Youth - and Sergio! - reigned on Tour this season

By John FeinsteinSeptember 26, 2017, 7:29 pm

It was certainly no surprise on Sunday when one of the game’s talented 20-somethings walked off with the Tour Championship trophy.

After all, they had already won three of the year’s four majors and that didn’t take into account 22-year-old Jon Rahm, who won twice worldwide and, along with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Marc Leishman came to East Lake knowing a win would guarantee the FedExCup and the accompanying $10 million bonus.

Sure enough, when the dust finally cleared late Sunday, there was one of the 20-somethings being handed a replica of Bobby Jones’ Calamity Jane putter, which is the new winners’ trophy for the Tour Championship.

Congratulations, Xander Schauffele.

Xander, who?

It is a reasonable question to ask, given that a year ago Schauffele had to fight his way through the Web.com Tour playoffs just to get to the PGA Tour. His rookie year was already a success when he won The Greenbrier Classic in July, earning a two-year Tour exemption and an invitation to next year’s Masters.

What’s more, he needed a final-round 67 a week ago in Chicago to finish T-20 at the BMW Championship and sneak into the top 30 for Atlanta. Given the chance to play the last week of the season, he never blinked – except perhaps when he almost punched his two-foot birdie putt for the win at 18 past the cup. The ball did a near-360 but went in, leaving Schauffele laughing in both embarrassment and relief.


Video: Top shots from the 2016-17 PGA Tour season


For Schauffele, it was the perfect finish. For the Tour it was almost perfect. A perfect finish would have been Thomas, who should be the unanimous choice as Player of the Year, rolling in his 25-foot birdie putt at 18 and going on to win the tournament and the FedExCup. Instead, he had to settle for second place in the tournament and the $10 million bonus for the season-long competition.

At 24, Thomas is now one of the sport’s elite players. His 2017 wasn’t quite up to the standard set by Spieth in 2015 when Spieth won two majors, five tournaments and that year’s big-money bonus. Thomas won five times too – including the PGA Championship – and just missed win No. 6 on Sunday.

This was a year filled with eye-popping performances. While Thomas was the clear-cut Player of the Year; Spieth the clear-cut runner-up and Schauffele the slam dunk Rookie of the Year, the moment of the year was just as clear-cut: Sergio Garcia winning the Masters.

There’s a famous opera called ‘The Flying Dutchman.’ It is about a sea captain who is destined to sail the world forever unless he can somehow find true love. Every seven years he finds land and is given the chance to find someone who will love him forever. In the Wagnerian opera, the captain DOES find true love – but only in death. After all, that’s the way all operas end.

Garcia was luckier. After sailing the seven seas of the golf world for 18 years without a major title, he found true love – new wife Angela Akins ­– and lived to win in Augusta this past April, coming from three strokes down on the back nine on Sunday to beat Justin Rose in a playoff. Mercifully, Garcia didn’t start singing an aria when his final putt went in the hole.

As it turned out, Garcia was the oldest of the year’s major champions. Brooks Koepka, who won the U.S. Open with a bravura Sunday performance was 27; Spieth was about to be 24 when he won in July; and Thomas, three months older than Spieth, was 24 when he won at Quail Hollow. Schauffele is 23; Rahm is 22.

That list doesn’t include Jason Day, who turns 30 in November, Rory McIlroy, who won’t be 29 until next May and Rickie Fowler who turns 29 in December. All are still young, it only FEELS like they’ve been around forever.

For all three, 2017 was mostly forgettable. Fowler won early and contended often, but didn’t win again. Neither McIlroy nor Day won at all, a stunning development. Day had to deal with his mother’s cancer and his own various health issues and a year that led to his stunning decision to fire Colin Swatton, his longtime mentor and caddie, although he kept him on as his coach.

McIroy also had injury issues. He never completely recovered from the fractured rib he suffered early in the year and, in 20/20 hindsight, it seems apparent he should have taken more time off before coming back to play. One can only hope he will take a lengthy break now and that we’ll see the real McIlroy again next year. It has now been more than three years since he won his last major in the darkness at Valhalla in 2014.

And Fowler? He is still without a major. No doubt that’s unbelievably frustrating for him and he’s probably pretty tired of giving congratulatory hugs to his buddies as they walk off with major hardware. It is worth noting though that some pretty good players were well past their 30th birthday when they won their first major: Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson come to mind. Arnold Palmer was 28.

It’s far too soon for Fowler fans to panic. He’s far more likely to be Mickelson than Colin Montgomerie.

And what of Mickelson? His streak without a win of any kind dates now back to Muirfield in 2013, when he had perhaps his most satisfying win since The Open was the one major he honestly believed he might not ever win. He’s still got the U.S. Open left to complete a career Grand Slam, just as McIroy still needs a Masters and Spieth needs a PGA. Don’t think for one second that missing out on one major doesn’t weigh on the minds of those great players who win three of the four.

Palmer was in his 80s when someone asked if he could have won wish fulfilled late in life what would it be? “Win the PGA,” he said. Tom Watson once said he would trade three of his five Opens for one PGA.

McIlroy will still be 28 when he next plays the Masters; Spieth will be 25 at next year’s PGA. Mickelson will turn 48 on the Saturday of next year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock. Clearly, the hourglass for him is close to empty.

In all, 2017 was one of golf’s better years in recent memory. The 20-somethings (19 wins and three of the four majors) dominated. That’s why the combination of Schauffele and Thomas hoisting the big trophies at East Lake was as it should be.

This is the second-to-last year that the Tour Championship will be played in late September. The Tour is already putting together a new, more compact schedule intended to move this event to the last week in August beginning in 2019. In all likelihood, the playoffs will take place in August and should draw more attention without football to compete with.

The change in schedule and format represents a great chance for the Tour to shake up the points system: create a true playoff with everyone starting at zero once the regular season ends.

And so, to put a coda on 2017, how about this: Thomas, Spieth, Koepka and Garcia were the year’s biggest winners, Garcia’s victory the most dramatic. And, it can be argued that Schauffele’s win in the finale was the most surprising. And, in all likelihood, he was the most surprised winner of them all.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.