SI convened ameeting of its golf experts—senior writers Michael Bamberger, Damon Hack, AlanShipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, plus contributing writer John Garrity—and a PGATour pro (who participated on the condition of anonymity) to address those andother issues
CAN WE SALVAGE'09?
Bamberger: I'mhaving a hard time getting over Tom Watson's heroic British Open. It was such aspecial course and situation. I'm sure our editor doesn't want to hear this,but it's hard to get psyched for this PGA.
Hack: I know whatyou mean. We've had three compelling majors, but the winners weren't the guysthe public wanted. You still need Tiger in the mix on Sunday.
Shipnuck: It'sbeen a squirrelly year. This PGA needs a marquee champion, whether it's Tigeror ... who else is there? We could've had three epic major winners. Insteadwe've had three nice players; good guys who create zero buzz outside of ourlittle golf world.
Garrity: TheBritish Open wasn't a total downer. It will stick in our memories because itwas so extraordinary with Watson. In that regard, it's a little like Jean Vande Velde at Carnoustie. No one remembers Paul Lawrie's win, but we're stilltalking about that Open.
Van Sickle: Whatwould be the best story at the PGA?
Anonymous Pro: IfTiger comes back from missing the cut at the British, that would be big. What afeel-good story it would be if Phil Mickelson won after what his family hasgone through. Phil would actually be the bigger story. Tiger is struggling tohit fairways, but Phil's family has real-life struggles that tug on yourheartstrings. The next best story would be Kenny Perry, or anyone who lost oneof the other majors, bouncing back and redeeming himself.
Shipnuck: If wehad Sergio García winning his first major, that would be big. Or PaddyHarrington finding himself or Ernie Els coming back from the dead. We need aguy with star power. That would help the tournament and give the year somedefinition. Everything is wide open right now—player of the year, all of it.It's the year of what could have been.
Bamberger: In '99Tiger hadn't won a major all year, and going into the PGA at Medinah, wethought, Eh, how interesting can this be? Then we get Sergio and Tiger.Whenever Tiger wins, it's interesting. I'm going to Hazeltine with lowexpectations, but if we get there and Tiger plays well and wins number 15,we'll talk about Jack and 18 majors and who's the greatest of all time.
Shipnuck: Afterthat '99 PGA, Tiger won a bunch of tournaments to end the year and thenlaunched the greatest season of all time. If he does that again, it couldchange everything really quickly. If not, 2009 will go down as a year of missedopportunities. If Phil had won at Bethpage with Amy fighting cancer or ifWatson had pulled off the British, they're on the covers of TIME and Newsweek,never mind SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Hack: The Watsonstory was so deflating. We're golf writers and golf fans. I felt like, doggoneit, that was a moment for golf to be up there with football and baseball andKobe and LeBron. When Tiger wins, golf is above the fold on the front page. IfWatson wins, it would've been the same. That's why I felt a sense of loss.
Shipnuck: All thisheartbreak underlines how difficult tournament golf is and why it's socompelling. The pressure on the final holes of a major is excruciating.Watching these great players not get it done time after time is like watching acar accident. You can't take your eyes off it. It's a reminder how crueltournament golf can be.
Van Sickle: Sodoes that make the PGA more important than usual, or less?
Bamberger: IfTiger wins, it's huge. If Steve Stricker wins, it's nice for Stricker but notso big.
Garrity: To answerGary's first question, the best story would be if Robert Karlsson comes back towin the PGA.
Van Sickle: Youmean your pick to win the last three majors who hasn't played in the last two?What's your second-best scenario?
Garrity: It wouldhave to be Tiger knocking off another thing from his to-do list. Every year wetalk about whether Tiger can win the Grand Slam or do this or that. Fact is,all he has to do is win one major a year for four years, and he matches Jack's18. How hard can that be?
Van Sickle: I'llbe blunt. What's up with Tiger?
Garrity: Well, wenever know because he won't say. He tells us two years later, then lectures usfor being obtuse and not recognizing what was going on at the time.
Shipnuck: The PGAwill tell the tale. If Tiger wins, all will be forgotten. If he goes0-for-the-majors, that hasn't happened since '04, a year after going to HankHaney. If Tiger gets blanked, all of a sudden he has to look for some newanswers. Tiger measures success by majors. Not only has he not won one, he'salso mostly looked lost.
