Tour Confidential: Can Rory, Mickelson Be Trusted in U.S. Open?

May 9, 2016

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. Rickie Fowler led the Wells Fargo Championship after 54 holes but never got it going Sunday. He fell out of contention early and finished T-4. Our Michael Bamberger recently wrote that something is holding Fowler back, and it’s not his talent, technique or course management. Does Fowler indeed lack the killer instinct that all the greats share?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Hard to say Rickie doesn’t have killer instinct since all his wins have been from behind. However, his front-running skills need improving. It’s hard to take too much away from the Wells Fargo tourney, where the course crossed the line into being so difficult that players almost made birdies only by accident on the non-par 5s, somewhat negating skill.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I feel differently, Gary–I think you show the killer instinct by being a successful front-runner, with the attitude that no matter what the lead is, you want more. Tiger felt he should have won the 2000 U.S. Open by 16, and is likely still upset about a ruling he wanted and did not get.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Agreed on the difficulty of the course and that playing from behind is not the same as playing with a lead. But Fowler also hit some plain old sloppy shots that would have been poor on any course and in any context. It had a different look than his play down the stretch at the Waste Management, where questionable club selection, not a poor swing on 17, wound up costing him the lead and dropping him back into a playoff. All that said, it’s just one and I’m not staying up at night worrying about Rickie. Methinks he’ll be fine. Should be an entertaining week ahead when he defends at the Players. 

SCORES: Final Leaderboard from Wells Fargo Championship

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): We know he’s a closer, but that was Rickie’s first 54-hole lead since 2011. I chalk it up as a learning experience. 

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Rickie is nice. Too nice? Not if you want to win at being human. If you want to win at golf, that’s something else. Nice translates into a whole lot of halves in his Ryder Cup matches; he is 0-3-5 all time. How crazy is that? One of Team USA’s best players has never won a Ryder Cup match. He’s earned a half point, though, five times. I asked him about this once and he made a joke of it, saying something like, “If you need a half a point, call me.” Well, uh, okay. 

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I’m kind of with Jeff here … sort of. I too was surprised to see the stat that said this was only the third time Rickie had held or co-held a third-round lead, and first since 2011. Is it possible that maybe he’s just not as good a player as we want him to be? I say that because I know how good he is for the game, and I’ve seen him spend tons of extra time with kids, fans, signing autographs, posing for pics. So yes, I root for him for that reason. Yet, what’s real is that outside of the four-for-four Top 5s in majors in 2014 and his scintillating Players win in 2015, he hasn’t accomplished all that much. 

2. Sports Illustrated last week published its annual anonymous player poll, in which more than 150 pros across three tours sounded off on various topics from Rory to Rio. Which result most surprised you?

Van Sickle: Surprised to read that 62% would rather win Players than Olympic gold. I was under the impression that tour players were buying the whole Olympic-golf-grow-the-game baloney. I guess not. Or maybe they just really like the Players.

Ritter: GVS is right: I was stunned the Players would rate higher than Olympic gold. My other favorite was Ernie Els as the runaway winner for “Player you’d want defending you in a bar fight.” Wonder if his right hook is as effortless as his golf swing.

Bamberger: There are famous Ernie stories on Tour about his brawling ability–Easy earned that coveted title.

Sens: I was more surprised that Keegan Bradley was second to Ernie in the bar fight query. Back when he had a long putter in his hands, I could see it, but now? Maybe he’s got a killer left hook he hasn’t shown on Sunday yet. As for the Olympics, I’m not surprised at all. With very few exceptions, I had the sense that players have had the same feeling about Olympic golf as most fans here in the US, which is to say they don’t have strong feelings about it at all. 

Morfit: Strangest answer to me was by the women of the LPGA, who answered that someone named Sarah Jane Smith has the hottest boyfriend/husband. I need to cover some more LPGA events, I guess, because I wouldn’t be able to positively identify either Sarah Jane’s husband/boyfriend or Sarah Jane. 

Passov: For all of the mainstream media’s negativity towards Donald Trump, apparently all three tours are in agreement to vote for him and to continue to play tour events at his courses. 

3. Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson had classic Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson weeks at Quail Hollow. McIlroy closed with a 66 but shot 73 on both Thursday and Saturday; Mickelson, after making a quadruple-bogey 8 on 18 Saturday and shooting 76, bounced back with his own 66 Sunday. With the U.S. Open just weeks away, what should we read into their performances?

Van Sickle: Anybody can shoot meaningless 66s when they’re out of contention on Sunday. There’s still something amiss with Rory’s game, more than just his putting, but he’s close. Ditto for Phil. He was fairly solid over four days; one 8 on a hole with a few chipping and putting mishaps tainted his showing. I think Phil is on track for Oakmont, though I thought that about the Masters too, and was wrong. Rory might need to start sweating the small stuff.

Bamberger: I agree with Gary: Phil showed his ultimate sore spot: his wandering mind. U.S. Opens, of course, are such a grindfest, and I think that’s the biggest thing holding Phil back at them. I don’t know how to explain Rory’s up-and-down play, but you’d have to think, to use a phrase from yesteryear, that he’s not all in.

Sens: As a general rule (Miller’s 63 at Oakmont–perhaps you’ve heard it mentioned from time to time?–being one of the exceptions) the U.S. Open is more about four rounds of grinding consistency than one or two scorched-earth scores. And both Phil and Rory have been on pretty wild roller coasters this year. If that pattern persists, it doesn’t bode well for June. But patterns are meant to be broken. 

