Transcript of Masters on ESPN Media Conference Call


Transcript of Masters on ESPN Media Conference Call

ESPN golf analysts Andy North and Curtis Strange and host Scott Van Pelt participated in a media conference call today to discuss next week’s Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. For the 11th year, ESPN will have live telecasts of the first two rounds at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday and Friday, April 5-6, as well as extensive coverage on SportsCenter, and other ESPN platforms.

A transcript of the conference call follows:

THE MODERATOR: Good morning, and thank you to everybody who’s called in today. We’re here today to talk about the Masters tournament which starts next week. It’ll be ESPN’s 11th year at the Masters tournament. We’ve got a couple of new things this year. We’ve really expanded our SportsCenter coverage. We’re going to have a dedicated show from Augusta National on both Thursday and Friday from 10:00 to 3:00 before our live coverage starts at 3:00, and we can show highlights and golf shots, so that’ll be where people can watch highlights and golf shots Thursday and Friday.

Also from noon to 3:00 on Wednesday, we’ll be live on SportsCenter from Augusta National, and then from 1:00 to 5:00 on Tuesday, we’ll be airing a lot of the player news conferences that happen during that time on SportsCenter, so a lot of SportsCenter coming your way from Augusta next week.

Also for those who may have been on the CBS called yesterday or may have heard, next week will be the first use of the tracer technology in the United States from the Masters and the first time you’ll see it will be on our coverage Thursday. There will be five holes outfitted with the tracer technology, and that’ll be 9, 10, 13, 15 and 18, so we look forward to sharing that with the viewers on both Thursday and Friday.

And once again, we’ll also be doing the par-3 contest, as we have every year for the last 11 years, and that’s 3:00 to 5:00 on Wednesday.

Today we’re joined by Scott Van Pelt, who is going to be anchoring our coverage from Butler Cabin on both Thursday and Friday, and also be doing a lot of that SportsCenter that I talked about. Also our two golf analysts, Andy North and Curtis Strange.

Andy, you always talk about how the Masters is the beginning of spring for you living in Wisconsin, but what are you most looking forward to this year?

ANDY NORTH: I think there’s a lot to look forward to. Starting with a couple of the elderly gentlemen in Tiger and Phil, the fact that Phil won, Tiger has shown that he looks like he’s back to performing at a level that he can definitely compete there. Then you add in the group of the younger crew that have carried the TOUR the last three or four years, they’re all playing well, have won lately, other than Jordan. But yet he’s been the guy who has played Augusta National better than anybody over the last three or four years, and then you throw in kind of a wild card in Bubba winning two of his last four starts, coming into one of his favorite courses of the year.

So I think all in all, you’ve got a handful of players that are playing exceptionally well, and the star power, the guys that you hope will be there on Sunday, so I think we’re in for a fantastic week of golf.

Curtis, what are you looking most forward to for next week?

CURTIS STRANGE: Well, exactly what Andy just said, you know, we all have to admit, one of the big reasons for that is Tiger Woods is back playing golf. And we’re all anxious to see can he continue the trend that he has shown this year of continuing to improve and perform on his last play. I expect that.

I love the fact that Bubba is such an intriguing character, back on the scene, a place where he’s won twice. You know, all of the above. Justin Thomas playing well, seems like every time he plays.

I think Rory is, in my mind, the man to beat. Of course we’ll probably get into that later in the conversation. But everybody seems to be playing well, and there’s so many story lines for us. We go on television sometime Monday, and it’s great for us, and it’s better for us when we have so many different story lines to talk about and inform the viewer on what’s been happening this past year and what could happen. We have no idea what’s going to happen.

I want to say this, too, that the tracer technology showing up at Augusta I think is the greatest thing since whatever. I mean, sliced bread. I mean, I was watching Tampa some weeks ago and Tiger was playing, and he hit a tee shot, and there was no tracer on it, and I was dumbfounded. I’ve been addicted to it. I think it’s fantastic. Seriously, I want to know where the ball is going now on the air, and especially when the guy hits it off line. I mean, Bubba Watson is — it was invented for a guy like Bubba Watson.

Anyway, I look forward to that, and of course we always look forward to the week. It’s a special week for all of us.

Scott, we’ll close out the opening statements with you. Your second year in Butler Cabin calling it, and what are you most looking forward to for next week?

