No matter the protocols or the circumstances, these seven majors in an 11-month span have given us moments both improbable and inevitable.
The start of the 2022 Masters is 260 days away; there’ll be plenty of time for forecasting. So for now, a look back, at seven takeaways from this super-major season:
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Shaking the stats
COLLIN MORIKAWA RISES TO THE OCCASION
Iron in hand, there’s no one on the planet more proficient than the 24-year-old Morikawa. It’s what happens once he gets on the greens that has sparked a few questions during his short career. Such is life as the 170th-ranked putter on the PGA Tour.
And yet, whenever Morikawa turns up at the majors, he has shown an ability to elevate what had been his chief deficiency. At the 2020 PGA, he topped the field in putting. At The Open, he led the field in overall putting average and on the final day holed gut-check putts on the 14th and 15th holes to stay in front.
Major pressure-cookers are supposed to identify players’ weaknesses. So how does Morikawa suddenly morph into Ben Crenshaw on championship Sundays?
“Everything about my stats say I’m not a good putter statistically. I feel like I can get a lot better,” he said Sunday. “But in these situations, I feel like everything is thrown off the table. Forget about your stats – who can perform well in these situations?”
The answer, apparently, is Morikawa. He’s the only player in history to win two different majors in his first appearance, and the first since Bobby Jones to win two majors in eight or fewer career starts.
Not bad company for a “poor” regular-season putter.
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A Grand Slam game
JON RAHM, THE GAME’S MOST WELL-ROUNDED PLAYER
That much was evident during this prolonged stretch, as he now has recorded five consecutive top-10s in the majors dating to the November Masters. (Heck, throw in a T-9 at The Players, too, for good measure.) Rahm is the first international player since Gary Player to record top-8s in all four majors in the same season.
That’s rarefied air, but it’s a testament to the completeness of Rahm’s game. He contended in every major, no matter the questions being asked: the exactness of Augusta National, the brutality of Torrey Pines, the quirkiness of Royal St. George’s.
So accomplished for so long now, Rahm’s U.S. Open victory felt like his destiny – and also a sign of things to come. He chased down the leaders on the final day, then his keen sense of the moment took over as he birdied the final two holes to win. It was little wonder his former college coach/agent Tim Mickelson said this amid the euphoria afterward: “He can win the Grand Slam.”
No doubt about it, someday. This year proved Rahm’s game is well-suited to all of ’em.
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The stumped scientist
THE BRYSON REVOLUTION HITS A ROADBLOCK
In the aftermath of DeChambeau’s victory last fall at Winged Foot, there was a rush to describe his dominant victory as transformative, as one with wide-ranging implications for the entire sport. With each 350-yard drive he had humbled big, bad Winged Foot, and his sterling play was much-needed validation that his method of madness could work at the game’s biggest events.
And it can!
At some of them, at least.
Following that breakthrough, DeChambeau failed to finish inside the top 25 in each of his next five majors. That includes two underwhelming performances at Augusta National (the course he initially had in mind when he underwent seismic changes to both game and body) and a back-nine 44 at the U.S. Open when trying to go back to back.
The U.S. Open will always offer DeChambeau his best chance of adding to his major haul – because of his steep angle of descent, he can more easily gouge out of juicy rough – and he surely can tear up some of the PGA’s more docile setups. But so far, Augusta National and the Open venues have proven to be elusive challenges.
That’s hardly surprising.
On a course like Augusta National that demands precision, DeChambeau ranks 196th on Tour in proximity to the hole and is also one of the worst inside 125 yards – perhaps a byproduct of his unique wedge setup. His best finish there remains a T-21 ... as an amateur.
And despite a closing 65 at Royal St. George’s, DeChambeau still doesn’t have the answers for links golf either: For a control freak who tries to eliminate as many variables as possible, he’s decidedly at odds with a style of play that demands creativity and requires on-the-fly adjustments.
“This is, by far, the hardest tournament to figure out,” he said last week. “This one keeps me scratching my head.”
Maybe DeChambeau can take comfort in the journey of another major winner with an unorthodox approach: After all, Phil Mickelson needed 12 starts to record his first top-10 in an Open. He hoisted the claret jug a decade later.
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He's back – and close
BACK FROM THE DEPTHS, JORDAN SPIETH REMAINS UNSATISFIED
Did you notice a pattern this year?
Masters (T-3): “I hit some good putts, burned a lot of lips, certainly struck the ball well enough to win the golf tournament, and they just didn’t go in.”
PGA (T-30): “I’ve had over a dozen putts lip out, and if they had an extra half a foot of speed, they’d go in. Very frustrating.”
U.S. Open (T-19): “Putting and chipping has been pretty solid here and there, a little bit streaky.”
The Open (2): “I just wasn’t extremely sharp with the putter this week. I was sharper than I was at Augusta, but it’s been a little bit here and there this year.”
That’s Jordan Spieth, in all four majors, lamenting some of his major miscues with the putter.
By almost any metric, it’s been an incredible turnaround for Spieth, who at the beginning of the year was spiraling toward the top 100 in the world. Now, he’s up to 14th, ahead of Rory McIlroy, and a virtual lock for the Ryder Cup.
