Tour Confidential: Who are really the top five players in the world right now?

February 20, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Putting a cap on a West Coast swing that produced one marquee winner after another, Dustin Johnson lapped the field at the Genesis Open at Riviera and vaulted to No. 1 in the World Ranking. We all know that the ranking, with its two-year rolling points system, has its flaws. What does your top five look like?

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): I’m going to go my top-five in the world currently, with Rory simply landing on the list because, when healthy, he’s a top-two player and, when on the couch, he still doesn’t drop out of the Top 5. 1. Dustin Johnson 2. Hideki Matsuyama 3. Jordan Spieth 
4. Justin Thomas
 5. Rory McIlroy

Jeff Ritter, Digital Development Editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Good list, Shane. The only major move I’d make is to swap out Rory, at least until he returns healthy, for Stenson. Henrik hasn’t won since Troon, but it feels like it’s been a year since he missed a top 10.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): 1. Dustin Johnson 2. Henrik Stenson 3. Rory McIlroy 4. Jordan Spieth 5. Hideki Matsuyama

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: 1. Dustin Johnson 2. Justin Thomas 3. Hideki Matsuyama 4. Jordan Spieth 5. Fred Couples

Shipnuck: Fred! I love that. Bamberger is always looking out for a golden oldie.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): 1. Dustin Johnson 
2. Jordan Spieth
 3. Hideki Matsuyama
 4. Justin Thomas
 5. Justin Rose. I just feel like we needed more Justins in this list. No, he’s been a top 5, top 10 machine recently, and he always seems to be the guy that when I leave him off my majors pool, he contends.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF: Hansel, he’s so HOT right now. But since this isn’t a Zoolander fashion show, I’m giving less weight to who’s been scorching in the early goings this season, and more toward the five who are simply the best. 1. Dustin Johnson 
2. Jason Day
 3. Rory McIlroy 
4. Jordan Spieth
 5. Hideki Matsuyama​

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Like a golf tournament, after first place, the field is littered with T-somethings. I fully realize this is a coward’s way out, but I am not smart enough or dumb enough to leave any of these guys out of a very crowded and closely contested Top 5. 1. Dustin Johnson 2. Jordan Spieth T3. Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy.

2. Brett Rumford won the World Super 6 in Perth on the European tour. The event featured 54 holes of stroke play, but the champion was crowned only after four rounds of six-hole match-play shootouts. Meanwhile, Euro tour CEO Keith Pelley offered plenty of other intriguing ideas during a lively Q&A with Alan Shipnuck for The Knockdown. Among them: Driving up interest in the first and second round with a payday for the lowest scores. Should the PGA Tour be taking note?

Bacon: I just had a lengthy convo for my podcast with Mr. Pelley (out Monday!) and my takeaway from it is this: the European tour is not afraid of anything at all, especially making golf tournaments look different than what we’re used to seeing. I can’t imagine a single person looking at the format changes of the World Super 6 and seeing it as a negative to the game, so for me, it was a win, as is the GolfSixes and some of the other ideas that Pelley wants to roll out in ’17 and ’18. Change, adapt, intrigue; golf needs it, and the European tour is doing that, but don’t look past what will happen at the Zurich in a few months. That’s a big step for the PGA Tour, so in a way, both tours are doing different things to break up the monthly grind of another 72-hole stroke play event.

Ritter: In addition to the change at Zurich, the Tour is also eyeing an overhaul to its schedule. Add in the USGA’s upcoming changes to the rule book, and it’s safe to say U.S. golf isn’t standing still. But I love that the European tour is really going for it, and the PGA Tour is no doubt watching. My biggest takeaway is that competition between the tours is a good thing.

Shipnuck: Clearly the Tour needs to be open to new ideas. Zurich is a good start, the much-rumored mixed team event with LPGA players would be a homerun, but we need another 3-4 tourneys that stray from the boring format of 72 holes of stroke play. It’s great the Euro tour is offering new templates.

Bamberger: Yes, there’s more to the world than 72-hole stroke-play competitions over four days. Medal play leading to match play is cool and match play leading to medal might be even better. In match play events, how about the opportunity for players to put up their own money?

Passov: Sure, the PGA Tour should be taking note of the potential fun and variety the European tour is injecting into its schedule. Still, taking note and writing into law are two different things. Are things really that tired and monotonous that viewer ennui has settled in? Have any other major sports resorted to this? Not to my knowledge. And some of us remember why the PGA Championship and PGA Tour (mostly) abandoned match play and other different formats — because they couldn’t guarantee the stars would be around at the end — and matches often ended way too early. I’m open to some change, just not optimistic anything will stick.

Sens: I love that golf is looking to new ideas. You don’t want to wind up like baseball, which, for all the talk of golf being the great of tradition, is really the sport most wedded to its past. That has hurt the game in its modern-day appeal. Difficult to evolve, attract younger audiences, without traditionalists railing against a rift with what used to be. Unlike baseball, golf is in a position to hold onto its core traditions without being so bound to that its tournament formats can’t evolve.

