2016 in rewind: Look back on a dramatic year

By John FeinsteinDecember 13, 2016, 2:45 pm

There wasn’t much doubt when 2016 dawned that the year was going to be a dramatic one for golf.

After all, the Ryder Cup is always drama-filled, regardless of the outcome. The Olympics were going to be – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer – unique, since they hadn’t played golf in The Games for 112 years.

Rory McIroy would again attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters. Phil Mickelson would do the same at the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Jordan Spieth would be asked to do the impossible: somehow come close to matching what he had accomplished in 2015.

And there was the never-ending question, the one asked most often by non-golf fans: “So, when is Tiger returning?”

And, of course, there was the soap opera that could have been called, “As the Task Force Turns.”

All of which means the expectations bar was set extremely high, even before Spieth opened the year with an eight-shot win in Hawaii, leading people to wonder if he might never lose again.

Of course, it’s never that simple.

Before the year was over, the four biggest events had been won by first-time major champions – each an amazing and very different story. The Olympics had created more controversy than anything in golf since Annika Sorenstam played at Colonial in 2003 – more, in fact. Then, just when it seemed the five rings might come crashing down on the sport’s head, a dramatic finished breathed life and hope into the event.

The Ryder Cup not only lived up to the hype, but went beyond it, even without a breath-taking finish. Patrick Reed, once golf’s anti-hero, became Captain America. Mickelson and Matt Kuchar did one of the worst shimmys ever seen and Mickelson emerged from the rubble of Gleneagles with a new glow on his legacy. And Woods became the most talked about vice-captain (or assistant coach) in sports history. Then, in December, he actually played golf again.

A lot to take in.

To begin at the beginning …

As it turned out, Spieth had a remarkable year – for a normal player. He won twice, finished tied for second at the Masters and was part of a winning Ryder Cup team.

There was just one problem: most people don’t look at Spieth as a kid just coming into his own as a player. They look at him as the guy who apparently found the last remaining phone booth on earth early in 2015, jumped into it and emerged as Superman – or, at least, Tiger circa 2000.

When you win back-to-back majors at 21 and then almost win the next two majors (T-4 at The Open, one shot out of the playoff, and second at the PGA behind a record-setting Jason Day) and win five times in the same year, including the FedEx Cup, you are never supposed to appear human again.

For 63 holes at the Masters, Spieth did just that. He led by five shots and it appeared that – for a second straight year – he was going to disprove that old Augusta adage: “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”

But then, instead, he proved it – emphatically.

It wasn’t the bogey on 10 or the bogey on 11 that did him in. Those are very difficult holes and Spieth still led by two standing on the 12th tee. Up ahead, Danny Willett was putting together a wonderful round, all of which was likely to give him a chance to finish second.

But then, Spieth did something he almost never does: He made a mental mistake. And he made it at the worst time in the worst possible place.

“There are about six places at Augusta where you have to know exactly what you’re doing before the tournament begins,” Tom Watson said. “Jack (Nicklaus) explained that to me years ago. One of those places is the 12th tee.”

Standing on the 12th tee, Spieth thought he could cut a 9-iron into the flag. Later, Spieth said as he stood over the ball he remembered trying the same shot in 2014-when he trailed Bubba Watson by two shots – and finding the water. A moment later, his shot hit the bank in front of the green and rolled back into the water. Clearly stunned, he then chunked his third shot into the water and finally walked off with a quadruple bogey-7.

A moment later, having birdied the 15th to close – he thought – to within one of Spieth, Willett heard a gasp as he walked off the green.

“I turned around and saw they’d slid a ‘1,’ for Jordan under the 12th hole,” Willett said later. “At first I thought it was a mistake. Then I realized it wasn’t and knew I was leading the Masters.”

He was leading by one at that moment, over Lee Westwood, his good friend, who was paired with him. Often, the most difficult thing for an athlete to do is stay in the present when it hits him that he has a chance to do something special. Westwood, the veteran, reacted to suddenly being close to his first major victory by bogeying the 16th hole. Willett birdied it.

That’s what a champion does and, even though Spieth’s mental meltdown on the 12th tee was the focal point of most stories, Willett’s bogey-free 67 deserves to be remembered for a long time.

So does the way Dustin Johnson handled USGA officials tripping all over themselves during the last round at Oakmont. First, he wasn’t penalized when his ball moved on the fifth green. Then, he was maybe penalized, left – along with the rest of the field – literally not knowing the score for the last six holes.

Johnson shrugged it all off, did his best, ‘whatever-dude,’ down the stretch, including his virtual tap-in birdie at the 18th – one of the toughest finishing holes in championship golf. In doing so, he not only won his first major, he turned what could have been one of golf’s all-time debacles into just another footnote USGA embarrassment.

One month later, Henrik Stenson and Mickelson spent four remarkable days at Troon putting on the best golf show of the year. Mickelson came within an inch of the first 62 in major history on Thursday. Then, Stenson chased him down, eventually passed him and shot 63 on Sunday (!) to win his first major title. Mickelson shot a superb 65 that day – a round for the ages on almost any other major Sunday – and lost ground.

Two weeks later – the schedule was compressed because of the Olympics – Jimmy Walker went wire-to-wire at rain-soaked Baltusrol. This was the same Walker who had comfortably missed the cut at both Opens and was having a decidedly mediocre year going into the final week in July. Walker jumped from 29th to fourth on the Ryder Cup points list with his win, a move that made Davis Love III smile because he’d wanted Walker to play his way onto the team.

Then came the Olympics. Twenty-one eligible players chose not to go for reasons ranging from the Zika virus to the tight schedule to just wanting a break. Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy and Day were among those who passed.

Fortunately, Stenson and Justin Rose showed up and they put on a wonderful show on Sunday, Rose beating his Ryder Cup partner for the gold medal. Their duel may have saved golf in the Olympics since there was talk that the International Olympic Committee might vote in 2017 not to continue the sport beyond Tokyo in 2020 if it failed in Rio. Now, it seems likely, golf will survive.

And then, there was the Ryder Cup. Europe’s motto was, ‘shoulder-to-shoulder.’ The America’s should have been, ‘if not now, when?’

The U.S. had the specter of the famous/infamous task force (the Europeans giggled every time they used the term); they had home field advantage – a golf course set up to Love’s specifications and a wild, occasionally over the top, group of fans. Europe had six rookies playing on the road and also had two veterans – Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood – searching for their games.

The U.S. played brilliantly, taking a 4-0 lead the first morning and never looked back – in spite of some nervous moments Saturday afternoon before Reed holed out a wedge for an eagle on the sixth hole, turning the momentum back around. Reed was the star – beating McIlroy in a scintillating singles match on Sunday – but every American contributed at least a point in the 17-11 win.

“I went back and watched the tape of Sunday,” McIlroy said, weeks later. “I couldn’t believe how many putts they made. They looked like us in past years.”

There was one other story, one that didn’t draw as much attention as the others but was the feel-good story of the year. In 2015, Billy Hurley used his pre-tournament news conference at the Quicken Loans National to publicly plead with his missing father to please contact his family. Willard Hurley was found three days later, but two weeks after that committed suicide.

Eleven months later, Hurley, who spent five years in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy, received a sponsor’s exemption into the same tournament – and won. It may not have been golf’s most dramatic moment of 2016, but it was certainly the sweetest.

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”