Golf is often billed as one of the purest meritocracies in sports. Play well, shoot low, and you’ll move up the rankings and into the biggest events. There is no head coach to woo for extra playing time, no front office to appease. No long-term playing contracts, either.
But even in a system where players are judged by the scores they write down, perception can still seep in. Often times names are sorted into any number of categories: elite, overachiever, journeyman. And during an eventful 2018, several notable players experienced a seismic shift in how the rest of the sport views them.
Tiger Woods went from a walking injury report to the eye-popping superstar that he's been for much of his career. His match-play foil, Phil Mickelson, added fashionista and dance instructor to his ever-growing list of credentials.
Patrick Reed graduated from fiery villain to major champion, a transformation that can’t be undone with 100 post-Ryder Cup sound bites. Brooks Koepka went from Dustin Johnson’s workout buddy to the history books in the span of a summer, all while proving that perhaps Johnson should be viewed as his plus-1 rather than the other way around.
But the changes brought on by this past year went beyond the headline names. When the calendar flips to 2019, there will be 50-percent turnover among the top 10 in the world rankings from how the year began. Some, like Francesco Molinari, vaulted to elite status by virtue of a major title that will irrevocably alter how his career is viewed moving forward. But others made similar ascents in smaller increments: Tony Finau is now ninth in the world, a remarkable testament to consistency given that he doesn’t have any wins counting toward his OWGR point total.
But Finau’s jump came through contending in several of the biggest events, proving that his game extends beyond just the TrackMan numbers he produces off the tee. It was a similar path for Xander Schauffele, who bested Finau in a playoff at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. Schauffele made a splash as Rookie of the Year in 2017 but somehow got better as a sophomore, finishing runner-up at both The Open and The Players. Eighteen months after being the guy with the funny name, he’s now on any short list of possible major contenders.
Speaking of majors, the highest-ranked player without a major is now … Bryson DeChambeau. It would have been an implausible line to type when he started the year ranked 99th in the world, but after a torrid stretch that included four wins there is now little doubt about his standing among the world’s best. A major breakthrough appears on the horizon for a player who has quickly outgrown the label of scientific oddity.
Granted, not all perception shifts moved in a positive direction in 2018. Jordan Spieth had spent the previous three years bolstering an image of invincibility, especially when a major championship was within reach. But as the putts failed to drop and the confidence slowly eroded, Spieth’s aura declined. After starting the year ranked No. 2 in the world, he’s now 16th: good, sure, but a far cry from the lofty perch he seemingly has occupied since turning pro.
And there were others who experienced declines this year beyond Spieth. The notion that Sergio Garcia’s Masters win would become a watershed failed to take hold, as El Nino didn't make it to the weekend at any 2018 major while his ranking dipped. He did, however, find the right combination when it came time for the Ryder Cup – after all, some perceptions are more evergreen than others.
Charles Howell III is no longer burdened by the image of a successful player who can’t get his hands on a trophy. The same goes for Kevin Na, Paul Casey and Keegan Bradley. Danny Willett is well on his way to shedding one-hit wonder status.
The shifts extended to the women’s game as well, where Georgia Hall used one memorable week at the Women’s British Open to signal her arrival on the biggest stage. With an emotional back-nine rally, Angela Stanford went from a player noted for near misses to one holding a major trophy. And Ariya Jutanugarn is now the best all-around player in the world.
Some shifts could serve as setups for bigger and better things in 2019. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Cameron Champ went from driving-range wunderkind to the PGA Tour’s next breakout sensation. And while he came up short of a Ryder Cup spot, Matt Wallace displayed equal parts talent and swagger en route to three wins in Europe. Both stocks are expected to soar in the coming months.
Often a change in perception is only 18 or 72 holes away. One scintillating performance, or one surprising bobble, can be all it takes to alter the lens through which a player is viewed. Such stakes can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse.
But as the holidays kick off and the golf calendar (briefly) grinds to a halt, there’s just enough time to look at the larger landscape and see that the key pieces have been noticeably rearranged over the last 12 months.
And heading into a new year, the only guarantee is that there will be more change 12 months from now.