GOLF.com conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. Here we go again. Tiger Woods returns at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open, which is also the site of his most recent PGA Tour start, when he missed the cut there a year ago. How important is Tiger’s performance at Torrey Pines (he’s also playing in three weeks at the Genesis Open) in the grand scheme of this comeback?
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): It’s important, but I have to believe he’s viewing it as a stepping stone rather than a final destination. Would he like to play well, feel healthy, get in the hunt? Absolutely. But if he doesn’t, I think he’ll have a good idea where he is on Monday. To my eye he looked fantastic in the Bahamas. Healthy and swinging athletically, happy and confident. The interesting thing to me will be the early morning start times. Heat and humidity tend to be a great way to play with any injury that needs testing. Those La Jolla mornings can be quite cool and foggy, and it takes some time to get the gears moving and stay moving like you’d like them to. I’m quite sure Tiger has planned for this, though. He’s worked too hard to get back to this point to leave any stone unturned.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s important. At this point, every start is, because Tiger needs to build confidence and momentum after years of accumulating scar tissue. And unlike the cupcake course he played in the Bahamas, Torrey is big and brawny and will require Tiger to play big-boy golf. I’m quite curious to see how he does.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): At this point, anytime Tiger pegs it, it’s important. This is the first serious test of his latest comeback; it will examine his mental and physical game in ways that the Hero didn’t. Aside from his swing and his health, Woods is trying to regain his edge, and that’s a fragile thing. If he drives it wildly or chunks a few chips or misses the cut by a wide margin, that sends him in the wrong direction when he needs all the momentum he can get.
Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF.com (@sean_zak): It is important in the sense that Tiger needs to get back to performing in front of people and on a big stage. Absolutely nothing about the Bahamas return was typical for a Tour event. Only a couple hundred spectators on a wide-open course. He saw a couple tight lies out there, and he didn’t handle ALL of them efficiently. I want to see if he can make a run like he did Friday or Sunday at the Hero, but do it in front of 10,000 people on a difficult golf course. I don’t expect to see it this week, but it’s his first chance to try and make that happen. That’s important.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s important to Tiger and to those who care about his future as a golfer. That’s likely millions of people, but only a tiny percentage of the world’s population. As long as he makes the cut he’ll have a path forward. If his play is dismal — I doubt it will be — that will be a significant setback. Tiger in his prime was incapable of dismal play. He has to see some glimpse of his old self.
2. Prediction time! Where will Tiger finish, and will we look back at his play at the Farmers and feel better, worse or the same regarding his prospects compared to how we felt after his performance at the Hero World Challenge in December?
Wood: Top 20, challenging for a top 10, with a couple of spurts on Saturday where he gets onto the leaderboard and people start to go, “Hmmmmmm, this is interesting!”
Shipnuck: I think he’ll make the cut and that alone constitutes progress.
Bamberger: I’m with Alan. If he plays four rounds, that’s good.
Sens: I think he’ll be right along the cut line. If I had to wager, I’d say he falls short. But afterwards, I suspect there will have been enough good shots for the Tiger optimists to see promise, and a enough squirrelly ones to give the skeptics cause for further doubt. Paul Simon had it right: a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.
Zak: I predict Tiger will miss the cut, and we will thereby feel a little worse about his comeback. Sure, pessimism is no fun and yes, he’s an underdog here, but the course difficulty should recalibrate us all a bit.
3. Rory McIlroy, in his first start in more than three months, entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship one off the lead but finished tied for third, four strokes behind winner Tommy Fleetwood. “Where I’ve come from the last three months just in terms of my health and my golf and everything, I’m in a much better place now than when I sort of left the game for a little bit in October,” McIlroy said. A good start, but McIlroy has always played well at this event with eight top-five finishes in his last nine appearances. Is this a sign of things to come or early season fool’s gold from Rory?
Wood: No, I think it’s a great sign. After taking a good amount of time off, especially after a year he wasn’t pleased with, there had to be a few questions he wanted to answer for himself, not for media or the public. Will the changes I made feel comfortable when I’m playing for real? Did the rest do me good mentally and emotionally? Did this short-term plan accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish heading into 2018? I’d say the answer is yes to all these questions.
Shipnuck: Big picture, it’s definitely progress. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed — Rory has been teasing us for years, and it would have been a macho statement to kick off the year with a win. Yet on Sunday he played his most indifferent round of the week and got blown off the course by Tommy Fleetwood.
Sens: I agree with Alan. A good sign, for sure, but a deflating finish. More than anything, though, yet another reminder (as if we needed one) of just how hard it is to win these days. There are just so many guys who can step on the gas and speed away with things, as Fleetwood did today. Rory says he’s feeling good about his prospects this year, and there’s no reason to doubt him. But no one is just going to lay down for him. And lots will be ready to snatch wins from him on Sunday when he isn’t firing on all cylinders.
Zak: Considering how much time he took off, man, it’s always a great sign when you can jump back into contention. But remember what Rory did last year amid a myriad of injuries? Six top 10s in 14 Tour events. Then a near-win at the British Masters. This is what he, a phenomenal player, does. I don’t want to belittle it, but he’s always performed like an elite player. This was simply another reminder of that fact.
Bamberger: Only one guy played better! Very good debut to a season I’m guessing will be a big one for him.
