WHAT WERE THE STORIES OF THE YEAR? WHAT DO WE THINK OF THE BELLY-PUTTER BAN? WHO IS SET UP FOR A BIG 2013? AND WHO WILL WIN NEXT YEAR'S MAJORS?
SI CONVENED A PANEL OF EXPERTS—SENIOR WRITERS MICHAEL BAMBERGER, ALAN SHIPNUCK AND GARY VAN SICKLE AND SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR JOHN GARRITY AS WELL AS A PGA TOUR PLAYER (WHO PARTICIPATED ON THE CONDITION OF ANONYMITY)—TO TAKE UP THESE AND OTHER QUESTIONS
The Future Is Now
Van Sickle: Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are the easy answers, but give me another good reason to be excited about 2013.
Bamberger: The majors. We're going back to Merion and Muirfield for the first time in a while, and they're such gems—gentle and fierce at the same time. They're everything that's great about course architecture.
Shipnuck: It's funny, the U.S. Open course is usually straightforward golf and the British Open site is often quirky. Players love Muirfield for its classic shotmaking and Merion is uniquely funky. It's like the Opens have been transposed.
Garrity: I want to put in a good word for Oak Hill, site of next year's PGA Championship and my favorite classic Open course. Oak Hill is a big tree-lined track that has been around forever and has all the prestige. Some courses become stereotypical and dull, like Baltusrol. Oak Hill doesn't have back-and-forth fairways like a bowling alley. There are elevation changes. It's tough, it's terrific.
Anonymous Pro: Sorry, I don't share your enthusiasm. Oak Hill's rough was stupid long when we played the 2003 PGA. They couldn't even cut it. The grass was so long it just bent over. Playing from that rough was like trying to hit a shot out of a waste basket. I hated it.
Van Sickle: I played Oak Hill a few months ago in the Williams, a prestigious amateur event. Oak Hill isn't just good, it's great. They've made some good changes. The 18th, an uphill par-4, is longer and nastier than ever. The redesigned par-3 16th is scary. It has a narrow hourglass green surrounded by water, deep bunkers and gnarly rough. The course is a man-eater, every bit as demanding as Oakmont.
Garrity: I loved the way Oakmont played after they radically cut down all of the trees.
Van Sickle: They cut down a bunch of trees at Oak Hill too, but you won't even notice. They still have a few thousand to spare.
Anonymous Pro: I'm intrigued by the new Fall Series. You know the 2014 season is going to start in the fall of 2013, right?
Shipnuck: It's brilliant. You already can't understand the FedEx Cup points system. Now you can't understand the calendar or the Tour schedule.
Van Sickle: The part that never made sense was that fall events didn't earn players any FedEx Cup points. Now they will.
Anonymous Pro: I know it's not much, but it's progress.
Shipnuck: After the PGA and the FedEx Cup, it's hard to keep golf fans interested as football starts. This is an attempt to do that, but I don't think it will work.
Van Sickle: Football starts in August and spills into February. If you're going to cede the calendar to football, you don't have much of a golf season left.
Bamberger: Even though this schedule makes no sense, it'll probably work. The fans are your customers, why do you want to confuse them? The fans are totally confused by FedEx Cup points, which is a disaster, but that's working in spite of itself for the simplest of reasons—there's so much money in it, players can't afford not to play. You're a fool if you bet against Tim Finchem.
Anonymous Pro: A lot of players aren't thrilled with the FedEx Cup scheduling or the fall start but you won't hear any grumbling. Trust me, $35 million in the FedEx Cup bonus pool every year smooths over any complaints.
Belly Up to The Ban, Boys
Van Sickle: As expected, the USGA and R&A announced plans to ban anchored putting techniques starting in 2016. What kind of fallout will there be?
Anonymous Pro: You can start by passing out asterisks to Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els, who won majors by doing something that won't be allowed. If I were them, I'd be unhappy not only about the ban but also about how it reflects on the biggest win of my career.
