Tour Confidential: Rory? Tiger? Phil? Spieth? Who should be the Masters favorite?

March 19, 2018 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. Rory McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a final-round 64, picking up his first PGA Tour title since the 2016 Tour Championship — and jacking the already frenzied anticipation for the Masters. Rory? Tiger? Phil? Spieth? Forget the Vegas lines — who’s your early favorite to slip on the green jacket?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: Rory, followed by Langer. I’m so committed to this powerful European one-two combo I can’t let go of it now.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, GOLF (@AlanShipnuck: But can Rory putt those greens with anything like this confidence? If so, he has to be the favorite. But something about Augusta National unnerves him every year. I still think Dustin is the favorite.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I would honestly say I’d take even money between Phil and Tiger. That may seem crazy with all the studs ready to take on Augusta National, but for some reason, if you haven’t done it before, beating someone who already has a green jacket (or three, or four) is a daunting task. With both of these guys seemingly on form, that amazing golf course more than any other we play takes knowledge and confidence. If you’ve done it before, you know you can. If you haven’t, you will always wonder.

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@sean_zak): I must say, it’s endearing to see Michael excited to make a prediction! The way he is putting, Tiger Woods is a legitimate top-three favorite. But by the time Augusta comes back around, I’ll hang with DJ. If his yearly schedule doesn’t change, he’ll play the Match Play and Houston, priming himself for a course he has good history at.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): Look at us, all prisoners of the moment. Let’s not forget one Jordan Spieth! But yeah, I’d have a hard time betting against TW, and it’s fun as hell to have Rory peaking at the right time.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): All those picks above are solid bookie chalk-line choices. Hard to bet heavily against any of them. But I’ll stick with the same pick I’ve made over the past month. Justin Rose. He’s in great form, and has come so close before on a course where experience means so much. I’ll take him by a shot over Jason Day.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): Rose is my pick, too (although I’m starting to waver!), but I think the odds-on favorite should be Spieth because of his track record there, followed by DJ. But whatever the case, the fact that so many stars are peaking at once makes this one of the most wildly anticipated Masters in several years.


2. Improved putting no doubt powered McIlroy’s play at Bay Hill, but he also noted Friday that he has “rediscovered my love for the game so much so I am even enjoying playing casual rounds of golf as well.” What part of McIlroy’s performance should his fans be most jazzed about?

Bamberger: Well, that’s a huge statement, and Rory is often candid about these things. As a starting point, you can’t do something at a world-class level without loving it. He and his father have been logging some rounds in South Florida and I think Gerry’s unadulterated pure love for the game must have something to do with what Rory is describing.

Shipnuck: That was intriguing, because the last few years Rory seemed low-energy between the ropes. I ‘spose injuries and putting problems will do that. Per Mike’s point, it was a blast watching Rory and Gerry together at the Crosby Clambake. Throw in the fact that he’s happily married and finally a resident of the U.S. and it’s clear that all is right in Rory’s world. If he has a smile on his face at the Masters, look out.

Wood: There isn’t any part of his performance I’m not hugely impressed with. But if I had to choose, his putting. Those greens at Bay Hill looked pure and fast, and if he putts anything like that at Augusta, he will be right there Sunday afternoon.

Zak: If he putts anything like he did this week, he’ll win every event he enters. Optimism-inducing stuff from his flatstick, that’s for sure. I don’t want to call it a fluke, but he’s really never putted better. I’ll be excited for his prospects if he putts well on Thursday, April 5.

Dethier: It’s always hard to figure out how to weigh Rory’s optimism-speak, and I’m sure it’s easiest to love the game when he’s playing well. But it looked like he was having a ton of fun being in the mix with some of the game’s best. What I was most impressed by was his seeing “WOODS” creeping up the leaderboard and then pulling off an absurd closing stretch to slam the door on the competition (and the accompanying narratives).

Sens: Putting, clearly. But also distance control with his wedges. That’s been a weakness during his recent struggles. No sign of that at Bay Hill.

Ritter: Has Rory ever led a field in strokes gained putting before last week? He probably has, but I bet it’s been a while. If he carries that momentum on the greens over to Augusta, look out.

3. Tiger Woods mounted a Sunday charge at Bay Hill before coming undone with an O.B. tee shot on 16. As good as Woods’s game has looked during this comeback, his driver has been a weakness (he ranks 148th in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee). Woods has already proven he can contend, but if he doesn’t straighten out his driver, can he win?

