Tour Confidential: How did Jordan Spieth dismantle Pebble Beach?

February 13, 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. Jordan Spieth put on a clinic at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, shooting 19 under par to win by four shots. Spieth, who picked up his ninth career PGA Tour victory, has been under par in all 16 Tour rounds in 2017 and appears to have all phases of his game clicking. What impressed you most about his play this week?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): I loved the way he closed it out on Sunday, hitting 16 greens and never giving the rest of the field even the slightest glimmer of light. It was just ruthlessly efficient. The rankings say Spieth is No. 6 in the world, but watch out.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Exactly, Jeff. He said it was hard for him to play “boring” golf on Sunday, but that’s what the leaderboard told him to do, and that’s what he did. He shows an old head—and has for some years, which is amazing.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): Whew! How could that final round have been such a snooze-fest, given such a stellar leaderboard? I mean, nothing really happened for six hours. Yet, that’s really what made it so great. Spieth took a page from the Nicklaus/Tiger playbook and simply did exactly what he had to do to seal the deal, and seal it comfortably. Sixteen of 18 greens, and one other approach, at 14, that was inches off the putting surface? I didn’t think Spieth had that in him. He proved me wrong, and it was awesome.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): That he’s doing it with his ball-striking first and foremost. Jordan’s always had a well-deserved reputation as a phenomenal putter, but he basically hit 90% of his greens this week, which is an absurd number. He actually lost a half stroke in the strokes-gained putting stat, which is usually his bread and butter. For the YEAR, and I know it’s a small sample size, he’s hitting 85% of greens in regulation. If you putt like Jordan Spieth and start hitting it like that, look out. Players and caddies are always looking for command and control of what their ball is doing. No surprises. Boring domination. Jordan has that right now. And very briefly I’ll touch on this. The AT&T is one of my favorite events, but to play well, you have to have a great attitude and patience, patience, patience, especially with the weather we had this year. With some of his past perceived emotional reactions on the course, I’d say that’s a big sign that we are going to see a big year from Jordan. I was planning on taking [his caddie] Michael Greller shopping for his first guitar next week in L.A., and I just texted him that it looks like he’s gonna be able to get a really good first guitar.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): At this point, I’m thinking he could afford to buy two really good guitars of the same make, just in case he wants to smash one of them, Pete Townsend-style. As for Greller’s man, Spieth, that was more like a percussive drumming he put on the field. Or like a page out of the old Faldo British Open playbook. Fairways and greens. Throw in a back-nine on Saturday with just 10 putts, and the only real uncertainty was how often CBS was going to cut to a blimp shot of the peninsula. Oh, wait. That was every three seconds.

2. Citing ongoing issues with his back, Tiger Woods announced that he won’t play at the Genesis Open or the Honda Classic. Will we see Tiger at Augusta National? And dare we suggest posing this: Will we ever see him again in competition?

Ritter: The setback has to be crushing to Tiger, who spent more than a year preparing for this comeback. If Woods is anywhere near playing shape in April, I’d expect him to give it a go at the Masters. I do think we’ll see him again, but let’s shut down the talk of him winning, or even contending, until he can string together several consecutive months of good health. As we stand today, it’s hard to imagine him avoiding re-injury long enough to ever get back to winning golf.

Bamberger: We’ll see him going to the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night. Beyond that, I wouldn’t venture a guess. This is becoming a tiresome song.

Passov: I’m a staunch Tiger defender, but this latest development is distressing. I know that he’s designing a new course in Dubai, but I’m still wondering why, when he has a nightmarish recent history with back issues, that he’d choose to go play there, flying what — 15 hours? — rather than take the one-hour flight to Phoenix. Maybe the back issues are unrelated, as we’ve been asked to believe by Tiger’s camp, but it’s getting tougher to keep the faith. Yet, if Roger Federer can still snag a major after six months away, I’m not counting Tiger out of contending at the Masters just yet.

