SI convened a panel of experts—senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle as well as special contributor John Garrity and a PGA Tour pro (who participated on condition of anonymity)—to take up these and other questions
Van Sickle: Tiger Woods has three wins and is the leader in the clubhouse for player of the year, yet he still has critics. Where do you stand on Tiger?
Shipnuck: He's turning into Phil Mickelson—wildly inconsistent and almost more fun to watch when he's not playing well. You don't know what you're going to get from Tiger week to week, even round to round. I don't think he knows what he's going to turn up with either. His good golf is still very good, but his bad golf is as bad as everybody else's.
July 23, 2012
Garrity: After several years of having the worst tempo on Tour, Tiger has superb tempo again. That was evidence he's back. He had his old tempo the first two days at the U.S. Open, and the main thing is, he picked up the pace of his takeaway. When he was working on his swing, it had become draggy. He's swinging with confidence again.
Anonymous Pro: With three wins, he has obviously figured out something. The lack of consistency is baffling. I thought he'd play well at Greenbrier because it's so less demanding off the tee than Congressional, where he won.
Garrity: It's a small point, but I was surprised he played Greenbrier. Playing at elevation was always his justification for not playing the International. It seemed out of character for him to play at 2,000 feet before England.
Bamberger: Yes, John, but it was in character for the guy who played in the United Arab Emirates instead of at Torrey Pines, where he has won a half dozen times.
Anonymous Pro: To me, Greenbrier was all about Tiger collecting the alleged appearance fee, and 99 out of 100 Tour players thought the same thing. Look at his three wins—Bay Hill, Memorial, Congressional. He outlasted everybody on very demanding courses. Tiger plans his schedule around those kinds of places, not shootout golf courses where you have to go low, like Greenbrier. They aren't in his wheelhouse.
Van Sickle: His wheelhouse used to be the majors. How about now? If he can win one more major, he can win five more. And I think he can win one more.
Garrity: I feel that way too. I don't buy into the theory that Tiger is an old 36. We say that only because he has had injuries and the scandal. At 36, he's still fitter than a lot of 20-year-olds. Physically, he looks like somebody who could win majors at 50.
Bamberger: The majors mean more to Tiger now than they ever have. That adds a colossal level of pressure, mental anguish and self-doubt. We've seen it twice already this year, and a few other times since the fire hydrant.
Van Sickle: Tiger's swing seems better now than during his Hank Haney years, yet he'll be hard-pressed to have the kind of results he had with Haney. His success will depend on his short game and his putting, which once were the best on Tour. They aren't now.
Anonymous Pro: Tiger isn't making putts like he used to. That's still the weakest part of his game. I hate to keep saying Old Tiger, New Tiger, but Old Tiger would've made eight or nine birdies a round at Greenbrier.
Van Sickle: I don't disagree, but if his ball striking is better than it has been the last six years, maybe he doesn't have to putt quite as well to win. If he can handle the mental issues that Michael mentioned and if he stays healthy—two gigantic ifs—Tiger still has upside potential.
Bamberger: I don't know about that. Tiger was lost from the first swing of the day on Saturday at the U.S. Open. That was so un-Tiger-like.
Garrity: He had a couple of loose shots and a missed putt on Saturday, and it seemed to rattle him. He had a woe-is-me look on his face after that. I don't want to call it Sergio García syndrome, but he obviously lost some confidence or momentum.
Anonymous Pro: I'm very impressed with his progress, and his swing looks better, although he still doesn't look confident with the driver. But inside 140 yards, New Tiger is terrible. If his old short game was an A, his current short game is a C. He's flying greens with wedges from 120 yards.
Van Sickle: Tiger said he had issues with the heat and how far the ball was flying because of the altitude at Greenbrier.
Anonymous Pro: He should've been able to adjust. The real story is the size of Tiger's divots. His short-iron swing is steeper than it ever was, he's so on top of the ball. His new swing is good for his long game but terrible for his short irons. You have to hit a ton of wedge shots at Greenbrier, and that killed him. Hunter Mahan is another Sean Foley pupil, and he's not real good inside 130 yards either. Hunter won in Tucson and Houston, two ball strikers' palaces. On courses where you have to hit a lot of wedge shots, these guys struggle.
Bamberger: One allowance we don't make is that Tiger won so many of those majors by making other players uncomfortable. I don't think players are going to crumble in front of Tiger on Sunday afternoon the way they once did. So I don't agree with Gary that if he can win one, he can win five. Five implies that other players will be too scared to stand up to him, and I don't think they will be.
Shipnuck: Don't forget that Tiger is a great tactician. All those pot bunkers at Lytham are effectively one-shot penalties. They may play into Tiger's hand. He's not afraid to hit four-irons off the tees and shape a lot of shots. Other players don't have the discipline to make those adjustments. The British Open may be Tiger's best chance to win a major.
