Tour Confidential: Jason Day wins again, a Tiger-Phil date at the Players and more

1. Justin Thomas needed to finish the Wells Fargo Championship 12th or better to become the No. 1 player in the world, and although he couldn’t quite do it (T21), another former No. 1, Jason Day, won for the second time this season. It was barely more than a year ago when Day was the world’s top-ranked player (projected to jump from 14th to 7th after Sunday), but he’s won twice in the last five months and is reminding us of his five-win 2015 season. Can a healthy Day still be as good as any other player on the planet?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): For sure. As we’ve seen over the past few years, there are a handful of players who can outright dominate when all systems are firing. Day is one of them. He’s got the necessary triple threat of power, touch and resilience under pressure.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, GOLF (@AlanShipnuck): His short game has been sensational during this run but the scary thing is that Day has not been totally happy with his ball-striking. He hit a bunch of clutch shots coming down the stretch today, so lookout.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Absolutely. The key word is “healthy.” Watching a bit of the telecast Saturday and watching his putting (which is wonderfully aggressive; he literally looks like he is trying to make every single putt, like that’s the only thought in his head) and his ability to fly the ball 313 right down the middle while one-arming his follow through was startling. A healthy Day can be as good or better than anyone.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor, (@dylan_dethier): Um, yeah. I just hope “a healthy Day” is a realistic long-term expectation.

2. In Tiger Woods’s first start since the Masters, he battled a cold putter at the Wells Fargo Championship and finished T55. Next up is the Players Championship, a tournament he’s won twice. Are you more or less bullish about Tiger’s chances of winning the Players than you were regarding his chances at Augusta, where he was a favorite but finished T32?

Sens: I never liked his chances much at Augusta, so I guess I like them slightly more at the Players, but only slightly. Tiger’s comeback has been amazing to watch. But this field is just too stout and the course too trouble-filled for a guy still on a quest to find his (warning: Tigerism approaching) A-game.

Shipnuck: He has a much better chance at the Players, if only because ANGC demands so many drivers and Sawgrass so few. Notwithstanding his cold putter in Charlotte, the driver remains the weakest part of Tiger’s game. But as fun as it has been to watch him grinding, as the sample size becomes larger it becomes more clear that Tiger has a looong way to go before he’s ready to win anything, let alone against the deepest field of the year on a treacherous course.

Wood: Broken record time. Tiger can win any week he tees it up. It’s a matter of putting everything together in the same week, like anyone else in the field. But even at this point in his career, there is greatness still in there. I think most of us out here still believe that. It doesn’t go away, it’s a matter of tapping into the seed.

Dethier: I was all in on Tiger pre-Masters, so it’s hard for me to match that same level of confidence as he heads to a course where, besides the two wins (and that is a BIG “besides”) he hasn’t played up to his own standards. But I could see him smoking two-iron around the place and getting hot with the putter on some slippery greens more to his liking — I expect it’ll be a better result than this past week.

3. Woods and Phil Mickelson are grouped for the first two rounds of the Players(Rickie Fowler is also joining the star-studded threesome), making it the first time the duo has been paired together since the 2014 PGA. Who will derive more motivation from this grouping: Tiger or Phil?

Sens: Tiger. Phil has spoken at length about how fired up he gets playing with Tiger. But is there any fiercer competitor on the planet than Woods? I know that this is the kinder, gentler Tiger, but I still think of him as being like one of those characters from a movie who wants to rip the other guy’s heart out and show it to him while it’s still beating. Maybe Phil feels the same and is just hiding it behind the aw-shucks smile. Whatever the case, this should be fun.

Shipnuck: Jim Furyk. Throw in the practice round at Augusta and perhaps all of this is laying the groundwork for a Tiger-Phil pairing at the Ryder Cup. Don’t forget, it’s supposed to be a goodwill exhibition; what could possibly generate more buzz than pairing Woods and Mickelson together on an international stage?

Sens: That would be interesting. Let’s hope it works out better than when Hal Sutton tried it.

Wood: I’d say Phil. I think Phil gains a lot of energy from crowds; the bigger the crowd, the more energy he feels. Tiger is in a bubble, in a good way, and he is going to play the same as he otherwise would in the first two rounds of a tournament.

