Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods is contending, but how close is he to actually winning?

May 14, 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. While Webb Simpson ran away with the Players Championship, Tiger Woods stole some of his thunder by putting together arguably his best four rounds of the season. He was 10 under on the weekend with 14 birdies and just two bogeys (and one messy double on 17 on Sunday). Clearly Woods has the game to contend, but what does he most need to improve to win?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): There’s no question he’s on the cusp. His driver is at times wobbly, but overall I think it’s just a matter of hitting better shots under the gun on Sunday afternoon. If he stays healthy and continues to put himself in contention, a title is going to happen somewhere along the way.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, GOLF (@AlanShipnuck): He did so many things well but the shot that lingers is today on 17 — he flat out muffed it miles short into the water. From 1997 to 2009 what separated Tiger more than anything else was his mental strength. To make a mistake like that shot on 17, when he had been playing so well, was revealing.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: He has to finish. Finish each round. Takes enormous patience to do that, and belief.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Those three answers cover it pretty well. In Tiger’s return, it’s his driver that has mostly betrayed him. When he’s kept it in play, he has contended. As Alan said, though, the water ball on 17 was striking. Like the double-cross OB down the stretch at Arnie’s event, it was something we wouldn’t have seen from peak Tiger. He’s human now. You could say that makes him more compelling.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): I’m with Bamberger. Saturday and Sunday, Woods played holes 1-12 in 14 under and was four over on the final six. Get it to the house!

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): He’s very, very close. He drove the ball much better today, and in this tournament. He missed with a wedge at 14 after a 340-yard drive down the middle and he missed a short one again at 17, when there was no real reason to cut it that fine. He was never going to beat Simpson, but those two errors cost him all the goodies that come with a runner-up finish at the Players.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Just keep playing and remain healthy. I suspect every time he’s teed it up he learns a bit more about where he is, especially mentally. I would really expect him to be there in the end at Jack’s event, where he’s had a highlight or two, and at Shinnecock.

2. Winless since 2013, Webb Simpson went out and blitzed the field at the Players Championship. He led by seven entering the final round and cruised to his fifth PGA Tour victory. Given the strength of field and prestige of the event, where does Simpson’s four-stroke win rank among the most dominant performances in recent Tour history?

Ritter: Well, it wasn’t Tiger at the ‘97 Masters, but it was extremely impressive how Webb slammed the door on Saturday and never left the outcome in doubt even for a moment on Sunday. It gave me flashbacks to Martin Kaymer at the ‘14 Pinehurst U.S. Open. It was also hot and humid that week.

Shipnuck: Hard to believe a U.S. Open and this victory are the bookends to five winless years. No doubt the anchoring ban had a big effect on Simpson. Now that he’s back, it will be interesting to see if/how he builds on this win. It was certainly a spectacular performance.

Sens: We’ve seen a number of players dominate events in more spectacular fashion. What made this notable wasn’t so much the way he won but that there was no one who could have seen it coming.

Dethier: We got just a taste of closeness when Webb came out a little squirrelly the first 10 holes, but he held the lead for the final 54 holes of the tournament and never seriously faltered. Big-time respect. Double at the last made it look closer than it really was. Overall, it called to mind Kaymer at the 2014 U.S. Open (he won by eight). Let’s see what’s to follow for Webb.

Passov: Kaymer at Pinehurst was on my mind for the last 36 holes. Simpson, to his credit, has posted a bunch of good finishes over the past couple of winless seasons, so he was clearly on the cusp of winning. However, I marvel when a non-dominant player just crushes it like this, which happens from time to time. This isn’t Tiger or Jack in his prime, nor does he have Rory or DJ length, or Crenshaw-like pour them in from everywhere. How do you lead and win by this much, if you’re Webb Simpson? All you can do is tip your cap.

Wood: I’ve always told Webb (and his caddie Paul Tesori) that if there was a stat on Tour that measured “Strokes Gained: Attitude” Webb would be right at the top. You wouldn’t expect someone to be able to dominate this event who wasn’t really well known for one thing — ball-striking. But Webb put this thing away early and never let anyone get close. So, I think this was the most dominant performance in recent memory.