Bamberger: Well, if Carnoustie is dry, yes, because he can driving-iron it to death. The other three majors will be more trying, but Augusta is wide open — in places — and you don’t have to be so perfect with the driver there. Ordinary Tour stops, I don’t know. All depends on where he plays.

Shipnuck: You don’t have to be perfect but you do have to hit a lot of them. That drive on 16 today was shocking — talk about The Big Miss. The strength of Tiger’s game used to be his head, but he admitted that bad swing was the product of a mental error. Throw in the fear he displayed on the 72nd hole at Valspar and I think the driver will be too much of a liability for him to overcome at the Masters.

Wood: Yes. The way the ball goes now, there are honestly only a handful of holes (if you hit it as far as Tiger does) where you HAVE to hit driver. If he finds a shape he can depend on, he can absolutely win.

Dethier: I bet he drives it well at Augusta. What he needs is comfortable shots where he can be aggressive, and the tee balls at Augusta promote that sort of mentality with driver. Love that two-iron, too.

Zak: He doesn’t have to “straighten out” his driver as much as he just has to average-out his driver. Get himself to the point where he’s not losing strokes to the field with that club. He’s a magical ball-striker and currently one of the best putters on Tour, so just getting closer to average will incite a win (and possibly more).

Sens: He’s T5 and T2 in consecutive weeks. For sure he can win. Whether he will soon is another matter. As if we needed any reminders, Bay Hill gave us a Sunday leaderboard of thoroughbreds thundering down the stretch. Tiger is now going to have to outrace a younger generation he helped create. It can be done, but it’s not going to be easy. The only guarantee is that it’s going to be fun to watch. This is what we’ve been waiting for and what so many of the younger players say they’ve been looking forward to.

Ritter: He’s going to win again, and probably soon. But playing well while in contention is another step to take in this comeback, and he hasn’t broken through that yet. He’s still further along now than most ever thought possible. If he stays healthy, it’ll happen. At Augusta? I’m not so sure.

4. McIlroy was asked about fan behavior after his third round at Bay Hill, and McIlroy, who said one spectator kept yelling his wife’s name at him, suggested limiting alcohol sales. “I think it’s gotten a little much, to be honest,” he said. “I think that they need to limit the alcohol sales on the course, or they need to do something, because every week it seems like guys are complaining about it more.” Do you like the idea of limiting the booze on the PGA Tour?

Bamberger: I like the idea of fans acting like grownups and golfers. Fans should police other fans. The proper response to an idiotic comment is, “Not here, sir.” (It’s never a ma’am.) Some of the comments yelled in Tiger’s direction today were embarrassing.

Shipnuck: I don’t share Michael’s faith in humanity so, by all means, limit the alcohol. Beyond that the PGA Tour needs to invest in a significant number of trained, full-time marshals *outside* the ropes, to deal with/eject the yahoos. It’s not the players’ job.

Wood: It would be so tough to monitor. Maybe we could do something like in baseball where they cut off sales after the 7th inning? But I’m not sure that would work in golf, as the fans are still out there for so long.

Dethier: For sure, have officials with ejection power keep a short leash on the yahoos. But in general, I think this is a problem that is radically overstated. Golf’s a spectator sport. It’s fun! Rowdiness is a good thing, and there should be people in place to deal with those that cross the next line.

Zak: If the goal is to keep things nice and tidy, the Tour needs to up the threat of ejection. If people know that their ticket and access is at stake, they’ll play nice(r). That’s a big step, and it won’t look pretty enforcing it, but if that’s the goal, the threat needs to be well known. Apologies to those in advance who get tossed this year. Thank you for being the guinea pigs.

Ritter: Not sure limiting beer sales is a look the Tour is going for. Just make it clear to fans that idiots will be tossed, and encourage the marshals to go out there and get to work.

