2016 Year In Review: Part Seven
40. Lydia Ko changes caddie, coach and clubs
Life is pretty good right now for Lydia Ko. At just 19 years old, Ko is the number one ranked player in the world with fourteen LPGA Tour wins and two major championships under her belt, not to mention that you’re more likely to get offered a free membership to Augusta National before you hear someone say a bad word about her personally. Basically, she’s got it all, which is exactly why as she enters 2017, she’s decided to change everything.
In October, Ko decided to part ways with Jason Hamilton, her caddie for the last two years, which led Steve Williams to suggest that she was hitting the panic button after slumping in 2016. Her coach, David Leadbetter, then confirmed rumours in early December that Ko had ended their partnership after three years together, but not without pointing out all of the success that Ko achieved under his watch, and putting a large chunk of the blame on Ko’s parents for the split. Lastly, Jaime Diaz reported in Golf World that his sources were telling him that Ko would be making the jump from Callaway to PXG in 2017 after they offered her a better financial deal.
So, the question is: what does all of this really mean for Lydia Ko? The first thing to mention is that even the best golfers change caddies and coaches, and do it quite frequently. Seve Ballesteros once had a caddie walk off on him mid-round after twelve months on the bag. This came after Seve had three caddies in the previous calendar year, one of which was in the process of suing him for firing him too early, and Seve isn’t the only superstar to have a run like that, not to mention that Ko isn’t exactly a stranger to changing her bag man either. Also, as a general rule, it’s also for the best to ignore Steve Williams, who despite being a great caddie, doesn’t exactly have the best track record when he opens his mouth. Ko won five times in 2016, so I don’t think we’re really dealing with an issue there. I’m not super concerned about the coaching change because really, when you have a talent like Ko, you’d have to be a special kind of dolt to not get anything out of her and it’s not like she’s been with Leadbetter her whole life either. Still though, I would think that it’ll be impossible to top the success she’s had while with Leadbetter, something he pointed out when talking with Shane Bacon recently on his podcast.
The club changes have me a little concerned though, at least in the short term. We all remember how Rory struggled after the Nike switch, and the returns on the players who moved to PXG for the 2016 season weren’t great. I have no doubt that the the clubs themselves are solid, but this is the type of move that comes attached to a sizeable adjustment period, and it could be the type of thing that in the short term, derails Ko at least a little bit.
Ultimately, I’m sure that Ko will be just fine in 2017 because she’s too talented not to have success, but changing one of these things entering a new year would be enough to make people take notice, let alone all three. If there’s any hint of trouble, you can bet that one of the three factors above will become part of the conversation.
39. Rory works out too much? Really?
Apparently, Rory McIlroy is in too good of shape to be successful. On multiple occasions in 2016, Rory dealt with a weird criticism that he was too fit to reach his sky high potential on the golf course. It started with Brandel Chamblee in February, which Rory responded to publicly on Twitter.
Then it moved to Johnny Miller, who was in the NBC booth on the weekend at Troon when Dan Hicks asked him what his assessment was of Rory’s game. This was his response:
“When you have a great run of three years where he wins some majors, and he’s sort of dominating when he plays well. It looked like he was just going to continue to do that. I think he overdid the weight room, personally. I don’t think that helped him at all. I think the same thing with Tiger Woods; they just get carried away with wearing the tight shirts and showing off their muscles. You know, golf is a game of finesse and touch. You need a certain amount of strength. I just think he got a little bit too much of that, you know?”
Golf can absolutely be a game of finesse and touch, but if there’s one thing we’ve realized over the last decade or so, it’s that it has also become much easier to dominate the game if you have power. Yes, there are top players like Jordan Spieth who don’t hit the ball super far, but he’s in the severe minority. It makes sense for players like Rory to try and bulk up, but it’s not like he’s coming to the course looking like he just came from an audition with the WWE. Johnny made it seem like Rory was walking to the first tee looking like this:
This was also one of the main points in one of the most ridiculous television segments on Golf Channel in 2016 where Dr. Gio Valiante tried to tell us what was wrong with Rory, even though there’s nothing wrong with Rory. Keep in mind that for what many people would consider a down year, Rory still won three big events and finished in the top-10 in 15 of his 23 starts. He doesn’t work out too much, and it’s a crazy idea for anyone to suggest that. I’ll leave the last word on this to golf’s resident workout aficionado, Mr. Gary Player:
38. Jordan Spieth’s slow play
Slow play is not a new issue in at any level of golf, be it on the PGA Tour or at your own local muni, but in 2016, there was a lot of chatter around how slow one of the best players in the world was playing.
