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Tour Confidential: Dissecting Rickie’s shaky Sunday, and should Sergio be suspended?

February 4, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they discuss the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Rickie Fowler’s fifth career PGA Tour victory, more rules controversies (and reversals!), Johnny Miller’s final broadcast, changes at Augusta National and more.

1. Rickie Fowler was 1 for 6 in converting 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour, and on Sunday he made it 2 for 7. He shot 74 — he still hasn’t broken par in any of these aforementioned final rounds — and overcame a rare rules snafu to win by two and claim PGA Tour victory No. 5. Was this Sunday a vote of confidence for Fowler, or a blow to his confidence?

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): This is a bit off topic, but what struck me today, watching from home, was that Fowler appeared in about half of the commercials — a reminder that he has long been a more successful brand than a player. That’s an indirect way of saying that Rickie has been a victim of our own high expectations of himself. But anyway, it’s hard to win on Tour. On top of that, trying to close is clearly in Fowler’s head. But I think he’s smart enough to take the positives out of today. A win’s a win, and the fact that he was able to limp through Sunday for a win has got to be more of a plus than anything.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): It was ugly, but it was a tough scoring day for the entire field. The fact that Fowler righted himself after the breakdown on 11 to not only play well, but surpass Grace and win the event has to be a positive. (Who loses confidence while raising a trophy?) It could be a springboard to Fowler’s best season yet.

Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak):  When the only person to push him was Mother Nature, it’s really just kinda meh for me. Kudos to him for winning, and that’s probably worth a big confidence boost in itself, but it doesn’t further define you as a closer.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): Starting out the day he would have wanted a door-slamming round to shut up the critics. That went out the window midway through the round, at which point expectations fully reset — a win ended up feeling like a long shot. He got plenty of help from his competitors, but in the end he got it done, which is what we’ll remember — for now.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Well, being out in his group, I would say definitely more of a vote of confidence. Conditions were brutal, much tougher than the fairly benign conditions we had the first three days, and for a while our whole group was just kind of struggling along trying to figure out if it really was this tough or if we were just languishing. I still felt like it was anyone’s tournament until Rickie birdied 10, at which point it felt like something crazy would have to happen… and then something crazy happened as everyone knows. For him to go through 11 and still get it up and down for 7, then bogey the next and STILL find the reserves to finish like he did and close the deal was incredibly impressive, and in the long run I think winning like that, finding reserves when things are going wrong, will be better than winning in a rout. He found something in himself on 14 through 18 that will be hugely important moving forward.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): That long putt to save (lol) triple bogey on 11 has to be one of the most important of his career. That right there showed me a ton, as did the driver and conversion on 17. To turn calamity into a victory is huge for Fowler.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: You’d be crazy not to see the truth in what John says. Marketing has made Fowler more famous than he of course would otherwise be, as a player with five Tour wins. (Same as Nick Watney and Ben Crane.) So we expect more from him than he might actually have. But he’s a nice young man and a nice player.

Rickie Fowler watches a tee shot during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Sunday.
Rickie Fowler watches a tee shot during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Sunday.

2. After the victory, NBC analyst Paul Azinger, who was making his debut in the booth, said this performance will put an end to Rickie’s reputation that he can’t close. Would you agree?

Ritter: I mean, if he couldn’t close at all he wouldn’t have five wins. I realize that number is lower than expectations, but right now he’s still probably just a floor or two below golf’s penthouse. But to remove all doubt, he needs to kick down the door at a major.

Sens: No. That was not the final round of a stone-cold killer.

Zak: See earlier answer about Mother Nature being his biggest opponent.

Dethier: Gawd no. Granted his playing partners didn’t fare any better, but that inspired less confidence, not more. Still, credit for steadying the ship late.

Wood: Yes, absolutely. It was brutal out there, things were going very wrong, and he overcame conditions and a crazy bad break to pull it out. It was a win of perseverance, and majors take exactly that.

Shipnuck: The jury is still out.