SCOTT VAN PELT: Well, it’s my favorite week of the year, and it’s been now more than 20 years that I’ve been lucky enough to go there to cover it in some form or fashion, dating back to my years with the Golf Channel, and to be in Butler Cabin is an incredibly special thing, and knowing what to expect just for the person that’s sitting in there is helpful for me because you’re not wondering what is it going to feel like. Now you know.

To sit there on Thursday and Friday any year you know is going to be fun because you’re at a place that is frankly the star every year. Augusta National is the star, and it’s this place that people around the country look forward to reacquainting themselves with, whether they have been there or not.

So every year there’s that sense of anticipation, and as Andy and Curtis just said correctly, this year more so than ever because outside of Jordan Spieth playing well, which he hasn’t quite yet, but has obviously so well quite often at Augusta, obviously every person you could wish for, whether it’s the old guard with Phil and Tiger, or the young players, or people in between, the stars are playing well, and I think Bubba is the most intriguing kind of new thread here. He won two times in three years, and as Andy and Curtis both remember well, we were all wondering is this guy going to reel off something like Arnold or Jack or Tiger where he’s just going to put a pile of green jackets together? He lost his way last year and talked about retirement and who the heck knows what’s going to happen. Now all of a sudden he’s playing like a guy that could go there and be dominant potentially.

So Bubba’s thrown his hat in the ring with all the other stars. Augusta National is the backdrop. You couldn’t possibly ask for more than we have waiting for us when we arrive.

Scott, I think you just raised Bubba. Can a golf ball make that much difference to a guy’s game? Can you guys answer this, because seriously he went off the rails with that Volvik ball last year. I know he had some other issues that he doesn’t really address. He obviously looks healthier.

CURTIS STRANGE: I’ll go at it first. I think it’s a bit of a coincidence that he went to a golf ball and didn’t play well because of health reasons. Again, he doesn’t go there. So we really don’t know, and he was talking about retirement and stuff and not playing anymore and things like that, so it was almost like the perfect storm for Bubba last year.

For me as a viewer and as a fan looking at it, and then you put the golf ball on top of it, and I will only say that as far as he hits it and as hard as he hits it and as high as he hits it, if he’s not playing a golf ball he believes in, and as much as he turns the ball, as we’ve always seen, if he’s not playing equipment that he truly believes in, then it can really, really affect you mentally. I’m not saying the golf ball was good, bad or indifferent. I don’t know. But now I do know that he’s playing a golf ball that many, many people have believed in for many years, so it could be a small part of his comeback this year, yes.

Andy, can you talk about the importance of a golf ball?

ANDY NORTH: Yeah, in today’s world, the players are so good at matching up the perfect golf ball for them, as far as spin, trajectory, all that, and that’s where all the new technology has helped immensely.

You start questioning it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an iron or a shaft or a grip or a golf ball, if you start questioning it, you’re in a lot of trouble. And it can be coincidence, but you know, we’re really good at pointing the finger at something, and you know, for him, it might have affected him mentally, and if it affects you mentally, you’re not going to play as well.

Curtis, I’m wondering what is the trickle-down effect of Tiger’s presence on TOUR and especially at the Masters, and how can the young players — Jordan, Justin, even Bubba to some degree, how do they benefit from getting a taste of Tiger-mania, so to speak.

CURTIS STRANGE: Well, I think they’ve gotten a taste of it this past year, this year. My gosh, look at the crowds at Tampa and Bay Hill, and look at the TV ratings. They almost tripled. They did triple, I believe, at Tampa. They were, you know, hugely increased at Bay Hill. So that’s the obvious.

What I like to look at is the trickle-down effect, as you say, the collateral influence of he’s there, and there’s energy. There’s more energy than there’s ever been on the practice tee, on the first tee or wherever he is, and you know, I think it’s interesting that we have talked when Tiger has been down the last four — three, four, five years, that the young kids are so much better than they used to be, and they’re not intimidated anymore and all those type of comments.

Well, I’ve got to tell you, Jack Nicklaus is still intimidating to me at 78 years old. So Tiger Woods — if Tiger Woods continues to play well, there is a real influence of intimidation out there, the way he carries himself, the way he acts, the way he plays, and then the aura about him. It’s not just about how he hits the golf ball.

And so there is an effect that affects everybody, and if he’s on the last tee next Sunday playing against whoever it is, there’s one guy that’s going to be more nervous than the next guy, and it’s not going to be Tiger Woods. There’s one guy puckering a little bit more than the next guy, and it’s not going to be Tiger Woods.

