Tour Confidential: Is Justin Thomas right — are PGA Tour fans out of control?

February 19, 2018 conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from across GOLF’s different platforms. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @GOLF_com.

1. Bubba Watson’s victory at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club came out of nowhere for a player who hadn’t recorded a top five on Tour in nearly two years and had slipped to No. 117 in the world rankings. Is it premature to add Bubba to the short list of Masters favorites?

Josh Sens, contributor, GOLF Magazine: For sure, (assuming that “short” list is at least 10 players long) especially now that he’s feeling better physically. By his own account, his health issues had deteriorated to the point where he considered retirement. Now that he seems past those problems, it’s a matter of him staying interested and engaged. Certain courses clearly engage him and suit his game. Riviera is one. Augusta is another.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Sure — pop Bubba up there on the short list of Masters favorites. Just don’t wager a lot. I never much cared for Bubba, the person, though it seems more likely that I simply misunderstood him. As a player, however, I was besotted with him. He’s a completely unique talent and I’m thrilled he’s returned to relevance and is back in the winner’s circle. Bubba being in the hunt at the Riv was like Ben Crenshaw at the Masters or Mark O’Meara at Pebble. It didn’t matter how they were playing going in, but once they got close, they knew how to seal the deal. Welcome back, Bubba!

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@jeff_ritter): It’s funny how golfers handle that next level of fame after winning a major or two. Some work a little less hard. Some add endorsements and get caught up with new distractions. And others drop 25 pounds and play a pink golf ball. But in Bubba’s case, the talent never left him, and yes he could absolutely win a third green jacket this spring.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): One week does not a champion make (see Potter Jr., Ted) but it does seem like we could see Bubba doing his thing on the weekend at Augusta. Latest Masters odds I’ve seen have Bubba jumping up to 50-1, making him 15th-favorite. Seems about right, if a touch reactionary.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: I would put Bubba in the list of people-who-could-win-at-Augusta every year for the next 15 years. I would have said that regardless of what he did at Riviera this week.

2. We saw a little bit of everything from Tiger Woods at Riviera, in what was his second start of 2018. He made eight birdies and 12 bogeys (and a double), ultimately shooting 72-76 to miss the cut by four. What did you learn about Woods this week that you didn’t observe in his 23rd-place finish at Torrey Pines?

Sens: Not a whole lot. To my eye, he was playing pretty much the same game on a different course. The heroic scrambling act is far tougher to sustain from that grabby kikuyu rough and on those defiant greens.

Passov: On the physical side, from a technique standpoint, it was a small step back. A lot of missed shots, and slew of those big par-saving putts that didn’t drop, the same ones that did find the cup at Torrey Pines. Still, Riviera’s greens can drive anybody crazy, and kikuyu can make you cuckoo. What I liked was Tiger’s post-round analysis. He now realizes that for as good as he feels physically, that it’s been a long, long time since he’s been a healthy tournament golfer and that to get where he needs to be, it may take little while. That’s OK. We’re willing to wait.

​Ritter: Nothing new for me. This was always going to be a tough event for him. He’s a rusty golfer on the long road back from injury. First order of business is the driver —​ the missed fairways are now a trend that needs to be addressed.

Dethier: He’s showed enough flashes in each part of his game to provide some encouragement —​ heck, for those desperately grasping, he was even competent with the driver for a few holes in a row on day two. But his overall sloppiness stood out to me. So many unforced errors. The fun part? We get to see again this week!

Bamberger: It must be obvious to him that he is not close to playing I-can-contend golf. So the question becomes how deep can he dig. In his life in golf he has always done astounding things. So two weeks of poor play don’t say anything meaningful to me, unless it is to him.

3. After the third round at the Genesis Open, Justin Thomas said the raucous crowds were a problem, as they have been at other events this season. “At the end it got a little out of hand,” he said. “I guess it’s a part of it now, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t. I wish people didn’t think it was so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots and play.” Is Thomas onto something? Are PGA Tour galleries getting too frisky?

Sens: Careful what you wish for. You want to grow the game and broaden the audience? The audience you attract isn’t going to be as steeped in polite golf-clap traditions. Different tournaments also seem to attract a different level of yahoo-ism. Add Tiger’s return to the mix, and the electricity in the atmosphere cranks up further. So yeah, I would say more and more spectators could probably use an etiquette lesson. If you’re yelling in someone’s backswing, you don’t belong there. And if you’re yelling ‘You da man’ or ‘Mashed potatoes!’ specifically, I’m not sure you belong anywhere.

Passov: Right on, Brother Sens. Hey, society as a whole is a lot less civil in its discourse than it once was, so it’s no surprise that crowds are not only more vocal, but nastier, too. What makes the highlight reels over and over are flag-waving Ryder Cup fervor and beer cup frenzy at Phoenix. It’s exciting. It’s a better hook to capture the next generation than say the 700 polite golf clappers who show up to spectate at Abu Dhabi, for instance. As Josh said, be careful what you wish for. I think Garden Party golf is long gone at the PGA Tour level, however much we (and Justin Thomas) might miss it.

