Tour Confidential: Does Rickie Fowler have the game to be elite?

February 27, 2017

Every Sunday night, GOLF.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Rickie Fowler rode a hot putter on Sunday to win the Honda Classic for his fourth career PGA Tour title. One of the most popular players on Tour, Fowler had a memorable year in 2014, when he had top-five finishes in all four majors, but his win at the Honda was his first since the 2015 Deutsche Bank Championship. Does Fowler, now 28, have the game to become a truly elite player? Or should we be satisfied with the occasional trip to the winner’s circle?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Seems like he has the game to be elite but the production hasn’t been there. Where he goes from here will be defining.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He’s a pleasure to watch. He plays ready golf and his swing is so athletic. We’ve been watching him for getting on a decade now. He doesn’t seem to have a killer, take-no-prisoners quality to him down the stretch. Hard to win the biggest events without it.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Rickie proved in 2014 that he can reach golf’s upper crust. He and Butch Harmon have been working on a swing that produces more consistency, and despite a couple hiccups on Sunday, he handled the pressure well. This could be the year he takes the next step.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Elite player or occasional trip to the winner’s circle? Not sure those two are mutually exclusive. So many guys can now win on any given week, the occasional trip to the winner’s circle is dang good. Fowler has the ability to win any tournament, anytime. But if by elite we mean DJ, Rory, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day production, then no. I don’t see him as a fixture in the top five.

Pete Madden, senior producer, GOLF.com (@pamadden): I don’t think Fowler is a future World No. 1, but if he musters a major title, what’s the difference between his resume and Adam Scott’s, Justin Rose’s or Henrik Stenson’s?

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): I’m happy for Rickie and thrilled for golf. Having Fowler back in the winner’s s circle is a healthy thing for our game. Jeff, I might quibble a bit with your assessment of “a couple of hiccups” on Sunday. Truthfully, he made some atrocious swings, and got very lucky on a few of them–but when the putter is blazing hot, it can atone for some serious miscues. Hey, he certainly hits it long enough. He still has a chance for elite status, but Alan’s right. We’ve been at this juncture with Rickie before. We’ll have to wait and see.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I would say both. The competitive fields out here week in week out are so deep, I don’t think there is an appreciation for how difficult it is to win ANY event. Rickie’s four wins are all against pretty impressive fields and on difficult golf courses…Wells Fargo, the Players, Deutsche Bank and the Honda. PLUS Rickie has won the Scottish Open and Abu Dhabi. I don’t know why we count European victories for international players but not for American players. Add to that his consistently impressive performance in majors and some gut check Ryder Cup performances, and he’s not lacking anything to become an elite player, if he’s not there already. He’s not quite washed up yet at 28.

2. Donald Trump was back in the golf news this week. In a story by SI senior writer Michael Bamberger, PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said the President met with him after the election and talked to him by phone after the inauguration. They have played golf together about 20 times over the years. Bevacqua also defended the PGA’s decision to keep a pair of major championships at Trump courses. Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy became the latest professional to play a round with Trump. McIlroy defended his decision, saying he often plays with people who don’t share his views. Who is making the bigger political statement: power brokers of the sport who maintain business relationships with Trump or Tour players who tee it up with the President?

Shipnuck: The players are, because Bevacqua (and the USGA) can (and will) fall back on the excuse that the contracts were signed before the campaign. But by hanging with Trump the players are normalizing his presence in the golf world. Remember, Trump couldn’t attract even C-list talent to perform at the inauguration. Being embraced by the game’s biggest star (and a Hall of Famer in Ernie Els) is a big deal for a divisive figure who has been rejected by most other “elites.”

Bamberger: The PGA of America–and every other governing body–should realize that in the Trump-GB relationship, the GBs have the upper hand. Trump Golf needs them far more than vice-versa. As for playing with Trump, he’s the president of the United States. If you don’t like him and what he’s doing, you should still play with him if you get the opportunity. Maybe you can turn him around.

