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Season-ending Monday Scramble: Starts and ends with Tiger Woods

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The golf world – again – revolves around Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka becomes world No. 1, the Ryder Cup continues to deliver drama, the pro landscape is set for big changes, The Match flops and more in this season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble:

For this year-end edition, let’s first look back at what was typed in this space 52 weeks ago, when Tiger Woods’ comeback was so new and the number of 20-something stars was growing by the week:

“If Woods can somehow return to championship form, it would make for one heck of a show in 2018: Golf’s next generation versus the player they grew up idolizing.”

Well.

How about that?

This scribe has been covering golf full-time since 2010, and this was – by far – the most memorable year of the past decade. For starters, Woods did somehow return to championship form, and some of the most compelling moments of the year came when he either battled or teamed up with those next-gen stars: overtaking Jordan Spieth at The Open, falling to Brooks Koepka at the PGA, powering past Rory McIlroy at the Tour Championship, failing with Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau at the Ryder Cup.

Will Woods’ upward trajectory continue? That’s the Big Question. It’s reasonable to expect that Woods, turning 43 at the end of the year, has only a few more good years left in him. Next year presents his best opportunity to win a major since 2008, but to do it he’ll have to outduel – again – the best and the brightest, many of whom are 15 years younger.

Sign. Us. Up.   

1. Tiger made his final start of 2018 at his own Hero World Challenge, and it mattered little that he finished next-to-last at his 18-man event. He was rusty. He was coming off an illness. He made a couple of big numbers.

His last three performances – at the Ryder Cup, The Match and Hero – did nothing to diminish the quality of his 2018. It was nothing short of miraculous. Not only did his surgically repaired back hold up, but he showed speed and power and precision and a competitive fire that had been lacking in recent years, when his game and his short-term career were a mystery.

At the beginning of the year, he wondered what his schedule would look like, his back still a question mark and his world ranking south of 600. Including the Ryder Cup and Hero, he played 20 times – his heaviest workload since 2005 – and qualified for World Golf Championships and all four playoff events, winning the season finale. Now, he’s all the way up to No. 14 in the world, making him eligible for the WGCs and allowing him to set a schedule to conserve energy and peak for the majors.

Augusta, Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach are the first three major venues of 2019. He's had success – a lot of it – at all three. Hmmm.

2. And to think: Brooks Koepka’s dream year began with a career-threatening injury.

Playing with a torn tendon in his wrist, Koepka finished last at Kapalua and wasn’t seen again until late April.

After that, he played like a man possessed, like a man who wasn’t scared of the major moments and who continually feels as though he’s not given proper respect. Over the offseason Koepka and his team will have to manufacture some new slights, because there’s no doubting his place in the game: He’s No. 1 in the world, a three-time major winner, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year.

Those expecting Koepka to fall off sometime soon haven’t looked at his major record – he has 12 top-15s in his past 17 major starts. He’s perfected his game plan. No, he doesn’t win as many “regular” events as he probably should, but if he gets more juiced for the majors and continues to pick off the Big Ones at this rate, why does it matter? He’s the game’s preeminent big-game hunter.

3. The No. 1 ranking has already changed hands nine times this year – the most since the Official World Ranking began, in 1986 – and might once more before the end of the calendar year.

Right now it's Koepka at the top, but Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas all have worn the crown for at least a few weeks this year. Rose can end the year at No. 1 if he finishes inside the top 10 at the Indonesian Masters later this month. We like his chances. 

As long as Koepka continues to perform in the majors, he’ll continue to be a fixture at or near the top. Of the aforementioned four, Thomas has the most potential staying power, given his age (25) and desire, but No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau, Hero winner and No. 6 Jon Rahm and maybe even No. 14 Woods look like potential threats in 2019.

4. Thomas Bjorn, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood were outstanding, but the Ryder Cup is the gift that keeps on giving.

Not only does it provide fodder for two years – Captains! Top-8 qualifying! Wildcard picks! – but the Americans’ continued dysfunction made this year’s edition particularly juicy.

Though hopes were high for the U.S. team to end a 25-year road losing streak, the Americans got stomped by the Europeans, the 17 ½ to 10 ½ margin of victory representing an even more lopsided result than the Gleneagles debacle.

It wasn’t just the final score that was alarming, either. Jim Furyk made decisions that weren’t just second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight – everyone knew, in the moment, that they were bad ideas, like sending out an erratic Phil Mickelson in the demanding foursomes format. Furyk and his assistants didn’t squash the lingering animosity between Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, and even the bash brothers, Koepka and Johnson, nearly came to blows at a Sunday night party.