Shipnuck: The most ridiculous part is the three-year limbo. You're Ernie Els, you're 43, and the belly putter rejuvenated your career. You have a short window to win a few more majors. Do you switch back to a short putter or do you keep using the belly? And if Ernie completes the career Grand Slam, is it tainted? If the USGA and R&A had any backbone, they would've made this effective for 2013. Now we have to talk about this for three more years. Kill me now.
Anonymous Pro: I guarantee this rule will have a big impact. Keegan and Webb can say what they want, but every player using a belly or a long putter uses it for a reason. Some guys, when they pull their short putter out of the bag again, are going to feel as if they're grabbing a cobra. I see sleepless nights ahead.
Van Sickle: This rule may or may not end careers, but it will turn some regular winners into middle-of-the-pack players. Golf, after all, is about making putts.
Garrity: This ruling won't destroy Keegan or Webb or Ernie or Adam Scott. These guys have three years to transition back. There are players on the Champions tour, however, who can't play without a broomstick. It will be a real setback for that tour, which can't afford to lose any of its stars.
Bamberger: We're being too harsh on the USGA. Yes, they blew it on metal heads, big heads, graphite shafts, grooves and balls. Now they're overcompensating. But I agree that you should hold a golf club with your hands, and I respect the USGA as the game's governing body. This is what they don't get paid to do—tell us what's O.K. and what's not.
Shipnuck: No data was presented, only anecdotal evidence. This comes down to a handful of tweedy old guys who run the game not liking the look of anchoring.
Van Sickle: If the game went down the wrong path, and I'm not saying it did, it's because the USGA led us there. It put its stamp of approval on all these putters knowing full well exactly how they were going to be used. Some players have invested 10 or 20 years using approved putting styles that now are suddenly disallowed because—wait—the USGA doesn't like the way it looks? That's not a good enough reason.
Garrity: I've been an agnostic on long putters from the start, maybe because I'm 6'7" and too tall to be an effective ball roller. I see no evidence that anchored putters have an advantage, and I don't care how anchored putting looks. Even if it does help, so what? Do I really want to chase Ernie Els and Adam Scott out of the game?
Shipnuck: I have a hard time buying what the USGA and R&A are selling. Both have lost so much credibility as stewards of the game at the professional level. They'll take on fringe issues like anchoring or grooves, but are afraid to tackle equipment, which is having a profound impact on golf. It's ironic, in a sad way, that the anchoring decision was handed down just as it was announced that the Old Course would be desecrated for the 2015 Open.
Bamberger: Look, the USGA does many things well. They run a nice U.S. Open. They're trying to do the right thing here; they're simply 30 years late.
Passing the Torch
Van Sickle: What was most noteworthy about 2012?
Shipnuck: The development of Rory McIlroy as the face of the post--Tiger Woods era. This may go down as one of his most important years. He learned how to win while remaining a fresh, fun, down-to-earth character.
Bamberger: Rory emerged as the dominant figure, and he's nothing like the previous dominant figure—in personality, in the way he approaches the game or his opponents or his tournaments. We don't know what Rory is going to bring week to week. We won't be shocked if he wins a major next year, contends in one and misses the cut in the other two. He has a little Phil Mickelson in him. He's less predictable, and we can relate to him better because of that.
Anonymous Pro: It has to be Tiger. Even after he had banked two wins, he turned up on Saturday at Olympic looking as if he stepped out of a YMCA golf league. I've never seen him look so lost.
Shipnuck: To see how fragile Tiger was on weekends in the majors was shocking. That really clouds his future.
Anonymous Pro: Woods's struggles backed up the stories I had heard from guys who'd been to Isleworth and said Tiger knew a lot less about his swing than we thought. I don't understand how a 14-time major champion completely loses it between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, no matter what he's been through. Maybe Rory got here just in the nick of time.
