- What's up with all these rules controversies? How do we grade Tiger's comeback thus far? Who will be on the U.S. and European Ryder Cup teams?
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 or email email@example.com.
I've been on vacation—playing a little golf myself, which is what I do on 90% of the days I'm on vacation—which explains why there wasn't a FORE Questions last week. Now that I've got my fix of birdies and California sunshine, I'm back on the 1's and 2's. Without further ado...
Another week, another rules controversy! What is up with this?
Ah, yes, a semi-heated Monday discussion/debate/debauchery has recently been a weekly occurrence for the golf Twittersphere. This week's was courtesty of Tour rookie Joel Dahmen, whose on-course, floppy-bucket-hat swag is second only to Schoolboy Q and maybe my own father. Let's do some case-by-case analysis (my law school friends tell me it's an effective practice), starting with the first one.
First we had Jimmy Walker kinda, sorta admitting to cheating when he said players on Tour sometimes leave their ball unmarked on the green—Backstopping, as it's now known—to assist a playing partner ... as long as they like the guy. Why Walker felt the need to disclose this is anyone's guess, but the main consequence of his little confession is that players are going to mark their ball way more often. He brought it to everyone's attention, something I'd imagine his peers don't particularly appreciate.
You have to think this was one of those things that was always known in Tour circles but never brought to the general public's attention. There are a lot of those things, and if it wasn't for social media and some overly active Twitter fingers, it would have stayed that way. The culprit here, besides Walker, is ... at risk of sounding like a cantankerous old man ... our social media culture of sharing everything. Players interacting with fans has so many benefits, but this is an example of the downside. It's harder than ever to keep something a secret within the Tour community.
Next up we had Phil purposely putting a moving ball at the U.S. Freakin' Open to prevent it from rolling off the green. (What, you didn't hear about this?) The discourse following was particularly spicy, with some going as far as suggesting that Phil should have thought of the children when he flagrantly broke one of the simplest rules of golf. We can't scapegoat social media here; this was one of the 10 best golfers of all time jogging to wack a moving putt at one of golf's four marquee events. That would have sparked quite the backlash in any era.
The Travelers was relatively controversy free—though there was an interesting situation involving Zach Johnson and whether he made birdie or par—but that proved to be just a one-week hiatus, as we dove right back into the rule book at the Quicken Loans. On Sunday, Dahmen, who played with Tiger on Saturday, was paired with Sung Kang. On the par-5 10th hole, Kang's second shot found a water hazard left of the hole. Then the two players disagreed about where Kang's ball crossed the hazard—shockingly, Kang thought it did cross and thus that he'd get to drop closer to the hole, whereas Dahmen wasn't convinced—and debated this for roughly 25 minutes as the group behind them played through. Eventually, a rules official was called in, and after interviewing all the parties involved, he let Kang drop where he believed his ball crossed. No conclusive evidence against his description of the shot existed, and in the case of golf a rules tie goes to the player. After the round, a fan asked Dahmen what happened and he, uh, didn't mince words.
Kang cheated. He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost.— Joel Dahmen (@Joel_Dahmen) July 2, 2018
It was a typical dispute about where or if it crossed the hazzard. It clearly did not cross the hazzard. We went back and forth for 25 minutes and he ended up dropping closer to the green.— Joel Dahmen (@Joel_Dahmen) July 2, 2018
At that point there is nothing I can do. If I don’t sign the card, a rules official will. I would just be delaying the inevitable— Joel Dahmen (@Joel_Dahmen) July 2, 2018
One more piece of circumstantial evidence that feels worth relaying: Kang saved par on the hole, shot 64 and earned an invitation to the British Open via his third-place finish. That doesn't mean Dahmen was right here—again, no video exists—but still seems relevant.