It all started in January when Jordan Spieth was given a ‘monitoring penalty’ in round one of the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, which fell under a new policy that the European Tour had implemented that week. In tough conditions at the Masters, Spieth was singled out for taking too long to pull the trigger, and it happened again at the U.S. Open, which Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote about for ESPN.
I’m not going to defend Spieth on this because to be honest, he does play slow. Everything is dissected a million times, and he backs away from tons of shots until he’s ready to hit. What I will defend him on is that since every single one of his shots is going to be shown on television, he probably does get unfairly singled out as being the poster boy for slow play. In reality, there are big name players like Jason Day and Jim Furyk who take just as long, as well as not so big name players like Andrew Loupe, who in the words of David Feherty, probably takes two hours to watch a ninety minute movie. This is not a problem that’s exclusive to Spieth.
To his credit, when Spieth joined the No Laying Up podcast, he talked about how he wanted to speed things up because he thought it would make him a better player, which is a scary prospect to consider.
37. Bryson DeChambeau emerges
When I posted the 2015 Year In Review, I wrote this about Bryson DeChambeau, who came in at number 52 out of 60:
Read this piece by Ryan Lavner and know that we’re dealing with a very, very unique young player, who tackles the game in a completely different way than we’ve ever seen. He can play, and we’re going to be hearing a lot from this kid in 2016.
To be honest though, despite writing that back in December of 2015, I think I ended up underestimating how much we would talk about DeChambeau. The piece linked above from Ryan Lavner is great, and very instructional on what type of player and person DeChambeau is and since he is so different from everything else in the game right now, people love to talk about him. He was on TV a lot, and despite the fact that he had no official status, he didn’t have a problem getting starts and when he did, he showed in spurts how much game he really has. He played well at the Masters, finishing tied for 21st and at points through the first two rounds, was right near the top of the lead. He also gave us one of the coolest shots of the year with this perfect stinger on the 8th tee:
The following week, he posted a T4 at the RBC Heritage where he led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee To Green, but couldn’t get anything to drop on Harbour Town’s notoriously tricky greens. The rest his PGA Tour season didn’t go so well, which meant that DeChambeau had to go to the Web.com Tour in an attempt to earn status on the PGA Tour for the 2016-17 season, which he did in his first tournament when he won the DAP Championship.
DeChambeau’s always going to be a story because of the way he approaches the game; some people are going to like it, and others won’t but regardless of what you think of his methods, there’s no doubting that he can play at the highest level. It’s just a matter of how successful he’s going to be against the best players in the world. I think Kyle Porter put it best in his most intriguing golfers to watch in 2017 piece:
Forget all the scientific hoopla, DeChambeau is really good at golf. Is he Rickie Fowler good, though? Or just Harris English good? Or is he Jordan Spieth good? There are still more questions than answers when it comes to DeChambeau which is probably how he likes it.
My prediction: DeChambeau wins at least one event on the PGA or European Tour this season, and he gets a much higher spot on this list in 2017.
36. Thomas Pieters arrives at the Ryder Cup
The 2016 Ryder Cup was pretty much a disaster for Europe. They were missing their emotional leader in Ian Poulter, they couldn’t bring one of their best players in Paul Casey, their veteran captain’s picks were horrible, Danny Willett’s brother got in the way, and Patrick Reed is apparently some combination of Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods and Captain America. From the opening tee shot on Friday, it seemed like the Americans were the stronger side and had this one in the bag, but if there was one bright light at Hazeltine for Darren Clarke, it was Thomas Pieters.
The Belgian Bomber was apparently Clarke’s last captain’s pick, as he was deciding between him and Russell Knox and it’s impossible to argue against his selection. Pieters went 4-1 for the week, and it seems like the Europeans may have found another stud pairing to go along with Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson because Pieters playing with Rory was absolutely devastating. They were taking lines off the tee that should have been impossible, and when they got on the greens, they were rolling in putts that they should have had no business making.
For regular European Tour watchers, I don’t think they were too shocked by the way Pieters played at Hazeltine, but for the wider golfing public, it was an introduction to a player that not only has a lot of game but appears to have ice in his veins. Pieters is going to be a fixture on European Ryder Cup teams for years to come, and I can’t wait to see what he does in France in 2018.
