Tour Confidential: Is this week Tiger’s best chance to win this season?
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1. The last two times we saw Tiger Woods play he struggled with his putter, the second of those starts resulting in a missed cut at the U.S. Open. He’s back in action this week at The National (a tournament he’s won twice), where Rickie Fowler is the only top 10 player in the field. This will be his 11th start of the season, but will it also be his best chance to win?
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): Well, his best chance to win so far in this comeback was in Tampa, where he tied for second and missed a playoff by one. Given the soft field and two-week break, I absolutely expect Woods to show better than he did at Shinnecock. Win? Not yet. But if his health holds up I think he’ll get there eventually — maybe even at season’s end, at the Hero World Challenge in December.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Agree with Ritter. Tampa was there for him. Tiger putts Florida greens better than other surfaces. He can of course contend. What he has to show himself is that he can close. Nobody can help him with that. A reminder of how lonely the game can be, even when everybody is screaming your name.
Joe Passov, travel and courses editor (@joepassov): I’m not quite as worried about Tiger’s prospects, given how close he has already come on several occasions this year. Some weeks his putting has let him down, in others, especially early on, it was his driving. Yet, he came THAT close at Valspar, was one yanked drive away from a similar finish at Bay Hill, was solid at the Honda and hit the ball as well as ever at the Players. Heckuva Florida swing. But he did play well at the Memorial, too. Yes, he has to put it all together and relearn how to close, but he isn’t far off. I’m not sure it’s this week, but I like his chances at straightforward Bellerive at the PGA Championship in August.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@dylan_dethier): I’m the prototypical basic golf fan in that I keep expecting Tiger to contend. I actually like each of the remaining majors best for Woods to win, and his game hasn’t looked at all complete in his last several starts. Then again, it’s golf! Something could click and his putting could line up with his ball-striking and we could be looking at the tournament host in contention at what looks like it could be the last edition of this event.
2. Paul Casey’s six-shot lead over Bubba Watson and four-shot lead on the field didn’t last. Casey limped to a 72 at the Travelers, while Bubba shot 63 to post 17 under and beat Casey and three others by three. Did Watson win, or did Casey lose?
Ritter: A little of both, but you have to tip your hat to a Sunday 63, capped by a stuffed wedge on 18 when Bubba knew he needed it. It was the type of close you’d expect from a future Hall of Famer, which Watson looks like from here.
Bamberger: Of, for sure Bubba won. Because if you look at the list of finishers, Bubba’s name is first. Plus, leads are hard to manage.
Passov: Hats off to Bubba — simply phenomenal golf from a phenomenal talent — but Casey lost this one. With all of those low scores coming in, from Cink’s 62 to Bubba’s 63 to a smattering of 64s and 65s, Casey’s two-over-par 72 looks terrible by comparison. All he would have needed was a 68 to get the W.
Dethier: Look at it this way: Bubba’s 63 was a poor man’s version of Tommy Fleetwood posting the same number at Shinny. Brooks Koepka was up to the challenge of bettering the number up ahead of him; Casey wasn’t, and he looked far more comfortable in the role of chaser at the Valspar than from the front this week. Holding leads is hard! But four shots for one of the world’s top 20 should be enough.
3. Bubba Watson is the first player to win three times this season. What has most accounted for his resurgence?
Ritter: He certainly seems healthier and refocused. Also, ditching the hot pink golf balls probably didn’t hurt.
Bamberger: I couldn’t say, but I’m guessing it relates to … technique.
Passov: He specifically mentioned his golf ball switch (from Volvik to Titleist) at the beginning of the season as one big reason for his resurgence. The ball doing what you want it to do equals renewed confidence equals spectacular results for someone with Bubba’s talents.
Dethier: Bubba re-found the confidence that many golf fans find so, uh, endearing. Every player’s game depends on confidence, but perhaps his even more so. He wasn’t playing a top-tier golf ball and knew it; seconding Joe, I’m sure that’s a factor.
4. The Phil Mickelson U.S. Open putting controversy spilled into Travelers week, as Jason Day said the USGA probably should have enforced a different outcome for Phil while Jordan Spieth said he saw the strategy in Mickelson’s play. Phil himself spoke up again, too, sending a text message to a handful of reporters on Wednesday. “I know this should’ve come sooner, but it’s taken me a few days to calm down,” he wrote. “My anger and frustration got the best of me last weekend. I’m embarrassed and disappointed by my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.” Was this late change of heart — he said “toughen up” to naysayers the day of the incident — sincere or just one final PR move?
Ritter: It’s PR from Phil but give him credit for acknowledging that it was necessary. Ultimately that moment at Shinnnecock will be a blip in a career that’s done exponentially more good for golf than bad. But the blip will stick. When the USGA changes the rule to make hitting a moving ball a DQ or a three-shot penalty or some other sturdier punishment, what do you think that rule will be nicknamed from now to eternity?
