Tour Confidential: Is this the final blow for Tiger Woods’s comeback?

April 24, 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. Two days after saying he was making progress, Tiger Woods announced he had undergone surgery on his back. He deemed it a success. But given this was his fourth procedure on his back, is this the final blow? Have we seen the last of Tiger in competitive golf?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It all depends on how badly Tiger wants to go through another lengthy rehab to get back out there. My sense is that he’s more at peace with his life off the course and doesn’t burn to compete like he once did. I do think we’ll see him in PGA Tour fields from time to time, starting in 2018, but his days as a threat to win are over.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): This topic has become a pretty tedious one, hasn’t it? More tortured than Tiger Woods’s poor spine. What Jeff says rings right to me. Never say he’ll never play again. But also don’t look for him to win.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I hope not, but it’s more and more concerning. If it is, I hope everyone who got to witness this guy play golf when he was the real Tiger Woods knows how lucky we’ve all been. Did you get to see Babe Ruth hit home runs? Cy Young pitch? Jim Brown play football? Shakespeare write a play? Mozart compose a symphony? Well, no, but we got to see Tiger Woods take golf to a level it’s never been before. Jack may finish with more majors, but the golf Tiger Woods played when he was THAT Tiger Woods was the finest golf ever played—the highest level ever attained in this sport. So I’ll keep hoping for one more run until he says goodbye to the game himself.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Right on, John Wood. He may try to play more tournament golf over the next decade or 15 years, and he might even play winning golf in that time, but we are unlikely to see anybody dominate the professional game as Woods did from 1997 to 2008 ever again.

Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Mr. Wood, you have it 100 percent correct about Mr. Woods. It’s almost silly to speculate anymore, as if any one of us has any genuine insight into his psyche and his physical condition. While it’s true that the fires likely don’t — can’t — burn as they once did, I can’t see him saying goodbye without at least one final epic Tiger moment—which means we’ll see another lengthy rehab and another round of speculation. At least I was in Missouri to see him hit his final golf shot for awhile. And I was among the lucky ones to see him hit some of history’s best golf shots over the past 20 years.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): I’m afraid this is the end of the road. Yes, we need to celebrate the glorious golf Tiger played, but it’s also OK to feel a little cheated. Tiger is the most dominant golfer of all-time, and also the biggest what-if.

Bamberger: His what-if is up to him. He can have more impact on the game in the next 40 years than he did in the last 20.

2. The golf world has been screaming for change, and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans is bringing it with this week’s two-man team championship. It’ll be alternate shot on Thursday and Saturday, better ball on Friday and Sunday. How intrigued are you? Which pairings excite you?

Sens: I like the shake-up, especially the addition of alternate shot, which add the kind of playing-for-your-partner pressure that we don’t see enough of. I was hoping Billy Mayfair and Aaron Baddeley would team up, just so I could say, “Those guys may fare badly.” But terrible puns aside, for sure purity of ball-striking, I’ll have my eye on Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson.

Ritter: I’m excited about the new format with or without awful puns, and am hopeful the Zurich will inspire more events to shake it up. (How about a coed tournament?) For pairings, I think Bubba-J.B. Holmes could be dangerous.

Wood: I don’t know if they qualify as a “sleeper” pick, but the Branden Grace/Louis Oosthuizen pairing is intriguing to me. They were absolutely unbeatable as a team at the last Presidents Cup in Korea, and I think they’ll relish another shot at competing together. As far as pure excitement it would be hard to ignore Stenson/Rose or Day/Fowler. I’m personally disappointed we won’t be playing. I think the format change is fantastic and a breath of fresh air for the Tour. We were originally scheduled to play, but our partner fell on some stairs in Augusta and won’t be back until the following week. I wonder if I can sue for lost wages—just kidding, DJ! Get well and we’ll see you soon.

Passov: I wasn’t on board with this one until this week, when I had a chance to see the PGA Tour Champions up close in a team format at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri. The camaraderie and teamwork are totally enjoyable to behold. Just as the “only-ness” makes major tournament golf great, it’s really fun to have an event or two when you’re not playing alone. Whether it’s a Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, World Cup or this kind of two-man format, it’s great for golf on an occasional basis. Aside from those mentioned above, I’m intrigued by the all-Utah, Mutt-and-Jeff matchup of bomber Tony Finau (T9 in driving distance this year) and bunter Daniel Summerhays (T140), and also the all-scrabble pairing of Alex Cejka and Soren Kjeldsen.

Shipnuck: I’m quite excited—like a lot of the players, I wouldn’t be going to New Orleans were it not for the format change. Anything to break up the doldrums of 72 holes of stroke play. How about Spieth-Ryan Palmer? They might not miss a single putt across four days.

Bamberger: Totally agree. Spieth-Palmer, two flinty Texans, could be absolutely great.

3. Arguably the best player without a victory on the PGA Tour, Kevin Chappell won at the Valero Texas Open, in his 180th start. Why did it take him so long?

Ritter: Because it’s tough to win on the PGA Tour! Also, his putting tended to crack on Sundays. It was fitting that it came down to an eight-footer, and it was great to see him jar it. That was also one of my favorite 72nd-hole celebrations of the season.

Sens: Agreed, Jeff. I threw out my back just watching that.

Wood: Ditto. It’s HARD to win on the PGA Tour. He’s been VERY good for a while now, so it will be interesting to see if this win opens the proverbial floodgates for him. The first one is the hardest, until the second one.

