Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they discuss the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Phil Mickelson’s strong play (and near-victory) in the desert, Tiger Woods’s first start of 2019, a sponsor’s exemption for a viral golf star and more.
1. Phil Mickelson admitted he might be a touch rusty for his first start since October, but he didn’t show it at the Desert Classic. Mickelson opened with a 12-under 60, led almost the entire tournament but ultimately fell a stroke short of rookie Adam Long. But just as this 40-something heats up, another, Tiger Woods, makes his first start of the season at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open. Will Mickelson’s 2019, as a 48- and 49-year old, be better than Woods’s?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Both could win, of course. Tiger will likely have more chances, and might be better at closing. I guess Tiger, but more amazing is that we’re asking this question at all, and that it matters.
Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): No doubt both could win. But I see Tiger playing better at the ones that matter most.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): I’d add that Phil skipping the Farmers, his hometown tourney, for the first time in 29 years shows some smarts. Look how well he played all freshened up! I think Tiger is the better player, but having Phil still be Phil is a treat.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): Impossible to forget how Tiger closed his 2018 season. (I consider his final act to be the Tour Championship, not the Ryder Cup or Hero World Challenge.) I’d guess he’s more likely to win somewhere this year, but Phil proved once again this week that he can pop up almost anytime.
2. For the third consecutive year, Woods will begin his season at the Farmers at Torrey Pines. Last year it was somewhat of a launching pad to a successful comeback season. How does Tiger fare this week? Should he be the favorite to win?
Bamberger: Oh, not even close. Yes, he used to own Torrey Pines and large chunks of La Jolla. That was back in the day. Foggy mornings, cool afternoons, heavy rough — not his thing.
Sens: No way he’s the favorite. But there’s also no reason for the “tempered expectations” he expressed last year coming into the event. He’ll be in the mix.
Dethier: I think Tiger belongs somewhere behind Justin Rose, Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, but not like — way behind. Woods in his first start belongs at the top of this loaded field’s 1B tier. Expectations are higher than this time last year, that’s for sure.
Ritter: Expectations are high, but he absolutely shouldn’t be the favorite. Park your money somewhere else — just invest your rooting interest in TW, if you’d like. I’d look for something top-20-ish from Woods given it’s his first start of the year.
3. Mickelson was among the pros who almost flubbed the new drop rule and he also experimented with putting with the flagstick in at the Desert Classic (he doesn’t plan to keep doing it). “I feel uncomfortable right now because I don’t know [the new rules] well enough and I’ve been trying to get like a seminar to learn them all,” Mickelson said, when asked his opinion on the new revisions. “I just haven’t had time or a chance to. So playing this game, not knowing the rules, is an unsettling feeling.” Do you suspect most other players are in the same rules fog?
Bamberger: Absolutely, because how the rules actually work hit home only when they matter. You can talk about the speed limit on the Jersey turnpike until you’re blue in the face but when you’re cruising at 75 past N.J. state police, and you suddenly wonder if you’re in a 60, that’s when it all gets real.
Sens: I suppose, but in the case of those rules, how big of an adjustment is it really? You leave the flag in or you don’t. You drop it from a lower height. It might be fun for us to make a story of it, but I don’t find it to be much of a tale.
Dethier: The thing is, these players always operated like they were in a rules fog. With the scrutiny of TV cameras and millions on the line, every simple cart path drop meant calling for a rules official. Things aren’t really that different now, save the silly drop rule and the visual difference of the pin in.
Sens: Exactly. You want to talk about a tough rules adjustment, talk about, I dunno, NFL cornerbacks having to adjust to new helmet-to-helmet rules. Changes happening at hyper-speed.
Ritter: Most of the new rules make things easier on a player (no penalty from making accidental contact with a loose impediment in a hazard, no penalty for accidental double-hits, OK to tap down spike marks, etc.) and I think over time we’ll find there are fewer rules controversies in the pro game. But we’re all still squarely in an adjustment period that’s going to last a while. Oh, and the knee-high drop has got to go.
