Tour Confidential: After a disappointing PGA, should Tiger be the Memorial favorite?

May 27, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Tiger Woods’ start at the Memorial, debate the midseason MVP, look ahead to the U.S. Women’s Open and more. Joining the panel as a special guest contributor is Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial host and Muirfield Village designer. Jack is a busy man this week, so he had time to debate only the first four topics, but there’s always a seat for him at this roundtable…     

1. Tiger Woods came into the PGA Championship as the betting favorite but shot 72-73 to miss the cut. He has a phenomenal track record at this week’s Memorial, including five wins, but should he be the favorite after his performance at Bethpage?

Jack Nicklaus, Memorial host and 18-time major winner (@jacknicklaus): I don’t think Tiger’s performance at Bethpage has anything to do with how he will play this week at Muirfield Village. He was a month removed from the Masters when he came to Bethpage. Tiger had a natural reaction from winning the Masters and it takes a while to get over it. He hadn’t won a major in almost 11 years, and I am sure that sort of played into what happened at Bethpage. I think you will see a different, ready-to-play Tiger this week at the Memorial Tournament.

Sean Zak, associate editor (@sean_zak): While I’d like to consider the Bethpage performance to be an outlier for Tiger, in the same way Shinnecock was a year ago, to be the favorite is asking a bit much. Two competitive rounds in the last month and a half. And after a weekend full of #TigerJam hosting duties? I’m a doubter.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and say… maybe? I don’t think Tiger would ever look past this event. It is, after all, Jack’s place, and when you grow up with his accomplishments tacked to your wall, I’m sure it gets his juices flowing. That being said, I would bet everything he is doing right now physically, mentally and emotionally has to do with being as prepared as possible for Pebble Beach in a few weeks.

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): I’d be shocked to see him bow out before the weekend, as he did at Bethpage. But the betting favorite: no. That’s no slight against Tiger. Just a sign of the strength of the field.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): I guess you have to make Rory McIlroy the betting favorite? Justin Thomas is tough to back up given concerns of rust and injury, Jordan Spieth is showing elite signs but isn’t all the way there. Jason Day is in the conversation, too — but I think TW belongs somewhere in that second group behind McIlroy. Driver-dependent, of course.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Favorite? Crowd or betting? Crowd, yes. Betting, no.

Jonathan Wall, equipment editor (@jonathanrwall): This is one of the strongest fields of the season. I realize Tiger is no slouch, but I’m not sure what game he’ll bring to Muirfield. Is it the one we saw at Augusta? Or is it the spotty play at Bethpage? No one knows. I can’t make him the betting favorite given the form of some guys.

Tiger Woods has found plenty of success at Jack's place. Can he win there again?
Tiger Woods has found plenty of success at Jack's place. Can he win there again?

2. When designing Muirfield Village, Jack Nicklaus took some cues from Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s handiwork at Augusta National. Is it too big a leap to suggest players with a good track record at Augusta should also thrive at Muirfield Village?

Nicklaus: Muirfield Village is more of a second-shot golf course and a driver’s golf course, as is Augusta National. I tend to prefer those courses from a design standpoint and a playing perspective. I think driving the golf ball should be fun, and it should not be as restrictive off the tee as you might see with some golf courses. I tend to put a premium on the approach shot with many of my designs, and both Muirfield Village and Augusta require precision on the approach. So I guess the two courses probably do have a few similarities. I was told recently that six past winners of the Memorial have also won the Masters, and that those six players have a combined 12 Memorial wins and 16 Masters victories.

Zak: Players with a good track record at Augusta should also thrive at most anywhere in parkland America.

Wood: Totally agree, Sean. Maybe in the past when Augusta wasn’t quite as tough off the tee as it is now you could say you didn’t have to be a great driver of the ball to win the Masters. Now, if you can flourish at Augusta, you can flourish anywhere.

Sens: One difference, though, is the rough. Muirfield Village has it. Augusta doesn’t even use the word. The Memorial also draws a larger, deeper field, so in that sense, you could say it’s the tougher event to win.

Bamberger: Both courses favor golfers who are really good at golf. Other courses I would put on that list include Bethpage Black, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Oak Hill, East Lake, Winged Foot, the Old Course, Royal Melbourne and the Yale course. It is a crime against golf that Muirfield Village has not had a U.S. Open.

Dethier: Seconding Sens’ rough observation. It’s no joke — and you can find the occasional white stakes at Muirfield, too, as Woods did last year (twice, I believe!) making it a tougher course to miss the fairway and still contend. But Muirfield is a special place, and the comp holds true around the slippery greens.

