Golf’s landscape looks so much different heading into the final major championship of the year.
Tiger Woods, always the man to beat in any major, arrives at the PGA Championship as just another contender. It’s one thing for him to still be looking for a victory in a major, quite another for the world’s No. 1 player to have not won any tournament at all this late in the season.
Then again, Woods didn’t get started until the Masters in April. And he still is trying to piece together a personal life in turmoil from his extramarital affairs that were uncovered nine months ago.
“Just be patient, keep working, keep going,” Woods said on the eve of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, his final chance to win before the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. “I’ve been through periods like this before. If you look at my career, I’ve never been one of those guys that just plays awful and then all of a sudden, just plays well. You’ll start seeing trends.”
There are plenty of trends in golf, some of them related to the state of his game.
Without Woods winning his usual share of tournaments, others have taken advantage of the void. And if there is one trend that stands out in American golf this year, it’s the preponderance of international players winning on the PGA Tour.
It started with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland closing with a record 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship on one of the more demanding courses on the PGA Tour. That began a stretch of foreign-born players winning 11 of 15 events on tour. The only American winners were Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson and Matt Bettencourt.
“When you have one player dominating and winning consistently, there’s very few people who are gaining confidence. If anything, it’s going to work in the opposite way,” Padraig Harrington said. “Nobody is quite dominating at the moment. That leaves two things. One, players aren’t scared. And two, there’s more of them to win.”
Two of those international players won majors for the first time – Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland in the U.S. Open, during a final round at Pebble Beach when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were in prime position; and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa at St. Andrews, where he won the British Open by seven shots.
Even more alarming for the Americans?
None finished among the top three in consecutive majors, which had not happened in 98 years.
For British agent Chubby Chandler, whose stable includes Oosthuizen, Els and Lee Westwood, it reminds him of a 10-year stretch from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s when international players won half the majors.
“I think European Tour players will win something like five out of the next eight majors. We’re that strong now,” Chandler said on the day after Oosthuizen’s victory at St. Andrews. “I’ve got a sense what happened in the ’80s is about to happen again. Only then, it was about five players. And there will be 25 from our tour going to Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship thinking they can win it.”
The 92nd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday in the heartland of America, on a links-styled course that Pete Dye built along the bluffs of Lake Michigan. Whistling Straits last hosted the PGA Championship in 2004, when Vijay Singh won in a playoff.
The 156-man field is getting more international by the year. There are 76 players from overseas, compared with only 47 international players who were part of the field 10 years ago.
The defending PGA champion is Y.E. Yang of South Korea, who became the first Asian male to win a major last year at Hazeltine when he rallied from two shots behind to beat Woods in the final round.
One other trend: Five of the last six major champions had never won a Grand Slam event before, the exception being Mickelson at the Masters. It’s the longest such stretch since there were six first-time major winners from the 2002 PGA through to the 2004 U.S. Open.
“Golf is very strong in depth at the moment,” said Westwood, the 37-year-old from England who has established himself as the best to have never won a major. “Players are better coached nowadays. They’re not afraid to win and they get into position more regularly than maybe they used to. Obviously, Tiger has not won as many as you would have thought he would have won recently, so that creates room for other people to win majors.”
That golf has become deeper and stronger globally is not much of a surprise. It has been building toward that for the better part of the last decade, especially since the advent of the World Golf Championships in 1999 that not only brought together the world’s best more often, it gave international players another avenue to reach the PGA Tour.
These days, the only thing American about the PGA Tour is the headquarters in Florida.
“We come over here and get more comfortable with the players and the golf courses,” McDowell said. “I just think we have a lot of top players right now who are playing out here more often, and it’s obviously pure mathematics.”
Harrington wonders if the PGA Tour has become so international that it hurts the development of young Americans. Whereas international players learn to win against weaker fields in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, young Americans immediately face the best.
“A good season over here for a young player, he might get in contention three or four times, might win once,” Harrington said. “Whereas a good season for a young player in Europe, he gets in contention 12 times and wins twice. And those 12 times he’s in contention, he’s going to learn from those. And that will help him grow as a player.
“There’s no doubt – this is a tough thing to say – that the strength of the U.S. tour doesn’t help grow young players.”
Harrington, a three-time major champion, still believes an exception player will rise no matter where he plays. The classic example is Woods, who reached No. 1 in the world within nine months of turning pro, and has twice stayed at No. 1 for five-year spans.
He just doesn’t look like that kind of player now.
Woods remains ultra private about his personal life, refusing to confirm he is in the process of a divorce, although he did concede that parcels of time and focus he once devoted to practice has been taken away by problems he never faced before.
“I’ve had more things going on once I’m at a tournament site than I have in the past, and for different reasons,” he said.
Woods remains stuck on 14 career majors, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. His last major seems so long ago, that Monday at Torrey Pines when he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open in his final event before reconstructive knee surgery. If he fails to win at Whistling Straits, it will be the third time in his career that 10 majors have elapsed without him winning one.
Winning anything at the moment would satisfy Woods.
Heading to PGA world dominating not Woods
Golf’s landscape looks so much different heading into the final major championship of the year.
Davies headlines field at Senior LPGA at French Lick
Laura Davies will be looking to win her second senior major championship this year when she tees it up in Monday’s start of the Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick Resort in Indiana.
Davies, who won the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open in July, will join a field that includes fellow World Golf Hall of Famer Jan Stephenson, who was announced last week with Peggy Kirk Bell as the Hall’s newest members. Hall of Famers Juli Inkster and Hollis Stacy are also in the 54-hole event.
Trish Johnson is back to defend her title after winning the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship a year ago. Brandi Burton, Jane Geddes, Helen Alfredsson and Liselotte Neumann are also in the field of 81 players who will compete for a $600,000 purse, with $90,000 going to the winner.
