GOLF.com conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Sunday as golf opened the new year on a rolling Kapulua layout that allowed the big guns in the field to show off their firepower. Johnson, for the first time in his career, is beginning a year as the world’s top-ranked player, but will he still be at the top a year from now?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): DJ didn’t just win the T o’ C, he blew the other guys off the course. It was another statement from him. Look at the way he started and ended 2017 – the injury and aftermath messed up the middle — and it’s clear DJ’s week-in-and-week-out standard of play is insanely high. And this is key: he *loves* being No. 1. It means a lot to him and he’s learned to grind out good finishes even with his B-game, because that’s more World Ranking points. He ain’t going anywhere.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Obviously, any number of guys (Spieth, Thomas, Matsuyama and on) could get scorching hot and overtake the top spot, which has gotten passed around plenty in the post-Tiger era. But DJ has as torrid a top gear as anyone, and he’s got a head start. I see him holding on, especially if he stays off slippery stairways in Augusta.
Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF.com (@sean_zak): Yes. He’s got a healthy lead right now and is the surest thing on Tour. Sure, Spieth could catch him, but if I was DJ, I’d be more worried about Rahm, who hasn’t even played the minimum number of qualifying events (40) and who has ascended into the top four without a top-20 finish in a major. If Rahm wins a major this year, he’ll put some serious pressure on DJ.
Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): DJ has so many great young players chasing him, that will prod him to putting in the work to stay at No. 1. He didn’t get to enjoy his run sufficiently enough in 2017 due to the injury. I’ll jump on the bandwagon Alan is driving and agree that he wants it much more than he used to and that will keep him atop the list.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, GOLF.com (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s a deep and talented list of pursuers, but DJ’s head start to enter the year looms large. Assuming DJ’s 2018 Masters rental house is a sturdy, one-story ranch, it would take at least a three- or four-win season from a top-10 player to catch him. Spieth could do it. A healthy Rory could make a run at it. JT might get there with an encore season. But I like the odds of DJ finishing this year right where he started.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: My guess is we’ll continue to be in a period of revolving chairs at the top for a while and I’m guessing a year from now we’ll be talking about Rory McIlrory as we are now discussing Dustin Johnson — unless it’s Jon Rahm.
2. Johnson was asked last week if any player, himself included, is capable of winning nine-plus times in a season, a feat no one has achieved since Vijay Singh in 2004 and Tiger Woods in 2000. “I definitely think I can,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have to play some really good golf, but definitely capable of it.” Given the depth of talent on Tour today, is a nine-win season achievable — by DJ or anyone else?
Shipnuck: It’s a longshot…but I like how he’s thinking.
Sens: On the PGA Tour, anything’s possible, (someone should build an ad campaign around that), so yeah, sure. Long shot, but it could happen. And DJ is one of the guys with enough firepower to do it. Only a little less than a year ago, heading into the Masters, it seemed like he might never lose again.
Zak: No, I don’t think so. Vijay doing it makes you believe it can be done by a non-Tiger entity, but that’s when Singh played 29 or 30 events a year. None of the “elite” winners are playing more than 25 Tour events in a given season. Even 25 is a lot, especially when you consider that winning over these fields and for these purses tends to induce an unplanned break in players’ schedules. Someone would have to put together a Tiger-esque nine-wins-in-20-events kind of season or, in other words, a top-three season of all-time.
Ritter: Justin Thomas just bagged five titles (and he nearly won the Tour Championship for a sixth), which was arguably the best season since an in-prime Tiger. Zak is right about limited schedules creeping in and making it an even bigger long shot…but in golf, as in life, never say never.
Passov: My gripe with DJ was always that I felt he had so much talent that he was underperforming by winning just one or two events a year. But nine trophies? Or more? If he’s properly motivated and healthy, I can see six at the max, simply because we just saw Justin Thomas get five this past season. What awed me before he got hurt last April was that he was winning on both bombers courses and on tight squeezes (WGC-Mexico and the WGC Match-Play in Austin). I think it’s scheduling as my colleagues have pointed out that is the prohibiting factor. Once you’ve won all those titles and all that cash, it’s human to shut it down a bit.
Bamberger: I don’t see it. Of course, if you play nine times it is possible, and there are some guys who play that much. But I don’t see it.
3. He’s back (again). Tiger Woods announced on Thursday that his next two starts will be the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines (Jan. 25) and the Genesis Open (Feb. 15) at Riviera. Torrey will represent Tiger’s first PGA Tour start since he played their last year and missed the cut. Sensible scheduling?
Sens: Torrey is practically home turf to Tiger. He’s won eight times there, including a major. It will be a tougher ball-striking test than Tiger’s chummy event in the tropics, but it’s hard to think of a more comfortable regular Tour stop for him to play.
Zak: It’s very sensible scheduling. Both courses will provide a great challenge to Woods’s current form, something that Albany in the Bahamas could never do. They aren’t in consecutive weeks, so there will be another good break in between for Woods to take a step back before moving forward again. No complaints from me, and surely none from any SoCal golf fans.
Ritter: You could make a case that he might benefit from changing it up and adding one more confidence building, birdie-palooza like the Sony or CareerBuilder before the gauntlets at Torrey and Riv, but this is his formula. It’s worked in the past.
Shipnuck: Torrey South is a very tough place to start a season: the rough is usually deep and wet and the course plays really long in the cold, foggy air. If Tiger can cobble together a good performance there it will be very, very impressive.
Passov: Well, naturally, I’m bummed that he’s not coming to Scottsdale for the Waste Management Phoenix Open — my home game — because I always thought it would be cool to finally get a W in front of the biggest, rowdiest crowds on earth. It won’t happen this year, but at least he’s not slated to fly to the other desert. Win, lose or draw, his appearances at Dubai or Abu Dhabi to start the year were buzz-killers compared to opening his season here.
