Tour Confidential: His back? His age? His ego? What is likely to be Tiger’s biggest roadblock in his latest comeback?

November 20, 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.

1. Brandel Chamblee told our Ryan Asselta that Tiger Woods’s back injuries will prevent him from being competitive again. “If you do an Internet search of the greatest sports comebacks from injury, you’ll get a litany of injuries” Chamblee said. “The one thing you will not get is a bad back followed by great athletic achievement.” Do you agree?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Chamblee’s analysis was trenchant and reasoned and I do agree with it in every way except one: it doesn’t allow for Woods’s extraordinary will. He’s diminished. He’ll never chip as he once did. But like Johnny Miller winning at Pebble with the yips in his mid-40s, I think Woods will win again, sometime in the next 10 years. Maybe even a Masters. But I don’t see him becoming anything like a week-in, week-out figure in the game, not as a player. Maybe in other ways, though.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): And if you do an internet search on guys who came back from the yips and waning confidence, the list of success is even shorter. The mental side of the game, the loss of the so-called “edge,” is as much of a hurdle for Tiger as the injuries. Yes. His competitive drive and confidence were incomparable in his prime. But that swaggering Tiger is no more, and I don’t see him coming back.

Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): I still put Tiger in the one-of-kind class, a la Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, someone you just can’t pigeonhole. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I still view Tiger as wired differently, the greatest competitor of our time. Until he actually hangs it up for good, I remain convinced he will win again, by sheer will alone.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): To further this comparison, when the aging Jordan returned to the Wizards he was still an effective, earth-bound scorer, relying on guile and fadeaway jumpers. But the fortysomething, brittle Tiger is still, in golf terms, trying to dunk from the free throw line; his swing is as violent as ever. He needs to accept he’s no longer a power player. I’d love Tiger try to out-Zach Johnson Zach Johnson, shaping shots and picking apart the course one little swing at a time. But I don’t think his ego will let him do it.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): I think all depends on sustained health. If Woods is able to put in as much practice as he wants, his confidence could slowly return. It’s a big if, and I’d guess he might need a full year of good health and full practices before he’s ready to contend, but like Joe said, he’s wired differently. Jack’s major record is out of reach, but if the stars line up Tiger can win a Tour event again.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): In the case of Tiger, I have a hard time separating what I want from what think is logical. The word from my spies at Medalist is that he’s hitting laserbeams on the range and on the course — but then, it’s more than possible that they’re blinded by the aura-of-what-was just as much as I am.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar: If Tiger can return to competition with confidence in one club, the driver, then I think he can do anything he wants. I firmly believe Tiger can win multiple regular tour events again hitting 2 irons and 3 woods off the tee. He’s the greatest iron player of all-time, and I think he can find that again. The issue to me is that there are so many young guys (I’m looking at you Dustin, Justin, Rory, Jason, Jordan, Rickie, Rahm, Brooks, etc.) who drive it eight miles and aren’t afraid to pull out their driver and swing as hard as they can on any hole in the world at any time. Now, not all of them will be on at any given major, but one or two of them will, and it would be very difficult to beat those guys without swinging the driver confidently.

2. In just his 14th career start, PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook established himself as the early frontrunner for breakout player of the year, making birdie on three of the last four holes en route to a commanding four-shot win at the RSM Classic. When we look back at the 2017-18 season, who’s most likely to be the player casual fans didn’t see coming?

Bamberger: I have learned to have great respect for the phrase “casual fan.” I find that most ordinary golf fans don’t know that Tiger didn’t play a single event all year, and to the degree they care they think Steve Williams is still his caddie. So with that in mind, Kevin Kisner is barely on the radar of the casual fan as 2017 concludes. A year from now, I think he’ll be seen as the a breakout player. He can contend on hard courses, especially traditional ones.

Sens: To the casual fan Michael mentions, Patrick Cantlay might not be a tip-of-the-tongue name. But he was forecast to be a world-beater before he was sidelined by injuries. He’s healthy again and won recently in Las Vegas. It’s not hard to imagine more where that came from.

