2019 Year In Review: 20-1
So, we already talked about how Rory McIlroy took a pass on the Irish Open primarily because he wanted to prepare for the Open Championship, held in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush. The Open Championship is always special to everyone who plays, but it really does have more meaning for those who grew up in the United Kingdom, and it takes on even stronger meaning to those who grew up in the specific cities and towns where it is held every year. In 2019, it meant a lot more for Rory McIlroy.
Portrush isn’t just a golf course in Northern Ireland. It happens to be a course where McIlroy holds the course record, a 61 fired when he was just 16 years old. It’s the kind of story that has made the rounds a lot, and when you listen to the people who were there at the time, it was plainly obvious how special it was to witness.
So, the backdrop to the oldest tournament in the world is that you have a special course that hasn’t hosted this event in 68 years, in a country that has seen more strife than most, and a player who understands the significance of all of that. That player, who has more intelligence and thoughtfulness in his pinky finger than most golfers have in their entire bodies, is from the area and at this stage, the only way he can add to his legacy is by winning more tournaments like this one. It’s a hell of a story, and one that were it to play out with McIlroy winning his fifth major championship, it would be hard to top in this year or any other.
It didn’t happen that way. And we knew it pretty much right from the first tee on Thursday morning.
McIlroy launched one left off of the first tee, out of bounds to start his tournament. It could have just been a bad swing, or maybe it was the pressure of playing in this tournament that got to him in that moment, but the week that meant so much to him couldn’t have started any worse. He re-teed, but had to take an unplayable after his fourth shot. When it was all said and done, McIlroy tapped in for an opening quadruple bogey, and an opening nine of 39, which was somehow one shot better than his back nine 40, punctuated with no birdies and double bogeys on two of his last three holes to close in 79.
He would need something magical to even make the cut on Friday. Even if he did, his chances of winning the tournament were incredibly remote. Only four players in the last forty years of the Open have been outside the top-10 on the leaderboard after the second round, let alone right near the cut line where McIlroy would surely be if he advanced to the weekend. He gave it one hell of an effort, posting a second round 65 that would leave him one shot short of making the weekend.
It would have been easy for him to pack it in and fade into the background after a tough opening round, but he stuck with it and tried to make the cut, which is more than what you can say for a lot of other players that would have been in a similar position. In the aftermath, you can see why he did that in this interview with Golf Channel’s Steve Sands. When asked about what it was like to try and fight for the cut, McIlroy, choking back tears, said this:
“It was awesome, sort of emotional. I feel like I get a lot of great support anywhere I go, but I really felt it today for whatever reason. Every green to tee, all of these people are here for me and they want me to do well. It sucks I’m not here for the weekend, I would have loved to play in front of them for two more days, but I’m proud of how I stuck in there. Played a really good, solid round of golf today, it wasn’t quite enough. But the good thing in this game is that there’s always next week, so try to dust myself off and get ready for Memphis. I’m just so proud of everyone involved in this tournament, bringing it to Northern Ireland. I wish the ending, for me, would have been written a little bit differently, but it’s been an awesome experience and I can’t wait to come back here in a few years and play in another Open.”
The interview is really something, and the words up there honestly don’t do it justice, so I’d really recommend watching it in the link above. I also can’t recommend reading Brendan Porath enough on what happened here at Royal Portrush.
Rory McIlroy is great for any number of reasons: his otherworldly talent and the picturesque swing immediately come to mind, but that interview is actually the one that resonates with me the most. He may never win an Open at Portrush, and he may never win another major championship again, though I’m certainly not betting on that to be the case. Regardless of how this all ends though, the one thing about him that will never go away is his sense of purpose, and understanding. This is a thoughtful guy first and foremost; one who understands his place in the game, and the greater world around him. At the end of the day, what he seemed most upset about in that interview wasn’t that he missed out on winning another tournament, but that he disappointed a group of fans who wanted to see him play well. Maybe I’m naive on that point, but in this instance, he really did just seem like a kid from Northern Ireland who wanted to put on a good show for people.
He’s a special guy, and he didn’t need to win another major to show it.
It’s no secret that pace of play is a problem on the PGA Tour, and no event has it worse than the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where an already slow group of pros are paired with amateurs, naturally leading to excruciatingly long rounds. The only thing that this tournament has over the other pro-am on tour is that it’s played at Pebble. Well, that and they don’t typically, to the best of my knowledge, let people like this into their tournament, but I digress!
The point is that it can take a long time to finish the tournament at Pebble, and when you throw in bad weather like we had this year, it just makes it so much harder to get it all in. After the hail cleared, it was going to be tight to get it finished, and it always seemed unlikely. Making matters more complicated was that it seemed like we had a pretty bunched leaderboard, with the chance of a playoff seeming pretty high. Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Si Woo Kim, Scott Stallings, and Jason Day all had chances as they headed to the back nine to win it, so it always had the feel of a Monday finish.
At the end of it all, it came down to Casey and Mickelson, who were playing together in the final group. Mickelson had separated himself, chasing Casey down, and holding a three shot lead over him as they played the par-4 16th. Mickelson obviously knew that they were running out of time, and as someone with a sizeable lead with little golf to be played, he wanted to keep playing as long as he could, regardless of how dark it was. Mickelson tapped in for par on the 16th, and waited for Casey to finish. Casey, who was leading the amateur side of the tournament as well with his partner, said that in his mind, it was too dark for him to even finish that hole, let alone play two more. This led to some of the best moments of the year in golf, as we got to see Mickelson, knowing full well that it was too dark to continue, attempt to argue that it was in fact, perfectly fine to keep playing.
There might not be a better quote of the entire year than Mickelson’s ‘but i can see just fine’.
Just…unbelievable. There’s no way they could play in that, and everyone knew it, including Mickelson, but he just had to see where he could push it. I respect it, and I’m sure that a younger player on the PGA Tour with less stature in the game than Casey may have been convinced to follow Mickelson’s lead, but Casey standing his ground and saying that there was no way he was finishing was tremendous, too.
Ultimately, it didn’t end up mattering and Mickelson won by three shots the next morning, but it was a perfect early season moment that captured the essence of Phil Mickelson better than just about anything else ever could.
Sarson’s Note: This entry will focus solely on the actual Presidents Cup, not whatever the hell happened with Patrick Reed. That’s coming up separately!
We all know that historically, the Presidents Cup has been a one-sided affair that draws minimal interest from the fans, media and the players themselves when compared to the historically significant Ryder Cup. In most years, the International Team has not been able to keep up with the much stronger Americans, who to be honest, always seem like they take it more as a warmup for the Ryder Cup than as an actual competition. Combine that with the fact that the event is usually held at a bland venue at the end of a long season, and you have the perfect recipe for an event to be largely ignored, even if it is played in the much superior match play format.
2019 was different though, and it all started for me with the course. Royal Melbourne is an absolute treat, and unlike anything that we see on TV with regularity. This is not the mindless target golf that most courses on the PGA Tour offer, as you have to think your way around the place that is probably Alister MacKenzie’s finest work. Then, it was the captains. Tiger Woods is the greatest player that many of us have ever seen, and Ernie Els is probably either second or third best from the same era, depending on who you ask. Their involvement, compared to less sexy names of the past like Nick Price and Jay Haas, makes a difference. Tiger’s own potential to pick himself to play in the event, as the first playing captain in either the Presidents or Ryder Cup since Hale Irwin at the 1994 Presidents Cup, added a nice little wrinkle as well.
Think back to where we were in March of 2018. That’s when Tiger and Ernie were announced as the two captains for this event. Ernie, unfortunately, was a lost cause from a playing standpoint, ranked in the mid 600’s in the world, but Tiger had just started to turn the corner, with a good finish at the Honda, and a runner-up at the Valspar to get him back inside the world’s top 150. This really wasn’t that long ago, and yet, if you could go back in time and say that Tiger would be playing on the team, and that he picked himself over Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, you would have thought that your future self was a complete moron. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Fowler would eventually get added to the roster thanks to an injury to Brooks Koepka, but Spieth being left at home after a tough year is an unbelievable thing to think about, even in the immediate aftermath.