Van Sickle: Plus, who doesn't like Rory? Tiger was a great champion and a global celebrity, but he was never beloved. He got solid applause at the 18th green when he won British Opens, but nothing like the receptions for Nicklaus, Watson and Faldo. Tiger isn't terribly fan- or media-friendly. Rory is.
Garrity: I agree about Rory, but I think 2012 should be remembered for the amazing start to the season, all those blown leads and final-round charges—Brandt Snedeker, Kyle Stanley, Mickelson, Bill Haas, Keegan Bradley and the rest. It was one of the best stretches of close finishes I can remember.
Bamberger: One moment that got very little attention, really, was Tiger's missing the last putt at the Ryder Cup. People wrote it off as meaningless because the Americans couldn't win the Cup, but the putt wasn't meaningless.
Garrity: You're right about that putt's importance, Michael. I say that because one of us predicted a Ryder Cup tie in our preview issue, and I was gloating in the pressroom until Tiger missed.
Shipnuck: That last scene was a window into the souls of Tiger, Francesco Molinari and José María Olaàbal. Tiger's explanation that he was thinking, Who cares? It wasn't a big deal, was presumptuous and a little selfish. I'm sure a lot of guys on the U.S. team would have preferred a tie.
Bamberger: Who really knows what was in Tiger's head? This isn't fair to say, but instinctively I felt what he did wasn't an act of graciousness, it was an act of red-assed-ness. As in, I'm not going to stand here and watch a guy possibly miss a putt, because I'm Tiger Woods and that's not how my matches end.
The Year That Was
Van Sickle: Besides Rory and Tiger, what else was significant? Anyone who says the FedEx Cup will be flogged.
Shipnuck: How about Stacy Lewis being the LPGA Player of the Year? In a more just world, she'd be SI's Sportsperson of the Year. To be in a back brace years ago, think you're never going to play golf and then win that award during a time of Asian domination in women's golf—that's amazing. Stacy is a breath of fresh air. She hasn't gotten enough attention.
Bamberger: I absolutely agree. What John said earlier was important too. The theme for 2012 was, No lead is safe. It was a reminder that as the modern swing gets closer to technical perfection, golf still comes down to holding it together mentally. There's no video lesson for that.
Garrity: The no-lead-is-safe theme applies even to acknowledged dominance. On the LPGA, Yani Tseng's performance was so remarkable and overpowering that we all shared the belief that she'd be a commanding presence for years to come. Six months later she was practically an afterthought.
Bamberger: Even Rory had a weird run of bad play for 10 weeks after he held off Tiger at the Honda in March.
Anonymous Pro: What ever happened to Hunter Mahan? Your game really has to disappear if you win twice, including a World Golf Championship, and still don't make the Ryder Cup team. And Jim Furyk used to be a closer, but it was tough to watch him with no finishing kick at Olympic, Firestone and Medinah. There's nowhere to go but down if you're Number 1, and unfortunately, Luke Donald proved it.
Bamberger: We also learned that if you're following only Americans, you can't keep up with golf. The game has truly gone global with impressive international players like Peter Hanson, Nicolas Colsaerts, Ryo Ishikawa and Alvaro Quiros, among others.
Anonymous Pro: I guess that's good for the game. I hate it, though, when I show up at the 1st tee and wish I had a translator.
Van Sickle: What's the first event of 2013 that you'll pay attention to?
Garrity: Kapalua. It has palm trees and surfers and trade winds and whales and Molokai. And what else would I be doing on a January evening in Kansas City?
Van Sickle: Nothing beats golf in prime time. I love those first two weeks in Hawaii when I can do something else all day and then watch golf all evening. The scenery doesn't hurt, either.
Shipnuck: Kapalua is a great show, but it's such a weak field. I'm a big fan of Hawaii, like you guys are, but Torrey Pines is a U.S. Open course with stunning visuals and you'll have Tiger and Phil teeing it up. Realistically, Torrey Pines kicks off the season.