Garrity: I don'tbuy the idea that Haney is to blame and Tiger should send Hank packing. Tigeris a control freak. Hank doesn't tell him how to swing a golf club. He usesHank as his eyes and ears to provide feedback. I don't see Haney as a Svengalitaking Tiger down the wrong path. Tiger is in control, and he goes where hewants to go.
Anonymous Pro: Idon't know who's to blame, but it's Tiger's swing that's the problem. If you'rethe No. 1 player in the world, how can it be such a struggle to get the ball inplay week in and week out? His win at Memorial isn't surprising because thosefairways are as wide as football fields. Congressional had room too, and hewasn't required to hit driver a lot. Narrow it up, throw in some hay, like atTurnberry, and he can't get it in play. He can't even go to his cut shot—it'sturning into a double cross. The driver is a total lottery for him rightnow.
Shipnuck: It'sbeen more than a full calendar year since Tiger's knee surgery. It's not anexcuse anymore. He wouldn't use it as an excuse, and neither should we. Hesimply hasn't executed.
Hack: Tiger hasbeen tinkering with the driver. He's gone to more loft and a shorter shaft.He's trying to make it more like a two-wood. But at the top of his swing hedoesn't seem to know where the ball is going.
Anonymous Pro:When was the last time you saw Tiger with three or four drivers on the range,like he's had a few times this year? I would hope he'd realize that the swingchanges he's made are not producing a result that's consistent enough for themajors. His swing is flatter and more shut. It might be on plane better, butit's not as efficient as it used to be. Now there's so much more pressure onhis short game that his putting hasn't been as good. It's all because of histee game. When there's more heat on you, you're not going to make as manyputts—I don't care who you are. His whole game is starting to sag.
Bamberger: Anyoneelse think Tiger is more stressed out based on his outbursts of profanity?
Shipnuck: Hisratio of profanities to bad shots is the same as always. He's simply hittingmore bad shots. I do think Tiger felt a new emotion this year—embarrassment.Like that opening tee shot at Augusta when he was paired with Phil and hit it50 yards left. It was the same thing with his first swing at the U.S. Open,blowing it off the course.
Bamberger: Thechanges I've seen in Tiger this year have been away from the course. He'sbetter in press conferences; he's more engaging with his playing partners; he'smore endearing.
Hack: You'reright. Tiger is happy. He's married and has two kids. Sometimes I've beensurprised how well he's handled the losses. Maybe Tiger realizes he's on a bitof a journey, like a redshirt injury season.
Shipnuck: Maybe wesimply write off '09 as an aberration. If Tiger doesn't play well in the majorsnext year, it is definitely time to panic. The thing is, he has played well attimes. Why can't he do that in a major? I don't think it's the knee; I thinkit's the head. And that has always been Tiger's greatest asset. Maybe he'srealizing for the first time how hard this game really is.
Van Sickle: Whatif one of the Open champions, Stewart Cink or Lucas Glover, wins the PGA? Do welook at them differently?
Bamberger: Sure,we have to. It's an elite group of players who have won two majors in ayear.
Hack: With all duerespect, Cink and Glover aren't Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis. They already hadstreet cred, especially Cink.
Shipnuck: Cink hasa very solid résumé. Glover, with only one victory, is no doubt a solid player,but he might have won his major a few years earlier than expected. A win byeither would help define the year, but interest wouldn't be off the charts.
Van Sickle: Cinkis a rising personality. He read a Top 10 list on David Letterman's show, andhis tweets have become must-read material. He had a funny one from Turnberryabout how cool it was that you could get anything from the vending machine atthe resort—even condoms. After the Open he wrote about sitting at breakfastdeciding if he should drink his orange juice out of a glass or the claretjug.
Shipnuck: It wasgreat—he attached a photo of some glasses and the jug lined up. Stewart israrely funny in press conferences, so it's nice that he's found a venue toexpress himself.
Van Sickle: Whatwould Tiger write if he Twittered? "You lose again."
Hack: No, he'dnever let us in that far. It would be, "At the range. Hittingballs."
Van Sickle: Howabout the two players who made last year's PGA so interesting, Sergio Garcíaand Padraig Harrington?
Hack: AtTurnberry, Watson was talking about Harrington shortening his swing. Watsonsaid that his teacher told him years ago to never shorten your swing, thatyou'll need it when you're older.
Shipnuck: Paddyhad his greatest year and wanted to improve on it. Nothing in golf is asentertaining or enlightening as a Paddy interview. He's brutally candid abouthis struggle, almost uncomfortably so. After Turnberry, that was the mostoptimistic I've heard him all year. I wouldn't be surprised if he contended atthe PGA.
