Tour Confidential: DJ’s Recent Prowess, Lydia Ko’s Quiet Climb

July 4, 2016

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.) Dustin Johnson needed all of one start to back up his breakthrough U.S. Open at Oakmont, claiming the WGC-Bridgestone on Sunday at big, bad Firestone CC. That’s consecutive victories on two imposing courses against two world-class fields. What has impressed you most about the DJ we’ve seen over the last three weeks?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The same thing that has impressed me for nearly a decade: his off-the-charts talent.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s the grittiness. We’ve all known for a long time DJ had the talent to overwhelm the golf world. Suddenly he is playing with a different hunger, and focus. If he keeps imposing his will like this, look out!

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I remember once interviewing DJ and he made mention of his long limbs, but not in the context of that being an advantage. He was saying that because of his physique, when things got out of synch, they really got out of synch. Well, now he’s really, really in synch, and to do it on two vastly different tracks, one choked with trees and one with none, is impressive.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Cam, that’s some good insight, but if I might go out on a limb myself, I’m most impressed by his focus. His talent and physical gifts have been givens for years, but it seemed like he got less out of it than any top player. Even with his streak of winning at least once for what, eight years? It just appeared that he’s been in contention so often, in so many big events, and then just drifted. No one could have blamed DJ for dialing it in this week, or even for taking an extended celebratory absence. Winning at Firestone says to me he’s turned the corner on the mental side.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): The man is hitting fairways and making putts besides the usual 350-yard blasts. This should be a holy-crap moment or the rest of golf. Maybe DJ and JD (Jason Day) are golf’s new Dynamic Duo.

Marika Washchyshyn, multimedia producer, (@Marika_AW): I owe DJ an apology. I spent weeks doubting his ability to stay calm, to make smart shots (and recover from the not-so-smart ones) and to close, and then he turns around and does it…twice. In my mind, he’s totally erased Rickie Fowler from the ‘Big Four’ conversation and has deftly inserted himself into golf’s upper echelons. Sorry, and welcome, DJ!

(MORE: Another Win For DJ Shifts the World Golf Order)

2.) Jordan Spieth said he is trying to get mentally stronger “and just not dwell in conversation on each shot. I’m trying to speed up my process, as well.” Commendable gesture, but why stray from a formula that has won him two majors and made him the no. 1 player in the world?

Morfit: I think he’s got to not dwell in conversation on each shot–it’s driving him crazy, and I can’t imagine Michael Greller isn’t sick of it, as well. The Fox microphones really drove home how much Jordan chirps out there, but not only that. A lot of the chirping had a sort of victimhood about it, and that’s not a good headspace at all for an athlete.

Shipnuck: Agree, Cam. Day radiates a much more carefree vibe – if Spieth can get there it has to help him, because Jordan seems worn down by the constant struggle that has become every round. I love the kid’s passion but he can’t let himself become consumed by it.

Bamberger: He’s doing what every golfer does, professional and duffer alike, when things are not going well. You try something else. Another sign of his practical intelligence.

Van Sickle: No top player has been on the clock more than Spieth. He complained about it but the fact was, he was taking too long. I don’t think he’s speeding up to play better, he’s speeding up to get the officials off his group’s back. As for being mentally stronger, that goes back to struggling with his swing–it’s been off all year. Jordan hits fairways and greens, he’s mentally stronger already. Problem solved.

Washchyshyn: I don’t necessarily think he’s become mentally weaker, just mentally occupied. When you’ve got that many voices in your head telling you to ‘speed up, talk it out, hit the fairway, fix your slice,’ there’s a lot of garbage to cut through. I enjoy that he chats it out with Greller and I think a lot of spectators do too…we just don’t need to hear all of it (and neither does he). It’s a lot of garbage for regular golf fans to cut through, too.

Passov: I’m sensing he’s a victim of his own success or at the very least, that he feels that way. His expectations based on the past two years have made him seek perfection each and every time he tees it up, and it’s overwhelming him. That can manifest itself in the deliberation he takes over each shot as well. Jordan, lighten up and enjoy. You had us at Hello.

