IS LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN THE REAL DEAL? WHAT'S WRONG WITH TIGER NOW? WHAT KIND OF TEST WILL WHISTLING STRAITS OFFER, AND WHO WILL WIN THE SEASON'S FINAL MAJOR? WE CONVENED A PANEL OF SI GOLF EXPERTS—SENIOR WRITERS MICHAEL BAMBERGER, DAMON HACK, ALAN SHIPNUCK AND GARY VAN SICKLE, AS WELL AS SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR JOHN GARRITY—AND A PGA TOUR PLAYER (WHO PARTICIPATED ON CONDITION OF ANONYMITY) TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS AND MORE
The King Lives
Van Sickle: Gentlemen, did we just witness the start of the Louis Oosthuizen era?
Hack: No, just like we didn't witness the start of the Geoff Ogilvy era, the Trevor Immelman era or the Michael Campbell era. Winning majors is hard.
Garrity: Gee, I thought it was still the Justin Rose era. Or was it the Dustin Johnson era? Really, we get carried away every time somebody wins a major, as if the big tournaments aren't subject to good bounces and tee-time breaks and hot putters like any other tournament. Louis was fantastic at the British—he made hash of my prediction that he wouldn't protect that big lead—but there's nothing in his history to suggest he's headed for the Hall of Fame. Louis has plenty to prove.
Shipnuck: John is right. It was a remarkable performance, but there was nothing in his body of work to suggest this was coming. Let's check back in three years.
Anonymous Pro: I thought it was interesting that Oosthuizen hadn't made a cut in seven of his eight previous majors, and all of a sudden he dominates. I'm not discounting anything he did, but he didn't have to play in that cruddy weather wave on Friday afternoon. To me, Rory McIlroy wins the Open if he doesn't play in that afternoon wave. Look how well he played the other three rounds, but he shot 80 on Friday. If Oosthuizen plays in that wave and shoots 80, then we've got a hell of a golf tournament.
Bamberger: Brian Gay won at Hilton Head by 10 shots last year. It's weird, but guys have weeks like that. What Louis did is a much greater accomplishment, of course, but it's not unprecedented.
Van Sickle: Yes or no, is Louis going to win another major? He beat everybody except a handful of guys by at least 10 shots. So I'll say yes, what the hell.
Bamberger: I'll say yes because it's so totally unsporting to root against a guy. I would like to say yes for Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis and Justin Leonard and Tom Lehman and my close personal friend Davis Love. I'm not sure it's going to happen for that group, but why root against them?
Shipnuck: When Fred Couples won the Masters [in 1992], did anybody think that would be his last major?
Van Sickle: Sounds like you're saying no.
Shipnuck: I'm saying it's hard to do. Tiger, Phil and Padraig Harrington followed up their major wins quickly, but history is against everyone else doing it.
Anonymous Pro: We can't say Oh my gosh, this guy has arrived yet. I think Graeme McDowell will have a better career than Oosthuizen, whose name I still can't pronounce.
Van Sickle: We're calling him King Louis.
Anonymous Pro: Well, King Louis may have a short reign.
Hack: I can't say Louis won't win another major. Remember, Shrek had a sequel.
Major of the Year
Van Sickle: Whose major win this year is ultimately going to be the most significant?
Bamberger: I think it's King Louis, because he won by seven on the Old Course when everybody was there. He beat Tiger, he beat Phil, and he was extraordinary.
Garrity: It's the Masters. We had the great story line with Amy [Mickelson], the complete role reversal with Tiger, the fan adulation, Phil's shot from the trees at 13. We'll be writing about the 2010 Masters a decade from now.
Shipnuck: The most memorable win is going to be Phil's Masters, all the emotions that surrounded him, the stretch on Saturday where he went eagle-eagle-birdie. You have to say he's the king of Augusta now; he's won three of the last seven. That hug with Amy is the year's defining moment.
Hack: It's not even close. It's Phil. His fourth major title separated Phil from Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Paddy Harrington as the best player of the era not named Tiger.
Van Sickle: Phil played the signature shot through the trees at the 13th, although he missed that short eagle putt. That shot, which I called the dumb-ass shot of the year at the time, will long be remembered. I still think it was a bad play, but hey, he pulled it off. He's good.
Anonymous Pro: Seriously, describe one shot that Graeme or King Louis played in their victories. I can't. Phil's win was the best major of the year ... so far.
Van Sickle: It is obligatory to discuss Tiger Woods. Does this year's failure mean he may not surpass the 18 major championships of Jack Nicklaus?
Shipnuck: If he doesn't win at Whistling Straits, he'll be almost three years removed from his last major victory when he goes to Augusta next year. That's stunning. Every major that passes that he doesn't win, Mount Nicklaus gets steeper and steeper.
