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The year of JT (and TW and DJ and JS ...)

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Unforgettable years in golf are about as rare as a Tweet-less day by President Trump, understandable given the scarcity of greatness in general and even more so when one considers what we have come to expect of great golfers.

For example, in 2017 Justin Thomas won five times, including a major championship, something Arnold Palmer only did three times in his career – one of those being his seminal year of 1960 – but more recently Tiger Woods has raised the bar. Woods won at least five events and a major within a given year, seven times in his career. So it is with that in mind that Thomas’ epic year registers little more than a meh reaction from many. However, it is easier to make sense of things after they have happened than to predict them before they do.

In 1960, Palmer turned 31. In 2017, Thomas turned 24.

As I have said countless times, the single biggest predictors of success in this game, in descending order, are: Winning a major at a young age (before turning 25), winning by wide margins, and winning in bunches. To that effect, we have been introduced to Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and now Thomas.

Look at that list again. Of the nine names, four of them are playing the game right now, which makes this era unprecedentedly wealthy in its preternatural talent. It teases 2018 with the possibility of a year in golf unlike any other in history.

So while this past year may not have moved you off your couch with the success of any one player, it gave us another name who is only a major away from the career Grand Slam in Spieth. It gave us one more potential young superstar in Thomas. And it gave us a look at what might prove to be the most historically impactful comeback in sports’ history in Woods. To say nothing of Dustin Johnson, Lexi Thompson, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, McIlroy, Jason Day, Lydia Ko, Phil and Bones, and the bubbling up of what might prove to be the most contentious debate since Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson had a falling out over – damned if history doesn’t repeat itself – the golf ball.

I’d argue to the still-present Spieth doubters that in the past year he validated the success of 2015 and invalidated the choking whispers of 2016.

I’d argue to the Thomas ignorers that his body, his upright swing and his putting stroke are never going to change. And in this era of playing musical chairs with teachers and their ever-changing philosophies and fitness coaches, that sets him further apart, and will keep him on the same trajectory of his rocketing tee shots.

Ben Hogan, injured in February 1949 when a bus hit his car head on, teed off in the L.A. Open on Jan. 2, 1950, 334 days after sustaining a broken pelvis in two places, a broken collar bone, broken ribs and a broken left ankle – unable to play golf until November ‘49. He would have had, at most, 60 days to prepare for the event he lost in a playoff to Snead. Woods teed off at the Hero World Challenge in December 2017, 301 days after walking off the golf course mid-round in Dubai, his whole body and mind seemingly ground under repair. He would have had, at most, 60 days to prepare for an event with just 18 players in the field where he finished ninth.

I’d argue to the Tiger dissenters that while ninth in an 18-man field does hardly a comeback make, he did manage to beat the PGA Tour Player of the Year in Thomas, the No. 1 player in the world in Johnson, and the current U.S. Open champion Koepka, who wasclearly on his game having just won the Dunlap Phoenix by a record nine shots (breaking the mark of eight shots, set by none other than Woods in 2004).

Hogan went on the win the U.S. Open in 1950, authoring what is considered one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports’ history. Woods has already authored a few minor miracles in winning the U.S. Open after coming back from surgery in 2008, and coming back from scandal and further surgeries to be named 2013 Player of the Year.

Both Ben and Tiger, these instances are prime examples, were not the best of their eras because they practiced or worked harder than anyone else, but because they had the best form and, perhaps more importantly, they had the ability, like a magnifying glass focusing light from the sun, to put all of their energy into a task and to not be put off by the enormity of what they were doing. The enormity of Woods’ impact will be felt again in the coming year. The Hero convinced me of that and I have not easily been convinced before.

It is likely that the stage will never again be set better than it was for Johnson at this year’s Masters, or for that matter all of the majors in 2017. His slip on the stairs and subsequent injury the night before the first round in Augusta was a poignant reminder, just like Rory’ kick-about accident in 2015, that while the highest reaches of this game are about controlling the mind, there is one thing that no one, not even the greatest of athletes can control: Luck.

What Johnson seems able to do as well as anyone in recent memory, is bounce back from disappointment.

I find it somewhat amusing that changes in this game seem to be happening in such a reactionary way, not so much from the powers-that-be, as from the powers that won’t let us be. Knee-jerk reactions to social media outrage have become the norm. When it seems to me that we are allowing the most disgruntled, the most profane, the most obnoxious of dissent to establish the narrative. The outrage to Thompson’s miss-marked ball and subsequent four-stroke penalty at the ANA made her out to be the victim. Although, I admit, there were also fellow professional’s taking her side in this matter, much to my astonishment. She quite clearly and immediately – so no argument could be made that time had elapsed and thus she had forgotten the coin-to-ball relationship she had established – miss-marked her ball.

Every professional player watches how others mark their ball and there is a big differences between marking it correctly, without raising any eyebrows, marking it in such a way as to raise a few eyebrows, and marking it in such a way as to make one raise their voice. Raise a few eyebrows and word gets around. Story goes that Nicklaus stood inches from another player when they were marking their ball on the green. When the player looked up, Jack said, “You see my shoes? You are going to see them every time you mark your ball today.” And that as they say was that. When a player marks their ball the way Lexi did, there is hell to pay, and she had to pay it. The outrage and rule change to follow have almost made her out to be the victim. What she is, is one helluva player.

Thompson has the potential to reestablish the United States as the leader on the LPGA tour, and much as Michelle Wie once did, she has the athleticism to be a Babe Zaharias-type player and dominate with her physical gifts. If she chooses to look at her improved play this past year as evidence of what she can do and the missteps as further motivation for what she wants to do, there is not much that could stop Lexi in the next year.

