Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods’s Busy Schedule, Spieth’s Birdie Binges and More

January 9, 2017
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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 by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. In a 1,500-word blog, Tiger Woods shared his thoughts on everything from potential equipment changes to his recent round with the President-elect, but Woods’s biggest news was his announcement that he intends to play four events over a five-week stretch, starting with the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Jan. 26. Are you surprised by the heavy workload?

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Not really. I’d be more surprised if he were playing a very limited schedule. I would think the signs he showed at the Hero World Challenge (feeling healthy, leading the field in birdies) would excite him and make him want to get out and play. As long as he is feeling healthy, the more tournament rounds he can get in before Augusta the better. I’m sure he’s got it in his mind to get his world ranking back to a place where he can start playing in World Golf Championships again, and the only way to do that is to play, play, play. He knows better than anyone the limitations put on every athlete by time and age, and he knows if he has any hope of getting back onto the major bandwagon he has to get back to tournament sharp as soon as possible.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Not surprised. He’s a professional golfer making up for lost time, with not that much time ahead of him. To win, he has to play more. Davis Love told me the other day that if he plays 20 times this year, he should win once, and that he needs three straight to really get back in the rhythm of things. Not surprised at all.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Tick, tick, tick. Not surprising. Tiger is not getting any younger. And now that he says he’s finally back to playing pain-free golf, it’s the time to strike. There’s no substitute for competition. Whether he can ever regain the edge he needs to win a major is another matter, but there’s no other way to find out than to compete. And compete.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): I’ve been saying for years that Tiger needs to play more. That’s especially important after his most recent layoff. You can talk about range reps all you want, but there’s no substitute for tournament competition.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): I was a little surprised, but I like it. Sends a message that he’s healthy and plans to play to win, not just to test his health or knock the rust off. I have no idea if Woods can get all the way to winning golf, but I’m excited to see where this comeback goes.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): Maybe standards have changed, but I don’t think four events in five weeks constitutes a “heavy workload”–even given Tiger’s situation. He had more than 15 months away from competitive golf. When he concluded in the Bahamas that his body could take the strain, you know that golf’s ultimate competitor would be itching to go full-bore as soon as possible.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): For a lot of his career, the answers really were in the dirt. Now they’re between the ropes. Put yourself in as many tournament situations as possible and maybe good things will happen. I love the packed schedule.

2. Tiger in 2000 is the last player to win the Tournament of Champions and a major in the same season. Explain why Justin Thomas, who on Sunday won the T of C by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama, will end the streak.

Wood: Well, being around Justin, you can tell that winning is the most important thing to him. He is a confident player, and he has it in his head that he can do what his friend Jordan has done, and that’s win major tournaments. I think Justin may in fact play with a little chip on his shoulder regarding Jordan, and he wants to climb out of that shadow. Justin wants to be a historic player, meaning wins and majors and Ryder Cups, and that mindset is what will propel him to those goals. He’s certainly not afraid of those situations, and that’s half the battle.

Sens: Whether he has the talent has never been a question. This weekend was just another chance to get the seasoning he needs. It looked like he might throw away the win down the stretch, but with a little help from Matsuyama, he hung on. Experiences like that are what most players not named Woods and Spieth and McIlroy need before they start winning majors. Do I think he’ll actually win a major this year? No. But you only asked for an argument.

SCORES: View the Tournament of Champions Leaderboard

Ritter: I love his confidence, and as JW mentioned, that chip on his shoulder. Getting a close-up look at Spieth’s process also can’t hurt. I don’t have him winning a major this year, but his star is clearly rising. Why not now?

Godich: Why not? That’s three wins in his first 69 PGA Tour starts, and don’t look now, but Thomas is now 12th in the World Ranking. He’s got the length, and the putting stroke is solid enough. I also like that he’s still playing in the shadow of the other young guns.

Passov: Since his pro debut, Justin Thomas has always reminded me of those young singers with crazy, off-the-charts pipes, who just couldn’t quite harness their vocal skills at the right time and place to produce hit songs. Eventually, you need to learn to sing the song, not just use your vocal talents. Thomas clearly had the skills; now he’s learned to apply them properly. With his length (at 145 pounds!), talent and ever-growing confidence, he’s now on the short list for potential major winners.

Bacon: Because he’s only 23 and just won two of the last four worldwide starts against a lot of the regular characters you see hanging around the top of major leaderboards on Sundays. When the driver is his best friend, it’s as much of a weapon to JT as it is to Rory, Dustin and Jason. He is definitely in that top 15 of players who wouldn’t surprise you if they broke through in majors this year.

Bamberger: Well he’s a huge talent and he of course could win a major this year but there are six or more players I’d put ahead of him.