Passov: I’m with you fellows. It is hard to win — or HARD to win — on the PGA Tour. Sometimes it’s luck to win early, sometimes it’s about paying your dues, showing maturity, and still getting lucky. Chappell was due, unquestionably. Good to see him get it done, especially in the fashion he did it, and nice timing with the GOLF Magazine May cover.

Shipnuck: Let’s not give Chappell a full pass here—he made plenty of mistakes in crunch time when he was in position to win in the past. But kudos to him for learning from them and finally getting it done.

Bamberger: If he never does another thing in golf, he won on Tour. He can enjoy that for the rest of his life. To win more, he has to get better. Winning is hard, as noted above. Getting better is harder yet.

4. Lydia Ko has fired another caddie. Yes, she’s ranked No. 1 in the world, but this can’t be good. Ko turns 20 on Monday. What kind of birthday wish should Lydia make when she blows out the candles? (Update: According to a Golf Channel report, Ko hired Peter Godfrey, 2017 Caddie of the Year, over the weekend.) 

Ritter: I don’t know Lydia, but it seems like she’s allowing outside influences, likely her parents, to make her most important career decisions. Maybe this is what she wants. She’s No. 1, so things could certainly be worse. But if she’s fed up with the dysfunction, I hope that on her 20th birthday she takes the wheel and begins calling more of the shots.

Sens: Ko has always struck me as having a good head on her shoulders, and let’s hope she does, since she has said she wants to retire at 30 to become a sports psychologist. Yeah. There’s some tumult, but who doesn’t have that in their life at 20? If I were her, my birthday wish would be to have learned whatever lessons there are to be learned from this hoo-ha by the time she blows out the candles on next year’s cake.

Wood: I suppose some peace and stability. I hope she finds a caddie who can be what she wants without having to ask him or her to change. I don’t know many 20 year olds who are ready to take the wheel and call the shots, but maybe she’s ready to do just that. At 20 years old and No. 1 in the world, I would say she should simply wish for happiness.

Passov: Until we learn more of the story, I’m at a loss as to explain this bizarre run of caddie dismissals. If she’s as smart and level-headed as we seem to think she is, she could take a lesson from the legends of the game who retain their caddies for years, even decades. That kind of stability has to be so helpful at crunch time in big tournaments. Yet, it hasn’t really mattered that much in her results, even as she’s not quite the reliable winner she was a year or two ago.

Shipnuck: I’ve gotten to know her quite well over the last couple of years and my only wish for Lydia is that she not be so hard on herself. That lovely smile disguises how intensely she grinds. Yani Tseng is a living, breathing cautionary tale about what the pressure of being No. 1 can do to a player. She’s already knocking on the door of the Hall of Fame—now’s the time to smell a few roses.

Bamberger: All this firing shows massive instability within her — can’t stand this word in this context — team and a lack of understanding of what a long career requires, which is patience. But they’ll learn the hard way, which is maybe the only way.

5. Golf’s governing bodies have announced a universal handicap system. What’s your take?

Ritter: International handicaps have only affected me in rare (and special) instances where I’ve played golf overseas. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but there’s no harm in simplifying the system—if the change is indeed a simplification.

Sens: It’s about time. For 20 years, I played in an annual Ryder Cup team competition against a bunch of guys from Ireland, and I learned the hard way that if an American and Irishman are claiming the same index, you should pretty much always bet on the latter. Their system of only entering scores from competition pretty much ensured that those numbers didn’t travel equally. But don’t take it from me: ask any honest caddie in Ireland (or elsewhere across the pond), and they’ll tell you that an American who shows up over there as, say, a 6, is really probably closer to a 9 or 10.

Bamberger: I’m with you, Josh. The game is the game wherever it is played. Have one system, as there is one set of rules.

Passov: I can’t say having different systems has affected my golf life very much. In fact, I think part of the international flavor of the game that I found compelling was that on occasion, the USGA would do things one way, the R&A another. If this helps with golfers who play a lot of competitive events outside of their own country, great.

Shipnuck: Meh.

6. National Golf Day is Wednesday. How will you celebrate?

Ritter: By spending the day editing the world’s finest golf website, then heading home for dinner with my wife.

Bamberger: By spending the day trying to type something up for said website, then trying to get myself invited to dinner at the Ritter house.

Sens: By cleaning my grooves in preparation for a trip to Sand Valley next week. And hoping that I don’t stink as badly as I have so far this year.

Wood: After five weeks on the road, including a 14-hour drive from Houston to Augusta and a 17-hour drive from Hilton Head to San Antonio, I will be celebrating in a tent in the middle of Joshua Tree, the prettiest damn bunker in the world—and as far away from golf as I can get. Hahaha.

Passov: My story on golf and eats in New Orleans is due that day, and no doubt I’ll be spending the day scrambling to get it submitted before the staffers at the world’s finest golf website go home for their evening meals. I will enjoy re-living some superb meals I’ve had in the Crescent City, even as my waistline says, “Enough, already.”

Shipnuck: Ritter and Wood, I salute you both. Me, I’ll be playing in the pro-am at the Zurich. Should be a blast—I’ve pegged it in the First Tee Open on the Senior tour but this will be my first time between the ropes at a PGA Tour event. A video crew will be on hand for a feature for the Knockdown, so don’t worry, all the humiliation will be captured for posterity.