2016 Year In Review: Part Nine
20. Tom Watson plays in his final Masters
I say it all the time that one of the coolest things about golf is that you can pretty much play forever. For golf fans, that means that if they get attached to a player, they typically don’t have to let go of that attachment as quickly as they do in other sports. Oddly though, that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier as we’ve found out in the last few years with Tom Watson.
In 2015, the 66-year old Watson played in his final Open Championship. Watson won the Open five times, one shy of the record set by Harry Vardon, and got to walk away on his own terms at the Old Course. The Open dealt with severe weather issues that week, and it looked like Watson was going to have to come back out on the weekend to finish one or two holes, but the R&A kept play going in pretty dark conditions to allow Watson to finish on Friday night, and I’m happy they did.
This year, it was Augusta’s turn for the Tom Watson farewell tour. Watson announced before the tournament that this was going to be it for him, and after he posted rounds of 74-78 to miss the cut, it closed the book on a tremendous run for Watson at Augusta. He won the Masters twice (1977, 1981) and probably should have had a few more but was up against some pretty stiff competition in those days. All told, he played in the Masters 43 times, making 24 cuts and finishing inside the top-10 15 times. I’d bet that he’ll still be around Augusta despite not playing in the tournament, as he’ll be there for the Champions Dinner and I’d be shocked if he didn’t tee it up in the par-3 tournament for at least the next few years.
I’ll close by embedding the video below.
19. Tim Finchem steps down
Back in June of 1994, Tim Finchem became the third commissioner in PGA Tour history, taking over the post from Deane Beman, who had served in that capacity for the previous twenty years and was interested in re-joining the competitive ranks on the Senior Tour. Twenty-two years later, Finchem is stepping aside and handing the keys to Jay Monahan, the Tour’s current deputy commissioner and COO. Monahan will officially take control on January 1st, 2017.
Finchem’s run as commissioner coincided with Tiger’s run at the top, and while Tiger deserves a ton of credit for the growth of both the game and the money up for grabs, a lot of the great things in the game right now are a direct result of Finchem’s influence. A quick perusal of the PGA Tour’s career money leaders shows a near exclusive list of current players, with Jordan Spieth already ranking in at number 35 despite only being on tour for a few years. The game’s financial explosion is usually attributed to Tiger’s rise, but Finchem’s broadcast negotiations, and the influx of new sponsorship money (also thanks to Tiger), has a lot to do with it too. While the European Tour have made positive strides in recent years, there’s no doubt that the preeminent golf tour in the world is based out of Florida.
Finchem has presided over the creation of the Presidents Cup and the World Golf Championships (after taking the idea from Greg Norman), but the biggest success story may be the FedEx Cup. The introduction of the FEC in 2007 has been a success at giving the PGA Tour season a formal end with huge purses for limited fields, not to mention that the other tours have all followed suit and created their own versions.
That’s not to say that everything has been perfect. The PGA Tour could definitely follow in the footsteps of other professional sports leagues and be more transparent about things, especially in the way of player discipline and while this isn’t directly on him, Finchem’s unwillingness to say much about how the game has been taken over by distance hasn’t helped the issue.
Overall though, things couldn’t be much better for the PGA Tour right now. Finchem leaves with his legacy intact as a great commissioner, and while he has big shoes to fill, Monahan is in a pretty good spot right now thanks to Tim Finchem.
18. The Sawgrass setup on Saturday
Usually when players have an issue with course setup, their ire is directed at the USGA for making a classic course unnecessarily difficult with tricked out greens and rough thicker than Graham DeLaet’s beard. This year though, it was the setup at TPC Sawgrass for Saturday’s third round that drew the ire of the players, and it was completely justified.
Before we get to Saturday though, we have to go back to the first two rounds. TPC Sawgrass was getting destroyed by some of the best players in the world, with lots of low numbers in the 60’s coming in on what is typically, one of the harder courses on the PGA Tour schedule. Jason Day, after opening with 63-66 for a 15-under par total, held a four shot lead over Shane Lowry heading into the weekend. Kyle Robbins did a great job for SB Nation explaining what exactly happened after that, but the short version is that the wind picked up significantly and the greens were nearly impossible to putt on, especially with where some of the pins were cut. This image, also from that piece by Kyle Robbins, explains all you really need to know about how tough the scoring was from the first two days to Saturday’s third round:
Yes, it’s true that everyone was playing the same course and that there were a few good rounds posted (how Ken Duke shot 65 is a mystery that will never be solved), but it played a huge part in ruining the fun of one of the best tournaments of the year. Billy Horschel mentioned after his round that the greens were still receptive on approaches but with the greens running at 15 or 16 on the stimp, they were impossible to putt on. Just take a look at this sequence from Sergio Garcia on the fifth. There’s no way that this should have happened the way it did.
