Golf’s landscape looks so much different heading into the final major championship of the year.
Tiger Woods, always the man to beat in any major, arrives at the PGA Championship as just another contender. It’s one thing for him to still be looking for a victory in a major, quite another for the world’s No. 1 player to have not won any tournament at all this late in the season.
Then again, Woods didn’t get started until the Masters in April. And he still is trying to piece together a personal life in turmoil from his extramarital affairs that were uncovered nine months ago.
“Just be patient, keep working, keep going,” Woods said on the eve of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, his final chance to win before the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. “I’ve been through periods like this before. If you look at my career, I’ve never been one of those guys that just plays awful and then all of a sudden, just plays well. You’ll start seeing trends.”
There are plenty of trends in golf, some of them related to the state of his game.
Without Woods winning his usual share of tournaments, others have taken advantage of the void. And if there is one trend that stands out in American golf this year, it’s the preponderance of international players winning on the PGA Tour.
It started with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland closing with a record 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship on one of the more demanding courses on the PGA Tour. That began a stretch of foreign-born players winning 11 of 15 events on tour. The only American winners were Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson and Matt Bettencourt.
“When you have one player dominating and winning consistently, there’s very few people who are gaining confidence. If anything, it’s going to work in the opposite way,” Padraig Harrington said. “Nobody is quite dominating at the moment. That leaves two things. One, players aren’t scared. And two, there’s more of them to win.”
Two of those international players won majors for the first time – Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland in the U.S. Open, during a final round at Pebble Beach when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were in prime position; and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa at St. Andrews, where he won the British Open by seven shots.
Even more alarming for the Americans?
None finished among the top three in consecutive majors, which had not happened in 98 years.
For British agent Chubby Chandler, whose stable includes Oosthuizen, Els and Lee Westwood, it reminds him of a 10-year stretch from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s when international players won half the majors.
“I think European Tour players will win something like five out of the next eight majors. We’re that strong now,” Chandler said on the day after Oosthuizen’s victory at St. Andrews. “I’ve got a sense what happened in the ’80s is about to happen again. Only then, it was about five players. And there will be 25 from our tour going to Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship thinking they can win it.”
The 92nd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday in the heartland of America, on a links-styled course that Pete Dye built along the bluffs of Lake Michigan. Whistling Straits last hosted the PGA Championship in 2004, when Vijay Singh won in a playoff.
The 156-man field is getting more international by the year. There are 76 players from overseas, compared with only 47 international players who were part of the field 10 years ago.
The defending PGA champion is Y.E. Yang of South Korea, who became the first Asian male to win a major last year at Hazeltine when he rallied from two shots behind to beat Woods in the final round.
One other trend: Five of the last six major champions had never won a Grand Slam event before, the exception being Mickelson at the Masters. It’s the longest such stretch since there were six first-time major winners from the 2002 PGA through to the 2004 U.S. Open.
“Golf is very strong in depth at the moment,” said Westwood, the 37-year-old from England who has established himself as the best to have never won a major. “Players are better coached nowadays. They’re not afraid to win and they get into position more regularly than maybe they used to. Obviously, Tiger has not won as many as you would have thought he would have won recently, so that creates room for other people to win majors.”
That golf has become deeper and stronger globally is not much of a surprise. It has been building toward that for the better part of the last decade, especially since the advent of the World Golf Championships in 1999 that not only brought together the world’s best more often, it gave international players another avenue to reach the PGA Tour.
These days, the only thing American about the PGA Tour is the headquarters in Florida.
“We come over here and get more comfortable with the players and the golf courses,” McDowell said. “I just think we have a lot of top players right now who are playing out here more often, and it’s obviously pure mathematics.”
Harrington wonders if the PGA Tour has become so international that it hurts the development of young Americans. Whereas international players learn to win against weaker fields in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, young Americans immediately face the best.
“A good season over here for a young player, he might get in contention three or four times, might win once,” Harrington said. “Whereas a good season for a young player in Europe, he gets in contention 12 times and wins twice. And those 12 times he’s in contention, he’s going to learn from those. And that will help him grow as a player.
“There’s no doubt – this is a tough thing to say – that the strength of the U.S. tour doesn’t help grow young players.”
Harrington, a three-time major champion, still believes an exception player will rise no matter where he plays. The classic example is Woods, who reached No. 1 in the world within nine months of turning pro, and has twice stayed at No. 1 for five-year spans.
He just doesn’t look like that kind of player now.
Woods remains ultra private about his personal life, refusing to confirm he is in the process of a divorce, although he did concede that parcels of time and focus he once devoted to practice has been taken away by problems he never faced before.
“I’ve had more things going on once I’m at a tournament site than I have in the past, and for different reasons,” he said.
Woods remains stuck on 14 career majors, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. His last major seems so long ago, that Monday at Torrey Pines when he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open in his final event before reconstructive knee surgery. If he fails to win at Whistling Straits, it will be the third time in his career that 10 majors have elapsed without him winning one.
Winning anything at the moment would satisfy Woods.
Heading to PGA world dominating not Woods
Golf’s landscape looks so much different heading into the final major championship of the year.
McCoy earns medalist honors at Web.com Q-School
One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-School.
McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.
It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.
McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Web.com Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).
Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).
Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Web.com Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.
Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award
The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.
The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.
Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.
The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.
A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.
Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4
Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.
Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.
South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.
Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.
The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout
It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.
Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.
Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.
"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."
Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.
Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.