Bamberger: Don’t agree with Dr. Paul. He’ll win some and lose more. He gutted this one out, in tough weather, but this is not exactly the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

3. Sergio Garcia was disqualified from the Saudi International on Saturday after he damaged several greens in frustration — one report said it was as many as five greens — and was slapped with a “serious misconduct.” James Corrigan of The Telegraph reported that the last “high-profile pro” to receive a misconduct charge was Simon Dyson in 2013. Dyson, who tapped down a spike mark on the green (which is now legal), was fined £30,000 and suspended two months. But Garcia will not be suspended, according to a report by Martin Dempster of The Scotsman. What should happen to Sergio for such a flagrant violation?

Ritter: It’s hard to pass judgement without seeing a tape of the incidents. (And why are there no tapes? We need a separate Confidential for this.) Without knowing more, some kind of fine along with the DQ feels about right.

Sens: A fine seems in order. How much of a fine? We might need a separate Confidential on that as well.

Zak: Apparently there is no footage of it because Garcia’s tee time was too early, which is an all-too convenient excuse. What should happen? The Euro tour should release those tapes and let public opinion decide.

Dethier: There are photos taken by the rules officials, which should be released. But that misses the point. Sergio was being paid a ton of money to go to a brand-new tournament at a brand-new golf course in a country that has never hosted a golf tournament — in the MIDDLE OF THE FREAKING DESERT — and he’s shocked that the greens aren’t perfect?! This is mind-blowing to me, and it’s childish, and the damage to his reputation is more important than any fine or suspension anyway.

Wood: It was sad, and will do more to his reputation than any fine or suspension would serve, though I think both are probably in order.

Shipnuck: The tapes would be good fun but no one is disputing what happened. He should be suspended for at least three months.

Bamberger: Agree with Alan. This is truly conduct unbecoming. I thought he had grown up.

4. Rule 10.2b(4) — advice and other help — has received a ton of attention lately, as Haotong Li was penalized two strokes for having his caddie in a direct line behind him as he addressed a putt last week and, this week, when Denny McCarthy and Justin Thomas were tied up with the rule in Phoenix. McCarthy was penalized two strokes under the same rule for an approach shot on Friday, yet on Saturday morning the PGA Tour released a statement saying it was overturning McCarthy’s penalty. This unprecedented ruling also came after Thomas was involved in a similar incident on Saturday morning. The statement cited confusion regarding the application and language of the new rule and said the Tour will work with the USGA and R&A to analyze and improve the situation with the rule. After all of the time the governing bodies spent revising the Rules of Golf for a 2019 rollout, how does an oversight like this happen?

Sens: It’s easy to jump all over the governing bodies for this (it’s very fashionable to do that these days). But no written rules, no matter how carefully considered, can account for every possibility that life throws at you. It happens in other sports. (Look at the NFL, grappling with questions about video review.) It happens in our legal system. If it now takes a prolonged time for the powers that be to get this particular rule straightened out, then we can all pile on them. But I don’t think it’s fair to do so now.

Ritter: The spirit of the rule is obvious: they wanted to put an end to caddies lining up pro golfers as they stood over shots. It was, and is, a good idea. The failure was in the way the rule was written — the language around when a player begins to address the ball was vague, which created chaos and confusion. The lesson: always pay for good editors.

Zak: The thing that the USGA and R&A didn’t really SEEM to take into account was how widely different interpretations could be made. I think that’s obviously a very tricky thing to do, so this is probably more of a shortcoming on their discussions with the various tours. Bottom line is we shouldn’t be getting surprised by these things. At least I don’t think we should be.

Dethier: The fellas above me have it covered — poor communication seems to be the culprit here, and it was obviously a bad look. But I’m glad they seem to be on the road to correcting this one, and I like the rule.