3. TPC Sawgrass played as the fifth-hardest course on Tour last year. It had a scoring average of 73.291, and no player broke 66. Then came this year, when the course record (63) was threatened several times — Webb Simpson 63, Brooks Koepka 63, Tiger Woods 65, Jordan Spieth 65 — and it had a scoring average of 71.409. What gives? And what type of TPC Sawgrass do you like better for the Players?

Ritter: It was steamy and not exactly breezy. I definitely like the Players to have a few more thrills and spills, with dramatic moves up and down the board as players splash out of it. The Tour can control many variables on what’s essentially its home course…but not the weather.

Shipnuck: Seems like the rough was more benign than in past years, too. The Stadium Course is already laughably short, but especially so in hot weather. Colder, windier, firmer conditions in March should make for a better Players.

Bamberger: The rough was down, the greens were holding, the ball was going forever. All that yields a lot of 68s.

Sens: All true. Doubtful will see the course so cleanly shorn next year.

Dethier: Late groups on Sunday felt like they were playing to a par of about 69! It was striking seeing guys like Tiger hit irons off the 462-yard 18th hole all week. The Stadium Course feels like it demands lots of good, solid shots while punishing any horrific misfires. Lots of wedges and hot, still conditions made this week particularly easy.

Passov: Under Tim Finchem’s watch, the golf course got away from the rough-and-tumble, unpredictable weirdness that Pete Dye’s original design delivered. Today it looks incredible, but it has that Augusta National overly manicured look. There was little trouble in recovering from rough and pine straw. In the old days, the guys howled when they missed a fairway. The uptick in wind next March will help restore some teeth into the layout.

Wood: I was very surprised by how the course played out during the week. I’ve never seen it in better shape. There was thicker grass coverage than I’ve ever seen. It’s always in great shape, but the grass here was always a little sparse and thin and there would be a lot of sketchy lies, especially around the greens. Not so this year. Though you still had the difficult into-the-grain chips, the chipping areas were so perfect they were puttable. One thing that puzzled me was course setup. There’s nothing you can do about the rough. It didn’t grow. It’s usually not that long per se, but it’s usually wildly unpredictable in terms of catching fliers. I don’t think we had one this week. But the truly puzzling thing was the greens. On a hot week with no rain, they stayed soft and, for the Players, on the slow side. After Friday, Sawgrass’ greens usually get scarier and scarier. They typically get firmer and firmer, accepting ONLY the perfectly struck shot. And they typically get glassy, shiny, and start to turn purple. All this adds up to having to play very defensively, not able to attack pins because they wouldn’t hold, and having to putt conservatively for fear of putts running well past the hole. They remained the same (perfect) all week and didn’t ask for more as they usually do.

4. Speaking of the PGA Tour’s schedule change, next year the Players will move from May to March and be played before all four majors. Will the change have any effect on course conditions and the prestige or perception of the event?

Ritter: Well, the weather should be worse, which will make it better! It might receive even more hype and anticipation as it takes on the role of major-season table-setter. I’m looking forward to it.

Shipnuck: See above.

Bamberger: Oh, it’s a different course in March, with totally different weather. March will be better in every way.

Sens: What’s the emoji for: ditto to all that?

Dethier: Won’t be as green! But the new schedule is SO much better. Good job, Tour.

Passov: As the anchor tenant in the Florida swing, the Players was always awesome in March, with the wind and the lead-up. Yes, it ran into college hoops, but it’s always going to run into something…such as mid-May ennui. I’m pleased to see it return to March, and given the PGA Tour’s wrap-around season, its prestige will go up, due to its “mid-season” placement.

Wood: I remember when it used to be played in March, and it is a completely different kettle of fish. I specifically remember playing 36 holes on a Sunday in cold, windy conditions, shooting even par for the day and feeling like we just stole something. The most notable change will be the 17th hole. For the most part since the tournament moved to May, we would get a wind that had some help in it, which makes that shot much simpler. Wedges of all kinds and occasionally nine-irons have been the rule. To my memory, in March we tended to get more of a northwest wind, meaning that hole will be played with a left to right and hurting wind…the most difficult wind there is for a right-handed player. Plus, it will be cooler, so those wedges and nine-irons will turn into seven-, eight- and nine-irons requiring much more guesswork. Is the wind there? Is it lying down? If I flight this too low will it go through the wind and go long? If I get it up too much into the air with too much spin will it get killed and come up short? You’ll start seeing a lot more craziness there, which I think the public enjoys.