Spieth finished inside the top 3 in two majors and pushed Morikawa to the finish line at Royal St. George’s. But this jam-packed 11 months also underscored how much cleaner he must be, especially at the majors.
The quality at the top of the world ranking is stronger than even when Spieth reigned in 2015 and ’17. Rahm (as we wrote above) is consistently excellent across the board. Brooks Koepka brings it every major. Morikawa, with his iron precision and off-the-charts golf IQ, compares well to Spieth and figures to contend at the same venues each year. And in that head-to-head, Morikawa might actually have the edge: He’s a stronger iron player and, as he’s shown on occasion, has the potential to fill it up on the greens.
Spieth said he “100%” played well enough to win at the Masters and The Open, and yet he still fell short. Judging by his post-round comments, he knows the reason why. Tidying up his rounds will come down to the club most synonymous with his success: the putter.
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One more thrill
PHIL MICKELSON’S OUT-OF-NOWHERE PGA VICTORY CAPS AN EPIC CAREER
Here were Mickelson’s most recent results heading into Kiawah: MC-T53-T53-MC-T35-T25-MC-T21-MC-69.
Here are Mickelson’s most recent results after: MC-T62-T61-T74-MC.
Hey, if you’re going to somehow access a higher plane for four days, he couldn’t have picked a better time than the PGA Championship.
There was little to suggest that Mickelson was ready to become golf’s oldest major champion at age 50, and there’s little to suggest now, despite his overflowing optimism, that he’s ready to build off of it.
And who cares!
This was a capstone achievement for one of the game’s most enduring talents.
Mickelson might never have been Player of the Year or the world No. 1 or a FedExCup, but he’s tops in the game in longevity. He has literally been among the world’s best since he was in grade school. One of the country’s best juniors. A three-time NCAA champion. And now six majors among 45 PGA Tour wins (and counting), spanning three decades.
The PGA title bought him even more time to surprise us yet again.
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DUSTIN JOHNSON’S DISAPPEARING ACT
On the eve of the final round of the 2020 Masters, Johnson’s swing coach Claude Harmon III said, with a sense of awe and admiration: “The full control of what he’s doing right now, wow, it’s fun to watch.”
The next day, Johnson polished off a record-setting week at Augusta National, setting the 72-hole scoring record in the first-ever November Masters. It was Johnson’s long-awaited second major title and the perfect coda to what had been a mesmerizing stretch that had seen him finish no worse than sixth in a seven-start span.
So dominant was Johnson that he’d begun to elicit some comparisons to Tiger Woods – but, ah, Woods sustained that sublime play for years. Johnson’s, it appears, lasted but a few months.
If not for a narrow victory at the European Tour’s Saudi International in early February, DJ would have had a lost year to this point. His Sunday retreat at Riviera portended a bizarre few months during which he became the first world No. 1 since Greg Norman (1997) to miss the cut in consecutive majors. Then he backed up, again, on the weekend in four consecutive tournaments, including last week at Royal St. George’s, where he began the third round in the third-to-last group but shot 73 and was a non-factor.
So, what happened?
To be sure, Johnson has taken small but significant steps back in virtually every major statistical category, from driving to approach play to putting. His B-game hasn’t been good enough, and now 37, it’ll only get more difficult to summon his best. But he also wouldn’t be the first player who grew complacent after collecting more than $20 million in on-course earnings and capturing an elusive second major. Only Johnson can answer whether that was truly the case, but it’s nonetheless been a confounding year so far.
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BROOKS KOEPKA AND LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN ARRIVE AT THEIR CLOSE CALLS DIFFERENTLY
Newsflash: Koepka was once again a threat at the majors.
Tossing out this year’s Masters that he basically played on one leg, he finished T-2 at the PGA, T-4 at the U.S. Open and T-6 at The Open. A remarkable achievement, especially considering there were rumors initially he’d be out the entire summer because of his knee injury.
Koepka has been 64 strokes better than anyone else in the majors since the beginning of 2016. Through dips in form and health, he still possesses the rarest of gifts in being able to peak four times a year.
And yet ... there’s an unmistakable sense of what could have been over these past 11 months. He started chirping at the 2020 PGA but caved with a Sunday 74. He faced off against a 50-year-old in the final group of the 2021 PGA but was thoroughly outplayed. He had an opportunity to post the target number at Torrey Pines but bogeyed two of the last three holes, including the par-5 finisher. And then at The Open, a third-round 72 knocked him out of title contention. Koepka has built his entire reputation on major performance. That also includes closing them out.
Also left wondering, even more heartbreakingly, was Oosthuizen.
The South African concluded The Open with his 11th consecutive major round inside the top 3. The only player with a longer recent stretch was 12 in a row by Woods, back in 2000, when everyone else was playing for second place. That’s what Oosthuizen has been far too often during his good-but-not-yet-great career.
Oosthuizen’s final-round scoring mark (70.36) might be right around the Tour average, but situationally he failed to perform: A water ball in the playoff at the Zurich; the back-nine bogeys at Kiawah that let Mickelson edge in front; the 71st-hole penalty at Torrey; and now the bladed bunker shot at The Open. Pressure can do strange things to even the most experienced performers.
Since that runaway victory at St. Andrews in 2010, King Louis now has eight top-3 finishes in the majors. He and everyone else have nine months to game-plan how to take that final step, again.