Tour Confidential: What was the most significant story of 2017 … and the most overrated?

December 17, 2017 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. The men’s game crowned three first-time major champions in 2017, welcomed back a certain 14-time major winner (who also made several headlines off the course) and produced another bushel of rules controversies and debates. What was the most significant story or development from 2017?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think Spieth’s winning of the Open, giving him three legs of the career Grand Slam. Rory and Phil of course have done the same. To win all four is an immense achievement, done by Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods. That’s really a timeless list of greatness. For some years to come, we can enjoy the prospect of watching Spieth try to win a PGA Championship, Phil try to win a U.S. Open and Rory try to win a Masters. Spieth’s win in the British Open makes the golfing landscape just more interesting.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): That’s a great call, Michael. I hate to go the obvious Tiger route, but it’s hard to ignore the continuation of a narrative that pulls in two directions: the game’s ongoing attempts to move beyond Tiger and Tiger’s continued attempts to get back in the mix. On one hand, the explosion of young talent makes it easy to feel that golf is doing just fine without Woods. But every Tiger sighting reminds us of just how far he moves the needle, and how much is missing when the greatest talent of all time isn’t competing. Root for him or not, Woods is rightly impossible to ignore. The plotlines in his story simply run too deep.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Josh, I don’t hate to go the obvious Tiger route at all. He is always the story, and when he teed off at the Hero, folks completely ignored/forgot that Jordan Spieth was in the field — yes, that Jordan Spieth, who authored my two favorite moments in professional golf in 2017, his British Open win and remarkable Hartford victory. So it’s Tiger for me, for his aborted, disheartening start to the year, to the endless speculation of whether he’d ever return, and then finally for his successful comeback. I wanted to find room for Sergio’s long overdue major win at the Masters, which was so well-deserved, with only the lackluster Sunday performance of some of the game’s most prominent names a dark cloud on an otherwise glorious day.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): Tiger still has crossover appeal and his return has added extra juice to 2018. His comeback would be my top choice, too, but my No. 2 is the rise of Justin Thomas, who established himself as the game’s newest star. And hey, we talk about Tiger a lot, but Thomas just turned in one of the best seasons on Tour since Woods in his prime.

2. Please also anoint the most underrated and overrated stories from the past year.

Bamberger: The most overrated story was any that claimed Donald Trump was going to be good or bad for golf. The game prospered long before his Oval Office arrival and will continue to do so when a new person sits there. The most underrated story was Spieth’s Open win. In a lifetime of watching golf, I never saw anything like it, and the aftermath — how he and Kuchar handled it — was every bit as good.

Sens: I don’t know if it was overrated but it got more play than warranted. Four young Tour pros go on a spring break trip together and film themselves yucking it up in the tropics. Sorry, but I couldn’t have been more bored. You could take your pick of underrated stories from the women’s game, because the women’s game rarely gets the attention it deserves. But the ups and downs of Lexi Thompson’s season — her run-ins with the rules; her rise up the rankings — have been compelling theater.

Passov: I’ll nominate Bernhard Langer’s performance on the PGA Tour Champions circuit as the most underrated story of the year. He posted 16 top 10s in 22 events with seven wins and three majors — at age 60! Yet, the only real attention he garnered was early in the year, for his “is-he-cheating-or-not-cheating” putting grip, for his bizarre entanglement about voter fraud with Donald Trump and for the inexplicable finish to the season — a goofy playoff system that awards some other guy player of the year (Kevin Sutherland) despite the fact that said guy had to win his very first Champions title to clinch it. For overrated, I’ll go with the incessant second-guessing and criticism about Erin Hills as a U.S. Open venue. So it played easy. That’s what the weather dealt and how the USGA set it up. Honestly, it was a terrific, thought-provoking modern design, whether or not it played precisely like a links. There were no controversies with the greens, except perhaps the tiny, tilted putting surface at the short par-3 9th. Did we all howl because the wind didn’t blow at Royal Troon in 2016 when Stenson and Mickelson entertained us with a low-scoring Open battle for the ages? No. We simply were enthralled, even with low scores. I wish we could treat our own national championship the same way.

Ritter: Langer is a great choice, Joe. On the LPGA, there was an overlooked horse race for the No. 1 world ranking — Lydia Ko started the year in the top spot, but Ariya Jutanugarn, So Yeon Ryu, U.S. Open winner Sung Hyun Park and ShanShan Feng all held No. 1 at some point. That’s some serious turnover. Overrated? Every instance of an alligator harmlessly wandering across a golf course and landing in our coverage. Sorry about that!

3. When asked last week about Tiger Woods’s comeback, Jack Nicklaus said, “Do I wish him well? Yeah. But I’m not interested in watching him. I’ve watched him play golf for 20-something years, why would I want to go watch more?” What should we make of Jack’s remarks?

Bamberger: That he’s 77. He’s focused on his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his tennis. His legacy is secure.

Sens: Not only has he been watching Tiger for 20-plus years. He’s also been answering questions about Tiger for that long. That’s gotta get old.