3.) Top-ranked Lydia Ko looks to secure her third career major win this week at the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle. At just 19 years old, she already has 13 LPGA titles, yet still seems to fly under the radar. What else does she have to do to be properly recognized by the mainstream media?

Morfit: I would say it’s not something Ko has to do; it’s something the mainstream media has to do.

Passov: I’m with Cam on this one. Our August Lexi Thompson GOLF Magazine cover looks fantastic, but shouldn’t we do a Lydia Ko cover?

Bamberger: It really makes no sense when you think about it, but that’s the problem, you have to think about it. We’re drawn by some animal instinct to certain personality types. Hale Irwin had the same problem.

Shipnuck: Well, she needs to beat Brooke Henderson, for a start. But Ko’s brilliance is undeniable, and she just has to keep doing what she’s doing and the public will eventually take notice of her charm as well as her brilliance.

Van Sickle: Did Inbee Park get what she deserved from the media when she was racking up major championships? The fact is, the public–and therefore the media–have far less interest in women’s golf then men’s. It’s not fair, it’s just a fact. If ESPN covered women’s golf, they’d promote the heck out of her, we’d all make a bigger deal out of her and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Washchyshyn: Right, Gary. But even if ESPN covered women’s golf, would it be enough? and Sports Illustrated are out there, at least trying to cover it more, and we’ve hardly seen the needle move. It’s insane to me that there is so much talent in just one player…and then you multiple that by 10 and get the top female golfers on the LPGA, but no one’s paying attention. It’s not a Ko problem, or a Lexi problem, or a Brooke problem. They’re all fantastic, and we (the general public) need to start recognizing that and giving them the screen time they deserve.

4.) The best golfers from Australia, South Africa and Ireland have withdrawn themselves from consideration for the Olympic Games in Rio next month. Can we expect the top Americans to follow suit?

Van Sickle: That photo of the police and firemen standing behind a welcome banner and talking about not being paid sent shivers down the backs of everyone going to Rio. Mosquitoes are one thing. Garbage pickup, or lack thereof, is one thing. But civic unrest and a potential lack of public services and security? It’s not just golfers who should feel concerned. I, too, think Spieth is out. I wonder if Dustin is reconsidering yet?

Morfit: I can’t imagine at this point that Jordan Spieth is going to play, and yes, more Americans will drop out. It’s just not an attractive proposition at all right now, given the news reports of crime and traffic and Zika. It’s far too late now, but the one thing that might have made these guys think twice about bailing is if there was a team component. But given that they’re just going down there for another individual trophy? Forget it.

Washchyshyn: Yes. And as much as I hate to admit it after being so gung-ho on the women not dropping out, they are likely next. It’s unfortunate, but there are so many problems plaguing the Games right now that, quite honestly, who is attending should be the least of everyone’s worries.

Shipnuck: The Zika concern is a red herring, and the top Americans have more reason to show up. Coke is a huge Olympic sponsor and Spieth just signed a monster deal so I expect he’ll be there. Adidas is the supplier of Team USA’s golf togs and the company stuck by Johnson during his travails so he’s likely to repay the loyalty. All the top players have Olympic bonuses built into their many endorsement contracts: a gold medal will be worth a couple million up front, with massive possibilities going forward. Right now, you only have to beat a handful of top players to earn golf. Why not go? Traffic, security, and other such issues won’t be a problem for the players, who pay a lot of people to solve such problems. I think Team USA will be strong.

Passov: For reasons I outlined last week (mainly global golf growth, especially in China), I wanted the Olympics golf event to be hugely important and successful. Now it’s shaping up to be neither. When Adam Scott sounds as logical and dispassionate as he does in saying this would have been a better competition of it had involved amateur golfers, or when Rory says honestly that golf already has its Olympic golds in the form of the four majors, now it’s not so much about Zika or crime. I’ll expect a few U.S. withdrawals, but not a wholesale evacuation. As Alan avers, there’s not just national pride on the line for U.S. golfers, but some massive financial incentives in play as well. That ought to guarantee a stellar U.S. lineup. Credit capitalism, if nothing else.

