As a golf fan, you might not care one bit if the professional game grows beyond its already sizable circle. That’s cool. And if you’re one of those golf fans who is happy to simply enjoy the professional game, then 2016 was a magical major champion season. We had great winners. We had drama. We had a duel for the ages.
It has been great for golf.
But — and here’s where we probably differ — I don’t think it’s been as great for GOLF, all capital letters.
What’s the difference between golf and GOLF? I guess I’d put it this way: It’s the difference between the Stanley Cup and the NHL regular season. It’s the difference between the Kentucky Derby and every other horse race. It’s the difference between the Indy 500 and other open-wheel races. Golf is a great sport. GOLF is a cultural phenomenon.
Yes, there are a few times in the game’s history when GOLF transcends its usual place in the American landscape and becomes something bigger. This happened for a time in the 1950s after Ben Hogan survived a horrible car crash and then came back to win the U.S. Open (and, a short while later, three majors in one year). They made a movie about that, threw a ticker tape parade for him, all that stuff.
GOLF became cool in the 1960s because Arnold Palmer was cool, the way he smoked his cigarettes and lashed at the ball and charged from behind at the finish. GOLF was titanic when Jack Nicklaus dueled with Palmer and Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
And, of course, Tiger Woods took GOLF to unprecedented heights, unheard of ratings, impossibly high purses and all that. Tiger’s chase of “greatest player ever” masked his overwhelming accomplishment of becoming the most famous player ever. He made golf as important to sports fans as just about any other sport.
It seemed to me going into this major championship season that there was a chance for golf to once again skyrocket into America’s imagination. And, as great as 2016 was, I don’t think that happened. Don’t misunderstand: It was fantastic for golf fans. At the Masters, we watched Jordan Spieth’s first encounter with doubt and uncertainty. He collapsed down the stretch, and a fine English player, Danny Willett, played brilliantly and took the green jacket.
At the U.S. Open, we watched Dustin Johnson — a massive and star-crossed talent who can do things that no other player can — finally put it together and win even as the USGA clumsily mishandled a penalty ruling.
At The Open, we had perhaps the greatest duel in golf history — certainly right there with the Watson-Nicklaus Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977 — as the superb Henrik Stenson somehow out-birdied Phil Mickelson while they both left the rest of the world far behind.
And finally, at a weather-flattened PGA Championship, a game Texan with the plain name of Jimmy Walker held off the world’s No. 1 player, Jason Day, to win his first major championship. All four of the champions, in fact, were excellent pros and first-time major winners.
But GOLF, the grand version of the game, is driven by superstars. And some of us came into this year with the hope, even the expectation, of having more than one superstar drive the sport on to the front pages and magazine covers and lead stories on TV.
As the year began, the top three players in the world were:
1. Spieth: Magical putter; winner of two major championships and the FedEx Cup in 2015; likable Texan, who doesn’t only play well, he serves as he own analyst on the course.
2. Day: Friendly Australian; record setter for lowest major championship score at the PGA Championship; inspiring story who overcame various troubles and built a near-flawless game.
3. Rory McIlroy: Powerful Irishman; perfect swing; probably has the highest ceiling of any player in the world — at his best, he might be unbeatable.
You couldn’t get three more perfect candidates to have a shootout for golf’s top billing. They are friendly with each other, but there’s an obvious rivalry between them. They have very different styles and games. They all have charisma. No one player can ever be Tiger, but together the three have a chance to give us a tension and sense of surprise that The Woods Era could not provide. This was a chance for something great.
And that just didn’t materialize. Spieth, after his meltdown at Augusta, wasn’t a factor in any of the other majors. Day certainly has had a good year — winning The Players Championship and WGC-Match Play and finishing second at the PGA — but he returned to his close-but-not-quite ways in the majors. And McIlroy was all over the place, finishing top 10 at two majors (though not really in contention for either) and missing the cut in the other two.
So that just didn’t come together.
Of course, golf fans will tell you, that’s no surprise. Golf is a game of disappointment. Day had an amazing year, even if he didn’t win any majors. Spieth won twice this year and led for all but the last nine holes at the Masters. McIlroy won in Dubai. It’s not fair to expect those guys to just compete at every major championship.
And it isn’t fair. But this is how Woods spoiled us and lifted GOLF to such great heights. He brought his game week after week after week. He didn’t miss major championship cuts (or, really, any cuts). He didn’t blow leads in the fourth round. He didn’t miss the putts that win and lose championships. There was never even the slightest doubt who the No. 1 player in the world was, and this made golf fascinating to people like my mother who would not even know which end of the golf club with which to hit. He gave order to the game — you could root for him or against him and it was just as fun.
Now, who is No. 1 in the world? The rankings say it’s Day. He’s had the best year, but without a major championship the year is incomplete. Johnson moved up to No. 2 in the world, and he certainly could become that big star that draws people to golf — he’s a thrilling player, there’s the Gretzky connection, etc. — but he has proven to be unreliable for various reasons, and he just had a stink bomb of a PGA Championship. Spieth? McIlroy? Rickie Fowler? The ageless Mickelson? Tiger himself? How about Beef?
There’s a lot of excitement in all that, and if you’re a golf fan, these are good times.
But if you’re not a golf fan, I suspect 2016 didn’t change your mind. And that’s the lost chance.