Passov: Cantlay’s a good pick, Josh — that was a wonderful win, given all he’s been through. Before the season, I predicted in this space that Jon Rahm and Paul Casey would have breakout seasons. I was right on one, wrong on the other. I’ll take a .500 batting average any day. Kudos to Xander Schauffele’s achievements, which no one could have seen coming…but my pick will go to Marc Leishman, who previously had been a mostly successful journeyman, not the Australian with “superstar” aura. His Bay Hill victory, smashing win at the BMW over an awesome field, and a runner-up to Justin Thomas in Korea (in the 2017-18 season) tells me this is a mostly overlooked guy that is now among the elite.  

Ritter: Leishman always flies under the radar and is a nice pick. Cantlay would be my first choice, but I’d also double down on Xander Schauffele, who flashed at the US Open before putting it all together with two wins later in the summer. He reminds me a little of Louis Oosthuizen at this stage — sweet swing, power hitter, big game hunter, tough to spell. One more season and we might all type that name without a second thought.

Shipnuck: Well, by the prevailing standard, I’ll take Jon Rahm. I expect him to contend at Augusta and be a monster at the Ryder Cup, two events the Casual Fan tend to watch more than any other.

Wood:I would think that at no. 4 in the world, Rahm has already broken out. I’m going to go with a pick ‘em between Kevin Chappell and Tony Finau. Kevin has always been a really good ball striker and he’s found some impressive length off the tee of late, something that can be very difficult to do this far along in one’s career. Tony has unlimited talent and potential. Making it to Atlanta for the Tour Championship for the first time may open up a new level of confidence for him. It’s getting tougher and tougher in the current landscape if you don’t hit your driver 393 yards, and Tony is as long as any of the young crop of bombers.

Dethier: J.J. Spaun. He showed major game in his first season on Tour in 2016, and finished second this week at Sea Island, nearly tying for the lead for a moment before Cook’s finishing flurry. Plus, Spaun left me in the dust on PGA tour Canada in 2015, when he won the Order of Merit. Altough for that matter, pretty much all of PGA tour Canada left me in the dust in 2015… but that’s a different story for a different day.

3. At the European tour’s season finale, the DP World Tour Championship, the 23-year-old Rahm prevailed, with 26-year-old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood taking the Euro tour’s season-long Race to Dubai. Rory McIlroy has for many years been viewed as the European player with the most upside for the foreseeable future. Did anything you see this year change your opinion on that front?

Bamberger: I don’t think you can talk about McIlroy and Rahm in the same breath, from what I’ve seen, starting with the head and going right through the chipping game. McIlroy is the best European player, by 1,500  meters.

Sens: Agreed that Rory remains the towering talent but we’ve seen how life can interfere. There are good reasons to worry about Rory’s health. Given what he’s got in the bank and other things he’s got going in his life, it’s also not crazy to wonder about his hunger. To say nothing of his putting. I say Rahm wins more majors in the next five years.

Passov: I’ll mention Rahm in the same breath as Rory, if only because Rory’s physical issues, motivation troubles and putting woes have rendered him all-too-human. Rahm can compete in every way — except in the maturity department. Once he eases up on himself a bit and accepts bad shots and bad breaks a little better, he’s a future No. 1. Of course, the emotional side is always an “if,” but I like his chances.

Ritter: Rahm is a star, but Rory is still tracking toward all-time great. He’s won majors by huge margins, and despite a couple of injury-marred, let-down seasons, the talent remains. When the disembodied Tour Confidential moderator poses this question again in five years, I think Rory will have won a couple more majors while remaining Europe’s top guy.

Shipnuck: I disagree with Mike’s assessment on Rahm – the dude is a spectacular chipper, and last season from 100-125 yards he was 19th on Tour in proximity while McIlroy was 145th. I think 2018 is one of the most important years of Rory’s career. He’ll arrive at Augusta 3.5 years removed from his last major championship victory; in that stretch an entire new generation of stars has been minted. Will he reassert his dominion or continue to be passed by? I think he bounces back, but he’ll have to shore up his putting and wedge game to be a consistent force.

Dethier: I think Rory is by far the most compelling star of the post-Tiger era. I don’t want anyone usurping his top-Euro status — unless that gives him whatever extra fire he seems to need to rev back up.

Wood: No. It’s like comparing this generation to Tiger. It’s not a fair fight. The potential is there, but until they start knocking off majors, not just knocking on the doors of majors, Rory will be the European standard bearer. I’m of the opinion that Rory is going to have a monster year in 2018. His personal life is settled, and hopefully the break he is taking will get him rested and healthy to challenge for the top spot in the world.