Wood: Until Tiger decides for himself, I will always have a belief in him. Most of the younger generation of PGA Tour players dominating right now have never been in an event where the real Tiger showed up. It’s unfortunate because even though we always lost, it was thrilling just to feel. Knowing what was in there, in his body and mind and heart, it is just hard for me to believe we won’t see one more run. It’s got to be heartbreaking for Tiger and Joey LaCava because I know how much they were looking forward to finally being able to compete again. I still think if he can be healthy enough to battle himself into position once or twice and those old instincts kick in, he can win tournaments again.

Sens: I don’t think you can be a serious golf fan and not still root hard for Tiger to get back. But at this point, this has become golf’s version of Waiting for Godot. And since we know that ending, I’m no longer expecting the old Tiger to show.

3. U.S. captain Jim Furyk announced tweaks to the points system for 2018 Ryder Cup qualifying. There was nothing earth-shattering, but one thing didn’t change. No points will be awarded from the 2017-18 Fall Series events. That begs the question: Why should anyone take the wraparound schedule seriously if the power brokers don’t?

Ritter: Well, the fall stretch still counts toward FedEx standings and PGA Tour status, and last I checked, those events will also continue to pay out robust cash prizes. These events won’t go away, but the Ryder Cup adjustment is a minor black mark against them.

Bamberger: No one should take the wraparound schedule seriously. It has done nothing to improve the rooting interest of the ordinary fan. It complicates record-keeping. It’s just messy and illogical.

Wood: I completely agree with Michael. I do like two things Jim has done to tweak the points system for 2018. I like that the final captain’s pick will come after the BMW rather than the Tour Championship. I also like that only the winner of a major will receive two points for every $1,000 earned, not the entire field. I agree with Jim that it is more impressive winning a regular PGA Tour event than finishing third in a major, and now the points awarded reflect that.

Sens: Not to get too philosophical here, but why should anyone take any phase of any professional sport too seriously, other than those who are doing it for a living? It’s entertainment. In pop cultural terms, the wrap-around season is kinda like summer reruns of a popular sit-com. It lines a lot of pockets but hard for fans to get too worked up about.

Passov: I’m not a fan of the wrap-around season, period. No disrespect to the sponsors and fans connected to those events, but it’s all about football, and to an extent, baseball playoffs at that time of year. The golf is purely an afterthought, especially with month-long breaks and Asian events played in the middle of the night. For that matter, the Ryder Cup tweaks seem meaningless to me. Haven’t we been doing something like this every year since forever? Is it now “perfected,” or does the next chairman get to “improve” it? The Ryder Cup is one of those events that is close to perfect every time out. Can we stop messing with it?

4. Rory McIlroy had an enlightening e-mail conversation with Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Bamberger. What was your biggest takeaway?

Ritter: I enjoyed the entire back-and-forth. Rory came off as thoughtful and introspective as ever. My favorite answer came at the end, when he revealed that his all-time favorite round was his first trip to Augusta with his father. I read that and thought, Surely he’s going to bag a green jacket at some point.

Bamberger: Thanks, Jeff. There can’t be many world-class athletes who can express themselves in writing as well as Rory. I was struck by his answer about the two photos I sent him, Hogan at Merion in ‘50 and Tiger at Augusta in 2001. Rory saw it from a golfer’s perspective: surrounded by all those people, but all alone. I appreciated his nod to Coldplay, and, truly, the whole thing.

Passov: Maybe my biggest takeaway was that I wished I had the skill to come up with the kinds of questions that Michael asked of Rory. Those remarkable queries helped yield some superb insights, and some introspection that we seldom get from today’s “Thanks, but I gotta run” superstars. The fact that he watches tournament golf, just because he’s still a golf fan stuck with me. I also applauded the humor in his response that he would like to bring back Michael Jackson for the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, but “not even Roger Goodell has that much power.”

