2016 Year In Review: Part Ten

Previous posts: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart Nine


10. Nike exits the equipment business

While Adidas continued to look for a buyer for TaylorMade, Nike dropped a bombshell back in August by announcing that they were exiting the equipment manufacturing business. Going forward, they will continue to make shoes and clothing, but there will be no more Nike clubs, balls or bags manufactured. It also means that big name players like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie, not to mention new Nike signees Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau, will likely be swinging brand new stuff in 2017.  We’ve already seen the transition begin, as Tiger, Rory and Koepka have all been seen on the course with TaylorMade drivers, but at least for now, the only confirmed change is that Tiger will be using a Bridgestone ball next year.

As big as this news was back in August, I’m not too concerned about what Nike’s exit means outside of the professional game. When you go to your local course, how often do you see other players wear Nike apparel? Whether it’s hats, shoes, shirts or pants, Nike apparel is a pretty common sight on the golf course, right? Okay, now think about that same course and those same players: how many of them play Nike clubs or use a Nike ball? You get the odd player here and there, but for the most part, you’ll see the traditional companies are the ones most represented: Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade, with the occasional sighting of Srixon, Bridgestone, Cleveland and others.

For the pros though, this has the potential to be huge. Nike clubs have always been thought of as pretty low quality, but guys like Tiger, Rory and Koepka have seemed to do just fine with them after they transitioned from other manufacturers. That whole process takes time though, and there’s a very real possibility that just like how Rory struggled initially when switching to Nike a few years ago, that we’re in for the same sort of thing for these guys in 2017. Not to mention that it’s just going to be flat out weird to see Tiger play something that doesn’t have a swoosh on it.

How the ex-Nike staffers transition to new companies in 2017 is a major story to watch over the next twelve months.


9. Tiger sits out…and looks decent in return

Even though 2015 was a fantastic year for golf, I still thought that the biggest story of the year was just how bad Tiger played. The greatest player that many of us have ever seen play the game looked like an absolute mess on the course, posting 80’s and fighting the yips before ending the year with a pair of back surgeries. No one knew when we would see him again, and at that point, I’m not sure that anyone wanted to see him if he was going to keep playing like that.

As we entered 2016, we were no closer to finding out a return date. In fact, Tiger was rarely seen at all with a club in his hand, and then we got word that after he completed his duties as a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, he would be teeing it up for real at the Safeway Open. Everyone was ready to go, and the standard Tiger Woods hype machine was operating at full speed with players like Jesper Parnevik being quoted as saying that Tiger was “pounding it a mile and flushing everything.” But then, he pulled out of Safeway and the Turkish Airlines Open because, in his words, “my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.” It was a crushing blow to not only the two tournaments who thought they had Tiger in the field, but golf fans everywhere who couldn’t fathom how he could possibly still need more time.

Fast forward to present day, and we actually did see him play in a real tournament for the first time in sixteen months. He actually listened to his doctors for seemingly the first time in his entire life, and when he did come back at the Hero World Challenge, he was sporting a new attitude and approach. On top of that, he actually looked like a capable golfer again, and while it’s anyone’s guess as to what he does in 2017, the outlook on him has gone from bleak to something positive at the very least.

12-03-16-tiger-recoil

As I mentioned earlier, the change from Nike equipment is probably not something that Tiger needed added on top of the other obstacles in his way back to quality play, but the early returns look promising. There were a few loose drives with the TaylorMade M2, but that should have been expected in his first tournament back and the return of the Scotty Cameron putter was just a joy to see.

I’ve always held the opinion that if he could get himself healthy, that Tiger would win tournaments again, and I still think that’s true. Golf is in a good place right now, and if Tiger can’t come back and play well again, it’s not the end of the world like it would have been years ago. But just think how great it would be, even for a short period of time, to see Tiger Woods go head to head with Rory, Jordan and the rest of the young stars on the PGA Tour. It would be pretty special, and considering where we were a year ago, it’s amazing that there’s even a tiny sliver of a chance that it could actually happen.

Oh, and this is actually real:


8. Rory vs. Patrick Reed at the Ryder Cup

Seeing great matches at the Ryder Cup is nothing new. When you get the best players in the world together for a few days and pit them against each other in head to head competition, you’re going to get great TV and when you add in the crazed atmosphere from the fans at the event, you have the best possible theatre that golf can provide. But, Rory McIlroy vs. Patrick Reed at the 2016 Ryder Cup was something new.

