Gary Van Sickle
December 22, 2014
SI GOLF+ convened a panel of experts—senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, special contributor John Garrity and a Tour player who participated on the condition of anonymity—to tackle these questions and other hot topics.
What was golf's most significant happening in 2014?
ANONYMOUS PRO It had to be Rory McIlroy winning back-to-back majors and then a World Golf Championship within about four weeks. With Tiger Woods not playing, that was the official passing of the baton. Now we realize Tiger isn't the player he was, and we can't keep saying he's going to get it back. Golf's main focus is no longer on Tiger.
SHIPNUCK We got the answer to how golf is going to do in the post-Tiger era, and the answer is, pretty well. Everyone likes Rory—well, except Caroline Wozniacki fans. As Rory's potential foils, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler are nice kids, telegenic and totally likable. They're off to a spirited start. So an era has passed, and golf is in a good place.
VAN SICKLE I agree, except it's hard to get a handle on how crazy America is for Rory. Everyone likes him, but it's not a nonstop infatuation.
SHIPNUCK Winning a Masters makes you a star. That would be a big step in that direction.
GARRITY My most significant event could also be the worst moment. It happened this summer when Golf World magazine fired its writers and quit publishing its weekly print edition. It symbolizes the decline of golf's infrastructure and its traditional success in appealing to a dwindling middle-class audience. The new digital media are eating away at the old outlets, and we're losing a valuable commodity that popularized the game and left behind a valuable history.
SHIPNUCK We should note what a great year the LPGA had. Not just with Michelle Wie's U.S. Open but with Stacy Lewis's arrival as Player of the Year and the emergence of Lydia Ko, who is so intriguing and likable. The LPGA's schedule is expanding. A lot of great things are happening.
VAN SICKLE I was going to pick Wie as my significant moment. Too bad she got hurt and couldn't back up her Open win with a few more. Those other LPGA stars are nice, but Wie is the best-known brand the LPGA has had since Annika Sorenstam. Ten years ago, when Wie was playing in the Sony Open as a 14-year-old and trying to qualify for the men's U.S. Open, Michelle mania broke out. She can take the tour places no one else can.
BAMBERGER Not to be a downer, but I wonder if golf's code of behavior, which has been in decline, took another hit during the Ryder Cup controversy. Restraint has always been part of golf's code, but is it going to look more like other sports in terms of people letting it all hang out? We saw it with Sergio and Tiger last year at the Players and again at Gleneagles. Is this an aberration or a trend?
ANONYMOUS PRO Are you talking about the Phil Mickelson--Tom Watson dustup or the Ted Bishop--Ian Poulter war of words?
What was golf's worst moment this year?
BAMBERGER I think back to Ryder Cup singles play when Hunter Mahan and his caddie spent a long time analyzing a simple pitch shot that Hunter had to get up and down to win his match. They went on and on about where to land the shot, making it more complicated than it should've been. It was classic paralysis by analysis, and then Hunter hit it over the green. I've never seen anything like that.
GARRITY I nominate the Saturday-night U.S. team meeting at Gleneagles with Tom Watson, the autographed replica cup and the total dissolution of any possible team spirit going into the final day. The saddest part was the late-in-life tarnishing of Watson's reputation. The Ryder Cup affair was an ugly scene, and I'd like to unsee it.
SHIPNUCK That's funny, John, because that was one of my candidates for most significant. It was riveting, and the Sunday press conference was the most memorable I've attended.
VAN SICKLE I was sitting right behind the vice captains. When Steve Stricker and I looked at each other, he had a strange expression on his face, like he just realized a train wreck was in progress, but he couldn't stop it.
SHIPNUCK It was messy, but it was great theater. Ted Bishop and all of his PGA of America controversy is the obvious choice. It says so much about golf that a bureaucrat was brought down by what was essentially trash-talking. No matter what progress golf makes, there's always a Dustin Johnson or a Ted Bishop or a Hall Thompson or a Stevie Williams to help the sport live down to other people's expectations.