So I think if he continues this trend, yes, I think intimidation is a real thing, and we’ll see how they handle it. I’m not going to say they don’t handle it well, but it really does put pressure on the first tee when you’re standing up there against Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus in his prime, you know you have to play your very, very best to beat this guy today, and that in itself is a lot of pressure. That’s the way I look at it.

And I’m so anxious to see this play out in the next week. One, to see if Tiger continues to play well because he’s in a very comfortable atmosphere at Augusta; it’s protected, with fans, with TV, with press, with everything, and to see how the other people react to Tiger.

And that sense of there’s probably going to be a lot of comments about how, well, Jordan won this but Tiger wasn’t there, Bubba won this but Tiger wasn’t there. Justin won this but Tiger wasn’t involved. Is it maybe a sense of validation after Justin wins, after Jordan wins and when Tiger is in contention? Does it mean more to win if Tiger is included in the hunt, in the mix?

ANDY NORTH: Oh, absolutely it does. These guys, they’re all excited until the fact that he’s been out there, and he’s starting to play well. They want to see if they can beat him, and for some of these guys, they’ve never played with Tiger Woods when he’s playing well. They don’t have any idea how big a circus it is to try to play with him. I spent three of the weeks he played out there with him, and it was really interesting getting the comments from some of the guys who had not played with him before, how amazing it was and what a circus it was to deal with. They couldn’t believe in talking to some of these guys that this guy does this every time he goes out and plays with all the commotion and all the people. And that’s a big part of this that no one talks much about. It’s not just trying to beat him, it’s that if you’re going to beat him, you’re probably going to have to beat him playing with him, and that’s not easy to do.

CURTIS STRANGE: Can I make one other comment on this? The quote of the year to me has been from David Duval. Some weeks ago he was making comment that all these young kids and all the good players on TOUR now are saying, I wish I would have had some of Tiger in his prime. David Duval says, the hell you do.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Well, think about it. If you think about it, none of these guys that are — whether it’s Thomas or Spieth, they were teenagers the last time. They were like 14 years old the last time Tiger won a major, and it’s really fascinating to see how excited they are. Justin Thomas notably like Tweeted — he wasn’t playing the week of the Valspar but he was constantly Tweeting out, he’s a fan and he’s excited that Tiger is back. None of those guys have ever had to stand toe-to-toe when Tiger is being Tiger, and I think the idea of it is fun for players until they’re in the arena.

Ask David Duval or Vijay Singh or Davis Love III or Justin Leonard or any of the guys from that peer group, Ernie Els most notably, he and David Duval, all those guys that had to deal with Tiger when he was that guy, and we know it’s not 2000 anymore, but those are the guys that — their careers are framed differently because they had to try to win majors at the same time Tiger was, and they just weren’t available to the same degree.

I think it would really be cool to find out for those guys if they get to be in the arena with Woods if Woods is playing well, particularly at a place like Augusta where even though he hasn’t won since 2005, there is still this aura that surrounds, and it’s really, I think, unique.

With the purchase of a piece of Augusta Country Club, what do you think Augusta National will do at 13 and what do you think they should do at 13, if anything?

ANDY NORTH: First of all, I guess if they could move the tee back 15 or 20 yards, that probably would help that hole in the fact that the guys now can hit 3-woods around the corner and hit it on the green with irons. But at what point in time do we stop buying property to change golf courses is another thing to talk about. 13 is such an incredible hole, and it almost doesn’t matter how short it plays because of the trees through the fairway on the right. But the guys now are hitting it up that direction, through the end of those trees, back into the fairway. So adding a few yards probably would be helpful.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, from a personal standpoint, I want them to be careful because I think it’s the greatest par-5 in the world. You have to think off the tee, the second shot, the third shot, and even putting. I think it’s a wonderful golf hole, and if you make it too long where if they don’t go for the green, then it just becomes another par-3 shot hole. It’s an exciting hole. It’s a fantastic hole. It’s great for TV and all of us, so that’s my only concern.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I think that the entire golf course, the entire place is iconic, we all know that. And I think what Andy and Curtis, and I agree with them, are right about, and I think what Augusta National knows better than anybody, it’s their course, their hole. I think they just want the option of backing it up to create a bit more length, but I don’t believe in any way, shape or form they would want to change the inherent character of that hole, because as Curtis or Andy said, anybody who’s ever watched that hole, that hole is one of the most iconic holes in all of golf, so to change it would be — I mean, to change it drastically or even subtly is something that I really think you have to consider before you do it, but obviously they bought the land for a reason. I just think they want the option.