Bamberger: I’m with you, Joe–our view is such a jaded one because we have so much golf in our lives and we’re conditioned to care about certain tournaments. But there are tens of millions of people for whom Olympic golf will be like the Masters is for so many Americans, a way to be introduced to the game. Having said that, this event is ill-conceived in almost every way, starting with the format.

5.) Rory McIlroy failed to capitalize at the French Open on Sunday, finishing third behind Thongchai Jaidee and Francesco Molinari. McIlroy still considers this ‘a success’ because of his recent and many swing changes. Is finishing third in a weaker field really a success for World No. 4?

Passov: It looked to me like that old nemesis, the putter, was Rory’s problem on Sunday in Paris, not his ball-striking. Hey, he got outplayed by a Presidents Cup player and a former Ryder Cupper. It did happen to Jack and Tiger from time to time. Third place on a very difficult layout isn’t a bad thing. Not sure I’d call it a success, but not a bad thing.

Bamberger: You’re a former No. 1 player in the world. You’re playing in the French Open and you could win it but you don’t. A bunch of microphones are in your face. There is a cultural expectation that you are going to say something and that is what McIlroy did. They’re just words, nearly meaningless in this context. He’s following Tiger’s lead.

Van Sickle: Nobody plays great golf on a straight line going up. There are bumps in the road. Rory has had them before and, well, he’s got ‘em again. It’s hard to call a third-place finish a failure. There is a fine line between playing well and playing well enough to win. Rory is finding it difficult to do the latter at the moment. I’ll give him Tiger’s line: It’s a process.

Shipnuck: I hear what you’re saying, Gary, and mostly agree but Rory seemed to be swinging great six weeks ago at the Irish Open. Over the last two years so many of his contemporaries have raised their game but he seems to be forever searching. If this near-miss is a building block to a monster summer, okay, but I’m over the moral victories for McIlroy.

Washchyshyn: I’m with Alan here. If he had finished third behind DJ and Piercy/Day at Firestone this weekend, then yeah, that would be a success. I’m still trying to figure out why he deviated from the formula he had at the Irish Open, because that seemed to work for him. He has to know that getting close isn’t good enough in today’s fields.

Morfit: I don’t know how that’s a big success, but Rory would know his game better than I. Are his changes that huge? I guess he thinks so. I’d love to know what they are.

6.) Happy 4th of July! What is America’s greatest contribution to golf?

Washchyshyn: As the resident Canadian on board, I’ll have to defer to my colleagues on this one. But I will say this: Not many nationalities are as proud of their golfers as Americans are, and right now, you have a mighty talented crop of them! Happy Fourth. 🙂

Morfit: The six-hour round. Oh, wait–you said greatest? I think you’ve gotta go with Tiger Woods. How could you not?

Shipnuck: Not just Tiger—how about Bobby Jones, Big Jack, Arnie, Hogan, Hagen, Sarazen, Lord Byron, Sam Snead, Trevino, Watson, Phil…most of the greatest players of all time are American. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Van Sickle: Pretty much every equipment innovation in the 20th century is American. That includes non-metal spikes (don’t underestimate!), metal woods, laser rangefinders and before them, the 150-yard marker. I suppose there is mixed reaction to the motorized golf cart. I’ll go with the beverage cart girl. Check that, I’ll go with the man who invented modern golf, Arnold Palmer.

Passov: I’ll say e) All of the Above, and toss in the Stimpmeter, which ultimately propelled us into trying to achieve (and usually succeeding) green speeds that made the game much slower and less affordable due to higher maintenance budgets. To that end, we must mention both Augusta National and the Masters, which to many, illustrate perfection in tournament golf.

Bamberger: The halfway house.