2016 in rewind: Look back on a dramatic year

By John FeinsteinDecember 13, 2016, 2:45 pm

There wasn’t much doubt when 2016 dawned that the year was going to be a dramatic one for golf.

After all, the Ryder Cup is always drama-filled, regardless of the outcome. The Olympics were going to be – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer – unique, since they hadn’t played golf in The Games for 112 years.

Rory McIroy would again attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters. Phil Mickelson would do the same at the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Jordan Spieth would be asked to do the impossible: somehow come close to matching what he had accomplished in 2015.

And there was the never-ending question, the one asked most often by non-golf fans: “So, when is Tiger returning?”

And, of course, there was the soap opera that could have been called, “As the Task Force Turns.”

All of which means the expectations bar was set extremely high, even before Spieth opened the year with an eight-shot win in Hawaii, leading people to wonder if he might never lose again.

Of course, it’s never that simple.

Before the year was over, the four biggest events had been won by first-time major champions – each an amazing and very different story. The Olympics had created more controversy than anything in golf since Annika Sorenstam played at Colonial in 2003 – more, in fact. Then, just when it seemed the five rings might come crashing down on the sport’s head, a dramatic finished breathed life and hope into the event.

The Ryder Cup not only lived up to the hype, but went beyond it, even without a breath-taking finish. Patrick Reed, once golf’s anti-hero, became Captain America. Mickelson and Matt Kuchar did one of the worst shimmys ever seen and Mickelson emerged from the rubble of Gleneagles with a new glow on his legacy. And Woods became the most talked about vice-captain (or assistant coach) in sports history. Then, in December, he actually played golf again.

A lot to take in.

To begin at the beginning …

As it turned out, Spieth had a remarkable year – for a normal player. He won twice, finished tied for second at the Masters and was part of a winning Ryder Cup team.

There was just one problem: most people don’t look at Spieth as a kid just coming into his own as a player. They look at him as the guy who apparently found the last remaining phone booth on earth early in 2015, jumped into it and emerged as Superman – or, at least, Tiger circa 2000.

When you win back-to-back majors at 21 and then almost win the next two majors (T-4 at The Open, one shot out of the playoff, and second at the PGA behind a record-setting Jason Day) and win five times in the same year, including the FedEx Cup, you are never supposed to appear human again.

For 63 holes at the Masters, Spieth did just that. He led by five shots and it appeared that – for a second straight year – he was going to disprove that old Augusta adage: “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”

But then, instead, he proved it – emphatically.

It wasn’t the bogey on 10 or the bogey on 11 that did him in. Those are very difficult holes and Spieth still led by two standing on the 12th tee. Up ahead, Danny Willett was putting together a wonderful round, all of which was likely to give him a chance to finish second.

But then, Spieth did something he almost never does: He made a mental mistake. And he made it at the worst time in the worst possible place.

“There are about six places at Augusta where you have to know exactly what you’re doing before the tournament begins,” Tom Watson said. “Jack (Nicklaus) explained that to me years ago. One of those places is the 12th tee.”

Standing on the 12th tee, Spieth thought he could cut a 9-iron into the flag. Later, Spieth said as he stood over the ball he remembered trying the same shot in 2014-when he trailed Bubba Watson by two shots – and finding the water. A moment later, his shot hit the bank in front of the green and rolled back into the water. Clearly stunned, he then chunked his third shot into the water and finally walked off with a quadruple bogey-7.

A moment later, having birdied the 15th to close – he thought – to within one of Spieth, Willett heard a gasp as he walked off the green.

“I turned around and saw they’d slid a ‘1,’ for Jordan under the 12th hole,” Willett said later. “At first I thought it was a mistake. Then I realized it wasn’t and knew I was leading the Masters.”

He was leading by one at that moment, over Lee Westwood, his good friend, who was paired with him. Often, the most difficult thing for an athlete to do is stay in the present when it hits him that he has a chance to do something special. Westwood, the veteran, reacted to suddenly being close to his first major victory by bogeying the 16th hole. Willett birdied it.

