Tour Confidential: Can Tiger Woods Return to Form?

February 9, 2015

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. We are joined this week by our Anonymous Pro, a PGA Tour pro who participated on the condition of anonymity.

1. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with back pain after 12 holes on Thursday. He’s 39, has serious full-swing and short-game issues and it’s been a year and half since his last Tour win, and of course seven years since his last major. Do you believe Tiger can come back from this?

The Anonymous Pro: No, he’s done.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: What do we mean by “come back”? Win Tour events again? Yes. Contend in majors? Yes. Win majors? Maybe one or two in the next 10 years. If he still cares, and I’m sure he does, he’ll get back to something resembling his 2013 self. But his 2000 self? That’s beyond improbable.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Tiger can come back from this if he can get healthy. Can he get healthy? That’s the $640 million dollar question. I don’t know.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger’s mind is oatmeal and his glutes are roadkill. A return to No. 1 is out. A major probably isn’t happening, given how tightly he’s played in them since 2010 even when healthy. But how about winning a Tour event? The 2015 season appears lost, but if he puts in the work and can stay healthy for an eight-month stretch, I do think he can win again, maybe as early as 2016. I also think it’s possible that he wins four times in his 40s to break Sam Snead’s record of 82 titles. That feels like Woods’ ceiling, but he’ll obviously have to fight to get there.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): He won’t be a major force on Tour anytime soon. His swing is in poor shape, and his body is even more fragile. Throw in a case of the wobblies with a wedge in his hand and he’s a long way from being competitive, much less winning.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): I’ve been predicting a win for Tiger in almost every major since 2008, so I clearly have no clue. But it will be interesting to watch. As compelling an on-course figure as he was when he ruled the game (and I emphasize on-course) he’s even more interesting now for all his flaws and failings. Invincible Achilles isn’t much of a story. But give the guy a heel problem, and you’ve got timeless material.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): As Yogi Berra would say, it’s like deja vu all over again. We just asked this after Phoenix, right? The tough part is, there seems to be something going wrong every week. However, underestimate Tiger Woods at your peril. Maybe the injury this week was indeed a fog-induced fluke and that what he now needs is more rest then more reps. I do believe he can come back from this — because he’s unlike anyone else we’ve ever known in golf — but even an optimist like me admits that the forecast is foggy.

2. Phil Mickelson didn’t fare much better than Tiger Woods, missing the cut after rounds of 74 and 72. Mickelson’s primary problem appears to be his putting. In his mid-40s, will Mickelson be able to fix his putting stroke?

ANONYMOUS PRO: Two years ago, Phil putted as well as he ever has, so he is not that far removed from what he needs to do to win a few more tournaments and perhaps another major, which would put him very close to the top 10 of all time. He will have his run this year.

LYNCH: It’s a race to the finish line between Tiger and Phil. Still, lousy putters have more good weeks than players suffering from Tiger’s many woes. Guys at Phil’s age don’t fix putting problems, they just find temporary ways to work around them.

VAN SICKLE: The list of great putters who lost their stroke in their late 30s or early 40s and got it back is short. So short, in fact, that I can’t think of anyone who ever did it. I’ve been talking about Phil’s putting for a couple of years as a major concern. He’s great for the game when he contends, but he may have to think outside the box to solve his putting woes. The claw grip didn’t do it. I’m thinking sidesaddle, maybe just because I did a recent SI piece on sidesaddle but also because Phil would love to pioneer something that might be a smarter way to putt.

SENS: If his stroke is still feeling “poppy” — as he described it last year — he may have to commit more fully to the claw (or some other grip change) because “poppy” sounds a lot to me like “yippy.” That altered approach has worked for others (see: Sergio Garcia and Bernard Langer) so I don’t see this as all gloom and doom. Mickelson has long been streaky with the flatstick anyway. No reason he can’t catch fire with it now and then and snag another Masters (or two) along the way.

PASSOV: Again, the optimist — and fan — in me wants Mickelson to fix his putting stroke. I think he will. Perhaps Lefty put too much emphasis into his body makeover over the winter and not enough into putting fundamentals. Again, this guy’s Top 15 of all time, yet has always seemingly missed a bunch of short putts. I’ll give him some time to find the flatstick groove.

RITTER: Not sure he can fully fix it, but he can probably find a few Band-Aids here and there that allow him contend and maybe — maybe — occasionally win.

BAMBERGER: I cannot think of anybody who improved as a putter in his or her mid-40s. I don’t see Phil breaking that mold.

3. Jason Day won the Farmers Insurance Open after a four-man playoff. Is Torrey Pines’ South Course a good course or just a hard-to-score course?

PASSOV: I always found Torrey Pines (South) to be a dull, repetitive slog that happened to have some awesome Pacific Ocean vistas and some testing holes in the wind. Credit Rees Jones for bringing in a bit more drama in his 2001 redesign, but his marching orders were to fix the course so that it could draw a U.S. Open. Rees succeeded. It proved itself at the 2008 U.S. Open (Tiger over Rocco) but between the length, design and setup, it’s just hard, rather than great.

