LPGA's 2016 in review

By Randall MellNovember 25, 2016, 4:47 pm

Brooke Henderson chased down Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko with a bold charge that ignited a series of soul-stirring roars through the towering pines at Sahalee Country Club back in June.

It made the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship sound like the women’s version of the Masters.

Henderson defeated Ko in a playoff there with a brilliant 7-iron to 3 feet setting up the winning birdie.

Ariya Jutanugarn barely missed out on joining them for the extra hole.

The epic battle will go down as one of the greatest finishes in the history of women’s golf, but with Ko, Henderson and Jutanugarn so young it felt more like the beginning of something big.

And the summer would get bigger.

Inbee Park made a spectacular return from injury at the Olympics, playing through pain to claim the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.

When Park stepped off the medal stand with gold around her neck, accompanied by Ko with silver and Shanshan Feng with bronze, the trio was swarmed by TV cameramen, photographers and reporters. They were treated like rock stars. Women in golf have never received that kind of attention before.

The 2016 LPGA season will be remembered for how women enjoyed an elevated stage.

It will also be remembered for Jutanugarn’s rise and Ko’s continued reign as Rolex world No. 1 and how they played key roles in both the game’s remarkable youth movement and Asia’s strengthening grip on the game.

A look back at the year’s LPGA highlights:

Jutanugarn’s rebound

With a tour-best five titles, Jutanugarn won the Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Race to the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the LPGA money winning title.

She also won the Heather Farr Award for perseverance, coming back from shoulder surgery in 2013 and also a slump that saw her miss 10 consecutive cuts a year ago. She became the first player in history to win three consecutive starts as her first three LPGA titles. She did that in May after collapsing in April with the final-round lead at the ANA Inspiration.

Ko’s reign

With five victories worldwide, Ko kept a stranglehold on the Rolex world No. 1 ranking from year’s start to finish. She won her second major (ANA Inspiration) and ended the LPGA season atop the world rankings for a 76th week, the last 57 in a row.

Park’s pieces of history

Park battled through an injured left thumb to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June. The pain was obvious there, and it led Park to shut down her game, until amazing the world with her Olympic return two months later, when she won gold in Rio de Janeiro.

The youth movement

The women’s game has been getting younger for some time now, but it’s never been this young.

The average age of this year’s LPGA winners was 22.3 years old.

Brittany Lang was the oldest winner, 30 when she won the U.S. Women’s Open in July.

The average age of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings at season’s end was 22.8 years old.

Ko won the season’s first major (ANA Inspiration) at 19, Henderson won the next (KPMG Women’s PGA) at 18, Jutanugarn won the Ricoh Women’s British Open at 20 and In Gee Chun the Evian Championship at 22.

Charley Hull joined the youthful winner’s mix claiming the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship at 20.

The Asian dominance

Se Ri Pak said goodbye to the LPGA this year, with a farewell American tour and then a final farewell celebration at the KEB HanaBank Championship in South Korea in the fall.

South Korea’s influence on the game has steadily grown since Pak inspired her homeland winning two majors as a rookie in ’98, but she made an impact through all of Asia, and it’s never been stronger than it was this year.

Ten of the top 12 players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are Asian born.

Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals were swept by Asian-born players.

Thailand’s on the rise now, too, with Jutanugarn’s emergence and a Thai record eight players joining the tour in 2016. China’s also on the rise, with Shanshan Feng following up her Olympic bronze medal performance by winning a pair of LPGA titles in the fall. Feng also led China’s qualification for the UL International Crown. She was the only Chinese player in the LPGA ranks when she won the LPGA Championship four years ago. There were six Chinese players on tour this year.

America woes

Americans won just two LPGA titles this year, their fewest in the 67-year history of the tour.

Lang claimed the biggest prize in women’s golf, winning the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle, but Lexi Thompson’s victory at the Honda LPGA Thailand was the only other by an American in an LPGA event the entire year.

Americans also endured a slide in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings with Thompson the only American left among the top 10 at season’s end.

Henderson’s major breakthrough

When she won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Henderson made history.

At 18 years, 9 months and 2 days old, she became the youngest winner of the championship, which shares its history with the LPGA Championship, which dates back to 1955.

Henderson also successfully defended her title at the Cambia Portland Classic.

Chun joins a pair of legends

Chun moved her name among a pair of legends.

She achieved a pair of rare feats, linking her name to Se Ri Pak and Nancy Lopez.

Chun introduced herself to American audiences winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club a year ago. She followed up on that success in a big way this year, winning the Evian Championship to join Pak as the only players to claim majors as their first two LPGA titles. Chun also won the Vare Trophy, becoming the first rookie to do so since Lopez.

Jang’s trifecta

Ha Na Jang and Chun got caught up in some misfortune early in the year, when Jang’s father lost control of a suitcase that bounced down an escalator at a Singapore airport and struck Chun in the lower back, knocking Chun out of the HSBC Champions in March and other events in the spring.

The incident set off a firestorm of controversy in South Korea, but they both emerged from the trouble with successful seasons.

Jang won three LPGA titles, more than anyone but Jutanugarn and Ko. Jang won the Coates Golf Championship, the HSBC Champions and the Fubon Taiwan Championship.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.