Tour Confidential: Is Dustin Johnson the new Masters favorite, by a mile?

March 6, 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. Well, that was fun. The World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship had quite the debut, with a star-studded leaderboard young and old, ridiculous hole-outs and a worthy champion in world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. What was your biggest takeaway from the week?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): That I can’t wait to get back to Mexico City. This was the liveliest Tour event I can remember in a long time. The fans brought a great energy and Chapultepec was a very intriguing venue. Not to mention that another week in CDMX solidified it as one of my favorite cities on the planet.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: That’s great to hear, Alan. Having been there, what was the vibe you got from the players? How did the Americans feel about being south of the border? Were they talking about Trump? I followed it, as people used to say, in the papers, and was stunned by the lengths the players were hitting their shots, in the thin air.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): The excitement Alan experienced in person translated beautifully on TV. Big crowds, crazy shots, stellar leaderboard. The single biggest takeaway is probably that DJ solidified what could turn into a long run atop the World Ranking. But this tournament was a home run all the way around.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): The new venue also got me thinking about the old venue, Trump Doral, which some players notably griped about, saying that it gave unreasonable advantage to bombers. No such complaints this week, yet a bomber still won. Sure, there are courses for certain horses. But here was another reminder that when a thoroughbred like DJ is at his best, there aren’t a lot of guys who can keep up. On any track.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): The biggest takeaway was definitely DJ getting it done for the W, even as he resembled Rickie Fowler down the stretch at Honda, with so many inexplicably awful shots balanced by some incredible ones. And I’ll echo Josh here, and add some: Great to see some of the biggest bashers in the game — DJ, Rory, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Lefty, among others — think and maneuver their way around a super-tight golf course. For me, the course itself was refreshing, if horrible, but that doesn’t detract from the fantastic success the crowds and leaderboards would suggest.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): It was an absolute home run. The people were fantastic, the course was one of the most interesting we’ve had to try and figure out in a long time (in large part trying to figure out how far the ball was going to go), and the city was fantastic. With all due respect to Doral, it had lost a lot of the buzz in recent years. Club de Golf at Chapultepec provided an energy to the tournament that we haven’t felt in a while. And yes, while a bomber still won, I felt like it provided a chance for anyone to play well and compete. Oh, and Dustin Johnson is good at golf.

2. With the Masters a month away, there’s no reason not to anoint Johnson as the favorite. Based on what you witnessed in Mexico City, who’s next in line to win the green jacket?

Shipnuck: I think this tournament offered more questions than answers. Rory had a chance for a statement win but his play was very flat on the weekend. Jordan had one stellar round and was mediocre the other three. Justin Thomas took a pretty big step backward. Phil showed a ton of heart but completely lost his swing on the weekend. Jason Day’s ongoing fragility kept him from even making the trip. Dustin is now the clear favorite but I’m not sure who’s next in line.

Bamberger: After Dustin, I’m going with Phil, Fred (Couples), Jordan Spieth, in that order. Phil, because he does rise to the occasion, he’s still long and he knows the course inside and out. Fred, because we’ve had so many young winners this year it seems logical that there should be some counter-balance to it all. Spieth, because he’s such a smart golfer and I think will correct whatever it was that went wrong last year on Sunday.

Ritter: DJ is the new favorite, but I felt great about Hideki a month ago and I’m not going to abandon him just yet. Also, in three trips to Augusta, Spieth has yet to finish outside the top two. Hard to imagine he isn’t in the mix once again.

Sens: Hard to argue against any of the above picks, but to range slightly outside the box, I’ll go with Jon Rahm, a top young talent who already has a win this year. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see him pick up at Augusta where his countrymen Seve and Olazabal left off some years ago.

Passov: I don’t know why DJ’s track record at Augusta is so poor, but the monkey is off his back, thanks to his U.S. Open win, and given his successes lately, he’s proved he can win anywhere. I still like Spieth because of his putting prowess, but I’d also like to see a healthy Jason Day back in action and see where his game is at.

Wood: Sure, I’d say at this moment DJ is the clear favorite, but there’s still enough time between now and the Masters, not for DJ to slip because he won’t, but for others to join him in the heavy favorites category. I still maintain this is one of the most wide-open fields in Masters history and wouldn’t be surprised if any of 20-25 players were to don the jacket.

3. We debated the rules changes being proposed by the USGA and the R&A a few days ago, but given the way officials were tested in Mexico City, talking about the rules never gets old. What do you consider the most head-scratching change?

Shipnuck: It’s only been a few days but I’m already bored of the topic. The only thing I find more stultifying is discussing slow-play. When there are strong new rules about slow play then I’ll start paying attention.

Bamberger: Well, the one-inch drop. It’s just so — can you still use this word? — unmanly.

Ritter: If a once-inch drop is wimpy, what do you call taking a drop out of any bunker for a two-shot penalty? It will clearly help slow-playing, sand-averse recreational players, but still, it doesn’t feel quite like golf.

Sens: Agreed, Jeff. The bunker rule seems lenient to the extreme. Let’s hope legalization of the foot wedge doesn’t follow. The pros certainly don’t need it, and for the rest of us, how about we just give it the old college try from the sand, and if we don’t get out in two hacks, pocket the ball and move on? Bad golf can still be played quickly. I do it all the time.