A TV technical question, this shot-tracer thing, that would be for Curtis and Scott, I was just wondering if you guys could talk about how Augusta has been kind of an analog animal in a digital age in terms of adopting bells and whistles and electronic scoreboards and all that stuff and trying to balance sort of the history and the flavor there with kind of what the modern TV consumer has come to expect, because obviously for years we kind of get a stripped-down event there, including pretty notable lack of coverage on Thursday and Friday when you guys are going to be doing SportsCenter and trying to make up the gap.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I think that — and Curtis made the point, and it’s funny because Curtis is — well, actually Curtis and Andy, it would be a hell of a battle for resident angry old man. But when you’re watching it, just like with the first-down line with football or with a score bug that’s on the screen, we become so used to technology that enhances the viewing that when it isn’t there, it’s noticeable. I do a segment on my show called The Vault, where we’ll show highlights from back in even the ’80s. It wasn’t a hundred years ago, but ’80s or ’90s where you don’t see some of that technology, and you think, I wonder what the score was, or anything along those lines. So shot-tracer has become this sort of ubiquitous thing, and obviously you’re right, Augusta National hasn’t just gone headfirst into the idea of technology and availing themselves of everything that they could, but I think that this is a move towards what you’re talking about, the understanding that this enhances the viewing and people have come to expect it. And for the coverage, we’re able to show video and highlights and shots all throughout the morning, and we will, and as we — we would happily show as much coverage as the club cares to show. That’s no different than it’s ever been for anybody.

I mean, whether it’s more highlights, whether it’s some of this technology. I think you are slowly seeing them move in that direction, and as we know, they’re going to move at the pace at which they’re comfortable, and as one of their TV partners, I think all we want to do is be able to — and obviously I think CBS is leading the charge with this, with the shot-tracer, as much as you want to do, then I think everyone is happy to do.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, well said, Scotty. There’s not much more I can add to that. We at ESPN, we host the show on Thursday and Friday and then all the SportsCenter hits and then the par-3, but we don’t actually televise the on-course as far as producing; that’s Lance and CBS. So I can’t really comment on that because it’s their show as far as that part of it. But I like that they’re moving in the right direction.

You know, it’s their court and their ball, and they do what they want to with it, and I think it’s good. It’s really good for the viewer because the viewer that watches golf every week, as Scotty said, has come to not only accept but embrace this new technology, and they expect it.

SCOTT VAN PELT: But we’re so — and I’m the worst offender when it comes to technology, having had your phone and this or that, but we know it’s a different week, and we know we probably won’t hear an army of people yelling “mashed potatoes” every time the club face makes contact with the golf ball, and I don’t think that we have a problem with that. I think maybe pointing to people, including the fans, rather enjoy that part of the week.

If there’s not a crew of people Snapchatting out the play as it’s happening, that’s one thing I can’t really be too upset about that, but I do think it’s interesting, and we’ve certainly seen the change, Billy Payne led it, with an idea of let’s put stuff on — let’s have more coverage available, let’s televise the par-3 contest, let’s allow ESPN to be showing video throughout the morning on SportsCenter. It’s drips. We want buckets more of the Masters because you just want to see it, and everyone feels that way. And what we are happy to be able to do is maybe it’s not a bucket but maybe it’s a cupful, and it’s a win to get you through until the afternoon when we come on air.

Ten years ago we had Trevor Immelman as the winner, he was the second guy in a row after Zach to win the Masters after only one other PGA TOUR win, and just curious, obviously Zach’s career has played out with 10 more wins and other majors. Trevor may be one of the more, looking back now, one of the more surprise winners of this event?

CURTIS STRANGE: At the time he was a bit of a surprise winner at the time, but he was climbing up that ladder. I think more surprising than his Masters win is his decline, through injuries, and I was just talking about Trevor with somebody not long ago. Just injuries, then loss of confidence, and then now comfortable at home. Who knows, the transformation of a player into real life and why that happens. I don’t know.