3. New PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told The Wall Street Journal he’d like to shake up the schedule, moving the Players Championship back to March, pushing the PGA Championship up to May and finishing the FedEx Cup playoffs on Labor Day weekend (or before the NFL season kicks off). Have a better idea?

Wood: No. The Players Championship should move back to March. While the weather may be more predictable in May, the tournament has lost a lot of the buzz it used to have when it felt like the first “major” of the year. Finishing the FedEx Cup playoffs before the NFL season would give them a much bigger stage in the world of sports. Despite the huge monetary rewards of the playoffs, once football starts it’s hard to get the non-golf fans interested. They’ve moved on. And on a selfish note, moving the PGA to May would be a lifesaver for some of us caddies as well as fans who attend. Valhalla, Atlanta Athletic Club, Baltusrol and others are all fantastic sites for a PGA, but in August, the heat is oppressive. Jay will be battling history, though, so we will see if he can get people together to get this done.

Sens: And from a fan’s perspective, it also pays to have the schedule condensed into a shorter window. When the season drags on and on, there are diminishing returns in our level of interest, whether or not football is going on. Scarcity is a good thing to bump up demand. Or, as we all learned from high school dating, it doesn’t hurt to play a little hard to get.

Ritter: Another lesson from high school dating: watch out for the guy in the Camaro. In this case, the NFL season is the Camaro kid, and he always wins. I love Monahan’s schedule ideas, but would the PGA actually move its championship away from August? That’s the wild card.

Godich: You want to make the PGA Championship really relevant? Move it to February, the only true dead month on the sports calendar (once we get past the Super Bowl). The anticipation would be huge, much as it is now for the Masters. The ball’s in your court, PGA of America.

Passov: I still can’t get past this goofy wrap-around season concept–especially with the foreign tournaments and the six-week gap. I’m totally with Josh here. A little absence would be healthy for fans…though maybe not so much for the rank-and-file players. Mark, I’m warming toward a PGA in February. If NASCAR can toss out its most important event first, the Daytona 500, golf can certainly give us an early major–likewise tennis with its Australian Open. Yet, February eliminates way too many great cool-season venues from hosting consideration. So what do we do? Move the Players back to March. We’ll work on the rest after that.

Bacon: I’ve always loved the PGA moving to an early season month and going from “cool but fairly obscure final major” to “GOLF STARTS NOW!” two months before the Masters. As for courses, maybe you give all the historic, major-ready golf courses that can host in the winter to the PGA and all the northeast gems to the USGA. I know, I know, but a golf nerd can dream.

Bamberger: J-Mo off to a great start here. 1. Talking to a reporter. 2. Thinking in a fresh way. 3. Coming up with some ideas that make total sense. All good ideas.

4. Pace of play has long been an issue on Tour, so Monahan couldn’t have been pleased to hear Jason Day say that he didn’t much care about the talk to speed up the game. “I’ve got to get back to what makes me good,” Day said. “If that means I have to back off five times, then I’m going to back off five times before I actually have to hit the shot.” How should Monahan address the ongoing problem?

Wood: That’s disappointing. I think the world of Jason and his caddie Colin, and it’s unfortunate. The biggest problem I have with this is a fairness issue. The slow players have a competitive advantage, and hear me out. Every day, the slower players on Tour get to play at the pace they are the most comfortable with. Every round, every tournament, especially with the mindset of not caring if they get a bad time or are fined, they are afforded the chance to play every shot exactly as they want. That sort of level playing field doesn’t exist for players who prefer to play at a faster pace. They can’t play through. They can’t ignore their playing partner and just go because they’re ready. As the great, yes, great, Paul Goydos says: “You know what causes slow play? Slow players.” Unless the new commissioner can come up with a plan to fairly assess penalty shots for slow play, I think all he can do is encourage slower players to make an honest attempt to speed up. The only other possibility is to come up with a plan with the rules officials who monitor and regulate speed of play on Tour to be more proactive in their timings. Most people know who plays slowly on Tour, and if the officials profiled and monitored those players early in their rounds rather than after they’ve already fallen way behind, perhaps that could help. It’s such a difficult issue.

Sens: Put players on a shot clock and penalize them for slow play. World-class talent should be able to adjust accordingly, and Day certainly qualifies as that.

Bamberger: Jason Day has it in his head that all that stepping out of the batter’s box gives him a better chance of hitting a better shot. I doubt it does, and enforcing some sort of shot clock would prove to himself that it doesn’t. All that regrouping robs you of the thing that makes you great in the first place, your athleticism.

Ritter: I’m surprised Day spoke so candidly, because he now stuck himself right in the middle of it. He’s always been, um, deliberate, but now players and fans are going to be watching him. As for solutions, I don’t understand why the Tour can’t simply place offending players on the clock, then penalize one stroke after a second bad time.

