Tour Confidential: Who has the most to prove between now and the U.S. Open?

April 30, 2018 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. This week’s Wells Fargo Championship has some big-time names — especially after Tiger Woods threw his hat into the ring — including Phil, Rory, Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas. As we head back into some big-boy events and with the Players following Quail Hollow, who has the most to prove between now and the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills?

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@sean_zak): I think Tiger actually has the most to prove. Every course he plays from now until the end of the season (pending playing his way into the WGC-Bridgestone) will be a course he hasn’t exactly dominated on in the past. Is New Tiger able to continue good results with the putter and short game? I’d expect he will, but would we be surprised if he doesn’t? Most to gain, though, would be JT. Top-three finish for him and he’ll be take over the No. 1 spot in the world.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Ah, the old “something to prove” trope. It’s good media fodder. It’s also one that highly paid athletes with relatively little to prove trot out publicly from time to time. I get it, and I’ll play along. I would think these guys are all beyond needing to prove something to the world. But Rory did talk a mighty big game heading into Sunday’s final round at Augusta and then stumbled. That must have stung. Now he’s headed to an event that he’s won twice. As much as proving anything, I’d think he’d be looking hard at this one as an opportunity to get back on track.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): That’s a tough one. Every player thinks he has something to prove, but mostly to themselves. Everyone wants their game in shape heading into the big-boy events. I would guess those with real chances at the Players and the U.S. Open have different internal bars to hurdle approaching those two events. Your big boys, while they would like to win at lead up events, are gearing their games to win at Shinnecock, and as long as they feel good I’d say they couldn’t care less about proving anything to us.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): Everyone wants to go out these next few weeks and win — the Players carries prestige and of course it all builds to Shinnecock. I’d say the one person who can be excused for taking the foot off the accelerator and enjoying the fruits is Patrick Reed. Everyone else? Go time.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): It’s time for Tiger to prove that he’s back, Rory to prove he’s in contention for top dawg again, JT to officially cement what’s already his position as best current player in the world. Ritter and JW are right: everyone’s got something — and nothing — to prove. Psyched to see it.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: I think Rory. He was so good Sunday at Bay Hill, but his play was really downright poor Sunday at Augusta, when he most wanted to summon his best. He wants to know who he really is as a golfer, as does his public.

2. Woods is making his first post-Masters starts in the next two weeks, when he’ll play the Wells Fargo Championship followed by the Players. While we expected Tiger to hit the course at TPC Sawgrass, his appearance at Quail Hollow may come as a bit of a surprise. Woods won there in 2007, but hasn’t made the cut since 2009 and last played it in 2012. Will he finish inside or outside the top 10 this week?

Zak: Outside the top 10. It’s a pretty solid field and Tiger will need to play solid off the tee to compete there. Sorry if you’re tired of this explanation of Tiger’s game, but to use an old Tiger-ism, it is what it is.

Sens: What Sean said. For the same reasons.

Wood: Inside. He’s gotta be ecstatic about how his body feels, and he’s had enough starts to know where his game is, and I’m sure he’s been home working on the parts he thinks are the weakest links. Quail Hollow is never a birdie fest. Pars are valued and anyone who has watched Tiger’s short game and putting knows he can make a ton of pars. If his ball-striking is good, he can be right there again.

Ritter: Outside this week, but I like that he’s set to play two weeks in a row. If he’s able to find the mini-groove he had going in Florida last month, I could see a top 10 at Sawgrass.

Dethier: Inside. Tiger has shown top-level game both in his ball-striking and around the greens, and while Quail is punishing to those who settle in the rough, it’s a big golf course that promotes free, intentional swings off the tee. I expect a good driving week from an in-contention Woods.

Bamberger: I’m predicting a T10 finish. I’m not suggesting anyone fly off to Vegas with that prediction in mind.