ANONYMOUS PRO I hated that the PGA Championship finished in the dark. That was a blemish on the game when they waved Rory to hit off the final tee and then to the green while Mickelson and Fowler waited. The PGA of America said it would've cost $1 million if the tournament had gone to Monday. They were more worried about their money, and it compromised the finish. It was a major championship, but they handled it like it was a member-guest.
What is the 2015 forecast for Tiger?
SHIPNUCK Sunny with a chance of showers. The Hero World Challenge was so interesting. Tiger looked better setting up over the ball, but watching the game's greatest short-game player (besides Seve Ballesteros) embarrass himself over and over was amazing.
ANONYMOUS PRO Why is the guy who had the best short game in the world changing his release point? It doesn't need adjusting. I'd say the forecast is still mostly cloudy. His putting is a giant question. He hasn't won a major with anything other than that Scotty Cameron putter he used to use.
SHIPNUCK When the lights go on, there seems to be a vulnerability. Even when he was Player of the Year in 2013, Tiger came apart in the majors. He misses short putts, he has the big miss at the wrong time. His challenges are more mental than physical, and he was once the mentally toughest player we'd ever seen.
GARRITY Even through the Hank Haney period Tiger was trying to own his swing. There was never any chance of him owning the Sean Foley swing, because it was too technical. It shouldn't be that hard for the greatest player in the world. I'm with Alan—I worry about that scar tissue between the ears.
VAN SICKLE At least Tiger's back wasn't hurting, as far as we know. He'll only go as far as his putter will take him—I've said that since he came back from the scandal. He's now at that age, almost 40, where most players start to lose their stroke. You can count on two hands how many players have putted great through their 40s and still hold a fudge pop.
ANONYMOUS PRO There are too many good players now, and none of them are afraid of Tiger.
VAN SICKLE Another question is his motivation. How much does he want this? With his kids growing up, golf may have fallen on his list of priorities.
BAMBERGER Tiger seems to be a contented father. As is often the case, if you enjoy life too much off the course, it affects you on the course. I see dark clouds in Tiger's forecast on the course. Off the course I hope it's sunny and bright.
Which 2015 tournament ranks highest on your interest meter?
SHIPNUCK Without a doubt it's the Waste Management Phoenix Open. The Super Bowl is in town that week, so there will be total chaos. I'm looking forward to being part of the whirlwind.
VAN SICKLE I think the proper phrase is swirling vortex of doom. I'd be looking forward to it too, if I could find a reasonably priced hotel room that didn't require a nonrefundable up-front payment in full. Forget the football game, the Phoenix Open and its party atmosphere is mostly fun and like nothing else in golf.
GARRITY I'm eagerly anticipating the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. It's unlike any recent Open venue, even Shinnecock Hills. It's mostly treeless, linksy and has giant slopes. I was intrigued to watch the U.S. Amateur when it was held there in 2010. You saw guys hitting 60-yard ground hooks. I don't think the players are particularly going to like it, but the spectators will be enthralled.
ANONYMOUS PRO It's the Masters for me. Can Rory get his career Grand Slam? Can Bubba Watson defend? And what about Tiger? It's been 10 years since he won there. Can you believe that?
BAMBERGER Whenever the British Open goes back to St. Andrews it's special. We've all been there for it. To be in St. Andrews anytime is a great experience, to be at any Open is a great experience. I love being in the town, strolling onto that course and occasionally playing evening golf down the coast at Elie. That's always one of the best weeks of my life.
SHIPNUCK It's a magical setting, no doubt, but it's a really hard spectator course because it's pretty flat and no fans are allowed on the inside of the adjoining holes. I can't think of a major course with worse viewpoints.
How many majors for Rory in 2015?
ANONYMOUS PRO The sexy answer is to say he's going to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters and just keep going. It's never that easy. Look, he didn't play that well at the Ryder Cup, he didn't play great in Dubai and he's got this big lawsuit going. Plus, I'm concerned with how hard he's hitting the weights. He's getting big, and it could affect his game, the way it did with Tiger. Have you seen him on Twitter? He's ripped. The guy weighs 160 and hits it 340 yards. How much bigger does he need to be?
