Tour Confidential: With Augusta beckoning, DJ cannot be stopped … can he?

March 27, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. This week we’re pleased to welcome Augusta Chronicle sports columnist Scott Michaux to the panel. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Dustin. Johnson. The World No. 1 continued to widen the gap between himself and the Tour’s other alpha dogs by winning the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. (DJ never trailed in a single match, including in his 1-up win in the final over the surging Spaniard, Jon Rahm.) With three wins in his last three starts over big-time fields, has Johnson proven that his best is better than any other player’s best?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): It’s proven that he’s playing the best golf in the world right now. But we haven’t seen McIlroy or Day firing on all cylinders over that same time period. When they’re all at their best, the margins between them are so slight you’d need an electron microscope to detect them. Here’s hoping that they’re all running at maximum capacity at Augusta.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Sens is right — Rory has been playing his way back from injury and Day has been playing with a heavy heart. Jordan Spieth has a win this year and is essentially Las Vegas’ co-favorite for Augusta — but as we stand today DJ has reached another level. He’s entrenched as the man to beat at Augusta.

Scott Michaux, sports columnist, The Augusta Chronicle (@ScottMichaux): Let’s not pretend that there is one “best” player in the world anymore. There are a few players who at their best can rise above anyone else. DJ, however, is playing on a different level right now. He’s in that elusive “zone” where the golf seems to be coming easily to him. In his last 18 events, he has six wins (including a major and three WGCs), two runner-up finishes, two more thirds and four other top 10s. This is Tiger-esque stuff. What DJ has going for him beyond arguably the most perfect athletic golf gifts is a natural simplicity. He doesn’t overthink things and lets the game just happen. That’s a huge strength going into Augusta where most hot players tend to psyche themselves out. As Tiger would say, I like his chances.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): For now, absolutely. He’s putting on a show. He’s always been a physical phenomenon, but he’s putting together pinpoint accuracy with his wedges, his putting looks incredibly solid, and he just doesn’t seem to make any mistakes. Oh, and he hits it 360. At his best, I don’t think he can be beat right now. But like the guys above said, if he’s slightly below his best, there are a host of others who can be better any given week. I don’t think this is the beginning of a Tiger-esque stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking, but he’ll be challenging for it for a while.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): I’m with Sens. It’s easy to forget Rory winning three in a row back in 2014 (two of them majors, mind you) and Jason Day winning seven times in 17 starts in a stretch from 2015-16. We’ve seen these insanely talented types go on runs before, and when they do, it’s game over for everyone else. That said, the moment Rory, Jason, Jordan, Hideki and even JT find their A game, they’ll be able to hang with Dustin. There are only a few capable of doing something like this, but those few can all get to the same level when they do.

2. The Match Play represented the last time a large number of the world’s top-ranked players will compete in the same field before the Masters in two weeks. Besides DJ and Rahm, whose game in Austin indicated that he might be primed to charge up the ‘boards at Augusta?

Sens: Mickelson administered a couple of pretty healthy spankings out there. Like a lot of people, I always like his chances at Augusta. All the more so after this week. But I’m still taking Rahm, as I did a month ago.

Ritter: I haven’t seen much of Alex Noren, but came away impressed. He’s a proven winner in Europe and gave DJ his toughest battle of the week before the final.

Michaux: I agree with Josh. Phil Mickelson is playing some exceptional golf for a 46-year-old who hasn’t won in almost four years. His putting looked terrific in Austin. Of course, he was playing some of his best golf last year and ended up missing the cut at Augusta. Still, he has the advantage of winning the Masters that DJ, Rahm, Rory, Day and most of the other favorites don’t have. And age 46 has a little magic in it there.

Wood: I’ll echo the Phil sentiment. He still has plenty of length, and his confidence is soaring. (Actually, when isn’t it?) I think he really has an understanding of his golf swing, and nobody, NOBODY, NOBODY in the field for Augusta knows that course like he does. He loves it, and more importantly, he knows how to play it. Phil can score there with his B, or even his C game, and it appears he is much closer to his A game coming in. I’d be very surprised to not see him in the mix on Sunday.

Bacon: I picked Phil to rock green in April before the season started, and I’m sticking with that, but how can you not be impressed with what Hideto Tanihara did all week, especially with his putter? I’m not saying I think Tanihara will upset the favorites at Augusta, but I am excited to see what he can do if the quiet confidence carries over in two weeks.

3. Last week we published our annual SI/ Anonymous Player Poll. Among the findings: 84% of pros think slow play is a problem on Tour, more than 60% want to play by their own set of rules, and Charles Howell III is regarded by his peers as the best ball striker on Tour. Which result, aforementioned and others, most surprised you?

Sens: I can’t say any of those above revelations made me clutch my heart, spill my coffee and call out to my wife, ‘My god, honey, did you read this?’ But the Howell result did prompt a slight eyebrow-raise. That’s not something that’s obviously reflected in the Tour’s own shot-tracking statistics. But I have no doubt Howell’s peers see things that stats alone can’t capture.

Michaux: Having probably watched more rounds played by native Augustan Charles Howell III than anyone else, I have to admit that evaluation stood out. Of course Tour pros are slow and no doubt they probably should be playing by a different set of rules since they play a game barely resembling the rest of us. But how the “best ball striker” on Tour hasn’t won a tournament in 10 years, now that’s saying something. It does explain his ATM-like consistency.

Ritter: I was also surprised to see that more than half of the pros surveyed would be willing to wear a mic on the course during a TV broadcast. I’d like to see Golf Channel get that rolling, stat.

Wood: The biggest surprise to me is that 16% of the pros seem to think slow play is not a problem. That just tells me that 16% of the Tour plays too slowly.