But to me, he was a player to be reckoned with when he won. Now, he might have been a bit of a surprise when he won, but he was going to be one of those top players with a wonderful golf swing, and just didn’t do what some of us thought he might do in the future. And and there’s been those cases over the decade where a player gets injured, David Duval a little bit, no one ever thought that he would go through what he did, but an injury, a loss of confidence, and you know, it’s such a fine line between playing well on TOUR and being gone, and it happens to so many players that, you know, you don’t notice after they’re gone.

It’s a tough way to make a living when you’re injured and struggling, and it’s hard to be competitive when you can’t do the things you need to do in your golf swing.

You referenced Tiger and Phil, and we just heard about Zach and Paul Casey won recently and Henrik Stenson, these guys are all in their 40s and we sort of take it for granted, but nobody has won in their 40s in 20 years, since Mark O’Meara. I’m just wondering what you make of that statistic. Is it kind of flukish, or is there something to the fact that when you get to this age, it’s just really hard to make it happen?

ANDY NORTH: I don’t know if it’s the age specifically or you get to the point in your life that you’re busy doing other things. You’ve got families. Golf changes — I mean, when you’re 25 years old, I don’t care who you are, golf is the No. 1 priority in your life basically, and guys live their lives through this sport, and as you get older, those things change. Do you work as hard? Probably not. If you’re going to be honest with yourself, you don’t work anywhere near as hard at 40 and you did at 25. So I think all those things have an effect, and you’re very comfortable. The only tournaments you probably really care about when you get to 40 are the majors. And I think that’s why you do see these guys, the older guys compete. They maybe haven’t necessarily won, but we’ve had an awful lot of that older group play some really good major championships.

You know, I think there’s a lot to that, but I think this group of 40-plus guys have a chance to be in the mix and have a chance to win. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at all if we had a guy in his 40s win next week.

CURTIS STRANGE: There’s a big difference between 40 and 47, where Phil Mickelson is now. I really greatly admire him just because he stays in the game. When he goes to work, he works, he puts in the effort, puts in his time, and he’s really played well this year outside of the win. To stay as — we’ve all gone through that, so we have firsthand knowledge and feelings about what you go through, and Andy said it well, it’s — I’m not so sure you don’t work physically just as hard at it or almost as hard. It really shouldn’t make a difference. But are you engaged enough mentally? No, there’s no way. Every time you leave home, you want to stay home with the kids. Every time you’re home, you feel like you need to be on the road. I mean, it’s just constantly being pulled.

And you can’t play golf like that. You have to be into it 24/7 both physically and mentally, because if you’re not, you might play well, but there’s other guys that are more involved than you are, engaged than you are. I don’t know, I just think it’s a natural — the evolution of a player, you know —

SCOTT VAN PELT: As I listen to you and Andy talk, as always I defer to the guys that did it and won at the highest level; you guys know better than anybody. But I just look at this as a place that’s hard to win, man. I don’t care how old you are. Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 player in the world. How many wins has he got at Augusta? None. Rory McIlroy, one of the great players in the world; how many wins he got there? None. Greg Norman was the greatest player on earth; he was going to win 10. How many did he win? None. Ernie Els, great player, No. 1 in the world, the whole bit, major champion four times over. How many times did he win there? None.

It’s hard to win this tournament, and I think there are players — I don’t think it’s as age as much as it’s just — Mark O’Meara had one great shot, and when it was his time, he made a putt, and he won. That just feels to me like what this is more than anything else. A guy like Fred Couples who is on the other side of 50, for like five years he was on the first page of the leaderboard heading into the weekend and he was in one of the last two groups for like two or three years at 52, 53 if I’m not mistaken.

So I look at this and I just shrug and think, man, there more than anywhere else — and we were asked a minute ago about Immelman. If you get a moment in time where it’s your time, you had better grab the green jacket and put that son-of-a-gun on so you get to come back the rest of your life because you might be a guy that doesn’t get another window, or you might be a guy that’s right there time and time again, and you’re Ernie Els practicing putts and Phil Mickelson buries one and that’s it and you go home. So I chalk it up to that more than anything else.

CURTIS STRANGE: You know, I argue with you, Scotty, a little bit in the fact that as you get older, you don’t get as motivated on a regular basis, but when you get to Augusta, and if you’re still exempt there because you haven’t won there, that’s the week you do get fired up, and that’s why we do see Freddie play well there over the years and Mickelson. That’s the main reason I give him a chance next week at 47. One is that he’s playing well, but two, because he gets his blood boiling this week. And all of the top players.

So I argue the fact that they might not play well, be engaged as much during the regular season, but they are during Masters week, and maybe even more than the other three majors because it is the first of the year.