Patrick Reed was not the best golfer on the 2016 American Ryder Cup team, as that honour would probably belong to either Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth, but what’s clear is that he was their emotional leader. Rory McIlroy was the best golfer on the 2016 European Ryder Cup team, but with Ian Poulter on the sidelines, someone needed to step up and fill the emotional void that was created when Poulter had to sit out with a foot injury. With that in mind, we all wanted to see Rory vs. Reed in singles and that’s exactly what we got as they went head to head in the first match out on Sunday morning.

Reed ended up winning the match 1 up and while both players faded some on the back nine, what we saw on the front nine was truly mind blowing. Like they were fighting in the octagon, Rory and Reed traded blows with fury on seemingly every hole, with both players making shots on top of the other. The crowd, already not your typical golf attending audience, saw what was going on and couldn’t help but get excited. They were egging the two of them on, and both Rory and Reed reacted accordingly.

Fist pumping. Chest pounding. Finger waging. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU”.

The Rory McIlroy/Patrick Reed match had it all, and it brought out a side in each player that I don’t think any of us actually knew existed. Rory has always had fun on the course, but this kind of intensity was different. I can’t imagine that we’ll see him break out in a regular tournament any time soon, but every two years at this event seems in play.

For Reed, I don’t think anyone really has a handle on how good of a player he really is. He appears to have all of the tools to be as good as he wants to be, but it definitely doesn’t feel like he’s arrived yet. At the Ryder Cup though, he has fully earned his Captain America status with his unbridled patriotism and play that reminds everyone of some combination of Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods. Much like Poulter, he’s just a different guy at this event.

The Phil Mickelson/Sergio Garcia match on Sunday was better from a pure golf standpoint, but the Rory McIlroy/Patrick Reed match is the most memorable thing from the 2016 Ryder Cup, and it’s not even close.


7. Danny Willett wins the Masters

Coming into 2016, Danny Willett was the 19th ranked player in the world thanks to a run of really good finishes on the European Tour to close out 2015. A win at the 2016 Omega Dubai Desert Classic and a quality run on the PGA Tour, including a T3 at Doral, made him the 12th ranked player in the world heading into the Masters. Still though, it was only his second appearance at Augusta, and with pre-tournament odds set at roughly 50-1, there wasn’t exactly a ton of people expecting the Englishman to come away with the green jacket at the end of the week.

Willett was never more than four shots behind the lead of Jordan Spieth at the conclusion of the first three rounds, so he wasn’t really out of the picture, but when he started the back nine down five shots to Spieth, it seemed over. Then it all came crashing down for Spieth, and Willett’s 67 was good enough for a three shot win and his first major championship victory.

The focus of the 2016 Masters will always be on Jordan Spieth (more on that in a second), but we shouldn’t forget that Willett was extremely solid throughout the entire week and posted a great number on Sunday. The story gets even better when you realize that Willett was actually pretty close to not playing in the tournament at all. He had locked up his spot in the field months prior, but his wife Nicole was set to give birth on April 10th, which was Masters Sunday and Willett was adamant that he wasn’t going to miss the birth of his first child. When Zacariah Willett was born early on March 30th though, Willett was free to make the trip to Augusta, and it’s a good thing he did.


6. The United States won the Ryder Cup

Coming into the 2016 Ryder Cup, the Americans were the favourites. They were playing at home, had a strong roster of players who were hot and the Europeans were running six rookies out at Hazeltine to go along with some veterans who really hadn’t been playing all that well. Europe’s big four of Rory, Sergio, Henrik and Justin would match up well against any group of four in the world, but the rest of the European roster was lacking. Of course, we’ve all heard this story before. Since continental Europe was invited to the Ryder Cup in 1979, the Americans have frequently had the advantage on paper, but for whatever reason, recent history hasn’t been very kind to them.

This all changed in 2016, as the United States picked up just their third Ryder Cup victory since 1993 by easily disposing of Europe 17-11. Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker were the stars of the week for Davis Love’s side, as there was simply too much firepower for the Darren Clarke’s Europeans to contend with. Every player on the American side picked up at least a full point during the week, and it just seemed like everything fell into place for the Americans during those three days at Hazeltine.

Did the Ryder Cup Task Force, formed after the debacle that was the 2014 Ryder Cup, actually help the Americans win? I don’t know that we can point to anything specifically, but it seems like the players are more engaged with the process now than they have been in previous versions. The more logical takeaway to me would be that match play is much more volatile than stroke play, and that the Americans simply played better for three days than Europe did, but that doesn’t mean that the reverse won’t happen two years from now in France.

