2017 Year In Review: 30-21

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30 SIXES

If you’re reading this, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that you love watching golf, regardless of the format. It can be stroke play, stableford, match play or whatever else, and you’re likely going to be entertained, as am I. Having said that, there’s also no doubt that the game at the professional level can get a little stale with the constant barrage of stroke play events. One cure for this would be to introduce more match play, which I’m a big proponent of, but both the PGA and European Tours deserve credit for things they introduced in 2017.

As Soly says frequently, it honestly feels like the European Tour is just open for business when it comes to crazy ideas. They’re always willing to try stuff, and it’s how we get things like the Hero Challenge.

Not all of them are going to work of course, but one that I thought did work was the GolfSixes. Back in May, 32 players teed it up in groups of two for the two day event. The first day saw four groups of four teams each battle it out over six holes of match play, with the top two groups advancing to Sunday. There were player interviews throughout the round, a live shot clock and it was streamed on YouTube. Ultimately, it was still golf and it was still match play, but it gave us a new spin on the game, and it was fun to see.

The PGA Tour, not usually known for messing with the format, did just that for the Zurich Classic, moving the regular stroke play event to a team format. The rounds alternated between foursome and fourball play. It was a full field event with eighty teams competing, with my one gripe being that they couldn’t figure out how to hand out OWGR ranking points to anyone in the field. They managed to get a better field in New Orleans than they had in the past, and on top of that, they got a quality finish, even if it did go to Monday. It went to a playoff between Cameron Smith / Jonas Blixt and Scott Brown / Kevin Kisner thanks to a dramatic chip in on the last hole by Kisner.

Smith and Blixt would take the tournament on the following day, and you’d have to think that everyone involved thought it was a successful week. There’s more stuff coming on this front in 2018, especially in Europe, and it’s a good thing. It’s good to see everyone branching out and trying to do something different that doesn’t dramatically alter the game. Very interested to see where this goes next year and beyond.

29 CANTLAY

Patrick Cantlay was always supposed to be one of the best players in the world. He’s not unique in that regard, as phenoms come and go seemingly every year, but Cantlay was supposed to be different. Andy Johnson did a great job of running down exactly why this was the case back in February, but the short version is that he was an incredible college player and was on his way until a severe back injury derailed his career. On top of that, his best friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed in 2016 in a hit and run.

The back injury was so bad that Cantlay hadn’t made a start since November of 2014 at Mayakoba, so it was big news that he was going to attempt to play at Pebble Beach back in February. Making the cut and finishing tied for 48th doesn’t usually garner a lot of attention, but considering where he had come from, this was a big deal, and it allowed him to jump roughly 400 spots in the OWGR. What happened next though is what really turned heads.

Cantlay took a few weeks off and re-appeared at the Valspar, and he scorched the course over the final three days, with rounds of 66-66-68. He would fall one shot short of Adam Hadwin’s winning total, but it was a signal to everyone that Cantlay was back and something to really watch.

He played well enough the rest of the year to make it through to the Tour Championship, and was able to get into the first WGC event of his career in China, where he finished tied for 15th. The next week, he went out and won in Las Vegas for his first win on any tour since 2013. He is now fully exempt on the PGA Tour for the next two years after making all of 14 starts in 2017.

In those starts, he picked up a win and didn’t miss a cut. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a player who hadn’t played in a tournament on any recognized tour since November of 2014, and he showed up and balled out on the biggest tour in the world. He started 2017 with no status, and essentially no world ranking points, and he is now the 40th ranked player in the world. It’s insane, and yet, for those who followed him closely years ago, it’s actually not insane at all.

Cantlay is in the best possible situation going into 2018. His card is secure, and by the sounds of things, his back is not giving him any trouble. I don’t know what his ceiling is, but assuming he stays healthy, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he ends up on the American Ryder Cup team in September after winning a few times and getting himself into the top 15 or 20 in the world. He’s that good, and could be even better than that with more time on the course.

He was always supposed to be one of the best players in the world, and now, it looks like we might get to see him be just that.

28 POULTER

Ian Poulter will turn 42 early in January, and a few weeks ago, we passed the fifth anniversary of his last win at the 2012 WGC-HSBC Champions. It’s been a tough few years for Poulter, who only posted five top-10 finishes combined in 2015 and 2016, and had to settle for being an assistant at the Ryder Cup in 2016, as he was recovering from an injury. The poor play and health issues directly contributed to Poulter essentially playing for his PGA Tour card early in the season. He only had a few starts on a medical extension to earn enough points to keep it, and when he didn’t, it was all over.