Wood: I’m all for smaller events coming up with new ideas to find a niche in the overly crowded schedule. While there is a risk of gimmickry, if an event doesn’t attract the top players, why shouldn’t they explore alternative formats and ways of presenting their tournament. What New Orleans did was a brilliant move, and they’re now going to get a much better field than they otherwise would have. None of the truly important championships should ever alter their format, as 72-hole stroke play is by far the most accurate method of determining who played the best golf over four days, but change is good for both fans and players alike. Monotony kills. The only risk factor I could see moving forward is that the rest of the Tour schedule (other than the majors, The Players, WGCs and handful of others) would begin to look like the old silly season of skins games and 3-Tour Challenges. Cue the old Mr. November, Fred Couples!

3. The USGA and the R&A released the results of a distance study over the past 14 years and found only negligible gains on five of the seven major professional tours they crunched the numbers on. Average driving distance decreased on the other two tours. What do you make of this?

Ritter: Glad the poo-bahs are examining this topic, but the study raises questions: why did they choose a 14-year time frame? And did they measure “tee shots” or “distance with a driver?” (I’m guessing the former.) This is a big issue for golf, and for the future of many great courses. The result of this study just doesn’t jive with what I’ve seen with my own eyes. I hope they continue to explore the topic.

Shipnuck: Exactly, Ritter. Guys are so long now that they can use driver less often. Nothing about this study rings true.

Bamberger: And it’s what happens in atypical conditions: dry conditions, downwind drives that go 400 yards demeaning the par-5, the par-4 and scoring records. The hot ball in hot conditions goes crazy-long. Of course, old Top Flites did, too, but the Tour players didn’t like them for chipping, putting and pitching.

Passov: I’m not buying into their conclusions. All you have to do is ask the architects where they’re designing their turning points on doglegs these days and where they’re positioning their fairway bunkers to function both as strategic and as penal hazards. The difference between today and 15 years ago is huge.

Sens: Further proof that if you torture a statistic for long enough, it will tell you anything you want it to.

Wood: “There are three types of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Benjamin Disraeli. Please ready yourself for a long-winded answer. Are you ready? OK. Anyone involved in professional golf over the last 10 years doesn’t need a study to realize the engineers at golf club companies will always outsmart any rules the USGA or R&A come up with, and that professionals are driving it much further than they were 10 years ago. Fairly recently, even we were excited by 315 yard drives. Now, with many of the top drivers (DJ, Bubba, Day, Rory, JT, Brooks Koepka, many others) those oohs and aahs don’t start until about 340. In the heyday of the steroid scandal in baseball (No, I am absolutely not even hinting there is a PED issue in golf; there just isn’t.), there were many factors: smaller, retro ballparks, expansion allowing previously unqualified pitchers to make major league rosters, change in construction of the actual ball, maple bats, etc). I think the same thing is happening here. The golf ball is no longer wound and filled with rubber bands. They’re universally harder and more aerodynamic than ever before. Larger headed drivers allow even mishits to travel great distances. Players used to have to literally hit the ball “on the screws” to achieve maximum distance. Now, the sweet spot is much much larger and forgiving, allowing for less proficient hits to perform nearly the same as perfect strikes. The physicality of the modern players is a huge factor as well. Players are just bigger and stronger. Then, there’s Trackman. The launch monitor leaves nothing to chance. Every driver built for these guys won’t make the lineup unless it shows optimal launch conditions. Launch angle and spin rate and landing angle and ball speed aren’t left to chance or feel anymore, but achieved and optimized scientifically. I could go on and on but, mercifully I won’t. The bottom line is that “study” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Maximum drives are significantly longer than they were 10-15 years ago. That’s obvious. And in my opinion, while the R&A, the USGA and the PGA Tour may say they’re keeping a close watch and controlling the distance professionals drive it (and providing statistics and studies to back up their claim), I think they’re probably doing so with a wink and a nod. Not to always slip back into a baseball analogy, but in the midst of the home run binges of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, etc. it’s well known that other players, managers, GM’s and owners had an inkling of what was going on, but it was in their best interest to let things proceed as they were. Why? Because fans loved it. Attendance and ratings soared. So, why would the golf establishment want to restrict or roll back the golf ball? As Greg Maddux once told us, “Chicks” (and fans) “dig the long ball.” Simply put, more people will pay to watch DJ power his way around a golf course hitting 360 yard drives than would pay to watch another player plot and strategize their way around shooting the same score.

4. Speaking of technology, during a conversation with SI senior writer Michael Bamberger, Colin Montgomerie said advancements in equipment diminished Tiger Woods’s advantage over his competitors. Monty being Monty, he also said he wouldn’t trade careers with Tiger. Are you buying that?