Once the tournament started, a few things were clear: first, this International team was not going to be the pushover that others had been in the past. Els made it clear that one thing he was excited about was the amount of rookies that were on his team. Seven players were making their first starts in the event, thanks in large part to longtime veterans like Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel being unavailable due to injury, opening the door for names like PGA Tour ROY Sungjae Im and wunderkid Joaquin Niemann.
Secondly, Royal Melbourne was going to be a problem. Whether it was the data that Els was sourcing from the 15th Club that helped inform pairings, the uber smart assistants like Geoff Ogilvy, the players themselves being more accustomed to the course than the Americans, or some combination of all three, it just felt like the International Team was more equipped to deal with the subtleties of the design than the Americans. Of course, the one notable exception to that last part was Tiger himself. Tiger, at heart, is a golf geek and watching him dissect the MacKenzie masterpiece was an absolute joy.
Tiger would finish the week with a 3-0 record as a player, and early on, it looked like he was the only player really contributing to the American cause. His win in the first session with Justin Thomas was primarily because of Tiger’s effort, and it was the only point the Americans put on the board on the opening day, going down to the Internationals 4-1. Tiger and Thomas would put up another victory on Friday, allowing for the session to be split at 2.5 points each, meaning the Internationals would have their first lead going into a weekend since 2005. It was as much a testament to the struggles of certain Americans (see Reed, Patrick) as much as it was the tremendous performances put on by the likes of Abraham Ancer, Im, and Louis Oosthuizen.
Tiger then made the curious decision to sit himself out for all of Saturday, which was controversial given how well he had played coming into the day, but according to Fred Couples, it was because he couldn’t physically make it work.
The Internationals would extend their lead in the morning fourball session to four points, but in the afternoon, they couldn’t win any of the four matches, ending with a 0-2-2 record, and allowing the Americans to get back within two points heading to Sunday singles. On some level, it felt to me that even though they were behind, it was still the Americans’ tournament to lose. After getting to spend this much time on the course, it felt possible that the talent of the Americans would take over.
Tiger started it out for the Americans, taking out Ancer, and Reed finally dug himself out of the hole he had been in the entire week, running over C.T. Pan. Dustin Johnson did the same thing with Haotong Li, and when Hideki Matsuyama blew a large lead against Tony Finau, it became pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be the day the Internationals won the cup back for the second time in tournament history. The Americans would go on to win 16-14 for their eighth straight Presidents Cup victory.
What’s interesting for me are a few things in the aftermath of the event:
- We all knew that Tiger was going to be a captain of one of these teams at some point, but did anyone actually see him being this invested? Sure, he’s made a transformation over the last few years to a more friendly version of who he was, but this was something different. Throughout the week, you could tell that he really cared. Not just about his matches, or winning the event, but about his assistant captains and the rest of the team that he put together.
- As much as I love the guy, it wasn’t nearly as weird watching this event without Phil Mickelson as I thought it might be.
- Jordan Spieth on the other hand…
- I can’t believe that we’re actually talking about how Ancer ‘got what was coming to him’ when it comes to a match with Tiger. That’s a Michael Jordan – Brooks Koepka level of slight invention when it was clear that all Ancer was saying was that he would like to play against Tiger. I’d like to play against him! He’d destroy me without question, but I’d still like to play against him.
I love that Ernie also wants to figure out some way to move away from the PGA Tour in this kind of event, which I assume means that he wants more control over who is eligible to play, how the courses are decided and set up, and many other things that I’m sure frustrated him over the two year process. Good luck to him on that, as it’s a PGA Tour event, but anything that can be done to make this event more like 2019 and less like every other year, I’m completely game.
For a guy who only won one tournament in 2019 (Sony Open), and didn’t really do anything of note in the majors or the Presidents Cup, there was an awful lot of Matt Kuchar over the last twelve months. There’s a much larger story coming later in this list, but Kuchar had several run-ins with the rules in 2019 that need to be discussed.
It starts at the WGC-Match Play where Kuchar, and 2019’s other crown prince of rule obedience, Sergio Garcia, were playing their quarterfinal match. Garcia had a putt on the 7th green to win the hole, but he missed, leaving nothing but a tiny tap-in to halve the hole with a bogey. No problem, right? Well, Garcia went to the ball right away, and backhanded it past the hole.
Kuchar didn’t have time to concede the hole, and by rule, that is now a lost hole for Garcia. In this case, there really isn’t anything Kuchar could do about it, but that’s not where it ended. Kuchar and Garcia continued to argue about the whole thing throughout the match, with Garcia suggesting that in order to make it right, Kuchar should have given him a putt on a later hole.
If this sounds familiar, it may be because Garcia himself had a situation in 2014 when he suggested to halve a hole with Rickie Fowler that he could have won, but he felt bad because a ruling took forever. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Kuchar did anything wrong here, but I do think he could have taken this opportunity to look like the bigger person and give Garcia a hole. At the very least, it would have made him look good, unlike what’s about to come in the rest of this entry. Weirdly, the two would “make up” in a bizarre video that…I don’t know.
Next up, is one that was already mentioned on this list, but is important to revisit in the context of this entry: Kuchar attempting to get a free drop from a pitch mark in the middle of the fairway.
The best part about those two videos, aside from the obvious that Kuchar had no hope in hell of winning that argument, was the look from Stephen Cox, the second rules official when he says, completely exasperated: “…Matt”. It’s a completely blatant attempt to take advantage of a rules official, and Cox is having absolutely none of it. The end result of Kuchar having to play that ball, and then hitting a poor shot after the fact is exactly what he deserved.
Lastly, we have one that isn’t in direct violation of the rules necessarily, but it’s still a bad look. Kuchar was playing at the Porsche European Open in September, and his ball found a waste area in the second round. Since he was in a waste area, Kuchar is entitled to move any loose impediments that surround the golf ball, but in this case, Kuchar basically started to move everything around the ball, taking his sweet ass time doing it, too.
The intention of this rule is for large impediments, like rocks, twigs, etc., not literally every pebble that surrounds the ball. It’s also interesting to note the contrast in the broadcast teams as well. At Memorial, Kuchar’s attempt at getting a favourable ruling was looked at as admirable, and a good effort, whereas the European Tour crew was having none of it, falling just short of calling him a cheater.
2019 was a year where Matt Kuchar’s image and reputation took a massive hit, for these incidents above and the big one coming in a few entries.
2019 marked the debut of a new event on the European Tour schedule: The Saudi International. As part of the European Tour’s continued commitment to playing early season golf in the Middle East, they were more than happy to take the money from a country with a horrific record on human rights, play the tournament, and hope that people would just let them slide. For the most part, that kinda happened, but there were some vocal critics, namely Brandel Chamblee, who voiced a super strong take on it before the event started.
“To turn a blind eye to the butchering of a media member, I think in some way, euphemizes the egregious human atrocities that not only took place with Jamal Khashoggi, but go on there all the time. It was just last year they put two transgender women in a bag and bashed them to death by the authority of this regime. Politically, I get why you have to capitulate to Saudi Arabia, I get that. And maybe from a business standpoint, even, but a more definitive personal rebuke can be shown to the PR stunt of this regime, who is really just trying to hoodwink the West, that’s all they’re trying to do here. By not participating, by refusing to participate because your participation in some way, enriches this regime and by non-participation by the athletes in general, you can in some marginal way, and I applaud Paul Casey, in some marginal way make a statement about human rights and whether the European Tour knows it or the players know it, by participating they are a ventriloquist for this abhorrent, reprehensible regime.”
While some players, like UNICEF ambassador Paul Casey, decided to take a pass on the event because of the obvious moral concerns, many others decided to go ahead and take their appearance fees to show up and play. Dustin Johnson, who won the event, was joined by Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter, Thomas Pieters, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose to name just a few.