Wood: I thoroughly enjoyed the entire E-terview (I’m copyrighting that), but my biggest takeaway had absolutely nothing to do with golf. When he talked about his fiancee Erica and revealed that she helped him realize the person he wanted to be away from the golf course, in real life, that to me showed a perspective not many people much less star athletes ever gain. I’m so happy for them, because that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? To find that kind of maturity and self-awareness, and know there is a person who helps you be the person you’ve always wanted to be, to help you feel like you want to feel, that’s a lot bigger than any trophy he could ever win. Of course, this could be me angling for an invite to the wedding, but we’ll never know.

Sens: All of the above, though I’ll add Rory’s reference to the ‘97 Masters and the way it influenced him and his generation. Another flash of perspective on the way that time can warp. We’re coming on the 20th anniversary of that win. It’s long enough ago, and enough has changed since then, that Tiger has written a book on it that feels almost like a closing reflection on an era. Rory was, what, 8 then? Jordan Spieth was barely out of diapers. It’s a different game today. On the other hand, it seems like only yesterday that it happened. Makes me feel old.

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5. The Olympic course in Rio is on life support and the course in Japan that is scheduled to host the 2020 competition is under pressure to admit women and end its Sunday ban on female play. Now there are rumblings that golf could be out of the Olympics after 2020. Make a case why golf should or shouldn’t remain part of the Games.

Ritter: My optimistic case is that golf is a global game, and it has the power to change lives, inspire and bring people together. My cynical case is that NBC no doubt raked a truckload of money running ads for 17 days on Golf Channel during the Rio Games, and golf will ultimately stick around if for no other reason than to keep the broadcasting suits happy.

Bamberger: The very simple reason why it should is because golf in the Olympics was an unexpected delight in the summer of 2016 and there’s no reason why it cannot go from strength to strength. If they made some radical changes to the format — How about a co-ed two-person team game? — it could be even better. But you cannot play it at a course with restrictive policies like that, and that ongoing problem is likely contributing to the glum mood about the whole enterprise. It can turn around. I expect it will.

Wood: It should and it will, with an added team competition. I can read all you can throw at me about the course in Rio on life support, about the controversy with the course in Japan and rumblings about golf not being in the Olympics come 2020, as I read all there was pre-Rio about Zika and safety and over-scheduling. But I also know what it felt like to be in the competition for those four days, and that eclipses anything else. I don’t think any of the top players will skip out on 2020 after hearing about how amazing experience it was from Rickie and Bubba and Justin and Henrik and Matt and Patrick. Everyone was worried it would feel like just another four-day stroke-play event, but it never felt like that. It felt like the Capital O-Olympics. Everyone knows that now and I think it’ll just get bigger and bigger.

Sens: Why can’t the excitement generated by the Rio competition be enough? Olympic golf has been saddled from the start by ancillary expectations—expectations that organizers brought upon themselves. All those grow-the-game promises. The idea that golf was suddenly going to take root in Brazil and other places with little or no golf tradition. To my recollection, no other sport has been brought into the Olympic fold with so many unrealistic expectations weighing on it. Was rhythmic gymnastics introduced to the Olympics to grow that niche sport? Synchronized diving? No. Strip Olympic golf of all that baggage, and you’re left with a competition that has proven itself worthy on its own, regardless of what it does or doesn’t do for the game.

Passov: Tough to top what’s been said already. I won’t grieve if golf disappears from the Olympics after 2020, but it proved perfectly that it belongs to be included. The incredible international aspect to the men’s and ladies’ leaderboards was a clear indication that golf is truly THE international game—no matter how much China’s leaders disagree. Indeed, once you stripped away all of the baggage that plagued the event since Day 1, it wound up being terrific sporting drama, complete with great underdog stories and fantastic play from well-known champions—exactly what you’d want to see in an Olympic Games. Tweak the format if you wish, change the venues if you must, but keep golf in the Olympics. It deserves its spot as a medal sport.