No matter how packed with all that makes the game great a golf year might be – and I’d contend that there’s never been a year that wasn’t – it won’t stand out in history unless it has one extra special moment. And 2019 had that.
Golf’s broad strokes rarely cut as wide a swath through culture as the Big 3 team sports, but Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters was voted The Associated Press’s top sports story of the year. Its importance may come to be considered greater than his 1997 Masters victory, or his U.S. Open wins at Pebble Beach in 2000 and Torrey Pines in 2008. And as a comeback from adversity, Woods’ first major victory in 11 years at least rivals – and arguably surpasses – not only Ben Hogan’s 1950 U.S. Open, but ANY sports comeback ever. It was extra special.
But so much else happened in 2019. What to make of the rest?
Well, let’s start with … Woods. It’s easy to forget that a lot of things had to go just right on Sunday for Tiger to win at Augusta. And that as much as the place is considered his sweet spot, he hadn’t won there since 2005. For me, the singular moment that meant more going forward was the Zozo Championship in November. Not because it became Woods’ record-tying 82nd career. And despite the tournament being a limited field, off-season event over a short golf course in a faraway land.
It was the WAY that Tiger played – with a return to an ease and smoothness in his action that not only recalled much earlier days, but which promises repeatability and consistency. As well as – on the right occasions – dominance.
Next on the hit parade – the education of Rory McIlroy. The four-time major winner added important elements to his game – namely better putting and overall ball control – to set the foundation for another sustained run of greatness in his 30s.
But it was also a year of searching. McIlroy came into 2019 reflective and open to new ideas. He said meditation, juggling and several self-help books had led him to decide that he would no longer “allow my score to define who I am as a person.” His consistency improved and he impressively won The Players in March. But McIlroy also had several flattish Sundays with chances to win, and the Masters – where he continues to chase the career Grand Slam – didn’t go so well.
Prior to the U.S. Open, McIlroy roared to a seven-shot win in Canada. But he tied for ninth at Pebble Beach. Expectations were again high at Portrush, a short car ride from his boyhood home and where he had shot the course record of 61 at age 16. He opened The Open with a nervous 79 and missed the cut. The next week he got boat-raced by winner Brooks Koepka in a final Sunday pairing at the WGC-FedEx in Memphis.
It was again time to reassess.
After winning the FedExCup at East Lake, this time outplaying Koepka in the last group in what he would later call the highlight of his year, McIlroy revealed having committed to a harder and more self-aware competitive edge.
“I think one of the biggest things is sometimes I’ve tried to treat Sundays the same as a Thursday or Friday, and they’re not,” said McIlroy, who would go on to win WGC-HSBC in Shanghai in November for his fourth victory of the year. “I’ve gone into them maybe a little too relaxed, but it’s not the same, and it’s about trying to get yourself in the right mindset. I guess that’s the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks is that I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”
Speaking of Big Game Brooks, his ruthless march through the major championships since 2017 has been undervalued. In the last 30 years, only Woods, McIlroy and Nick Faldo have had such prolonged periods of excellence in the biggest events.
This year, Koepka showed true dominance in building a seven-stroke lead through three rounds in his victory at the PGA at Bethpage. That he bookended that performance with seconds at the Masters and at the U.S. Open got short shrift. And after he finished fourth at Portrush, when his putter uncharacteristically failed him (and he was being bothered by a torn patella tendon in his left knee that required stem cell treatment and from which he is still recovering), too many acted as though his reign had ended.
That impression was strengthened when McIlroy was chosen as PGA Tour Player of the Year by a vote of his peers. In the last couple of years, Koepka has used relatively small slights for fuel. But going into 2020 and turning 30 in May, he will be on a mission to strengthen his hold on world No. 1 and outdo McIlroy in the process. Koepka betrayed some saltiness in October by pointing out that, “I’ve been out here for what, five years. Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I don’t view it as a rivalry.”
Sounds like a rivalry.
Although Jon Rahm, who enters 2020 at No. 3 in the world, is expected to intrude.
