Tour Confidential: Can Rory McIlroy Reclaim the No. 1 Spot by April?

December 20, 2015
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Every Sunday night, 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 in the comments section below.

1. In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Rory McIlroy said “there’s no reason why I can’t be the No. 1 player in the world going into Augusta.” In your estimation, how likely is it that McIlroy will have reascended to the throne by early April?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s the Big Three until further notice, so let’s handle this baby with simple math: Give Rory a 33.33 percent shot at No. 1 before Augusta.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): It doesn’t matter so much whether he does or doesn’t get to No. 1 by the Masters. What matters is this is already a win for the fans, as he’ll be adding tournaments early. Rory seems to be signaling a real desire to get back on top, which will only make things more interesting among the New Big Three.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): As they say on the PGA Tour, anything’s possible. Rory doesn’t just have to play well, he has to play better than Jordan Spieth and Jason Day to gain ground toward No. 1. That doesn’t sound easy.

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Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens) There’s a decent chance, sure. But you’ve got to think that what really matters to McIlroy isn’t his ranking in early April but whether his game is peaking come that time, when the dogwoods are blooming and the one major missing from his resume gets underway. The rankings themselves are a relatively empty talking point by comparison.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I believe it’s entirely plausible that Rory can regain Number 1 going into Augusta. I just don’t think it will happen. Rory’s the most talented player in golf, but right now, he’s not the best. Jordan Spieth edges him out, via his course management skills, his chipping and putting prowess, his flair for coming up with a huge shot or putt at just the right time and his competitive fires. He’s not going to yield the Number 1 ranking anytime soon.

Brendan Mohler, assistant editor, (@bmohler09): McIlroy only played four events before the Masters in 2015, winning in Dubai in February but also missing the cut at the Honda Classic a month later. It really depends on how often McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day compete early next year — they’re very tightly bunched atop the charts — but a couple of early victories could lock up the No. 1 spot for Rory by Augusta. A better story would be him winning the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam AND return to No. 1.

2. Next week, will culminate its Tiger@40 countdown and name the biggest moment in Tiger’s career. We won’t give anything away just yet, but what do you believe rank as Tiger’s top three most impactful moments?

RITTER: Oh, we nailed the top three. But I will say that after further reflection, I think we may have undervalued his three straight U.S. Amateur titles, punctuated by the epic showdown with Steve Scott on national TV. Woods has said that’s a record he’s most proud of, and I doubt anyone will ever match it. It’s not top three, but it probably could’ve cracked the top 10.

MORFIT: The ’97 Masters is No. 1 because of the seismic impact. Winning the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble by 15 shots would be No. 2, since the outrageous winning margin spoke to a level of play we’ve never seen before or since. And his overtime victory at the ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey, on a mangled left knee, was mythic in the tradition of Kirk Gibson at the 1988 World Series.

VAN SICKLE: I should disqualify myself since I wrote a bunch of them but obviously, the Tiger Slam was unbelievable. It looked as if he might just keep on winning majors indefinitely at that point. The fire hydrant run-in and subsequent scandal made Tiger the big story every day for about three months. And, of course, he changed the Masters forever in ’97 by turning it into a pitch-and-putt course with his power.

SENS: 1. His first Masters (and first major) in ’97, a win that set golf’s old guard on its ear. 2. His run-in with a hydrant, very likely the most expensive fender-bender in automotive history, and a trigger point that set off waves of national moralizing rarely seen outside of a political campaign. 3. 2008 U.S. Open win at Torrey. Not that it had huge ramifications, but to win on a broken leg was pretty memorable. All the more so because it looks like it will be his last major.

PASSOV: Tiger’s most impactful moments run very deep. The ones I’ll take away are winning the 1997 Masters, his runaway 2000 U.S. Open victory, the most dominating performance in golf history, and his 2008 U.S. Open win while competing with a broken leg.

MOHLER: It’s hard to talk about “impact” and not mention Tiger’s scandal. But in terms of what he’s done on the course, I think the events that basically bookended his prime — the ’97 Masters and the ’08 U.S. Open — are the most impactful. They both signified the beginning of something unexpected and have revealed more about who Tiger is and was as a golfer than his numerous other victories.


3. Jordan Spieth was announced as GOLF’s Player of the Year last week, which should come as no surprise to golf fans. Who or what was your Surprise of the Year?

RITTER: Spieth wins this one as well. Late last year he had the look of a star-in-making, but to take a run at the Grand Slam at age 21/22? Never saw it coming.

MORFIT: I was surprised Patrick Reed didn’t do much once we got into the meat of the season. I anticipate a big rebound in 2016.

VAN SICKLE: Spieth was probably also the surprise of the year. Yes, we knew he was good but did anyone think he was going to chase the Grand Slam? Nope.

SENS: McIlroy’s subpar season was unexpected, especially given how dominant he’d been at the close of 2014.

PASSOV: Surprise of the year for me was the success of the Presidents Cup. I thought 2015 would sound its death knell, another rout, in a country (South Korea) and on a new course (Jack Nicklaus Golf Club) that nobody was supposed to care about. Instead we got a close match, with a revised, Ryder Cup-like format, and plenty of Mickelson-oriented mirth and mayhem. Even with the crazy time difference and competition from football, it held my attention.