Day’s group was last out on Saturday and it took them almost six hours to play because of the setup. What I think happened was that, yes, the conditions changed and made it harder than the PGA Tour wanted initially, but I also think that the hole locations were cut where they were because of how low the scores were over the first two days. There’s an obsession with protecting par at certain events, and when you have guys like Day being able to hit wedge or 9-iron into a lot of holes like he did that week, the tournament will try to defend the course in other ways.
Day still ended up winning the tournament by four shots, staying at 15-under par after playing the weekend in level par, but it’s the setup on Saturday that I’ll remember most from the 2016 Players Championship.
17. The Ryder Cup captain’s picks
Every two years, the golf world pays an extreme amount of attention to not only the Ryder Cup, but the lead up to the event as well. At every tournament on both the PGA and European Tour, you’ll hear broadcasters reference a player’s chances of making the Ryder Cup team either on points or as a captain’s pick because it really means a lot to the players to represent either the United States or Europe. Before the tournament starts, there’s nothing that gets analyzed to death more than the captain’s picks for each side.
The captains only have a certain amount of freedom with who they pick for each team, as so much of it is decided by points. If who they select has a good week, it can be the difference between a winning and losing side, and in 2016, there was an absolutely massive amount of discussion on who should have been going to Hazeltine.
For Europe, the automatic qualifiers stayed pretty much the same for the whole year, as eight of the nine players who ended up getting in are the same ones that were qualified after the Masters. For Darren Clarke, that meant that he was running a team with very little experience, as five of the nine qualifiers had never played a single Ryder Cup match. That led to Clarke going with experience in the form of Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, which backfired spectacularly. Westwood and Kaymer were the two weakest players for Europe at Hazeltine, while Clarke’s final captain’s pick, rookie Thomas Pieters, was probably the most consistent player on the roster, going 4-1. Would a final three of Pieters, Russell Knox and Shane Lowry been a better group? Probably, but I’m not sure that it would have made much of a difference this time around.
The far more interesting scenario came for Davis Love III, who had four slots to fill with captain’s picks. He announced his first three in early September, tabbing Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes. The thought was that Fowler and Kuchar were pretty much locks from the beginning if they didn’t qualify, and when Jimmy Walker won the PGA Championship, it knocked them further down the list. What was notable though was the Holmes pick, particularly because it appeared to be a direct snub to Bubba Watson. Holmes is a very talented player, but considering that Watson was ranked 7th in the world and plays pretty much the exact same style of game as Holmes, it was definitely eye catching. Watson still had a chance to be the last pick though, as Love had one spot left to fill after the Tour Championship.
Kuchar (jokingly?) suggested Tiger was an option, Jim Furyk was still lurking, as were younger players like Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas. Would love go off the board with someone like Kevin Na, or play it safe with Watson? Ultimately, it ended up being Ryan Moore who got the call after a solid season and a playoff battle with Rory McIlroy at the Tour Championship, while Watson signed on to be a vice captain and the Americans dominated the Ryder Cup with a 17-11 win.
16. P.J. Willett calls out American golf fans
One of the side storylines to come out of Danny Willett’s Masters win was that Willett’s brother PJ became pretty popular thanks to his Twitter account. PJ, who is a full time teacher, live tweeted his brother’s final round and as a result, he was able to score a writing gig with National Club Golfer, a magazine and website based in the UK. From what I can tell, he posted two articles for the magazine before tackling the Ryder Cup, and let’s just say that he didn’t hold back on what he thinks about American golf fans:
It’s really quite remarkable that something like that even got posted in the first place, even if he does have a valid point about the cargo shorts. While US captain Davis Love III did his best to ignore the situation, European captain Darren Clarke didn’t quite have that luxury. Clarke had to answer for it in his pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday, as relayed by Ewan Murray of the Guardian:
“I just was made aware of the article about an hour ago. I haven’t seen it. As soon as I did, I went out to find Danny, who was playing in the last group this morning. I spoke to Danny about it. I showed it to Danny. And he’s bitterly disappointed in his brother’s article.
“It is not what Danny thinks. It is not what I think. It is not what Team Europe stands for. So Danny was unaware of it and he fully intends to speak to his brother whenever he comes in and express his displeasure to his brother about it, because that is not what Team Europe stands for.