​Ritter: A new generation of players attracts a new group of fans, and as crowds get younger like the players they follow, this is what happens. These days the cell phones are out, the drinks are flowing, and it’s a little loose in the galleries. Tiger’s presence no doubt attracted more casual fans who were clueless about the game’s etiquette, but JT and co. are going to have to get used to some of this.

Dethier: It’s not that Thomas is wrong (he’s not) but it’s gonna be tough for him to garner any sympathy when one of his main points is that they’re playing for a lot of money. The frenzy that follows Tiger around is incredible and should be celebrated. With that said, the fans who think THEY are the show should be roundly punished, perhaps sent to the media center to transcribe interviews for a few hours.

Bamberger: Josh said it beautifully. The rules of the game have been dumbed-down. The players, many of them, look like walking billboards. The caddies are celebrities. The fans are participants not spectators. The game is changing. Is it getting better?

4. Rory McIlroy, who played with Woods (and Thomas) in the first two rounds at Riv, went a step further, saying the huge, vocal galleries around Woods actually cost Woods on his scorecard. “I swear, playing in front of all that, he gives up half a shot a day on the field,” McIlroy said. “Like, it’s two shots he has to give to the field because of all that goes on around (him).” Are you buying that?

Sens: No doubt a Tiger gallery is different than any gallery in golf, and Tiger deals with more noise and camera clicks than anyone. But he missed the cut this week by a lot more than a half a shot per round. So I’ll concede Rory’s point, as long as we’re not citing that as the reason for Tiger’s Friday afternoon departure.

Passov: It’s an interesting, and likely accurate point from Rory. Still, Tiger has made a career out of handling every possible known distraction, plus others unknown. Admittedly, there may have been a bit more pent-up activity from the L.A. galleries this week, given that Tiger hadn’t teed it up there since 2006 and given that it was only his second official start in his comeback.

​Ritter: I can’t speak to how the crowds were at Riv, but a Tiger Group had always had a different kind of buzz and level of chaos. Rory is probably right about it subtly affecting scoring. Tiger was just always better at dealing with it than his competitors.

Dethier: Rory continues to be my favorite listen in golf because he seems to genuinely say what’s on his mind. I love it, and I thought this was fascinating. Plus it supported his lukewarm reaction to the pairing to begin with. It also touches on an unpopular opinion I have: I think these all-star pairings in the first two rounds are dumb. If the big guns play well enough, then you can put ‘em together on the weekend.

Bamberger: You can’t truly quantify that sort of of thing. Over the course of his career, I think fan excitement for Tiger has had virtually no impact on Tiger’s play, and I don’t see why that would change now.

5. According to site plans filed by Augusta National Golf Club with the city’s zoning department, the club is exploring adding a new tee box at the 5th hole that could lengthen it by up to 20 or 30 yards. Given the par-4 is already one of the hardest holes on the course (historically it has played as the fifth-toughest hole with a 4.27 stroke average), do you see the logic in stretching the 5th?

Sens: I see the logic but not the artistry. I’d rather see them leave it be. It’s a beautiful bear of a hole. And the lowest score still wins the tournament.

Passov: I do see the logic of stretching the 5th, in as much as Augusta National has done on half the other holes on the course —​ with the promise of more to come. The prevailing theory from the club is that they want the golf holes to reflect the shot values of the previous generation, and of the one before that. Most of the guys who hit driver at the 5th have 8- or 9-iron left. With pros who hit 3-wood, they’ll be left with a 6- to an 8-iron. The club simply wants to put a mid-iron back into the pros’ hands, as that’s what the hole was designed for. What the club doesn’t account much for is the modern speed and firmness of the greens (in combination), which makes hitting and holding a shot in the proper spot much tougher than it was for Hogan and Snead.

​Ritter: They want to strengthen the course and this is a less intrusive way than, say, planting a new tee box at 13 in Amen Corner. No. 5 is already a tough hole —​ this change would really make it a beast.

Dethier: It’s fine and makes sense, I guess. It’s also a reminder that buying neighboring businesses and properties shouldn’t really be a requirement to keep your golf course up to standard.

Bamberger: I’d leave five as it is, not that anybody is asking me. Seven, too. And 13. Also, eliminate the rough and remove hundreds of trees. And, in conjunction with the R&A, the PGA of America and the USGA, come up with a uniform ball for use in the four majors. Let 7,200 yards become meaningful again. Three-shot par 5s under 600 yards. Long irons and hybrids into 200-yard par 3s. Golf should actually take more cues from baseball, football and basketball. Four-ten to dead center has almost worked pretty well, more or less.

6. All credit to Bubba Watson for lacing up and competing in the NBA’s celebrity all-star game Friday night, but alas his performance was less than spectacular. What Tour pro would you like to see represent golf in the 2019 edition?

Sens: Ian Woosnam or Gary Woodland. Not necessarily in that order.

Bamberger: Sens on fire! I’d rather see Steph Curry play golf than watch any golfer play basketball.

Passov: The easy pick is Dustin Johnson, but given the way Jordan Spieth fills it up from long distance, I’d like to see him raining down 3s from way downtown.

​Ritter: Gary Player.

Dethier: Anthony Kim. He already did it once, in 2010, before he ghosted the world. At this point, his return to the public eye is just as likely to come on the hardwood as the golf course.