Rose, typically one of the game’s more thoughtful players, suggested that he was going because he’s “not a politician”, a line that many others would end up using as justification for going as well, while players like DeChambeau decided to extoll the virtues of both the European Tour and the Saudi Arabian government:
For his part, Keith Pelley’s explanation for why they were there in the first place was weak, and somehow, he claimed to not understand the criticism of why they were there, suggesting they were being singled out for their participation. It all came off as being very tone deaf, and as Chamblee mentioned in the above video, it comes across as a group of people who have very little concept of what they’re doing by supporting this regime.
This isn’t going away, either. The European Tour will be back there in a few weeks for the second playing of the event, where Johnson and Koepka will be returning, and they’ve managed to lure Phil Mickelson out there as well, as Mickelson will be skipping the Waste Management Phoenix Open for the first time in his career to take their money and do some sightseeing. They won’t be getting Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods though, with McIlroy taking a similar stance to the one that Casey did last year:
“You could say that about so many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, but a lot of countries that we play in that there’s a reason not to go, but for me, I just don’t want to go. One hundred percent, there’s a morality to it as well. I think the atmosphere looks better at the events on the west coast [USA] and I’d much rather play in front of big golf fans and play in a tournament that really excites me.”
Well, at least one person has it right. Just wish the rest of the golf world would figure that out, too.
As sports fans, sometimes I think we can forget that the athletes that we watch are also regular people, with real things that impact them just like us. Just because they have money and resources that we don’t have doesn’t mean that they don’t also struggle at times, and Cameron Champ was a great example of that in 2019.
Champ was set for stardom early on, and when he burst onto the PGA Tour with a win in just his eighth start at the 2018 Sanderson, a lot was expected in 2019. We started seeing him all over the place in commercials, and promos for PGA Tour Live because Champ’s skillset as a young bomber is highly sellable, but man, 2019 was a real struggle for Champ. He started well with a T11 at the Tournament of Champions, but couldn’t muster anything better than a T21 the rest of the season. He had to withdraw from the Players Championship in March with a back injury, and there were a ton of missed cuts as the season went on as well. So, when the new season started, and his world rank was double what it had been coming into the year, it’s fair to say expectations were lowered for golf fans.
We catch up with Champ at the Safeway Open, where word has gotten out that he might not be teeing it up because his grandfather, who lives in nearby Sacramento, was battling cancer and the feeling was that he didn’t have much time left. Mack Champ had taught his grandson the game, and obviously he meant the world to Cameron, who was struggling with the idea of playing in the tournament with his grandfather feeling the way he was.
Champ did decide to play that week, traveling from the course to Sacramento after each day to be with his family, but Mack was always on his mind. Champ had ‘Papa Champ’ written on his shoes and golf balls for every round that week.Embed from Getty Images
Champ would go on to win the tournament, with rounds of 67-67-67-69 to clip Adam Hadwin by one shot and the emotion was obvious. Mack Champ had been watching the entire time from hospice care, and Cameron’s father made sure to get him on the phone as he went out to hug his son after it was all over.Embed from Getty Images
When it was all said and done, and he was being interviewed greenside, Champ made it clear how important this tournament was to him with everything that had been going on that week:
“To win here will probably go down as – no matter if I win one more tournament, ten more tournaments, whatever it may be – this will be the greatest moment of my golfing career, for sure.”
Less than a month later, Mack Champ would pass away.
I don’t know what the future holds for Cameron Champ, but it’s going to be impossible for me to forget the 2019 Safeway, and the reasons are all in that video embedded above. It’s clear that Mack Champ was a tremendous influence on Cameron, and that no matter where he goes in this game, it’s largely because of the love, work, and guidance put in by Mack.
It’s a tremendous story, and one that I’m happy we got to see in 2019.
Prior to this year, when was the last time that you can remember a U.S. Open that was relatively drama free from a course setup standpoint?
- 2018: Shinnecock, I feel was set up well, but that didn’t stop players like Zach Johnson from complaining that they ‘lost’ the golf course. Plus, the whole Phil Mickelson hitting a moving ball thing.
- 2017: Erin Hills was deemed too easy of a U.S. Open venue, largely because the wind didn’t blow. Again, I like Erin Hills.
- 2016: Dustin Johnson’s ball moving on Oakmont’s greens without him causing it to move was the biggest shitstorm in recent golf history.
- 2015: The Chambers Bay greens were…not good. And it led to more complaints about greens than I think I’ve ever seen. Shout out to Gary Player though for giving us one of the best interviews in the history of sports.
I think you have to go back to 2014, and Martin Kaymer’s win at Pinehurst to have a tournament that was pretty quiet in terms of criticisms, with the notable exception of Donald Trump, but really, lol. The point is that even though 2014 wasn’t that long ago, it’s forever in internet time, and it really felt like the USGA was never going to be able to do the right thing in the eyes of the players. The good news was that there’s only so much you can do with Pebble Beach, a course that is beloved for all of the right reasons by just about anyone who has ever seen it, and thankfully, we were controversy free in 2019. That led us to just be able to enjoy the tournament, and the show put on by Gary Woodland.
2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose was quick out of the gates, posting an opening round 65, but Woodland would take the lead with a 65 of his own on Friday, and he followed it with a 69 on Saturday to lead Rose by one going into the final day. Woodland did it by having a red-hot putter, and a short game that was unreal for the entire week. It seemed like whenever FOX was getting ready to show him, he was in a spot where the lead could slip away, but it just never did.
Coming into Sunday though, it wasn’t just Rose chasing. Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen and Chez Reavie were four shots back, with Rory McIlroy sitting five behind. It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start on the final day, either. Koepka came out smoking hot, with birdies on four of his first five holes, looking like he was going to chase Woodland down to win his third consecutive U.S. Open. Woodland came out of the gates hot as well, with birdies on two of his first three to keep Koepka at a distance. Much like Saturday, whenever it seemed like he was on the verge of losing shots or giving up the lead, Woodland would hit a good recovery shot, or drain a putt for par. Two shots for me stand out from Woodland’s final day. His approach on the par-5 14th, with a 3-wood going uphill to a tight pin location over a bunker.It was probably the best shot we saw all day at Pebble.
Then, while still clinging to a two-shot lead, Woodland fanned his ball right on the par-3 17th. It’s a terrible spot to miss with where they put the pin on Sunday, and even though he was still on the green, Woodland’s only real play was to pitch it over the swale to get it close.
After saving par, his two shot lead was intact, and he was able to close it out with a long birdie putt at the last to win his first major championship. That win propelled Woodland to 12th in the OWGR, and his first ever appearance in a team event at the pro level, representing the United States at the Presidents Cup.
Woodland has always been a good player, but it’s also been hard to figure out where he stood amongst the very best players in the world. He’s intoxicating to watch; with a different swing, and a low trajectory ball flight that very few players possess, he brings a different flair to the golf course than most of the other pros out there, and while I don’t think he was a surprise winner to golf fans, he certainly wasn’t at the top of many people’s lists, either. His performance, especially on Sunday with a player like Koepka trying to chase him down, was a special one.
Winning your first major championship at Pebble Beach? Not too bad.
If I were a Skip Bayless level troll, I would start this section off by arguing that 2019 may, in fact, be the best year of Rory McIlroy’s career. I would rhyme off some stats, explaining why even though he won two majors, a WGC and the BMW PGA, plus put on a great performance in the Ryder Cup, that 2014 was slightly worse than what he accomplished in 2019, and that, generally, we overrate the value of major championships. Now, I’m not going to make that argument, though I do think we overvalue majors on some level, but when you look at the numbers, Rory’s 2019 was stunningly good.