The 25-year-old Spaniard earns the description “beast” in the same way as team sport athletes who appear physically overwhelming. Along with his nine combined victories on the PGA and European tours, Rahm has also validated his combination of power and touch with a relentless consistency – in his first 89 official worldwide professional starts, Rahm has 44 top-10s, only one less than Woods in his first 89. As he continues to mature – and he got married just this month – expect a calmer, more controlled Rahm to be even more dangerous.
In the women’s game, Jin Young Ko was by far the best player of the year, winning two majors and two other events in only her second season on the LPGA tour. In a gracious acceptance speech for year-end honors at the tour’s awards banquet, the 24-year-old South Korean’s accented, but precise English reflected the same discipline and exactitude that is so evident in her game. The current Rolex No. 1 knows that’s been a precarious perch over the last decade in women’s golf, and she seems determined to change the cycle. “This is not the end,” she told the gathering, “but only the beginning.”
Ok, that’s the highest profile stuff. But there was also a pervasive theme that permeated 2019. In so many ways, it was an extraordinarily “feel-good” year.
Usually in these end-of-the-year assessments, what sticks with me most – and reinforces my generally tragic sense of competitive golf – are the deeply wounding, self-induced losses brought on by late implosions. You know, Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot, Adam Scott at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and Jordan Spieth at the 2016 Masters – with plenty of other examples to stuff into the hurt locker. But as I remember 2019, only two players caused such sadness, Francesco Molinari at the Masters and Lizette Salas at the Women’s British Open. Molinari, the seemingly unflappable ball-striking machine led by two strokes on the 12th tee Sunday at the Masters before mishitting an 8-iron into Rae’s Creek, opening the door for Woods. Salas, who played the best golf of her life with a closing 65 at Woburn, missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, and then watched Hinako Shibuno win it with a 20-footer.
Instead of a bevy of heartbreak, we got a full complement of Capra-esque moments.
• Suzann Pettersen, after making an 8-footer on the final green in the last match that spelled the difference between winning and losing the Solheim Cup, announced her retirement at age 38. One of the great walk-offs ever in professional sports. Pettersen said she reached the decision spontaneously with the thought, “This is it. This is the peak.”
• Shane Lowry, as an underachiever scarred by a Sunday failure at the 2016 U.S. Open, shouldering the immense mental load before thousands of home fans in a land that hadn’t held the Open Championship since 1951, and winning by six. The panorama on Portrush’s 72nd hole, with fans running up the fairway behind Lowry, some waving Irish flags in the rain amid a constant roar, was one of pure cathartic release.
• Shibuno winning the Women’s British Open at Woburn in her first professional tournament outside Japan. A babe in the woods at 20, she was bolstered by innocence and a constant, infectious smile, even as she four-putted early in the final round. Shibuno caught fire and closed with a 31 on the final nine, her final putt rammed in with a blissful freedom, to become the second Japanese player to win a major championship.
• The scene at the inaugural Augusta National Woman’s Amateur, where the image of women striding the hallowed grounds was a transformative moment for the game. The impressive brand of head-to-head power golf played by winner Jennifer Kupcho and runner-up Maria Fassi was the icing on the cake.
• The effervescent Helen Alfreddson winning the second U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles, the most joyous, “about time” and appreciated championship in golf. Love of the game is never more palpable than among too-long-ignored 50-and-over LPGA veterans, and Alfreddson’s passion and exuberance spoke for them all.
• Cameron Champ won the Safeway Open in October while dedicating his play to his gravely ill African-American grandfather, Mack, who started him in the game. The 24-year-old bomber’s calm as he garnered his second victory was reminiscent of Ben Crenshaw’s march to the 1995 Masters after being a pallbearer at the funeral of his teacher, Harvey Penick, earlier that week.
• In the most exciting finish of the year, Matthew Wolff – he of the fascinatingly powerful swing and unofficial leader of the game’s latest youth movement – in only his third pro start, won the 3M Championship with an eagle on the 72nd hole to beat Bryson DeChambeau, who had also eagled the last, by one.