Until Poulter got some help from Brian Gay. Gay noticed that the way the PGA Tour awarded FedEx Cup points changed, and players like him and Poulter were adversely affected on their medical extensions. So, the PGA Tour discussed it and agreed that the points for the 2016-17 season should be looked at with the 2015-16 formula in mind, which gave Poulter and Gay their cards back for the rest of the season.

The whole thing was just really weird, but thanks to Gay being so eagle eyed with the rules, Poulter was given a second chance and he made the most of it. His first start after the news broke was at the Players Championship where he finished tied for second with Louis Oosthuizen behind Si Woo Kim. Poulter absolutely had a chance to win on Sunday, but appeared to play it safe, leading to Brandel Chamblee questioning his motivations, to which Poulter fired back. Kevin Van Valkenburg tackled that part of Poulter’s year perfectly in a few (now deleted) tweets that you can still see at this link.

Whether or not Poulter played it safe, what mattered was that he had his card and that runner-up allowed him to jump 115 spots in the OWGR from 195 to 80. The quality play continued after that tournament as well, as Poulter didn’t miss a cut after the Players in 18 starts, allowing him to jump again in the OWGR to just outside the top 50.

Poulter is a divisive figure, and I’m well aware that many of you reading this right now a) don’t like him and b) don’t think that this story should be this high on the list. But, here’s the thing: very few players evoke this kind of emotion out of golf fans, and ultimately, Poulter being around and playing well is good for a game that is still short on characters. You know what this also means? It means that, once again, Poulter has put himself in the Ryder Cup conversation and with the way he’s played recently, I’m pretty sure that he would be on the team if it was being picked today. Should the Americans be concerned about him? Probably not, but there’s something about Poulter playing a Ryder Cup in Europe that just gives the event even more juice.

Poulter’s not going to generate the kind of headlines that the young players at the top of the game will, and rightfully so. But, there’s still some game left in him and this is a story to watch in 2018.

All thanks to Brian Gay.

27 PHIL

No one in their right mind is going to suggest that Phil Mickelson, even at his otherworldly best, is a consistent player. He has always had wild swings from tournament to tournament, round to round, and even hole to hole, but things felt different in 2017. For the first time in his career, it felt like Phil Mickelson was starting to slow down.

That’s not to say that he’s a bad player. Frankly, he’s still pretty amazing and if he went out and won a tournament or two in 2018, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least, but there were some worrying trends over the past twelve months. Shane Bacon initially touched on it back in February.

Basically, when I watched Phil in 2017, I was waiting for him to get tired and start to wane on the course. It happened in Phoenix and at Pebble. Then, he looked great at the match play, never trailing in his first four matches before getting beat 2 and 1 by Bill Haas in a match that felt much further apart than that. He made the same amount of birdies and one more eagle than Sergio at the Masters, and got beaten by eleven. He was in a good spot on Friday at the Players through 27 holes before blowing up on the back nine. Mickelson even explained that he was trying to conserve energy because he had been getting tired on the course, so it’s something that he was keenly aware of early in the season.

The strangest moment of Mickelson’s year though came in Memphis, when he had a chance to win the FedEx St. Jude. He was on top of the leaderboard on the back nine, which he noticed on the course, and:

No, that’s not a typo. That’s Phil Mickelson admitting that he was nervous seeing his name at the top of a leaderboard. Phil Mickelson! The most irrationally confident golfer of his generation couldn’t get over the fact that he had a chance to win a golf tournament, and it got in his head to the point that he collapsed down the stretch. Remember, this is a player with 42 PGA Tour wins, not some 21-year old kid fresh off the Web. Those are the players that you expect to get nervous with a tournament on the line, not Phil Mickelson.

It was a shocking moment of honesty and vulnerability, and it gave us a little glimpse inside the mind of someone who may have realized that his time as a truly elite player was coming to an end. Maybe I’m making too much of this, but it’s honestly something I never thought I’d hear out of the mouth of Phil Mickelson.

Like I said earlier, the numbers are still there and he’s a threat to win every time he tees it up, but there’s also a few things lingering here that needs to be addressed if he wants to win again. I’m fascinated to watch it play out.

26 BUBBA

We all know that Bubba Watson had a rough year on the golf course in 2017. In 23 starts worldwide, Watson finished in the top-10 just three times and missing seven cuts. Now, if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that I frequently mention how difficult the game is, even at the pro level and that we shouldn’t overreact to a negative stretch of play, even if it comes over an entire year from one of the best players in the world.

