1. Jimmy Walker seems to lead the FedExCup standings every week, and he contends in and wins his share of events, yet he really doesn’t jump out at you when the topic of “golf’s elite players” comes up. Do we underestimate Walker, or does he need to perform at the highest level in the majors in order to earn that status?
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Walker is an elite player. He finished top ten in three of four majors last year and he’s got five wins in two seasons. Any other Americans done that? He was eighth last year in his first Masters appearance. But to become a household name he needs to win a high-profile tourney, either a major or a WGC.
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): To climb atop the “elite” pedestal, Walker simply needs time. His stock is soaring, albeit at a very late age. Maybe we forget that he posted three top-10s in 2014’s majors, with the other a T26. Prior to 2014, however, he had only made two cuts in career majors. He’s been held back by his perceived flat-line personality, and by the fact that most of his wins have come in tournaments where nobody’s watching against good, but incomplete fields, much like Calvin Peete and Wayne Levi did in their day. He needs a victory in an event where everybody’s playing to cement “elite” status.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, SI Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): A major victory would certainly boost Walker’s profile, but at this point he deserves the title belt for America’s best player today. Five wins in two years — and the last two were runaways — speaks for itself.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Well, he did pretty well in the majors last year in what was pretty much his first go-around. Walker has become a week-in-week-out force on Tour, and during his singles win over Lee Westwood at the Ryder Cup he played some of the most electric golf of 2014. So the only thing left for him to do is win a major. Hard to imagine it won’t happen soon.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens) Winning the events he’s won is a good way to guarantee a cushy retirement, but it’s not how you etch yourself into immortality. If he never wins one of the biggies, then he’s just another talent who was lucky enough to play the game for a living. My guess is he would say the same.
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Right or wrong, winning a major is the only way for Walker to kick that door down and be recognized for the elite player he is. Unlike marketing juggernauts like Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson, nothing about Walker’s presentation or game jumps off the TV screen and commands your attention. Plus, he is such a quiet, unassuming guy, he’s not going to wow anyone with on- or off-course theatrics.
Coleman McDowell, assistant editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@ColemanMcDowell): Players who leapfrog Walker in that conversation are players who have supreme physical talents and are always on the cusp of “putting it all together.” Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Adam Scott come to mind. Jimmy Walker is better than all three. He putts really, really well and hits it over 300. He’s got five Tour wins in the last two seasons where no one else has more than three. He’s there, whether people talk about it or not.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: We underestimate Jimmy Walker as we underestimated Wayne Levi before him.
2. Another PGA Tour event — the Valero Texas Open — another regular tournament when only one of the game’s best did better than single-digits under par to win. Are PGA Tour courses now too hard, and is it hurting the game, or is a steady diet of tough tests the best way of identifying the best players?
PASSOV: Torrey Pines (Farmers), Riviera (Nissan), PGA National (Honda), Trump Doral Blue Monster (WGC-Cadillac), Innisbrook (Valspar) and now this one at TPC San Antonio: Enough already! Is the PGA Tour changing its motto, from “These guys are good” to “These guys will be lucky to break 70?” I like to see the pros tested, especially in majors, but this “let’s play a major every week” approach to course design and setup is boring for fans and has to be draining for players.
BAMBERGER: The PGA Tour has to mix it up and usually it does but lately it has not. Do we not learn anything from our golfing history? In the ’80s and ’90s, most of the courses built in the U.S. were too hard, too long, too expensive to maintain, took too long to play, and they didn’t ultimately help the game prosper. There’s a lesson for that on Tour, too. The game is hard enough. The balancing act is not easy but it is always — always — best to air on the side of making your course playable.
SHIPNUCK: The Tour needs a mix of playing fields. It does seem like the trend is toward tougher setups in Florida and Texas but there were some good shootouts on the West Coast. I think overall the balance is pretty good.
MCDOWELL: The top three this week were Walker, Jordan Spieth and Billy Horschel. The top four at the Valspar were Spieth, Patrick Reed, Sean O’Hair and Henrik Stenson. The top five at Doral were DJ, J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Stenson. I don’t see how that could be hurting the game. Birdies are fun, but watching the top players duke it out on Sundays is more fun.
MORFIT: This season, more than any other in recent memory, has been filled with tough slogs where pars were good and birdies were rare. That can be OK if you get just the right mix of guys in contention, as we saw at the Valspar, but I think in general the Tour has overdone it this year with major-tough courses.
SENS: It’s a good way to identify the least whiny. Any Tour pro who complains about a course being too tough should relinquish his spot. Plenty of worthy guys who would happily take it.
