SI convened a meeting of its golf experts—senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle—and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to address the new grooves rule, Tiger's fall from grace, the Great Recession's impact on professional golf and other issues
This is an article from the Dec. 14, 2009 issue
WORKIN' ON A GROOVY THING
Van Sickle: I can guarantee one thing we'll be talking about next month.
Anonymous Pro: Not Tiger Woods, I hope.
Van Sickle: No, grooves.
Anonymous Pro: The new grooves rule goes into effect on Jan. 1, and grooves are going to be a bigger deal than the players thought. I tried out some [2010 conforming irons] in California on a course with firm greens and couldn't believe how little spin I got on greenside shots. I've already decided to switch to a softer ball.
Shipnuck: At the Pebble Beach Invitational, I walked a couple of holes with four pros using the new grooves. They all said it brings back the high, soft shot, and at a place like Pebble, where the greens are spongy in the winter, you're trying to take spin off shots. The feeling was, players will adapt. The sluggers with mediocre short games will be hurt the most.
Hack: The players with better short games will be that much better.
Van Sickle: You mean like Tiger and Phil?
Hack: Exactly. That said, I'm not going to lose any sleep over grooves as an issue.
Anonymous Pro: The new grooves are a night-and-day difference. I hit a chip to one green, and you could literally read the label on the ball it was spinning so little. We're going to have to use height and gravity instead of spin to stop shots. That's old school. I think the rule is going to be a good change. Square grooves spoiled us.
Bamberger: That's so true. More than ever before, players are technocrats. They've got everything so calibrated. You're right in their office with this change. It would be like our bosses saying, You guys write on Macs, but now you're going back to manual typewriters. How ya likin' it? Not so much.
Anonymous Pro: Before players adjust their distance control on flyer lies from the rough, marshals should issue hard hats to the fans.
Shipnuck: The biggest news is that the grooves change is a de facto rollback. Nike's Tom Stites told me that the guys who've switched to softer balls are losing about 10 yards off the tee.
Van Sickle: Wow! There are definitely going to be players moaning about that. At least I hope so.
Anonymous Pro: I'm not sure what to say about Tiger Woods. This is the first time he's been hit by a public-relations torpedo. His reputation took a huge hit, plus there's the devastating potential that his family could be disrupted.
Bamberger: The whole sexcapade thing will have no effect on Tiger's golf. He can block out distractions like nobody's business. Weird things motivate him, like Stephen Ames or Vijay's caddie calling him out. I think he'll use this to play hard and give us a big f-you by winning everything. He's not as good as he was in 2000, but in 2010—and for the next five years, at least—he's still the man to beat.
Shipnuck: Nobody is proud of what Tiger did, but in the continuum of bad celebrity behavior there has been much worse. Fans will forgive him, I think, and it'll be business as usual. If Tiger wins the Masters, it'll be as if nothing ever happened, for better or for worse.
Hack: For a guy who doesn't have one Nike thread out of place, this whole episode made Tiger seem ordinary, as fallible as the next guy.
Anonymous Pro: I think he's a lock to win the British Open at St. Andrews. He's 2 for 2 there, and I don't care which holes they've lengthened: He doesn't have to hit driver, his weakest club, and if he does, he's got a couple of football fields to land his ball in. He can also buzz that low two-iron around the course and avoid all the bunkers.
Shipnuck: There is more variability in Tiger's game. He seems to lose his swing for a round. He has more Phil in him now. I guess it's possible Tiger could go to Whistling Straits with three majors in his hip pocket. Pebble Beach [the U.S. Open venue] and St. Andrews are his houses, and he's up there in practically every Masters. But it's also possible that he could get skunked again in the majors.
Hack: I wrote about how everything set up perfectly for him last year too. Well, the landscape is changing. I think Tiger wins five, six or seven tournaments next year and gets a fourth claret jug at St. Andrews, but I'm not sure about a Masters or a U.S. Open. I'm becoming more convinced that Augusta doesn't set up as well for him as it once did.
Anonymous Pro: Until Tiger gets his driving under control, the majors will be the hardest events for him to win. He's gone awry since he went to the 45-inch graphite shaft. You can't believe how much of a difference an inch makes on your driver. He could lose an inch and still hit it 305 or 310, and start hitting fairways too. Publicly, Tiger falls back on, "Oh, that's the worst I've putted in my life." But his putting is still better than most of ours. He's hiding his bad driving behind his putting. Once he concedes that his driving stinks, he'll fix it and go back to winning by 10. Not that I'm rooting for that. He's simply that good.
SECOND TO ONE
Anonymous Pro: Phil Mickelson is back. I've always been a big Butch Harmon fan, and Phil's work with Butch has really paid off. Phil's misses with his driver are playable now. You didn't notice his swing improvements because they were overshadowed by his abysmal putting. Now that Dave Stockton helped his stroke, Phil has so much confidence, he doesn't care where he drives it. Yeah, that's the old Phil we know and love. He has his swagger back.
Bamberger: Phil will have a great year, but it will be a weird year because he always has weird years. He looks like Nicklaus, then he misses putts and starts switching clubs. At the end of the day, he never looks as ready to win every time out as Tiger does.
