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. Tiger Woods now has three PGA Tour starts under his belt in 2018: a T-23 at Torrey Pines (72-71-70-72), a MC at Riviera (72-76) and a 12th-place finish at PGA National (70-71-69-70). From what you’ve seen from him so far in the early stages of this comeback, are you more or less convinced today than you were six weeks ago that Woods will win again on Tour?
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I was convinced before, and I’m more convinced now. He seems completely healthy. His short game looks vintage Tiger, his putting looks very good, and he is bombing it. But you can toss all that out the window and just watch him out there Saturday and Sunday. His eyes told you how much he was into it. Every shot was given 100% effort and attention. A 12th place finish in a strong field on a very difficult golf course isn’t the ultimate, but it’s huge progress for him. Hopefully he’s got a couple more starts between now and Augusta. I for one think there should be a lifetime exemption into world events if you’ve won, say, 18 of them. Nobody brings attention and fans to the game like Tiger. I say if he wants to play, you find him a spot.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor, GOLF.com (@dylan_dethier): More! What else could we have gotten from Tiger? Sure, he didn’t win, but he showed he can grind, contend, and swing out of his shoes. The fire is there, and much of the game seems to be, too. Excited to see where Tiger goes from here.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Way more optimistic, but I was one of those dour pessimists before. Of course, there’s still no guarantee he’ll win again. No one knows what’s in store. But that’s what makes the watching so much fun. I hope he wins multiple times this year. I hope he goes on to smash Jack’s career major record. I hope he returns to the top of the game and remains there for as long as his health allows.
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): I’m with Mr. Wood on Mr. Woods. I was confident six weeks ago and am more confident now. He’s teed it up on three tough courses, where par was a good score, and except for one frustrating round at Riviera, he’s been right there score-wise. With Honda, he’s now there with his swing and focus.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, GOLF.com (@Jeff_Ritter): I’ve been cautiously optimistic about this comeback all the way along, but this was obviously a huge step forward. I’m sure there will still be MCs and stumbles along the way, but we got a glimpse at what a healthy Woods can do, and it’s clear he can be a factor in top events going forward. And Augusta just got a little more interesting, didn’t it?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Until this week, I didn’t know what golf meant to him, and I didn’t know how good he could still be. I believe he can win on Tour again. And if he can do that, he can win a major. It is amazing how much more you see when you watch the golf in person. I enjoyed watching Woods this week as much as I enjoyed watching any of his wins. He showed a grace and a frailty that I don’t think I had ever seen or felt before. He played well and he can play better. It doesn’t really matter. Trying matters. He has always tried. It’s the core of who he is. But trying harder when your skills are diminished, that’s inherently more interesting.
2. Woods did a couple of things particularly well at the Honda. He led the field in proximity to the hole (29′ 3″) and was second in driving distance (318.9 yards). Which stat is more encouraging?
Wood: Proximity to hole. The fact that he is so dialed in with his yardages, especially in windy conditions with firm greens, is amazing considering how little tournament golf he has played.
Dethier: They both suggest the same encouraging thing: aggression. Proximity to the hole is only a stat for greens hit in regulation, and when Tiger missed it was often because he was taking on too much or short siding himself. Woods is taking dead aim, which may have cost him a couple shots this week but can only be encouraging going forward.
Ritter: Proximity is encouraging but distance is the most surprising. I mean, this field had Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy in it among others, and Woods is hitting it out there with the longest in the world. Back in November, when he was building towards his Bahamian return, did anyone think this kind of clubhead speed was possible on a fused back? I certainly didn’t.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Given all the things he did well, it seems like 12th is about the worst he could have finished. The biggest problem in Tiger’s game right now is the big miss: he made three double bogeys, and got lucky with some very wild drives. For all the excellent swings he made, those mistakes felt more mental than physical. Is this residual rust or something deeper? Time will tell.
Sens: I can’t argue with any of the above. But what encouraged me most was seeing the old Tiger 9-mile stare again. And the fact that he hit more fairways as the week progressed.