Dethier: We all lose from this pairing. It’s a curmudgeonly take, but I’m so over these manufactured star-studded pairings on Thursdays and Fridays — it makes it that much less compelling to see the game’s biggest names battle it out on the weekend. Gimme this pairing when it feels like we’ve earned it! Tiger comes out on top (through two rounds).

4. “I don’t care about the U.S. Open or the Open Championship,” Rory McIlroy said prior to the Wells Fargo, when discussing his close call at the Masters last month. “(The Masters) is the biggest tournament in the world. It has the most amount of eyeballs, the most amount of hype. The most amount of everything is at Augusta.” A day later McIlroy clarified his comments: “I didn’t mean it like that at all … I care deeply about those other ones. I’m a proud winner of both of those tournaments.” What did you make of Rory’s remarks?

Sens: I take him at his word that his first words came out wrong. Rory’s a forthright interview. When you speak freely, as he does, sometimes you don’t phrase things exactly as you’d like. What’s fair to take from it, I think, is that the Masters looms the largest in his mind because it’s the one major he’s missing, and because it has tormented him with close calls. That’s not the same as him not caring about the others.

Shipnuck: I agree with everything Josh said — of course Rory is proud of his Opens and venerates those events. The whole thing was a non-event for me except that it revealed the depth of Rory’s Augusta obsession. He wants that jacket so badly I fear he will continue to get in his own way.

Wood: He did not mean he didn’t care about the U.S. Open or the Open Championship. His statement was referring to not caring about the public’s or media’s opinion/perception when it came to the importance of these events. What Rory meant was that in terms of rankings, in terms of what majors most professionals would want to win, the Masters IS the easy choice. It is The Biggest Tournament in the world. Reading it any other way is just trying to stir up a controversy that is not there.

Dethier: Well-covered by my colleagues above. I actually felt like the response to this was fairly measured and appropriate, although there may be some Open Championship diehards seething across the pond that I missed. Rory gives the best pressers in the game — he meant what he said, but he also didn’t mean it like, all the way. Move along now.

5. Day played the dreaded Green Mile — Quail Hollow’s name for its 16th, 17th and 18th holes — in two under Sunday to pick up his 12th career PGA Tour victory. What’s the toughest three-hole stretch you’ve ever played?

Sens: The closing three at Ko-Olau, a sadistic course on Oahu with ball-swallowing ravines and lush vegetation everywhere you look. I know they’ve softened it in recent years, but it’s still not the kind of layout most amateurs can get through with a single sleeve of Titleists. You could easily lose three balls on the 18th alone. That finisher is a 467-yard dogleg right par-4 with a couple of forced carries. And yet some young stud once cut the corner and made a hole-in-one. True story. You’ll be shocked to hear it wasn’t me.

Shipnuck: Is it the Bear Pit or Snake Trap? I can never remember.

Wood: I don’t know about the toughest three-hole stretch, but the toughest four-hole stretch I ever played was the last four holes at The Olympic Club when I was playing there in a tournament in college. What made it especially tough was the fact that I had wrenched my putter around the crook of a tree after three-putting the 14th green, bending it into a beautiful “U” shape like a large horseshoe. I putted with my Ben Hogan sand wedge for the last four. So, self-imposed difficulty, yes, but the toughest nonetheless.

Dethier: I’ve got particularly fond memories of the viciousness of 16-18 at Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, Neb., which may well be the BEST deal in these entire United States of America. I tend to hit the ball pretty high, which doesn’t work all that well into a 50-mph wind, particularly against two local sticks who never seemed to hit it more than 10 feet off the ground. I paid up after that match.

6. Several stars missed the cut at the Players Championship last year, but many are in form entering this year’s edition. Who is your pick to win and runner-up, and what will the winning score be?

Sens: Rickie at 12 under, with Sergio nipping at his spikes, one back.

Shipnuck: Patrick Reed. He was hot before the Masters win and he’s stayed hot. It’s a position golf course so his lack of pop off the tee is a non-issue. The last nine years every winning score has been between 10 under and 16 under, so I’m gonna say… 13 under.

Wood: Kuchar at 11 under, Fowler runner-up.

Shipnuck: Woody, you’re shameless.

Dethier: One Jordan Spieth at 15 under, with Rafa Cabrera Bello in second. But Matt Kuchar won’t be far behind!