He missed two cuts, first at the Memorial and then at the Open Championship. Outside of those two events, his only finishes outside the top-20 came at the Masters, Scottish Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links. All told, 19 of his 25 worldwide starts ended in top-10 finishes, with two runner-up finishes at the WGC-Mexico Championship and the Omega European Masters. Namely, he collected four wins:
- The Players Championship, holding off Jim Furyk by one shot
- The RBC Canadian Open, where he won by seven, thanks to a 64-61 weekend
- The Tour Championship, beating Xander Schauffele by three
- The WGC-HSBC Champions, besting Schauffele again, this time in a playoff
The first three wins led him to taking the FedEx Cup for the second time, and the PGA Tour Player of the Year for the third time. Even without a major championship, there’s no doubt that Rory was the most consistent player we saw in 2019, bouncing back after a two year stretch where the only win he put together was at Bay Hill. His last twelve months catapulted him back to the top of the game, allowing us to think legitimately about what kind of rivalry he might be able to have with Brooks Koepka as the two go forward over the next few years.
…it’s never good enough, is it? Whether he likes it or not, in the minds of a whole lot of people, the only thing that’s adding to Rory’s legacy at this stage is the winning of a major championship, most notably the Masters so he can complete the career grand slam. These other wins are great, and they show us all how good he is when his game is on compared to his peers, but at this stage, that’s hardly in question. We all know how good he is, and we all want a little more out of him because we know it’s in there.
It’s all wholly unfair, of course. There’s four of those tournaments per year, and the events that he won in 2019 feature all of the same top players that play in those events, but it’s just the way it is. We’re coming up on year six of Rory not winning a major championship, and it’s time for him to get another one.
I’m sure as hell not betting against him.
I’ve talked an awful lot about Brooks Koepka on this list already, but what I haven’t gotten to yet, really, are his on course results. Koepka has made it plainly obvious, both from his words and his results, that his main focus is on the four majors each year. It’s clearly been working, as coming into 2019, he had won three of his last six major starts, with two coming in 2018. For Koepka, 2019 was a continuation of that theme. His 2019 major results:
- Masters: T2nd
- PGA: 1st
- U.S. Open: 2nd
- Open Championship: T4th
You know how sometimes, you’ll see someone post a photo on Twitter of Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record, and it’s just a bunch of top-5 or top-10 finishes in every event for like 20 years? It’s starting to feel like Koepka is going to get that same treatment. Let’s take a look at those four tournaments from Koepka’s perspective.
At the Masters, he held the lead through 36 holes, and was three back of Francesco Molinari entering the final round. He was two back when he reached Amen Corner, where he fell victim to Rae’s Creek at 12 before coming back to eagle the 13th, and birdie the 15th, but his three pars on the way in left him one shot back of Tiger at the end.
Koepka went to Bethpage Black to defend at the PGA Championship, and from the very beginning, he took control. The opening round 63 gave him a one shot edge over Danny Lee, but it was his second round 65 that put him in complete control of the tournament. Koepka set a new 36-hole scoring record in a major championship, with 128 shots taken over the first two days, giving him a seven shot lead going to the weekend. He would carry that same lead into Sunday, but not without a little bit of drama. The lead was down to four as he made the turn, and he would proceed to bogey five of his last seven holes, opening the door slightly for the rest of the field. Ultimately, he would win by two over Dustin Johnson, but for a little while there, it wasn’t a certainty that he was going to repeat.
At Pebble, Koepka was always lurking behind Gary Woodland, but could never catch him, despite a red hot Sunday start that had a lot of people thinking that we would be seeing the first back-to-back-to-back U.S. Open champion, but Woodland was just too precise all week to let that happen. At the Open Championship, that finish is great, but Koepka was never really in it because Shane Lowry boatraced the field after a Saturday 63 to win by six.
It’s so interesting to contrast Koepka’s year with McIlroy’s. From a pure success standpoint, McIlroy had the better year, without question. He won more often, he was in contention with regularity, and his peers voted him as the best player on tour for the year. Koepka, though, won a WGC event and a major championship, and on top of that, was constantly in the conversation at the other three majors, where McIlroy wasn’t. McIlroy should absolutely get credit for showing up and playing well nearly every time he tees it up, but can you honestly tell me that his year was more memorable than Koepka’s? I can’t, and that counts for something, too.
It feels like we’re going to be comparing these two guys against each other for a long time. That’s a good thing, and something I can’t wait to get to in 2020.
Slow play has been a fixture on these year in review posts for years, but in those cases, they were mostly isolated incidents that, ultimately, didn’t lead to any concrete action. This year was different though, and it was different, I think, because the players finally started to speak up about the problem. It all started at the end of January when the European Tour tweeted out a video of Bryson DeChambeau at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Unless the person posting this was trying to out Bryson for taking too long, I think this video was meant to show off Bryson’s mental acuity, but the reverse ended up happening. People ripped into the video for how long Bryson was taking, suggesting that he should have been penalized for taking so long to hit the shot, which he absolutely should have for significantly exceeding the 40 second time limit that is supposed to be enforced. It was at this point that Brooks Koepka weighed in, calling slow play ‘embarrassing’, and later suggesting in a pretty amazing clip, that the larger problem is that no one ‘has the balls’ to penalize the players.
In March, Rory McIlroy chimed in on the issue ahead of the Players Championship, suggesting that it’s become an epidemic on tour after Anirban Lahiri wasn’t able to finish his first round before darkness set in on Thursday. McIlroy, much like Koepka was calling for players to be penalized for slow play, something which should be happening, but people like Slugger White are too worried about the kids of tour players not being able to go to college if their fathers get docked strokes, which is a real, and amazing quote that I can’t believe came out of someone’s mouth:
“I hate slow play as much as the next guy, but I can’t agree with the idea of hitting players with penalty strokes. Maybe it’s because I was a player once, but I envision these horrible trickle-down effects. Say there’s a player who barely squeezes into the top 125 of the final FedEx Cup points standings because he made a couple of thousand dollars more at a tournament than the player right behind him on the list. Imagine if he’d been hit with a one-stroke penalty at a key moment because he was two seconds over his time. Say the penalty cost him $5,000. Suddenly he’s so far down the FedEx Cup point list he doesn’t have a place to play the following year, which in turn might mean his kid can’t go to college, or he can’t put a down payment on that decent house. Or worse. Basically it means you’ve drastically affected the guy’s life with the click of a stopwatch. I’m all for looking at fine structures, maybe increasing them. But determining his fate with a stopwatch to me is a little harsh.”
Edoardo Molinari stoked the flames further in April, tweeting out a list of all of the players that had been given a bad time on the European Tour in 2019, as he was upset about how long his rounds were taking in Morocco.
It stayed fairly quiet for a little bit until we got to the Open Championship, when Koepka again was frustrated after being paired with the ‘Pace Car’ J.B. Holmes. Koepka sounded off on how long Holmes was taking, en route to an 87, to get around at Portrush, even pointing to a non-existent watch on his wrist while looking at an official. Somehow, none of this was even the high point (low point?) of the conversation, as business didn’t really pick up until the Northern Trust in August, where once again, Koepka and DeChambeau were at the centre of the fracas.
It started before the tournament, where McIlroy and Koepka gave their thoughts, again, on slow play on a general level, and then DeChambeau (slowly) re-entered the fray. Two videos went viral of DeChambeau taking an absolute eternity to get around the course, and this time, it got the attention of other players.
Eddie Pepperell called DeChambeau an ‘unaffected single minded twit’, while Luke Donald called for the governing bodies and the tours to step in and do something about slow play generally. Other players took notice as well, and when he finished his round, DeChambeau was upset, suggesting that he was being ‘attacked’ and that other guys are slow as well. Granted, he’s right about that second point, but lol at the ‘attacked’ line. This isn’t a warzone, man. It’s golf! DeChambeau even made a point of confronting Koepka the following day on the range because he wanted to talk about slow play in general, which, I guess is a positive move? Who knows, but after all of this, people started to act.
Likely because of the videos that went crazy, the PGA Tour announced the NEXT DAY that they were reviewing the pace of play policy, which has led to some changes that are likely going to be in place after the Masters. They’re pretty tame in truth, unlike the plan the European Tour announced in August that has more teeth, but in my view, still doesn’t go far enough.