35. Rory’s Open Championship presser
Rory McIlroy is probably the most honest player we have in the game right now. In a time where players are handled very closely and their words are carefully thought out, Rory is not shy about telling you what he thinks and it’s incredibly refreshing. There was no better example of this in 2016 than his pre-tournament press conference at the Open Championship. This was where Rory gave his infamous “the stuff that matters” quote when talking about what he’ll be watching at the Olympics instead of golf, which despite all of the flak he got for his words, I didn’t have a problem with it at all or with his decision to skip the event.
Over the 22 minutes that he was on the podium at Troon, Rory gave thoughtful answers on a wide variety of topics outside of the Olympics, including why drug testing isn’t all that strict in golf, how he’s become more tentative in his approach and his thoughts on “the big four”. It’s a masterclass that’s worth watching from start to finish.
Never change, Rory.
34. Phil vs. Sergio at the Ryder Cup
On Sunday at the Ryder Cup, most of the focus was on the main event title fight between Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed, but Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia put on a tasty little bout on the undercard that’s worth mentioning. Sergio’s ball striking was on point as usual, but every time he got in close and had an easy look for birdie, Phil would come in and drain a long putt to even the match. It ended with both players getting a half point for their side, despite both clearly deserving more than that with matching 63’s. Outside of Phil’s battle with Henrik Stenson at Troon, there was no better head to head duel in golf this year from a pure golf standpoint than this one at Hazeltine.
33. Jason Day’s illnesses and injuries
As of this writing, Jason Day is the number one ranked player in the world thanks to an incredible putter and an ability to bludgeon the ball from the tee like few others in the game. It goes without saying that he’s a phenomenal talent that should be the favourite to win in pretty much every tournament he plays in, but you see, that’s the problem. Over the years, Day has struggled greatly with injury concerns, and 2016 was no different. He wasn’t able to finish his final two tournaments of the year, the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship, because of back problems and it seemed like every few weeks, we heard a story about how he was suffering from some new illness or malady.
I’m not going to accuse Day of making these things up because I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, but we reached a point in 2016 where it got annoying to hear about every time he had a stuffed nose or a head cold. I’m sure a lot of the other players, especially the ones who have young kids like Day, are going through similar things but just don’t vocalize it at every opportunity.
Day’s a fantastic player and by all accounts, one of the nicest people on the PGA Tour, and I just hope that we get to see him play golf at a high level for a really long time. The only way that’s going to happen though is if he can stay healthy.
32. WGC-Cadillac moves from Doral to Mexico City
Donald Trump has more important matters to take care of right now, but earlier this year, one of the things he was dealing with was the loss of a big time tournament. Back in June, the PGA Tour announced that the WGC-Cadillac Championships would be moving from the Trump owned Doral to Mexico City, citing sponsorship issues. It has now been confirmed that the WGC-Mexico Championship will be played at Club de Golf Chapultepec in early March, officially ending a relationship with the Blue Monster at Doral which dates back to 1962 when it first hosted the Doral Open.
I’ve never been a fan of Doral as a course, so I’m not upset that it’s leaving the PGA Tour rotation. On top of that, this is a WORLD Golf Championship event, which means that the very name suggests that events shouldn’t just be based in the United States, which the WGC’s have been for the most part since their inception in 1999. To me, these events aren’t sacred like the Masters or the U.S. Open and should move around to places like Australia, the U.K. and wherever else could host an event of this magnitude. Variety is good for both the players and the fans, and moving away from Doral is a good start that I hope we see continued going forward.
31. The Greenbrier is cancelled
On June 23rd, West Virginia was devastated by massive amounts of flooding, as eight to ten inches of rain fell in a twelve hour period, causing a state of emergency to be declared in 44 of the state’s 55 counties. The area of the state that was hit the hardest was Greenbrier County where fifteen deaths were confirmed.
Two weeks after the flooding, the PGA Tour was supposed to hold the Greenbrier Classic but both the course and the area were in no condition to host the event, so it was cancelled and Open Championship qualifying was moved to the Barracuda Championship.
The plan is to hold the event in its traditional spot once again in 2017, with Phil Mickelson involved now as an ambassador.
Part eight of the 2016 Year In Review will examine stories 30-21.