- Can Jason Day get back to World No. 1? Tiger's putting woes a cause for concern? Is The Players really the fifth major? Why don't we see Tiger and Phil grouped together more often?
Every week, SI.com's Daniel Rapaport will be answering four of the biggest questions from the week in golf. To submit questions for the following week's column, simply tweet at @Daniel_Rapaport or @SI_Golf.
Jason Day did something on Sunday that very few players can: He won without his "A" game. Despite missing multiple tee shots and appearing uncomfortable with his swing, Day still shot 69 to pick up his second win of the season. Do you fancy his chances to get back to No. 1 in the world?
Day was impressive all week, particularly with his play off the tee. He's one of the longest guys out there and might hit it the highest of anyone on Tour, but over the past year or so he's been somewhat streaky with the driver. But when his rapid, aggressive swing is in sync—as it was in 2016, when he was the world's best player—Day has a Dustin Johnson-like ability to bring a course to his knees with the lumber.
But the aspect of Day's game that doesn't get a lot of hype is his putting, which might be the best in the world at the moment. He's the only player on Tour who hasn't missed a putt inside five feet all season, going a perfect 177 for 177 so far this campaign. Sure, a number of those putts are tap-ins, but think about how much more comfortable you'd feel on the golf course knowing anything inside a five-foot circle is a virtual gimmie.
One of the broadcasters this week—I think it was Nick Faldo, but I'm not entirely sure—was asked which player he thought was most unbeatable when firing on all cylinders. He discussed the strengths and "weaknesses" of guys like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and the subject moved to putting. The commentator argued that while Spieth can maybe get the hottest on the greens, Day putts well most consistently. His posture, setup and stroke are virtually perfect. There aren't a lot of moving parts, and he accelerates through the ball perfectly. It's no coincidence he leads the tour in strokes gained putting by a wide margin—Day's average for a round is 1.594, while Phil Mickelson is second with 1.177.
So, a player who can drive it as well as anyone and is arguably the most consistent putter on Tour should have a good chance to get to No. 1, right? In theory, yes. But Day simply hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to sustain his peak performance for an extended period of time. His chances of summiting the world rankings again depend almost entirely on whether his back will let him get there.
Assuming his body does hold up, he'll still have to nudge in front of a handful of players who are much closer to unseating current No. 1 Dustin Johnson. In fact, there are five players who could be No. 1 if things fall their way at The Players: Johnson, Thomas, Rahm, Spieth and Rose.
One thing that's for certain, however, is that Day really, really wants to get back to the top spot. Some players talk about getting to No. 1 as merely a side effect of achieving other goals—winning majors, FedEx Cups, etc. But as he told our Jonathan Jones, Day views it as a huge goal in and of itself.
Day definitely has the desire required to top the rankings, but three guys in their early-to-mid 20s (Rahm is 23, Spieth 24, Thomas 25) won't let him take the spot without a bitter fight. And that's not even counting McIlroy, who might still be the world's best player on his day. The odds are against Day getting back to No. 1, if I had to bet, thought I have no doubt more major championships are in his future.
Historically speaking, one of Tiger's strengths has been his short putting. Back in his prime, it seemed like he never missed a putt inside eight feet, particularly one he needed to make. Those memories made his putting performance this week, which was abysmal, that much more shocking. Is this something to worry about long-term or just a blip in the road?
Let's start off with some statistics that tell the story of just how bad Tiger was on Quail Hollow's over-seeded Bermuda greens this week. From the always terrific Justin Ray, Golf Channel's resident statistician and someone you should definitely be following on Twitter if you aren't already:
Tiger's strokes gained putting per round this week is currently -1.45. That would be the 2nd-worst total in a measured 72-hole tournament in his PGA Tour career (2010 Bridgestone, -1.67).— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) May 6, 2018
Six three-putts for Tiger so far this week, his most in a non-major tournament since the 2002 Memorial.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) May 6, 2018
Tiger Woods: 6th career round in a non-major on the PGA Tour as a pro without a birdie or eagle— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) May 6, 2018
Tiger Woods had 2 rounds this week with 1 or fewer birdie/eagle made. It is the first time since the 2004 U.S. Open that Tiger had two rounds in the same tournament with either 1 or 0 birdies.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) May 6, 2018
Tiger didn't make a single birdie on Sunday, and he was shut out for 17 holes on Friday before dropping in a 13-footer for birdie at the last. But he also made three birdies on Thursday and six on Saturday. So is there reason to be concerned? Sure. Tiger's stroke looked off all week, and the majority of his misses were to the left, a product of releasing the putter head too early through impact (Tiger's stroke opens the putter on the way back and closes it on the way through more than most players do, so if the timing is off, pulls can happen). It's also never good to see a 40-plus-year-old player struggle with the flat stick, as feel around the greens historically suffers with age. Older players are also liable to contract a certain putting condition that starts with the letter "y" and rhymes with dips, but one I would not dare utter out loud.
