Rory McIlroy didn't make it to Vegas for the big fight, but he did persevere and win the extended WGC-Cadillac Match Play last weekend. What does this say about McIlroy's game, and how did the new match-play format work?
Also, the Players Championship is this weekend and Tiger Woods will be in the star-studded field. This is his first tournament since the Masters; will his game continue to improve?
Our staff ponders these issues and more in the latest edition of Four-Ball.
1. What kind of a statement did Rory McIlroy make by going 7-0 and winning the WGC-Cadillac Match Play?
SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman: Rory showed me that he truly is the next great champion. On many occasions last weekend, he could have been sent home. But McIlroy was able to make the big putt, the big shot, in the big moment. Great players like McIlroy want to win every week. I also think he was a little tired of the Jordan Spieth lovefest, and that's a good thing. If they can drive each other, that's even better.
ESPN.com senior golf analyst Michael Collins: For me, it wasn't about going 7-0; it was about what he said afterward, about the points he earned that pushed him further from Jordan Spieth in the Official World Golf Rankings. Talking about the importance of that shows that McIlroy sees Spieth as the biggest threat to his spot at the top. That means, in McIlroy's mind, the rivalry/fight for No. 1 is set!
ESPN.com senior golf writer Bob Harig: He has a lot of determination. This is a tough format, with tons of bad breaks, one that rarely identifies the best player. It's a lot of golf, there were cold conditions, he had to rally to win four times. It would have been easy to pack it in and go to the fight in Vegas. But he kept pushing and prevailed.
ESPN.com senior golf writer Jason Sobel: He wasn't trying to make a "statement," but I'm sure McIlroy didn't mind reminding people that we're not exactly living in the Jordan Spieth era just yet. The Masters champion might prove to be a more consistent performer over the long haul, but Rory has an extra gear. In other words: His A-game is still better than everyone else's A-game. We knew that already, but he provided another reminder this week.
SportsCenter anchor Matt Barrie: Rory firmly planted his flag in the Bay Area soil as the best player on the planet. After the Masters, whispers started of Jordan Spieth perhaps overtaking him as the game's greatest player. But the world No. 1 marched through the bracket with clutch putts, long rounds, and early mornings to once again put the golf world on notice. It's good for the game when the best player wins on big stages.
2. What changes, if any, would you make to the new match-play format?
Coachman: I like the pod format a lot because we saw everyone play three days. I would put a point system in place and not have round-robin matches go to extra holes. Make wins a certain point and halves a certain point. That way you could have more excitement on Friday and halves would mean something. But when it already takes seven matches to win this thing, there is no need for overtime the first three days. I think this change would be fantastic.
Collins: Two things: no pro-am, and makes ties worth a point. The amount of competitive golf these guys have to play is already over the top, so asking them to play in a pro-am before they potentially play 126 holes or more seems a bit much. By making ties worth a point, you take the extra holes off the table for each match but give the group more of a reason to grind in those 0-2 matches on Friday.
Harig: This format was a good step, but two big things stand out: Let the pool-play matches end in ties, and give points for victories, less for ties. Then don't break any group ties with head-to-head. Let them play off.
Sobel: It's funny how a great champion can help assuage angst over the format. But I still have five ideas to improve this tourney next year.
Barrie: The Sunday 36-hole schedule is too much. After adding a day Wednesday, the schedule became long and grueling. I don't mind finding tweaks to make the event better. But 36 holes on Sunday after 18 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (and in Rory's case 22 on Saturday), makes the event drag. But as America does, I agree with Sobel.
3. What are your expectations for Tiger Woods this week at the Players Championship?
Coachman: After what I saw at the Masters, my expectations are high. His weakness at Augusta was his driver. We know at TPC Sawgrass, drivers are not hit very often. That should be a huge advantage for Woods. With that being said, I do believe that he should be playing more than the schedule he has put out if he wants to be in peak condition for the summer. McIlroy and Spieth have set the bar. Now, Woods has to go reach it.
Collins: I think it will be a successful week if Tiger makes the cut and finishes inside the top 30. Unlike Augusta, TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course is an extremely difficult driving course and if Tiger gets wild off the tee, he will be severely punished on the scorecard. Just like at the Masters, I'll keep low expectations and have high hopes.
Harig: Sort of like the Masters, not very high. Even though he won two years ago, this has never been a great golf course for him. It will demand far better play off the tee than he showed at Augusta National. It is an opportunity to take another step forward in his comeback. We shouldn't expect much more.
Sobel: Even though Woods won at TPC Sawgrass two years ago -- the most recent time he played this event -- it's never been one of his favorites on the PGA Tour schedule. The course requires precision ball-striking, especially off the tee, which should afford us a good barometer of how he's driving the ball right now. I expect continued improvement from the Masters, but not another victory.
Barrie: We haven't see Tiger tee it up since Augusta. And by our lowered expectations, he far succeeded what I thought he'd do at the Masters. If he's continued to work and make strides like he did leading up to Augusta, I expect him to be competitive. He won this event in 2013. His short game appeared fixed, but I still have concerns about his tee ball. TPC Sawgrass favors balance, which means being in the fairway is rewarded. If Tiger has made the right adjustment off the tee like he did around the green, look out.
4. Smylie Kaufman won on the Web.com Tour on Sunday, which got us thinking ... what's your favorite name in golf?
Coachman: I truly believe that names can make a person's persona and can help them professionally. So those are the names that I like. With that being said, I love Kiradech Aphibarnrat. But more than that, he is known as the "Asian John Daly." That just screams entertaining in a lot of ways. You don't have to look like Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods to be a box office hit. Only a matter of time before he is big in the United States.
Collins: Dicky Pride. *Mic drop*
Harig: Robert Rock. It has a ring to it.
Sobel: I'm going with one from the men's game and one from the women's game. Nacho Elvira recently won on the European Challenge Tour, thanks in part to an albatross during his final round. Brooke Pancake owns a unique LPGA sponsorship, as she's teamed with Waffle House on a bag deal. That's right, I went with Nacho and Pancake. In related news: Is it lunchtime yet?
Barrie: Johnny Vegas. This name screams party, fun and bro. It sounds like a name frat guys give each other after a bender in Vegas that included bad decisions. "No bro, call me Johnny Vegas!"
If I were the actual Johnny Vegas, I would own it. Casino chips as ball markers. A club cover that looks like a slot machine, and sponsors from every casino on my shirts.