Tour Confidential: Who Will Be This Year’s Breakout Star?

January 2, 2017

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. In this edition, a guest panelist joins the discussion: veteran PGA Tour caddie John Wood.  

1. Rory McIlroy will use Callaway woods and irons when he makes his first start of 2017 at the BMW South African Open on Jan. 12, according to The report also says he’ll use an Odyssey putter and Titleist wedges and ball. Are you surprised McIlroy has been tinkering as much as he has been? Just four months ago he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see me not go with manufacturer for a year or two, just sort of play with what I want to play, play with what I’m comfortable with, and go from there. … No reason to start changing just because I can.”

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Sounds like Rory is enjoying a phenomenon most recreational players know well: the joy of trying new gear. I’m not surprised that he’s embracing his newfound freedom. He, along with his Nike counterparts, could very well make multiple equipment switches this year while searching for a permanent solution.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree, Jeff. I was with Rory when he was 19 and at the Titleist testing center for the first time. He and his father were hitting balls. Bob Vokey himself was handing wedges to the kid, and they were the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. Nike made some very nice wedges, but I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t want to play Vokey wedges. I was also awed by Rory’s ability to describe the flight characteristics of the different Titleist balls. At one point he asked his father what club he was hitting. Titleist, the father answered. “I wouldn’t think you’d be playing TaylorMade,” Rory said. There’s a lot to be said for first love.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): All true, Mike, but this could just be a dalliance and who knows what contracts he winds up signing. There’s always a business side to these choices. But no doubt Rory is having fun being a free agent and enjoying the endless attention that comes with his every equipment flirtation.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): From a caddie’s perspective, I’d want all this settled as soon as possible. There are three areas I would stress. I want to see him confident over his driver, looking for reasons to hit it as opposed to reasons to avoid it. I want to see distance control and consistent trajectory with his irons (which is the mostly the ball), and I want to see him comfortable over his putter, especially within five feet. Seeing how far Rory was hitting the TaylorMade in China, it would surprise me if he went away from that. The rest I think can be figured out fairly quickly. Rory is a smart guy.  He can do the math and figure out there is no financial reason to play any club he doesn’t think is the best in its field.  In my mind he is most likely not chasing any of this equipment with an endorsement in mind, but narrowing his choices to find what his best options are to win golf tournaments. The contracts will be there in the end.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): When Rory said, “I wouldn’t surprised to see me” tinker around for a while, that was jock speak for, “I plan to tinker around for a while.” So, no, not a surprise at all to see him playing the field, as it were. As Johnny says, the contracts are always going to be there for a guy like Rory. No rush for him to make any long-term commitments.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): He has obviously found something that has intrigued him, and if he’s going to experiment, now’s the time. Plus, he won’t truly know what he has until he tests it in competition.

2. The first event of 2017 begins on Thursday with the SBS Tournament of Champions with Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and others back in action. The 2016-17 wraparound season began months ago, but in your mind which event marks the unofficial start of the PGA Tour season and why?

RITTER: This is it. We’ve bid farewell to 2016 and flipped the calendar. Many players,  like Jason Day, will have a new look. Some, like Rory, will play new gear. Kapalua may be low-key, but I enjoy the island setting and mellow vibe. A new year starts now.

BAMBERGER: Agreed again! The SBS whatever. This is the Tournament of Champions, and it’s been around for all our lives and then some. No matter how cold it gets in the East, they’re playing under palms. That’s a start to a golf season.

SHIPNUCK: I love Kapalua as a venue, and I’ll be there again this year enjoying the vibe, but I feel like Torrey is the unofficial start to the season. It’s a big-time golf course and usually the first sighting we get of Tiger or Phil or both.

GODICH: What a surprise coming from a Californian! Nothing says the start of a new season like the Tournament of Champions.

WOOD: With professional golf sadly becoming the only sport in the world without an off-season, I think this week marks the start for the fans, and here’s why. Yes, we play a fall series, but most of those events aren’t attended by the top players, because at the end of 2016, most of them played a fairly gruelling schedule from the Open Championship in July through the Tour Championship or Ryder Cup in October. Most top players take their off-season there, because nowadays you have to force your choice in off season. Most of the lesser-ranked players or newly minted PGA Tour players will play all of the fall, because they’ve just had their off-season with missed playoff events, Ryder Cup, etc. So take your pick of the West Coast swing, but now is when it feels like the tour starts.

SENS: They flesh out the “season” with all the late-year filler in the world, but to the average fan, 2017 doesn’t start until the calendar says 2017. And to me, it doesn’t really kick into swing until Bill Murray starts up his antics in Pebble Beach.

