There were plenty of highlights over the past year on the course, from thrilling tournament conclusions to heart-stopping drama at majors. Golf fans were granted a bevy of impressive champions, each with a unique story that led them to the winner’s circle.
But what if the many-dimpled ball had bounced in a slightly different direction? How might the landscape have shifted with minor changes in some of the biggest tournaments of the year?
Without further ado, a look at five of the biggest “what-ifs” from the year in golf:
What if…the Royal Birkdale driving range was out of bounds?
The lore of Jordan Spieth’s Open triumph will always be inextricably linked to the chaotic scene that played out to the right of the 13th fairway during the final round. Spieth had sprayed his drive wildly off-line, but he had the wherewithal to realize that he could take a penalty drop on the adjacent driving range. He managed to save bogey and jump-started an electric finish that earned him the claret jug.
But at many tournament courses, the driving range is considered out of bounds. Had the range been off-limits, Spieth would have either had to take a risky drop on an enormous hillside, setting up a blind and difficult third shot, or trudge back to the tee to take another crack at one of the hardest holes Birkdale had to offer.
At that point even a double bogey would have been a noble goal, meaning Matt Kuchar would have walked to the 14th tee with at least a two-shot lead – en route to what would have been a breakthrough major title.
What if…Dustin Johnson didn’t slip?
This will likely go down as one of the bigger hypotheticals in recent memory, as an 11th-hour freak injury kept the world No. 1 from playing in the Masters and derailed the momentum he accrued by winning each of his last three starts leading down Magnolia Lane.
Johnson was the man to beat for nearly the entire spring, and without a back injury sustained on the eve of the opening round he would have maintained that status throughout the season’s first major. Instead of Sergio Garcia, it would have been Johnson facing off with Justin Rose down the stretch, each vying for green jacket No. 1 and major No. 2.
Johnson still won four times in 2017, but the floodgates would have opened for a truly historic year with a Masters triumph. And Garcia would probably still be viewed as the best player without a major.
What if…Lexi Thompson had marked her ball correctly?
The biggest rules controversy of the year played out at the ANA Inspiration, where Lexi Thompson was assessed a retroactive, four-shot penalty in the middle of the final round for improperly marking her ball the day prior. A phone call from a TV viewer fundamentally altered the outcome of a major championship, as Thompson went on to lose a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.
While Ryu’s name was etched on the trophy, the tournament was Thompson’s to lose – and she wouldn’t have lost it without the penalty. A proper mark would have led to her second win in four years at Mission Hills, and it would have kicked off a torrid season that still netted her the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus despite her controversial runner-up.
It would have even meant a little less scar tissue lingering over Thompson as she addressed the 2-foot putt at the season finale in Naples that would have taken her to world No. 1 for the first time.
What if…Jason Day had chipped out?
The Aussie was still in the hunt at the PGA Championship, four shots off the lead when disaster struck on the final hole of his third round. An errant drive onto pine straw led to an ambitious rescue attempt through the trees, one that backfired and led to a quadruple bogey. Any hopes of a second major title vanished in the span of 15 minutes.
While Day still would have faced an uphill battle in the final round, a simple pitch back to the fairway would have likely resulted in bogey at worse. Day would have remained within arm’s length of Kevin Kisner, who went on to bogey the same hole, and would have been an intimidating presence on a leaderboard filled with first-time major hopefuls.
In the end, Justin Thomas’ run to the Wanamaker Trophy may have continued uninterrupted. But Day’s chances would have been kept alive for a win that would have turned around an otherwise disappointing season – and perhaps salvaged his partnership with caddie Col Swatton, which ended a month later.
What if…Brian Gay didn’t crunch the numbers?
Granted, this one didn’t impact the outcome of a major. But Ian Poulter’s resurgent season, highlighted by his runner-up finish at The Players, would have never happened without some number-crunching from Gay and his wife, Kimberly.
When Poulter missed the cut at the Valero Texas Open in April, he believed that he had exhausted his major medical extension without earning enough FedExCup points to keep his PGA Tour card. But after the Gays unearthed an issue with the Tour’s math, the status of both players was adjusted and the Englishman wasted little time in putting his reinstated card to use.
Without a mathematical assist from Gay, Poulter would have been scrapping for playing opportunities all summer long while trying to keep pace with players nearly half his age. Instead, he’ll end the year knocking on the door of the OWGR top 50, with a return to the Masters within reach and a spot on next year’s European Ryder Cup team in Paris a very real possibility.