Having said that, what we’re actually talking about with Bubba is a fall that at least in terms of the Official World Golf Rankings, we’ve never seen before. What am I talking about? Bubba ended 2016 as the 10th ranked player in the world, and as of this writing, he currently sits as the 89th ranked player in the world. Since the OWGR was introduced in 1986, no player who finished one calendar year inside the top-10, has fallen as far as Bubba did in 2017. Previously, the only three players had ever fallen outside of the top-50 when being ranked inside the top-10 the previous year:

  • Mark O’Meara from 1999 to 2000 dropped to 73rd from the 10th position
  • Henrik Stenson from 2009 to 2010 went from 8th to 51st
  • Kenny Perry, also from 2009 to 2010, fell 66 spots from 10th to 76th

Now, I know that the OWGR isn’t the perfect system, but it’s all we have to go on right now and we’re in uncharted territory here. So, what happened? How did one of the best players in the world end up having a completely dreadful season?

Well, there was the diet that he went on that saw him cut out sugar and allowed him to lose 15-20 pounds, which he speculated may have had an impact on his swing. There’s probably something to that, but the pink elephant in the room is that back in January, Watson signed a deal with Volvik to produce coloured golf balls that he would use on tour instead of his trusty Pro V1s. I’ll leave the speculation as to why he made that move to other people, but it clearly had a massive effect on his game. When you look at him statistically, he was worse in every category in 2017 compared to 2016, with the exception of a slight gain in putting where he was still losing shots.

Bubba SG.png

2017 was also the first year that Watson had been a negative on Strokes Gained Approach since 2007, which makes sense when you consider that he was probably having trouble figuring out distance and spin control.

In short, 2017 was a mess for Bubba and now, he’s back playing Pro V1s again in 2018, but without an actual deal. As Soly said on our Year In Review podcast, I’m not sure that there’s a better advertisement for Titleist than that.

25 HIDEKI

I feel like I’ve been watching Hideki Matsuyama play golf for twenty years. Now, part of that has to do with the fact that each round of his takes about six hours to complete, but I bring this up because much like the other top players in the world, Matusyama doesn’t seem to get enough credit for being as good as he is at such a young age. He’s still 25 years old, and even though he didn’t win five times in 2017 like he did in 2016, he had one hell of a year over the past twelve months.

His two wins were big ones, first defending his title in Phoenix at the Waste Management, beating Webb Simpson in a playoff. Then, he went on an absolute heater at Firestone, posting a Sunday 61 to take the WGC-Bridgestone by five shots. It was the kind of round that reminded you of just how good Matsuyama is and that when he’s on, he’s in the “is he the best player in the world?” conversation.

The rest of the year was good, as well with runner up finishes at Kapalua and the U.S. Open, which allowed him to vault as high as the number two player in the world. He wasn’t able to grab the number one spot, but if he can manage to do that in 2018, he’ll be the first Japanese player, male or female, to be ranked as the best player in the world. That’s a big deal, and he’s more than capable of doing just that.

He still gives off this man of mystery vibe, largely because his English isn’t great, but he excels at the universal language of ball striking and he’s well on his way to becoming the best Japanese player of all time. He’s already had a breakout season, but 2018 feels like the year that Matsuyama makes an even bigger leap and I can’t wait to watch him do it.

24 PAYNE

Depending on how you view the individual tournaments around the world, the Masters is probably either first, second or third in terms of prestige. It has a rich history, filled with incredible moments played over the same course every year since 1931, and for many people, it signals the start of the golf year when it comes around every April. For the last eleven years, Billy Payne has been the face of the tournament, and 2017 was where that run came to an end.

Payne stepped down as Augusta National chairman back in August, with Fred Ridley announced as his successor. Ridley, as you’ll recall, is the former USGA president who served as the head of the rules committee at Augusta and famously got involved in the Tiger DropGate scandal in 2013.

For Payne though, he oversaw some pretty important growth both at the club and for the Masters Tournament. Payne spearheaded initiatives like the Asia-Pacific Amateur tournament, which annually awards a spot in the Masters to the winner and he was heavily involved in bringing the Drive, Chip and Putt to fruition. On top of that, and more importantly, it was under Payne’s watch that women were able to join the club for the first time. Given the way that Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson, ran the place, that was a major development a few years ago.

Publicly, Payne was best known for hosting the ceremonial tee shots at Augusta, which in his time, meant getting to introduce Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus to kick off the tournament. He always did it with grace, and in 2017, the first year without Palmer, Payne was at his best.

23 XANDER

One of the cool things about golf is that players like Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm are supposed to be good, and when we see it actually happen, it’s a lot of fun. It’s even more fun when we see someone like Patrick Cantlay work his way back and look like he’s about to join them as one of the elite players in the world. Do you know what might be even more fun than both of those? When someone comes from essentially nowhere to become one of the best in the world.

Enter Xander Schauffele.