I’ve said this before, but to me, there is one very small thing that could be done to get people to speed up: post their round times on PGATour.com under the stats section, and track how long the average round takes per player. You could have two different categories for pairs and threesomes, and the board is sorted by the fastest times. Much like the videos going viral, the kind of public shaming that this would provide would be useful in getting players to pick up the pace. Combine that with, you know, enforcing the existing rules, and you have a fair and easy solution to slow play.
Now, that’s not likely to happen as the tour will not want to embarrass their members like that, but I feel like it would be effective. Having said that, these steps are good ones that at least get the ball moving in the direction of speeding up play, which is desperately needed at all levels of the game, and it starts at the top.
Now, if we can just get some movement on how far the ball goes, we’ll be in great shape!
Woburn Golf Club played host to the Women’s British Open this year, and there were a number of storylines to keep an eye on. Georgia Hall, the first Englishwoman to win the tournament since Karen Stupples in 2004, was back to defend. Charley Hull, arguably the most well known English golfer, was back playing her home course, as she grew up on the Woburn links. And Jin-young Ko, fresh off of her win at the Evian Championship, was looking to become only the fifth player in LPGA Tour history to win three majors in a calendar year.
All three of them had a chance to win going into the weekend, as well. Hull was tied for fourth, five shots back of leader Ashleigh Buhai, while Hall and Ko sat six shots behind. At the end of it, only Ko was able to keep up the pace with the leaders, and it was a relative unknown that ended up stealing the show.
Enter the ‘Smiling Cinderella’.
Hinako Shibuno came into the week in good form, having won twice already on the Japanese LPGA in 2019, improving her world rank from 561st to 46th by the time she was set to tee off at Woburn. Her smile, hence the nickname, is what initially garnered attention, but when she started to play, Shibuno, and her gorgeously tempoed swing, were super impressive. She’s not a long hitter by LPGA standards, but she carried a two-shot lead over Buhai going into the final round, with much more accomplished players like Sung-hyun Park, Ko, Morgan Pressel and Lizette Salas close behind.
Aside from her swing, what was immediately striking about Shibuno was her pace of play. Shibuno was playing so fast that it would have made Brooks Koepka look slow, even with the tournament on the line on the 18th. Shibuno piped a drive down the middle of the fairway, and hit a decent iron into the green while tied with Salas, who was already in the clubhouse at 17-under par after a final round 65. Shibuno was almost assuredly going to face no worse than a playoff, but then she stepped up and did this.
That, of all the golf that was played in 2019, is probably the putt of the year. Also, shout out to Terry Gannon, golf’s best play by play man, for a tremendous call of the final putt, cracking voice notwithstanding.
Since winning the tournament, Shibuno has won twice more on the Japanese LPGA, bringing her win total to five on the season, but she has claimed that she does not think she is ready to compete on the LPGA Tour full time as of yet. It sucks that she thinks that way because she’s obviously a super interesting player to watch going forward, but you also have to respect that she’s willing to pass up everything that comes with an LPGA Tour membership because she doesn’t feel like she’s ready yet. That kind of maturity should serve her well going forward, but hopefully she comes over sooner rather than later. It would be great to see her with more regularity.
I love watching major championship golf, but there’s something different about watching team play. The combination of match versus stroke play is definitely part of it, but when these players come together to represent their country, or countries, there’s just an added level of drama that you can’t create in any other event. There’s no money on the line in these events, yet, the raw emotion that you see from anyone in a team event is so much more than any other tournament that they’ll play in all year. It’s intoxicating, and as good as the Presidents Cup ended up being this year, the Solheim Cup was the better of the two events in 2019.
The Americans had a decided advantage, on paper, before the event started. Five Americans were ranked in the top-20 of the world, with the lowest ranked player coming in at number 57 compared to just one inside the top-20 for Europe, and six players ranked lower than 57th. Through two days though, that didn’t matter, as the teams were all square, tied at eight points apiece at Gleneagles. Sound familiar?
As the final day started, Europe took control, winning three of the first four matches, but the Americans stormed back, and if Europe was going to end up taking their first Solheim Cup since 2013, they would need to win the last three matches on the board. Anna Nordqvist was doing her bit, taking out Morgan Pressel 4 and 3, so it all came down to the final two matches:
- Ally McDonald vs. Bronte Law
- Marina Alex vs. Suzann Pettersen
Law was 1-up on McDonald on the 16th, and hit a tremendous putt to go 2-up with two to play.
Alex and Pettersen were tied on the 18th, and both decided to lay up instead of going for the green in two. Pettersen had no choice, as she was pretty stymied in the rough, but Alex was in the fairway and could have applied some pressure by going for the green. In any event, Alex was first to play into the green, and hit a good approach to ten feet, but would watch her birdie putt slide by the hole. The door was open for Pettersen, who left her approach below the hole.
Pettersen’s putt gave Europe the win, and also validated the decision by European captain Catriona Matthew to use her last captain’s pick on Pettersen, despite having no form to speak of coming into the event. Pettersen had played just four events in the last two years after giving birth to her son, and it would have been really easy for Matthew to keep Pettersen in the assistant captain’s role that she had accepted before getting selected. Pettersen went 2-1 for the week, and announced her retirement after the final putt dropped, suggesting that it wasn’t going to get any better for her after sinking that putt, and really, who can blame her? The open letter she wrote to her son on LPGA.com in the weeks following the event lend a little more to that idea as well. What a way to go out.
The 2021 Solheim Cup will be at Inverness Club.
As I mentioned earlier, the LPGA Tour and the women’s game in general, has been steadily increasing in visibility over the last few years. Purses are higher, there’s a constant influx of new talent, and generally, the game is more relatable to the average player than the supercharged men’s game. This year, the U.S. Women’s Open winner was awarded a $1 million prize for the first time, which is obviously great news, and for the hardcore viewers, the fact that the Country Club of Charleston was hosting was even better news.
The course is a classic Seth Raynor design from 1921, and while it’s been redesigned multiple times since, Raynor’s influence is still very apparent. This led to the FOX broadcast doing what, I think, is the best course overview job I’ve ever seen, explaining why Country Club of Charleston is so unique.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news leading into the tournament. Hank Haney made news on his radio show for comments on the tournament, predicting that “a Korean will win” and that he couldn’t name six players on the tour, but he’d “go with ‘Lee’ if I didn’t have to name a first name. I’d get a bunch of them right.” Haney, obviously feeling the feedback, sent out an apology, but that wasn’t going to cut it. Several players called Haney out for his racism, including Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods, and Haney was quickly suspended.
At the end of it, Jeongeun Lee6 won the tournament, chasing down the 54-hole lead held by Yu Liu and Celine Boutier. Both Liu and Boutier got off track early, allowing Lee to take charge of the tournament as she entered the back nine. After a birdie on the par-5 15th, Lee6’s lead increased to three shots, giving her enough wiggle room to bogey two of her last three shots coming in and still walk away with a major championship.
Lee6’s backstory is a good one. She grew up in South Korea and her father was paralyzed when she was just four years old, leading to him being in a wheelchair. Lee looked at her playing golf as a way to support the family:
“By looking at my family situation back then, I thought about wanting to play golf because I wanted to support my family no matter what,” Lee6 said. “I told my family that I wanted to play on the LPGA Tour for a long time. I want to thank my family, who are in Korea watching me on TV and supporting me all the time. I couldn’t imagine it without you guys, with all your support.”
As for Haney, he probably would have been forgiven and allowed back on the air, but for some reason, he continued to dig himself a deeper and deeper hole. He went after Tiger, and in a stupid attempt of humour, suggested that he knew all along that Lee6 would win, calling himself ‘The Great Predictor’.
Haney would eventually announce his return to the air, this time in podcast form, and recently opened a lawsuit against the PGA Tour, alleging that they got him fired as payback for writing “The Big Miss” back in 2012.