That’s what a champion does and, even though Spieth’s mental meltdown on the 12th tee was the focal point of most stories, Willett’s bogey-free 67 deserves to be remembered for a long time.

So does the way Dustin Johnson handled USGA officials tripping all over themselves during the last round at Oakmont. First, he wasn’t penalized when his ball moved on the fifth green. Then, he was maybe penalized, left – along with the rest of the field – literally not knowing the score for the last six holes.

Johnson shrugged it all off, did his best, ‘whatever-dude,’ down the stretch, including his virtual tap-in birdie at the 18th – one of the toughest finishing holes in championship golf. In doing so, he not only won his first major, he turned what could have been one of golf’s all-time debacles into just another footnote USGA embarrassment.

One month later, Henrik Stenson and Mickelson spent four remarkable days at Troon putting on the best golf show of the year. Mickelson came within an inch of the first 62 in major history on Thursday. Then, Stenson chased him down, eventually passed him and shot 63 on Sunday (!) to win his first major title. Mickelson shot a superb 65 that day – a round for the ages on almost any other major Sunday – and lost ground.

Two weeks later – the schedule was compressed because of the Olympics – Jimmy Walker went wire-to-wire at rain-soaked Baltusrol. This was the same Walker who had comfortably missed the cut at both Opens and was having a decidedly mediocre year going into the final week in July. Walker jumped from 29th to fourth on the Ryder Cup points list with his win, a move that made Davis Love III smile because he’d wanted Walker to play his way onto the team.

Then came the Olympics. Twenty-one eligible players chose not to go for reasons ranging from the Zika virus to the tight schedule to just wanting a break. Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy and Day were among those who passed.

Fortunately, Stenson and Justin Rose showed up and they put on a wonderful show on Sunday, Rose beating his Ryder Cup partner for the gold medal. Their duel may have saved golf in the Olympics since there was talk that the International Olympic Committee might vote in 2017 not to continue the sport beyond Tokyo in 2020 if it failed in Rio. Now, it seems likely, golf will survive.

And then, there was the Ryder Cup. Europe’s motto was, ‘shoulder-to-shoulder.’ The America’s should have been, ‘if not now, when?’

The U.S. had the specter of the famous/infamous task force (the Europeans giggled every time they used the term); they had home field advantage – a golf course set up to Love’s specifications and a wild, occasionally over the top, group of fans. Europe had six rookies playing on the road and also had two veterans – Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood – searching for their games.

The U.S. played brilliantly, taking a 4-0 lead the first morning and never looked back – in spite of some nervous moments Saturday afternoon before Reed holed out a wedge for an eagle on the sixth hole, turning the momentum back around. Reed was the star – beating McIlroy in a scintillating singles match on Sunday – but every American contributed at least a point in the 17-11 win.

“I went back and watched the tape of Sunday,” McIlroy said, weeks later. “I couldn’t believe how many putts they made. They looked like us in past years.”

There was one other story, one that didn’t draw as much attention as the others but was the feel-good story of the year. In 2015, Billy Hurley used his pre-tournament news conference at the Quicken Loans National to publicly plead with his missing father to please contact his family. Willard Hurley was found three days later, but two weeks after that committed suicide.

Eleven months later, Hurley, who spent five years in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy, received a sponsor’s exemption into the same tournament – and won. It may not have been golf’s most dramatic moment of 2016, but it was certainly the sweetest.

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After Further Review: Woods wisely keeping things in perspective

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 3:17 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Tiger Woods' career comeback ...

Tiger Woods seems to be the only one keeping his comeback in the proper perspective. Asked after his tie for fifth at Bay Hill whether he could ever have envisioned his game being in this shape heading into Augusta, he replied: “If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He’s healthy. He’s been in contention. He’s had two realistic chances to win. There’s no box unchecked as he heads to the Masters, and no one, especially not Woods, could have seen that coming a few months ago. – Ryan Lavner

On Tiger carrying momentum into API, Masters ...

