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.
• 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.