4. European golf fans, writers and at least one Masters champion were not thrilled with Alan Shipnuck’s take on how the Ryder Cup is “headed for a decade-plus of [U.S.] blowouts, sapping the intrigue out” of the matches. The column was roundly rebuked on the other side of the pond with Sergio Garcia tweeting, “Looks like @AlanShipnuck can predict the future now, so I wonder if he wouldn’t mind telling me the next 5 winning lottery tickets too! Unbelievable.” Is Shipnuck’s crystal ball right?

Bamberger: Every last thing Alan wrote is 100 percent correct and Mr. Garcia will find he will be in line for vast riches by going to  Ladbrokes and Las Vegas and heeding the siren call of Alan Shipnuck as he laid out the Ryder Cup future on Mr. Garcia’s final comment is two letter too long. #Sad!

Sens: Ah, the myth of the crystal ball. No such thing. Alan did his job. He wrote an attention-grabbing piece with some sound reasoning behind it. Do I foresee a stretch of US dominance so thorough that it will drain the Cup of intrigue? Absolutely not. There is too much fire in this rivalry now for it to be extinguished even in a decade-plus. There’s also still plenty of talent, young and old, on the European side, along with the vagaries of match-play, to keep things interesting. That’s how it looks through my non-existent crystal ball, anyway.

Passov: I’ll agree with Alan’s premise, but not his conclusion. Hey, he’s paid to write thoughtful pieces and to give opinions that will elicit reactions. He succeeded brilliantly here. It makes excellent sense. But I’m an old-timer. I’ve witnessed one Ryder Cup after the next over the years when the U.S. was heavily favored on paper — and lost. Folks, it’s match play, with that weird foursomes format thrown in for good measure. Anything can happen in 18 holes of match play, between professionals. Unless it’s the Presidents Cup.  

Ritter: The U.S. side is going to be a massive favorite in Paris. Did Shipnuck ever send those lottery numbers?

Shipnuck: I will note for the record that I wrote that column for Golf Magazine, a monthly with a long lead time. Since then, Tyrell Hatton has gone crazy and Paul Casey announced he’ll return to the Euro tour, so Europe looks to have a little more depth than when I typed those fateful words. I still stand by the prediction. The U.S. nucleus of Jordan-DJ-JT-Koepka-Rickie-PReed is simply too good, and they have another five of six Cups together.

Dethier: Did anyone watch the Presidents Cup? Despite his backtracking above, I’m willing to wander out on Shipnuck’s limb — I think it’s sturdy enough for the both of us.

Wood: Watching these guys the last couple of cups, I like our chances. And don’t for a second dismiss Phil Mickelson’s impact if this run indeed happens. He changed the U.S. Ryder Cup direction single handedly with his comments after the 2014 competition. Yes, these kids are studs and are embracing and loving team competition, but having a plan, finally, will have a lot to do with any success in the next 10 years.

5. Stacy Lewis said she does not regret her decision to skip the LPGA’s so-called fifth major, the Evian Championship, in September, and says she won’t make the event a priority until it is moved to a weather-friendlier date in the summer. (Mike Whan has indicated that won’t happen until 2019.) Like it or not the Evian is a major — should Lewis get over her gripes and play?

Bamberger: I am confused. Evian is the so-called fifth major in the first sentence and “like it or not” is a major in the last. It is not a major. That’s Lewis’s point. She’s exercising her free-market rights. I’m with her.

Sens: No doubt she has the right. And no doubt the Evian is, ahem, a watered-down major. But it’s still a bummer to see a top player bailing on an event because of weather concerns. It’s a little chilly in my office right now. I’m still typing.

Ritter: It’s unfortunate that one of America’s biggest stars is skipping a major … but it’s even more unfortunate that this event is considered a major. It’s her schedule, and her right to set herself up as she sees fit. I hope Lewis plays it in 2019.

Passov: I have huge respect for Stacy Lewis. She did an incredible thing in 2017, breaking her long victory drought and donating her winnings to Houston hurricane victims. Wow. I have also found her to be strong, articulate and opinionated. She’s great to talk to. And this whole fifth major thing in the French Alps on a goofy course in bad weather is a joke.