3. Of the 2017 majors—Masters at Augusta, U.S. Open at Erin Hills, British Open at Birkdale and PGA Championship at Quail Hollow—which most intrigues you?

GODICH: The first layup question of 2017: the Masters, hands down.

RITTER: I mean, if they want to stage the Masters next week, I’m ready. But as a first-time venue, Erin Hills presents the most unknowns. I’ve never seen the track, but much of what I’ve read compares the layout to Chambers Bay. Surely the USGA has learned its lessons from that week … right?

BAMBERGER: I am very nervous about Erin Hills. Not a flowing walking course, for one thing. Augusta is golf’s ultimate spring flower, and this year, with that lineup, and Rory looking to go quad and Jordan looking to bury ’16, I think it’ll be the best of ’em.

SHIPNUCK: Quail Hollow does nothing for me since we’re so familiar with it as an everyday Tour track. Erin Hills could be a disaster; at best, I think it will be O.K. Birkdale might be the best course in the Open rota, so that’s a strong second choice in this discussion. But the buildup to this Masters is going to be intense, with Day, Rory, Dustin, Jordan and assorted others all peaking, or trying to. I think it’ll be an epic Masters.

WOOD: Always the Masters. Always. I don’t think Birkdale is high on anyone’s list of favorite Open rota courses. While Quail Hollow is a wonderful course, it may struggle to have that big major feel because we are so used to it, and the only thing intriguing about the U.S. Open is what will the USGA do this year to make themselves and not the winner or the golf the story. In baseball they say an umpire does his job if you don’t even notice him at all. Well, in my mind, the USGA has been noticed quite a bit at the last two U.S. Opens, so it I guess it will be intriguing to see if they can get out of the way at Erin Hills.

BAMBERGER: Well said, John. I commend to you and others the novel Conduct of the Game by John Hough about the quiet pleasures of being a silent ump. Way too much USGA in recent years, but much of it was necessary.

SENS: Ditto on the Masters for all the reasons cited above, plus this: Tiger.  Obviously, he’s not the Vegas favorite that he once was, but he is still the most compelling figure in the game. And though we can’t call it his official return to competitive golf, it is his return to the majors. If he is ever going to win another, Augusta seems like his best chance.

4. A year ago in this space we asked the panel which major-less player would nab his or her first major title in 2016. (Bonus points to Jeff Ritter and Alan Shipnuck for their respective Danny Willett and Dustin Johnson picks.) Looking ahead to 2017, which player is most likely to win his or her first major and at what venue?

RITTER: Thanks for mentioning what was just about the only prediction I got right last year. For ’17, Hideki is the obvious answer, but I will pass on the layup and take a shot at Kevin Chappell, who has been trending the right direction for a couple years and has flashed in a few majors. I could see him breaking through at the PGA.

BAMBERGER: Patrick Reed. Birkdale. In a playoff over Danny Willett and Dustin Johnson.

SHIPNUCK: Koepka was so impressive at the Ryder Cup, and a lot of guys have used that momentum for major career upgrades. I think this is his year.

GODICH: Well, nobody has more Ryder Cup momentum than Reed. He wins at Quail Hollow.

WOOD: Obviously, Matt Kuchar will win all 4.

BAMBERGER: Yes, but what will he do in the Presidents Cup?

SENS: No doubt. But if Kuchar is kind enough to let someone else into the winner’s circle, I’ll say it’s Rafa Cabrera Bello at the British.

5. Golf Channel reaired each of Tiger’s 14 major wins on Friday, in honor of his 41st birthday. Which of those events would you most relish rewatching wire to wire?

RITTER: When Tiger stormed through Pebble Beach at the 2000 U.S. Open, I had just graduated from college and watched his second and third rounds while perched on a stool at a West Michigan watering hole. My memories of his play are … hazy. (I do distinctly remember that the bar sold Bud Light pitchers for $2.) I’d watch those two rounds again to fully appreciate every shot from the most dominant performance in golf history.

BAMBERGER: Golf Channel finding creative use of numerical dyslexia. The 2000 PGA Championship playoff over Bob May was a stunning bit of theater. The 2008 U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate had it all. The Hoylake win after Earl’s death in 2006 was a stunning display of pure, pure golf and the control of one’s emotions, and his response to it was astounding. But there’s no question: the ’97, win by 12 Masters. Repeat after me: by 12. In his first major as a pro. With his parents there. With a 40 on the front nine on Thursday. At age 21. As a man with African, European, Asian, and Native American ancestors in a sport, and at a club, that historically had never seen anybody who looked anything like him. The slightly-across-the-line swing. The baby draws. The deadliest putting stroke you ever saw, including Big Jack and Seve and Crenshaw. The clubs he hit into the par-5s. Please.