Wall: I’ve gotta agree with the general consensus that the conditions at Muirfield don’t scream Augusta National. Sure, there are some similarities. But you can’t get out of play and expect to do well at Jack’s place. Experience at Augusta will only get you so far this week.

3. We’ve already(!) arrived at the halfway point of the 2019 major season. Who gets your midway MVP award: Tiger or Brooks?

Nicklaus: [Laughs] I don’t know about that one. Although, as you pointed out, Tiger missed the cut at the PGA, and we know Brooks contended at Augusta. I think they both have played very well and I’d have to call it a tie.

Zak: Brooks! Beyond his PGA win, consider his T2 at the Honda and the Masters. Tiger doesn’t have that.

Wood: For history, Brooks. For the health and popularity of the game, Tiger.

Bamberger: Valuable? Woods. For what he has done for himself and for the game and for the prospect of work and talent being rewarded. Player of the half-year? BK and his sunshine band.

Sens: Brooks. He’s also even started to give good press conferences.

Dethier: But Koepka isn’t even leading the FedEx Cup! If we’re just talking majors, Tiger Woods’ No. 15 trumps Koepka’s PGA (dominant though it was, for 63 holes). But body of work you can’t argue with Koepka, who has arrived.

Wall: Are we really having this discussion? It’s Koepka. Not even close.

While it’s probably better for the PGA Championship to be in May, I am not sure the new, compressed schedule is fair to all the other golf tournaments on the PGA Tour.

Jack Nicklaus

4. The new major calendar is a grind, asking players to compete in four majors in the space of 15 weeks. Does the compressed schedule give an unfair edge to younger, fitter players, like Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson?

Nicklaus: Hmm, not necessarily. The physical side is not that big of a deal. From the mental perspective, you don’t have to be on point for as long of a period as you did with the old major-championship schedule. But I do think it’s a little too compressed. While it’s probably better for the PGA Championship to be in May, I am not sure the new, compressed schedule is fair to all the other golf tournaments on the PGA Tour. There are a lot of other tournaments suffering, because the guys are put under pressure to be ready when the next major rolls around and some are skipping really good events. For example, we lost Dustin Johnson here at the Memorial. He withdrew because his agent said that Dustin’s body needed a break.

Zak: I’ll call it a slight advantage — maybe — but there’s no way it’s unfair. This is a professional sport and if the issue is being prepared to play well on a tough course once every three weeks, well, then I’m a bit worried about our priorities.

Wood: Not at all. The 40-plus set just needs to make sure they plan their schedule accordingly and show up prepared but fresh. Majors are more about the mental grind than the physical.

Bamberger: I don’t think it’s a grind. You can go at it any way you want, but if you’re lucky enough to be exempt on Tour and be qualified for each of the four majors, you just set your schedule according to your priorities. Over the course of the 16 weeks, pick eight events for sure and more if you feel like it. How is that a grind? Millions of working people with Memorial Day off would love to face such a grind.

Dethier: The funny thing is I’m not even sure the younger players are more accustomed to playing golf as frequently as the old guard, anyway. Matt Kuchar and Phil Mickelson are more used to extended stretches than say, Rory McIlroy. I sat with Kenny Perry a few weeks ago and he told me that in decades gone by, anything besides the “Tour schedule” — travel Monday, 18 holes Tuesday, Pro-Am Wednesday, 72 holes of competition, then do it all again — was basically unheard of. Perry himself played 14 weeks in a row, he said, and won that 14th week. Now it’s the exception rather than the norm to see guys trek more than 18 combined between Tuesday and Wednesday, and playing four tournaments in a row is considered a marathon. Golf is hard, and times change, and generations tackle it differently.

Sens: Anytime the physical rigors of playing professional golf get mentioned, I cup my ear to listen for the strains of the world’s tiniest violin. Or, I hear the voice of Gary Player, talking about winging around the world in coach at the dawn of his career, sleeping in cheap hotels and enduring something closer to an actual grind. Even with a compressed schedule these guys have a few weeks off between majors. Hardly tough from a physical standpoint. I’m with John here. The real test is mental.

Wall: I don’t think so. The beauty of this sport is you can pick and choose the events you play. Some guys prefer to play the week prior and ramp up for a major; others prefer to be fully rested. There’s no perfect formula for major championship success. As a few already mentioned, it all comes down to what’s going on between the ears.

Maria Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho put on a show at the Augusta National Women's Amateur.
Maria Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho put on a show at the Augusta National Women's Amateur.
USA Today

5. The U.S. Women’s Open visits the Country Club of Charleston (S.C.) this week. Who’s your pick to win, and what storyline are you most excited to see play out?

