Tour Confidential: What Are Your Expectations for Tiger Woods’s Return?

January 23, 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. We saw last month what Tiger Woods is capable of in a silly-season invitational on a resort course. This week he’s going to Torrey Pines, a big-boy track on which he has won eight times as a professional. What are your expectations for him at the Farmers Insurance Open?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Tiger is so comfortable on that course that regardless of his blips at the Hero, I expect him to make the cut. But it’s hard to imagine him contending if he hits as many wayward drives as he did at the Hero. Torrey won’t be nearly as lenient in that way.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I actually expect a lot from Tiger, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he contended. The signs he showed in the Bahamas knocked off a lot of rust for him, I think he enjoyed himself, and he led the field in birdies. The reason he didn’t finish higher was big numbers. Those big numbers were almost always a result of driving the ball into waste areas or hazards, unplayable areas that are on both sides of most fairways at Albany. Those areas don’t exist at Torrey Pines, and if we look back at his U.S. Open victory here, he wasn’t exactly playing from the short grass much. The foul balls he hit off the tee that resulted in big numbers at the Hero will be very playable at Torrey Pines.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Now that is a sophisticated comment, sir! Making a cut is a baby step (to use a Tigerism) and b-steps (to create a Tigerism) is what it’s all about right now. Repeat after me: IT’S A PROCESS. I think he will win on Tour again, but it will take time.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): There were a lot of positive signs last month in his Bahamian debut, but ultimately Tiger finished near the bottom of the board. In this, his first full-field event, I expect a missed cut. Doesn’t mean that he can’t get back to contending — maybe even soon, if he’s healthy — but for this step of the journey, playing on the weekend would be a small victory.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s been raining a ton in San Diego so the course will be long and soft – that’ll help Tiger hit more fairways but he’ll have more lumber into holes than at least a third of the field. I expect we’ll see a less exciting version of the golf at the Hero – good shots and mistakes but not so much of either. Making the cut will be a nice accomplishment on this long road back.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): I’m with John here. Albany did yield some really unusual situations for missed fairways. Those same misses at Torrey won’t be quite as penal. And if the rough remains thick and wet, few are better at gouging shots out as Tiger. I still look at 24 birdies in 72 holes and think that if his putter is working even close to that, he’ll make the cut.


2. Ho hum, Adam Hadwin shot 59 in the third round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, but all eyes were on Phil Mickelson. After undergoing a pair of operations for a sports hernia late last year, Mickelson opened with rounds of 68 and 66 before cooling off on the weekend and finishing tied for 21st. Should we be surprised by Phil’s strong start?

Sens: Not surprising. I know they say that the only minor surgery is surgery that happens to someone else. But as sports surgeries go, this was a long way from career threatening. Last I checked, Phil can afford the finest medical care and had plenty of time off to recuperate. Why wouldn’t he go to town at a relaxed event in the desert?

Ritter: Anytime a golfer goes under the knife, it’s a concern. But Phil had a rehab plan in place, and this injury isn’t as dicey or debilitating as, say, back surgery. Phil often lights it up early in the year. As the rust melts away, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end his victory drought somewhere before the Masters.

MORE: Hudson Swafford Wins CareerBuilder Challenge

Shipnuck: Last Tuesday night I sat down in Phil’s living room for a rollicking podcast for my new vertical, the Knockdown. (Launching soon!) Wait, where was I? Oh yes, Phil, he said he was hitting it so s—– he wasn’t sure if he was going to play. Shows how quickly these guys can find it. But don’t forget that Bones had a double knee replacement on the same day in October Phil had his first surgery. Last week was their first time working together and Phil was energized by the reunion. We all know that Phil is an emotional golfer and as ambassador to the Hope he was motivated. We’ll see if he can maintain that intensity at Torrey, a course that, post-Rees, he no longer likes.

Bamberger: I cannot wait to see the Knockdown. Back to Phil, have we learned nothing? The man is incapable of being predictable.

Wood: No. Phil has always played well on the west coast swing. I believe he’s got multiple victories at Pebble, Torrey Pines, Palm Springs, Riviera and TPC Scottsdale, so Phil eats it up out here. Like Alan said the reunion with Bones had to be invigorating as they could share scar stories. These two are so much more to each other than a normal caddie-player relationship, and I’m sure both of them up and around and doing well made them feel good and ready to go.