Madden: I’m not sure how or even whether one can determine which political statement was “bigger,” but I do know that, despite both men’s insistence to the contrary, both men made a political statement. Bevacqua seems to be betting that the immediate fallout for terminating the PGA’s relationship with Trump would be greater than the long-term consequences of the PGA’s real or perceived alignment with his divisive rhetoric. This isn’t a new strategy. McIlroy seems to be saying that it’s more important for athletes to uphold public appearances and avoid social awkwardness than to engage in the public discourse in any meaningful way even when you might disagree, as McIlroy hinted that he does, with the president’s controversial policies. Other athletes feel differently. Bevacqua is being cynical, McIlroy is being naive, and both of them are allowing themselves to become pawns of a savvy manipulator. Trump uses golf. Trump uses celebrities. They validate him. How can he be so bad if the PGA of America, which supposedly stands for making golf a more inclusive game, plans to hold events at his courses? How can he be so bad if Rory McIlroy, an uncommonly thoughtful and gregarious athlete, plays in his foursome? It might be “just golf” for them. But it’s not “just golf” for Trump.

Ritter: And it’s not “just golf” to the vast majority of fans and casual observers who read these stories about Bevacqua and Rory. It comes off as an endorsement of the Trump agenda.

Sens: Jeff, I’d be interested to know what percentage of the fans and casual observers you mention are happy with that perceived endorsement. You know, just cuz it’s fun to read opinion polls. On a related note, though, anytime a sports and politics question comes up, there are invariably people who stomp their feet in outrage and scream, “Just stick to sports!” But that’s an unrealistic request, because the line between politics and entertainment/sports is now so gossamer thin that is basically doesn’t exist. (Warren Zevon called politics the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex, which, agree with it or not, is a pretty funny line). Anyway, I agree that the players are making the bigger statement, because the powers that be can fall back on it just being business. And while I appreciate Michael’s notion about a player using the opportunity to change someone’s mind, I’d rather see them stand openly for what they believe, one way or the other, and act accordingly. In that way, though, just as politicians are now like entertainers, athletes are more and more like politicians, intent on not offending. There aren’t many Muhammad Ali’s these days.

Passov: Wow. Tough sledding on this one. I don’t think either entity is making a political statement here. Yes, it’s easier for the governing bodies, such as the PGA to say, “Hey, we’re stuck with the deal we made.” But Trump did win the election. A whole bunch of folks in our country decided that he was the one who should lead us, no matter how many, many others may feel. And in Rory’s case, how do you turn down a game of golf with the sitting President of the United States, whether it’s Trump, Obama, or one of the George Bushes? Let’s not forget that for five or so years, Trump was one of the only people investing in golf, and keeping golf in the national spotlight. Say what you will about what’s transpired since, but he was good for boosting golf’s profile when it needed it.

Wood: I’m not sure there is a political statement being made here. I think the President is making a business statement, wanting to keep his courses and hotels in the mix in the professional world of golf, and I think the players choosing to play with him are playing golf, not saying they agree with his policies (other than lower taxes for the wealthy…hahahaha).

3. Though he later said his comments were taken out of context, outspoken Pat Perez made some bold statements about Tiger Woods in an interview with SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio. “The bottom line is, he knows he can’t beat anybody,” Perez said. “But he’s got this new corporation that he started so he’s got to keep his name relevant to keep the corporation going.” Later, Perez said, “If [Woods] doesn’t play Augusta, then it’s over. I can tell you that right now.” Do you agree?

Shipnuck: I agree with pretty much everything Perez said.

Madden: Ditto. He’s not the first provocateur to back away from a hot take after incurring the wrath of Tiger’s legion of loyal fans.

Bamberger: Nothing was taken out of context. He said what he meant and what he said largely rang true. Except the over part. As the man sang, It ain’t over ‘till its over. That’s for Tiger to decide, not Pat Perez or anybody else. Tiger I’m guessing is years from that.

Ritter: I appreciate Perez’s candor but disagree that Tiger’s entire golfing future hangs on his participation in this year’s Masters. If it turns out he’s too injured to play, the rest of 2017 may well be lost. But Woods could shut it down for a few years — yes, years! — and still return in his mid-40s with a theoretical chance to contend. (Look at Phil.) The wild card is whether Tiger’s body will ever cooperate long enough to give him a chance to come all the way back.

MORE: Jack Nicklaus says he’s ‘puzzled’ by Tiger’s situation

Sens: One of these days, an athlete will say something interesting and concede afterwards that it was NOT taken out of context. The quote sure sounded like Perez’s unvarnished opinion. But making Augusta the do-or-die point seems premature. As much as his body, the issue appears to be Tiger’s mind. If he can get those both right, I agree with Jeff. A golfer’s career isn’t like that of most professional athletes–it can ghost along for years and you still can’t officially pronounce it dead.