RITTER: Tougher courses host the most compelling events and produce more top-shelf winners. Every Sunday can’t be U.S. Open Sunday, but watching guys get beat up a little is far more entertaining than a birdie-fest.
VAN SICKLE: It’s a fine line to set up a course to challenge the skills of tour players. Throw in high wind like they had Thursday at Valero and scores blow up. Officials are forced to make courses difficult because players like Rory McIlroy driving it 340 yards off the tee means length is obsolete as an obstacle. Since no one will reign in the ball, tough setups are the only way to play defense.
3. Phil Mickelson shot a 40 on the front Saturday at the Valero Texas Open and a 42 on the same 9 Sunday. Just Phil being Phil or should we cross him off the list for our office Masters pools?
MCDOWELL: We’ve let Phil’s demise slide. Since his 2013 British Open victory, Phil has TWO top-10 finishes in 33 events. (Spieth has five in two months!) His putting stats have gone from mediocre to atrocious – 50th in strokes gained putting in 2014 to 119th in 2015 – and he doesn’t make enough birdies to cover up his inevitable bogey barrage every week. Phil should send Tiger a fruit basket, or whatever millionaires send to each other as way of thanks, for taking one for the team. We can only handle one demise at a time.
SHIPNUCK: At this point it’s hard not to wonder if Phil has won his last tournament — his malaise goes back more than two years now. But he remains dangerous at the majors, when his give-a-shizz meter is on Full. It’s never a surprise when he contends at Augusta but given how little he’s been in contention, and the overall shakiness of his putting, it’s hard to imagine Mickelson closing the deal.
BAMBERGER: How does your Masters pool work? Can you get something for picking a guy who finishes top-five? Phil won’t sniff 40 for any nine holes at Augusta. He will sniff the leaderboard. I fear for his shortish putting.
VAN SICKLE: We always say Phil has a comfort zone at Augusta and he can rally. That was when his ballstriking was off. Now he’s battling the putter, really battling it, and that’s the beginning of the end for a player in his mid-40s. Not a good sign. The Masters champ usually ranks high in putting stats. The putter is the one club I’m not sure even Phil can resurrect. That said, Phil is full of surprises. I wouldn’t count him out but neither would I draft him on a Masters fantasy team this year.
MORFIT: I am assuming Phil will play his way into the mix at the Masters, since he almost always does. The place just suits his game perfectly, and he’s shown enough glimpses of his A game to be a good pick for Augusta.
PASSOV: Never cross off Phil Mickelson from Masters contention until he hangs up his spikes. Much like forbears such as Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw and Fred Couples, something comes over Phil as soon as he steers the car onto Magnolia Lane. No matter how mediocre they might have been playing coming into the Masters, they draw on their experience, on many positive memories, and figure out a way to climb into contention.
RITTER: Phil has one top 10 since the start of ’14, so it’s time to accept that his career is likely on the downside. That said, he did show some positive flashes last week, and Augusta energizes him like nowhere else. He isn’t on my short list of Masters favorites, but if he’s going to catch lightning anywhere, Augusta presents his best shot.
SENS: How many do we get in the pool? If it’s 10, maybe. Five, no way. The short putting looks too shaky.
4. During an interview on an Irish talk show, Butch Harmon cautioned Rory McIlroy against bulking up too much. Is this old-school thinking that should be abandoned or is Butch onto something?
RITTER: Who am I to question Butch? I’m not aware of any evidence that extra beef helps the swing, and over time it seems it may actually be harmful (see: Woods, Tiger).
PASSOV: I’m with Butch. Chopping wood in the off-seasons in the mid-1970s bulked up Johnny Miller in his upper body. He went from 170 pounds to 190. By his own admission, he was never the same player. Critics have pointed to both Tiger Woods and David Duval as examples where strength training and too much increased muscle mass caused, rather than prevented, serious injuries. If added muscle destroys a player’s natural feel, touch and rhythm, it can’t possibly outweigh the advantages of even more extra distance, which Rory certainly doesn’t need.
SHIPNUCK: I get that Rory needed more strength and stability to harness his awesome speed but he’s clearly accomplished that now. Overtraining is part of why Tiger’s body has broken down and Rory would be wise to absorb that cautionary tale — he should stop pushing heavy metal and do Bikram yoga every day. That would strengthen his core and increase his flexibility without putting any extra stress on his back and joints.