Bamberger: PR. Smart PR. All these public apologies by crafted statement are in the realm of public relations. It had to be done. Sometimes you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.
Passov: Michael, you’re full of succinct, compelling logic this evening. Jeff, you too, if less succinct. This incident won’t be soon forgotten, but will be soon forgiven. Poor optics for five days, Phil, but thanks to your fessin’ up, we’ll move past this quickly.
Dethier: We could definitely give Phil the (extreme) benefit of the doubt and say that he believed each answer at the time he gave them. Evolving views and whatnot. Personally, I’m far more inclined to believe what he said at the time and I suspect he was mostly sorry that other people were offended. For the sake of being genuine I’d rather have seen him stick to his guns, but I can’t blame him for giving the golf world permission to move on.
5. Bryson DeChambeau told reporters at the Travelers that the PGA Tour is investigating his use of a compass on the golf course. He said he’s been doing it since October 2016. “The pin locations are just a little bit off every once in a while,” he said, “and so I’m making sure they’re in the exact right spot.” Should this device be legal?
Ritter: I have no idea how a compass would unfairly aid a pro golfer. (Or even fairly aid one.) A compass did play a key role in finding our tented village when I was on a hike at eighth-grade camp in Southwest Michigan about 25 years ago. Pretty handy tool to have that day, as I recall. The s’mores were also delicious.
Bamberger: I’m surprised to learn you can use a compass in competition. I’d prohibit them. Are anemometers (devices that measure wind direction and speed)? I think they are not, and they shouldn’t be. I’d say the same for the compass.
Passov: Does this mean my protractor use is in jeopardy? DeChambeau is clearly an out-of-the-box thinker in every golf-related way, so I find this pretty cool. I’m not sure it’s legal, but it’s cool.
Dethier: This is impossibly, comically on-brand. I knew a couple of guys on the Canadian tour who would pace off the pin locations while we were playing the hole just to have something extra to grouse about after the round if the locations were a yard or two off (I was hitting the greens with such rarity that this wasn’t much of an issue for me). Follow the rules, I guess — I cannot bring myself to care about this any further.
6. Hall of Famers Peter Thomson and Hubert Green passed away last week. For those who know these two as simply names in the record books, what kind of legacy did they leave behind?
Ritter: I was amazed by Thomson’s record at the British Open. From 1951-71 he won five and finished outside the top 10 just three times. He’s arguably the best links player ever. I never met Green, but the fact that he received a death threat mid-round at the ’77 U.S. Open, decided to play on when the tournament would’ve stopped it for him and actually went on to win shows a level of toughness that may be, um, lacking a bit in our current era, where for instance golfers WD due to allergies.
Bamberger: Thomson was a sophisticate in all manners. He read widely, wrote beautifully, led one of the richest lives you could possibly imagine. Tom Watson said last week he was the greatest of the great links golfers. Hubert did everything fast except drawl. I remember his iron shots and his no-fuss approach to putting, though he backed off a three-foot putt at the Masters in ’78 that would have enriched the rest of his life. He was the last man on the last green on Sunday and had he holed the putt he would have gone into a playoff with Gary Player. Something disturbed him, he backed off, got over it again and missed. The announcers said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Passov: I underestimated Thomson as a player for a long time, feeling that his first four Open Championship wins came against inferior fields, as few Americans played in it in those days. I applauded his 1965 win, as it came against everybody. The more I studied him, however — his swing, international record, off-course legacy — I became convinced he was a giant in the game. Plus, he was with first dominant player in Senior Tour history. His nine wins in 1985 reminded us just how damn good he was. As for Hubert Green, I not long ago called him the fourth most underrated player in PGA Tour history. I knew him pretty well, and if you could solve that heavy southern drawl, you’d find a very bright, witty guy. Perhaps his odd swing, split-hand grip on the hickory-shafted putter and weird incidents that surrounded him at the 1977 U.S. Open and 1978 Masters kept him from more limelight.
Dethier: Both largely preceded my time around the game of golf, but I’ve been struck by Thomson’s resonance with every Australian player interviewed — and particularly liked his economic, spot-on advice to fellow Aussie Peter Fowler on how to improve his game. “Shoot lower scores, Peter,” Thomson said. As for Green, the ’77 U.S. Open is his most famous moment in golf but still worth focusing on. Told that he would be shot by a group of men on the 15th green, he decided to keep playing anyway, finishing par-birdie-par-bogey to win by one. That’s insane. I’ll let Dan Jenkins take it from here, in a piece for Sports Illustrated: “In the end,” Jenkins wrote, “it could be said that none of the Ben Hogans or Bobby Joneses or Jack Nicklauses had ever won the Open under the very special kind of pressure that Hubert Green did.”