Van Sickle: Let's talk about the two most recent major champions—Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. Who's going to have a bigger career?
Bamberger: Webb is going to be a consistent winner for a long time. He has much more of a grind-it-out personality, but Bubba is hugely more entertaining.
Shipnuck: I could see Bubba pulling a John Daly and winning on the Old Course. It's hard to imagine him winning on a claustrophobic course like Lytham.
Van Sickle: I could see Bubba doing a Duval and never winning again.
Bamberger: I don't see that. Bubba is a very quirky personality. Bubba has a great gift for golf and wants to show it off. There's no reason his tee-to-green game is going to disappear like David's did.
Garrity: I like Bubba. Webb, I agree, will be a more consistent winner. I can even see him as a Hall of Famer. But Bubba has flair. He's one of the few pros, like Mickelson or Palmer or Trevino, who make golf look fun.
Anonymous Pro: Bubba seems like he's closer to stepping away from the game than he is to winning another major. He showed up at the U.S. Open basically because he had to, and then all he did was complain about the course and the media. I understand he wants to spend time with his new adopted son, and that's great, but I don't see him working as hard as Webb will work.
Shipnuck: If it were only the Masters, Bubba probably would have kept playing. The adoption happened very quickly, and they had to get ready in a hurry.
Anonymous Pro: That's right. I give him a pass because of his new son, but his commitment to golf seems to have waned. Bubba has a hard time concentrating for 18 holes. You think he's going to concentrate on golf for 18 years? I could see him moving on to something else that sparks his interest, whether it's a hunting show or racing the General Lee.
Shipnuck: Bubba knows how to blow off steam. Duval's idea of a good time was reading The Fountainhead. Bubba has fun—he gets away from the game and recharges. One thing Tiger does right is that he shows up only when he's ready to win. Bubba wasn't ready at Olympic. Webb, on the other hand, was extremely ready.
Bamberger: Part of Tiger's genius is the ability to get ready for four majors and the tournaments named after Arnold and Jack and himself, which he keeps winning. It shows you how advanced his golf mind is.
Shipnuck: It's O.K. that Bubba isn't playing a heavy schedule. There's a lot of golf left—two more majors, a WGC, the FedEx Cup, the Ryder Cup. The modern golf calendar is long and intense. Maybe Bubba is also a genius at scheduling.
STAY THE COURSE
Van Sickle: Royal Lytham & St. Anne's doesn't seem to be on anyone's list of favorite Open sites. How do you rate it, and what do you remember from past Opens there?
Garrity: My favorite memory is when I took David Feherty's golf ball to a gypsy fortune-teller on the pier for a reading. She showed up late for the appointment and apologized, saying there were "unforeseen circumstances."
Shipnuck: I can't top that. We all love dunes and linksland, but the flat Open venues in England, except for Birkdale, are different tests. They're more about moving from point A to point B. You can't compare Lytham's scenery to the other Open venues, but it's a pure tactical test. To quote Tiger, which we rarely do, It's right there in front of you.
Anonymous Pro: Lytham is the ugly stepsister of Open venues. There's a green on the front side that goes right up to a trailer park.
Bamberger: It's very cool how the train comes right into the golf course. It reminds me of that beautiful John Updike story Farrell's Caddie, where he has the trains gliding to Glasgow and back. The train is such an integral part of British linksland—that, the sea and flat, boring land. Lytham has a red-brick clubhouse that is also pretty cool.
Van Sickle: It's maddening to be so close to the sea and not see it because the course is so low-lying. In St. Andrews you have the ancient skyline and a sea view. Lytham has hedges and, to be polite, a subdivision. You don't get goose bumps.
Anonymous Pro: It reminds me of Hoylake. Boring. The last six holes are really tough. The town is dumpy. There's nothing fancy about Lytham, just a demanding golf course once you make the turn.
Bamberger: I love that it's in the middle of working-class England. The British take being British so very seriously, and you feel it more in that clubhouse than anywhere else. The men's changing room, the bar—the place is so old-fashioned.
Garrity: I want to put in a good word for Blackpool. The course is closer to St. Anne's, which is pretty tony. Blackpool is a hoot. It's the redneck Riviera of the U.K. It has three piers, a thousand little hotels, a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and a world-class amusement park. It's tacky but fun.
Shipnuck: Blackpool was described to me as where Scottish dockworkers go on vacation. I remember telling someone I was thinking of going into Blackpool for dinner, and he said, "Oh, no, you'll definitely get knifed to death." I've always taken that to heart.
Anonymous Pro: I remember Seve Ballesteros making par from the car park at 16 when he won [in 1979]. I remember Ian Woosnam's caddie having a 15th club in the bag for a penalty [in 2001].
Van Sickle: I remember David Duval's win. Did anyone think that was going to be his last major title? Or his last victory, period?