As always though, the Ryder Cup delivered both in quality play and drama. It’s golf’s best event without question, and for the time being, it belongs to the United States of America.


5. Henrik Stenson vs. Phil Mickelson

From a pure golf standpoint, there was nothing better in 2016 than watching Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson battle it out for the Open Championship at Troon. This is what I wrote about the duel back in July:

So much of what we saw at Troon on the weekend defies explanation. For 36 holes, two players in a field of the best golfers in the world seemingly played a course that the others didn’t, and it was an absolutely magical ride. The quality of golf played by Mickelson and Stenson was off the charts, and at certain points, it actually just became comical that they were both as locked in as they were.

The unfortunate thing of course is that someone actually had to lose even though neither deserved that fate, and as has happened a seemingly infinite number of times, it was Mickelson that got the short end of the stick. What we saw on the weekend, and it’s important to note Saturday’s round as well in difficult conditions, is something that we’ll probably never see again with two top players just going at it at the very height of their games while being so much better than everyone else.

At the end of it, Stenson’s 63 was two shots better than Mickelson’s 65, meaning that if Mickelson wanted to even make a playoff out of it, he needed a 62. 62! Stenson’s 63 ties the record for lowest ever major round, and he joins Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot 63 in the final round of a major and go on to win. Miller’s round in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont was obviously incredible considering the conditions and the fact that Oakmont is probably the toughest course on the planet, but I think there’s an argument to be made that what Stenson did on Sunday is the greatest major round ever. Miller was five shots back to start the final round in 1973, so obviously he knew that he had to go low and he was super aggressive. Stenson though was trying to maintain a lead and having to fight off one of the greatest players of all time, and he didn’t blink at all. The shots he pulled off, and the putts he made were otherworldly and there was nothing Mickelson could do to stop it.

In all of my years watching golf, I’ve never seen anything like Stenson vs. Mickelson at Troon. Two of the best players in the world went head to head on a course that apparently only they were playing, and when NBC decided to essentially only show the two of them on the weekend, it made perfect sense. When two guys are doing something truly historic, that’s all you need to show on the broadcast, and make no mistake, what we saw from them was historically good.

Imagine what it must feel like to be Phil Mickelson after you finish in second. He just finished posting the fifth best major performance since 1970, and it wasn’t even good enough. To play that well and have it not result in a win would drive me up the wall, and it’s something that he touched on after the round on Sunday:

“I don’t look back on anything and say, I should have done this differently or that. I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes and yet I got beat by three strokes. You know, it’s not like I have decades left of opportunities to win majors, so each one means a lot to me. And I put in my best performance today. Played close to flawless golf and was beat.”

Flawless golf is right.


 4. Muirfield votes against women

The man pictured above is Henry Fairweather, and aside from being exactly like what you think someone named Henry Fairweather would look like, he’s also the captain of Muirfield Golf Club. Muirfield has a storied history, as they are thought to be the oldest organized club in the world, with records dating back to 1744, and the course is consistently ranked as one of the best not only in Scotland, but in the entire world. They’ve hosted many important tournaments over the years, most notably the Open Championship sixteen times, with the last coming in 2013 when Phil Mickelson came away victorious. ‘Last’ is the key word there, as back in May, the R&A decided to ban Muirfield from future Open Championship hosting duties when the club voted in favour of keeping their membership limited to males only.

Yes, this happened in May of 2016.

The club required a two-thirds majority to change their rules, and the ‘yes’ voters were fourteen votes shy of getting the membership changed. The R&A moved quickly to strip Muirfield of their Open hosting duties, with Martin Slumbers issuing this statement:

“The Open is one of the world’s great sporting events and going forward we will not stage the Championship at a venue that does not admit women as members. If the policy at the club should change we would reconsider Muirfield as a venue.”

Rory McIlroy and Nick Faldo came out as staunch supporters of the R&A’s decision, and it’s easy to see why. Yes, it’s true that women have playing privileges at Muirfield if they are coming as a guest, but for a club as important as they are, Muirfield has a responsibility to be more inclusive as we go forward. It’s the same responsibility that the R&A and Augusta National have, which is why they’ve made steps, albeit small ones but steps nonetheless, to get themselves pointed in the right direction. I usually roll my eyes when people talk about growing the game, but it’s this sort of image that golf is constantly fighting and in this case, it’s not just an image: it’s the 100% reality.

