SPORTS ILLUSTRATED CONVENED A PANEL OF 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 PRO (WHO PARTICIPATED ON THE CONDITION OF ANONYMITY) TO TAKE UP THESE AND OTHER QUESTIONS
Van Sickle: I believe it's mandated in our bylaws that we discuss Tiger Woods. He was impressive in Australia and again at the Chevron World Challenge, wasn't he?
Hack: Tiger looks alive. Two good weeks in Oz and one in L.A. has me convinced that he has that trust and belief again. He turned those final two putts at the Chevron into no-doubters—just like the old days.
Anonymous Pro: All the signs are encouraging and good for him, because Tiger has been sucking eggs for two years. The Presidents Cup gave him something to build on. A lot of people want to see him play well. His return would give our game a shot in the arm.
Van Sickle: When even Johnny Miller raves about your swing, you're doing something right. How is Tiger's tempo looking, John?
Garrity: Better, but still a little ragged according to the titan of tempo, John Novocel. Tiger is still inconsistent, but overall he has more swings where he's not ridiculously fast on one end or the other. With the swing changes behind him, he can focus more on his short game and putting, the keys to winning.
Hack: I did a Q&A with Tom Kite recently, and he thinks Tiger will win tournaments again, but majors remain to be seen. I want to see Tiger's swing hold up on the most exacting courses in the most demanding conditions. Majors are all that matter now for Tiger. He's all about winning five more.
Garrity: Tiger is far more likely to win majors than regular tournaments. When it comes down to a Sunday afternoon and it's Tiger and 10 guys who haven't won majors, Tiger is far more likely to prevail. He's more comfortable in that position.
Anonymous Pro: I'm not sure Tiger has the driver back. How many drivers did he hit in Australia? Until he gets that club figured out, I'm not convinced he's ready to contend. The only thing I'm surprised by is how long it has taken for somebody with his talent to get back to this point. His battle now is between his ears. That's a new thing for him.
Bamberger: I thought he looked great at both events, and by look I mean his whole disposition. He looks literally light on his feet. I don't think he'll ever putt again like he did in 2000, but he's not going to have to do that to win majors. What he showed in Australia and at the Chevron is that he can still hit irons close, that he can get to pins—left, right and front—that others don't have the shape to get at. You can't do something at a world-class level without enjoying it. I think he's enjoying golf again.
Van Sickle: I know winning the Chevron is nothing, but Tiger didn't act like it was nothing. And you have to like that he made clutch birdie putts on the last two holes to win. It's a start. It may even qualify as an early warning.
Shipnuck: Tiger's victory at Sherwood changes everything heading into 2012. He's clearly getting more comfortable with his swing. More important, he's finally playing with more belief and passion. Birdieing the last two holes, including yet another 72nd-hole walk-off, was vintage. Next year just got a whole lot more intriguing.
KING OF THE HILL
Van Sickle: Luke Donald ended the game of musical chairs by grabbing the No. 1 World Ranking midyear and running with it. Who'll be No. 1 at this time next year?
Anonymous Pro: I'm going to say Rory McIlroy. He's more explosive and potentially dominant than Donald could ever think of being. Nobody won a bunch of tournaments this year, so the only guy who could get to No. 1 was the model of consistency—Luke. Next year somebody is going to become a dominant figure in golf by winning, not by simply compiling top fives, and Rory is that guy.
Shipnuck: If you're asking who'll be more exciting or more dominant, it might be Rory, but Luke will still be No. 1. You get as many points for a couple of top five finishes in a major as you do for winning one. Luke's consistency is amazing, and he has a big lead.
Hack: I'm going with Rors. The guy is built to win majors. I'll say it right now, he's going to win in April. He's a big-game hunter. I know he didn't follow up after Congressional, but he has won a major so there's no pressure on him. Luke still needs to win a major to justify that No. 1 ranking, and that may be tough.
Bamberger: I'm inclined to think it'll be Jason Day, despite his lousy play in the Presidents Cup. It's a contrarian choice, but his game looks complete. He has gotten the near misses out of his system. He looks extremely hungry. He has played well all over the world. He simply seems too good to keep down.
Van Sickle: I haven't heard anyone mention Tiger, Phil or Lee Westwood.
Shipnuck: Westwood is dangerous anytime he tees it up, but it's hard to believe in a guy who has had so many chances and never gotten it done.
Garrity: I still see relative parity out there, which means the No. 1 ranking will continue to be passed around like a hot potato. That's not a bad thing. I like potatoes.
Van Sickle: I don't think anybody expected Webb Simpson to establish himself as the best American player in 2011. Who'll earn that honor next year?
Garrity: I want to say Simpson because I'm still tingling over that bunker shot he hit to a foot during the Presidents Cup. But I think our best player is Matt Kuchar.
Bamberger: Gutsy call.