VAN SICKLE: The players all love the scenery and the location, but I don’t hear anyone saying they love the course. The old-timers still liked it better before the Rees Jones redesign. It’s already slated for another U.S. Open though, which tells you how important that scenic shot from the blimp is and how big it is to play out West and spill over into prime time for TV on the East Coast.

ANONYMOUS PRO: Torrey Pines doesn’t get its due as a good course because Rees Jones did the redesign and Phil Mickelson famously, perhaps with an agenda, criticized his work. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful and strategically interesting design on Tour.

LYNCH: The scoring depends entirely on set-up. But the only folks who think it’s a good course are those who live around there and who are thus starved of great courses to compare it to. It has good views thanks to the stunning cliffs, but it is a thoroughly mediocre design because those same cliffs aren’t used to force players into taking risks.

SENS: If you’re an architecture nerd, it’s not going to send you into an impassioned lather. But if you appreciate golf for other reasons (spectacular scenery; the vicarious thrill of playing where the pros play; the sadistic pleasure of a seriously tough challenge ) there’s a lot to be said for the South Course, especially if you have a residents’ card or deep enough pockets to spend $229 on a Saturday round of golf. Dollar for dollar, though, if I’m playing golf in San Diego, I’m heading 20 minutes inland to Carlton Oaks. Better shot values than Torrey. One fourth the price. I’ll look at the ocean some other time.

RITTER: It’s a tough track, but the list of Torrey’s past champions is loaded — a telltale sign of a great course.

BAMBERGER: Is it a good course? It’s on the Pacific. It’s public. It has spectacular views. It’s covered with grass. The greens are perfect. What’s not too like? Is it a masterwork? No, but it doesn’t need to be. As for its difficulty, it can play hard or as easy as its set-up people want it to play.

4. Golf lost two legends this week, Billy Casper, who won 51 PGA Tour events and three majors, and Charlie Sifford, who broke the PGA Tour’s color line in 1960. Let’s start with Billy Casper: if he is not the most underrated Hall of Famer, who is? And who’s the nicest Hall of Famer you’ve met?

BAMBERGER: I think Billy Casper is the most underrated Hall of Famer ever, and his fellow San Diegan, Mickey Wright, is right there with him. Mickey Wright is the greatest woman golfer ever. Hogan said she has the finest swing he ever saw, man or woman. She dominated her era, and the harder the course, the more she dominated. She carried herself, and her tour, with complete dignity. And you can travel far and wide in the game and find many, many devoted golf fans who cannot tell you a thing about her. The nicest Hall of Famer I’ve met is Nick Price. Truly friendly, he remembers your name, he connects with other people — a nice person.

PASSOV: Bill Casper is definitely the most underrated Hall-of-Famer. When Jack, Arnie and Gary were golf’s “Big Three,” it really should have been Casper as the fourth face on golf’s Mt. Rushmore. He was an eight-time Ryder Cupper, won five Vardon trophies for lowest stroke average on Tour, was twice leading money winner and twice won player of the year. Three majors, yes, but because prize money was so low for the British Open in those years, he only entered it five times, with two top 10s. Casper should be better remembered for sure. Nicest HOFer? Byron Nelson. He just exuded class and respect.

SENS: I’ll go with Casper for underrated, though toward the end of his life, the press and public were starting to give him his due. I think most overrated is the better question. So many contenders there. As for the nicest, Willie McRae, longtime Pinehurst caddie and Hall of Famer. Endured all the ugliness of the Jim Crow era and the institutional racism of the game itself. Lost a thumb in a machine shop accident. Never made much money for all his hard work. And came through it all without a trace of bitterness. A smart, graceful, funny guy who treats everyone the same, famous or not.

VAN SICKLE: Those Hall of Famers are from a different time. Almost all of them are nice. I sat next to Nancy Lopez at a Hall function and she couldn’t have been more fun. The Big Three are all pretty nice — Nicklaus, Player and Palmer — and Casper may have exceeded them all in that category.

ANONYMOUS PRO: Billy Casper will be missed, but time has corrected the injustice of how he was viewed as a player in his era. Meanwhile, Bobby Locke and Peter Thompson hardly get a mention amongst the best of all time because they didn’t play much in the Unites States. As for the nicest Hall of Famer, it is a great day when you get to talk golf with Ben Crenshaw.

RITTER: Every era has a few headliners and handful of great players who fly just underneath them. Casper flew under the Big Three. Sandy Lyle was under T. Watson and Seve. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh were under Tiger and Phil. It happens. If everyone was a star, no one would be a star. Picking the nicest HOF’er is tough. I’ve never met Jack, but my list is a three-way tie between Arnie, Player and Trevino.

LYNCH: Can a Hall of Famer be underrated? By virtue of actually being in the Hall, Casper wasn’t underrated as much as he was underappreciated against his competition at the time.