Much to the chagrin of Fairweather, getting pointed in that right direction seemed even more unlikely when the Scotsman obtained a letter (no doubt written on parchment) that explained why it was dangerous to accept women into the club. Things like pace of play, the difficulty of the course and lunch concerns (yes, lunch) were all suggested as reasons to keep women from joining Muirfield, and in turn, cost the local area a ton of money when the Open gets played at Muirfield every ten years.

The good news is that since the backlash was so severe, there is a second vote planned to try and overturn this mess. Hopefully the members of Muirfield do the right thing this time around.


3. Jordan Spieth’s collapse at Augusta

Going into the final round of the Masters, Jordan Spieth carried a one-shot lead over Smylie Kaufman but something didn’t feel quite right. After the opening 66, Spieth carded rounds of 74 and 73 in much tougher conditions than what he faced in the first round, but inside those scores were more bad misses and loose shots than we’re used to seeing, and so he called his coach to have him come down before the final round. They worked on some things, and through the front nine on Sunday, it was all good. Spieth’s lead had grown from one shot to five, this time over Danny Willett, and it looked like we were set to crown Spieth as the Masters champion for the second year in a row.

Then it all came crashing down.

He bogeyed the 10th, and followed that up with another bogey on the par-4 11th. At this point, Willett, who was playing a few groups ahead of Spieth and Kaufman, had cut the lead to one shot with birdies on 13 and 14. Spieth stepped up to the devious par-3 12th, a tiny, little hole that has caused more than its fair share of heartbreak over the years, and he lost it all.

Splash. Drop. Splash.

Spieth deposited two balls into Rae’s Creek, the second of which barely got in there because it was hit so fat, and would eventually make a quadruple bogey seven to fall three shots back of Willett. The whole thing only took 42 minutes, and it cost Jordan Spieth the Masters.

Watching Spieth melt down is one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in sports. Even though Spieth is still super young, this sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen to him. For as talented as he is with a club in his hand, it’s his mind that really separates him from the field. This time though, neither his talent or his mind was able to stop this, and it’s really just another reminder that sometimes this sort of thing just happens in golf, and it happens to the very best.

The good thing for him though is that I don’t think there’s a single player in the game that is better equipped to handle this moment and come back even better than before. He had a good year after the Masters, winning twice and staying in contention, and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t right at the top of the leaderboard again at the Masters this April.

Still though, it’s safe to say that Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the 2016 Masters is something that none of us will ever forget.


2. Dustin Johnson wins U.S. Open despite USGA controversy

For years, golf fans have been waiting for Dustin Johnson to win a major championship and over that time, we’ve all seen him get super close to winning one.

  1. 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach: Johnson holds a three shot lead going into Sunday, but loses six shots in the first four holes en route to firing an 82 and finishing tied for 8th. It happened so fast, and early in the round, that everyone, presumably Johnson included, had come to grips with the result long before it happened.
  2. 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits: Johnson makes birdie on 16 and 17 to take a one-shot lead, but bogeys 18 to get into a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. On further review though, it is determined that Johnson grounded his club in a “bunker” on 18, leading to a penalty and causing him to miss out on the playoff. Debate still happens today about the incident, but Johnson should have been safe and confirmed. It’s that simple.
  3. 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s: Johnson starts the day one shot behind Darren Clarke, and puts one out of bounds on the back nine when he was down two shots, effectively taking him out of the tournament. He would go on to lose by three.
  4. 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay: Johnson holds a two-shot lead going to the back nine, but makes three bogeys in four holes. He fights back, and after Jordan Spieth makes double bogey on 17, the door is open. Johnson goes driver-iron into a 600+ yard par-5 on 18, and sticks it to about twelve feet, where an eagle wins the tournament outright and a birdie forces a playoff with Spieth. Johnson would three putt on those baked out “greens” at Chambers to lose by a shot.

This was it though. Johnson played great for four days at Oakmont, posting rounds of 67-69-71-69 to win by three shots, and under normal circumstances, a great player winning their first major championship after so much heartbreak would be a huge story, but the USGA got involved and made this whole thing a giant mess.

It all started on the fifth green. Johnson was getting ready to putt, and as he was going through his practice routine, his ball moved without him soling the putter behind it. He did place his putter behind the ball, but never officially addressed it by putting it down on the surface. Johnson called over a rules official, and along with partner Lee Westwood, it was determined that Johnson didn’t cause the ball to move and would not be assessed a penalty. Johnson made his par putt and advanced to the 6th tee.

While Johnson was on the 12th tee, he was approached by a pair of USGA rules officials who wanted to know if he could have done anything to make the ball move. Johnson said he didn’t believe so, and the officials decided to not take him at his word, suggesting that he could have made the ball move and that they wanted to show him the video after the round. He was then told that there could be a penalty assessed after the round was complete.