Bamberger: Two home games. Where it all began. Good choices.
4. Two European stars are preparing for what they hope will be a big 2018. One, Rory McIlroy, is coming off his first winless season in nearly a decade and has a busy schedule to start the year. The other, 23-year-old Jon Rahm, is aiming to build on a strong rookie campaign and continue his rise. Which of these two will have the better ’18?
Shipnuck: Rahm is younger, healthier and dying to make his mark on the game. Judging by his strong play at Kapalua, he’s gonna keep up his torrid play from 2017. I can see Rahm having more top 10s and more wins, but for Rory it’s all about the majors. If he can add his fifth one – tying the career total of his idol, Seve – that’s all that really matters. I think it happens.
Zak: A gambling man would not choose Rahm (unless that gambling man liked himself some positive juice), so I’ll take the chalk choice: Rory. I adhere to the popular mentality that elite talent only stays winless for so long. Will Rory win a bounce-back major like everyone has predicted from him for three years? Who knows, but he’ll play 16-18 events and mash together eight top 10 by simply being himself. That’s really good. If three of those are wins, no one would be surprised.
Ritter: I like them both, but the aggressive early schedule is a clear sign that Rory wants this to be a Revenge Season. The stakes are high for him — can he stay healthy and wash away the past season? Or, will another injury-plagued, winless slog lead to whispers about a possible early career decline? Rahm will be fine, but Rory needs this season more, and I think he’ll squeeze everything he can out of it.
Sens: If by better season, are we saying winning a major? I think Rahm will get his first before Rory gets his fifth. He’s the greater talent, and he’s got the red-ass motivation factor working in his favor. But on top of the injuries, he’s been nagged enough by wedge and short game woes that I give Rahm the slight edge.
Passov: Pure coin flip for me, but I’ll take Rahm. Rory may be much healthier than he was, but he needs to flip the switch on the mental game and get his putter to behave like a world-class golfer. Until I see evidence of that, I’m still looking at Rahm as the guy who will just keep getting better and better with his own motivation to keep it together in majors, the only item that’s been lacking in his arsenal so far.
Bamberger: I’m with Alan. Rahm might win more money, but Rory’s season is the one I think you’ll want to have.
5. Bones is back, at least for one week. He’ll caddie for Justin Thomas at next week’s Sony Open with Thomas’s usual caddie, Jimmy Johnson, sidelined with plantar fasciitis. This is just a cameo for Bones, who’s now an NBC on-course reporter, but is this an indication that we could see him coming out of retirement to loop full-time again?
Shipnuck: I’ll be watching his gait carefully. He was limping the whole time he had Phil’s bag the first half of 2017, fallout from his double-knee replacement. I think that’s a very underrated factor why he walked away. Hopefully with all this time away to heal he’ll be pain-free. I think that will factor in to his decision going forward.
Sens: I would turn to our man John Wood for a better sense of what lies in Bones’ heart, but it’s not hard to picture him coming back out as a looper. As cushy as his current gig may be, you’ve got to think he misses being in the mix. This cameo might be the spark that gets that competitive fire burning again.
Zak: I think it’s definitely an indication that he could come out of retirement. He’s exercising the same muscles in that on-course reporting job, but gets none of the competitive juices flowing. If he is the same guy who would fall over or wave a flag like crazy when Phil would do something electric, he would have to miss it dearly. If all goes well with Thomas, hey, we might see Bones on a bag in a non-temporary role very soon.
Ritter: No clue what Bones’ long-term plan is, but can we mic him for the broadcast?
Passov: I’m torn, because I think he’s fantastic as a broadcaster, but he could contribute immeasurably to catapult a great young player into the elite level. I wondered if he was just burned out a bit, especially coming off double knee surgery. Maybe a good rest was just what he needed.
Bamberger: He brings something to the broadcasts that others are not. Over time, he’s going to get rewarded for that, financially and otherwise, in a way that he was not as a caddie. Seems to me he’s in a good place. What he’s thinking I could not say.
6. With GOLF’s inaugural Style Issue now on newsstands — and with Style Week officially here on GOLF.com — we must ask: Of any player past or present, whose style do you most admire?
Shipnuck: Hogan. So clean and timeless.
Sens: Arnie’s one obvious choice. Ditto Seve Ballesteros, slashing his way to a win at the British Open at St. Andrews in ‘84 (dark blue sweater over a crisp white collared shirt), where he cut about as dashing a profile as a golfer can cut. More dashing, anyway, than a certain former editor at our magazine who used to tuck his shirt deep into his underwear and then pull the underwear up so high that it rose above his belt line as he teed off. I guess you’d call him the anti-Arnie.
Zak: I don’t think Justin Thomas gets enough love for his style. Of all the elite players, he’s taken plenty of steps toward the Billy Horschel/Morgan Hoffmann end of the spectrum (but not that far), and done it in a very classy, simple way. He rocks pink pants better than anyone else, but that’s as complicated as he makes things. And oh, yeah, he also wins a lot now. Trophies make every pair of fluorescent pants look better.
Ritter: All good choices so far. I’ll add Freddie, whose swing and insouciance meshed well with his on-course style.
Passov: Surprise, surprise, I’ll go with Tiger, who was always meticulously attired, albeit red, red, red. As a history buff, I’ll tell you to go back and check out Jimmy Demaret, a three-time Masters champ in the 1940s and 50s, who pushed the fashion envelope fairly frequently and generally succeeded in looking sharp.
Bamberger: Young Tom. Plus, the mustache.