I shouldn’t say that Schauffele came out of nowhere. He was a top-10 ranked amateur player in the world when he decided to turn pro, so it’s not like people were completely unaware of his existence. With three wins and top-10 finishes in more than half of his college starts at San Diego State, it’s not like he was a complete nobody when he jumped onto the Web.com Tour in 2015.

Once he got there though, he didn’t go on a Wesley Bryan-esque heater to gain his PGA Tour card. He didn’t post a single win on the Web in 2015 or 2016, but did enough to earn his PGA Tour card at the Web.com Finals. He started 2017 by missing six of his first eleven cuts on the PGA Tour, but got into the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and ended up finishing in a tie for fifth. A few weeks later, he was a PGA Tour champion, taking the Greenbrier by beating Robert Streb by a shot.

It doesn’t end there, though. He played pretty well over the next few weeks, which allowed him to get into the Tour Championship. He entered the final round two shots back of Paul Casey, and after chasing him down, Schauffele managed to hold off Thomas to win the tournament.

I’d like to think that I’m fairly on top of golf, but I had no idea who Xander Schauffele was coming into 2017, and now, he’s the 25th ranked player in the world. I don’t know what the ceiling is for him, and I don’t think anyone really does, to be honest. What I do know is that he was an extremely pleasant surprise in the second half of 2017, and he’s someone that is going to be getting a whole lot more attention as the calendar turns to 2018. How he reacts to the added pressure and expectation that is surely going to come is an intriguing storyline to follow over the next twelve months.

22 DUSTIN

When Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open in 2016, it was definitely looked at by some as the moment when he finally reached his massive potential. Then, he won two of his next seven starts and we got a glimpse, again, of just how scary good Johnson can be when he’s on point. If that was the glimpse, 2017 was the full view.

Johnson’s first ten starts of 2017 looked like this:

Tournament

Finish
Tournament of Champions

T6

Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

T2
Farmers Insurance Open

Missed Cut

AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

3rd
Genesis Open

1st

WGC-Mexico Championship

1st
WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

1st

Wells Fargo Championship

T2
Players Championship

T12

AT&T Byron Nelson

T13

Now, what you don’t see in there is the Masters (which we’ll get to in a second), but look at that run! Also, the two runner-up finishes were losses by a single shot, so we were actually pretty close to seeing Johnson win five of his first ten starts of the 2017 season, which is insane. Johnson became the number one ranked player in the world after that Genesis Open win, and he hasn’t given it back, despite some large pushes from the likes of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Johnson would pick up his fourth win of the year at the Northern Trust, vanquishing Spieth in a playoff with what could easily go down as the shot of the year. Johnson’s drive on 18 in the playoff was comically long, with a line that shouldn’t even be possible. Take a look at the video below and see the difference between the line Spieth took, followed by the one that Johnson ended up taking.

If 2016 was the moment when Dustin Johnson reached his full potential, then I’m not even sure what the hell 2017 was. It speaks to the quality of year that golf had that this isn’t higher on my list, but the way that Dustin Johnson played in 2017 is something that I’m never going to forget.

21 BAY HILL

The modern day golf schedule has done a lot of things for the game. It has increased purse sizes, it has opened the door to new venues and locations and it has generally, given golf fans a way to see the best players in the world on a relatively frequent basis. The knock on effect though has been that while new events, like the WGCs and the FedEx Cup Playoffs, have received more money and better fields, other events have suffered.

Personally, I see this all the time with the Canadian Open. It used to get a much better field than it does now, and thanks in large part to its current place on the schedule, it’s hard to see a really strong group of players coming north of the border. The Byron Nelson has seen the same thing happen to it, as since Nelson passed away back in 2006, fewer and fewer top players have made that tournament a priority. In 2017, all of these factors combined to cause many players to not show up at Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

2017 was the first year the tournament was played without Palmer, who passed away in 2016. Players like Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson were among the players who took a pass in 2017, likely because of the jam packed schedule around the tournament. The WGC-Mexico Championship was two weeks prior to Bay Hill, with the Match Play the following week and the Masters two weeks after that. Throw in some of the big tournaments prior to Mexico, and you have a loaded schedule, where players are going to have to skip some starts to be as on top of their game as possible.

The players skipping the tournament didn’t sit well with some of their fellow pros.

It should be noted that not all of the pros were upset with the turnout. Bob Harig did a good job for ESPN laying out both sides of the argument, speaking with many of the players who were in attendance. Ultimately, the field was pretty good and the tournament crowned a worth champion in Marc Leishman, but I do wonder about the long-term effects here. Palmer was obviously the big reason why many of the players would show up at Bay Hill, and without him there, it’s pretty easy to see how the tournament could end up suffering the same fate as the Nelson. It’s the reality of the modern schedule that with all of the added events, something is going to take a hit, and as it stands right now, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is, unfortunately, one of the leading candidates.

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