Anonymous Pro: Ireally think Sergio is on the road back. He could be the best ball striker inthe game. Right now he hits it better than Tiger. His whole game revolvesaround his putting, and he's finally onto something with that mid-lengthputter. Hazeltine is 7,600-something yards with three par-5s of more than 600yards. It's not going to be a plinker who wins this PGA; it'll be a bomber.
Van Sickle: It'scounterintuitive, but if everyone has to lay up on the par-5s, that favors theshort hitters, who are good wedge players.
Shipnuck: LeeWestwood might give Sergio competition for best long, straight driver, but hisshort game is letting him down. Everyone focused on his three-putt on the lasthole at Turnberry. Those bogeys he made on 15 and 16, one was a muffed chip,another was a bad sand shot.
Hack: How aboutKenny Perry?
Van Sickle: Yeah,I'd second Kenny. Besides Phil, who else is even out there?
Shipnuck: HenrikStenson hasn't backed up anything in majors. Geoff Ogilvy has been an enigma.Jim Furyk may be on the downside. Where has Anthony Kim been? You have MartinKaymer and Paul Casey, but they're not on the same level as the others.
Anonymous Pro: Thefavorite for the PGA is anyone's guess. There are 50 guys who can win it. Lookwho has won this year. Would you have picked any of those guys?
Hack: Give mePerry or Steve Stricker over these young guys. Perry or Stricker will win amajor before García or Adam Scott.
Van Sickle: Boldcall. I'd like to see it.
AND THE WINNER IS...
Shipnuck: I'mgoing to take a flier on Paddy. I have a hunch. In the scrum of writers atTurnberry on Sunday afternoon, he had a twinkle in his eye, as if he knewsomething that we didn't.
Van Sickle: He didwin the Irish PGA right before the Open, so that had to help hisconfidence.
Shipnuck: It wouldsave his year, be a cool story and lift him back to No. 2. Maybe I'm simplyrooting for him because I'm writing the PGA story.
Bamberger: I'lltake Tiger as my real pick and Furyk as my dark horse. Hazeltine is a coursethat demands great iron play. Furyk is one of the few guys out of that JohnMahaffey--Larry Nelson mold who's not content with his major résumé and wantsmore.
Shipnuck: Haven'twe banned taking Tiger as a choice? That's too easy.
Hack: I'll takeSteve Stricker. I like his vibe, the way he's walking and hitting the ball. Hehas two wins, and he's been close in other majors. Plus the PGA is in theMidwest, so he'll have a lot of friends and family there. To put it simply,he's playing as well as anybody.
Van Sickle: He'llbe in front of people with accents similar to his, y'know. For the sake ofhistorical balance, I like Justin Leonard. He had a three-shot lead going intothe final round in '02 and shot a 77. He couldn't do anything the last day,totally un-Justin-like. History usually isn't that neat, though. I have afeeling about Luke Donald. A second-shot course is good for him, and he's beenquietly piling up top 15 finishes.
Shipnuck: That'sfunny, some guys in the British Open pressroom were running down Donald. He hasthe sheen of a star, yet what has he really done? He's won only a couple oftimes on either tour.
Anonymous Pro: I'mgoing to pick Phil. He contended at Bethpage and damn near won it. He had a lotof heat on him that week and almost did it. He got the lead, then made a coupleof bogeys coming in. Phil is going to have a lot to play for, he'll be mentallyfresh, and he'll have amazing support.
Garrity: You'll beshocked to learn that I'm sticking with Robert Karlsson, whether he shows up ornot. He missed the U.S. Open with an eye infection. I'm not sure what happenedto him at Turnberry, and I don't know his status. You might think he's rusty. Ilike to think he's well-rested.
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"We could've had three epic major winners. Insteadwe've had three nice players."
"With all due respect, Cink and Glover aren't ShaunMicheel and Ben Curtis. They already had street cred."
"Phil is going to have a lot to play for, he'll bementally fresh, and he'll have amazing support."
Photograph by JAMES SCHNEPF
NORTHERN EXPOSURE The site of three previous men's majors, Hazeltine National Golf Club, near Minneapolis, has been stretched to 7,674 yards.
TOP THIS Watson's stirring performance at last month's British Open will be a tough act to follow.
RISING STAR Cink found his voice on Twitter, and his first major win at Turnberry.
HE'S BACK! This week's Bridgestone Invitational will be Mickelson's first start since the U.S. Open.