Still, I’d tell her to play in it. Sure, it’s her right not to. Many PGA Tour pros skipped the British Open for years due to meager prize money and archaic qualifying procedures. Trevino would skip the Masters. Other pros skipped the U.S. Open for setup and qualifying reasons. But I think there’s something very satisfying about overcoming obstacles to win a big event. In the U.S. Open tennis, it’s the New York crowds, traffic, late nights, and other distractions. To win the Waste Management Phoenix Open, you have to play well and also overcome occasionally chaotic surrounds. Tough it up, Stacy, and get it done. You’re too good not to.  

Shipnuck: Weak sauce by Lewis. Of course she should play. Leave the moaning about the event to the writers; we have more practice at it.

Dethier: Call me old-fashioned, but I like my majors to come four per year, so I appreciate Lewis’s stance here — although I’m not sure I find her actual argument compelling. But Joe’s right: in the wake of her Hurricane Harvey donation, Lewis has earned the right to skip any event she wants.

Wood: If she doesn’t want to play, why should she play? Because money and media and the LPGA anointed something a major, doesn’t make it a major. Majors should be created by tradition and greatness, not because a few people got together and decided this or that should be a major because money. That’s the great thing about being an independent contractor. You play where and when you want. I have a lot of respect for the stance she’s taking.

6. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, what golf story were you most thankful for this year?

Bamberger: Oh, no question about it: Spieth’s win at Birkdale. It was crazy good, and capped off a week of madcap fun for the pros from Dover, off the M*A*S*H set and at large in their homeland.

Sens: Well, I made an ace. My third (Sorry, Alan; you’ll get yours someday), so that was fun. But on a grander stage, I enjoyed watching Sergio finally get the major monkey off his back. Someday, I hope he’ll earn enough money that he can stop asking people for winning lottery numbers.

Dethier: I’m thankful that golf’s biggest stars are compelling characters who continue to provide storylines to be covered with nuance — and I’m thankful for my new gig with GOLF so I can banter about it with y’all.

Ritter: The four men’s majors really delivered this year. Sergio’s win was  emotional, Spieth was mesmerizing, Koepka was macho and JT signaled the arrival of a new star. On the women’s side, Danielle Kang’s triumph at the KPMG Women’s PGA for her first Tour win, with the memory of her late father looming large, was like a Hollywood script come to life.

Shipnuck: I agree with Jeff, there were a number of memorable victories this year, and I concur with Mike, Spieth’s looms the largest.

Passov: I’m thankful for being entertained once again by golf’s major championships. More than that, I feel lucky to have experienced a number of world class golf courses, old and new, at times in the company of great players, at others, alongside the game’s most respected architects.

I’m most thankful, however, for my family raising a five-figure sum at an event at Sedona Golf Resort for my late father’s favorite charity, proving golfers’ hearts are in the right place…and I’m thrilled that I teed it up three times with my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Peggy, on championship tracks designed by Tom Fazio (The Preserve), Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Monarch Beach) and Bob Cupp (Tatum Ranch), proving that golf is indeed, the game of a lifetime.

Wood: Personally I am not thankful for Spieth’s victory at Birkdale in the least and I’m offended that a few of you above are! In fact, I’m still a little bitter over it. (Joking…it was thrilling to watch and be a part of.). However, the golf story I am most grateful for is a very personal one. I am so thankful that the world’s greatest golf fan, The Golf Fanatic, David Finn, got to spend another year watching golf, rooting for his favorites, and being an inspiration to all of us. For those of you who don’t know who David is, (what rock have YOU been living under?) he’s the most wonderful, passionate, excited golf fan who has ever lived. Do yourself a favor and look up the story Alan did on David a few years ago or find the story Golf Channel produced about his trip to Pebble Beach a few years ago. “TGF,” as his closest friends call him, hasn’t had the easiest life. In fact large parts of it have been painful and downright cruel. But every single time we see David out an an event, be it The Ryder Cup, The President’s Cup, The Masters, The US Open, The Travelers or any of the other Northeast events he frequents, David sits in his chair with the biggest, most contagious smile, fist clenched in triumph and joy and love for the game, and the people who populate it. David is everything that is right about golf. So this year, and hopefully for years to come, I’ll be thankful every time I get to walk off a green and see that big, ol’ wonderful smile. Keep rolling on David, and your 2018 credential is in the mail. See ya soon!