Ritter: Phil and Rory are showing flashes, but those Sunday rounds at Quail came without the heat that comes from playing in contention. Both players appear on track to make noise at Oakmont. If I had to choose between them, I like Rory’s chances of putting it all together more than Phil’s, especially on a bruising setup. 

Morfit: I don’t know, guys. I don’t like either Phil or Rory at Oakmont. And the way things are going, I’m not too sure I like any of the other bold-faced names, either. Jason Day and Adam Scott are the only stars who have really played like it for any length of time this year, and in general the golf ball hasn’t seemed to care about the credentials of the guy who’s hitting it. How rude. 

Passov: Cam, I’ll agree with your point about Day and Scott as the only two that have played like stars for an extended period this year. Phil, however, has always been a model of inconsistency. When he’s on, and motivated, he brings it like few others, ever. But he’s been off a lot. In 2016, he’s had a bunch of great weeks, along with too many weekends off. But that’s Phil. I, too was burned in the office pools by Phil’s results at the Masters, but he wasn’t the only one that failed epically. He and Rory aren’t all there yet, but they’re close enough to be genuine U.S. Open contenders.

4. Johnny Miller said last week that Jordan Spieth’s Masters meltdown “is going to haunt him for a long time.” Is Johnny right?

Van Sickle: Johnny is always correct, right Roger? Johnny is right that Spieth will never forget it, especially if he were to not win another Masters. Haunt is a strong word. Spieth was mentally fatigued Masters week from a too-aggressive schedule and made mistakes because of it. I think he knows that and has already let it go, blame-wise. Haunt? Nah. Learn from? I think so.

Sens: He’ll never forget it, but I agree with Gary. He’s not going to have to hire an exorcist for it. He’s too young and too mentally tough for that. 

Ritter: It’ll sting, but Jordan has something Greg Norman, Scott Hoch, Jean van de Velde and many others on the “major meltdown list” lack: a green jacket. And a U.S. Open title. His past success will help him move on, and I expect he’ll bounce back sooner rather than later. 

Morfit: I disagree that Jordan will just shake it off and move on. He might shake it off, but he’ll have to build up some positive stuff in the memory bank in similar situations. He’s human. Let’s say he hits it in the water on 17 at the Stadium Course, and then he finds himself in the drop zone with a ticklish wedge shot over water and the world watching. You’d better believe that shot he hit on 12 at Augusta will be lurking somewhere in the not-dark-enough recesses of his brain.

Passov: I just don’t know. The Masters episode was just so ugly. How can that go away anytime soon? Still, I’m with my colleagues here. He already has majors under his belt, so this won’t be a monkey on his back.

Bamberger: “Haunt” is strong–it suggests a demonic presence. I won’t go there. But now and for the rest of his life, the 2016 Masters will be the one that got away. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a happy fulfilled life. I believe Jordan Spieth will have a happy, fulfilled life.”

5. Adidas announced last week its plans to sell TaylorMade, Adams and Ashworth but said it will continue to sell Adidas golf apparel and shoes. What does the TaylorMade news mean for the equipment industry at large?

Van Sickle: The move means one of the biggest players in golf doesn’t see much upside in the business and in their case, is tired of mounting losses. It may not be a Debbie Downer moment for the industry but it sure ain’t sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, either.

Sens: Yeah. I’m not sure how to spin this one in a positive direction. Remember when Mark King was sounding all sorts of gungho notes about assorted grow the game initiatives, including the 15-inch cup … Was just a few years back, but now seems a long time ago.

Ritter: From the outside, it feels like TaylorMade does a lot of things right — generating buzz around its new line of clubs each year, or linking up with Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson among others. Clearly the bottom line is telling a different story. It’s tough news. 

Morfit: The optics are not good, but giant tectonic shifts in the business world don’t always tell the whole story. Let’s hope not, in this case. 

Passov: There’s no sense sugar-coating this: It ain’t good for golf. Perhaps seeing an industry leader in this position will make manufacturers understand that product cycles have to scale back to reasonable intervals, to give the flat number of golfers time to save some money and better appreciate the latest, greatest sticks.

Bamberger: Buying golf clubs was less expensive and a more interesting and enjoyable experience when the clubs were manufactured not by multinational, publicly-traded companies but by smaller companies that just oozed golf, like Wilson, MacGregor, Ping and Hogan. Market corrections happen for a reason.

MORE: Players Tell All in SI Anonymous Survey

6. On the first hole of the playoff at Quail Hollow, Roberto Castro hit his approach shot into a fan’s loafer. Where is the strangest place you’ve seen a pro’s stray shot end up?

Van Sickle: I don’t recall the player of the tourney but a tour player did once hit one down a female patron’s blouse. Or did I just dream that and it was Jessica Alba?

Sens: I remember one of Rory’s tee shots landing in a fan’s pocket at the Tour Championship. But the most surprising lie I’ve ever seen was not in tournament play. I still wonder how this ball wound up where it did. 

Ritter: Sens wins. I’m scared to Google anything that could top it. 

Morfit: The hell with that; I’m scared to even click on this link. Since it’s Players week, it’s always odd to see guys wind up on the path leading to the 17th green. And it’s even odder to see them get up and down from there. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Steve Stricker.)

Passov: I can’t match Josh, either, but I’d sure like to query Brad Faxon, who knows something about odd situations and unusual drops — having had both a german shepherd and a seagull make off with his golf ball, though not in the same tournament. That would have been really fun.

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