Passov: I’m not surprised by Phil’s strong start. As our astute crew has pointed out, he’s almost always stellar on the west coast. No exception this week. He had a terrific year last year, even without a win, and he showed in Palm Springs that he’s healed and ready. San Diego, his home game, should be interesting. Not only is he less than enamored with the post-Rees South course, but he’ll also play one round on the North, which he was supposed to re-design in 2016. But after doing all of the consulting and planning he was prohibited from doing the actual re-design work by a head-scratching interpretation of California law. Tom Weiskopf got the gig instead.


3. From the Whatever Happened To department, Chad Campbell had the lead on Sunday at the CareerBuilder before being waylaid by a water-logged triple bogey on the 6th hole. In 2003 Campbell finished second in an SI Golf+ poll in which PGA Tour pros were asked to name the best player never to have won a major. Now 42, Campbell has almost $25 million in earnings and four Tour titles, though it has been almost 10 years since his last win. Has he overachieved or underachieved?

Sens: Born and raised in a small town in Texas. Started his collegiate career in junior college. Went on to earn several lifetimes worth of money playing a game he loves. Player poll or not, I’d say that’s quite a success story.

Ritter: Agreed, Josh. He may be major-less, but there are plenty of talented Tour pros who never sniff four Ws — let alone three Ryder Cup teams — in a career.

Shipnuck: All good points, but he’s also been one of the purest ballstrikers on Tour this whole time. How bad has he had to chip and putt to get it in the barn only four times? I’d still count him as an overachiever but also a bit of a what-if.

Bamberger: Plus, so flinty. How has that man not won a U.S. Open yet? He’s Scott Simpson, plus, plus.

Wood: As we all know, golf is fickle. PGA Tour golf is the ficklest. Yes I said ficklest. People don’t understand how difficult it is to win out here at all, much less multiple times and contend in a handful of majors. I’m sure if you asked Chad he’d say he probably should have won more, but you could say that about anyone.

Bamberger: Agreed, John. If the ball were still balata, Tiger would have 100 Tour wins and Chad Campbell 10.

Passov: You have to look between the ears as well. He’s found himself in contention a fair number of times since his last win, and most often, he finds a way to make a crucial mistake or two, late in the game, just like this week. But yes, what superb ballstriking skills, and a really good guy to boot. Could be one of those players who rallies one more time with two or three wins in short order.

4. The Europeans are shaking things up for the Ryder Cup. There are more points to be won later in the cycle, and Thomas Bjorn will get four captain’s picks, the same number as counterpart Jim Furyk. Is four the right number? Or is it time to let each captain select all 12 members of his team?

Sens: Given the rollicking show that the Ryder Cup has become, why not go with 12 captain’s picks? Turn it into a made-for-TV event, with a big reveal, like the NFL draft. In effect, it would likely play out a lot like the current system, since most captains would pick the top guys in the rankings. But as long as we’re embracing the Ryder Cup for what it is today, let’s go all out. At this point, there’s no going back.

Ritter: The “right” number of picks depends on the cycle. Last year, no one emerged late in the fall and the U.S. picks were chalk. But Europe’s change gives them a better chance to grab the hot hand if a player or two pop up. Here’s the crazy part: suddenly the script flipped, and now it’s Europe that’s mimicking U.S. team strategy. Hazeltine’s impact on this rivalry was seismic.

Shipnuck: There are few topics that bore me more. The only point of the captain’s picks is for us to have something to second-guess. So I guess this is a good thing?

Wood: It’s all fun to talk about in the two-year run-up to every Ryder Cup, but in the end, the team will be the same except for one player interchanged for another. And no I’d never want to see more than four captain’s picks. You have no idea how much it means to the players and caddies to make those teams, and doing something exceptional to earn your way on is about as thrilling as winning a tournament. But I would like to see the Ryder Cup steal a page out of the President’s Cup and do matchup pairings rather than a blind draw.

Bamberger: Golf is all about earning it, whatever it is. You earn it on a points system. Four is likely three picks too many, if not four.