Expect Jordan Spieth to leave Austin with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play trophy next week.

After all, Spieth is seemingly the only top-ranked player who has yet to lift some hardware in the early part of 2018. Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have all gotten it done, as have Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and most recently Rory McIlroy.

Throw in the sudden resurgence of Tiger Woods, and with two more weeks until the Masters there seem to be more azalea-laden storylines than ever before.

A Spieth victory in Austin would certainly add fuel to that fire, but even if he comes up short the 2015 champ will certainly be a focus of attention in a few short weeks when the golf world descends upon Magnolia Lane with no shortage of players able to point to a recent victory as proof that they’re in prime position to don a green jacket. – Will Gray

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Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

“The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

“Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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Davies impresses, but there's no catching Park

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 2:40 am

PHOENIX – Inbee Park won the tournament.

Laura Davies won the day.

It was a fitting script for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on Sunday, where nostalgia stirs the desert air in such a special way.

Two of the game’s all-time best, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park and World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies, put on a show with the tour’s three living founders applauding them in the end.

Park and Davies made an event all about honoring the tour’s past while investing in its future something to savor in the moment. Founders Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge Vossler cheered them both.

For Park, there was meaningful affirmation in her 18th LPGA title.

In seven months away from the LPGA, healing up a bad back, Park confessed she wondered if she should retire. This was just her second start back. She won feeling no lingering effects from her injury.

“I was trying to figure out if I was still good enough to win,” Park said of her long break back home in South Korea. “This proved to me I can win and play some pain-free golf.”

At 54, Davies kept peeling away the years Sunday, one sweet swing after another. She did so after shaking some serious nerves hitting her first tee shot.

“It’s about as nervous as I’ve ever felt,” Davies said. “I swear I nearly shanked it.”

Davies has won 45 Ladies European Tour events and 20 LPGA titles, but she was almost 17 years removed from her last LPGA title. Still, she reached back to those times when she used to rule the game and chipped in for eagle at the second hole to steady herself.

“It calmed me down, and I really enjoyed the day,” Davies said.

With birdies at the ninth and 10th holes, Davies pulled from three shots down at day’s start to within one of Park, sending a buzz through all the fans who came out to root for the popular Englishwoman.

“People were loving it,” said Tanya Paterson, Davies’ caddie. “We kept hearing, `Laura, we love you.’ It was special for Laura, showing she can still compete.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Davies relished giving all the young players today, who never saw how dominant she once was, some flashes from her great past.

“Yesterday, after I had that 63, a lot of the younger girls came up and said, `Oh, great playing today,”’ Davies said. “It was nice, I suppose, to have that. I still am a decent player, and I actually used to be really good at it. Maybe that did give them a glimpse into what it used to be like.”

She also relished showing certain fans something.

“Now, people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

Davies was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996, when she won two of her four major championships. She was emboldened by the way she stood up to Sunday pressure again.

In the end, though, there was no catching Park, who continues to amaze with her ability to win coming back from long breaks after injuries.

Park, 29, comes back yet again looking like the player who reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, won three consecutive major championships in 2013 and won the Olympic gold medal two years ago.

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win and because I want to contend in golf tournaments,” Park said.

After Davies and Marina Alex mounted runs to move within one shot, Park pulled away, closing ferociously. She made four birdies in a row starting at the 12th and won by five shots. Her famed putting stroke heated up, reminding today’s players how nobody can demoralize a field more with a flat stick.

“I just felt like nothing has dropped on the front nine,” Park said. “I was just thinking to myself, `They have to drop at some point.’ And they just started dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Yet again, Park showed her ability to win after long breaks.

In Rio de Janeiro two years ago, Park the Olympic gold medal in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year, in just her second start upon returning.

“I'm really happy to have a win early in the season,” Park said. “That just takes so much pressure off me.”

And puts it on the rest of the tour if she takes her best form to the year’s first major at the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.



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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”