5. Charlie Sifford won just two PGA Tour events –- because of racism he was kept of the PGA Tour until age 38 –- yet he, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are the only golfers to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite the efforts of pioneers like Sifford and Lee Elder, and the high-profile success of Tiger Woods, the Tour is still overwhelmingly white. Why can’t golf attract more African-American players?

BAMBERGER: This is a profoundly difficult question. I thought when Tiger won the Masters in ’97 black kids by the tens of thousands would be drawn to the game and, all these years later, would be finding their way to the Tour. Why that hasn’t happened I don’t know, but the game is more boring for it.

LYNCH: Cost. Access. Socio-economic factors. Competition from other sports. The decline of caddie programs. Racism. Take your pick.

RITTER: Programs like The First Tee are excellent at getting kids from all backgrounds interested in golf, but more needs to happen locally. Are public courses saving tee times for kids of all incomes and backgrounds, or do they fill up the sheets with top-paying customers? What about the country clubs that produce so many future Tour pros? Most probably aren’t emphasizing diversity in their membership — only paying the lofty dues on time. That culture needs to shift for real progress to happen.

VAN SICKLE: Three things you need for golf are time, money and convenience. Without money to buy clubs, pay greens fees and buy balls, you’re not playing golf. Also, you need a course nearby or a way to get there. Economics are a big function of golf. You can play basketball for free at any open court and if you’re by yourself, you can at least practice shooting. Golf requires access, which leaves a lot of economically disadvantaged people out of the equation. Also, you see a lot more slam dunks on ESPN highlights than you do golf shots. Golf just isn’t as cool.

PASSOV: I can’t put my finger on it. We’ve had Tiger and President Obama as incredibly high-profile golf role models, yet the pool of Tour-worthy candidates is non-existent. Perhaps the lack of African American coaches and teachers is the issue. Still, it usually comes down to access — time, money, facilities — and that will likely continue to be a problem.

ANONYMOUS PRO: Golf has moved away from the inner city and has become more cost prohibitive than it has ever been. The First Tee has been hugely impactful and has changed the lives of countless African Americans, but for the most part, they will find their way in life outside of professional golf.

SENS: A question better suited to a task force of social scientists than a panel of golf writers but … well, for starters, to get into golf, it helps to have ready access to equipment, courses and training, and golf has a long history of not being equitable on that front. Then there’s the not entirely unrelated fact that different sports resonate differently in different communities and cultures. Try all the public initiatives you want, but curling is never going to overtake soccer in Brazil.

6. More than 80 PGA Tour caddies joined a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, seeking a share of the revenue from the sponsor-logo bibs they are required to wear. Is this a legitimate claim by an exploited group of workers? Or an unreasonable demand by guys who are already overpaid for carrying a golf bag?

BAMBERGER: Well, I wouldn’t say the caddies are overpaid. The players are willing to pay what they pay. If they weren’t, caddie pay would drop. Are the caddies exploited? No. Same thing, they choose to accept the terms, and the terms include wearing a caddie bib with a logo on it. Sponsorship money works its way to the caddies, too. But on a personal level, I understand the complaint. The caddies don’t want to be walking billboards. But when they get that 5 or 7 or 10 percent of the player’s winnings, they are getting paid by the sponsor. I don’t see this going anywhere. In the food chain the sponsors are on top, the players are below them and the caddies are below the players. This lawsuit won’t change those facts.

LYNCH: Both. If the Tour demands they wear a corporate bib then perhaps they have a legitimate claim to compensation for that. But this isn’t exactly a “Norma Rae” moment for exploited sweatshop workers.

PASSOV: Tough call. The only reason these guys make the money they do is because of the sponsors who put up the cash in the first place. It’s not unreasonable for the sponsors to insist on this placement for publicity purposes. Compromise, however, is possible. Allow for sewn-in placements on sleeves and collars. Give the working men a little love.

SENS: On the continuum of exploited labor groups in this country, Tour caddies don’t even register. But based on what I’ve read about other legal cases involving sports organizations and the use of logos and likenesses, I would think they have a case. How much of a case is another matter. I would think that the relative anonymity of caddies (these guys aren’t star athletes with any real marketing pull on the public) may play into any considerations as to what sort of value might be assigned to their wearing logos/labels.

VAN SICKLE: The tour isn’t making money directly from those bibs, it’s just using them as a brand expander for the sponsor who paid big bucks to host the tournament. So maybe it’s an implied cost of tournament sponsorship, but you can’t point to a definitive figure or profit the Tour reaps from the bibs. The Tour’s point that caddies have always been employees of Tour players is kind of a weak out, but it’s not incorrect. There ought to be some kind of compromise the Tour can reach with caddies as far as upgrading their economic situation, but the Tour has always largely ignored caddies. That’s the part that needs to change.

ANONYMOUS PRO: I have never understood why it is that caddies are forced to wear logos without compensation. Who in this world works for free? That is exactly what the Tour is demanding they do, in requiring them to wear the bibs and it is wrong. #caddiesaretreatedlikesh&tanditiswrong

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