Mentioning Phil, he’s actually going to be almost two years older than Jack was when he won in ’86, but would we consider it anywhere near as much of a surprise as that was? I don’t get the sense that there would be any surprise at all if Phil won the Masters despite the fact that he’d become the oldest to win it and one of the oldest to win a major?

ANDY NORTH: Well, with equipment, he’s stayed in the game. I think the bottom line is that none of us would be surprised if Phil won, and Scott mentioned it and Curtis mentioned it, that this is a week that means so much to him, and he’s playing the best golf he’s played since 2013, hands down, forget the fact he even won. Week after week after week, he’s played some really, really good golf this year, and he can still hit it.

You know, I think in today’s world of golf, if you start giving up 30 yards to everybody else, and it doesn’t matter, young, old. If you’re starting to give up 30 yards, it’s hard to beat guys. You have to be in that arena of being able to hit it out there. Phil can still hit it out there. Tiger has proved he can still hit it out there. I don’t think the age thing is anywhere near as big a deal as it was 30 or 40 years ago.

You know, some of it’s the guys have taken better care of their bodies over a longer period of time, and everybody talks about 60 is the new 40 or whatever, but I don’t see — the golf ball has no idea how old you are, how big you are, how small you are, whatever. It just goes where you hit it. And if you can still make it go there, you’ve got a chance to win.

And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we have a guy winning Augusta that’s 50 years old at some point in time.

I just want to hear your thoughts on the Tiger stinger. I asked Andy about it, how many guys hit that shot back in your day, and you said a lot of guys. No one really hits it now, and it’s sure something to behold. What do you guys think of his ability to hit that shot the way he does, so consistently, effectively, long? It’s amazing really.

CURTIS STRANGE: Well, first of all, nobody carries 1 and 2-irons anymore. We all did in the day, so you did have that shot. You had to have that shot.

I wish he would swing more with his driver and irons like that because technically he gets on top of the ball more, he doesn’t drop slot underneath of it, which he doesn’t do as much now, but I think it would improve — me personally as somebody who understands the golf swing, I think he’d drive the ball a whole lot better if he tried to swing the driver like he does the stinger, but you don’t hit it quite as far that way. But I just think the stinger is such a weapon in his arsenal because he can hit it so bloody far, and he hits it straight.

And isn’t that the key to this game is putting it in the fairway, setting up a second shot, which sets up the third shot? But you’ve got to go back, you’ve got to put it in the fairway to start with.

You know, he’s not going to hit a lot of stingers around Augusta because it’s long enough, but it’s certainly a weapon of his, and I just — Andy, do you agree with that? You’re around him a little bit more than I am, but do you agree with the swing —

ANDY NORTH: You know, what’s happened in the golf swing and because of the equipment and launch angles and lack of spin on the golf ball, which is how the game is played today, it’s all about launching it. So guys work on a golf swing to hit it as high as they possibly can, and in his particular case when he gets doing that, he gets underneath it, and he can’t get back on top of it, as Curtis was talking about.

But I mean, having that shot, I think that — trying to hit the golf ball the way the golf clubs and balls are designed now eliminates kind of that type of shot that every good player in our era had a shot they could play to put it in play when they had to put it in play.

You know, Jack Nicklaus wasn’t the greatest driver in the world, but he could put it in the fairway when he needed to put it in the fairway. Watson was the same way. And they might not be pretty-looking shots, but guys gave up distance to put it in the fairway.

Where today with trying to lunch it, Justin Thomas is one of the few guys that has come up with one of those neck cuts that he can still hit very — and he got doing that a lot last year and drove the ball unbelievably well under pressure when he needed to with that shot.

I think it’s just a matter of how the game is being played as much or more than the shot just going away.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Curtis, you said you don’t think he’ll hit it that much next week. The most interesting stat I think of Tiger’s comeback this year is his swing speed. He’s as fast as anyone on TOUR, and if he’s able to generate that much speed, I wonder — and he’s shown over the years, he’s willing to lay back, and he did it at Valspar. He hit an iron off the tee, which left him more into that 18th green, which he needed to birdie. I wonder if he can hit that shot at Augusta National just because of some of the holes with run-out that if he’s comfortable with a longer iron and he’s hitting it well, I don’t know, I mean, maybe. I’m not saying he will, but I’m just saying the possibility exists that it could theoretically happen. Maybe I’m nuts, I don’t know.

