Ten takeaways from a wild major season

By Ryan LavnerAugust 2, 2016, 12:30 pm

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – The major season began with an awkward exchange, as a heartbroken Jordan Spieth slipped the green jacket onto the shoulders of Danny Willett.

It ended with a heartwarming display of sportsmanship, with Jason Day waiting behind the 18th green to personally congratulate Jimmy Walker on outlasting him en route to his first major title.

Over the past 115 days, we’ve seen just about everything: long-awaited breakthroughs, sublime final-round play and questionable decision-making.

And so before we look ahead to the Olympics, FedEx Cup Playoffs and Ryder Cup, here are 10 takeaways from an unforgettable major season:

Golf is too deep for a Big Whatever. So much for Spieth, Day and Rory McIlroy continuing to mop up major titles. Walker’s win at the PGA was the fifth in a row by a first-timer, and there are plenty of others waiting in the pipeline, from Sergio Garcia to Brooks Koepka to Branden Grace. Day might be the best player on the planet, but at the PGA he was topped by a guy who didn’t have a top-10 since March. Everybody is invited to the parity party.

Photos: Top men's major moments in 2016

DJ realized his awesome potential. Sure, there was a sense of inevitability to Johnson’s victory at Oakmont, but with each close call – and each are-you-kidding-me? moment – it became harder to envision that he would bust through the major barrier. And yet, after years of succumbing to the big moment, he shook off one of the most bizarre incidents in major-championship history and powered his way to victory. How’d he elevate his brawny game to the next level? By shoring up his biggest weakness. In the past year, he’s improved from 53rd to sixth in proximity to the hole from 125 yards and in. For a power player who has a wedge or short iron into more than half his holes each round, that minor improvement proved to be the difference-maker.

This year, at least, there was more action on the 12th hole than the 18th. Spieth’s bid for back-to-back Masters titles came to an end on the most dangerous par 3 in the world, at Augusta National. His first tee shot there at least was understandable – yes, it was a poorly struck iron at an inopportune time, but he’s far from the first player to rinse a shot in Rae’s Creek. What turned Spieth’s big blunder into a monumental mistake was then chunking a three-quarter wedge from the drop zone, leading to a shocking quadruple bogey and a deficit he couldn’t overcome. It was devastating to watch, and now Spieth (and every golf fan) will flash back to that moment every time he walks to the tee. The 12th hole was no less memorable at Oakmont – that’s where USGA officials confronted Johnson and informed him that he might receive a one-stroke penalty after the round, sending the Open into chaos. Which reminds us …

It was not a banner major season for either the USGA or the PGA of America. The blue blazers royally botched the DJ ruling, first refusing to acknowledge that the officials had made an error (even trotting out some legal mumbo jumbo about the preponderance of evidence) before finally conceding it had made a “big bogey.” Throw in USGA president Diana Murphy’s bizarre inability to conduct a trophy presentation (pictured), and the USGA quickly became a punch line – and a punching bag. The PGA’s Kerry Haigh is one of the most well-respected setup men in the game, but even he came under fire for not bumping up tee times during Saturday’s third round. That miscalculation forced players to slog through the longest final day in 64 years. At least it wasn’t all bad news for the PGA: Somehow, the final round was completed before nightfall Sunday, and the unprecedented decision to play preferred lies turned out to be a shrewd move when the fairways became glorified mud pits. By the end of the major season, the controversies and the contentiousness were exhausting. Can’t they just form a three-person committee to make common-sense decisions?

Spieth is adjusting to life in his new world. At about this time last year, he had just polished off one of the greatest major seasons ever, when he finished four shots shy of the single-season Grand Slam. Oh, what a fascinating time since. From melting down at the Masters to bristling at some of the negative questions about his game, Spieth is slowly but surely learning about the expectations and pressure of being a global superstar. Even though he likely was one hole away from adding another major title, all anyone seems to remember now is that he has finished outside the top 10 in each of the past three majors, prompting a slew of “What’s Wrong with Jordan?” thinkpieces. The answer, of course, is nothing, because he’s 23 and history suggests he probably won’t ever top last year’s dream run. At times, the outside criticism has seemed unfair, especially for a two-time Tour winner this season. But Spieth likely realizes now that he won’t be judged like everybody else. Fair or not, it’s the price of superstardom.

Rory has fallen behind. The belief here – and surely many other places – was that in 2016 McIlroy would reassume his spot atop golf’s pecking order. He’d be healthy … hungry … motivated. Instead, he fell flat in a Saturday showdown with Spieth at the Masters, missed the cut at the U.S. Open, never factored at Troon and then self-immolated on the greens at Baltusrol. McIlroy’s long game might be peerless, but until he figures out a solution to his putting woes, the gap between him and the No. 1 ranking will only grow wider.

Henrik Stenson’s Open performance will go down as one of the best all time. After every major there’s a rush to declare that what we just witnessed was one of the best duels, rounds or shots in the game’s long history. Oftentimes, we’re simply victims of the moment. Not so, however, when it came to putting the thrilling head-to-head battle between Stenson and Phil Mickelson in the proper perspective. Blowing away the field, they needed just 128 shots, combined, in the final round at Troon, with Stenson becoming only the second player to win after closing with 63. The famed Duel in the Sun had better stars, with legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus trading blows at Turnberry. The final round at Troon had better golf.

Phil has plenty left in the tank. Though he remains as unpredictable as ever, Mickelson proved at Troon (and at other stops earlier this year) that he isn’t slowing down, even as an arthritic 46-year-old. We’ve taken for granted that Mickelson has been so good for so long – he won on Tour as a 20-year-old amateur! – but the offseason work with new coach Andrew Getson has helped revitalize his stagnant game. Even if he never captures that elusive Open, it’s easy to see him contending at the majors as he approaches the Big 5-0 and beyond.

The condensed summer schedule helped and hurt in equal measure. Though DJ and Stenson could ride their good form into high finishes at multiple majors, the quick turnaround time proved costly for stars like Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, whose game was just a touch off this summer. Quite simply, there wasn’t ample time to correct any swing flaw. Fowler, in particular, took a massive step backward in 2016. Two years after finishing in the top 5 in all four majors, and a year after winning three times worldwide, he bombed out with two missed cuts and two other middling finishes outside the top 30. It’ll be a long wait until April.

The PGA should consider a new date for the 2020 PGA. It’s clear that the Olympics undermined the year’s fourth major, creating a buzz-less atmosphere at Baltusrol and a wave of burnt-out players. In a seven-week span, the game’s elite teed it up in three majors and a World Golf Championship event. By the time the PGA arrived in late July, several players were dragging and ready for an extended break. Let’s face it: It’s too much demanding, high-pressure golf, and the product suffered. Assuming men’s golf remains in the Olympic rotation in 2020, the PGA would be wise to consider all options – March? May? October? – to help differentiate the event from just another big tournament in a year full of them.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)