SHIPNUCK: All true, Bamby, but that tournament was basically over by lunchtime on Saturday. For pure excitement nothing can top the 2000 PGA—it was basically perfect golf, with so many incredible momentum swings. And it was the key to the Tiger Slam, because once he finally put away Bob May, there was no doubt Woods would take the ensuing Masters.

GODICH: But it was the PGA, Alan, against Bob May, with all due respects. I’ll stick with the ’97 Masters, for all of the reasons that Michael cited. Honorable mention to the 2008 U.S. Open. Who thought he wasn’t going to make that birdie putt at the 72nd hole?

WOOD: I totally understand the allure of the ’97 Masters, and the attraction of watching one of his “duels” down the stretch vs insert opponent here, but for me it would be Pebble Beach in 2000. He won that U.S. Open by 15 shots. Say that out loud, by 15 shots. If you had access to the entire history of golf, from Old Tom Morris to young Jordan Spieth, I think you would look at that year, and especially that week, and be able to argue that that was the highest level this game has ever been played by anyone. That was as close to perfect as anyone has ever gotten in this game. I would argue that at that time, regardless of what the statistics might say, Tiger was the best in the world at every facet of the game. Driving, iron play, short game, putting, mentally…he had complete control of everything, and I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. Plus, I’d love to watch Steve Williams’s reaction while Tiger hit his second driver on 18 after hitting his first into the bay following the delay. It was the only ball left in the bag at that point, because Tiger had taken a few balls out of the bag to putt in the hotel room the night before. To his credit, Steve didn’t say anything about it to Tiger, but inside he had to have been in a full panic.

BAMBERGER: It was great. Astounding. Mind-blowing. And boring.

SENS: The ’97 Masters for reasons that I couldn’t express better than Michael has above. My second choice. though, would not be one of his wins but his loss to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship. That was golf’s Buster Douglas moment, when we came to realize that the apparently superhuman champ was human after all. In retrospect, it looks a bit like the moment when Tiger came to realize that, too.

6. If you were sketching out New Year’s resolutions for the game, what would be on the top of your list?

RITTER: Golf’s biggest problem is its declining number of players. Do whatever it takes regarding rules, access, affordability and fun to get more folks on the course.

BAMBERGER: I don’t agree, Jeff. Golf has always been a fringe sport and most likely always will be. Paint the white stakes red, cut the rough, move the tees forward, get golf in more public schools. The game is fine. The game is great.

SHIPNUCK: Have every private course in the U.S. follow the UK model and allow the public to play a couple of times a week. Why do only a few hundred people get to play Cypress Point or Pine Valley or Augusta National? They should be like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon: national treasures that should be enjoyed by all. Can you imagine the excitement that would tear through the golf world if all the great private courses cracked open the doors? Charge $300 a tee time, give half the money to junior golf and the world would be a much better place.

SENS: Careful, Alan, or you’ll be branded a Bernie Sanders-style socialist. I’d love to see that happen for the reasons you mentioned. As a side curiosity, I’d also be interested to see how cracking open the gates at some fortresses might affect course rankings. There are a number of highly ranked courses whose prestige rests largely on their remaining impenetrable. But I digress. As for resolutions that might actually come to pass, I like where the governing bodies have been leaning in regards to revising some outmoded rules. More of that please, and the sooner the better.

BAMBERGER: I’d like to see Bernie Sanders get hired by the PGA Tour as its spokesman. Spokesperson.

WOOD: Pace of play at every level. I think it touches on so much. I know when I’m home I can’t stand to go out and play because I know I’m going to be sitting on the 2nd hole watching four tour-style preshot routines in front of me for the next five hours. I would like to see penalty strokes being given for slow play on all professional tours. (Nothing will ever improve until this takes place.) I would like to see collegiate golfers play on their own, not with their coaches and their assistants  explaining the complexities of a 100-yard wedge shot as if it were the theory of relativity. There is just too much going on, and all that trickles down to junior golfers and the public.  Got to speed things up.

GODICH: In keep things moving along, I’ll be brief. I second Johnny’s nomination.

BAMBERGER: The 30-incher Watson made to conclude the ’77 Open at Turnberry was so athletic. Take a look, stand on up, knock it in. Tiger in 2000 needed about 15 seconds behind the ball. (Compare that to now.) I have never played with a fellow 90-shooter who I thought was making things better by pretending to be Nicklaus in his golden crawl. Love Furyk in the tent. He’s killing me on the course, but the millions who are taking their cues from him are the real problem. And they’re shooting 58 for nine.