Golf Channel will televise all three rounds live from 4-6 p.m. ET on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Langer (65) wins regular-season finale by six
CARY, N.C. – Bernhard Langer ran away with the SAS Championship on Sunday to take the points lead into the PGA Tour Champions' Charles Schwab Cup playoffs
Langer shot a bogey-free 7-under 65 for a six-stroke victory in the regular-season finale.
''I just played very solid all day long,'' Langer said. ''Putted well, hit the ball where I was looking and did everything exceptionally well.''
The 61-year-old German star has 38 victories on the 50-and-over tour, also winning this year near Houston. He has a record four victories after turning 60.
''I don't have anything to prove, but I still have golf,'' Langer said. ''I still want to improve my own game. I still want to play to the best Bernhard Langer can play. I don't think I need to prove anything, but I love competing, I love winning or being in the hunt. As long as I can do that, I think you're going to see me out here.''
Langer finished with a tournament-record 22-under 194 total at Prestonwood Country Club, the tree-lined layout softened by heavy rain Thursday from Hurricane Michael. He opened with a 62 on Friday to match Gene Sauers and Tom Lehman for the lead, and had a 67 on Saturday to remain atop the leaderboard with Sauers.
''The 10 under was amazing,'' Langer said. ''I couldn't believe there were two other guys who shot 10 under.''
The four-time Charles Schwab Cup winner also won at Prestonwood in 2012.
''It's always fun to go back to where you've won before because you feel like you know how to play the course and you're somewhat comfortable and that's certainly the case here,'' Langer said. ''I've been probably 50, 70 times now around this golf course and I know how to play every hole.''
Scott Parel was second, closing with a double bogey for a 65.
''Bernhard is just in his own world this week,'' Parel said.
Jerry Kelly had a 68 to finish third at 15 under, and Lehman followed at 13 under after a 71.
Sauers shot a 75 to tie for fifth with Miguel Angel Jimenez (68) at 12 under.
The top 72 players in the Schwab Cup standings qualified for the playoffs, the three-event series that begins next week with the Dominion Energy Charity Classic in Richmond, Va. Dan Forsman tied for 56th to jump from 74th to 72nd, edging John Huston for the final spot by $932. Huston tied for 46th.
Pepperell captures British Masters, eyes Augusta
WALTON HEATH, England -- Eddie Pepperell won his second European Tour title with a two-shot victory at the British Masters on Sunday and likely secured the even bigger prize of a place in next year's Masters at Augusta National.
The Englishman shot an even-par 72 and held off his playing partner, Sweden's Alexander Bjork (71), as the pair went to the 72nd hole at a wet and windy Walton Heath with Pepperell just a stroke in front.
Pepperell finished on 9-under 279.
Herbert Lucas (69) and Jordan Smith (73) were tied for third, another two shots behind Bjork.
English pair Sam Horsfield (69) and Tom Lewis (70) along with American Julian Suri (74) tied for fifth, one shot in front of tournament host Justin Rose (70).
The victory takes Pepperell into the world's top 35 and almost certainly secures a first appearance at Augusta in 2019. The top 50 at the end of the year are guaranteed a place in the first major of the year in April.
Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood (72) finished 2 under in a seven-way tie for ninth.
A top-two finish on Sunday would have seen Rose reach the top of the world rankings for the second time this season, the 38-year-old having spent two weeks as No. 1 in September
Pepperell was ranked outside the top 500 as recently as May last year, but won the Qatar Masters in February and followed a runner-up finish in the Scottish Open with a tie for sixth in the British Open seven days later, carding a closing 67 at Carnoustie despite saying he had a hangover.
His three-shot overnight lead was down to a single stroke on Sunday when Bjork covered the front nine in 34 and Pepperell three-putted the ninth, the same hole where he enjoyed a spectacular hole-in-one on Thursday.
However, the 27-year-old Pepperell promptly holed his second shot to the 10th from 122 yards for an eagle to move three clear and a par save from off the green on the 14th looked to have sealed the win.
There was still time for some late drama, though, as Pepperell dropped shots on Nos. 15 and 16 to see his lead cut to a single shot, but Bjork bogeyed the 18th after driving into the heather and Pepperell saved par from a greenside bunker.
Disappointed Sharma fades to T-10 at CIMB
For the second time this year, India's Shubankhar Sharma watched an opportunity for a breakthrough win turn into a learning experience.
Sharma burst onto the scene in March, taking a two-shot lead into the final round of the WGC-Mexico Championship only to fade to a tie for ninth. It was a similar story Sunday at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, where Sharma started the final round in a three-way tie for the lead but struggled to an even-par 72 that dropped him into a tie for 10th.
"Disappointing, not really happy with the way I finished," Sharma told reporters.
The 22-year-old was 1 over for his first six holes, but he battled back with four straight birdies on Nos. 7-10 to get within three shots of eventual winner Marc Leishman. But his tee shot at the par-3 11th found the water, leading to the first of three straight bogeys that ended any hopes of victory.
"That was probably one of the worst swings of the day," Sharma said. "That 11th hole I think killed the momentum for me. A par there would have gone a long way, and I probably could have made more birdies after that."
Sharma remained optimistic this spring following his final-round fade in Mexico, and he retained a positive mindset despite a rough afternoon as he eyes upcoming starts at both the CJ Cup in South Korea and the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
"Great experience. Very, very good to have two top-10s on the PGA Tour, so that's a good way of looking at it," he said. "Also, it pushes me to keep playing well. I feel like I have it in me to win out there on the PGA Tour, and I've given myself two opportunities. Game is in a decent place now."