Garrity: Kuchar is the American Luke Donald, a top 10 machine. He has developed a swing that's about as simple as a hammer stroke. To my mind he has a fabulous golf temperament, and he's not deflated after a mediocre shot. I say Kuchar hasn't reached his peak yet.
Bamberger: I like Nick Watney. His swing is so powerful, and he has tremendous length. He and Keegan Bradley have similar games. Watney isn't overly mechanical, which I like, and he's a little like Steve Stricker—a modest type who is not going to be sidetracked by the toys that come with success. Between him, Bradley and Bill Haas, we have three really good young players.
Hack: I like Watney too. He's building, adding a little something every year, padding his résumé. He won at Doral this year. He has a complete game.
Anonymous Pro: Sorry, I don't see these young guys being strong enough yet. The best American player will be somebody over 35, whether it's Tiger or Phil or Jim Furyk or Stricker. I feel like Furyk or Mickelson has another blowout year in him. I think Phil is ready for a last hurrah after kind of taking this year off.
Van Sickle: Phil had the worst putting year of his career. Give him six months to perfect his belly-putter stroke and he could be dangerous again.
Shipnuck: I still believe in Dustin Johnson's talent. He laid an egg in the Presidents Cup and was mostly a nonfactor in the majors, so he'll be as motivated as he can be. He has pride. The way he hits the ball, sooner or later it's going to be the right week for him at the Masters. He's going to win by six and make it look easy.
Van Sickle: I like Simpson, although my sleeper pick is Gary Woodland, a good athlete who is improving as a golfer and is already pretty doggone good, as you may have noticed with his recent World Cup win with Kuchar. Simpson won twice last year, but it easily could've been six. I was only half joking in one of our weekly Golf.com roundtables when I said that 2011 will be remembered as the start of the Webb Simpson era.
Bamberger: Tiger might knock everyone off the hill next year.
Shipnuck: That would be a good year for us.
THE BIG SHOES
Van Sickle: Commissioner Tim Finchem is 64, and his contract expires at the end of 2012. If Finchem decides to retire, whom would you like to see succeed him?
Shipnuck: Joe Ogilvie.
Hack: Geoff Ogilvy.
Van Sickle: Anyone for former Brewers outfielder Ben Ogilvie?
Anonymous Pro: I want somebody who has a more radical way of doing things. Somebody who is not so business-model-oriented and can think outside the box. Maybe someone like Peter Jacobsen. The Tour has become overly businesslike and stale.
Shipnuck: Joe Ogilvie is very involved in Tour business; he has been on the Players Advisory Council and is a voice other players respect. Joe has been part of the Tour's middle class for years. He understands the business side and the players' side. A lot of players don't know Finchem and don't feel as if he has been looking out for them.
Garrity: I interviewed Joe a few years ago, and 10 minutes into the interview he struck me as the next Deane Beman. Joe is intelligent, has intellectual curiosity, business acumen, leadership ability and the patience required for negotiating.
Hack: I was only halfway joking about Geoff Ogilvy. He doesn't have Joe's degree from Duke, but he has a love of the game and depth. He's also honest and blunt.
Shipnuck: I'd love to see what Geoff would do to the Tournament Players Club network. He might blow up a lot of those courses.
Hack: Geoff has some strong views about course architecture. I think he'd take the Tour in an interesting direction.
Garrity: Who are the genuine candidates?
Shipnuck: If you're promoting from within, Ty Votaw would be a candidate. He helped himself by getting golf back into the Olympics.
Bamberger: Terry McGuirk, the chairman of the Atlanta Braves, would be interesting. He worked for Ted Turner, used to be CEO of Turner Broadcasting System and is an Augusta National member.
Shipnuck: Who is the golf equivalent of Theo Epstein? Someone who's young, sees things in a different way and is a dynamic thinker? Promoting another lifer VP from Ponte Vedra Beach isn't going to shake up the Tour. That's what Finchem was.
Bamberger: How about Condoleezza Rice? The white-man thing has been done for so long in golf, isn't it time to try something else?
Garrity: Do you want waterboarding introduced to the PGA Tour?
Shipnuck: I do. Any golfer who blows off a media interview should be waterboarded.
THE MAIN EVENTS
Van Sickle: Here are the venues for next year's majors after the Masters—Olympic Club (U.S. Open), Royal Lytham & St. Annes (British) and the Ocean course at Kiawah Island (PGA). Which one sounds the most exciting?
Anonymous Pro: The Ocean course, because it has more potential for disaster. It's the PGA, it's August and it'll be 300° on the beach.
Garrity: Pete Dye built the Ocean course for match play, which is why it'll be a train wreck for medal play. That's not a negative. That means the PGA will be exciting.
Shipnuck: The Ocean course is a love-it-or-hate-it venue, like Whistling Straits. It'll look beautiful on TV but could be a bloodbath for scores. I love San Francisco, but Olympic has kind of a been-there-done-that feel. Nothing dazzles me about that place.