4. Fearing a slow-play penalty after his group was put on the clock at the Latin American Amateur Championship, Alvaro Ortiz took matters into his own hands. According to Golf Digest, Ortiz played ahead of playing partners on a handful of holes during Saturday’s third round at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog course. For about two holes he played about a half a shot ahead of his group, going as far as to tee off (and begin his walk down the fairway) on the hole ahead while his two playing partners were still putting on the previous green. His grueling pace continued until a marshal stepped in. (Ortiz eventually won on Sunday to earn a Masters invite.) Was this a player smartly trying to avoid a penalty, an egregious breach of tournament etiquette, or somewhere in between?
Bamberger: Bizarre. Didn’t see it, but bizarre. You talk to your playing partners. You talk to a rules official. But you have a basic responsibility to play with your playing partners. Hence the phrase.
Sens: Michael puts it well. Maybe there was more communication in the group than we’ve heard, but that’s an odd way to go about things.
Ritter: I need to hear more from the players before passing judgement, but this is certainly an odd one.
Dethier: Weird? Yes. Rude? Probably. But this sort of rugged individualism has made great golfers of hardheaded, single-minded free-thinkers like Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, and heck, Tiger Woods. I don’t condone it but I sort of admire it, and for the record I had no idea this was a legal move.
5. Golf’s newest viral sensation, Hosung Choi, is headed to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am after accepting a sponsor’s invite. Choi, who plays on the Japan Golf Tour and rose to internet fame with his animated on-course behavior, is ranked 200th in the World and won his most recent event in November. While the 45-year-old was undoubtedly the highlight of golf Twitter’s year thus far, does the invite merit the hype?
Bamberger: The invitation is a statement on how weak the AT&T field has become. Bing cannot be happy. A good pro-am was the one in Orlando this week, the LPGA opener. You knew at least half the ams, and every pro. Granted, it was a small field. Still.
Sens: I don’t know if the invite merits the hype. But the hype merits the invite. Golf could use all the compelling players it can get, and Choi is plenty good enough to be more than just a novelty act. I love that he got the call.
Dethier: Ah, speaking of individualists! I fear that we in the collective world of Big Golf Media will drive this one into the ground, but Hosung Choi is absolutely electric TV. He’s an authentic showman in every sense. Achieving self-awareness can mean some funky things for the newly-famous. Let’s hope Hosung’s brand of golf stays just as awesome.
Ritter: Like Bamberger mentioned, the Pebble field isn’t as strong as it used to be. Why not invite a player who generates some buzz? (And his recent win shows he’s more than a sideshow.) Choi’s presence would be — at worst — a fun little storyline to follow, and at best he could supercharge the event by getting in contention. I have no problem with his invitation.
6. NFL star Larry Fitzgerald made an ace while playing alongside former President Barack Obama during a recent round at Seminole. Congrats, panel, we award you one fictional ace! What hole/course is it on, but more importantly, who would you most like to accomplish that feat in front of?
Bamberger: Let’s start with the extraordinary first part to this question. Upper-crust golf as a meritocracy — how cool. Well done, Seminole. Hogan smiling. As for the question: in a howling east wind and from an up tee, the par-4 bayfront 15th at Bellport, probably my favorite hole in the world, is reachable. I’d love to make a 1 there with my late high-school golf coach, John Sifaneck, as a witness. His enthusiasm for the game was contagious. When I played it with him, I surely made more 6s than 4s, so I’m asking for a lot here. But a person can dream, right?
Sens: I’d take a hole in one on any hole at any time. As for who I’d want as a witness, I know I don’t want to make another one in front of my wife. I did that once, years ago at a course in Montana, when she reluctantly rode along in a cart beside me (she hates golf; I hate carts). When my ball dropped in the cup, I raised me arms in celebration. “Hole in one!” To which she said, looking up from her knitting: “Is that good?”
Ritter: Any ace, anywhere, would be sweet, since I’ve never had one. I lean toward making a hole-in-one at my hometown course — Olde Mill Golf Club, in Schoolcraft, Mich. — over a world-renowned spot I might never return to. The par-3 11th hole over the pond would work. I usually hit 8-iron. And then I could return each year to remind my family and friends of the feat.
Dethier: Sens, Bamberger and I visit the still-aceless Shipnuck for a special trip ‘round Pebble Beach. Sens holes his tee shot to start. Then Bamberger matches with an ace of his own. I slam-dunk a wedge for three in a row. And Shipnuck just lips out.
Bamberger: Brings to mind the recurring Hogan dream/nightmare: 17 straight aces, and a lipped one on the last.