Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods’ return, Paul Azinger’s NBC exit
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us at @golf_com. This week, we discuss Tiger Woods’ return, Paul Azinger’s exit at NBC, and the finales on the PGA Tour and LPGA.
1. Tiger Woods announced he’ll play his Hero World Challenge in two weeks in the Bahamas, which will be his first start since he withdrew from the 2023 Masters and had a procedure on his ankle. We already know a ‘win’ for Woods would be four healthy rounds. But what’s a ‘win’ for him in 2024? More good health? Contending? What’s your 2024 Tiger forecast?
Alan Bastable, executive editor (@alan_bastable): Tiger’s Hero commitment was a pleasant surprise — I assumed we wouldn’t see him until the cart-friendly PNC — and an indicator that his ailing body is back to a place where he feels confident that he can walk 7,200 yards for at least four consecutive days. How Woods actually feels, looks and sounds come Friday (or Sunday!) evening in the Bahamas should give us more insight into his 2024 prospects. A “win” for ’24? Staying off the operating-room table, playing at least half the majors and delighting TGL fans with his short-game wizardry. Whether or not Woods is competitive next year, merely having him in and around the game, in any capacity, is a “win” for all.
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): More good health. There’s no doubt Tiger still has the ability to compete, but the wear and tear of four rounds — let alone a full season — is what will hold him back. It would be a massive victory if he can make it through 2024 without any major health setbacks.
Jonathan Wall, managing editor (@jonathanrwall): Health. It’s the realistic win at the moment until we see he can handle four rounds of competitive golf — walking. I still don’t believe we’ll see him more than a few times next year, outside of the TGL dome. Tiger’s enjoying his time watching Charlie flourish on the course; I just can’t see him grinding away at regular Tour events. He doesn’t have anything left to prove. After all he’s been through, the simple fact Tiger is teeing it up again is a miracle.
2. Paul Azinger is out as NBC golf analyst after his five-year contract was not renewed. Are you surprised NBC is moving in a different direction, and why might it have decided to do so?
Bastable: My jaw didn’t drop, no, considering NBC has already been moving in a different direction. When late last year the network decided to move on from two of its stalwarts, in Roger Maltbie and Gary Koch, and bring in a relatively unproven talent in Smylie Kaufman (along with Brad Faxon), it was a clear signal that the Peacock was thinking about the future. Zinger generally was unafraid to speak his mind, but ultimately you also got the sense that he too frequently relied on his gut and didn’t do his homework. With so many analytics now available in the pro game — not to mention an army of media-watchers tweeting every misstep — lead analysts need to bring to the chair a combination of fearlessness and statistical acumen. Makes you wonder … is it finally Brandel’s time?
Melton: I’m not necessarily surprised NBC is going in a new direction, but the move did seem to come out of nowhere. There was not much indication a move like this was coming … and then the news dropped and here we are. Azinger wasn’t incompetent in the booth, but in an age when golf is trying to become more young and hip, he didn’t exactly fit the profile.
Wall: Somewhat. I thought Zing did an admirable job filling Johnny Miller’s shoes with his off-the-cuff takes and insights. I’ll agree with Alan that Brandel would be a logical call for NBC’s brass. I’m not sure anyone else out there would bring the juice at the moment.
3. The RSM Classic, won by Ludvig Aberg, capped the PGA Tour’s inaugural seven-event Fall series. So, did the new format work? Or did the drama of finishing inside or outside the top 125 fall flat compared to previous years?
Bastable: No doubt the new framework injects some drama, though 126-150 still maintain conditional status for 2024, so it’s not like the guys who just missed the mark are totally kicked to the curb. I’m more excited about the reintroduction of Q-School this year, by which five Tour cards will be doled out next month. There may be no more democratic — or cutthroat — system in all of sports.
Wall: I spent the early part of the week in Sea Island and can confirm the new format certainly did the trick. There was a ton of nervous energy on the range that was non-existent last year when RSM was simply the last event before the end of the year. Drama late in the year is never a bad thing, even if everyone still had their eyes fixed on the football.
4. Rory McIlroy abruptly resigned from the PGA Tour board, leaving a vacant spot and raising questions about why McIlroy left before his three-year term was over. McIlroy said simply “something had to give” with everything he had going on in his life. Does his resignation have any significant meaning to Tour pros? Or to fans?
Bastable: Yes, the move has much meaning! In the LIV era, McIlroy established himself as the most ardent supporter of the PGA Tour and the voice of his peers. He could have quietly ridden out the remainder of his term and began curtailing the time and energy he invested into PAC matters, but instead he pulled the plug entirely. If you take McIlroy at his word, his decision was driven by his overtaxed schedule. No doubt that was a factor, but surely so too was his rightful disgruntlement over the Tour’s secret dealings with the Saudis. That degree of betrayal can’t be easy to get over. Curious minds might also wonder if McIlroy’s deteriorating relationship with fellow board member Patrick Cantlay played a role. In a recent interview, McIlroy described his relationship with Cantlay as “average at best,” adding, “We don’t have a ton in common and see the world quite differently.” It’s useful to have a variety of opinions in the board room but only if the sources of those opinions respect one another.
Melton: It absolutely has meaning. Rory has been the voice of the establishment in the LIV-PGA Tour war, and to see him abruptly step down is not a great sign. As AB notes above, the secret dealing with LIV likely left Rory with a sour taste in his mouth. Once you lose someone’s trust, it’s hard to get it back. Jay Monahan and Co. almost certainly lost Rory’s trust this summer, and it doesn’t appear they’ve done much to earn it back.
Wall: Of course! Rory was the voice of his peers — or at least a large majority of them — when LIV was trying to poach the Tour’s top talent. You can’t go from being right in the middle of the action to tapping out and not have people question the motive behind the decision. Sure, Rory was spreading himself too thin, but if the Tour wasn’t seriously considering a framework with PIF, I’m pretty sure he would’ve stayed on board in some capacity — even if he throttled back in ‘24. Simply put, the very thing he fought to protect burned him. Many would’ve done the exact same thing if they were in his position.
5. Amy Yang capped the LPGA season by winning the CME Group Tour Championship by three strokes over Alison Lee and Nasa Hataoka. With another season behind us, what will be your lasting memory from the 2023 LPGA campaign?
Bastable: How do you top Lilia Vu’s rapid ascent to world No. 1, which included a pair of major titles, and from a player who just two years ago was on the Symetra Tour? Europe’s spirited play at the Solheim Cup — especially Leona Maguire’s — also was a joy to watch, as was Lexi’s thrilling run at making a PGA Tour cut. She came up just short but beat 36 players that week. Incredible stuff.
Melton: It’s gotta be Carlota Ciganda closing out the Solheim Cup in her home country. When I spoke with her last fall, she was already excited about the chance to play her favorite event in front of friends and family. To become the hero for the European’s after all that build up is the stuff of legends.
6. Happy Thanksgiving! What in the golf world are you thankful for?
Bastable: I continue to be grateful that golf courses are one of the precious few places on earth where time slows down. Long may that last!
Melton: I’m just thankful this silly game exists. Most of my life revolves around golf, and without it, my cup would be far less full.
Wall: Golf balls. My game has been in a dark spot recently, and I’m glad my golf locker is loaded with boxes of them. It still might not be enough!