• Finally – and excuse my darkness – Koepka and Rahm saving big victories after blowing huge Sunday leads. For some reason, nothing makes me happier (or more accurately – relieved) than seeing a player who has gone from the zone to full meltdown, and then reverse what suddenly looks like his or her inevitable and awful fate in the nick of time. Koepka dug to the very bottom of his deep reservoir of poise to do it at Bethpage after four straight bogeys on the final nine had him lose all but one of his seven-stroke lead. Rahm had a five shot lead with 10 to play at the DP World in Dubai, but it was all gone – thanks especially to a couple of knuckleheaded three-putts from inside 25 feet – when he reached the 72nd hole. He’ll remember that birdie – with a smile and a shudder – for the rest of his life.
Adding additional poignancy to our main theme, it was also the year of journeymen – each capable, but with a history of struggle at the highest level – seizing the day.
Brendan Todd ran away with this category, returning from nearly four years in the wilderness that included a stretch of missing 37 of 41 cuts, to win back-to-back at Bermuda and Mayakoba, and then nearly won again at the RSM. The 34-year-old, who won the Byron Nelson in 2014, came down with a nightmare dose of the swing yips (the lose-it-way-right strain) that by late-2018 had him on the verge of giving up pro golf and opening a pizza franchise. Instead, Todd got some help from swing coach and former player Bradley Hughes and pulled off one of the great turnarounds in golf history.
And consider this roll call of others who went through storybook lost-and-found cycles to convert a week of magic into first victories that take them into 2020 with transformed lives: Max Homa (Wells Fargo Championship), JT Poston (Wyndham Championship), Nate Lashley (Rocket Mortgage), Lanto Griffin (Houston Open), Tyler Duncan (RSM Classic), Adam Long (Desert Classic). Inspirations all.
And at the risk of belaboring the feel-good point, it seemed that just about every level of pro golf ended the year on a happy note.
At the PGA Tour’s finale at East Lake, McIlroy spread much joy in Ponte Vedra, with one fell swoop validating the wisdom of the Tour’s more compressed and earlier finishing schedule, getting the new “staggered start” scoring system at the Tour Championship off on the right foot, and winning in the final group in another showdown with Koepka.
The LPGA’s season ended on a high note with Sei Young Kim making a 22-foot birdie putt on the last hole to win the richest first-place prize ever in the women’s game – $1.5 million – at the CME Group Tour Championship. A new format had been questioned for seeming to put sheer money over an equitable reward for season-long performance, but Kim’s stature as a top player and the cliffhanger nature of her victory over Charley Hull made for a satisfying result.
The PGA Tour Champions season ended with a bang when Jeff Maggert holed out from 123 yards for eagle to win the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in sudden-death.
And at the last big event of the year, the Presidents Cup, Woods was fittingly triumphant as both captain and player. And, as he has done more with age, a strong display of emotion spread the joy.
So finally, did something happen that set the tone for all this happiness? Was there a beginning?
To say there wasn’t would be to underestimate the impact of Amy Bockerstette, a 20-year-old collegiate golfer and Special Olympics athlete with Down syndrome, who in January played the 16th hole with Gary Woodland at the pro-am of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. I’ll admit it, tears fill my eyes each time I watch the 2-minute and 50-second video, which has reached double-digit million views.
Seeing the way Bockerstette, clearly thrilled to meet her playing partners, Woodland and Matt Kuchar, reveled so genuinely as the center of attention on golf’s iconic stadium hole, and then stepped up, assertively telling herself, “I got this,” is irresistible. She hit a good tee shot, followed with a deft bunker shot, and then, again repeating her mantra out loud, drilled the 10-footer for par with Nicklausian poise.
One guess at the phrase Woodland told himself before pulling off the shot of the year – a perfectly clipped 60-degree wedge off the 17th green at Pebble Beach that carried and spun to within 4 feet and a crucial par.
Said Woodland of Bockertette: “There’s nobody that I’ve seen be in the moment as much as she is.”
In a particularly feel-good year, it might have been the most extra special moment of all.