Again, the insitgator to this controversy is pros interacting with fans. Dahmen didn't go to the media to complain about this, and he didn't run to Twitter either. He was asked by a fan and he responded. As long as players continue to share what happens on Tour with fans, things like this are going to continue happening. Not to say that's a good thing or a bad thing—as a general rule, spirited discussion between fans and players is good for the game. Unless it emblazons a scarring memory into the minds of millions of children. Then it is very bad.
Another solid week for Tiger (T-4 at the Quicken Loans National), but it wasn't a very strong field and he still finished 10 shots back. How do we grade his comeback thus far?
File "wasn't a very strong field" under Tour-Approved Euphimisms. The field at TPC Potomac was, statistically, the weakest non-oppposite-field event field of the calendar year. Rickie Fowler was the only top-10 player in the field, and apart from Francesco Molinari (who all but locked up his Ryder Cup spot...more on that later) the guys Tiger was mixing it up with on the weekend aren't exactly household names: Sung Kang, Abraham Ancer, Ryan Armour, Bronson Burgoon...
That being said, you can only beat who's in front of you, and Tiger now has five top-12 finishes and three top 5's in 11 official starts on Tour this year. A reasonable argument can be made that he's had a stronger overall season than Jordan Spieth. He's all the way up to 67th in the World Rankings after starting the year outside the top 600. Only two players ranked ahead of Tiger's 47th position in the FedEx Cup standings have played fewer events than his 11: Henrik Stenson and Brooks Koepka.
On the other hand, he's finished within five shots of the lead just once, when he finished one shot behind Patrick Reed at the Valspar. His performance in the two majors—T-32 at Augusta, MC at the U.S. Open—golf's truest tests, has been disappointing. And he's yet to put four rounds together without some gaping flaw rearing its head, whether that's been his driving (Farmers Insurance Open), iron play (Masters) or putting (Memorial).
Grading this comeback boils down to what kind of expectations you're working with. If Tiger's name was anything other than Tiger Woods, ceteris paribus, we'd consider this progress nothing short of remarkable. A 42-year-old coming off spinal fusion surgery who ranks sixth in strokes gained tee to green and 13th in scoring average? But it's impossible to diverge Tiger's past from Tiger's present, so the majority of people will always hold him to his own set of, realistically speaking, unattainable expectations. I'm not going to take the bait, so I'll give Tiger's comeback a very solid A-.
Tiger's going to win again on Tour. Of that I am virtually certain. He's shown that he has more than enough game to pick up win No. 80 if and when he puts it together for four rounds. Shouldn't that be enough, given that less than a year ago there seemed a real possibility he'd never play a tournament ever again?
The European Tour event this week, the Open de France, was played at Le Golf National, which will host the Ryder Cup. Who will be on the American roster come September?
Kudos to Thomas for making the trip over there to acclimate himself with what is a distinctly non-PGA Tour golf course. By that I mean, it's not wildly long, it's very tight, it punishes you severly for missing fairways and forces you to hit a bunch of different shots. That's how the Euros like it. Think of it as the antithesis of Hazeltine, which was set up to the American bombers' advantage: super long, little rough, etc. A "big open field," is how one of the European players on the 2016 team described it to me.
I'm somewhat surprised more Americans didn't make the trip over there for the Open de France, which was won by future Ryder Cupper Alex Noren, particularly because the PGA Tour event that week (Quicken) isn't a must-play. I'd guess weird timing is to blame—the British Open starts two weeks from Thursday, and it's a bit of a hassle to fly to Europe and back then make that same trip two weeks later.
As far as the team goes, let's take a look at the points standings. You can read up here on how the standings are determined, but the important thing to know is eight players get in on points and four are captain's picks.