“I was very disappointed in it, as well, because that’s an outside person expressing their opinion which is not representative of what our thoughts are.”
Danny Willett apologized for the article, but Clarke decided to sit him out of the Friday morning session because of the potential distraction, instead sending out Andy Sullivan with Rory McIlroy. The Europeans lost all four matches on Friday morning to fall behind 4-0, and simply never recovered. Did PJ Willett’s article have an effect on the outcome of the Ryder Cup? No, I don’t think it had anything to do with it, but it’s the kind of thing that you never see in any sport, let alone golf where respect and gentlemanly play are always the name of the game.
It clearly had an effect on Willett though, who from all reports, dealt with more heckling than anyone on the European team as a result from those “pudgy basement dwellers” save for maybe Rory McIlroy. Willett went 0-3 on the week, but he actually didn’t play poorly. He was stuck with Westwood and Kaymer in his two team matches, and they brought Willett down more than anything as it seemed like whenever he was on TV, Willett was hitting quality shots. He was soundly beaten by Brooks Koepka on Sunday, but he shot even par, so it’s not like he was all that poor on his own either.
So, overall, how did Danny Willett feel about his first Ryder Cup experience.
Yeah. I think that just about covers it.
15. Jimmy Walker wins the PGA Championship
Just like the U.S. Open, the 2016 PGA Championship dealt with a pretty significant weather delay, but this time, it happened on the weekend. When they finally got things back on track, the pairings from the third round were kept for the final round and since Baltusrol still wasn’t in the best shape, preferred lies were in play for what is believed to be the first time in major championship history.
Jimmy Walker went wire to wire for the win, grabbing his first major championship by holding off a hard charging Jason Day. As Walker was attempting to birdie the par-5 17th, Day made eagle on 18 after a ridiculous series of 2-irons that really don’t even make any sense. Walker was able to maintain a one-shot lead going to 18, where he would make his par to win the tournament.
The video below shows the back nine for both players, and I recommend giving it a watch.
14. Brittany Lang’s U.S. Women’s Open win
The USGA just couldn’t help themselves in 2016. A few weeks after the ridiculous handling of the Dustin Johnson situation at Oakmont, the USGA managed to fumble again with the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle. Brittany Lang ended up beating Anna Nordqvist in a playoff to win her second career LPGA Tour event and her first major, but there was so much more to the story.
Unlike the men, there is no 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Women’s Open, as since 2007, they have gone to the more standard three-hole aggregate format. Lang and Nordqvist were tied after the first two playoff holes with both ladies making par, but after they teed off on the third playoff hole, Fox showed footage of the previous hole where Nordqvist played her second shot from the fairway bunker. It appeared that Nordqvist had grounded her 5-iron, which caused some sand to be knocked loose. Under the Rules of Golf, this is a two-shot penalty.
Unlike the DJ situation though, this was a clear penalty and even though the Rules of Golf annoy me to no end, the right call was made to penalize Nordqvist based on the information available. It sucks because obviously Nordqvist didn’t intend to do it, but those are the rules, and they need to be followed. However, even though the USGA got the decision correct, they still managed to mess the whole thing up.
The biggest issue that people had with their decision at Oakmont was that they intentionally held off on making a decision until after the round, which messed with the integrity of the tournament. Players are all trying to win, and those in contention had no idea where they stood, making it difficult for players to decide how to play each hole. This time though, the USGA notified the players while they were still on the course of the penalty. Problem solved, right? Wrong.
They told Nordqvist of her penalty after she hit her third shot into the par-5 18th, but before Lang hit her approach, essentially giving Lang an added advantage by letting her hit an extra club to avoid the water in front of the green. Considering it was a two-shot penalty, it probably wouldn’t have mattered too much, but the fair way to play it would have been to tell both players after they each hit their shots. That wasn’t all of it though. Even though they told the players while they were still on the course, the viewers knew there was a penalty coming after both ladies teed off on 18, so why weren’t they notified earlier?