Bacon: Absolutely. I’m sure as one gets older they reflect on their careers and with Montgomerie, not winning a major has to be the one glaring hole (as he mentioned in that interview). But Monty is healthy, has taken to broadcasting and is damn good at it, and seems to be completely contempt with that locker of his in the World Golf Hall of Fame and the career that he had.

Ritter: Oh, I buy it. Rory McIlroy also recently said something similar about how Tiger simply can’t go out and have a casual dinner. Woods sacrificed a lot for those 14 majors. Monty is wealthy, healthy and in the Hall of Fame. Life could be worse.

Shipnuck: Ehhhhh, I’m not sure I’m buying what Monty is selling. He’s looking at it through the lens of the Tiger’s post-scandal life. But *career* is a different issue. Of course he’d want to be the most dominant golfer of all-time. Now, could Monty (or anyone) else take those wins and then transition gracefully into a beloved elder statesman who moves easily through the world? I think so. Look at Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Arnold Freaking Palmer…plenty of all-time greats are comfortable in public and can, in fact, eat dinner in a restaurant. Tiger’s siege mentality and introversion and then the scandal of his own making is what made his life feel so claustrophobic, not the victories.

Bamberger: I think what Monty is saying is that he’s happy with who he is and with his life. There’s a lot to be said for longevity.

Sens: Right, Michael. Important, too, to distinguish between one’s life and one’s career. Hard to believe that Monty wouldn’t take Tiger’s 14 majors in an eye-blink. As for all the other baggage that appears to come with being Tiger, I dunno…who in their right mind would want that?

Passov: I guess I’m not buying this, either. Sure, any athlete who’s accomplished significant things and made tons of money can rationalize and say they’re satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. But are you telling me that Monty admitted that at any point in his journey? Wouldn’t someone that talented have to have the self-belief that he could win multiple majors and be No. 1? If not, then it might explain why he never got there. Credit Monty, as usual, for at least saying something, but anyone who reaches a Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods level is in a different league and will be remembered far differently than a Colin Montgomerie.

Wood: I completely agree with the first part of Monty’s statement. Advances in equipment leveled the playing field and diminished his career. The second part? Not a chance. If we are talking strictly careers, there’s no way he believes that. It just doesn’t make sense. While I think Monty is very happy with his accomplishments, how could you not want to be remembered as maybe the greatest to ever play. I been writing a few songs on the guitar lately. I like them and I think some of them are pretty good. But if you asked me if I’d rather have written “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Day in The Life,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” or “Born to Run,” I think you’d be able to guess my answer.

5. The PGA Tour moves to Florida and the Honda Classic. With the Masters less than 50 days away, what story line are you most excited about?  

Bacon: I can’t wait to see what Spieth does at Augusta. That’s really it. I’m excited for Matsuyama and Thomas to possibly snag a first major and continue their unbelievable years, and I’m ready for Rory to return healthy, but I cannot wait to see what Jordan does when it’s time to peg it on Thursday at the Masters.

Ritter: To me, the Florida Swing signals the true road to Augusta. Shane mentions several fun possibilities, but there are many more. Can Phil break his winless drought and establish himself as a threat for another green jacket? Will Stenson or Adam Scott win again in Florida and put themselves on the Augusta short list? Will Rory return healthy? Will Tiger shift to vertical or remain horizontal? It’s gonna be a fun ride.

Shipnuck: All of the above are solid choices. I, too, am fascinated by what Spieth will do at the tourney that now defines him. But what about Dustin? He once made three eagles in one round at the Masters. Guy just destroyed Riviera and he is now lumbering toward Augusta National like King Kong closing in on Gotham. I can’t wait to see him attack that course.

Bamberger: Will Rory complete the career grand slam? Will Tiger play? Will Rex Tillison still be working the driving range with his green coat on? Will Arnold appear, through some Billy Payne magic, on the first tee Thursday morning with Gary and Big Jack?

Passov: I don’t think Johnson or Spieth need any Florida success to show that they’re pre-Masters favorites. One name that has been conspicuously absent from all of our chatter is Jason Day, the man DJ replaced at No. 1. His results have been okay — barely — if very inconsistent in 2017. Yes, I’m looking forward to having Rory back in action, but I’m intensely curious about whether Day can return to form in time for the Masters.

Sens: I’m excited to see whether we in the media can finally let go of Tiger-speculation as the lead story. I agree with Shane. Spieth, the coulda-woulda-shoulda two-time defending champion is the most compelling narrative coming in, especially given what he has shown early in the season.

Wood: The storyline I’m most excited about is that there are a hundred storylines to be excited about. I can’t remember going into a Masters with so many logical favorites: DJ, Spieth, Rory, Hidecki, JT, J-Day, Henrik, Rickie, Phil, along with 15 other guys who wouldn’t be a big surprise getting fitted for the green jacket Sunday evening. Add in Tiger hopefully playing and a great week of weather, it could be an all-timer. I can’t wait.