Passov: I’m siding with Alan here. Except to hype and over-hype the whole event in the lead-up, I don’t think we should have Ryder Cup captain’s picks at all. If you played your way into the top 12 over a two-year period, you’ve played your way onto the team, in my book. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll play until the Singles. There’s no more exciting event in golf to attend than the Ryder Cup. I know it’s a (well-deserved) cash cow for the PGA of America, but I’m not a fan of the exhaustive second-guessing on captains and their picks.

5. After some early bumps, golf at the 2016 Summer Games was deemed a smashing success. Now we learn that Kasumigaseki Country Club, the 2020 Olympics site outside of Tokyo, has no full female members and doesn’t allow women to play on Sundays. Word is that the IOC has contacted the International Golf Federation. Should the powers-that-be look for another course?

Sens: If one of the burning goals is to grow the game, and Olympic golf is meant to be an engine of that growth, why would you want to stage it at venue that is off limits to half the world’s eligible golfers? 2020 is a ways off. Before we go hunting for a new venue, why not have a conversation with the club about a possible policy change?

Ritter: Sure, talk to the club about changing their policy. And if they won’t budge, or seem reluctant, move on and move on fast. All-male membership is the wrong message for golf, and the Games. There are other courses in Tokyo.

Shipnuck: It’s amazing how golf always finds a way to make negative headlines. At the Olympics female athletes are celebrated and venerated like nowhere else–it’s a bad look for the game to introduce this topic in what needs to be a healing Olympics for golf. Find another venue, stat.

Bamberger: Absolutely cannot bring Olympic golf to a club with restrictive practices such as those. The club changes or the venue does.

Wood: I agree with all of the above. Have a discussion with the club first, and if holding the Olympics means more to them than excluding women as full members, they will change their policy. If the opposite is true, then find a new venue. I have a feeling everyone eligible will go in 2020 and it would be a shame to distract from what could be an historical week of golf.

Passov: As a history buff, I’d really like to see the event remain at Kasumigaseki. That was the venue for Japan’s incredible upset win in the 1957 Canada Cup (now the World Cup of Golf), when Pete Nakamura and Koichi Ono beat Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret, along with the rest of the teams. It sparked a Japanese golf boom and was really the early driving force for golf’s rise in Asia. As it is, this is a cultural thing for starters, with a different way of life in Asia, but it’s also easily fixable. They have 266 women members — this isn’t Muirfield — but yes, there are some restrictions on Sundays and certain holidays. Fix the problem and we’re good to go.

6. David Toms made his Champions tour debut this week at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. The senior circuit gets an influx of new talent in 2017, including Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly. How closely do you follow this tour? Or do you see it more as an exhibition?

Sens: It depends on the event. Most of the time, I take it in as a good-time exhibition. But for a lot of guys out there, the Champions tour is a long way from just a laugh and a lark. They’re still fiercely competitive. Just watching Langer stave off Father Time is almost compelling enough.

Ritter: I like the Champions tour but admit my attention wavers in and out over the course of the year. The Senior U.S. and British Opens are always fascinating. The other majors can grab me, but it largely depends on the players involved. Agree with Josh that Langer is incredible, and it’ll be fun to follow Stricker and Kelly. I also think John Daly could do a lot for this tour if he actually started contending.

Bamberger: I agree. I find the senior tour inspiring. It reminds you that at some point your skills will erode but inhibiting the erosion becomes a new way of measuring yourself.

Shipnuck: I’ve become more a fan as the tour has transitioned into a place for grinders trying to get their overdue taste of glory and not a monument to fading starpower. I mean, when was the last time Jerry Kelly won anything? It’ll be a blast to see him back in contention, when it means so much to him.

Wood: While not a fan of the tour as a whole, I follow friends and ex-bosses who’ve made their way out there like Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland, Mark Calcavecchia, and I’ll definitely follow Strick. Week in, week out, though, it’s not something I follow.

Passov: I’m a huge Champions tour fan, even though it’s not always must-see TV for me. If there are some compelling leaders and if the tournament venue is a course I want to see, then I’ll watch. They’re still great names, who still play remarkably well, and who are usually entertaining … but in the end, tournaments usually feel more exhibition-like, lacking any edge-of-your-seat drama like we see in majors and on the PGA Tour.