MOHLER: Tiger was ranked 25th in the world after the 2014 Hero World Challenge, which was a bit of a surprise in itself. Right now, he’s 413th. Can’t say I saw that coming.

4. During a Facebook Q&A on Thursday, McIlroy talked about his relationship with his fiancée, Erica Stoll, and described her as a “calming presence,” “a sereneness,” and said she is a great influence and brings great balance to his life. How much of an effect can the right life partner have on a golfer’s professional success?

RITTER: It probably depends on the player (Tiger apparently had some of his best years while unhappy at home) but for the most part, “Happy wife, happy life,” right? Holds true for any man with any job.

MORFIT: The topsy-turvy, here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of a Tour pro’s life puts stability and “sereneness,” as McIlroy called it, at a premium. If he’s found that in Stoll, good for him, and probably good for his golf.

VAN SICKLE: Valerie Hogan once told Ben she knew how he could three-putt less often and when he wanted the answer, she said, “Hit it closer to the hole.” Every golfer and every couple is different.

SENS: Well, I’ve been happily married for 17 years and it has done exactly nothing for my golf game. But for players competing at the highest level, it’s pretty clearly critical. Just ask guys like Dufner, Woods, DJ and McIlroy himself–their honest answers would speak clearly to the link.

PASSOV: I’m not a psychologist–and I don’t play one on TV–but I’m guessing that if your mind is clear, and you’re as free from negative distractions as you can be, then you’re going to play tension-free golf and the results will speak for themselves. Many experts credited Barbara Nicklaus’ grace and steadiness as an important ingredient in Jack’ success recipe. I’m buying.

MOHLER: Well, it certainly can’t hurt. But we have seen players disappear from contention when things go wrong with their love lives (ahem, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey). However, Rory proved unphased by his breakup with Caroline Wozniacki in May of 2014, going on to win the next week and then three more times before the end of the year. We’ll see how a new commitment impacts Rory, but I suspect it will only benefit him and his game.


5. We learned last week that the 2022 Ryder Cup is headed to a relatively unknown course called Macro Simone Golf & Country Club in Guidonia, Italy. Does the event lose any credibility by selling out to the highest bidder instead of going to more acclaimed and tournament-tested venues?

RITTER: The Ryder Cup is about the matches, not the course, and I’m sure the current lineup will be fine. Really, it’s just a thrill to be one of the first people in human history to use Minnesota, Paris, Wisconsin and Rome in the same sentence.

MORFIT: We so rarely know the ins and outs of the selection process for these big events, and when we do know it can be a little unsettling, like seeing how the sausage is made. That said, I’m happy for Italy. Continental Europe is probably still a bit underrepresented as far as how often they’re allowed to host this event.

VAN SICKLE: If the Ryder Cup lost credibility by going to goat tracks just to make money, it would’ve gone away 20 years ago. I’m looking at you, The Belfry, a former potato field. So no, it doesn’t matter.

SENS: No. It’s been a long time since the Ryder Cup venue was selected largely on the basis of the quality of the course itself. It if were the other way around, we’d be watching the teams square off at places like Royal County Down and Cypress Point. At this stage in the rivalry, they could stage the Cup on a tarmac and it wouldn’t diminish the fever pitch around it, so long as the matches were tight.

PASSOV: The horse is long gone from that barn. The Ryder Cup is 20 percent about golf, 20 percent about patriotism and 60 percent about C-A-S and H. Are there hundreds of better courses than recent Euro Ryder Cup venues, Gleneagles, Celtic Manor, The K Club and The Belfry? Sure–sometimes at the same facility (I’m looking at you, Gleneagles). I wish Earth’s greatest, most dramatic match play courses were part of the Ryder Cup rota, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

MOHLER: There are very few things that could take away from the credibility of the Ryder Cup, and hosting the event in Italy isn’t one of them. That said, the event that is arguably golf’s biggest and grandest deserves to be played on a course of the same stature. I’d love to see the Ryder Cup held at a place like Prestwick, a classic course seemingly built for match play that’s also steeped in history. For various unfortunate reasons that won’t happen. But hey, maybe taking the Ryder Cup to Marco Simone Golf & Country Club will help inspire a wave of young Italians to pick up the game. That would be good for all parties involved.

6. Give us your boldest golf prediction for 2016.

RITTER: This year Spieth tied a scoring record at Augusta and Day shattered one at the PGA Championship. The trend continues in 2016 as someone finally cracks golf’s version of the four-minute mile — a 62 in a major championship. Of the 27 times a 63 has been shot in majors, three came at Baltusrol, more than any other venue. That’ll be the scene of history next summer at the PGA.

MORFIT: The Big Three, who accounted for 12 official Tour wins in 2015, will rack up even more in 2016 with a healthy McIlroy pulling his weight. If you make it the Big Four by adding Rickie Fowler, they’ll finish just south of 20 victories.

VAN SICKLE: I’ll take the U.S. to pull off a mild upset in the Ryder Cup and the Americans’ man of the matches will be Kevin Kisner.

SENS: Player-Captain Woods Leads U.S. to Ryder Cup Runaway. Hey, you said bold, not accurate.

PASSOV: Tiger Woods completes remarkable comeback in August and wins the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Davis Love then names him as a Captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup team, after consulting with his five vice captains, including Tiger Woods.

MOHLER: Donald Trump becomes a member of Augusta National.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.