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A special year in golf, but not quite dot-worthy

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Picture a horizontal timeline of golf’s historical highlights, with only select years like 1930, 1945 and 2000 set off by dots along the continuum.

2018 wouldn’t get a dot. Its important moments weren’t sufficiently transformative, and its major champions weren’t quite special enough in terms of personage or performance.

That might sound disrespectful of brilliant achievers.  Especially Brooks Koepka, who captured two of the year’s majors, in the process winning back-to back U.S. Opens and becoming the No. 1 player in the world. And Francesco Molinari, who exhibited ball control in winning The Open Championship at Carnoustie that channeled Ben Hogan of 1953, and then went 5-0 in the Ryder Cup.

It’s just that a timeline’s purpose is pith, making the standard for when a year gets a dot of demarcation very high. The most important player of 2018 – Tiger Woods – is arguably the most prolific dot maker ever, but he didn’t win a major or break an important record. He had an incredible comeback season in which his victory at the Tour Championship put him within two of Sam Snead in all-time PGA Tour victories. And his serious contention deep into two majors has him on the verge of winning his first one in more than a decade. He’s proved he still has enough game when he’s rolling to beat today’s best young players, and more importantly, his return from the depths proves his legendary will hasn’t lost power. His next major will earn a dot. So will the win that passes Snead. But all that did not a dot make in 2018.

Instead, it was a year in which the really big stuff almost happened but didn’t. Besides Woods’ Sunday runs at Carnoustie and Bellerive, there was Jordan Spieth after nine birdies on his first 16 holes in the final round of the Masters looking poised to shoot a winning 62 that would have gone down as the greatest round in history. Tommy Fleetwood was in a similar position at the U.S. Open. Alas, Spieth bogeyed the 72nd hole to shoot 64 and finish third. Fleetwood missed an 8-footer on the 72nd hole at Shinnecock Hills to shoot 63 and lose by one. Close, but no dot.

Nevertheless, it was a special year, notable especially for smaller happenings that had large consequences. Consider this short sample:

• Tadd Fujikawa in September became the first male professional golfer to come out as gay. The 27-year-old Hawaiian made the decision after suffering from years of depression and anxiety. “I spent way too long pretending, hiding, and hating who I was,” he said. In December, LPGA player Mel Reid, 31, also came out, the Englishwoman’s announcement more public than any female player since Rosie Jones became the first to do so in 2004. The same progressive chord was struck a week after Europe’s victory in Paris with the humorous video in which the team of Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood wake up in the same bed with the Ryder Cup between them, with Fleetwood asking, “How good was that for you?” By the end of the year, golf – historically slow to embrace social change – seemed more in tune culturally.

• The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open was a milestone. When 79-year-old JoAnne Carner shot her age in the first round at Chicago GC, her stature and pure golfing spirit lent the appropriate gravitas to a moment in which a void in the game – appropriate respect for the game’s past woman champions – was finally addressed. Women’s place in the golf was also enhanced when it was announced in April that the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur will be played a week before the Masters, with the final round held at Augusta National.

• Golf is gaining cultural traction by going smaller. The Cradle at Pinehurst, an artful nine-hole short course set close to the resort’s clubhouse, and which connects with the modern golfer’s craving for faster, more affordable, less arduous but still skill based fun, was a massive hit and trendsetter in its first full year. The Major Series of Putting, a series of all-comers events for prize money that began this year in Las Vegas, has brought needed attention to putting, not only as a vital skill in an era in which so many are consumed with power, but as a convenient and fast recreation that makes golf more accessible.

Newsmakers of the Year: Full list and reveal dates

Meanwhile, Top Golf’s compressed nightclub/version of the game keeps gaining in popularity, while simulator golf centers are a proving a good fit in the small spaces available in urban centers.

• Who picked up the most majors in 2018? Not Koepka, but 83-year old Gary Player. After years of contending that his three Senior British Open victories (all won prior to 2003, when the championship was designated the fifth senior major on the then Champions Tour) should be officially added to his major total, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in November notified Player of the decision to retroactively declare the event a senior major going back to when it was first played in 1987. It means that Player now has nine senior majors to match his nine regular majors. His 18 overall is second only to Jack Nicklaus’ 26. Monahan’s call was a meaningful moment for the often-underrated South African, whose claim to being one of the very greatest ever to play is best made by the record book.

Meanwhile, the record book is where many of the main players of 2018 still have work to do in terms of attaining historical gravitas.

Koepka’s victories at Shinnecock Hills and Bellerive in the PGA give him three major championships at age 28. His ability to overpower a golf course with accurate long driving and his grit under pressure is unquestioned. Conversely, he has only five official career victories. That makes his achievement in 2018 still seem more opportunistic than dominant, like Mark O’Meara’s two majors in 1998.