BAMBERGER: It’s not just Butch saying that. Being strong is good in golf. Being supple is better. Rory’s both. But bulk will do nothing for your game. Butch saw that with Tiger, and so did we all.
MCDOWELL: It’s not only old-school, but ancient. No one misses the chubby Rory who thought his afro looked cool. Everything Butch touches turns to gold, so it’s hard to disagree with the man, but it’s not like Rory is training with Navy SEALs or anything.
SENS: There’s no such thing as being too strong or too flexible. But extra bulk is another matter. Tiger’s mid-30s gym physique was good for sunbathing on a yacht, but most people who really know the golf swing would say it did him no favors on the course.
VAN SICKLE: Fit and toned is one thing, muscle-bound is another. Tiger’s swing regressed in the 2007-’08 time when he looked more like a weightlifter than a golfer. That’s also about when he began having injury problems. I don’t doubt Butch. Rory, do you want to win a Masters or a Mr. Universe title?
MORFIT: I agree with Harmon. It worries me. Why is Rory so determined to get big and ripped? Do we really think it helped Tiger? I don’t.
5. Lydia Ko is one round away from tying Annika Sorrenstam’s LPGA record of 29 consecutive rounds under par. What’s the most unbreakable record in golf?
RITTER: With today’s level of parity (and media scrutiny), there is absolutely no way anyone is matching — let alone breaking — Byron Nelson’s 1945 record of 11 straight PGA Tour victories. Print it in stone.
BAMBERGER: You want to say Tiger’s cut streak or Byron Nelson’s win streak, despite the funky accounting, but the real answer is becoming more obvious every year: Jack Nicklaus winning 18 professional majors. If anybody else ever gets to nine — to say nothing of 14 — I’d like to see it. The way the swing is taught now, and the way equipment is now, I just can’t see anybody getting themselves miles ahead of the pack for a prolonged period of time.
PASSOV: I cannot conceive of anybody breaking Byron Nelson’s streak of 11 consecutive wins.
MORFIT: I can’t imagine anyone beating Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors. That just seems crazy. If anyone was going to do it, it was Tiger, and we saw how that worked out.
MCDOWELL: Tiger’s cut streak will be the answer for most, but Byron Nelson’s 11 straight wins in 1945 is a close second. Both are unfathomable in modern golf as we know it.
SHIPNUCK: Byron’s 11 wins in a row, followed by Tiger’s made-cut streak.
VAN SICKLE: Byron Nelson’s record of 11 straight wins won’t be broken on the PGA Tour. Now, 11 career wins practially get you in the Hall of Fame.
SENS: I doubt we’ll ever see another guy ever hold all four majors at once.
6. Down at Bakers Bay in the Bahamas this week, Luke Donald and Keegan Bradley found themselves in a golf game — and then in a pickup basketball game — with Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. Who would fill out your dream foursome?
SENS: Eesh. Poor guys. They had to spend that much time with Michael Jordan? I’d take a playing lesson with Butch Harmon, with two other guys in the group to clean my clubs and pick up the tab.
BAMBERGER: The answer to this question is mood-dependent, like which course you would want to play if you were down to your last game. Today I’m going Republican: Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe’s son and a founder of National Golf Links; Richard M. Nixon, and Jerry Ford. I spent an hour or more with President Ford, late in his life, talking sports, and it was one of the most enjoyable hours of my life. But tomorrow I might go for George Crump, Hugh Wilson and C.B. Macdonald.
PASSOV: I’ll take Bob Hope, Bobby Jones and President Dwight Eisenhower, three guys who absolutely loved the game. I’d laugh and I’d learn. Can we play Cypress Point as part of the dream?
RITTER: I’d hit fourth after Arnie, Jack and Gary on the opening tee at the Masters and we’ll just play the round out from there.
SHIPNUCK: Tiger, Phil and Rory. Would be a fascinating day, to say the least.
VAN SICKLE: I’ll take any three people who enjoy being on the course and love playing. If they’re celebrities or ex-jocks or tour players or high-handicappers, I don’t care as long as they’re having fun. I’d rather play with a chopper shooting 108 who is upbeat than a scratch golfer who sulks while shooting 72.
MCDOWELL: 1972 Jack Nicklaus, 2000 Tiger Woods and 1930 Bobby Jones. I’d get at least a few a side.
MORFIT: I don’t know who’s in my dream foursome, but if I’m ever in a two-on-two pickup basketball game on Tour, I’m picking either Gary Woodland or Dustin Johnson as my partner. Then I’m faking an injury and subbing in Zach Johnson in my place.
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.