For a sport with the obvious image problems that it has, the Haney situation was an ugly chapter for the game in 2019. Haney is still a trusted voice in the industry, largely thanks to his work with Tiger over the years, and it was refreshing to see the amount of people come to the defense of the LPGA when he spoke, but his comments are the kind of thing that stand in the way of golf breaking away from the stigmas that it currently carries. It sucks. Anya Alvarez did a good job on this, writing for the Guardian in the aftermath of Haney’s comments.
For Lee6 though, she would go on to have a good season after winning at Charleston, and is comfortably ranked inside the top-10 in the world. She also won the rookie of the year on the LPGA Tour, and gave a tremendous speech, in English for the first time, that is a must watch.
It’s not the number one story of the year on this list, but in terms of moments, was there anything better in 2019 than watching Shane Lowry win the Open Championship at Portrush? Sure, Tiger’s Masters triumph is in a special category, but the physical pictures – the scenes – at Portrush when Lowry won his first major championship are going to stick with me forever.
Friend of the blog Kyle Porter always talks about how that walk up the 18th at the Open Championship, fans streaming in around the eventual champion, is the best scene of the year, and he’s right. It always creates this feeling of pure majesty, of this being the most important thing that has ever happened, and Lowry’s walk up 18 after a triumphant performance for four days, was no different. Just watch this video – the whole thing – and come on back.
Lowry has always been an interesting player. His backstory of winning his national open, the Irish Open, as an amateur is well known, and his lovable nature has always had golf fans attracted. How could it not? The standard ‘Irishman you’d like to have a pint with’ trope feels built for Lowry, a man who always seems to have a smile on his face, possessing a story he’s more than happy to share with you like you’ve been friends for decades. Truthfully though, the last few years have been tough.
Since winning the WGC-Bridgestone in 2015, Lowry couldn’t put it all together. He would occasionally pop up on a leaderboard, but it was far more likely that he would miss a cut than contend for a title. It seems impossible for a man of his talent; Lowry has always been a good ball striker with an incredible short game, but he just couldn’t make it work since that triumph at Firestone. That is until he showed up in Abu Dhabi for his first start of 2019. He put on a splendid performance in the opening round, firing a 62 and hanging on to beat Richard Sterne by one. He was back on the golfing map.
He may have won in the Middle East, but as good as that tournament is, it’s a far cry from taking a major, and four consecutive missed cuts at the Open Championship isn’t exactly the kind of form that allows you to think that a win is coming, either. It was something Lowry was keenly aware of as well:
“I sat in the car park in Carnoustie almost a year ago right to this week and I cried,’’ Lowry said. “Golf wasn’t my friend at the time. It was something that had become very stressful and it was weighing on me and I just didn’t like doing it. That just shows how fickle golf is. Golf is a weird sport and you never know what’s around the corner.’’
Lowry was tremendous all week at Portrush, but it was his third round 63 that propelled him to the Claret Jug, and in the process, allowed him to set a new 54-hole scoring record at the Open, besting Tom Lehman’s 198 by one. Lowry’s four shot lead going into Sunday should have allowed him to be comfortable, but Lowry let us in on that not being the case after the win.
I love that quote. That same lovable nature that I talked about above? That’s what’s on display here, with a player at the peak of his powers after a 63 on a tough golf course, questioning whether he actually has it in him to get it done. How many other players would even admit that being a thing? You know that some of them feel that way going into the final round of a major, but to actually say it front of everyone is something that I feel few of them would ever do.
Lowry wasn’t great on Sunday at Portrush, with four birdies and five bogeys, and I’m sure that uncertainty crept in at points during his final round, especially when he made three bogeys in four holes from 8-11, but no one else was making a move in some really tough conditions. He would go on to win by six, the largest margin of victory in the Open since Louis Oosthuizen won by seven over Lee Westwood at the Old Course in 2010.
In the aftermath, Lowry went on a whirlwind tour, as you do when you become the Champion Golfer of the Year, but the one that sticks with me most is the one below. Lowry didn’t get to his home club that night, as it was too far away from where they were in Portrush, but he still had some fun. It’s impossible to not watch this video with a smile on your face.
There was no one better on the LPGA Tour in 2019 than Jin Young Ko. After winning the rookie of the year award in 2018, Ko became the top player in the women’s game over the last twelve months, with four wins on the LPGA Tour, and one in Korea.
- It started at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, winning by one over Jessica Korda with rounds of 64-65 on the weekend.
- Ko was the runner-up at the Kia Classic to Nasa Hataoka the following week, and then won her first major championship, taking the ANA Inspiration by three over Mi Hyang Lee.
- She took some time off from winning before taking her second major championship of the year, winning the Evian Championship in France by two over Jennifer Kupcho.
- Lastly, Ko would take the CP Women’s Open at a whopping 26-under par in August, setting a tournament record, and winning by five shots.
For everything she accomplished in 2019, Ko was given a ton of awards:
- LPGA Rolex Player of the Year
- Vare Trophy
- Annika Major Award
- South Korea’s top female athlete, becoming only the second golfer to win the award after Inbee Park
How dominant was Ko’s year? The LPGA Tour using a points system to determine who wins certain awards, and before the season was even over, Ko had earned enough points to where she could not be caught. She was announced as the player of the year BEFORE the year even ended.
“I am so thankful to win the Rolex Player of the Year award. This was one of the best years of my career and to earn this award is one of the best honors I could ever receive. Some of my golf heroes have won this award and I can’t believe that my name is now on the same list,” said Ko. “I want to thank God, my family, my friends and my sponsors for believing in me and helping me reach this goal. I can’t wait to see what the future brings for me.”
To give you a peak behind the curtain here, I usually try and start writing this top-100 list sometime in November. With a full-time job during the day, I really only have nights and weekends to put all of this together, so I try and get out in front of it as much as I can before I go on vacation over the holidays, where I get to finish it off, touch it up, etc. I had already written the Patrick Reed entry, set to be somewhere in the mid-70’s on this list, back in November because truthfully, it was a pretty bland year for the guy. He played alright, and did some weird shit, but nothing compared to what we saw in 2018. I figured I was done with Patrick Reed. Then, all hell broke loose at the Hero World Challenge, and I had to re-jig the entire list, so here we are!
In case you somehow missed this over the past little bit, let’s get you up to speed. Reed was playing in Tiger’s hit and giggle in the Bahamas, and was the co-leader of the tournament on Friday when he drove his ball into a waste area. As he approached his ball, Reed grounded his club and moved sand away from his ball. Now, you’re allowed to ground your club in a waste area, so Reed did nothing wrong there, but the movement of sand from behind his ball is a direct violation of the rule against improving your lie.
Golf LOVES a good rules controversy, and this one, featuring a blatant violation and one of the game’s most contentious characters was the perfect cocktail. Now, in that video embedded above, Reed seems fine with the fact that he was penalized, but in reality, he was in complete denial. As you can see on the video, the ball does appear to be in a mini fried egg, likely because of someone’s footprint, and according to Reed, the video made it look worse than it actually was because the only angle we saw was from behind. Reed insisted that from where he was standing, that he didn’t actually improve his lie. Yes, this man tried to blame the camera angle for this blatant attempt at cheating. The camera angle!
Let’s actually break that down. Could there be some truth to what he said that the camera angle made it look worse than it actually was? I suppose it’s possible, but here’s the thing: even if that was true, he moved an awful lot of sand, and he did it twice. Players who are nowhere near as good at this as Patrick Reed (ie. me) can tell when their clubs hit things, so I have to assume that someone as gifted as Reed would have felt that his club moved that much sand. The right thing, in that instance, would be to call the penalty on yourself and move on with the round. The camera angle had absolutely nothing to do with this, and everyone knows that.
So, Reed gets penalized two shots, and ends up losing the tournament by two to Henrik Stenson. He then gets to go to the Presidents Cup, but before he gets there, the golf world is already on fire for the cheating, and then the terrible explanation he gave to try and justify it. So, other players get asked about it, and while some of them didn’t really say much, others decided to open up. Marc Leishman, rather presciently, declared that the fans at Royal Melbourne would have “good ammo” to heckle Reed, while Cameron Smith decided to call him out for what it was:
“If you make a mistake maybe once, you could maybe understand but to give a bit of a bullshit response like the camera angle … that’s pretty up there [inexcusable].” When asked if he agreed with Leishman, Smith’s response was pretty simple: “I hope so. I don’t have any sympathy for anyone that cheats.”