Anonymous Pro: Could Tiger have had three better chances? They were all courses he's won and dominated on. His putting is a big concern. His swing at St. Andrews looked the best I've seen it in a few years, but I don't care how well you hit it, you can't hit it well enough to win if you aren't making putts.
Van Sickle: I couldn't agree more. If he's got issues with the putter, all bets are off.
Shipnuck: Tiger's swing is in transition, his putting stroke is breaking down, his life is a mess. I don't think anybody starts making more putts after they hit 35. A year ago it was a given that he'd break the record. I'm not so sure anymore.
Anonymous Pro: I never doubted he'd catch Jack until this point. Now I'm doubting. Tiger is supremely talented. I think he'll find it. But right now, he's farther away than ever. If you lose your putting, it sours your whole game. Look at Sergio García. Before, everyone figured Tiger for 22 majors. Now he'll be lucky to get to 18 or 19.
Hack: I used to think Tiger would win 25 majors. Now I'm thinking the high teens, maybe 20. Tiger has done nothing to inspire confidence of late, but once he wins again, and he will, the dam will burst. It's going to be a heck of a struggle, though. There are a lot of young guys who hit it long and high and aren't afraid of him—never will be.
Van Sickle: Tiger is smart enough to fix his game. You're seeing results with his swing already.
Shipnuck: You can't outsmart putting problems, though. There's never been a smarter golfer than Tom Watson, one of the best putters in the world in his prime, and look what happened to him.
Bamberger: I don't agree. Tiger's putting excellence, unlike Ben Crenshaw's and Watson's, began with an absolutely, technically beautiful stroke. He was not just a putting savant. Tiger's putter was perfectly on line, perfect technique. It was all technique. Because of that, it's recoverable.
Shipnuck: He needs five majors to break the record. That's how many majors Seve Ballesteros won. It has taken Phil his entire career to win four. Five is a big number.
Bamberger: The PGA is the easiest major for Tiger to win. He's got four of them already. I always thought Tiger would win six or seven PGAs. Tiger has 21 more majors in his 30s. If he picks off one every other year for six years, that's three more. Then he's still got all of his 40s. No, we'll probably never see Tiger as the dominant, take-your-breath-away player again. But he can come down a full grade level and still be a player who wins a major every few years.
Van Sickle: I don't know, Tiger is out of gimme major sites. No Pebble Beach until '19, no St. Andrews again until '15 or possibly '17 and no Medinah.
Garrity: Don't worry. Tiger's year has been a bust, but his swing looks better, and he's had a few sparks of brilliance. As soon as he fixes his putting, which is a simple tempo problem he can figure out by reading Tour Tempo (page G16), he should get back on track to break Jack's record. His final tally? I don't know. I'm not Carnac the Magnificent.
Van Sickle: Nice contemporary reference, Garrity. Johnny Carson has been off the air for 18 years.
Garrity: Carnac is aware of that. Carnac knows all.
Get Out the Vote
Van Sickle: Suppose you had to vote for Player of the Year right this minute. Who do you select?
Hack: Louis Oosthuizen. A seven-shot win at St. Andrews gets my vote. He took the lead and then increased it. Plus, he bought champagne for the media afterward. That's old school.
Van Sickle: Too old, apparently. Louis was asked about that in the Monday-morning press conference and said he'd never heard of Tony Lema, the original Champagne Tony. Too bad.
Garrity: I'll take Lee Westwood. Every time I look at a major leader board, Westwood's name is on it. Then another guy grabs the trophy and vanishes for the year. By the way, am I pronouncing Lee's name correctly? That South African guy told me it was 'OIST-wood.'
Shipnuck: Ernie Els, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk have two wins each, but can anybody name what tournaments they won? I have to vote for Phil. He won the Masters, and he should've won the U.S. Open.
Bamberger: What's that phrase from Death of a Salesman? 'Attention must finally be paid.' Attention must finally be paid to the Wayne Levi of 2010. I think we all know who I'm talking about.
Garrity: Carnac knows. I don't.
Bamberger: Mr. Justin Rose.
Shipnuck: Rose was a player of the month, not the Player of the Year.
Bamberger: If the question is which player made the biggest impact on golf, like Time's Man of the Year, I'd vote for Fred Couples. He brought so much attention to the senior tour and, like Tom Watson, expanded our notion of what a guy over the age of 50 can do.
Shipnuck: Fred had a nice run, but he kind of flamed out.
Bamberger: Well, Fred had six good weeks, Justin Rose had three, and Phil had only one.
Shipnuck: But Phil had the right one.
Van Sickle: Let's hear your thoughts on the PGA's return to Whistling Straits, the Pebble Beach of Wisconsin.