It was an insane series of events that left everyone watching the coverage shaking their heads. Johnson did indeed get penalized after the round, losing a stroke that thankfully didn’t cost him the tournament. After it was all over, the USGA went on the defensive maintaining that they made the right call and did so live on Golf Channel where Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee gave them a much deserved skewering. It wasn’t just the media that crushed the USGA though, as the players watching the tournament were both angry and confused that the USGA decided to go down this path with Johnson.

I’ve never seen a reaction like this. Golfers going public ripping a governing body during and after a tournament is unprecedented, and it wasn’t just those guys above. This is what I wrote about the whole thing back in June:

As Chamblee mentioned in the clip above, I have never seen a single player cause a ball to move by taking practice putts and soling the putter beside the ball. It just doesn’t happen, and as Snedeker said, how on earth does the ball move backwards on that if Johnson caused it to move? Maybe it had something to do with your lightning fast greens that you spent all week pumping up as a true test of golf. Maybe it had something to do with the slope or the poa or a brief gust of wind.

On top of that, how can you tell a player that he might be penalized AFTER the round? Not only is it unfair to the player being penalized, but it’s also unfair to the rest of the field. Think about the drivable par-4 17th. It didn’t end up mattering anyway because of where the scores ended up, but if Shane Lowry walks to the tee with a share of the lead, it’s a completely different scenario than him getting there and being one down. It goes from potentially a layup to preserve the tie, to a “go for the green” in one. Even with the players knowing there was the potential for Johnson to be penalized, it completely changed the complexion of the tournament. They knew they were penalizing him when they told him on the 12th tee, and that’s when it should have been given out.

One of the selling points of golf has always been the idea that it is a game of honour and trust. Players call penalties on themselves all the time and generally do the right thing, which helps build core values that you take with you once you leave the course. The USGA, in effect, called Dustin Johnson a liar yesterday and decided to penalize him because they could.

For years, the USGA has turned a blind eye to the distance issue and decided to do nothing about it while players fly 2-irons over 300 yards. Ultimately, their inaction on that is going to be the biggest black mark they leave on the game, but situations like this where they decide to enforce something, with no proof, that had no impact on the tournament counters any amount of good that comes from their campaigns to grow the game. They’re lucky that Johnson had enough of a lead after it was over that it didn’t cost him the tournament, but imagine watching golf for the first time yesterday and trying to understand that whole thing. You’d never want to pick up a club and learn the game.

The USGA should be both thankful and embarrassed with what happened yesterday, and with how the players reacted to the decision, you can bet that this is far from over.

The whole “you can bet that this is far from over” thing changed in December when the USGA and R&A announced changes to the Rules of Golf that basically would have absolved Johnson in this scenario, and I’m sure that most of their reasoning had to do with how badly they got crushed at Oakmont.

It’s unfortunate that this whole situation placed a black cloud over Johnson’s win because as I mentioned above, he really did play great for four days. We shouldn’t forget that when talking about the 2016 U.S. Open, but admittedly, that’s difficult with how the USGA interjected themselves into the proceedings.


1. Arnold Palmer passes away at age 87

Attempting to put Arnold Palmer’s impact on not only golf or sports, but the entire world into a few words, is an impossible task, but I’m going to try.

As a golfer, he’s known as one of the greatest players of all-time, who not only had success on the course, but because of his charm, flair and good looks, drove more interest and money to the game than ever imaginable. As an athlete, he’s respected as one of the best in his field, and essentially became the model for which the modern athlete has based their branding and business on, but the mark he left on the world is what made Palmer truly remarkable.

Whether it’s something “small” like the hand written notes or letters he would pass on to fellow golfers or anyone who wrote to him asking for advice or help, or something massive like creating the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, the impact that Palmer made on the world, and will continue to make on the world long after his passing, is truly incalculable.

I never got the chance to meet Arnold Palmer, but I still felt like I knew him; like he was a friend, and that’s not something that’s normal. I also know that I’m far from the only one who felt that way, as evidenced by this great piece from Brendan Porath who got to meet Palmer for the first time less than two weeks before he passed in September.

He made people feel special, and it didn’t matter to him if he had known them for the last fifty years or if he was meeting them for the first time. That, above all of the golf tournaments he won and everything else surrounding him, is what I’ll remember most about Arnold Palmer. He truly was, and will forever be ‘The King’.

Rest in peace, Mr. Palmer and thank you for everything.

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