Sens: All reasonable points above. The question is exactly where do you draw the line? Someone yelling Rory’s wife’s name is nothing to cheer, but is it grounds for expulsion? At what point do you give someone the heave-ho? The fairways and woods of life are thick with morons. Limiting alcohol would no doubt temper some people’s worst instincts but there will always be some dunderheads yelling mindless things, sometimes in the middle of players’ backswings. If Tour events are going to start policing the galleries more rigidly, they’re going to have to lay down some pretty explicit guidelines. What will be allowed, and what won’t, and at whose discretion? Based on what I’ve seen of some marshal behavior this year (at the Farmers, I stood by a marshal inside the ropes who actually encouraged the crowd to beat the pulp out of a loud fan who had yelled in Tiger’s backswing), I’m not sure I trust the enforcers anymore than some of the spectators.

5. The governing bodies unveiled their final version of the new rules last Monday, which are set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. One of the most notable changes is a local rule that will do away with stroke-and-distance penalties. Players will now be allowed to drop in the vicinity of where a ball went out of bounds and take a two-stroke penalty, meaning that if you bust a tee shot O.B., you would be hitting your fourth shot from where you drop. (This won’t be used for pro events.) Thoughts on this amendment?

Bamberger: Makes no sense. Should be just one shot. We’re talking about casual golf where the competition is within your group. You all play it the same way. And that’s how 95 percent of us play it anyhow. Stroke, singular, not distance.

Shipnuck: If the USGA can’t get this right, what hope is there for everything else?

Wood: I’m all for it — pace of play doesn’t need to take that beating for casual rounds or lesser tournaments.

Bamberger: But still TWO shots, John.

Dethier: Bamberger’s right, and any rules change that requires Pythagorean analysis doesn’t do a great job of simplifying the game. I guess this saves Joe Golfer from hitting eight in a row O.B. in his club championship? O.B. stakes should be the same as red stakes with the exception being you can’t hit a recovery shot from the adjacent yard of an irritable neighbor.

Zak: For sake of simplicity, I’m with Dethier.

Sens: I dunno, Sean and Dylan. I realize I’m older than you and that our educational system ain’t what it once was, but I was a pretty crappy geometry student I don’t find this one Pythagorean in its complexity. Lose a ball or blast one OB; add two strokes and take a drop around where it went in. It quickens the pace and aims to replicate roughly what would happen if you went back to the tee and hit a decent shot. The only real beef I have with this amendment is how belated it is. Q.E.D.

Ritter: But you don’t drop where it went in — you can drop in the fairway. It’s as if you reteed and hit one down the middle. I like that the USGA is making bold moves, but I think this one is still a little off. Like Dylan said, just paint the white stakes red. It would make sense to everyone.

6. No DVR necessary for this one: the final round of the last 50 Masters is now available on YouTube. Which three Sundays are you re-watching first?

Bamberger: I only wish Art Wall in ‘59 was among them. Goalby in ‘68. Watson in ‘77. Nicklaus in ‘86.

Shipnuck: ‘97 was amazing in the moment but is kinda dull on rewind. Phil in ‘04. 2011 because it was batshizz crazy with eight guys having a share of the lead. Tiger in ‘05. Nicklaus in ‘86.

Wood: Nicklaus in ‘86, Woods in ‘97, Hogan in ‘53 (I cheated, but I want to watch Hogan play).

Dethier: Gimme ‘86, and gimme ‘87 too (sorry, Greg Norman). And then I’ll take ‘05, just to watch Tiger’s chip-heard-round-the-world in real time.

Zak: Here are some contrarian responses: 2017 — yes, last year — was phenomenal and I re-watched a lot of it Saturday. 2010 for Anthony Kim getting a little freaky naughty on the back nine. Then I’ll settle down with a little 2003 playoff between Mike Weir and Len Mattiace, just to remind myself that sometimes this game does funny things.

Sens: Nicklaus in ‘86. Faldo in ‘96 (partly for Norman’s darkly fascinating collapse and partly for Faldo’s pitiless pursuit). And I have a soft spot for Crenshaw’s emotional win in ‘95.

Ritter: Between the API and March Madness I’ve been able to watch (parts of) three: ’97, ’86 and ’68. I’d never seen the De Vicenzo debacle play out before, and the last 15 minutes of that broadcast are incredible. The broadcasters and tournament officials grapple with the situation (Clifford Roberts doing a jacket presentation in place of B. Jones), while De Vicenzo was impossibly classy — they brought him in for the jacket ceremony and made him watch them slap it on Goalby! — and Goalby was simultaneously flummoxed and gracious. It was some of the most compelling black-and-white sports TV I’ve ever seen. Golf fans are going to spend many, many hours on that YouTube channel.