1. Brooks Koepka - 8,919.409
2. Dustin Johnson - 7,809.287
3. Patrick Reed - 7,639.287
4. Justin Thomas - 6,727.053
5. Bubba Watson - 5, 388.024
6. Jordan Spieth - 4,819.806
7. Rickie Fowler 4,519.527
8. Bryson DeChambeau - 4,196.116
9. Webb Simpson - 4,027.534
10. Phil Mickelson - 3,979.592
11. Matt Kuchar - 3, 386.946
12. Brian Harman - 3,225.847
13. Tony Finau - 2,870.764
14. Xander Schauffele - 2,686.408
15. Aaron Wise - 2,378.567
16. Kyle Stanley - 2,300.104
17. Jimmy Walker - 2,292.893
18. Kevin Kisner - 2,274.086
19. Gary Woodland 2,128.082
20. Zach Johnson 2,125.959
I'd say the first seven guys on that list are absolute locks, whether they make it on points or not. They've been the core of this post-Tiger team success—they've won the 2015 Presidents Cup, 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup, though I'm not sure winning a President's Cup counts for anything—and Jim Furyk would be unwise to leave any of them home. I also believe, for better or for worse, that both Phil and Tiger will be captain's picks should they fail to make it on points. And at this point, the odds are firmly against Tiger (28th with 1,849.544) making it save for a top-3 at the British. Both Tiger and Phil bring unparalleled experience and both have willingly served as mentors to a host of young Americans. They're locker room pluses and both possess the guile and creativity to make brdies at the tricky layout.
If we count those top seven as well as Tiger and Phil, that leaves only three spots. Of the currently ranked 8-20 (and leaving out Phil, as he's gonna be picked), the guys who strike me as most likely to qualify on points are DeChambeau, Kuchar and Finau, the latter of whom I'm convinced will win in the next month (though Le Golf National does not fit his game, and thus I doubt he'd be a captain's pick if he doesn't qualify.) We'll give the edge to DeChambeau, who hasn't missed a cut since January. The 24-year-old just keeps cashing checks.
Now we're down to two captains picks. I'm gonna say Matt Kuchar, whose propensity for fairway-finding and experience bode very well, and Brian Harman, who is seventh in strokes gained putting. Putting, of course, is absolutely crucial in match play.
So, your 2018 USA Ryder Cup team, accoring to moi: Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Brian Harman.
Who will make the European team?
Let's be consistent and take a look at the standings first. You can read up here on how the Eurpean standings are determined—it's more complicated than the American process, and there are two separate lists, the European list and the World Points list—but the important thing to know is eight players (four from each list) get in on points and four are captain's picks. If a player qualifies via the European Points List and is also in the top four of the World Points List, the next player below him would get the spot.
European Points List
1. Tyrell Hatton - 3,677,719.42
2. Justin Rose - 3,307,263.76
3. Tommy Fleetwood - 3,240,727.58
4. Francesco Molinari - 3,225,221.47
5. Alex Noren - 3,202,412.56
6. Jon Rahm - 2,426,603.59
7. Thorbjorn Olesen - 2,358,160.77
8. Rory McIlroy - 2,168,607.14
World Points List (italics denotes guys also in top four of European List)
1. Justin Rose - 290.39
2. Jon Rahm - 263.24
3. Tommy Fleetwood - 257.00
4. Alex Noren - 237.56
5. Rory McIlroy - 226.56
6. Tyrell Hatton - 207.81
7. Francesco Molinari - 193.69
8. Paul Casey - 153.44
To be clear, the auto-qualifiers as of right now: Hatton, Rose, Fleetwood, Molinari, Rahm, Noren, McIlroy, Casey.
Three guys who aren't in either top eight I see as virtual locks: Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter. Sergio turns up for the Ryder Cup every single year. Poulter's love affair with the Cup is so profound that it would be legitimiately cruel to keep him out, particularly since he's playing some really solid golf at the moment. And Stenson remains one of the 15 best players in the world. Three guys jump out as contenders for the one remaining spot: Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Alexander Levy. Cabrera-Bello is a consistent performer on the PGA Tour. Fitzpatrick is a fairway-green machine whose game projects well at Le Golf National. But Levy gets the edge simply because he is from France, and Bjorn will want to pick a Frenchman to fire up the crowds. So: Tyrell Hatton, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari, Jon Rahm, Alex Noren, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Alexander Levy.
Should be a helluva match.