Passov: I thought his comments were idiotic, if even you believe them to be true. Why take such a shot like that? From what I hear, Tiger can barely move right now. But some credit due here for at least trying, again and again, to regain his form. Is Augusta potentially Tiger’s last stand? I don’t think so.

Wood: No. I’ve said it before…not until Tiger himself tells us he’s done, I will always think there’s something in him to get him back to playing great golf.

4. In an effort to improve pace of play, the R&A is instituting “ready golf” for the British Amateur in June. Should the professional tours be taking notice?

Bamberger: “Ready golf” IS golf. There’s nothing in the rules about who plays when (when off the green). Players, at every level, should communicate more and play when they are ready to do so, and start using the “who’s away” question late on Sunday and not before. All my golf is ready golf or I find new playing partners. Maybe that’s why I play alone so often.

Ritter: Michael, I agree with you 100 percent, and I hope you take this into consideration the next time you’re playing as a single at Philly Cricket Club and need a partner.

Shipnuck: Slow play is so frustrating for us weekenders and it’s horrible for the product at the professional level, so absolutely every idea should be on the table to speed up the game. This seems like a small, sensible attempt.

Sens: More than taking notice, how about taking action? Ultimately, I’d like to see professional golf adopt a shorter shot clock across the board, rigidly enforced. Adjusting to that breezier pace would just be one of the requisites of elite performance, like Steph Curry getting a three-pointer off before the buzzer, or a quarterback finding a receiver before he gets sacked. If you can’t do it, get better at it, just as you might hone your short game or refine your swing. Very good golf can be played very quickly. Just one example: I was looking recently at the records from the San Francisco City Championship, a great event that has attracted oodles of top talent in its century of existence. Back when it first got started, foursomes in that event teed off at FOUR MINUTE intervals. Somewhere along the line, golf lost its way, pace of play-wise. It can be found again.

Madden: Anyone who still doesn’t think slow play is a problem for golf should read the great Tom Verducci’s recent column about MLB commissioner’s aggressive action to combat slow play in baseball over the objections of his players. I think one of my colleagues on this panel is going to write the same column about golf and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in the next few years. Nothing less than the future viability of the sport is at stake.

Passov: Michael, the trouble with ready golf is like when you’re driving in winter and you’ve got your snow tires on–and the guy in front of you doesn’t. Everybody has to be on board to make it work. I do think it’s a wonderful experiment for the British Amateur, merely to study the results, but I wish they’d just slow down the greens. It would make the processes of chipping and putting much quicker.

Wood: In a word, Yes.

5. As the World Golf Championships move from Trump Doral to Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City, the big news is that Jason Day has withdrawn due to the flu and a double ear infection. Injury and illness have become recurring themes with the world’s second-ranked player. Is this just another speed bump for Day, who turns 30 in November? Or are his best days behind him?

Bamberger: His best days are ahead of him (he said optimistically). How could one approach life not believing that?

Ritter: I think health is a type of skill, just like steely nerves and hand-eye coordination, and it may be Day’s lone weakness. He’s had his share of maladies — and I hope there isn’t a vertigo connection with this latest ear infection — but he’s also displayed a ton of grit while winning a major and rising to No. 1. His best days should be ahead, but these issues are piling up.

Shipnuck: This is certainly happening with dispiriting regularity to Day. He needs to attack this like his golf swing — Mayo Clinic, ayurvedic practitioners, nutritionists, the works. Because what he’s doing is not working and it’s hurting his career during what should be Day’s prime.

Sens: A flu and ear infection belong in one category, back troubles in another. The former not a worry, the latter is. I agree with Alan. He should be attacking that problem. But 30 is too young to even begin to think the best days aren’t ahead.

Madden: We’ve seen how unbeatable Day is when his game is hot and his body is healthy. He definitely has a few more streaks like that left.

Passov: A speed bump for Day. But how many speed bumps can you take before you finally damage the car? When Day is at his best, I think he’s the best in the game–or at least that’s what I said to my seatmate on my last flight (he countered with DJ, but he was also from Charleston). Unfortunately, Day at his best seems to be so sporadic, and now seemingly so distant, it’s hard to keep defending my position. Anyway, hope he’s healthy soon, and back to playing like he’s capable.

Wood: Speed bump. Jason has a boatload of great golf left in him. A Big Boatload.