CURTIS STRANGE: The possibility exists, but it depends on how the golf course is playing. If it’s fast and firm, yes. I don’t see him hitting a lot of irons off tees, but I see him hitting 3-woods if it’s fast and firm. He can swing — he can hit a 3-wood with a type of stinger swing that will go forever. We’re talking about swing here versus really the clubs he’s going to hit. As Andy said, there’s a couple people out there teaching two different swings to some people: The driver swing to launch it off, and then the other swing to trap it. I think one swing is damn hard enough, I’m not going to try to learn two of them. You know, we got into that conversation last year. But that’s the way it’s going. Now we’re specifically swinging for certain shots. I don’t know if anybody is good enough to do that.

You know, anyway…

Scott, just from a layman’s perspective because Curtis and Andy obviously have four U.S. Opens between them, how incredible is it as a sports fan to watch Tiger Woods hit a stinger?

SCOTT VAN PELT: Well, I mean, look, everything the guy does, I can’t do any of the stuff that he does, right. It blows my mind. And Andy and Curtis, they understand, A, the shot he’s trying to pull off, and more importantly, they understand how to do it. I don’t. I’m like you, I’m just out there trying to figure out if I can get the club face to the ball, and most of the time, no.

But over the years, it’s been one of those shots, and I’m with Curtis and Andy in that when you see how well he pulls it off and how consistently he executes it, it makes you wonder, well, why don’t you — is it vanity that you just don’t want to try some abbreviated sort of a follow-through with the driver, or does it not make physical sense? I don’t understand it.

But look, as a layman, I’ve been lucky enough since 1995 when I met the kid when he was a freshman at Stanford — and I was a young guy then, too. We were all — as Boomer would say, we were all younger then. Being able to watch the guy do a million things will just blow your mind.

You mentioned at the beginning, Curtis, you were going about talk about Rory as a favorite. We really haven’t talked about that too much yet. After the really rough year he had, kind of a lost year last season, what you think of him, the way he’s been playing of late, and just the pressure of trying to complete the career Grand Slam, and also if you think he has the best chance to do that versus Spieth and Mickelson, some of the others that also have a chance later this year.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I’m not out there every week, so this is a bit speculation, but you know, as somebody who’s done it — when you say had an off year, it’s hard to stay 100 percent at it 24/7. And we all have ups and downs in this game. It’s a hard game. There’s a lot of moving parts. And maybe he just got comfortable, said, you know, I’m happy — I’m not happy with the way I’m playing, but I’m okay. It’ll get better.

So anyway, he’s back playing well this year. He got married, he got comfortable, everything like that last year. But now he’s back playing well.

I think the world of his game, like I do everybody’s game out there now. But I just think he has — Rory has the ability to lap the field, okay. Only other person to do that is Tiger Woods. So that — he has another gear when he hits it.

He’s playing well. He’s motivated. This completes the Grand Slam. Now, somebody could say that could put pressure on him. Yes, it could, but I think it’s maybe been long enough, the last three or four years that he’s over that a little bit. He knows everything he does is another huge notch on his gun belt. But I think he — I sense that he’s in a really good place now, whatever that means. I sense that he’s very comfortable now. He’s playing well. Now can he putt well.

You’re going to have to putt well to win anywhere, but I think they should measure him for a green jacket here shortly. I really do. I think that — he’s my No. 1 guy this week. I’ll put it like that. With what I’ve seen and with what I’ve read and his statements, he’s my favorite this week.

SCOTT VAN PELT: I would just add, as it relates to the gear that Curtis just mentioned, one of his young peers, I’ll leave it that because we were having a private conversation, I don’t want to put his name to it, but let’s just say it was one of the best young players in the game said during Bay Hill, after it ended I guess I should say, that Rory’s best is — he feels like the most untouchable. In other words, when you get that — I Tweeted something about it. When you get that cocky Rory walk, and I don’t mean that negatively, I mean that who-wants-some-of-this Rory walk, that I’m-making-every-putt-I-look-at act, or the I-hit-it-375-off-the-tee Rory walk, when you get that guy going, that guy — again, this is a peer saying it, that guy is the hardest guy to beat because that guy has a place that he can take the game that no one else can sniff, and that’s reminiscent of Tiger in his prime, that there’s a place this guy can go — we saw it years ago at Congressional. He was sniffing 20-under. I think that this performance at Bay Hill, that one-day glimpse into that guy gets everybody excited, which is why I understand Curtis would say he’s the guy next week. I mean, it certainly could be if it’s his week and everything lines up.