Wood: I could write six pages right now, but I won’t. The alignment rule is written poorly. It is an easy fix, however. “A caddie cannot stand directly behind his player with the intent of aiding him line up his upcoming shot.” Add intent. That’s all. There are many times a caddie will stand behind his player and most of them have nothing whatsoever to do with alignment. If we are in the trees, many times we will get behind them to look for a way out. “I see a seven-iron fitting through the small window right there.” Or if his ball comes to rest close to a tree and he wants us to check his backswing to see how much room he has to fit his swing and avoid hitting a branch, we stand behind him and let him know he needs to swing a little flatter or tell him he’s got plenty of room. We won’t stay back there during the shot but we will check him for sure. Add intent, and we are all done here. Let’s be honest, it’s an LPGA rule. In 23 years of caddying I’ve seen guys have their caddies line them up at this level maybe a handful of times, while it’s fairly prominent on the LPGA. The next rule that needs to be changed BACK is the one that says a player cannot replace a club that has been damaged in the normal course of play. I understand the guys at my local muni don’t have the luxury of having a backup driver in their locker, but every player on tour does. Quick. Name another major sport when a piece of broken equipment cannot be replaced. Flat tire at Daytona? Carry on, Mr. Logano. We are sorry, Mike Trout, that you cracked your bat here in the bottom of the 9th of the World Series, best of luck with the splinter. It makes no sense to me that if Dustin Johnson is leading the Masters by a shot and his driver face, through no fault of his own, cracks while he hits a drive on the 2nd hole, that he can’t replace it. With this change of rule, the USGA is setting itself up to be “The Story” again at a major championship. “Boy what would have happened had Dustin’s driver not cracked on him today and he was forced to play with just a 3-wood. We will never know.”

Shipnuck: I like what Dr. Wood is saying about intent. But given the current climate, why is any caddie even remotely behind his player once the conversation is over. Stand by the bag!

Bamberger: I don’t think they needed a rule change here. The LPGA could have adapted a local rule for its play, because that’s where you really see it. But on the PGA Tour it isn’t much of an issue, and in the rest of the world of golf it’s not even on the radar, a caddie or a playing partner lining you up.

5. Johnny Miller called his final golf broadcast for NBC during the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, capping a nearly 30-year career in the booth. What will you miss most about Miller in the tower?

Sens: His forthrightness. That’s what set him apart from the beginning. His refusal to trip all over himself in an effort to say the polite thing.

Ritter: Agreed. There were no sacred cows. No fear of a player phoning him later or confronting him on the range. He just called it like he saw it. I already miss him.

Zak: I liked him for all the same reasons other people did, but it seems like Paul Azinger will be able to do the same thing just as well. I guess I’ll just miss the many references to his major victory.

Dethier: I really liked his delivery of said forthright statements, more than anything. Anybody can be inflammatory on TV, but it’s hard to really mean it. Johnny did. That gave every comment of his a little extra juice.

Shipnuck: Johnny was as big of a star as any of the players. His very presence in the booth elevated the tournament, to say nothing of the viewing experience. Zinger is really good but I’ll miss Johnny’s starpower.

Bamberger: His voice, the California in it.

6. The par-4 5th at Augusta National has been lengthened by 40 yards and will now play at 495 yards, per the Masters’ recently released media guide. The green jackets are coming to you for their next course tweak. What are you doing?

Sens: Introduce a limited-flight ball, and trim the 7th back to its original length.

Ritter: Rebuild the press tower left of the 18th green. I miss that view!

Zak: Place a plaque where Rory McIlroy’s first tee shot of the final round landed in 2018.

Dethier: Get rid of the rough!

Zak: Lengthen the rough!

Bamberger: Get the course back to 7,200 yards, tops. Shorten it. Let ‘em shoot what they will shoot. If you get tired of 61s, bring in a tournament ball.

Shipnuck: Eliminate the rough. Deforest the right side of 11. Move up the tees on 7. Move back the tees on 15. Reconfigure the back nine so the most boring holes on the course (17, 18) aren’t the finish; you could do this quite easily by playing the back nine in this order: 10, 18, (high-speed underground train to) 17, 15, 16, 14, 11, 12, 13. How epic would that be?!