5. After 64 consecutive weeks as the World No. 1, Dustin Johnson has been dethroned in favor of Justin Thomas. Will Thomas, the 21st player to reach No. 1, be at the top for a longer or shorter consecutive stretch that DJ? (And … just for fun — who will be the NEXT No. 1 after JT?)

Ritter: Before we get too comfortable with the JT era, it’s very possible DJ swipes it back in the next few weeks. But if there isn’t a back-and-forth between the two guys, Jon Rahm is lurking and about due for his first major. I could see him as the next No. 1.

Shipnuck: Sixty-four weeks is a loooong run in this day and age – all credit to DJ. And Spieth is right there, too. I think it will be volatile throughout the summer, which is fun. Jason Day could be the next No. 1 the way he’s going!

Bamberger: They are bunched at the top. Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory, Jon Rahm, maybe even Bubba could snatch One away from Thomas, and he could grab it right back. Interesting times.

Sens: I have a hard time getting too excited about who is No. 1, or 2, or 3. Rising to the top of the ranking comes from winning. Great play down the stretch in hotly contested events is what I like watching, not who stands where in the OWGR. What’s interesting now in this age of parity is how impossible it has become to predict who is going to break out next.

Dethier: It’s good to see the OWGR finally align with who it feels like should hold golf’s championship belt, and Thomas has felt like the worthy holder since late last year. Jordan Spieth feels like a major threat to challenge the throne as we get further into the season.

Passov: I’m with Mr. Sens on this one. No. 1 just seems too fluid to me to matter much. JT didn’t win to snatch it, it just happened organically. Zzzzzzz. Happy for JT, because he’s admitted how much it meant to him, but I’m more interested in majors and rivalries, not where a guy ranks on May 13.

Wood: I agree with Mr. Sens as well. If you asked any of these guys if they’d rather return to No. 1 for a period of time or win five more majors before they hang it up but never return to No. 1, every one would answer before you finish asking the question. Becoming No. 1 is about the journey, and what you accomplish during that run. When one starts talking about divisor numbers and the outcome if Player A finishes T7 or better and Player B finishes outside the top 20, does anyone really care?

6. Phil Mickelson had some fun with his well-hyped grouping with Tiger Woods (and Rickie Fowler). During his Tuesday press conference he said, “Why don’t we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head-to-head and just have kind of a high-stake, winner-take-all match?” Mickelson was joking (we think?!), but we aren’t. When, where and in what format would you like to see a Phil vs. Tiger exhibition?

Ritter: Um, anytime, anyplace? If you listen closely this week, you might hear TV executives in Midtown NYC cracking open decade-old files on the Battle of the Bighorn. I could see a re-boot, but to be honest, I’d like to just mic ‘em up for a Tuesday practice round where they’re playing a $100(-ish) Nassau.

Wood: I’m not so sure he was joking. I could easily see this as a sneak preview of sorts. What I would like to see is those two teeing it up at Pine Valley or Merion with persimmon, steel shafts and balata balls. That won’t happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see something like a “fight night” setup somewhere soon.

Bamberger: Phil would sign on for that, I’m sure. He has so much showman in him. Could never imagine Tiger doing it. When he did do it, he seemed to half-hate it, and that was a long time ago.

Shipnuck: I wrote this at least a year ago, but how about a reboot of the Skins Game, but each guy has to put in his own money? And they have to match whatever the other guys puts in? You know Phil would throw down a few million right off the top, goading the others to reach deep. If you got him, Tiger, Rory and Jordan and a pot of $10 million-plus it would be a home run.

Sens: Exactly. Have them put up their own money. Loser donates to the winner’s choice of charity. And winner gives a good chunk of winnings away too. Watching these guys play to further enrich themselves is not at all interesting (to me, at least; I’m sure it would sell). What should be at stake for them is pride and bragging rights, in the same way that Kevin Durant and Kobe and other NBA studs play in that street event in LA. Put them on a scraggly muni and have them battle it out with nothing more on the line than what matters most.

Dethier: All I ask is high stakes, no caddies, and automatic two-down presses.

Passov: Ugh. I’d rather see the two of them go at each other at sports trivia, or on Feherty, or maybe table tennis in the Ryder Cup team room.