None of this will matter, of course, in 2020 at Whistling Straits, where the Americans will deservedly be huge favorites, with its young core of power hitters (and more surely to come in the next two years). The home-course advantage has gotten so extreme that, barring another collapse, it’s hard to imagine the home team dropping a Ryder Cup for a long time.  

Jay Monahan at the 2018 Tour Championship

5. The pro landscape should look a lot different in 2019.

If nothing else, there’ll be a different cadence to the year, at least on the men’s side, with big events in six consecutive months: The Players in March, Masters in April, PGA in May, U.S. Open in June, Open Championship in July and the new three-event FedExCup playoffs throughout August.

The Tour Championship will be an interesting experiment, too, with the new strokes-based system, with the FedExCup leader starting at 10 under and the other 29 staggered behind him. Here’s guessing that takes some getting used to.

6. The rules will continue to be a hot topic.

Beginning Jan. 1, some key changes will go in effect: Players will be able to tap down spike marks on the greens (get ready for some undue delays for gardening), caddies won’t be able to stand behind players to help with alignment (sorry, 75 percent of the LPGA), and players can putt with the flagstick in on the greens (which is good news, apparently, for Bryson). Also: No penalty for a double hit, a new dropping procedure that will allow players to drop from an inch off the ground, and no additional stroke for a ball that accidentally moves on the green.

Jordan Spieth at the 2018 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open

7. When Spieth returns to competition early next year, he’ll be married, winless since July 2017 and coming off the worst season of his pro career.

One of the most consistently excellent players in the world struggled mightily at times in 2018 – even though he nearly stole two majors, with a stirring Sunday 64 at Augusta and a share of the 54-hole lead at Carnoustie. Alas, he came away empty, and showed disconcerting signs in all facets of his game.

In the major statistical categories from 2017:

  • Strokes gained: off the tee: 53rd
  • Approach: 1st
  • Around the green: 12th
  • Putting: 39th
  • Tee-to-green: 2nd

2018 ranks:

  • Off the tee: 54th
  • Approach: 26th
  • Around the green: 35th
  • Putting: 136th
  • Tee-to-green: 22nd

Not horrible, by any means, but he regressed across the board. All year he talked about how he’d experienced little breakthroughs and that he was “close.” The results said otherwise, as he failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time as a pro, then looked off during two fall starts. Spieth has been too good for too long not to figure it out, but there are some legitimate concerns. He needs to excel with his iron game and putting if he’s going to continue to be a top-5 player on the modern tour.

8. Phil Mickelson had perhaps the most adventurous year of his career in 2018 – and that’s saying something when it comes to Lefty.

The year began so auspiciously, with his drought-busting victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship (where he outdueled JT!) to cap a resurgent spring. He was rarely a factor again the rest of the year, but that didn’t keep him out of the news.

At the Masters he played a practice round with Woods, which, at the time, seemed odd, given their two decades of frostiness. Then came the press-conference banter and early-round pairing at The Players. And then it all began to make sense, when the report surfaced that a Tiger-Phil match was in the works. (More on that below.)

Along the way he made a mockery of the game and himself by playing ping-pong on a baked-out green at Shinnecock, perhaps a concession that he’ll never win that elusive U.S. Open. He played so poorly during the summer and early fall that he wasn’t a lock to receive a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup. And then he was so dismal in Paris, going 0-2 (including the cup-clinching singles defeat), that he'll need to qualify on his own to keep alive his incredible streak of team competitions played. They can't burn a pick on him anymore.

Mickelson remains as entertaining as ever, but he turns 49 next summer and, the Mexico win notwithstanding, showed signs in 2018 of a deteriorating game. Would it surprise if he popped up at Augusta or Pebble? Of course not. He’s Phil, the second-best player of his generation, a fixture in the top 50 for the past 25 years. But he’s no longer a consistent contender, and that's a tough realization.

Bryson DeChambeau at the 2018 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open

9. Who was the breakout star of 2018?

Simple: Bryson DeChambeau.

He’s no longer just the Mad Scientist, a unique player who is just some curiosity on a tour full of cookie-cutter swings and personalities. He’s proven, over and over, that he’s a bona fide top-5 player in the world, after winning four Tour events in the calendar year – the same number Rickie Fowler has managed in his entire career.

The only thing DeChambeau HASN’T done is contend deep into a major – his T-21 at the Masters, as an amateur, remains one of his best finishes – and that’ll be the next step he should take in 2019. He’s a markedly improved putter, but the strength of his game is ball-striking. It’d be a surprise if he doesn’t contend at Bethpage and/or Pebble.  

Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, The Match

There was no more absurd event this year than The Match.

The run-up was bad enough: The planned practice and stilted banter. The clumsy announcement, with Woods holding a left-handed driver in the promotional poster. The unsettling aspects of the deal, with the $19.99 PPV fee, little charitable component and no fans on-site.

But The Match itself was a massive disappointment, too, with few side bets (thanks to the Tour), little interaction between the two stars, a gimmicky playoff hole, a $9 million pot that definitely seemed like it was split beforehand, and a TV production that was a disaster not only because of the broadcast but also the collapsed PPV/streaming model.

There will be more matches in the future – Tiger and Phil didn’t create a shell company for a one-off – and they should be better, assuming the broadcast gets overhauled and they add more juice with Rory McIlroy, Thomas or Spieth. But no one will pay $19.99 to watch.

This week's award winners ... 

Ariya Jutanugarn at the 2018 CME Group Tour Championship

The New Queen: Ariya Jutanugarn. She added another major title, rose to No. 1 in the world and swept all of the major season-ending awards in a breakout year for a player who, talent-wise, is head and shoulders above the rest. Imagine if she ever turns her driver into a weapon! 

Definition of Ridiculous: Hero’s OWGR standing. Rahm, the winner of the star-studded exhibition, received 48 world-ranking points – or the same number as the winners of the Houston Open, Scottish Open, Dubai Desert Classic and CIMB Classic. In other words: Those real events. Laughable.  

What Happened To …?: Hideki Matsuyama. The Japanese star finished last in the 18-man event in the Bahamas, ending a no-good-very-bad year in which he tumbled all the way from fifth in the world to No. 25. Seemingly always dealing with some kind of injury, he managed only three top-10s all year – and they all came in limited-field events. 

Mr. Consistency: Tony Finau. The Hero was yet another missed opportunity, but there’s never been more evidence that Finau is now among the game’s upper echelon. He produced a whopping 12 top-10s, was a no-brainer choice for the U.S. Ryder Cup team and rose all the way to No. 9 in the world. Finau is still so raw that he'll eventually figure out how to slam the door.

Feel-Good Win of the Year: Angela Stanford. At 40 years old, after 13 top-10s in majors, and with her mother back home and stricken with cancer, Stanford overcame a nervy finish (and some late miscues by Amy Olson) to win her first major at the Evian Championship. She wasn’t the only one crying afterward.

Cameron Champ wins 2018 Sanderson Farms Championship

He’s Comin’: Cameron Champ. The Web.com graduate and biggest hitter in the game had a huge fall, winning the opposite-field event in Mississippi and adding two other top-10s. Can’t wait to watch him get a full season under his belt, against the best competition.

Bernie’s Biggest Threat: Vijay Singh. No, he still didn’t do enough to overtake Bernhard Langer for the season-long senior prize, but he won a major and a few other tournaments while finally committing himself full-time. And then there was this: He became even more wealthy after the Tour finally settled its year-long lawsuit over the deer-antler spray stuff.

GOAT of the Year: Jim Furyk. He’s a likable, smart, thoughtful guy, but sadly his captainship will not be remembered fondly. He didn’t properly prepare his team for the claustrophobic Le Golf National layout, he didn’t quell the lingering Spieth-Reed controversy, he got pushed over by Mickelson and then he curiously defended some of his decisions, saying that he’d do it all over again, too. Sigh.

Career Year: Francesco Molinari. At 35, the historically-good-but-not-great player took the next step, winning the European Tour’s flagship event, blowing out the field at Tiger’s event, winning The Open at one of the toughest courses on the rota, going 5-0 at a historic Ryder Cup and then capturing the season-long Race to Dubai title. He’s already fretting about how to back this up, but enjoy it while you can, Frankie. What a year.

Sayonara: PGA of America headquarters. Only a local vote stands between the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based PGA and its new Frisco, Texas, home, a deal worth a reported $500 million.

More Of You, Please: Eddie Pepperell. He’s a fun follow on Twitter and a joy to listen to in post-round media settings. Throw in the fact that he won twice this year, and the arrow continues to point upward for this delightful Englishman.

Can We Get A Mulligan?: Tiger. Who knows how The Open would have turned out, but we’d like to give Woods a do-over on his third shot into the 11th hole at Carnoustie. Instead of getting too cute with the flop, just send it 30 feet onto the green, take your bogey and move on. That double killed his momentum, led to another bogey and ended his chances at No. 15.