Tour Confidential: Will Tiger Woods rebound in Dubai?

January 30, 2017

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

1. His chipping prowess aside, Tiger Woods had an uninspiring performance at Torrey Pines, shooting 76-72 and missing the cut by four shots. Now he’s headed overseas for the Dubai Desert Classic. What constitutes a good week?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): This is the question that keeps cropping up through swing changes and surgeries and assorted other struggles. The one constant, of course, is that we’re talking about Tiger Woods. By the standards he set for himself — never mind the expectations of the multitudes — a good week is a win. Just hoping to make the weekend without an injury doesn’t cut it, for him or his fans. In the meantime, though, hitting a few more fairways wouldn’t hurt.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): Tiger is so far from contending with his current game that I say making the cut is a great week for Woods. Tiger can say he shows up to win, but that golf swing and two-way miss isn’t winning anything right now. Get to the weekend, play in tournament conditions for four days and reassess, but a made cut is a win right now for Tiger Woods.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger’s scores this week were never the most important thing. He’s a rusty golfer, and it showed. Going forward, I look for incremental improvements, especially off the tee, but health is still the biggest thing. He would’ve loved to win at Torrey, but this comeback is set up to peak at Augusta and the summer majors.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Making the cut.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): Well, we didn’t see scores in the 80s, or chipping yips, as we witnessed two years ago. Hey, he missed the cut — as did his playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day. Is that so terrible? He played two competitive rounds in an official PGA Tour event. One was a lousy 76, the other a pretty decent 72. Let’s give him many more reps before we pass judgment. And yes, Michael — we’ll call making the cut a good week, and see where things go from there.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I think it’s a successful week if two things occur. One, of course, is making the cut. He needs to play four rounds, obviously. The second is nebulous. It’s not a score or a swing or a stat. In my mind, it’s if there is a moment when you’re watching him on the weekend, and you say to yourself (or he says to himself), “Hey, I can win this tournament.” Whether he’s leading by four or one back or eight back, it’s if he shows that moment when he strings together a stretch of holes that has competitors feel his presence and viewers sit up wondering again.

2. The first 10 days of the Trump presidency were rocked with controversy. Given the spate of protests we’ve witnessed across the country, is it time for the USGA to move the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open from Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.? And with Trump’s name all over the game, what should golf’s other governing bodies be doing?

Ritter: I had hoped last year that golf’s poo-bahs would unite against Trump for his views on Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants. This week he began keeping his campaign promises, and many citizens hit the streets (and airports) to respond. There’s also a faction of Trump’s base that supports his orders. What side is golf on? The time for fence-sitting has expired. This week the USGA should release a statement explaining why they’re staying in Bedminster, or announce that they’re out.

Sens: Agreed, Jeff. There should be clarity. Whatever the USGA decides, it is bound to alienate some of its audience. In this case, though, because they settled on Bedminister well before the election, the pooh-bahs have something of a plausible out. They can declare their commitment to tolerance and inclusion and make clear their objections to Trump’s positions (if they have them). The fact that he is now the POTUS makes it an even trickier tie to cut.

Bamberger: The time for golf to make a statement about Trump’s views and now actions and whether they are an offense to the values of the game and whether his courses deserve to be venues for major championships has come and gone. It had to be done before the election. To pull these championships away from a course because it has the name of the president of the United States on it is I think an affront to the presidency and to the democratic process that elected him. And I say that appalled, as millions of us are, by some of the things he said during the campaign and some of the things he has said and done since the election. The best venues are clubs owned collectively by the membership — Augusta National, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills — or courses that are truly public. Courses owned by an entrepreneur are problematic from the get-go. I hope a Muslim woman of Mexican descent wins the U.S. Women’s Open. I urge President Trump to really consider the game that has been so good to him. Golf values grace and in the best examples — Palmer, Jones, Nelson, Sarazen, Wright, Lopez — golfing grace shows up in one’s off-course life, too. Grace is treating others as you would want to be treated yourself. I know how much Trump admires how Palmer handled his career and the many, many people, from all walks of life, Palmer met along the way. I think there’s an important example for our president there.