Passov: I think the “reasonable judgment will not be second-guessed” amendment will find many players who will take this to the extreme in big-money, big-time golf, leading to ill will among fellow competitors, and ultimately fans. The whole idea of golfers being such exemplary, self-policing sportsmen was so appealing–think Bobby Jones, who was commended for calling a penalty on himself for a violation only he saw, and who then scoffed, “You might as well have praised a man for not robbing a bank.” Now, I think there’s more incentive to fudge a little on your judgment. I never liked snitches who ratted out players by watching TV, but a little honesty by the player himself is one major trait that separated golf from the other sports.

Wood: Upon further review … I believe there was a major oversight and one that should be corrected before the new rules are given the green stamp of approval. Pitchmarks, off the green. It seems ludicrous to me that one should be able to lift, clean and drop his ball when it lands and stays in it’s own pitch mark, but forced to play it as it lies when it finishes in someone else’s. A player should be allowed a free drop when his ball ends up in an obvious pitchmark, regardless of who caused it.

4. The HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore wasn’t without its drama. Michelle Wie, who entered the tournament ranked 179th in the world, took a two-shot lead into the final round, but Inbee Park walked off with the victory. Playing for only the second time in the last six months due to a thumb injury, Park ran off eight birdies in a 10-hole stretch to clip Ariya Jutanugarn by a shot. Which was the bigger surprise: Wie’s out-of-nowhere strong play, or Park’s victory?

Shipnuck: Well, you’re forgetting to mention that four-putt double-bogey early in the final round that pretty much ended Wie’s bid. Inbee Park is one of the greatest players of all time. When her putter turns molten like it did, anything is possible. It was nice to see Wie put together some solid play but her shaky final round doesn’t exactly qualify as a surprise.

Bamberger: Both options are out of golf’s playbook. Any Tour or LPGA player, no matter what the state of his or her game, can play stellar golf for 54 holes. That’s not the test. The test of where your golf game is is what you do on Sunday, and what is the number you shoot for 72 holes. So I’m not surprised by Wie’s 54-hole score. As for Park’s great Sunday, she’s one of the best in the world, has been for a half-decade. She has been fighting an injury, but that doesn’t mean she forgot how to play, or how to win.

Ritter: Inbee is awesome, and I will never be shocked when she wins, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Wie contend–she hasn’t won since the ’14 U.S. Open and has one Top 10 since the start of ’15. Four-putt and Sunday fade aside, her T4 finish was a positive step.

Sens: Neither is much of a surprise, but if I had to rank them, I’d say Wie was less expected. Inbee just needed to get healthy. With Wie, the problems seemed to be a combination of physical and mental struggles, and that’s a lot harder to recover from than injury alone.

Passov: Wie’s stellar play was by far the bigger surprise. She’s done virtually nothing since her 2014 U.S. Women’s Open win, so this was a massive step in the right direction for both her and for the LPGA. She is a legitimate needle-mover, and golf — not just ladies golf, but the game of golf — could benefit from her resurgence.

5. After a heavy dose from CBS, NBC has the honor of taking us to the Masters with its golf telecasts. Which network do you prefer?

Shipnuck: Twitter.

Bamberger: CBS for pictures, NBC for sound. (Michael Jordan coached me here.)

Ritter: I know Johnny Miller is polarizing, but I’m a fan. The Michaels nailed it: CBS puts on a beautiful show, but I learn more from NBC.

Sens: I’m with you, Jeff. CBS is pretty but often pulls too many punches for my taste. Along with Azinger, Miller is the analyst in the tower I most like listening to.

Passov: I’ll straddle the fence here and say that I don’t have a preference. There are folks on both networks I like listening to and folks that I don’t enjoy as much. People may knock Jim Nantz’ sentimentalism, but I’m a huge fan of the gravitas and golf knowledge he brings to each telecast. Folks (pros included) slam Johnny Miller for his snap judgments and “These kids today aren’t as good as we were” attitude, but I find I learn more from his predictions and analysis than from almost anyone else. Mostly, though, neither broadcast team gets in the way of my enjoyment of the event–which is something that definitely occurred with other networks in the past.

Wood: I enjoy them both, but I’m an NBC guy … I just like the feel of their telecast, like it’s a group of golf aficionados sitting around at a party talking with each other.

6. The PGA of America announced that players will be allowed to wear shorts during practices rounds at the PGA Championship in August. Much ado about nothing?

Ritter: Absolutely nothing.

Shipnuck: I don’t know, it could be amazing. Three words: Colt Knost’s legs.

Bamberger: “Amazing” is a little strong for my tastes. It’s a nod to where the game is, and what North Carolina is in August. It makes sense. The game has always been evolving, including in its uniforms. Haven’t seen someone play in a vest for a while, unless you count Ryan Moore.

Passov: Guys, I’m a little more intrigued than you are on this one, if only because I remember what a stir it caused for the PGA of America and the PGA Tour (Tiger issuing an ultimatum of sorts in wanting to permit Stevie to wear shorts). For the caddies, it was a health issue in steamy weather. Hey, we’ve loosened restrictions on the size and number of logos, on facial hair–why not, as Michael says, give a nod to where the game is. What about letting the guys wear shorts if they feel like it in an actual tournament round, based on a predicted or actual heat index for that day?

Sens: Zzzz. This is a topic for a very slow news day. Barely. Call me when they start letting guys play practice rounds like this.

Wood: A non-story. We seem to visit quite a few of the hottest, most humid places in America in August, and if it gives players a few days of relief before the bell rings, great. I’ll just be waiting for that first big name player to have a poor first round and see his name at the bottom of the list on Friday with “Player A, WD, Sunburn.” (Nudge, nudge, PGA of America … I love you, but there is a West Coast that’s pretty much beautiful from Vancouver to Tijuana that time of year. Hint hint.)