Tour Confidential: With Jordan Spieth’s Rise, Is Rory McIlroy Feeling the Pressure?

January 18, 2016
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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 in the comments section below.

1. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy face off for the first time in 2016 at this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Does McIlroy need to prove anything this year, especially when he’s in the same field as Spieth?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): It’s a long season of golf and beating or not beating Spieth in Abu Dhabi isn’t going to mean anything in the long run. On the other hand, it’s never too early for Rory to send a message. Or for Jordan.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Rory McIlroy doesn’t need to prove anything for the rest of his life, golf-wise. If he quits today he’s in the Hall of Fame. No single week in golf is ever make-or-break. McIlroy became the golfer he is by trying to prove things to himself, not others.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Without a doubt. Spieth has become the sport’s alpha male, supplanting McIlroy atop the World Ranking and in the marketplace. Rory needs to beat him a few times to remind Jordan – and us – how much game he still has.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Rory just needs to get refocused. If he does that, we’re in for quite a ride. That said, Spieth isn’t waiting for him, and neither is anybody else for that matter.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): He doesn’t need to, but he certainly wants to. And for an athlete of Rory’s kind–a career worth of achievements already on his resume; enough money for many lifetimes–one of the ways you motivate yourself is by convincing yourself that others are looking past you. Rory isn’t mouthing off like an NFL receiver claiming that his team gets no respect, but you have to imagine he’s approaching 2016 with a small chip on his shoulder. Which bodes well for us fans. Will be great to see him and Spieth going full bore down the stretch at a big event. Which will happen.

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Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): Rory has a lot to prove this year only if he wants to get back in the conversation with regards to No. 1. I can only assume he does. Already he’s said he wants to start faster than usual in 2016, but can he? Historically he plays his best from May through August, or September in a Ryder Cup year. Spieth is always in season, hence he’s No. 1.

Chris Solomon, founder (@NoLayingUp): Any event with appearance fees and a staged pre-tournament awkward photo shoot does so at the sacrifice of the respectability of the event. The Abu Dhabi Championship is a rich man’s Hero World Challenge, with a little less of a OWGR point giveaway in exchange for oil barrels filled with cash. I think we’re going to see a revitalized Rory this year, but I don’t think he owes anything extra just because Spieth is in the field. Especially not in January in the United Arab Emirates.

2. Greg Norman is reportedly out as a FOX Sports golf analyst. It was first reported in a tweet from Links Magazine and later confirmed by Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck. What did you think of Norman’s performance on-air, and who should replace him?

VAN SICKLE: Norman didn’t have much to say, other than stating the obvious, and showed absolutely no inclination to draw from his own storied experiences. He didn’t bring much to the table. Paul Azinger and Brandel Chamblee would be my top two draft picks if I was looking for a golf anchorman–sorry, Ron Burgundy.

BAMBERGER: Norman would have improved over time but that’s not how TV works. Lee Trevino, even at age 76, would be brilliant in a TV booth talking about how to play in a U.S. Open. As Johnny Miller was. I think Paul Azinger has been very good, as has Curtis Strange and Brad Faxon.

SHIPNUCK: I didn’t love Norman but it’s a pretty small sample size to give him the axe already. Zinger’s name is already being thrown around and he’s great, but if Fox wants to be edgy why follow the same old template of a retired major champion? Brandel Chamblee would be good fun, if the deal could be hammered out, but what about Jim McKay? Or Christina Kim? Or Larry David?

GODICH: We got what we expected from the Shark, which wasn’t much. Fox doesn’t have to go far for his replacement; Brad Faxon is already on the payroll. I’m surprised that NBC/Golf Channel let him walk. He’d bring a much-needed fresh insight into the booth.

SENS: It’s easy to pile on Norman for his performance, which was even bumpier than the greens at Chambers Bay. But it was also his first go-around at an event of that magnitude, so you expect some hiccups. I would guess that his dismissal–if that’s what it was–had less to do with that poor first showing than with uncertainty about whether Norman was going to be willing to put in the time and effort it would take to get better as a broadcaster. That job takes work, and the Shark has a lot of other things going on. As for who should replace him, it would be polarizing, and the chances are about as good as they are of my winning a major, but I’d offer the gig to Brandel Chamblee. One of the smartest guys in golf broadcasting. And no one out-prepares him.

MORFIT: No on-air analyst, of anything, should utter the phrase “I’m at a loss for words.” Ever. Norman did, and unfortunately it’s what I’ll remember him for in the booth. Who should replace him? Paul Goydos. Very smart guy.

