Each week, Australian Golf Digest’s editorial team will discuss the key issues in the world of golf in an e-mail conversation spanning the globe.
1. Justin Thomas is 2017’s Usain Bolt, springing from the blocks with a pair of emphatic victories in Hawaii. What has been the most impressive aspect of the 23-year-old’s two most recent victories?
Brad Clifton, editor-in-chief: His attitude. Thomas is clearly focused on living up to his supreme talent in 2017. While good mates Jordan Spieth and Smylie Kaufman took a relaxed approach in Hawaii – hitting the waves for some post-round kayaking and fishing – the new world No.8 was busy orchestrating more PGA Tour scoring records.
Steve Keipert, associate editor: His composure. Thomas looked highly impressive the moment he arrived on tour but perhaps lacked the polish to reach the elite level. He has it now. His commanding response to Hideki Matsuyama’s charge at the Tournament of Champions and his own stumble revealed a newfound poise that flowed into last week’s demolition job at the Sony Open.
Tony Webeck, writer-at-large: I’ve got no doubt that the sudden rise to prominence of good friend Jordan Spieth caught Thomas off guard a touch and he has spent the past 12 to 18 months trying to find a way to emerge from his shadow. He had to know that he too could win and put a quality field to the sword – and he has now done that in three of his past five starts. He’s found that one intangible that turns good golfers into great: belief.
2. Three months out from the year’s first Major, how much stock to we place in hot form this early in the season?
Clifton: Sadly, little to nothing. Remember last year when we got excited about multiple wins from Adam Scott and Jason Day during February/March?
Keipert: Only a little. Even players of this calibre generally peak for only brief stretches and April still feels somewhat distant. But a sneaky bet on Thomas to win the Masters (he’s 26-1 on some markets) would seem prudent.
Webeck: Agreed. Wins on Oahu count for nothing when you are standing over your tee shot at the 16th at Augusta on Masters Sunday. The last player to win the Sony Open and a Major in the same year was Lee Trevino 49 years ago, while the SBS Tournament of Champions hasn’t spawned a champion of the Major kind in the same year since 2000 when it was merely one of the nine wins of Tiger Woods’ incredible year of success.
3. There aren’t too many more stunning settings for a golf tournament than Hawaii. Should the US PGA Tour stick around the Aloha State for longer than two events?
Webeck: The climate and quality of golf courses would suggest a further event or two would be welcomed by the players, but like all things in life it comes down to the cash. If the relatively small Hawaiian economy can’t support another event on the world’s richest tour – given they also host the LPGA at Ko Olina Golf Club in April – then a two-week swing to kick-start the year might be the best we can hope for.
Clifton: No. The current swing serves its purpose to give players an easy welcome to the new year. But more tournaments dominated by rounds of 59 don’t do much for the tour’s credibility.
Keipert: The lone time I visited Hawaii to see more than one island taught me that each one is strikingly different, which is also true of the golf courses (which are ridiculously good). The tour could go there for a month and I doubt the membership would gripe.
4. Question marks hang over Rory McIlroy’s physical health after he withdrew from this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Like Jason Day, McIlroy is young, fit and working closely with trainers. With a high level of expertise at their disposal, why do these guys keep getting hurt?
Keipert: McIlroy claims this injury is down simply to physical fatigue due to the amount of ball beating he’s done while testing new clubs – yet it’s serious enough to warrant an MRI. But, yes, it staggers me how frequently these ‘athletes’ are on the injured list given the support network often cocooning them. What should the focus be: improved strength or injury prevention? My vote is for the latter.
Clifton: It’s simple, really: weights and swinging golf clubs don’t mix. Vijay Singh was renowned for getting longevity out of his body and he was an absolute range rat – 1,000 balls a day. He didn’t use a gym to get to world No.1. Today’s golfers think in order to get better they need to get stronger, hence the ripped bodies and incredible clubhead speed and power. This is a recipe for disaster when you look at the intricate movements in the golf swing. Rory’s right – he has hit more balls lately but he’s doing so with more force than ever before. Lay off the weights, fellas. Or update your health insurance.
Webeck: Elite golfers might be experiencing the same conundrum that has plagued the best bowlers in Australian cricket in recent years: is strength work in the gym what is needed to prepare the back for competition or does the back respond better to simply more repetitions of the action needed in competition? Tiger, Jason and Rory have all endured issues despite vigorous exercise regimes yet how often has range rat Vijay Singh been sidelined by injury? Hit more balls, lift fewer weights – that’s my advice for life!
5. Last week’s Web.com Tour opener spanned Sunday to Wednesday, rather than the traditional Thursday to Sunday scheduling. Should this timeframe be utilised more often for golf’s secondary circuits?
Clifton: I always liked the thought of Thursday night football because it made the working week feel shorter. With secondary golf tours, Sunday-to-Wednesday scheduling not only gives fans more midweek action but it provides players an opportunity to escape the shadows of the main tour and grab some headlines for themselves. I’m all for it.
Keipert: The Ladies European Tour has also trialled non-traditional timing and it is an avenue towards increased exposure. The flip side, of course, is steering clear of the weekend limits a tournament’s ability to draw spectators to the site. Still, I see it as a concept worthy of further investigation.
Webeck: If it makes it a more attractive TV product that networks can sell space into and which makes the tour more valuable from a commercial perspective then go for it, but there’s no way the same number of spectators will be in attendance. Crowds are probably not such an issue at the second tier and if it gives us more live golf over the course of the week then it’s probably not such a bad thing.
6. The Australian Amateur tees off today in Melbourne. Who wins the men’s section with Curtis Luck absent (he’s accepted an invitation to the concurrent Abu Dhabi event) and now that Brett Coletta has leapt into the professional ranks? Who takes out the women’s title?
Clifton: I’m going with last year’s runner-up Travis Smyth to go one better. A super talent from Sydney who has flown under the radar, Smyth will thrive with no Luck or Coletta standing in his way. In the women’s event they’ll all be chasing Hye-jin Choi of Korea.
Webeck: I’m not going to lie, my knowledge of either field isn’t great but if Min Woo Lee can win the US Junior I don’t see any reason why he can’t perform well on Aussie soil. Also throw in world No.47 Alfie Plant from England, if for no other reason than having one of the most cracking names in the field. As for the girls, I’ll tip either of South Korean pair Hye-jin Choi or Eun-jeong Seong, both of whom are ranked in the top-11 in the world amateur rankings.
Keipert: I was fortunate enough to play with Harrison Endycott a few years ago and instantly loved both his technique and his fire. He put together a far better 2016 season than he received credit for and deserves to take out our national amateur championship. In the women’s field, the contingent of strong Asian contenders is hard to dismiss, so I’d expect another visiting player to show the way.
7. Speaking of the Aussie Am, we’re all amateur golfers here. To date, what’s been your finest moment on the golf course?
Clifton: Long story short, playing Augusta National … the day after the 2016 Masters.
Keipert: Scratching out three pars on our club’s tough last three holes to finally win a monthly medal, relegating Won Joon Lee to second place by a shot just weeks before he’d make the cut at the 2007 British Open.
Webeck: I’ll call my one and only ace a fluke and say shooting 78 in the last round of club champs to finish as Beverley Park Golf Club’s nett club champion is my greatest golf accomplishment. It was especially sweet given I had our senior writer Rohan Clarke yabbering away in my ear for the entire 18 holes trying to bring me undone.