Before this year, the 36-year-old Molinari had four victories in Europe and none on the PGA Tour. There is no denying he made as dramatic a one-year improvement as any veteran player in memory, working with coaches Dennis Pugh and Phil Kenyon to gain 10 yards off the tee and going from an undeniably poor putter to a solid one. The question is, now that he has reached heights that admittedly surprised even him, can Molinari keep progressing or even just sustain? Or will he revert to the mean?

When Patrick Reed won the Masters to jump into golf’s elite, the 28-year-old’s sixth career victory looked like it would be a launching pad. But no more came in 2018. Then at the Ryder Cup, the erstwhile Captain America clearly turned off his teammates with derogatory post-match comments, including contending he had been “blindsided” by a “buddy system” he insinuated was behind the decision to break up his successful pairing with Jordan Speith and put him with Tiger Woods. A few weeks after he and Reed had gone 0-2 in Paris, Woods was terse when asked if they had spoken since. “We talked amongst us, and that will stay between us,” he said. The scenario recalled Reed’s well-chronicled problems with college teammates at Georgia and Augusta State, of which Kevin Kisner felt free to say, “They all hate him — any guys that were on the team with him (at Georgia) hate him and that’s the same way at Augusta.” Reed professes to thrive on being a lone wolf, and he’s more of one since the Ryder Cup. It’s a hard way to go, and possibly an approach worth rethinking. Though a feared competitor, Reed has never been higher than seventh in the world, and is currently 15th.

Behind the major winners, the top of the men’s game was a bit of a mishmash. Statistically, the best player week in and week out was Dustin Johnson, who won three times, held No. 1 for much of the year, and led in 26 statistical categories, including par 3, par 4 and par 5 scoring. He raised his career victory total to 19, but he was beaten down the stretch at Shinnecock by Koepka when his putter failed on the weekend. Now 34, Johnson has seven top-five finishes in majors, but still only one victory. As successful as he’s been, 2018 reinforced the notion that he hasn’t capitalized enough.

Meanwhile, Spieth hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 Open Championship. He came closest with his heroic challenge at the Masters. But he had only one top-10 the rest of the year, a T-9 at the Open Championship, where he was tied for the lead after three rounds but closed with a birdie-less 76.  Most concerning to Spieth was the decline with the putter, going from the perhaps the best in the game to suddenly shaky from short range. The former No. 1, who got married in November, ended the year ranked 16th in the world. The last time Spieth went winless, in 2014, he came back with a two-major, five-win season. Half of that in 2019 would be an even better comeback.

Rory McIlroy followed a similar pattern. He seemed primed for a big major season after he won at Bay Hill with the best putting tournament of his life. At the Masters, where he needs a victory to complete the career Grand Slam, he was in the final group with Reed, but faded into a tie for fifth. He managed a tie for second at The Open, but otherwise always seemed slightly off. He finished the year ranked eighth in the world, and now hasn’t won a major since 2014. He turns 30 in May. He’s working on his putting and his wedge play, places he too often gets out-hustled by less talented players. McIlroy remains due for a major revival, but as this year showed, that’s no gimme.

Then there was Bryson DeChambeau, who won four times in 2018, the most of anyone on the PGA Tour. It was an eloquent rebuttal of those who wonder if the mad scientist’s insistence on breaking every aspect of the game into atomized detail will ultimately cause him paralysis by analysis. That was the diagnosis when in mid-2017 DeChambeau missed eight straight cuts, but after an intense reassessment has only gotten better. The next target of improvement is majors, in which the 25-year-old is still looking for his first top-10.

On the LPGA tour, 2018 was the year that established Ariya Jutanugarn and Sung Hyun Park as a dominant duo who look like they could keep the No. 1 rank among themselves for years. Each won a major, and while the gifted 23-year-old Jutanugarn, whose great hands around the green wonderfully compliment her power, took most of the season-ending honors, Park, 25, from South Korea, is known for her work ethic and determination. The biggest threat to each would seem to be the pattern over the last decade of women – including Yani Tseng, Stacy Lewis and Lydia Ko – suffering precipitous falls after reaching No. 1.

Lurking with a renewed confidence is Lexi Thompson, who won the season ending CME Group Tour Championship a few weeks after opening up on Instagram about her struggles with body image, which had contributed to her decision to take a four-week break from competition earlier in the year. It was the 23-year-old’s first victory since 2017, and served as redemption for losing the event last year when she missed a 2-foot putt on the final hole. Thompson has proved herself a battler, and at No. 5 in the world remains the lone American in the top 10. 

On the PGA Tour Champions, it was hard to say whether 61-year-old Bernhard Langer gained or lost ground in his race toward Hale Irwin’s career record of 45 official senior wins. Langer got to 38 when he won the SAS Championship by six strokes in October, looking capable of running off victories in bunches. But while he contended often, Langer only won twice in 2018, compared to seven times in 2017. To pass Irwin, he’ll have to get back to a quicker pace, given that the record for oldest winner on the PGA Tour Champions is 63.

Irwin’s is one of the epic records in golf, long considered unbreakable. If Langer surpasses it, the feat alone would be dot-worthy. Which as a very eventful 2018 has shown us, is saying something.