Tour victory. He’s 34 now. What is holding Oosthuizen back?
Bamberger: I don’t know but I expect our group will spend more effort and emotion answering that question than he will. One of the most pleasant people on Tour. A great, great swing. Maybe it just doesn’t mean that much too him.
Sens: Michael’s answer makes sense to me. A lot of players would also count themselves lucky to be held back the way Oosthuizen has been. His one win was a pretty good one. Reminds when they asked Harper Lee if she was dissatisfied for only having written one noteworthy novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. She said, “I wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.“
Shipnuck: Let’s not forget it took Bubba’s miracle shot out of the trees to deny Oosthuizen a green jacket, too. It’s tempting to wonder what kind of things he could achieve if he hungered more for greatness, but that’s not how sports work. He is what he is.
Ritter: He was also squarely in the mix at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay before tying for 2nd. But I hesitate to question Louie’s drive, or his record—he has eight Euro tour wins among 13 titles around the world. It’s odd that he hasn’t won more in the U.S., but he’s still solid.
Passov: Well, JR, to your points, his eight Euro wins were mostly in the odd African events with mostly mediocre fields. Yet, he’s so often a factor in majors and other significant events, there’s no doubting his talent and place in the game. So yes, it’s really vexing why he hasn’t closed more often—and at least once in the U.S., but I feel the same way about his countryman Charl Schwartzel. With that swing, and an amazing Masters win under his belt, I surely would have expected him (as well as the amiable Mr. Oosthuizen) to have won many more titles by now.
Bacon: I’m not sure we can say it’s disappointing considering his resume. Sure, his golf swing is as buttery as any in the game and because of that we all scratch our stubble and wonder why the heck his trophy room hasn’t had to expand, but sometimes guys are great at closing events out and some aren’t. Louis’ biggest win came when he was just kilometers better than the rest of the world. As Josh says, being an Open winner isn’t exactly the first line of a guy that had a disappointing career.
5. No fewer than 69 golf balls found the water at the island-green 17th. Are you a fan of the hole?
Bamberger: I would hate to have to play it on my home course. It fits with this course. It helps make this event the TV show it is.
Ritter: I actually think it would be fun to have an island par-3 on my home course. No matter how badly you play, every round would offer a chance to hit that green for a moral victory.
Sens: Sure. Great theater. It’s a little hole that goes a long way. I wouldn’t want to play it every day either, but I love watching the pros play it once a year.
Shipnuck: It’s the whole tournament distilled into one hole: over-the-top and slightly tacky but somehow it works.
Passov: I’ve never warmed to the hole from a design perspective but I absolutely love it from a tournament perspective. It’s the ultimate gut-check for golf’s best players.
Bacon: Like the Waste Management and the Zurich team event, once a year it is perfect.
6. In what seems to have become an annual rite, TPC Sawgrass unveiled a couple of big changes, new greens and other subtle tweaks. What’s the one thing you’d change to make Sawgrass a better track? Or is it time to stop tinkering?
Bamberger: I think I’d raise the back of the 17th green. Too many quality shots just roll right off and into the water. That’s cruel.
Sens: Put a kraken in the water around the island green, like in those Geico commercials.
Shipnuck: I like where Josh is going. A serious answer would be to build a bunch of new back tees so Rory, Dustin and their ilk can hit more drivers, which is only the most exciting thing in golf.
Passov: I enjoyed the variety of strategies employed at the new, drivable par-4 12th, but the layup option off the tee seemed a tad bland to me. Riviera’s 10th and TPC Scottsdale’s 17th feature more choices and drama for those who lay up. I’d like to see Sawgrass’s 12th tweaked to put a little more pressure on the guys who bail out on the tee shot, and I’d like to see the left side of the green softened just a bit to encourage a few more gambles off the tee.
Bacon: Joe nailed it; the 12th is sitting there just waiting to be exciting. A couple of small tweaks, including maybe a heavier collar where balls roll off the left of the green, and it would be a perfect short hole to truly allow the back nine at Sawgrass to have all the holes.
7. The Tour announced a new 10-year deal that will carry the FedEx Cup playoffs through 2027, and then word leaked of a clause that would ban players who endorse rival shipping companies from competing for the title. Does that sound a bit extreme?
Bamberger: Yes! The Tour is all about free trade, pure capitalism, survival of the fittest. This sort of protectionism is … soft. I imagine it will get challenged in court.
Sens: Money talks, often in ridiculous ways. Yes. A tad extreme. But you could also say it’s par for the course in our hyper-capitalist age.
Shipnuck: But what’s next, no player can wear a Samsung logo at the Sony Open? No Allstate guys at the Farmers Insurance Open? Verizon endorsers can’t play in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am? Seems like a very slippery slope.
Ritter: And no Ex-Lax at the Waste Management Open! I’ll show myself out.
Passov: Extreme? More like borderline lunacy. These guys are independent contractors. Let ‘em make the deals they want, without fear of reprisal.
Bacon: Alan nailed it; once this is a thing, where does it stop?