Tour Confidential: Is Rory McIlroy heating up at the right time?

March 20, 2017

Every Sunday night, GOLF.com 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. The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without Arnold produced the kind of finish the King would have loved. There were eagles and near-aces to go with careless bogeys and worse. Rory McIlroy made a Palmer-like charge on the weekend, but he three-putted the 72nd hole from 31 feet and lost by two. That’s a pair of consecutive strong appearances for McIlroy—he tied for seventh in Mexico City and tied for fourth at Bay Hill—but he was in position to win both. Are you encouraged by Rory’s play with the Masters looming? Or more concerned that he hasn’t closed the deal?

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): You have to be enthused by his play the last two weeks for sure, especially when we didn’t even know if he’d be healthy when the Masters rolled around. His three-putt on the 18th might have looked bad, but he had 11-under in his mind and ended up being correct, meaning he had to make that birdie putt to get there. Rory is playing great and it’ll be more surprising if he isn’t in contention at the Masters than if he is.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Agreed, Shane. He was trying to post a number. I’m about as concerned about Rory’s ability to close as I am about his financial security.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): A little of both. There are few things in sports as thrilling as watching Rory attack a golf course when he’s feeling good with his driver, and he reduced Bay Hill to nothing today. Yet he still managed to bogey three of the last 12 holes. Obviously Rory is still rounding back into form after the injury but he has only one more start before the Masters—gotta tighten things up if he’s going to win and not just contend.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Much more encouraged than discouraged. Rory has returned to contention faster than I expected after the injury layoff, especially one as tricky as a rib that could flare up on any hard swing. Like Alan says, he has to tighten that short game if it’s finally going to happen at Augusta, but you have to like the way he’s trending.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): Definitely encouraged. Yes, I do wish someone with Rory’s talent would post five or six victories every year, the way Tiger and Jack and Arnie and Tom Watson used to. I think it would be good for golf to have a dominator or two. Yet, coming off injury and a layoff, it’s very healthy to see him in the hunt in his past two events. Portends good things to come.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Excellent use of the word portend, Joe. I feel smarter already, just typing it. I can only imagine what happened to Rory on the 72nd hole, when he needed 3 and made 5. He forced it. He wanted it too much. He was trying too hard. That can be a killer anywhere and in a major even more so. He’ll have a consult with his mind after this one. Learning something from it sounds easy but is anything but.

2. Mark Steinberg, the agent for Tiger Woods, took exception to a report saying it was doubtful that his client would tee it up at the Masters. “I couldn’t give you a fair assessment,” Steinberg told Golf Channel, “but to say it’s doubtful is an absolute inaccurate statement.” Still, we must ask: Will Tiger play?

Bacon: I don’t see him teeing it up at the Masters, one because of health and two knowing what that golf course does to golfers who aren’t 100 percent on top of their game. If Tiger can’t practice and isn’t ready, why go to the Masters and get beat up on the biggest stage in the game?

Shipnuck: I loved how Steiny said he hadn’t discussed the Masters with Tiger but he absolutely, positively was sure the report was wrong. I think it’s more likely that I’ll play in the Masters than Tiger will.

Bamberger: Mark’s response was odd. I imagine the report touched a nerve. Brian Wacker does not traffic in fake news and neither does Golf Digest. He clearly found people who know or observe Tiger who think there’s nothing about the state of his game that suggests he’s going to play the Masters. As for whether Tiger plays or not, I am completely content to wait for Thursday, April 6, to find out. I’ve got other things to occupy me.

Ritter: If Tiger still isn’t practicing, calling him “doubtful” for Augusta is generous. Perhaps he’s doing more work in private than anyone realizes, but as we stand today this has the feel of another lost season.

Sens: I think Tiger will asd;lfk … agh … sorry. Nodded off again at the keyboard. My Tiger speculation-fatigue has pretty much peaked. But so much in Tiger-world is cloaked in uncertainty and or obfuscation, speculation is all most fans have to hang on to.

Passov: I’m with you, Josh. My crystal ball hasn’t cleared since last week’s Tiger Watch. Usually by now we’d have some spies at Medalist reporting on Tiger’s progress, but it’s all gone silent. Maybe the New York book signing this week will reveal something new.

3. Marc Leishman prevailed at Bay Hill, making eagle at the 16th and scrambling to save par at the last two holes. Palmer famously wrote congratulatory notes over the years. How would his note have read to the Aussie Leishman, who was the 2009 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year but had only one previous win?

Bacon: As thoughtful as Arnie was with those notes, I am sure Leishman’s wife, Audrey, would have been mentioned.

Ritter: And that Leish also earned a trip to Augusta.

Sens: Congrats. Drop by the bar. Ketel One, on me.