Godich: Assessing a fine is like writing a parking ticket. What’s the big deal with players who are raking in millions? It’s time to start hitting the offenders where it hurts—with penalty strokes. That’s the only thing that will get their attention.

Passov: I’ve attended a number of AJGA events and they are SERIOUS when it comes to enforcing pace of play. And every kid I’ve teed it up with knows it. It’s an absolute pleasure to play alongside these fast-moving, low-scoring kids. Yes, I know the pros are playing for ridiculous sums of cash. You don’t want to make a hasty decision that leads to a stupid mistake. But slow play is a killer. Slow the greens down for starters. Penalties, not fines for offenders. Jason, you are amazing to watch. But five start-and-stop efforts to make a golf swing is simply wrong.

Bacon: I’m with JS, put ’em on a shot clock and all of a sudden it’s up to you to fire before the buzzer.

5. Rory McIlroy, who initially said he withdrew from the Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus, now tells the Sunday Independent that he was resentful for having to choose whether to play for Great Britain or Ireland in the Games. “I never wanted it to get political or about where I’m from, but that’s what it turned into,” said McIlroy, who grew up in Northern Ireland. “And it just got to the point where it wasn’t worth the hassle.” Do you now give McIlroy a pass for not teeing it up in Rio?

Wood: Rory is a complete class act. He doesn’t need to explain his reasons for skipping any event to me. So I can’t give him a free pass when I don’t think he needs one. There were a lot of concerns going into the Olympics, and luckily none of the came to fruition and it turned out to be an amazing experience and event.

Sens: I had no problem with McIlroy skipping the Olympics at the time, but the change in explanation is a bit of a head-spinner. He sure made it sound like he was worried about Zika. This has something of the whiff of revisionist history.

Ritter: Rory was under heat from the beginning to decide which flag to represent. And yes, he gets a pass—-many top pros skipped Rio for far flimsier reasons. But this all makes me wonder if we’ll ever see Rory in an Olympics.

Godich: Agree, Jeff. I just wish he wouldn’t have been so slow to explain the anguish he was feeling.

Passov: I’m also with you on this one, Jeff. Rory had to endure a unique situation, one that made him so uncomfortable, even as it had nothing to do with actual golf, that I can’t blame him for being unable to deal with his anguish in a straightforward manner. Yes, I’ll give Rory a pass, just as I did for Adam Scott. Hey, I may have disagreed completely with Scott’s take on Olympic participation, but at least he was honest from the start.

Bacon: I gave him a pass from the start and even more so. If he didn’t want to make the trip for Zika, it was his decision, and the recent change in reasoning makes even more sense. Rory answers questions with answers. It’s an incredibly refreshing thing to see in sports. Agree with him or disagree with, you must respect him.

Bamberger: I leave pass distribution to elementary school teachers. He can do as he pleases. They all can.

6. It was a mixed bag at the Tournament of Champions for Jordan Spieth, who finished T3 in his title defense. He had 23 birdies and an eagle over his last 52 holes, but two double bogeys and a triple in the middle two rounds dashed his chances of repeating. Are you more encouraged by Spieth’s birdie binges or more concerned with the round-wrecking big numbers?

Sens: Encouraged. Spieth was playing from behind and playing aggressively. Not surprisingly, it was feast or famine for him. If Spieth is leading on Sunday at Augusta this spring and plops two balls in the water, then maybe we can start sounding concerned.

Ritter: Not worried at all. I chalk it up as winter rust and still see a big bounce-back season coming for Jordan.

Godich: I’d be less concerned if we had seen fewer big numbers out of Spieth in 2016. That said, his bounce-back ability is remarkable, he appears to be well-rested and the short game looks as good as ever. I expect a big year.

Wood: Well, neither, really. Jordan Spieth is a great player and more competitive than most. He leaves no stone unturned in preparing and is completely honest with himself and his team. There is no reason to think Jordan won’t continue to win tournaments, including majors, for years to come. I would say the same thing whether Jordan finished dead last this week or won by 10.

Bamberger: The Plantation course is sui generis, the field is tiny, the event is north of an exhibition but not by much. Only two people played better than Jordan. He was looking for more, he’s like Tiger and Rory and a very few others that way. But his T3 should give him nothing but encouragement.

Passov: I’m completely encouraged by Spieth’s birdies and final results at Kapalua. He finished tied for third. Short of firing an 80 in the final round to finish third, I can’t how this could be seen as anything but an excellent week for him.

Bacon: In his final 54 holes this week, he had four stretches of three birdies/eagles in a row. He got more and more comfortable as the tournament went on and had a solid week defending his insane performance last year. How encouraged am I? He’s my pick at the Sony Open. I’d be surprised if he didn’t win at Waialae this weekend.