What can one say about Sergio Garcia winning the Masters except that it was a long time coming and the most deserved major win since Phil Mickelson’s “Is it his time” Masters win in 2004.

If you went into a bar and ordered a “Dustin Johnson” and the bartender said it was Happy Hour – as in two-for-one – and you got a “Brooks Koepka” on the second go-around, you might not notice the difference. Yep, Koepka is that good and reminds me of a younger DJ, and there is going to be a lot of happy hours over the next few years I suspect.

Three recent No. 1’s went winless in 2017: McIlroy, Day and Ko. A stark reminder that there are no guarantees in this game and that the biggest enemy of good, is better. It seems that Rory and Jason wanted better, fitter bodies, which is understandable given what Tiger did with his mega-muscled frame. It seems that Lydia wanted an even better swing, understandable given what Tiger did with his new and improved swings. But in the same way there was much to learn from Tiger’s ascent, there was much also to learn from his descent. Tiger’s transitions had a cost; in time at first, and then in physical decline, and finally in the apparent loss of his genius. Everyone was watching, but were they paying attention?

I suppose the real question of the year is not why Phil and Bones broke up, but how did they stay together for so long? Emotions run high on the golf course and there is a lot to do by both caddie and player. The caddie has to clean and rake; organize and add; know when to speak and when to be silent; show up early and stay late; admit mistakes when there were none; and often be the teacher, coach and counselor. It’s a damn hard job. The player must guard against getting too close to the caddie lest the line of business and pleasure get crossed, but this invariably happens and things one would never say to a friend, one ends up saying on the golf course to their caddie. This leads to a growing awkwardness that takes a few years to germinate and few years to bloom, which is why I’d put the over-under on a caddie-player lifespan at four years and change. Phil and Bones lasted a quarter of century.

As I write this there are people adamantly lining up on both sides of the ball debate and I suspect in the coming year this topic will come to a head.

Since 1980, the average tee shot on the PGA Tour is 36 yards longer.

In my view, this breaks down like this:

From 1980-99, players picked up, on average, 15.1 yards, largely because of the COR or rebound in the face of the metal-wood drivers. This was either an oversight by the governing bodies, or having just regained their equilibrium from the Ping Eye 2 lawsuit (a measuring dispute about the width between square grooves), they were reluctant to raise an issue given the huge popularity of metal-woods and the massive cost it would have been to disavow them.

From 1999-2005, players picked up an additional 16.8 yards, largely owing to the mass conversion from wound balls to solid core balls.

From 2005-17, players have picked up 4.1 yards for any number of reasons, but likely because most PGA Tour players now look like Greek gods.

Somewhere in all this minutia there is the varying contributions of much better agronomy, the lightness and increased length of the shafts, and the increased volume and MOI of drivers making them much more forgivable and thus encouraging harder swings, likely accounting in total for as much as one-third of the increased yardage.

So there it is, 36 damning yards with every swing of the driver and it is now almost impossible to build a par 5 that tour players can’t reach in two or a par 4 that tour players can’t reach with a drive and a short iron. This is hardly the test that anybody with any sense of the history of this game, or respect for its traditions, wants to see. To be sure, this is not at all an outrage to low scoring, at least it is not as far as I am concerned, but rather an outrage to the lack of something missing in the game, and in the games of the best players. First, the need to drive it in the fairway, as coming out of the rough with short irons is hardly a penalty. And second, the need for long-iron approaches on the occasional par 4. And finally, a return to relevancy of some of the game’s most sacred pieces of land, most notably St. Andrews.

There have already been more than a few players talk about rolling the ball back, which when one looks a little deeper smacks of the same type of player-sponsor tandem that sought to have square grooves – i.e. Ping’s irons, which were threatening a huge market share at the time – deemed illegal on the PGA Tour a few decades ago. And, of course, there are more than a few “ancient idolaters” who’d like to see wood and balata come back for no other reason than they think the courses of Tillinghast, Thomas, MacKenzie, Raynor, Ross, Crump, and Wilson should be restored to all their majesty.

And yet Alister MacKenzie, who said that a golf course should be elastic in order to accommodate advances in technology, designed Augusta National to play a ghastly 6,700 yards for the best players in 1934 – that yardage more than making up for the 20-plus yards players had picked up since the turn of the century, when the rubber core ball replaced the gutta-percha. 

When I hear people scream, “Roll the ball back!” I first think, Why the ball and not the rebounding and forgiving metal woods? Why the ball and not the longer lighter shafts? And then I think, At what cost? Who is going to pay restitution to the manufactures whose products will be rescinded? Who will pay for the lawsuits? Who is going to tell all of those amateurs who have been having a blast hitting the ball farther than they ever have, no more smash?

And then I think, that since this really is a problem that affects very few people in the world, namely those who can swing a golf club 120 mph with a fairly high degree of accuracy and who can putt on greens that stimp at 14, wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier and far cheaper to carve out a few teeing grounds here and there on only a select championship courses, slow the courses down with mowing patterns or the height of grasses, and everyone will be happy with the smallest of cost and inconvenience.

After all, the parameters for the ball and driver have been set in stone, so to speak, for more than a few years now and any improvements in distance and score going forward, for maybe the first time in history, can rightly be attributed to the athlete and not the equipment.

Yes, let’s let this sleeping dog lie and the year quietly come to an end.