Anonymous Pro: I don't normally watch a lot of TV golf, but I'll check out Kapalua. The alternative is watching some meaningless regular-season NBA game. If I have to watch a sport where they don't play defense, I'll go with golf.
Bamberger: After Hawaii, the Tour goes to Palm Springs for the Hope, now called the Humana. Bill Clinton and his people have gotten way into it, and I was very impressed last year. For all of his accomplishments, Clinton may view his resuscitation of this tournament as very, very significant.
The Phil Factor
Van Sickle: Next year figures to be all about Rory and Tiger. Is Phil Mickelson still relevant?
Shipnuck: Absolutely. Don't forget, the best round of golf all year may have been Phil's 64 at Pebble Beach that bounced Tiger.
Bamberger: I would not write off Phil. He turned it around when it briefly appeared he might miss the Ryder Cup, and then he had a pretty good week at Medinah. He's strong and he's still limber, despite his arthritis.
Shipnuck: Phil played beautifully at Augusta and lost the tournament in the bamboo on the 4th hole on Sunday. If he wins that Masters maybe he has a monster year. Instead, he was totally deflated.
Van Sickle: He outclassed the Masters field for 70 of the 72 holes. If he makes two bogeys instead of two triples he wins going away.
Anonymous Pro: You writers tend to remember Phil's screw-ups and sometimes forget how good he really is. Yes, he's going to out-think himself at every third major and throw away shots when he overrules [his caddie] Bones, but he has a game and a mentality built for majors. He can still win at Augusta, no doubt about it, and he can win on any big, sprawling course. Like Oak Hill, for example.
Garrity: Plus, Phil is the most resilient player in the game. More than anybody we've seen, he's shown the ability to come back from setbacks and disappointments.
The Major Winners Are ...
Bamberger: Rory at the Masters, Luke at the U.S. Open, Ernie repeating in the Open at Muirfield and whoever is the Shaun Micheel of 2013 at the PGA. Maybe Jason Dufner. No, make it Tiger over Dufner in a playoff.
Van Sickle: Picking Tiger to win a major, that's interesting.
Shipnuck: It's not that interesting. Tiger hasn't won one since 2008. I'll take Rory at the Masters and Phil at Merion, where he won't have to hit driver much.
Van Sickle: Remember the last time Phil didn't use driver at the Open? That didn't turn out so well.
Shipnuck: Yeah, but Torrey Pines was 800 yards longer. You had to hit driver. The British, I'll take Luke Donald. The PGA, I'll go with Keegan Bradley. That's a tough, smash-mouth kind of course. For long and straight, Keegan is right up there. He's a fighter. The harder the setup, the better for him.
Van Sickle: Tiger isn't done tormenting us yet. I'll take him at Augusta. Then Donald at Merion, Rory at Muirfield as he gets to three fourths of the Grand Slam in only three years, and finally, a great iron player that Oak Hill demands—Hunter Mahan.
Anonymous Pro: Louis Oosthuizen, the guy they call Shrek, has a sweet swing and looked as if he was going to win the Masters until Bubba Watson pulled it off with that stupid-good playoff shot. I like Louis for Augusta. It's Rory at Merion and a fairways-and-greens guy at Muirfield—maybe Justin Rose. Oak Hill is such a brute, it'll take somebody with a big game—Phil.
Garrity: I'll go with Bubba, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els and Rory in that order. I realize repeat champions are rare in majors, but I haven't had much luck here picking Robert Karlsson. So now I'm going with proven winners.
Van Sickle: So you just put down last year's champions instead of spending any time thinking it over?
Garrity: It sounds awfully crass when you put it that way, Gary. But, yes.
DAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGES (MERION)
OLD SCHOOL The U.S. Open will return to Merion for the first time since 1981, while Bradley (right) must give up the belly.
ROBERT BECK (BRADLEY)
[See caption above]
SHORT STORY Things won't change for Woods until he rediscovers his putting stroke.
REMEMBER ME? The enigmatic Mickelson has the game and motivation to be a major force.