For their part, the American team wasn’t really saying much about the whole thing. Tiger sidestepped the conversation, suggesting that the two had spoken, and that he thought he’d be fine. There was a little acknowledgment when video surfaced of Justin Thomas poking fun at Reed, but really, the team seemingly had his back, even if we really weren’t that far removed from Reed throwing a grenade in the team room the last time they all got together, but I digress!
So, all was going to take care of itself once Reed was able to get on the course, right? As a team play legend, I’m sure he was going to play well, and run through a perceived weaker opponent with ease, right? Well, no, not exactly. Reed and Webb Simpson went 0-3 as a team, leading Tiger to sit them out for the final team session as the Americans were down four points. Also, this happened:
The PGA Tour, because everything is #content in 2019, tweeting out this video knowing it would get a reaction, is brutal. They’re essentially condoning what happened at the Hero all for the sake of clicks, and social attention, which they got in spades from other players.
And we’re not done! That’s because as Leishman pointed out, the Aussie fans were going to have lots to chat about with Reed, and clearly, Team Reed had enough after his last team match. Reed’s caddie, Kessler Karain, got into it with a fan, shoving him, which I assume looked better or worse depending on the camera angle used at the time. For his actions, Karain was barred from caddying for Reed in Sunday singles, which Reed would end up winning, defeating C.T. Pan 4 and 2.
What a week.
So, where are we at with this? From Reed’s standpoint, this is going to follow him for the rest of his career. Had he simply apologized right off, saying that he had a momentary lapse of judgment and that he accepted the penalty, this would have remained a story at the Presidents Cup, but it may not have gone much further than that. Sure, there would be whispers about his behaviour, but ultimately, it probably would have been water under the bridge once 2020 rolled around. Now? We have a denial that it was even an issue, plus a video of him mocking the whole situation, completely erasing the possibility that people are going to forget about this anytime soon. Whether he likes it or not, Reed is going to hear about this everywhere he goes, and unlike unruly fans that you see from time to time that cross the line, these ones are totally of his own doing. You can already see the chants being hurled his way in Phoenix on the 16th if he decides to play.
For the PGA Tour, they shouldn’t have tweeted out that video, for starters. Secondly, the general consensus that I’ve seen online from players, fans, etc is that Reed cheated, and likely knowingly did so. Now, you likely can’t prove that, but at this point, it’s hard to give Reed the benefit of the doubt, something which Brandel Chamblee argued eloquently about in the aftermath. He should have received a stiffer penalty than just two shots. Something in the neighbourhood of a few months off would have sufficed, in my view.
For a game that prides itself on honour and respect, this is one of the worst black eyes that we’ve seen in a long time, and it’s not going away anytime soon for everyone involved.
Matt Kuchar’s reputation took a huge hit in 2019. Rules situations are always going to do that to a player, but in all honesty, all of those things happened after one of the biggest stories of the year broke, and it was all because of Tom Gillis. Gillis, who primarily plays on the Champions Tour these days, is known for being an outspoken member of the PGA Tour collective, and back in January, he sent out this tweet, alleging that someone paid an incredibly low amount of money to a local caddie after winning a PGA Tour event.
It didn’t take long for people to jump on it and start talking, which then led to the outing of Kuchar as the player in question for his win at Mayakoba. All of this happened while Kuchar happened to be leading the Sony Open, with his regular caddie on the bag. When Kuchar was asked about it following the third round, Kuchar was adamant that this wasn’t a big deal.
“That’s not a story,” Kuchar said. “It wasn’t 10 percent. It wasn’t $3,000. It’s not a story.”
10% is typically the number that you hear get thrown around for what the caddie receives when a player wins a tournament, but that is also usually only reserved for regular caddies, not local replacements like David Giral Ortiz, better known as El Tucan, who Kuchar picked up for the week. Kuchar would go on to win the Sony, but despite his insistence that this wasn’t a story, it very clearly was, and it wasn’t going away. Gillis was back on Twitter a few days later with more information.
So, what we had confirmed was that Kuchar paid El Tucan $5,000 for his services for the week, or roughly 0.3% of his tournament earnings, which is essentially a rounding error for a player who has made north of $40 million in his career to date. The story picked up further steam when Golf.com’s Michael Bamberger spoke with El Tucan, who said that he reached out to Kuchar’s agent Mark Steinberg via email on three occasions, asking for a proper payment for his services for the week. Steinberg replied once, suggesting that what was offered was a fair payment. An additional $15,000 was offered to El Tucan after the fact, as a tournament rep made the gesture towards the caddie, but it was declined as it was not good enough.
Kuchar finally spoke out about the saga again at the Genesis Open, putting his foot in his mouth with multiple quotes, but the money shot (pun intended) came when Kuchar suggested that “$5,000 is a great week”. Maybe it was a great week! But it certainly doesn’t look good when that’s what you dole out after making nearly $1.3 million, Matt! After that comment, and more arrows being shot at Kuchar, he finally made good on it two days later, paying Ortiz what he had requested, which was a rumoured $50,000. Kuchar also released this statement:
I’m happy that Ortiz finally got what he deserved from Kuchar, but this was an ugly scene that shouldn’t have had to happen in the first place. Kuchar essentially had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do the right thing for a person who is nowhere near as fortunate as he is. It was a really bad look; the worst in a bad year for Kuchar, whose image as the ‘golly gee’ nice guy is probably never coming back. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any tweet that the PGA Tour sends out now that mentions Kuchar, and ten months later, the vast majority of the interactions to those tweets are some variation on him stiffing Ortiz.
That price is much higher than the $50,000 he ended up paying, and it was completely avoidable.
A few years ago, as Justin Thomas was making his first real ascent to the top of the game, I was asked who I thought was going to have the better career between him and Jordan Spieth. Without looking at any numbers, my gut reaction was to say Spieth, with my logic being that for as good as I thought Thomas was, that there was something about Spieth, that famously undefinable ‘it’ factor, that made him a generational player versus Thomas, who was merely going to be a great player of his era. My comparison at the time was that we should look at it as the difference between Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.
A few years later, and man, that couldn’t look more incorrect. Thomas has reached world number one, stacking victories in big events around the world, while Spieth has taken a nosedive, likely to fall out of the world’s top-50 early in 2020 if he doesn’t start to turn things around.
Spieth’s last win was the 2017 Open Championship, a virtuoso performance that showed exactly what I was thinking when I made that projection: he faced adversity, fought back from a terrible miss, and then completely ran over the unsuspecting Matt Kuchar on the way to his third major before he turned 24. So, what happened? What has gone wrong over the last two years with Spieth?
It actually wasn’t too bad in 2018, at least from a statistical perspective. Spieth was an average to above average player in every strokes gained category, with the exception of his putter, where he posted the first negative number of his career. If you think back to those broadcasts, that was always the narrative around why he was struggling as well, and it made some level of sense. Spieth was always looked at as a magical putter, and now, he was struggling on the greens, but take a look at the chart below, showing Spieth’s strokes gained numbers in the four main categories since he arrived on the PGA Tour in 2015:
A few things immediately stand out:
- First, he got the putter back in 2019, finishing second in the category and posting his best ever year on the greens.
- The reason he had such a high number is twofold. First, he was making more putts, especially ones from distance. Those putts are the ones he always used to make, if you recall back a few years, and obviously, the make percentage for all tour pros is smaller on long putts than short ones.
- Secondly, in addition to making more of those long putts, he was also having to hit more of them because his iron play saw a sharp decline for the second consecutive year.
- The other big area of decline? His play off the tee, which has steadily gone down since 2015, but fell off of a cliff in 2019.