Bamberger: In San Francisco alone I'd put San Francisco Golf Club, Harding Park and the other 18 at Olympic Club ahead of the course on which they'll be playing the Open.
Hack: San Francisco is a world-class city. That's part of the allure and the excitement.
Shipnuck: West Coast majors are great. Part of what made Torrey Pines [in 2008] so epic was that when Tiger made that putt on 18, it was prime time in the East and the whole world was watching. It's a huge boost for the sport when golf gets into prime time.
Garrity: These courses are beautiful on TV, and that's no small thing. I may not be knocked out strategically by Olympic, but it's exciting to walk down the fairways between those majestic trees. It's a dramatic landscape.
Van Sickle: I agree about Olympic. I've always loved its look and trees, but the truth is, it was exposed at the 1998 Open when players had difficulty keeping perfectly placed tee shots in the bouncy, canted fairways.
Anonymous Pro: It'll be a great U.S. Open, but it'll be another Lee Janzen--type winner—a short, straight hitter. In other words, I don't see Rory repeating. It's more like a Jim Furyk or a Luke Donald week.
Garrity: Apparently, we all agree that Lytham is the dullest course on the British Open rota.
Anonymous Pro: Yeah, it's pretty mundane. Tiger could win there because he probably won't have to hit a lot of drivers. He could maybe do what he did at Royal Liverpool and iron the place to death.
Shipnuck: I don't like a flat course, and Lytham is pretty flat. Birkdale and Turnberry are spectacular, but Lytham is one big pancake. It's all about missing the pot bunkers. That's boring.
Bamberger: Lytham may be flat, but at least the hotels there are lousy.
AND THE WINNERS ARE ...
Van Sickle: Nothing you say here will be held against you, so go ahead and pick, in order, the winners of the Masters, U.S. Open, British and PGA.
Bamberger: I like Tiger, Charl Schwartzel, Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk.
Anonymous Pro: I'm also going with Tiger right out of the gate.
Van Sickle: You didn't sound that upbeat when you were talking about him before.
Anonymous Pro: Well, he's going to be the favorite, and his track record there is pretty strong. Then I have Luke Donald at Olympic. Anybody can win the British, and since I'm not giving Tiger two in a year, I'll take McIlroy at Lytham and Martin Kaymer for an encore at the PGA after a year of starring as The Invisible Man.
Hack: I have Rory, Phil, Sergio García and Webb Simpson. How about Sergio? Talk about a great story. I love how he quietly won two tournaments this fall. We haven't heard the last from El Ni√±o.
Shipnuck: Wow, that's strong, Hack.
Van Sickle: And also Tiger-less. I have Tiger, Schwartzel, Hunter Mahan at Lytham—although I have no idea why. So I should probably write in Luke Donald, who is going to get his major in '12. I like Simpson because the PGA is in his home territory.
Garrity: I'm with the others—I have Tiger, then Kuchar. Robert Karlsson is a no-brainer to win at Lytham, of course, and then McIlroy.
Van Sickle: We all agree that your Karlsson pick is indeed a no-brainer.
Shipnuck: This is my best-case scenario for the sport. Do I really think it's going to happen? I don't know, but it would be spectacular: Tiger, Phil, Rory, Rickie Fowler. Tiger winning the Masters would be the biggest story, but Phil winning an Open would be off the charts. You couldn't beat it.
Bamberger: Actually, you could. A Tiger-Tiger-Tiger run would beat it by a mile.
Van Sickle: It's stunning how quickly the worm turns. Most of us are suddenly picking Tiger to win the Masters.
Garrity: We all picked him at Augusta but nowhere else.
Shipnuck: Did he really turn it around or simply have two good weeks in Australia and another at the Chevron? He's not the lock at Augusta that he used to be. Phil is the king of Augusta more than Tiger now. But I picked Tiger there too, so what the hell.
Bamberger: The fact is, if Tiger wins in Augusta, it changes everything.
Van Sickle: Yeah, we'll immediately resume Tigermania and the Countdown to Jack.
Hack: We'll be talking Grand Slam too.
Garrity: That's why it will be such a shame when Karlsson wins at Lytham.
"TIGER'S VICTORY CHANGES EVERYTHING. NEXT YEAR JUST GOT A WHOLE LOT MORE INTRIGUING."
THE OCEAN COURSE IS "A TRAIN WRECK FOR MEDAL PLAY. THAT MEANS THE PGA WILL BE EXCITING."
BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM
CHARLES BAUS/CAL SPORT MEDIA
PUMPED Woods looked like his old spectacular self at the Chevron, winning for the first time in more than two years with birdies at the last two holes.
DECEIVING LOOK The Olympic Club may offer panoramic views, but players at the U.S. Open won't be crazy about the bouncy, sloping fairways.