SOLOMON: I thought Norman was fine at Chambers Bay, which actually somehow made him the special one. It’s like they say – in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. Fox’s first year was pretty much a disaster, and it wasn’t Norman that was the problem. It wouldn’t be the big name splash that they’re probably looking for, and for sure not the age demographic they are likely targeting, but Lanny Wadkins was (and still is) supremely underrated, and should have never lost his job to Faldo. I have no idea how hard it is for him to get out of his current contract, but he deserves better than covering the Champions Tour.


3. The first two events of ’16 have taught us that Jordan Spieth is still a force and some big names are still in top form, even though it’s January. What’s your other big takeaway from the Hawaii swing?

VAN SICKLE: One of my favorite television things all year is watching golf from Hawaii at night in prime time. The scenery, the ocean, the courses, the players–it’s just what you need if you’re stuck at home in, say, Pittsburgh, instead of covering the events in person. Televised golf from Hawaii is underrated, if that’s possible.

BAMBERGER: That playing golf for a living is enviable.

SHIPNUCK: Yeah, it’s Spieth’s dominance at Kapalua that lingers. What he did in ’15 was one of the six or seven greatest seasons in golf history. You had to figure there was no way he’d come close to matching it this time around. But the kid is expanding our notion of what’s possible.

GODICH: We’re two events into the new year, and already we’re having issues with the anchoring ban—Zach Blair’s using a three-wood on a shot around the 71st green at the Sony, a stroke out of the lead. No sign of anchoring, yet Tour officials wanted to be sure so they approached Blair post-round. He didn’t even know what they were talking about. At this rate, it’s going to be a year loaded with interpretations and calls to the rules trailer.

SENS: That I want to be a Tour pro. At least for those few weeks.

MORFIT: I was impressed with Graham DeLaet’s 73-62 start at the Sony. And that other bearded fellow, the Duck Dynasty guy, has a very nice golf swing. Or was that Boo Weekley?

SOLOMON: That Kevin Kisner is going to be on the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team. He and Justin Thomas are hurt by the fact that their fall series wins count for exactly zero Ryder Cup points (thank you, Phil’s task force), but you would have to think DLIII would consider this fact when narrowing down his captain’s picks. The U.S. team is shaping up very nicely, and I’m confident that they have a great group of 11 core guys (Spieth, DJ, ZJ, Rickie, Phil, Koepka, Bubba, Reed, Thomas, Kisner, Furyk) that are going to be on the team barring injury (or winning other events that award them zero points). A lot of these guys started very strong in what should truly be a transcendent year in golf.

4. Fred Funk, at 59, became the oldest  player ever to make the cut at the Sony Open, and in the same event 52-year-old Vijay Singh turned back the clock with an opening-round 63. Would the Tour be more interesting if it visited more venues that don’t demand 300-plus-yard tee shots to compete?

VAN SICKLE: The tour would certainly get a different group of winners, perhaps. It’s one thing for Spieth to shoot 30 under. If eight other guys shoot 30 under, too, how interesting would that really be? Baseball’s Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game is fun for about 15 minutes but after a while, it develops a sameness. With so many drives beyond 350 yards these days, the tour won’t be adding more short courses, trust me.

BAMBERGER: For sure. Westchester for years, Colonial, Hilton Head, Hawaii, the U.S. Opens at Merion and Shinnecock–courses on a human scale make the events more fun to watch, in person and on TV.

SHIPNUCK: There are already a bunch on the West Coast alone – the Hope, Pebble and L.A. are three events where finesse and shotmaking are paramount. Then you have Harbour Town, Sawgrass, Colonial, Old White, Sedgefield, TPC River Highlands… Power is an advantage on any course in any conditions, but there is still a nice mix of courses on Tour.

GODICH: Distance is overrated. There are plenty of medium-length hitters getting it done on Tour, and we still have a nice mix of venues. In the end, it still comes down to who holes the most putts.

SENS: No doubt. Better for the fans, and though most Tour pros would be happy playing on a tarmac provided the money was right, it’s pretty clear that the players enjoy the variety of the golden oldies too. It’s part of what makes the Open Championship so much fun–there’s a chance of some gray-maned dark horse like Tom Watson making a run down the stretch.

MORFIT: Cozier courses should always have a place on the Tour. Davis Love was saying recently that those smaller venues like Greensboro, where you don’t have to bludgeon the course with the driver, will end up being great for Tiger. Who’d have thunk it?