Zak: We’ve been talking major defense a bunch because of Brooks Koepka, so why not consider it on the women’s side? Ariya Jutanugarn wins another Open. As for a storyline, I want to see if Nelly Korda has the chops to contend at a major. It hasn’t quite happened yet (and she’s only had so many tries), but her game is clearly elite. Does she become the next female golf star in America? It starts with a major.

Wood: My pick is Brooke Henderson. But the storyline I’m most excited to see play out is the all-star grouping of Jennifer Kupcho (Augusta National Women’s Amateur Champion), Maria Fassi (NCAA champion) and Sierra Brooks (runner-up at NCAAs and 2015 U.S. Women’s Am). I watched quite a bit of the Women’s NCAA Championship (read: ALL of it) and their golf was phenomenal. I think it’s a fantastic group the USGA came up with. They should be very comfortable and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or all of them played very well.

Bamberger: John! Where do you find the time? How do you keep track of 150 Tour players, 600 MLB players, Lord knows how many AAA players and go deep on the LPGA? Plus, all those books? I watched some of the Kingsmill event and found myself wishing I knew the players better. I loved the Augusta National women’s event and really need more exposure to the women’s game.

Sens: Good calls above. I’m heavily biased, because I love the way she plays and her attitude, but I’ll take Lydia Ko. As for storylines, Ariya is playing with Lexi Thompson the first two days. That alone should be must-see TV.

Dethier: Jin-Young Ko is the hottest player in the game, winning the ANA Inspiration and twice in her last five starts. Plus she’s hit 81 percent of her fairways this year(!), so if we’re worried about keeping the ball on the short grass, she’s still the play.

Wall: Really like Brooke Henderson this week. She always seems to get up for the big events. As for my favorite storyline, I’m really excited to watch Maria Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho make their pro debuts. Both were a delight to watch at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Pairing them with amateur standout Sierra Brooks should make for some fun viewing. They are the future of the women’s game.

6. The R&A is still mulling John Daly’s cart request for the British Open. (The PGA of America’s decision to grant Daly a cart at the PGA Championship was met with mixed reviews.) Should the R&A follow the PGA of America’s lead and grant Daly cart usage at Portrush?

Zak: They should follow their own protocols, not the PGA’s. If Daly is able to earn another disability claim to match whatever standards the R&A holds up, then definitely. I just get the sense that the backlash is so considerable that we won’t be asking this question a third time. And I definitely won’t block my colleagues on Twitter for anything they say in this space…

Wood: No. No. No. Phil Mickelson has arthritis (I’ve seen the commercials), so why couldn’t he get one as well? It’s a can of worms the PGA opened by granting Daly a cart. I mean, there’s no risk because he has no chance of being competitive at the PGA or British Open, but if this were to become a precedent, it would be a matter of time until someone who COULD win is granted a cart for a similar reason.

Sens: No. For all the reasons John lists above. The buggy was bad enough at Bethpage, and that was in a championship in the United States, the country that gave birth to golf cart culture (in that context, you could almost argue that Daly buzzing around in a cart made sense). As a matter of principle (to say nothing of aesthetics), it would look and feel a zillion times worse against a backdrop where carts have no more place than a Formula One car in a foot race.

Bamberger: I wish I could offer the pithy response to this question that Alan Shipnuck did in this space two weeks ago (Lose some weight, JD!) and Tiger did at Bethpage (I won a U.S. Open on a broken leg, walking). But the fact is, golf is one of the few professional sports that really can go out of its way to be inclusive to those with physical disabilities. So if you agree with that, then the question becomes what constitutes a physical disability that be remedied with some kind of mechanical aid? We (the public) got to know Casey Martin’s physical issues better, and I think he should have been given a cart. It would have given him a chance. Olazabal showed a level of inspiring dignity in this regard — when he could barely walk with an odd toe issue he walked away. He made all four cuts in the 1995 majors and didn’t play in one in ‘96. Does Daly really need a cart to create a level playing field? By all appearances, you’d say no, but I wouldn’t pretend to understand all his issues. I guess I’m saying I don’t know.

Dethier: Is there a way I can approve of Casey Martin’s exemption and not Daly’s? I know this is a world less fond of nuance than ever, but I support the idea of someone with a disability and long-standing condition being allowed to play — but not necessarily THIS exemption, the way it has all played out. As unhappy as Daly looked at Bethpage, I wonder if he’s not semi-hoping for a rejection, too.

Bamberger: Dylan just said what I was trying to say in one-third the words. So read that instead.

Wall: The PGA of America made a huge mistake granting Daly’s exemption the first time around. Given the backlash that followed at Bethpage — not to mention Daly’s poor play — I can’t imagine the R&A will follow suit.

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