SHIPNUCK Rory is clearly going to win the first three majors. Whistling Straits is a crapshoot.
GARRITY Are you kidding?
SHIPNUCK There's no course on the planet that sets up for a towering draw like Augusta National. That final-round 66 Rory shot this year was important. He went from getting outplayed by a marker to finishing top 10. Then he goes to Chambers Bay with a chance to match the Tiger Slam. It's a nontraditional Open venue, and he'll do it. Then it's on to the Old Course, where he could shoot 63 every round.
VAN SICKLE I think Chambers Bay is the wild card, not Whistling Straits. I'll give Rory a Masters, maybe, although I'm not sold on him on Augusta National's greens, and St. Andrews, definitely. Rory should overpower the Old Course the way John Daly did. I don't see three in a row. Rory hasn't maintained that kind of form at any point in his career.
GARRITY I'm a contrarian, and while I think Rory is terrific and he's going to win several Masters, I'm picking him for zero majors this year. If we think he's as good as Tiger or Jack Nicklaus, he'll average about one major a year until he's 35. I don't think he's demonstrated he's on that level. Jack won 17 majors over 18 years, Tiger won 14 in 12 years. Tiger and Jack had plenty of years when they went majorless.
SHIPNUCK There are betting parlors offering shorter odds on Rory to break Jack's record of 18 majors than on Tiger. There will be years when Rory doesn't win a major, but 2015 is not going to be one of them.
BAMBERGER I'll go with zero also. Rory has to be supergeared for Augusta. Like all things in life, when you want it the most, you're least likely to get it. Then he'll deal with the deflation after not getting it, which makes getting the other three even harder. I wish him the best—he's great for golf. But it's very difficult to follow up a year like he had in 2014.
SHIPNUCK I am being a bit hyperbolic to say he's going to win three majors. The history of golf says it's probably not going to happen.
VAN SICKLE That said, Rory has won a couple of majors by a touchdown. He has crushed some great fields in Tiger-like fashion.
GARRITY We say Rory has a big game that can be overwhelming, and he's obviously going to win multiple Masters, but he hasn't won one yet.
BAMBERGER Ask Ernie Els about sure things in Augusta.
Who will be 2015's breakout star?
GARRITY I still like Brooks Koepka. He had good runs at a couple of majors last year after he sneaked up on us by playing on the European Challenge tour. He's from Florida, he's crossed the Atlantic both ways and come back with a lot of game.
SHIPNUCK I like that rookie, Tony Finau, who is crazy long. He has a polished game and was top 20 in four fall events. Get him on some bigger ballparks and see what happens. He's got a lot of talent, and he's hungry.
ANONYMOUS PRO I know Patrick Reed has already won, but he's got the confidence and—I'm just going to say it—the arrogance of a No. 1 player. Reed played awesome golf at the Ryder Cup, then dropped a 63 on Tiger while playing with him in Tiger's tournament. Reed beat him by nine. Nothing scares this guy. I think he breaks out even bigger and wins a major.
VAN SICKLE I like Chris Kirk, who won late but wasn't able to nail down a Ryder Cup spot. He's unflappable. Jimmy Walker broke out last year. He drives it straight, he makes putts and he's got wins on his résumé. I think he can take his career even deeper.
SHIPNUCK Walker is like Reed. He shone in the Ryder Cup, and I agree, his ascent will continue.
BAMBERGER Speaking as a fan, I'm going to say Sergio García. He drives it so well and hits his irons so well. His rapport with fans, sponsors and the media is better than it used to be. He seemed at ease again in the Ryder Cup setting. After 16 years on Tour, it's all coming together for him. Of the four majors his best chance to win this year would be at St. Andrews. That would be something.
"Wie is the best-known brand the LPGA has had since Annika. She can take the tour places nobody else can."
"There will be years when Rory doesn't win a major, but 2015 is not going to be one of them."