I wouldn't be in full panic mode yet, however, because putting has been one of Tiger's strengths in this most recent comeback. He putted quite well at the Valspar and Bay Hill and pretty well at the Masters. He was eighth in strokes gained putting before this disastrous week, which saw him drop all the way to 53rd in that stat. In the recent starts before Wells Fargo, the part of his game that seemed to need the most work was his irons. He put in a new set of TaylorMade "TWPhase1" irons this week and generally hit them very well, but as any golfer knows, when you fix the one part of your game that's faltering, something else often falls by the wayside.
Perhaps Tiger was focusing more on his swing than putting in recent practice sessions. Or maybe he somehow couldn't figure out Quail Hollow's greens, as he suggested, despite being arguably the sport's smartest player. Whatever it is, I wouldn't stress about one off putting week. Rinse it off and head to TPC Sawgrass with a clear mind, though he'll definitely be spending some extra time on the practice green in the coming days.
The commercials for the Players feature golfers talking about how important the tournament is and what a win at TPC Sawgrass does for a player's résumé. Mickelson says on it that he thinks of his 2007 victory there in the same light as his majors, and Justin Rose said it's one of the things missing from his résumé. How important do you think the guys really consider The Players to be?
Fascinating question, though I'm afraid I'm not plugged in on Tour enough (yet!) to give an accurate answer. I'd have to take the golfers' word for it, and there's a reason the Players has developed the "fifth major" moniker. From everything I've gathered, winning the Players ranks just below the PGA Championship and a good deal above theTour Championship/WGCs, which are just above the FedEx Cup events.
This is getting sort of hard to follow, so I am now going to assign absolutely arbitrary number values to the marquee tournaments on the PGA Tour. This is a purely academic and wholly unscientific exercise, mind you.
The Masters, U.S. Open and British Open are a 10. The PGA Championship is a 9.5. A major championship is a major championship and any player is absolutely ecstatic to take one of those four tournaments, but if you ask players around the world which major they'd like to win most, the PGA Championship is the fourth choice.
The Players is a 9. The Tour Championship is an 8.1, while the WGCs (HSBC Champions, Dell Match Play, Mexico Championship, Bridgestone Invitational) are an 8.0. Winning the Tour Championship means you've just won the most selective golf tournament on Tour and also means you're going to finish near the top of the FedEx Cup standings, so it gets the edge over the four WGC events.
Next up are The Memorial and the non-Tour Championship FedEx Cup events (Northern Trust, Dell Technologies, BMW Championship) at 7.5. Below those are the Genesis Open, Arnold Palmer Invitational and AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
This is where I cut the scale off, with no disrespect meant to any of the other terrific stops on Tour.
The Players has released some groupings for the first two rounds, and they have to be some of the best ones we've seen all year. Tiger, Phil and Rickie. JT, Spieth and Rory. Why doesn't the Tour do this kind of thing—putting the biggest names together—every week?
The PGA Tour is in the business of good television ratings, as all other leagues are. It thus makes sense for organizers to spread out guys who will attract fan interest. You don't want all the attention to be on one or two groups, because that limits the amount of time people want to watch the five-hour window during which that group (or groups) is out on the course.
An example: Let's say Tiger and Phil are the two big draws for a non-major, non-WGC, non-Players event. It makes sense for organizers to put Tiger in the morning and Phil in the afternoon; that way, Tiger will draw eyes to PGATourlive's featured group coverage in the morning, while Phil will anchor the afternoon Golf Channel coverage. And vice versa for the next day. The same is true for in-person ticket sales. You want people to stick around all day and for crowds to be consistently large throughout the round.
But in tournaments like the majors or the Players, in which all the best healthy players are competing, that issue doesn't really apply. That's especially true this week, and 50 of the top 50 players in the world are in the field. Not a single guy will be missing due to injury or anything else, which is an absolute dream scenario for tournament organizers.
Let's sit back and enjoy that Tiger/Phil/Rickie grouping, as it's the first time Tiger and Phil have played together in a competitive round in nearly four years. It'll be interesting to watch the dynamic between the two rivals-turned-friends. When these guys used to play together, you wouldn't see much interaction between the two save for cursory pleasantries on the first tee. But since they've warmed up to each other—remember, they played a practice round together at the Masters—I'd imagine that'll change. The galleries following that group will be comically massive, and for good reason. Given Tiger's health issues and Phil's age, there's no guarantee we'll get another chance to see these two legends tee it up together when both guys have realistic chances of contending.