Shipnuck: It's a visually spectacular course, and it's fun to play.
Bamberger: It's beautiful, I agree, but it represents everything that's terrible about modern architecture. It's unbelievably expensive to play, expensive to maintain, and it's really hard to find your ball. Those things are killing the game.
Shipnuck: Those are valid points, but it's probably one of 10 courses in America that people would get on an airplane to go play.
Van Sickle: So right, Alan. It's a great contrivance. The land was flat farmland, like the surrounding property, before Pete Dye got on a bulldozer and created every mound, nook and cranny. At least there's no waterfall hole, like Donald Trump has in Florida. The Straits is like a Playboy centerfold. The breasts are fake, but that doesn't mean you don't like to look.
Shipnuck: I think it's hard to identify what the PGA Championship is. They've got the Straits as a regular part of the rotation now—it's coming back in 2015, which is good. But the PGA of America should get away from going to U.S. Open sites and find more new venues. The PGA should've gone to Erin Hills and Chambers Bay. It was a mistake to cede those sites to the USGA.
Bamberger: The thing to do is to find the new Sand Hills, whatever it is, or some places where you might not even draw a crowd.
Van Sickle: Hello, Donald Trump.
Bamberger: Well, I don't know if I'd go that far.
Anonymous Pro: The Straits is a very nontraditional course. It's difficult. You can end up in spots, you don't even know which hole you're on. It's hilly, and there are mounds separating the holes. If you spray one, you can get an unplayable lie. Some bunkers are pretty severe, and there are more than a thousand of them.
Garrity: So you're not a fan?
Anonymous Pro: It's links golf on steroids. But it's fantastic, it really is.
And the Winner Is ...
Hack: As the John Deere Classic showed, Steve Stricker is great in front of hometown crowds, and he's due to win a major. He's my pick. My dark horse is a good wind player who lost in the '04 playoff—Justin Leonard.
Van Sickle: I'll drive my bandwagon through an opening and pick Louis Oosthuizen. We know he plays well in the wind, and hey, the Straits is very breezy. Maybe he's no fluke. My dark-horse pick is a guy who played three great rounds at the Old Course after opening with a 79—Rickie Fowler.
Shipnuck: I'll go with Rory McIlroy. When he's going well, he's as good as anybody. I think he learned during the 80 at St. Andrews that he's got to fight harder and be tougher. It was a huge learning curve for him. And what better place for a guy from Northern Island to win than a faux Irish links? For my dark horse, I'll take Graeme McDowell.
Van Sickle: How can the U.S. Open champion be a dark horse?
Shipnuck: You're right. Give me anybody else from Europe. Anybody.
Bamberger: Lee Westwood has contended so many times that now, much like Tom Kite in 1992, he's finally going to have his moment. He's good in tough, windy conditions. My dark-horse pick for the third straight time is Dustin Johnson.
Garrity: Not very original, Michael. It's hard to ignore Robert Karlsson after his brief appearance on the leader boards of the U.S. and British Opens. He's the obvious pick.
Van Sickle: He's your obvious pick. You take him at every major.
Garrity: That will only make his title that much sweeter for me. My sleeper pick is Tiger, for reasons already stated. Namely, my book.
Shipnuck: How can the player ranked No. 1 in the world be a sleeper?
Garrity: Hmm, Carnac senses hostility in the room.
Anonymous Pro: I'll stick with my regular sleeper choice, Luke Donald, who managed a backdoor top 15 finish at the British. Length isn't an issue at the Straits, and Luke is a good putter. I'm picking Phil Mickelson to win it all. He just missed the playoff there last time. Picture this—Phil gets bookend majors, clinches Player of the Year and grabs the No. 1 ranking all in one week. What a nice way to tie a bow on what has so far been kind of a messy PGA Tour season. And then Phil will probably skip the whole FedEx Cup playoff series. Why? Because he's Phil.
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"We get carried away every time somebody wins a major. Louis (above) has plenty to prove."
"That hug from Amy [at Augusta] is the year's defining moment."
"Everybody figured Tiger for 22 majors. He'll be lucky to get to 18 or 19."
BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM
Photograph by LARRY LAMBRECHT
MOUNDS OF TROUBLE Pete Dye moved tons of dirt to create holes like No. 11 at Whistling Straits, a spectacular yet difficult links layout.
[See caption above]
TOUCHING After his third Masters win in seven years, Mickelson was surprised by Amy, his cancer-stricken wife.
LOST AND FOUND A balky putter could be cause for concern, but Woods rediscovered his swing at St. Andrews.
RIGHT AT HOME After a third-place tie at the British Open, McIlroy should find Whistling Straits to his liking.