4. Fleetwood (who repeated as champ in Abu Dhabi), McIlroy (who seems to have some pep back in his step after a quiet 2017) and Jon Rahm (who won the CareerBuilder in a playoff on Sunday) are more than likely to form the core of the 2018 European Ryder Cup team. Which of these three players will have the most success overall in 2018, and why?
Wood: Heck of a question. While Fleetwood and Rahm are beaming with talent and confidence, I’ll have to say Rory, if only because he’s been there before. I’d expect the other two to be there quite a bit and win multiple times between them, but when it comes to cashing in a big one, I’d go with Rory.
Shipnuck: Rahm could easily win five times this year, but, as John alludes to, for Rory only the majors matter. As good as Rahm and Fleetwood are playing, you usually have to lose a major before you win one, so I agree McIlroy is the most likely to snag one this year — which would make it the most successful season of the three.
Sens: Fleetwood wins a major before Rahm wins his first or Rory wins his next, in part because he’s a massive talent, but also because he’s playing with less of the suffocating expectations that surround the other two.
Zak: I would say Rahm in a typical year where Rory plays 20 events or so, but The Rors will play upwards of 30 times this year. That many opportunities is sure to bring 12 top 10s and a couple of victories. That’s a total Rahm can beat, but it won’t be easy. Give me Rors.
Bamberger: The terms define the answer. Rahm will win the most money, Fleetwood will have the most fun and Rory will have the best collective finishes in majors.
5. During the opening round in Abu Dhabi, a 13-year-old knocked it inside Dustin Johnson and Fleetwood on a par-3 as part of the European tour’s Beat the Pro Challenge. Give us your pitch for a fan-engagement stunt or contest that the PGA Tour should put into place.
Wood: We were right in front of that group when the kid threaded the needle with that 3-wood and ran it right past the hole, and it was such a cool moment. While I’m not a huge fan of doing things like that during the tournament, I would love to see more good junior players in the pro-ams. I fully realize those spots are coveted and not inexpensive, but I would love for the PGA Tour and sponsoring businesses to maybe donate X number of spots in the pro-am field to local junior players. I think everyone would get a huge kick out of it.
Shipnuck: Do we need a stunt/contest? Golf tournaments have loosened up about using phones/social media, and that was a needed shift. But the game is good enough as-is. When I go to NBA or NFL or MLB games I feel assaulted by the noise, distractions and nonsense. Maybe I’m turning into a fuddy-duddy but I think the sporting event is enough, and I appreciate the relative clutter-free purity of golf tournaments. Let’s keep it that way.
Sens: “You kids,” Alan says, shaking his first from the clubhouse veranda. “Get off of my tee!” I agree, though. No need for stunts. But if I had to implement one, I’d go over the top. How about at some powder-puff silly season event, at any time during the week, an opposing player gets to pick a fan out of the crowd to hit a shot for the leader? I know. Ridiculous. And it will never happen. Mostly, it speaks to a secret fantasy I have of being that guy in the crowd who gets called out, and then knocks one stiff. Wild cheers. My 15 minutes on SportCenter. And then I wake up.
Zak: During every final round, let all the tee times pass through the 1st hole, and hold a competition where fans try to best the top approach of the day. If the best of 78 Tour pros finishes 18 inches from the pin on the first hole at Torrey South, that’s the distance to beat. Winner takes home 10 grand.
Bamberger: I think the winner of the Drive, Chip & Putt contest at Augusta should get a little mini-me green coat that he or she can wear to the Par-3 Contest, in which said child will have a spot in the field.
6. The annual PGA Merchandise Show — golf’s largest convention/pep rally — kicks off this week with more than 1,100 exhibitors showing off their wares and services in Orlando. In the last year what’s the most exciting trend, development or new product that you’ve seen in the game?
Wood: These days, I gotta believe I play less golf than most anyone involved in the game. I love the game, but when I get time off, I want to get away from it. I don’t want to spend my days off “at the office.” If there is one thing that would get me playing more golf, it would be the GolfBoard, which is basically a surf/skateboard with larger wheels that works as a happy medium between riding in a golf cart and walking. I lose my mind if I go play and two holes in it looks like it’s going to be a five-hour-plus round. But if I had a GolfBoard to tool around on during the waits? Forget about it!
Shipnuck: Yeah, I’ve been dying to test out one of those things. It’s more than a year old but I think Topgolf has really come into its own in the last year. It’s making golf more cool and introducing a lot of non-players to the game in a fun, low-stress environment. I think long-term it’s going to have a huge impact growing the game.
Sens: I like what Topgolf is doing, too, especially the new technology they’ve introduced to ordinary driving ranges, which basically can turn any practice facility into a Topgolf-like experience. But mostly, I’m a luddite, and, the trend I like the best is lower tech: it’s the architectural drift toward short courses. The game needs more of those. Or at least more ways to satisfy your golf jones without sinking five hours of your day into it.
Zak: It’s not necessarily new, but I first started using Arccos this year, tracking my game better than ever, which means I did more than zero. Sure, your handicap can tell you a think or two about your game, but not nearly as much as data-tracking equipment. What is new is that the technology is improving in accuracy and is becoming less-intrusive — both great things for the weekend player.
Bamberger: The Orange Whip works (for me), is not hard to understand, requires no instruction manual, comes in only one color (no decision-making) and is affordable and durable. I see it being used by duffers and Tour players. One year, in his annual report, Warren Buffett was explaining his investment in a cement company. He wrote, “Try to contain your excitement.” But that’s how I feel about the Orange Whip. It may not be the most exciting golf gizmo out there, but it does its job.