Wrapping up Tiger Woods’ return, putting a bow on the year and looking ahead to 2017 in this week’s season-ending Monday Scramble:
After a 466-day layoff, after rumors of physical inactivity and reports of a vulnerable game, Woods returned to competition last week at the Hero World Challenge and, if we’re being honest, exceeded all expectations.
He looked healthy, going full bore with the driver. He looked sharp, hitting a number of terrific iron shots. And most of all, he looked happy, which is no small feat considering how bleak his outlook was just a year ago.
Whether Woods can return to the Tour as anything more than a bit player will be sorted out over the next year. (After all, he played reasonably well in the Bahamas and still lost by 14.) For now, though, his return can be viewed as nothing less than a resounding success.
Next year just got a lot more interesting.
1. Woods carded 24 birdies last week – the same number as tournament winner Hideki Matsuyama. That’s good news, because it’s much easier to eliminate mistakes than to make more birdies.
2. The bad news, of course, is that Woods also made six double bogeys, including three during a final-round 76 (the worst score of the week by any player). It's the most he's ever made in a single tournament.
The six doubles can be attributed to two things, both of which should have been anticipated: rust and fatigue.
Out of competition for nearly 16 months, Woods clearly wore down on the back nine each day, making sloppy swings and poor decisions. Part of Woods’ training was to get back into walking shape, but there was no way to simulate the inevitable waves of adrenaline. By Sunday afternoon, he was gassed.
One of the biggest tests for Woods in early 2017 will be playing consecutive weeks, especially if he still requires treatment and physical therapy after each round.
3. With that in mind, where will we see Woods next? He said after the final round that he'd like to play a full schedule next year, but he needs to see how his body responds after a few weeks off.
He'll have a few options next month: He could play in Abu Dhabi, fly halfway around the world to tee it up at Torrey Pines, take two weeks off and then compete at Riviera; or he could play Torrey Pines, fly halfway around the world to play in Dubai, take a week off and then compete at Riviera.
Unable to prepare and practice like he used to because of his surgically repaired back, Woods, who turns 41 later this month, must ensure that he doesn't overexert himself at the beginning of a long year.
4. Matsuyama is making plenty of noise during a quiet time of year.
In his last six starts, the Japanese star has gone 5th-1st-2nd-1st-1st-1st. He led the World Challenge by as many as seven shots at one point Sunday before settling for a closing 73 and a two-shot victory.
He is still 89 under par over his last 20 rounds. Too bad it's not April.
5. Which players will take the next step and win a major in 2017? Here are the three most likely candidates:
- Matsuyama: His putting was the biggest reason why he didn't win more often, but that part certainly seems to have been figured out. That's scary, because he's a preeminent ball-striker.
- Brooks Koepka: Big hitter, strong iron player, streaky putter. If he can shore up his wedge game, like his buddy DJ, he’ll be a consistent force in the majors next year.
- Patrick Reed: Remarkably, he doesn’t have a top-10 in a major, but it seems like just a matter of time before it all comes together for four days.
6. That no-good, overrated, sky-is-falling year that Jordan Spieth supposedly had? He still won three times this year, more than all but two players.
Spieth had braced himself for the backlash, had prepared himself to fall short of everyone’s expectations after a record-breaking 2015. But that didn't make it any easier. This year was still a learning experience for the 23-year-old, both on and off the course.
Two poor swings on the 12th hole at Augusta cost him another major, then he struggled with his iron play and wedges, leading to some middling play during the crammed summer schedule. Off the course, he grew frustrated with constant questions about his game and found out the hard way that he needed to better manage his time and energy with international travel.
That he experienced all of this now, while he’s young and on the heels of a breakout year, will only help him for the future. He’s too smart and driven to fall off.
7. Boy, there’s a lot more buzz surrounding Phil Mickelson than at this time last year.
In late 2015, he had just left Butch Harmon, hooking up instead with little-known swing coach Andrew Getson. He hadn’t won in more than two years. He hadn’t really be competitive, either, save for a few out-of-nowhere major performances.
No, he still didn't break through for his first victory since the 2013 Open, but no winless player was better this year. Phil became an elite putter (again). He qualified for another team competition. And he had a few chances to win, none more agonizing than at Royal Troon, where he lipped out a putt for 62, closed with 65 and lost to the player with the lowest 72-hole score in major history.
Then came the Ryder Cup, where he faced more pressure than anyone … and all he did, as a de facto playing captain, was post a 2-1-1 record and record 10 birdies in Sunday singles.
Only offseason hernia surgery can slow down Lefty.
8. Whether Spieth and Rory McIlroy can return to world No. 1 will be a big storyline in 2017, of course, but I’m most interested to see where Dustin Johnson goes from here.
He possesses the most raw talent of any player on the PGA Tour – he didn’t practice after the HSBC Champions in October and still finished in a tie for third at the Hero – and now he has a long-awaited major title on his résumé.
Does DJ continue to maximize his awesome talent and rise to No. 1? Or does he simply become content with checking off two of his biggest career goals (major and Player of the Year) and coast for the foreseeable future, winning a few titles each year just because he’s too good not to. It’ll be fascinating to watch.
9. Was there a more scrutinized tournament this year than the Olympics?
The golf course was a headache for the design team. There were security concerns in Rio. And top players bailed for reasons ranging from the Zika virus to scheduling.
In the end, the event proved successful for both the men and the women, thanks in large part to the players who landed on the medal stand. The men’s tournament was riveting, going down to the 18th hole with a pair of major winners vying for the gold. The action was so compelling, and the thought of a medal so enticing, that many of those who missed out – namely Spieth and McIlroy – later expressed regret over their decision.