MORE: Donald Trump’s 10 best golf courses, ranked

Passov: That ship has sailed. If you were going to yank the U.S. Women’s Open from Trump Bedminster and the Senior PGA from Trump Washington D.C., you should have done so already. No matter what you think of what our president has said and done in his first 10 days, it’s pretty much exactly what he said he was going to do — and he won the election. So as Josh says, it’s pretty hard to cut ties right now, given that he is the president. There was a small reception on Thursday at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, hosted by Eric Trump and the Trump Golf team, and both the USGA’s Mike Davis and the PGA’s Pete Bevacqua put in appearances. All indications are that these organizations will do their best to work with the Trump folks, regardless of any misgivings they might have.

Wood: I would hope this would be a moment for the women of the LPGA and others who have qualified for the U.S. Open to stand up and say there are some things bigger than golf, or even winning a U.S. Open, and boycott the event. Given enough pressure from big names on the LPGA, the USGA would almost have to decide to move the event in order to save it. I agree with much of what Michael said above, but I think it is impossible for Trump to “consider the game that has been so good to him.” I’m of the opinion that he would consider it much more a case of “consider how good I’ve been for the game.”

3. Another week, another victory by a young gun on the PGA Tour. This time it was Jon Rahm, a 22-year-old Spaniard who eagled the 13th hole and finished birdie-eagle to cap a Sunday 65 at the Farmers Insurance Open. A decorated amateur at Arizona State, Rahm won in his 13th PGA Tour start. We’ll stop short of saying he’ll be the next Seve or Jose Maria or Sergio, but what’s the ceiling for Rahm?

Bacon: I think Rahm is in that Brooks Koepka-Tony Finau camp, an extremely talented power player that will catch fire once or twice a year and give himself a good shot at winning. It’s nearly impossible to judge where these guys are headed considering how difficult it is to win multiple times a year anymore, but Rahm has insane talent and rare power that makes him a major threat in this generation’s PGA Tour.

Ritter: Agreed, Shane, that Rahm fits the Koepka class today, which puts him squarely on track to factor in majors and make the European Ryder team. That he’s already in this class, after only six months on the PGA Tour, makes me think his ceiling is even higher.

Sens: Does it qualify as plagiarizing if I simply cut and paste Shane’s answer? Add Rahm to a nearly boundless list of young talent. With his power, he’s going to put himself in contention quite a bit. Then it’s just a matter of how many putts drop. Parity in the NFL may be gone, but the any-given-Sunday rule lives on in golf.

Bamberger: Smash-and-grab golf. Good now and again. Staying power? Phil, Sergio, King Louie, they have had staying power. They are not smash-and-grabbers. I wish Jon luck. I’d urge him to find another speed.

Passov: There are clouds in every crystal ball…but if you go back to this forum from Oct. 9, 2016, we were asked for “one big, bad, bold prediction for the 2017 season.” I tossed out three of them, with one being that the breakout star of the year will be Jon Rahm. I suggested that he had the length, game, and swagger to bag multiple wins in 2016-17. I’m halfway there.

Wood: I haven’t seen a lot of him, but the results obviously speak for themselves. As JP said, he has quite a bit of swagger, and that can go two ways for a young player. They can come out with a lot of swagger and a game that doesn’t match and get their confidence shattered and never accomplish anything. Or they can come out with a lot of swagger and win early, and their confidence goes through the roof. I have a feeling Rahm isn’t feeling surprised by this at all. I would expect a lot from a young gun who won early, has a ton of confidence and few extracurriculars to deal with at his young age. Golf is No. 1 in his life, and I think he could join that young crew of 20-somethings who are there week in and week out.

4. One of the most eye-opening stats from 2016: Americans won only two of the 33 official events on the LPGA tour. Well, in the 2017 opener, Brittany Lincicome beat Lexi Thompson in a playoff at the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic and Americans claimed the top five spots on the leaderboard. Is this a sign of better things to come for U.S. players? Or simply a good week?

Bacon: I’d love to say it’s a huge start for American golf, but it looks like just a solid week. Only one American sits in the top 10 of the Rolex rankings and just four are in the top 25. Lexi, Brittany, Stacy Lewis and a few more have the ability to win when their complete game shows up on any course, but the best (and most consistent) are still outside of the U.S.

Sens: Right. One week is too narrow a snapshot to draw any bigger picture conclusions (let’s also remember that the top-ranked woman, Lydia Ko, wasn’t even in the field). Let’s see how the coming months play out. There was plenty of talk late last season about the Americans needing to have a fire lit under them. Maybe this is the start. But time will tell.

Ritter: It’s hard to imagine Americans winning, say, 10 of 33 events this year, but Lexi, Brittany and Stacy are in their primes, so a ‘17 rebound is possible. This was a great start.