Shipnuck: No, but I always think of that as the template for how to win a major. David barely made the cut, then he came out early on Saturday and took it really low. On Sunday he kind of hung on. I thought, Man, it's not that hard to win a major. Look how Duval did it.
Bamberger: That's exactly right.
Shipnuck: I remember that Lytham was the first place anyone saw Elin Nordgren, who was working as Jesper Parnevik's nanny. I spied her in the parking lot and thought, Hmm, Jesper has a really good-looking nanny. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who noticed. One guy on the prowl told me, "She won't be single for long out here."
Garrity: It wasn't Tiger, was it?
Van Sickle: If you could tee it up for one round of golf in England, where would you play?
Shipnuck: I'd say Royal Birkdale on Wednesday afternoon before the Open Championship. Hey, what do you know—I already have that tee time!
Bamberger: What's the green fee there for an ordinary person?
Shipnuck: It's around ¬£180.
Garrity: That's pretty steep for us pensioners.
Shipnuck: Some of you pensioners can afford it. I think Birkdale is the best course in England. It certainly has some of the most spectacular linksland around, with towering views from the dunes.
Bamberger: I favor Royal Cinque Ports. Gary and I had the pleasure to play it together one evening, and I've played it a lot over the years. It manages to be about as difficult as a course can be while still being amazingly fun and beautiful. It's a wonderful piece of land.
Van Sickle: We saw a full end-to-end rainbow over the sea. I half-expected Davis Love III to appear out of the fescue.
Anonymous Pro: Can I say Wentworth, pre--Ernie Els? I was lucky enough to play the World Match Play when it was at Wentworth every year, and I liked that course. Then Ernie redesigned some of the holes a few years ago.
Van Sickle: What did Ernie screw up?
Anonymous Pro: Everything. He added water hazards, changed some angles, redid some greens, and it doesn't fit the lay of the land anymore. It's forced and contrived. Some of the stuff he did there has a Pete Dye look to it.
Garrity: Well, Birkdale would normally be my pick, but for variety's sake I'm going with the Burnham & Berrow Golf Club. It's a very nice links course on the Bristol Channel. It was one of Bernard Darwin's favorite courses. It has big, rugged sand hills and an unrelenting sea breeze. Most of the top course designers, including Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie, were either members or had a hand in its design.
Van Sickle: I'd like to return to Hillside, next door to Birkdale. It has Birkdale's hilly terrain, and it's great fun. I made a hole in one on the front nine with a perfectly struck six-iron. One of my playing partners, a fellow now employed by Golf Channel, gave me grief for not reacting. I thought the ball disappeared over the green. I think it was my third hole in one.
Garrity: How many do you have now?
Van Sickle: Seven.
Garrity: For some reason, I'm not that happy for you.
THE WINNER IS ...
Shipnuck: Graeme McDowell. I think he found something at Olympic. He's peaking. My dark-horse choice is Rickie Fowler, who seems to have a flair for links golf.
Bamberger: I like King Looey—Louis Oosthuizen. Phil Mickelson is my dark horse.
Van Sickle: Phil? How is a Hall of Famer possibly considered a dark horse? I'm sorry, the court rejects your selection.
Bamberger: Fine. How about Jonathan Byrd? He might iron that course to death.
Van Sickle: That's better. Lytham seems to favor good mid-iron players like [Tom] Lehman and Duval. I'm taking Adam Scott only because I had a recent dream in which he won the British Open. My long shot is Peter Hanson, a pick I'm stealing from the Anonymous Pro, who took him at the Masters.
Anonymous Pro: Thanks for at least giving me credit. My dark horse is Justin Rose.
Bamberger: I remember when you said he didn't blow anyone's skirt up?
Anonymous Pro: Only one Englishman in 74 years has won an Open in England. History blows my skirt up, so I'm picking an Englishman. Also, he's a pretty good iron player. My pick is Hunter Mahan. He'll greens-in-regulation everybody to death. Hunter hits it so damned good, and he's putting really well. Lytham's back nine demands such quality ball striking that I don't see some scrambler winning. Seve did it, but it's a different course. You have to put the ball in play, and Hunter does that better than anyone.
Garrity: I'm picking Robert Karlsson to win again. But if he doesn't do it this time, it's over. He'll be dead to me.
Van Sickle: How is he supposed to win knowing that you've lost faith in him?
Garrity: Well, having faith in him didn't get me anywhere.
Bamberger: A light finally dawns.
Garrity: By the way, you know that fortune-teller I mentioned, the one I gave David Feherty's golf ball to for a reading the year Lehman won? She had trouble at first but then got some very good vibrations from that ball. She picked Feherty to win the Open. That was on Saturday. I didn't have the heart to tell her he had already missed the cut.
"I COULD SEE BUBBA DOING A DUVAL AND NEVER WINNING AGAIN."
"ROYAL LYTHAM IS THE UGLY STEPSISTER OF OPEN VENUES."