I will never understand how Fox had a close up view of the penalty, but the USGA didn’t. The viewers watching the tournament knew about the penalty for fifteen minutes before the players did, and that’s wrong. The players need to know where they stand at all times, even if that means that they are held in place while a ruling is being confirmed. It also brings up tough questions on how tournaments are now being televised. This is what I wrote back in July:
We see every shot of the best players early in the week and then as the weekend comes along, the broadcast focuses on the players at the top of the leaderboard and the big names. It’s a tried and true formula, but what it also does is it puts those players under a microscope as it relates to rules violations that the rest of the field just doesn’t face. In a lot of cases, that wouldn’t mean much, but it certainly did on Sunday with Nordqvist, especially considering that she had no idea that it happened and the only way that it was caught was with an HD camera. It’s very possible that another player did the exact same thing during the week but if the camera wasn’t on them at the time, it never would have been caught. Hypothetically, what if Lang had done the same thing in the first round? If she was assessed a two shot penalty, there never would have been a playoff and Nordqvist would be the one with a major win.
Like I said, I don’t know how you go about fixing it because while penalties should be assessed for infractions, certain players are more at risk than others simply because the technology has made that the case. Enforcing rules violations is about protecting the field and making sure that everyone is on the same page, but when certain players are more likely to be subjected to the decision, the field is anything but protected.
To top it all off, this is how Brittany Lang was announced as the winner by USGA president Diana Murphy:
13. Justin Rose and Inbee Park win Olympic gold
The big golf story heading into the 2016 Olympic Games was that it seemed like no one wanted to go (more on that in a second), but once the players got to Rio de Janeiro, they had a good time and some quality golf was played too. On the men’s side, we had a fun weekend battle with Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar all in contention, while Inbee Park kinda ran away with the women’s side, beating Lydia Ko by five shots. Considering that it had been over 100 years since golf had been in the Olympic Games, it was fun to see it on the world stage and obviously being an Olympian is an accomplishment that every golfer who played should be proud of.
The big question is if the enthusiasm from the players is going to change much for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Four guys in their 20’s on vacation probably shouldn’t have generated a ton of attention, but in the 2016 #content world, #SB2K16 was a huge deal. Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman went down to Baker’s Bay in April and by all accounts, did everything that four guys in their 20’s would do while on vacation. The two big differences being that one, they aren’t the regular group of four guys in their 20’s, and two, they put it all on Snapchat for the world to see. Some of the highlights:
Spieth’s impression of David Feherty
Talking Spieth’s Augusta meltdown
Jumping from a balcony
It was a rare look inside for the average fan, and I think it’s great that these guys just wanted to get together and have some fun while taking a break from the regular grind. Of course, not everyone was a fan, but for a few days in April, this was all anyone was talking about and it definitely seems like we’re going to be seeing it again in 2017:
11. Players skipping the Olympics
While Justin Rose and Inbee Park winning Olympic gold was big news, the bigger talk was around who wasn’t at the Olympics in Rio earlier this year. Due to a combination of the Zika virus, the format, schedule fatigue and general indifference towards the event, a lot of big name players decided to stay home, particularly on the men’s side. Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel are just some of the names who pulled out and they were skewered for not going. Alan Shipnuck tried to figure out why players weren’t more excited, Jack Nicklaus talked about his disappointment and Gary Player released a statement in April on the issue:
Sure, it’s cool that you could have the chance to win a gold medal, but it’s also never something that players have honestly thought about or worked towards. They’ve spent their entire careers, and in most cases, their entire lives, trying to get to the top of the game through amateur events, college, mini tours and eventually, the PGA or European Tour.
Everyone who plays golf at the highest level is trying to win tournaments, and then, major championships. Whether it’s right or wrong, a green jacket or Claret Jug is always going to be more important to the modern player than winning a gold medal. Part of that is how much we, as fans and commentators, value majors over everything else and how we deride players like Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia for never winning anything substantial. So much pressure is put on these guys to win one of four events each year, and so many ridiculous questions are asked when players struggle in the slightest, that it’s important to be as prepared as possible for those events, and as odd as it may sound, the Olympics just doesn’t get to that level and probably never will.
Throw in the fact that this event has made the regular schedule and travel an absolute mess, with two majors in a three week span coming up shortly, and that it’s just a regular stroke play event when there was a much, much better format staring them right in the face, and you just have a combination of things that appeals to very few people.
As I mentioned earlier, we still got a very entertaining tournament in Brazil and maybe the players who dropped out will change their mind in 2020, but the reaction from everyone who thought this was the most important thing ever felt over the top. Rory showing up to play in a stroke play tournament in Brazil, even one watched by millions, wasn’t going to significantly grow the game or help save the Rio course. My guess is that a few more players will show up for Tokyo in 2020, but as important as the Olympics are to the general sports public, it just doesn’t seem to be a priority for the top players. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Part ten of the 2016 Year In Review will examine stories 10-1.