Bacon: Guys, 80% of the guys agreed the Olympics should be turned into a team event! That is huge! The Olympics were fun because we had some big names competing up until the final hole and it was one of the most dramatic events of the year, but we are one stinker away from the world rooting for teams, and the players seem to already be in favor of it. That one surprised me.

4. Jordan Spieth, who failed to advance through the round-robin matches in Austin, admitted last week that he has been unable to sweep his 2016 Masters meltdown under the rug. “The Masters lives on for a year,” he said. “It will be nice once this year’s finished … to be brutally honest with you.” In light of those remarks, do you expect Spieth’s Masters demons could impact his performance at Augusta this year?

Sens: More than being brutally honest with us, he’s being brutally honest with himself, which you’ve got to love. It’s a lot healthier than denial, and I can only imagine it will help him at the Masters. It’s only natural that he’s a bit haunted by what happened. But I expect those demons to vanish once the first shots are in the air this year.

Ritter: I don’t know, Josh. Jordan is tough and I love his honesty, but this Masters might be the single biggest challenge of his career. I have a piece coming next week with more, but when you consider the extra pressure coming from so many different angles — seeing his highlights on TV, facing media questions, attending what will surely be an excruciating champions dinner, to name a few — there is really no hiding from it. That first tee shot on No. 12 on Thursday looms large.

Michaux: At some point, Spieth is probably going to finish outside the top two in the Masters. This would strike me as the year it happens since he’s admittedly a little haunted by the lingering attention from last year. It won’t necessarily be because he struggles but because others simply play better. He covered up a few sins with his putting the last couple years. You can’t always make every 20-footer at Augusta even if you stay out of Rae’s Creek.

Wood: Oh, if only we all could have Spieth’s “demons” at Augusta. In his first three years of competing, I believe he’s gone 2nd, 1st, 2nd. Of course he’ll feel some butterflies as he walks to that 12th tee. But you know what? We ALL will. Spieth’s demons will last precisely as long as it takes him to make his first 20-footer on Thursday, which if history holds will be within an hour. The fact that he’s brutally honest about it is so refreshing, and if it impacts his performance, I think it would impact it positively. He’s one of the few golfers who plays better with a little chip on his shoulder.

Bacon: Spieth has won four times since the Masters, has played sneaky consistent golf this season and, as mentioned above, has never finished outside the top two at Augusta National. I’m sure that memory on 12 will never, ever leave, but many great players have had a collapse on a big stage and bounced back. Spieth will be in the conversation again this year at the Masters because he’s simply too good, and too good on that golf course not to be.

5. This year’s Masters marks the 20th anniversary of Tiger Woods’s historic 12-stroke win in 1997, and yet it’s quite possible that Woods may not be in the field to celebrate the occasion. “I’m trying,” he said on Good Morning America last week. “I’m trying every day to get back and play.” Give us a percentage chance that we’ll see Woods tee it up at Augusta.

Sens: Two.

Ritter: So pessimistic! Tiger absolutely dusted Michael Strahan in that putting contest. I’ve got him at 2.5, and I hope I’m wrong. It would be a blast to see him in the field and able to compete at a high level.

Michaux: Playing Tiger’s advocate, I’ll say it’s better than 80 percent. He didn’t look like a guy hurting from back issues when he celebrated his victory over Strahan. I’d guess it’s the confidence that’s keeping him down. But this 20th anniversary means a lot to him and he has a book to promote about it. In the end, I believe that history and his faith that Augusta is still a course he can compete on will prompt him to put his fears aside and tee it up.

Wood: 25%. And I don’t think we will know until the last minute. I think he’ll give himself every chance to tee it up.

Bacon: Zero. The Tiger comeback story is the one I keep rooting for, but considering how he has played this year, the easy out he has with injury and the fact that his confidence between the ropes might be forever shot, I don’t see him returning to a place that can ruin the week of even the best in the world who actually have been playing competitively at a consistent clip. Tiger will be at the Champions Dinner, but that is as close as we will get to him pegging it at Augusta.

6. Adidas is rolling out a golf shoe inspired by a Masters staple: the pimento cheese sandwich. Put on your Project Runway cap and propose another piece of Masters-infused attire that no golfer’s wardrobe would be complete without.

Sens: I believe the Masters-infused attire no golfer’s wardrobe is complete without is a green jacket.

Ritter: I’d add an Arnie-inspired pink shirt to wear underneath the green coat, even though the King was the only one macho enough to pull it off.

Michaux: First of all, who wants to stick their feet in pimento cheese? Complete fail by Adidas. Since I suppose nobody wants to reprise Larry Mize’s purple striped shirt or Howell’s Masters Marching Band pants he once wore, I agree with Jeff in that the Arnie pink shirt is the way to go this year. It goes with a green jacket like azaleas in Amen Corner.

MORE: How to make Augusta’s pimento cheese sandwich

Wood: How can one call themselves a fan of the Masters and not have a crisp, white, long-sleeved jumpsuit in their closet? Choose your number to put on the breast pocket, and the last name across the back in Augusta National green. I’ve begged and pleaded over the years to let me take one out on the town with me that week, to no avail. But I will say this: when we have to leave the practice facility and the caddie locker room and head across Washington Road to where the equipment trailers sit, we know what it must be like to be a movie star stalked by the paparazzi. Cars slow down, the women catcall, grown men want their pictures taken with us — as they should. It is a part of the Masters as recognizable as anything else. Hey, maybe the winning caddie should be presented with a commemorative jumpsuit to the player’s green jacket?

Bacon: We live in a world where outrageous, zany sweaters are an enormous part of the holidays and nobody has mentioned bringing back the 1990 golf sweater worn by the champion, Nick Faldo, that Sunday? It is by far the greatest outfit ever worn by a champion and that sweater should be something we can purchase for however much the green jackets feel like charging!