3. Billy Horschel and Scott Piercy teamed up to win the Zurich Classic in what was the second straight year the event used a team format. Two-man duos that advanced to the weekend were also greeted with entrance music on the 1st tee (they picked it out themselves). Reviews were mixed. A pat on the back to the Tour for trying something different, or did their attempt to liven up the sport fall flat? Oh, and what would your entrance music be?

Zak: I’ll give the Tour a pat on the back. Just one, though. The highlights I saw seemed a bit gimmicky and not exactly lively. Seems like the players enjoyed the creativity, though, so hopefully they’ll double down on the excitement next time. As for my entrance, I’m walking out of the tunnel to “99 Problems” by Jay-Z, shoving my tee into the ground, taking no practice swings and pummeling my ball toward the hole.

Sens: Sure. I’ll administer a pat. Better to try to jolt some life into the event than to settle for being another in a long list of low-wattage tournaments. I didn’t like the final round alternate-shot format, though. Alternate shot is exciting in the crucible of the Ryder Cup. Not so much in this case (though I guess it kept the pace of play moving). In an event like this, I’d rather see a blood-red shoot out. First to 50 under wins! Hmm. Walk-up song. I’ll go with “Help!” by The Beatles.

Wood: I liked it, though there were some cringe-worthy choices, and I was personally very upset with our playing partners Sean O’Hair and Jimmy Walker for drilling “Careless Whisper” into my head for eight holes today. Only when I sung Brian Fallon’s “Forget Me Not” for three straight holes could I get it out of there. I’d love to see four days of golf in this event, with four different formats: Best ball, alternate shot, total score and scramble. But this tourney is a breath of fresh air in the schedule. If I had walk-up music it would have to be The Replacements “Left of the Dial.” One because it’s the best song of all-time, and two because my tee shots tend to be FAR left of everything.

Ritter: They tried something different, and hey, it got us talking. Did the sight of PGA Tour pros head-banging and air-guitaring on the 1st tee make golf seem young and cool? It did not. But they had fun and I respect the effort. As for my own music, I’ll go with “Alive” by Pearl Jam. The kids on Tour won’t know what hit em.

Dethier: Gotta echo John Wood here: props for trying and fun to watch, although the whole walk-up thing felt awkward at points. I do like the alternate-shot final round, but wouldn’t mind exploring even more formats. Gimme the starts of “Intro” by The Xx or “Pure Grinding” by Avicii (gone too soon) but there’s one key here: keep the music playing during the shot! Otherwise the drive itself (and ensuing stroll down the fairway) is a bit of a letdown.

Bamberger: The event’s format is so good and so rooted in golf it really doesn’t need anything else. It was hokey. If I were required to have entrance music, and if my scoring average were about 25 shots better than my current scoring average, I’d be inclined to walk in to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1,” which I find generally gets me in the mood.

4. Lydia Ko, who turned 21 on Tuesday, eagled the first playoff hole to beat Minjee Lee and win the LPGA Mediheal Championship on Sunday, her first victory since July 2016. Now that she’s ended that slump can Ko, who was ranked 18th before the week started, climb back to No. 1 in the world? If so, what needs to happen for her to get there?

Zak: It’s not a question of if she can. She’s 21 and incredibly talented. But let’s not make it seem easy. This was an obviously great first step, but the LPGA is loaded with young talent currently ranked above her. It would take a full year of great golf to get back to No. 1. Of course, it’s not exactly apples to apples, but Bubba Watson is ranked 18th right now, and no one is laying out a game plan for him to get to world No. 1. It’ll take some wins for Ko and a lot of top 10s, just like she piled up early in her career.

Sens: Ko didn’t get to the top of the game by playing power golf. Her strengths were precision and a killer short game. This is going to sound trite, but I would think that getting back to where she was would be a mental battle as much as anything — back to playing the game with that easy-going self-belief she had when she was at her best.

Ritter: She blew up everything at the end of 2016 — coach, caddie, equipment — and it has taken a long time for the dust to settle. She can get back to No. 1, but having already been there once, how bad does she want it?