Shipnuck: Dear Marc, You surely remember the unflattering things Alan Shipnuck said about you on Sunday of the 2015 Open Championship. I’m glad you finally showed that blowhard what you’re made of. Well played, Arnie.

Bamberger: Dear Marc, Never change. The gym is overrated, although hot yoga has its benefits. See you at Augusta, Arnold.

Passov: Well played, Marc. Now how about a putting tip? I’ve been tinkering with a few things and am thinking about a change.

4. The blue blazer is out. What would Arnie think of the red cardigan that now goes to the champion?

Bacon: I can only imagine he would have loved them, as I’m sure we all do. Golf knows a single jacket; why not do away with another one and give out something sentimental, unique and, frankly, cool as hell.

Shipnuck: SI lore has it that early in Palmer’s career a couple of our photographers told Palmer that bright colors looked best in the photos and that particularly on Sundays it was important he favor reds or yellows. He clearly took that to heart! He woulda loved the winner’s cardigan.

Ritter: It’s original. It’s bold. It’s cool. It’s perfect.

Sens: He wouldn’t have said it aloud, but he might have thought it, rightly. That cardigan looks better on me than it does on him.

Passov: “Nice. Now where was that Ketel One again?”

Bamberger: “Never button the top button or the bottom one. Push up the sleeves from your wrists three to four inches. Do these things without ever thinking about them.”

5. It took two votes and the threat of never crowning another British Open champion but the membership of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—aka, Muirfield—has begrudgingly agreed to admit women. As Karen Crouse reported in the New York Times, the club’s membership waiting list is at least two years long, “so women will have to keep a stiff upper lip—there will be no line jumping for history’s sake.” Does Muirfield deserve any kudos for this historic policy shift?

Ritter: None. They’re an embarrassment.

Bacon: Absolutely not. If you want to be involved in an event that literally has the word “Open” in front of it, you should have done away with any idea of discrimination decades ago.

Shipnuck: It’s so absurd we’re still discussing this in 2017.

Sens: Right. Better late to the 20th century (or is it the 19th?) than never. But this is a relatively easy symbolic gesture. More interesting would be to speak with the women they wind up admitting and get their honest take about what being a part of the club is like.

Passov: Jeff, Shane—I think you’re being a bit harsh, here. It wasn’t that long ago that Augusta was in the same boat, and it was just weeks before last year’s Open that host Royal Troon admitted women. I talked to a long-time Muirfield member in late January and he said that it would be a done deal this time, that the only reason it hadn’t passed last time is that a bunch of the old guard despised being pressured the way they were, and so voted “No.” Remember Augusta’s Hootie Johnson saying they wouldn’t be pressured “at the point of a bayonet” to admit a woman member? Same deal here. Bad that it took this long, good that it’s happened.

Bamberger: Kudos is a funny word. People the world-over are motivated by status. The status of the club, and its members, was diminished by not having the Open. The new outcome to the vote was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m glad it did. The course is spectacular. As for the membership, and I don’t know a person there, but given the chance to take tea with one, male, female or otherwise, I would jump at the chance.

6. Let’s talk brackets. Though the draw won’t be completed until Monday night, what would be your dream Final Four for this week’s WGC Match Play?

Bacon: Rory, Jordan (added bonus of a raucous Austin, Texas, crowd that loves rooting for Longhorns), Patrick Reed and Phil seems like it would be the best to watch, so that is my Final Four, and I wouldn’t hate seeing Rory and Reed in the finals.

Shipnuck: Reed is great fun at the Ryder Cup but otherwise doesn’t have the firepower. A deep run by Phil would be fun but I’d prefer he save it for Augusta. So I’m going with all top seeds: DJ, Rory, JDay, Jordan. The more these guys can square off against each other the better!

Ritter: Sign me up for a semifinal of two Ryder Cup rematches: Rory-Reed and Phil-Sergio.

Bamberger: Oh, that’s good, Jeff. But I’m gonna tweak it, Texas-style: Reed-Spieth, Phil-Sergio (and a Reed-Sergio final). I also like Sergio to win the Masters this year, when he least expects it.

Sens: I like those pairings in theory, but I’m not sure I’d want to see a reprise of the Ryder Cup matchups as they’d be doomed to be disappointing by comparison. I’d take DJ-Rory in one of the semis, and hometown favorite Spieth with almost anyone in the other. And then I’d hope for Rory vs. Spieth in the finals. Contrasting styles. Outwardly intense competitors. A Europe vs. America theme. The building blocks for an entertaining rivalry, which golf could use.

Pasov: If I can’t get a Keegan Bradley-Miguel Angel Jimenez rematch or find out who’s stronger—(Chris) Wood or (Brendan) Steele—I’ll take the top four seeds and a six-pack of Shiner Bock and enjoy the telecast immensely.