Sure, he’s the kind of guy that could have a week like Spieth where you go, what did Spieth do, like 18-under? Sure, Rory could do something like that, and it wouldn’t surprise anybody.

ANDY NORTH: I always like, when you’re looking at these guys, if everybody is at their best, what do you have. And I think Rory’s ceiling is as high or higher than anybody is when he’s at his best. The putter has held him back, and he definitely figured something out at Bay Hill, and if he can continue that type of putting into the Masters, he’ll be really hard to beat.

CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, it’s all such speculation, too. We’re going on current form. Their record, reputation. Look what we were talking about DJ last year at this very moment on this phone call. He was almost unbeatable. And so everybody has their ups and downs, and right now — we’ve all known Rory because of his record. Who can lap the field when they’re on? He’s shown he can do that, and Tiger Woods has shown they can do that, and they’re the only two in my mind that can really win by seven or eight, and that shows another gear.

Curtis and Andy, have either of you ever gotten a putting lesson from Brad Faxon or somebody like that and had him really help you?

CURTIS STRANGE: Oh, yeah, on TOUR you always get a tip from the top somewhere and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You know, it just gets you thinking about it and looking at something differently. Everybody on TOUR is one swing thought away from shooting 65 every day for the next month.

ANDY NORTH: And one swing thought away from shooting 80 the next month.

CURTIS STRANGE: Absolutely, or from being the worst player in the world.

ANDY NORTH: And that’s what they do so often. You talk about a guy who’s coming in not playing very well. Let’s take Jordan, for example. You look at his putting numbers, and they’re atrocious for him. But that doesn’t mean he might not make everything next week, and that’s what’s so crazy about this game is that it takes one good swing to change your attitude and your feeling in the golf swing and all of a sudden you could be great. And that’s what’s so mindboggling, how a player like Jack Nicklaus or like Tiger Woods could play at the level they played at for 10 and 12 and 15 years.

You know, it’s hard to play well in this game for a month straight. I think we lose sight of that sometimes.

We heard from Curtis. Scott and Andy, who do you guys like? Who would you bet on and why?

ANDY NORTH: I really do like the way Rory is coming in playing. I watched him some at Bay Hill, and he just looked like the Rory I saw back at Hoylake, total confidence. The one thing that we forget about Rory, I think, that gets bypassed is his driving ability is so amazing that when he gets swinging well, he not only drives it in a lot of fairways, he’s hitting it 800 — he’ll have wedges all day long. Jason Day had that same ability when he was playing at his best. The better those two players play, the better they drive the ball, from a confidence standpoint, and boy, there’s not many people that that happens to.

So I think he’s going to be tough to beat, but I think you can take that group of seven or eight or nine players, I can’t imagine the winner not coming out of that group.

SCOTT VAN PELT: Can I get creative? Can I cut it in half and put 50 on two guys or do you just want one guy? To me I think Bubba is the most intriguing person because of how well he’s playing and the confidence that he has and the golf ball question from earlier is interesting and the confidence that he clearly has again, working, seek and playing every shot he’s got, and he has more shots than anybody, he’s the most intriguing to me.

But instead of — I’ll put all 100 on Thomas. I feel like you’re talking about a young guy who’s playing right now with a great deal of confidence, and he’s the young guy — we were talking the Tiger conversation earlier. He’s a byproduct of seeing that guy win, and so like Spieth, he comes out here with respect but a confidence that takes that respect and puts it on himself. In other words, if I’m playing like I can play, you’d better come get me. I really like that. He weighs a buck 40, right, and he goes out there and he wants to fight everybody, and I appreciate that about him. And I think like his game — feels like it’s at the highest level most consistently, so I’d look at him as a guy that won this year, he’s got the confidence of that. He won this year, just played well in the Match Play. I think he arrives with everything you’d hope for, and I’d pick Thomas.


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Media Contact: Andy Hall, [email protected]

Andy Hall

I’m part of a team that handles PR/Communications for SportsCenter, including the SC Featured brand, and ESPN’s news platforms. In addition, I’m the PR contact for ESPN’s coverage of golf, motorsports (Formula 1), and the sports betting program Daily Wager. I’m based in Daytona Beach, Fla., and have been with ESPN since 2006.
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