Passov: They’re both awfully significant. I would have jumped right on the close-to-the-hole stat, but it’s inarguable that length on Tour is more important than ever, if that’s possible. Honda in the wind used to mean the short, steady shotmakers had a chance. Justin Thomas and Luke List? Two of the longest hitters on Tour. Tiger needs to keep up with them if he’s going to be in the mix — and he did. His proximity stats just made his close misses on putts that much more frustrating this week — yet encouraging going forward.
3. Justin Thomas picked up his sixth Tour win in the last 14 months at the Honda, knocking off Luke List on the first hole of a playoff. What part of JT’s game has most enabled him to become the winningest player in golf?
Wood: I’d say his shoulder. Or, more specifically, that giant chip on his shoulder that keeps whispering into his ear, “These guys can’t beat you. Find a way.”
Shipnuck: There is a flair and an explosiveness to Thomas’s game that is really special. On Thursday he made birdie on four straight holes, which was a heroic rally on this course. On Saturday he took control of the tournament with a back-nine 31. JT is golf’s version of the Golden State Warriors — never out of it because a game-changing run is always on the verge of erupting.
Sens: Success begets success. He’s going about his business with the swagger of a guy who expects to win because he’s been there before. Doesn’t hurt that he’s young, healthy and doesn’t have a family. He’s in that all-in phase of his career, with all circuits clicking.
Passov: He’s walking the walk right now. When he collapsed at Phoenix, he seemed shocked, simply because it was so completely unexpected. I was very impressed with his victory last October in Korea, when he looked exhausted and admitted as much, and still found a way to win. That’s greatness.
Bamberger: I never sensed what a smart person and smart golfer he was until this week. Maybe because all the water and wind makes you play very smart golf. I was deeply impressed by his golfing intelligence, and his intelligence, period. Among other things that I’ll write about this week.
Ritter: Those smarts were on full display as he played the 18th hole in regulation, where he drove it into the right rough. Rather than trying a hero shot to reach the par 5 in two, he laid up to a comfortable yardage and staked the approach. That was a winning moment.
4. Windy, watery PGA National bared its teeth again at the Honda with just 11 players finishing under par for the week and Daniel Berger, after his second round, likening the taxing conditions to “getting punched in the face.” PGA National hasn’t hosted a major since the 1987 PGA Championship; would you like to see a major go back there? (Reminder: the PGA Championship is moving to May next year!)
Wood: It is certainly difficult enough. I haven’t actually been there enough to give an accurate opinion, but a lot of what I watched over the weekend looked major-like.
Dethier: This was a fun tournament and I think it’s awesome when par is a good score. But a classic Florida golf course for a major? Meh.
Shipnuck: It’s a compelling counterpoint to all the birdie-fests on Tour, and I like the stress-inducing war of attrition that has come to define the event, but that course does nothing for me artistically. Thumbs down on a major.
Sens: I like seeing the world’s best have to battle. But I’m with Dethier on this one. That Bear Trap is really well marketed, though.
Passov: PGA National is a formidable test, especially in late February/early March winds and its closing holes inevitably yield great drama. However, hard doesn’t mean great. It’s not that creative to line every hole with water and blast you with an entire round full of forced carries. I’d rather see a venue that demands more strategic thinking, that offers options and angles. Streamsong, anyone?
Bamberger: It’s perfect for March and perfect for the Honda. I wouldn’t do anything else with it. If you’re looking to play a Nicklaus course in South Florida, I would put the public course in North Palm Beach a million miles ahead of it. But I don’t like losing golf balls.
Ritter: It’s fun to see the pros get knocked around, but one trek through the Bear Trap a year is enough.
5. According to a conversation Jack Nicklaus recounted having recently with USGA chief Mike Davis, Davis told Nicklaus that the governing bodies are “getting closer” to acting on rolling back the ball. The USGA and R&A have been studying distance trends for years. Do you believe that they’re genuinely preparing to take action?
Wood: I hope so. I think Jack referred to a 20 percent reduction in distance? That would be about right… especially if you could combine that with a 20 percent reduction in driver head size.