Bamberger: It’s tempting to look at LPGA winners as either American or non-American and understandable enough, but not useful and not necessary. I don’t think LPGA fans in other countries are so focused on that question.

Passov: We need relatable American stars to compete at the highest level in order to draw any sustained interest in the LPGA. Zero disrespect to the Korean women — they’re phenomenally talented — but it’s been tough for the average (American, anyway) golf fan to find any vested rooting interest in them. Hey, chicks may dig the long ball, but so do guys. It was fun watching Brittany and Lexi crush the ball and reach the par-5s. I think the fire is lit, and this is a sign of things to come in 2017.

Wood: I’d love to say otherwise, but it’s too early and too small a sample size to draw a conclusion like that.

5. On his new vertical, The Knockdown, our Alan Shipnuck featured a rollicking podcast with Phil Mickelson. What’s the most intriguing thing you took away from the interview?

Bamberger: That Alan did the interview in Phil’s house. I think Alan pulled a punch: What did Phil serve his guest?

Bacon: The look into the money game trash talk was my favorite part (Phil giving Keegan Bradley the business was excellent). It’s something we hear about and see early in the weeks, but to actually get to hear the amount of trash that Phil can spit out was fun and refreshing.

Ritter: And as ringmaster of the money games, Phil once “suspended” Jimmy Walker one match for failing to promptly pay his debt. Great stuff.

Sens: I’m going to have to crib his recipe for that specialty coffee he makes, with cocoa nibs, cinnamon, almond milk and some allegedly healthy oil of some kind. I’m skeptical of the super food health claims. But it sure sounds good.

Passov: I’m a fan of any insights into Tiger Woods, and here, Phil was especially revealing. He noted that the last few years, culminating at the 2016 Ryder Cup, that Tiger has been much more approachable, more engaging and more fun to be around, and told us why. The whole thing is a great listen. Golf clap, Alan!

Wood: Well, I’ve got to add a bit to the story of Bones’ veto, because I happened to be in the group that day. As Phil said he hit his ball left and it stopped just short of the lake, with relatively no shot, and as a caddie is likely to do in that situation, Bones walked right up and put the bag down next to the ball, foregoing getting a yardage. Phil says to him “What do we got?” Bones appears almost startled at the question and responds “What do we got? We got nothing, it’s wedge and wedge and we make our 4 and get out of here.” Phil comes back with “No, no, Bones, this is exactly the same shot as the skip shot on 16 at Augusta … I’ve got this shot, I just need to know what the yardage is to know how many skips I need.” Kevin Sutherland and I at this point are fans and just trying to make sure we are close enough to hear the entire conversation. Anyway, Bones wins the argument, Phil wedges out and wedges close and makes his 4. So you would think that’s the end of things, but not with Phil. He has two more classic lines to add to the story before it’s all over. The first is to Bones, and he says it right before he takes the advice and wedges out. He says “I cannot believe this. I cannot believe you’re going to use your one and only veto here. On the 9th hole. In New Orleans. You know I’m going to do at least five things dumber than this between now and the end of the year.” And lastly, after the cards are signed, Phil is in a small gaggle of reporters, one of whom asks him about the exchange on the 9th hole, and Phil says “Yeah, my caddie wanted me to make 4. I still thought 3 was in play.” Solemn truth. And that’s why we love Phil.

6. Speaking of new sites, unveiled a sharp makeover last week. What’s the one headline you’d like to see on the site in 2017?

Bacon: Phil Mickelson eagles 72nd hole at Erin Hills, edges Spieth and McIlroy by one to complete career Grand Slam.

Sens: Or how about, Tiger and Phil set for 18-hole Monday playoff at Erin Hills.

Bacon: Okay twist my arm, I’ll take a Phil-Tiger U.S. Open playoff!

Ritter: Why not triple down? Masters champion Woods, U.S. Open winner Mickelson and British Open champ McIlory set for PGA showdown at Quail Hollow.

Bamberger: Bamberger selected to design new seaside course in the Scottish Highlands.

Passov: I tweeted early on Sunday that after seeing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and the Williams sisters make the final at the year’s first major, the Australian Open, “Hey, Masters Gods — could you orchestrate a Tiger-Lefty playoff for the 2017 Masters?” So there you go: Woods, Mickelson thrill in Masters playoff for the ages.

Wood: Kooch wins the Masters. Sub Headline: Scarlett Johansson contacts Augusta National to ask who Kuchar’s caddie is.