Would they have felt the same with different medal winners, with just another boring 72-hole event? Probably not. But it’s full steam ahead to the 2020 Games, with the prospect of a format change on the horizon.
10. It took nearly 40 years for a tournament to challenge the Duel in the Sun.
Locked in a thrilling, high-stakes game of H.O.R.S.E., Henrik Stenson and Mickelson lapped the field at The Open, combining for 14 birdies, an eagle and two bogeys in the final round while shooting 63 and 65, respectively.
Afterward, Stenson reveled in a life-changing victory. Mickelson, meanwhile, looked stunned in defeat, as he tried to come to grips with how he could play so well and still lose.
It was the best tournament of the year by a wide margin.
11. There’s a new young star in women’s golf, and she poses massive problems for Lydia Ko.
Ariya Jutanugarn, with her incredible power and smooth putting stroke, is the star that the LPGA has been waiting for once it was clear that Michelle Wie wouldn’t put a stranglehold on the game.
Jutanugarn is ranked inside the top 25 in driving distance despite almost never hitting driver. She’s in the top 20 in greens in regulation and putting average, too.
She swept the postseason awards after a breakout, five-win season. When Jutanugarn is on, and healthy, there is no way that Ko can hang – she doesn’t have the length or the precision to go head-to-head.
This is just the beginning of Jutanugarn's takeover of the LPGA.
12. So this is telling: An American won a major and yet it was still a historically awful year for the U.S. women.
Brittany Lang took the U.S. Women’s Open, but she was one of only two Americans to find the winner’s circle in 2016. Lexi Thompson won in February but otherwise had the glaring weaknesses in her game exposed on a weekly basis.
Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome and Wie? All MIA.
It was the Americans’ worst season in the 67-year history of the tour – and there isn't much hope for the immediate future, either.
13. As we look back on 2016, here are a few personal highlights ...
- I was going to continue walking with the Patrick Reed-Rory Mcllroy Ryder Cup singles match once they made the turn, but decided against it. There was no way it would get any better, and I was right. That was the most thrilling two hours of golf I’ve ever seen, with the birdies and the eagles and the fist pumps and the “I can’t hear you!” screams and the finger wags. Two months later, the hair still raises on my neck every time they show a highlight of the eighth green.
- When major Sundays are over, I usually mill around the clubhouse, looking for people who can add perspective and color to my stories. After Spieth’s collapse at the Masters, I followed Spieth and his team for the next half hour or so. Michael Greller disappeared into the caddie building. Spieth’s family and swing coach Cameron McCormick gathered near their courtesy SUV, too emotional to offer any insights on the day’s final two hours. But while everyone around him was devastated, Spieth, then just 22, was as polite and gracious as ever, slipping the green jacket on another man’s shoulders and then thoughtfully answered every tough question asked of him. Respect.
- One of the best tournaments of the year was seen by only about 500,000 viewers: The men’s and women’s NCAA Championships. The match-play portion had everything you could want as a sports fan: drama, hole-outs and clutch putts. And all on a classic design, Eugene Country Club.
The USGA should be thankful that Johnson won the U.S. Open by a comfortable margin, because Mike Davis and Co. made a “big bogey” in how they handled a ruling during the final round at Oakmont.
Informing Johnson on the 12th tee that a penalty was still possible after the round, the blue blazers threw the U.S. Open into flux, as everyone was unsure of where they stood in the tournament. USGA officials got roasted by players and industry types on social media, and afterward, they insisted that they followed the proper protocol, even trotting out some legal mumbo jumbo in a news conference. It ended up being a moot point – Johnson's final margin of victory was three shots, not four – and 24 hours later, Davis conceded that he’d like a mulligan and the rule will be revisited.
This year's award winners ...
Best Performance of the Year: Stenson at The Open. He matched Johnny Miller as the only players to win a major with a final-round 63 … and Big Stense’s incredible round included a pair of bogeys. His ball-striking has long been a sight to behold, but now he has a reliable putting stroke, too.
Random Thought of the Year: How many majors did Nike cost Tiger? Woods admitted that he returned to his old Scotty Cameron putter the same day that the Swoosh decided it was leaving the equipment business. By no means was he a poor putter with the Nike model – he just wasn’t in the top 5 annually, like usual.
Oldie But Goodie: Jim Furyk. Leave it to Furyk – the aging warrior with the funky swing – to become the first player with two sub-60 scores on Tour.
Year to Forget: Brendon Todd. Ranked 80th in the world at the end of last year, he is now No. 472 after missing 25 cuts in 27 starts. Oy.
Most Expected Rise into the OWGR Top 10: Matsuyama. He stared down Rickie in Phoenix, had top-10s at the Masters, Players and PGA, and won four of his last five starts. Stud.
Most Unexpected Fall out of the OWGR Top 10: Rickie Fowler. So much for that whole Big 5 thing. Fowler won early in the year, in Abu Dhabi, but otherwise didn’t do much, failing to finish in the top 30 in a major and booting away a few chances to win.
Most Unlikely Rise into the OWGR Top 10: Alex Noren. The 34-year-old Swede had enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career until this June. Over the last four months of the season, however, he matched his career win total (four) and soared into the top 10 in the world. The next step is competing in the States against the world’s best.
Boneheaded Move of the Year: Peter Willett. The Masters champion had struggled ever since he left Augusta, and his brother only compounded his issues by writing a satirical column that disparaged American golf fans just days before the Ryder Cup. Sure enough, Wilett was targeted by spectators and went 0-3 in what was a lopsided European defeat.