Dethier: Golf’s governing bodies tend to move glacially, but I think the USGA has zeroed in on this issue and see inaction as genuine failure (it would be). I bet we’ll hear something that sounds like a plan by this time next year.
Shipnuck: It’s the only thing that makes sense, given how outdated the playing fields are. But it’s also a bummer. I don’t want to watch Dustin Johnson drive it 270 — I can do that myself!
Sens: Fair enough. But after they limit the flight, you’ll only be able to hit it 210 so DJ will still look different. I’d love to see it happen, but I’m skeptical that “getting closer” means getting meaningfully close. When my kid fires his toy rocket in the backyard, he can rightly claim that it is “getting closer” to the moon.
Passov: As a defender of classic, Golden Age (shorter) golf courses, I’d be thrilled with a rollback. I’m just wondering what’s different this time in all the discussions, versus 20 years ago, when the equipment companies brought out their top legal talent to counter these measures? I guess we’ll have to see what Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Davis have concocted.
Bamberger: Maybe I’m fine-tuning it too much here, but week-in, week-out Tour events with the modern ball are fine. I’d like to see the four majors have even more special status, and continue to be played meaningfully on Golden Age gems, by introducing a Major Ball that would go, yes, about 80 percent, but not more, as far as today’s ball does. I also wish it had more curve in it.
Ritter: I doubt Mike Davis would try to pull one over on Jack, so safe to say talks are underway. I’m with Bamberger on this: let em rip it 410 at Kapalua and 340 in Tampa, but let’s try something new for the four majors.
6. We’ve spent a lot time in this forum in 2018 discussing Tiger Woods. With eight tournaments behind us this calendar year, what OTHER story line has most grabbed your attention?
Wood: The strength of the European Ryder Cup team. There is too much installing the U.S. as heavy favorites, and I just don’t think their team is getting enough respect. We all know about Rose, Sergio, Stenson, and Rory Mcilroy, Add #2 in the world Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, and Alex Noren to the mix and you’ve got a very, very strong core to go to the first tee with. I can’t wait.
Dethier: I’ve said this before on this platform, but we’re seeing golf’s top names rounding into form as we head towards Augusta. The game is at its best when fans have attachments to and opinions about the guys atop the leaderboard. JT, DJ and Rahm have looked solid, while Spieth, Rory and Rickie are likely to find their form by the Masters. Throw in a rejuvenated Phil and a fused, fired up Tiger and the prologue to the year’s first major has been delicious.
Shipnuck: I agree with both Dylan and Woody — it’s been a stellar start to a year that promises so much more, and Paris is gonna be a bonkers way to end it.
Sens: Buckle up for early April. The Masters might not start ‘til the back nine on Sunday, but you know we’ll be talking about it endlessly til then. And not that anyone asked me, but Europe wins in Paris.
Passov: So many playoffs on the PGA Tour, and so many tournaments running into bad light at the finish. Is there anything that can be done to fix that? Perhaps shot clocks, less rough, slower greens — ahhh, forget it.
Bamberger: These aren’t story lines. Just pictures. Tommy Fleetwood’s face. Twenty-one-year-old Sam Burns shooting 68, no bogeys, with TIger Woods on a Sunday. The heart Justin Thomas showed me in a brief conversation we had about the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas. The energy in the CBS compound with a live show about to go on. Big Jack’s accumulated golfing wisdom over the course of a three-hour interview. John Wood’s insights here. Rory’s candor. Clint Eastwood eating sunflower seeds (?) on live TV during the Pebble telecast. The curve of Bubba’s tee shots.
Ritter: Bubba’s surprise win was big. I also love Phil’s rejuvenated start and many of the Euros mentioned above indeed look frisky. A lot of high-wattage names are on a collision course for Augusta and I can’t wait. One other question that’s ALMOST time to ask: what’s up with Rory? I’m not panicking yet, but I will leave the question here for the disembodied moderator to cut and paste into Tour Confidential if RM misses his next cut.