Van Sickle: Is Phil ever going to get that U.S. Open?
Bamberger: He had a beautiful chance this year, didn't he?
Anonymous Pro: I see Phil contending at the Masters and the PGA. In fact, I think Tiger will have a tough time beating Phil in Augusta. Phil has to be the favorite.
Hack: I like Phil at the Masters too. Making putts and beating Tiger, head to head in the same group at the Tour Championship—that has to build confidence. I don't know if making that kooky short-game video for hacks like me, pun intended, helped solidify his technique, but if he believes it did, that's the same thing. He'll play his best golf since 2004.
Shipnuck: I don't think there's any doubt that Phil will be a force this year. Tiger has never been more vulnerable. If Phil is ever going to knock him off the pedestal, 2010 is the year.
Hack: I don't see a changing of the guard. The best player in the world still wears red on Sundays.
WHO'S ON THIRD?
Van Sickle: We know Tiger and Phil have historically been a cut above the rest. Who's really No. 3?
Anonymous Pro: Right now it's Steve Stricker. My only question is, at 42, how much longer does he keep pushing? He's gotten pretty close to the top of his mountain. He might be the most normal guy on Tour, and if he decided to spend more time at home, I wouldn't be shocked.
Bamberger: It'll be Rory McIlroy by the end of the year. I watched him play a lot of golf. He's world class at everything except—and this is serious—putting. He's not yet ready to win at Augusta National, but he's solid. If he rises to a Stricker--Justin Leonard level of putting, he could have a Phil-like career.
Van Sickle: I see McIlroy is driving a Lamborghini. Has he succumbed to the riches of fame?
Bamberger: He's flashy, he has that show-offy personality that needs people to look at him. So does Phil. That's good. It's actually weird that Tiger is where he is, because he doesn't have that at all.
Shipnuck: The continuing saga of Paddy Harrington is funny. He figured some things out late, and I think he'll be very solid. The thing about Stricker is that you sense he's playing his absolute best to be where he is, and that he can't let down for a minute.
Hack: Say what you want about the British Open, but Stewart Cink made the shots down the stretch to win and plays well in big events. He's ready to assume a spot in the top three.
Anonymous Pro: Lee Westwood played great all year, contended at the British and the PGA. He's driving it super and has his putting stroke back. He looks as good now as he did early in his career when he practically ran the table in Europe. He'll be the breakout player of 2010 and maybe even snag a major.
THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Van Sickle: Anyone besides me concerned about fallout from the Great Recession?
Shipnuck: The long-term deals the Tour did before the recession helped keep up appearances. As they expire, the 2011 and '12 schedules will be affected, and that will tell the tale. There are two Tours right now: the big events that Tiger plays, and the B-list events, which are going to get hit hard.
Anonymous Pro: When a marquee event can't find a sponsor—and by marquee event I mean one that Tiger supports—that's a major red flag. Buick dropped sponsorship at Torrey Pines, which Tiger plays and wins almost every year, and no sponsor has stepped up.
Shipnuck: I agree that if Torrey Pines can't find a sponsor with Tiger in its pocket, that is scary. There's going to be a contraction on the PGA Tour, no doubt about it.
Hack: Every other business is cutting back, so it would be crazy to think that the Tour won't too. We could lose more sponsors and see things get worse before they get better. No industry is bulletproof.
Anonymous Pro: I'm sure Tim Finchem, the commissioner, understands the depth of the problem, but he'll never admit that we're having trouble. What bothers players is that we're begging for sponsors, yet a couple of years ago we lost one of the best sponsors we've had, Jack Vickers at the International. Instead of working out a deal with Vickers, the Tour ran off a guy who wanted to put up an $8 million or $10 million purse. That was cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Van Sickle: I see the same thing with the lack of respect given to Fall Series events. They've been hung out to dry by the Tour, which acts as if it wants them to go away. Trust me, two years from now the Tour will want them badly.
Anonymous Pro: The thing that we thought would drive the Tour was the World Golf Championships. If anything, those events are killing the other tournaments. Why? The WGC tournaments draw top players away from regular Tour events, which we need now more than ever.
Bamberger: The Tour basically oversold Tiger, and in the end it's an uphill slog when he doesn't appear. The Tour's long tradition is about local events and local charities. They tried to join the big leagues and were somewhat successful but found that golf is still a niche sport, although it can break out from time to time. The WGC events haven't connected with anyone and at the same time have ruined the real heart of the Tour, stops like L.A. or Hartford or Colonial that are now unfairly perceived as second-rate.
Anonymous Pro: Tiger and Phil wanted the season to end sooner. They weren't playing after mid-August, sometimes not even in the season-ending Tour Championship. Now that the FedEx Cup concludes the season in September, they're taking advantage of the downtime they asked for by playing overseas for big appearance fees. Didn't Finchem know that was going to happen? I'm not blaming Tiger or Phil. I'd play in a dress for $3 million. It is the Tour's fault for allowing it, and it really rubs me the wrong way. This is the biggest bogey Finchem has ever made.
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