So, where does this leave us in figuring out why he was struggling? When you look at the numbers, his play off the tee declined. It was never his biggest strength to begin with, so when it takes as big of a dip as it did in 2019, it becomes really noticeable. When you combine his relatively average distance with the fact that he was 181st in fairways hit in 2019, it’s impossible to come out ahead off the tee. Anecdotally, those struggles off the tee should lead to him having a reduction in quality iron play. When you’re playing less from the middle, you’re forced to either pitch out, or if you are able to go at the green, you’re not going to have great looks at the pin. That leads to his longer putts, which he is having success with, but you obviously don’t want a ton of those because they don’t allow for lower scores. For reference, these are the most similar seasons that I could find for Spieth’s 2019 in the strokes gained era, and, yeah, they aren’t pretty:
In short, Spieth needs to figure out how to get back to decent play off the tee. If he can figure that out, he should be able to get it moving in the right direction. It’s worth noting that Spieth’s best stretch of play in 2019, the T3-T8-T7 run at the PGA, Charles Schwab and Memorial, also coincides with his most consistent form off the tee that he had all year, per DataGolf.
It’s not perfect, and you’re not going to find good rounds with each good driving day, and you’re going to be able to score when you’re not going perfectly off the tee, but both of those things happen infrequently. The consistency is what Spieth was lacking in 2019, leading to a second consecutive year with no wins, just five top-10’s, and getting to watch his friends from his couch at the Presidents Cup.
So, what are the chances that he can regain that form from 2017? I’m going to lean on the fact that I still think we saw a generational talent a few years ago and that we haven’t seen the last of a good version of Jordan Spieth. There’s something special about him that we just haven’t seen a lot of in the past, but he has a lot of work to do, and it starts with the driver. If he can get that dialed in, he’s got a chance, but he needs to get there first before we can even start to think about seeing that guy re-emerge. We’re coming up on three years since his last victory, but if 2019 taught us anything, it’s that we should know not to count out great champions.
I still believe that Jordan Spieth is a great champion.
For a whole host of reasons, it’s unlikely that golf is ever going to be a sport that is overly inclusive, and despite a lot of the #GrowTheGame talk, there’s a lot of people at the highest levels of the game who are probably okay with that. For a long time, Augusta National was definitely one of those places, and you can definitely argue that they still are, but for one day in April, they finally opened their doors and made history.
From April 3rd to 6th, Augusta National hosted their own amateur event, exclusively for women: The Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The first two rounds were held at Champions Retreat, with a cut taking place after the second day down to the top 30 players. From there, everyone in the field got to play a practice round at Augusta National, followed by the final round taking place on the Saturday before the Masters was set to begin.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: there’s something off about the idea of celebrating this event given this club’s very specific history of exclusion. Historically, they, as much as anyone else embody what I mentioned in the opening paragraph about being fine with not being inclusive. It took them until 1990 to allow African Americans to become members, and it wasn’t until 2012 that women were allowed in, either. Caddies were mandated to be black for the longest time as well, further driving the point home that, in the minds of those who ran the club, that there was a difference in class amongst people. As great of an idea as this event was, it’s hard to not think about the above when discussing its merits. For the women who got to play in the event though, it meant an awful lot.
Once the ladies got out onto the course, it was clear that two players had separated themselves from the rest of the pack: Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi. As they made the turn to the back nine, Fassi held a one shot edge on Kupcho, and it grew to two after Kupcho made bogey on the par-4 10th. It stayed that way until the 13th when Kupcho hit what might be the best shot from anyone in 2019; an absolutely nuked 3-wood that allowed her to make eagle, tying Fassi with five holes to play.
Kupcho would make two more birdies on 15 and 16, and after Fassi’s bogey on the 16th, she was comfortably ahead by two shots going to the last hole. Kupcho would finish in style:
It really was a tremendous day of golf, highlighted by two players who balled out on what is probably the most recognizable course in the world. Scott Michaux did a good job recapping it all for Golf.com, and even though it went off without a hitch, there was one big problem with the whole thing: it was played the same week as the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of the year. In a week where we’re supposed to be celebrating women’s golf, there shouldn’t be a situation where attention is split, by the players or by the viewers. Each of these events is important enough that they deserve their own spotlight, but it never really felt like the ANA got the attention it needed in the aftermath of the Kupcho-Fassi Saturday showdown.
That aside, the event was a tremendous success for both women’s golf and Augusta National. It’s a great tournament, and a wonderful addition to the golf calendar.
Expect anything different?
Look, I could go into a lot of detail with a full recap of the event, but everyone reading this knows what happened. I didn’t write anything about Tiger’s win at the time, largely because I wasn’t really writing anything months ago, so I’m going to take the opportunity now to do just that.
Over the last few years, my prevailing thought was that it was unfair to write Tiger’s golf obituary because it was clear that he wasn’t healthy. I’ve mentioned this before in pieces about Tiger, but the day that he showed up at the Hero World Challenge in 2015 saying that “pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy”, I think everyone took that to mean that it was essentially a done deal. This was Tiger’s way of telling us all that he was getting close to packing it in. From that day in December of 2015, he played four events over the next two years, including one of the most uncomfortable set of holes I’ve ever seen anyone play in Dubai. The fact that he was able to put together a 77 while looking like a completely broken man was remarkable. The fact that he withdrew before the next round, claiming that his back seized up after the round was over, was an obvious lie and I wondered if it was finally going to be over. It certainly seemed like he wanted it to be over, and I couldn’t blame him if he did.
We read and heard all kinds of stories about Tiger in this time period. Mostly, they were about his constant pain, or a new procedure he had to get done. Sometimes, they were about him falling in his backyard and having to rely on his kids to get him help. Or how he couldn’t stand or sit for long periods of time because either hurt too much. Very rarely was the news about golf, or anything positive, really. Then came the DUI.
He could have very easily killed someone, himself included, that night in Florida. Suddenly, the idea of Tiger coming back and playing in a golf tournament became completely irrelevant. Instead, it was about the best player that many of us have ever seen desperately needing help, and if he ever played again, regardless of how he did, that would be great. Gravy, if you will.
When he did get back out there, after what seemed like a quick rehab stint, he looked good and refreshed. Well, as good and refreshed as 43-year old with a fused back can look, anyway. Slowly, things started to look good again. The driver would look good, then it would go away. The next week, it was the putter that was on point, or the irons. The game was still in there somewhere; it was just a matter of getting it to all fire at once, and it did at the Tour Championship. Somehow, after everything that happened, it felt normal to see Tiger playing well. Everyone had settled back into the routine, and it allowed us all to think that maybe we had some more time left with the best player many of us had ever seen.
When Tiger tapped in on Sunday at the Masters, it was clearly emotional for him. After everything he’d been through, he finally made it back to the top of the mountain. It was signified in two very different ways: the guttural roar after the putt dropped was the embodiment of Tiger, the competitor. The man who worked harder than anyone and who stopped at nothing to get what he thought was his, was back where he thought he belonged, winning the biggest tournament in the world.
Then came Tiger, the father. Being able to share this moment with his kids, Charlie and Sam, was something he talked about at Carnoustie in 2018 when he had a chance to win the Open Championship. They never had the opportunity to watch him the way the rest of us did, and he wanted to show off for them like any other dad would want to. That quote is one of the most human things we’ve ever seen out of Tiger, who as many people have written about in this latest comeback, has opened himself up like never before, and he was finally able to let it all out on Sunday at Augusta.
It wasn’t just Tiger that was emotional, though. Regardless of what you think about Tiger, this was a pure triumph. To overcome what he had to, physically and otherwise, to get back to this point was nothing short of remarkable, and whether you’re a father yourself, someone who appreciates a good story of perseverance through tremendous adversity, or just a fan of Tiger Woods, it was easy to be moved by what we saw back in April.
Sports are at their best when it seems like magic is happening. One of the great things about golf is that the sport lets you hang on to its stars for a really long time, and for quite a while, it looked like we were robbed of that with Tiger Woods.
Then the magic happened, and it was the biggest story of 2019.Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images