SOLOMON: I think they should play more courses that don’t demand bombs off the tee, but I don’t think it necessarily makes the tour more interesting to the casual viewer. Not a lot of people are going to tune in to see Fabian Gomez in a playoff, yet at the same time, these “anyone can win” events can be really interesting for the more hardcore fans. It’s fun to take a break from bomb and gouge, but at the end of the day, we still want our fix of protracers that look like missile launches.


5. Phil Mickelson makes his 2016 debut at this week’s CareerBuilder Challenge. What’s your prediction for what we’ll see this year from the famously unpredictable Mickelson?

VAN SICKLE: I look for Phil to have some great days, post some really low rounds and have his usual share of six-birdie 71s. I think it gets exponentially tougher each year for guys in their mid-40s to put together four good rounds of ball-striking, putting or both. I see Phil hovering on the edge of contention a lot. I hope he has a chance to win a few times but I’m still in shock over how poor his normally great iron play was last year. He’ll have to convince me.

BAMBERGER: Until Augusta, I expect nothing from him. At Augusta, all bets are off.

SHIPNUCK: We’ll see gator shoes and matching gator belts, in some unattractive colors. Pin-striped pants, too.

GODICH: Phil will be Phil—as unpredictable as ever. That’s what makes him so fascinating.

SENS: Whether it’s the actual mechanic benefit of tightening up his swing, or just the psychic boost that comes from feeling like he’s getting a fresh start, I’m expecting a strong season for Mickelson. Not a complete-the-career grand slam kind of year. But I expect he’ll be in the hunt at Augusta. How’s that for going out on a limb?

MORFIT: Phil will play well at Augusta, which is built for him, but beyond that it’s total guesswork. I’d love to see him win the Hope this week. Would throw a big charge into things.

SOLOMON: Phil comes back in a big way in 2016. The Presidents Cup seemingly re-lit a fire under him, and he’s helped by the fact that he already knows he’s going to be on the Ryder Cup team regardless of what happens. Despite the zero wins in the last two years, expect to see confidence oozing out of Phil at every stop along the way this year. Bones will be tending some flags in the desert this week.

6. In a piece published in SI last week, Alan Shipnuck went deep inside the mysterious and troubled mind of Kevin Na. In your estimation, which Tour pro has been most hampered by demons in his or her head?

VAN SICKLE: Tom Weiskopf had one of the great swings in golf history but being from Ohio and being compared to Jack Nicklaus didn’t do him any favors. If sports psychologists had been invented then, Weiskopf might’ve tapped into his potential better and enjoyed golf and life more. If putting demons count, Ben Hogan would be on my list.

BAMBERGER: It was a terrific piece, and good for Na for being willing to share his deep oddness with Alan. He made the Tour a more interesting place. As for demons-in-the-head, the clubhouse leaders over the past 20 years I think would be Fred Couples, John Daly and Bubba Watson. In other words, those, despite all their accomplishments, would have accomplished far more with clearer heads.

SHIPNUCK: John Daly is on the list, for sure. Pat Perez deserves mention. But the all-time champ has to be Mac O’Grady.

GODICH: He hasn’t always been hampered by them, but Tiger Woods most certainly has had demons running through his head. The $64,000 question: for how long?

SENS: To paraphrase Homer Simpson, a lot of guys have known the exhilarating highs, the devastating lows and the creamy middles. But for depth and prolonged agony, it’s hard to top the death spirals of Ian Baker Finch and David Duval, both major winners, one of them a former number-one ranked player. Given how far he’s fallen, an argument could be made for Tiger, but in his case it’s hard to know how to tease out the mental breakdown from all the injuries he’s gone through.

MORFIT: Man, that’s a crowded field. Tour pros with too many demons don’t stay on Tour, so we may never know the biggest basket cases. That said, Mac O’Grady was the best, from the generation before Na’s, at articulating what a golfer must try to overcome mentally. For you kids–geez, I sound like Bamberger–Mac was a poet and student of the game who happened to be darn near ambidextrous.

SOLOMON: As many times as we try, there’s no way to truly understand what goes on inside a player’s head. To speculate on that is a bit reckless and irresponsible, so let me go ahead and be both of those things and just come out and say Tiger. The combination of not being able to trust his body, along with the constant tinkering of the swing, the psychological damage from the scandal, and the case can be made that the toothpaste is out of the tube, and there is no way to get it back in.

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