Passov: I’m with my colleagues on this one. I don’t think Jack was being flip, or even necessarily honest. He probably is exhausted from answering endless Tiger questions.

Ritter: I read that Jack went on to say that he doesn’t watch much golf at all, so it’s not really a Tiger thing. His priorities lie elsewhere, and that’s easy to understand.

4. Justin Rose won the Indonesian Masters on Sunday, giving him his third straight month with at least one win (following the WGC-HSBC Champions in October and Turkish Airlines Open in November). How much stock do you put in “off-season” runs when weighing a player’s prospects for the coming year?

Bamberger: I wouldn’t consider Justin Rose’s three-month run here an example of off-season excellence. I would consider it more excellent golf from an excellent and now healthy golfer. No reason for it to stop, as nothing begets good play like good play.

Sens: If this were a strong off-season showing by some unknown, you might take it with a grain of salt. But Rose’s talents are no secret and no surprise. He’s already proven what he’s capable of in the biggest events. The U.S. Open. The Olympics. The Ryder Cup. It’s easy to forget how close he came to winning the Masters this year. An off-season aberration? Hardly.

Passov: Ah, the Indonesian Masters — the same event Rose’s countryman Lee Westwood always used to enter and win as a confidence booster and guaranteed paycheck. Hey, Rose did just what he should have done — dominated an overmatched field of no-names. This guy deserves a long run in the world’s top five, just to get people to remember how good he really is. Every time he seems to get close, he winds up injured, or otherwise off-kilter for a while. He deserves better — and his recent play leads me to believe he’s back in the hunt.

Ritter: The Indonesian Masters is the wrong Masters to get too excited about, but when has winning ever been a bad thing for a golfer’s confidence? Rose is solidly one of the best 10 players in golf right now, and he’ll be a huge factor again next year.

5. The two rules changes announced last Monday by the USGA and the R&A were widely heralded, though there were some critics, including our own Michael Bamberger, who argued among other points that eliminating the penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard (assuming the player didn’t know he or she violated a rule) disincentives players from learning and understanding the rules. Fair point?

Bamberger: I would say … it is? Golfers love to point out that golf is a game of honor played by gents and ladies. All could and should be true, but the rules allow for human nature, too, that some people will try to get away with things. That’s why everybody is in effect a rules observer. Not an official, but an observer. The starting point to making this system work is a good understanding of the rules and a commitment to them that borders on neurotic.

Sens: If you’re playing a sport professionally, yes, you should absolutely positively know the rules. But one of the things we’ve learned in recent years is that a number of the rules of golf are so silly that we’ll all be better off when no one needs to be aware of them anymore. I don’t think this disincentivizes players from knowing the rules. It just makes the rules easier to know. Today’s tournament golfers are being scrutinized more closely than ever, even without people ringing in from home, so good riddance to that, too.

Passov: I might well agree with Mr. Bamberger’s premise, but not with his conclusion. I consider myself a golf purist, but not a golf puritan. Many, many rules have changed since they were first promulgated in 1744. Our Scottish forebears could never have envisioned super high-def TV, or even telephones from knuckleheads with nothing better to do than to use them and call in penalties. I’ve always argued that it didn’t protect the rest of the field, because only the folks who appeared on camera got busted — almost always disproportionately affecting leaders and big names. And yes, golf is unique among major sports in having competitors keep and be responsible for their own scores, but given the amount of money in play these days, I say let players focus on playing, and not on worrying about a scorecard mishap costing them their livelihood. Bravo, USGA and R&A!

Ritter: I can see the argument that golf is potentially letting players off the hook a bit for not knowing the rule book. I just never liked the idea that fans could call in from their couches and affect the outcome of a professional golf tournament. And just so we’re clear that I’m not “anti-fans,” I want to state that I strongly believe that viewer call-ins are an acceptable way to decide a season finale of American Idol. That one is for the people. In the meantime, I’m interested to see how this new era in on-site golf officiating plays out.

6. One of golf’s feel-good tournaments, the PNC Father-Son Challenge, wrapped Sunday with Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. raising the trophy. Commissioner Monahan taps you to create another out-of-the-box event for 2018. What’s your pitch?

Bamberger: An oldie but goodie: a mixed-team event. PGA Tour players with LPGA players.

Ritter: Bamberger nails it. And let’s make it a coed match play.

Sens: The one-club challenge. Play it with the same equipment Faldo and Seve used when they went head to head using only a five-iron. So many golf arguments these days revolve around whether modern players are as good as past generations. Let’s put their ball-striking to a classic test.

Passov: Josh, I’m a big fan of a one-club challenge. Pure fun, especially at that level. At Turnberry in Scotland, in 1964, they held a seven-club tournament for top pros. I’d welcome that as well. Let’s see who the creative shotmakers are! Along Michael’s lines, I’d also like to see a mixed team event. (JCPenney, what say you? On board again, like the old days?) However, I’d prefer it to pair PGA Tour Champions players with the LPGA stars, and let everybody play from the same tees.