Dethier: I don’t see it happening quickly, that’s for sure. But I love the storylines that are cropping up across the LPGA. Like the men’s game, a slew of its most talented players seem to be rounding into form at the right time. This week’s back-nine final-round showdown between Ko, Minjee Lee and Jessica Korda is exactly the kind of excitement that makes any golf Sunday fun to tune in for.

Bamberger: Lydia Ko has to be the oldest 21-year-old golfer ever. The LPGA is in a different place than it was when she was the clear-cut best. A second run of pure dominance is very rare, in golf and in any sport. Of course it could happen. It would be horribly unsporting to say it could not. But it will be very difficult and should not be expected.

5. A Michigan high school golfer was attacked by a goose during a recent round. What’s been your most frightening animal encounter while on the course?

Zak: I’ve never tussled with a goose quite to that extent, but I’ve definitely been chased off by one. I once reached far too close to a three-foot pine snake while searching for an errant approach shot. Is that frightening for everyone? No, but for an Ophidiophobe like me, it was all I needed to gladly mark an ‘X’ on the scorecard.

Sens: At a great course called Hans Merensky in South Africa, at the edge of Kruger National Park, a big baboon with a bright red ass came swaggering toward me on a tee box, flashing its teeth. It wasn’t smiling. Luckily, the South African guy I was playing with told me to open my hands to show that I didn’t have food. I did that and the baboon chilled out. 

Dethier: I am also whatever that word Zak used is to mean “freaking terrified of snakes.” Trying to squeeze in an extra nine late night at RTJ Trail’s Capitol Hill course in Alabama, I faced a walk over a bridge through a swampy area covered by trees — and sure enough a snake dropped down from above some 20 feet in front of me. FROM ABOVE! Those slithery demons belong on the ground — once there are potential attacks happening in three dimensions, I’m out.

Ritter: In 2007 I was on a jungle course in Malaysia and putting out when I turned and watched a monkey hop into my cart and snatch a granola bar. After he hopped out, we locked eyes, maybe 20 feet apart, and he gave me a look that said, “Go ahead and try it, buddy.” I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if I’d answered the challenge. Probably nothing great…

Wood: This is a good one, or a bad one depending on how you look at it. While working for Hunter Mahan we made the trip to South Africa to play Sun City in 2008. We started to play a practice round, and the yardage book provided was fairly useless to me, so I made arrangements with the pro shop to come out at first light Wednesday morning to make my own book for the week, hoping to use a cart to make my work a bit easier. When I arrived Wednesday morning, there was no one there, so I decided to go walk the front nine, start making my book and hopefully grab a cart for the back nine. I had a small notebook and I drew the first hole, started putting in bunkers and sprinkler heads and using a rangefinder to shoot distances that would be useful to me. I get up to the first green and start drawing slopes when I hear a rather loud rustling coming from some tall grasses left of the green. Suddenly, a troop of about 30 baboons walk out, sit on their haunches, stop and stare at me. I am completely frozen. Cannot move. Mind is racing … what do I do, what do I do, what do I do? Is there anyone else around? Help? I look around and decide my best cause of action is to s-l-o-w-l-y back away from them, not turning around and running like I wanted to. I back up all the way to the TV tower behind the first green, climb the ladder, open the door and sit inside there until I see some greenskeepers drive up and scare off the troop about an hour later. By far the scariest moment I’ve ever had on a golf course.

Bamberger: I was playing Streamsong, late in the afternoon, by myself, carrying my own bag. An emergency nine after 36. Can’t tell you what hole of which course, but to get from the green I had just holed out on to the next tee you had to walk a path flanked on both sides by a pond. On said path was a sleeping alligator, lying in the sun like a bathing beauty, except for the wretched skin and prehistoric mouth. I was not going to disturb this creature’s nap. I turned around and headed home.