There was a time, not too long ago, when the fall portion of the PGA Tour schedule unfolded in a vacuum.
Few viewers. Limited interest. Little buzz.
Certain factors changed that dynamic. These days there’s a clear sense of FOMO, the 11-tournament slate now representing nearly a quarter of the overall Tour calendar, and the addition of the big-money, no-cut events in Asia now offering a soft landing spot for the game’s elite to bank some free FedExCup points for the holidays.
The stars’ more frequent appearances are to our benefit, of course, and this was the best autumn the Tour has ever enjoyed.
From a record-tying win to a burgeoning rivalry to an all-time comeback, here are nine things we learned during the fall:
9. Thomas is all the way back
It’d be wrong to describe Justin Thomas' 2019 as a what-could-have-been season, considering he won once, earned more than $5 million and finished fifth in the FedExCup, but an early-season wrist injury derailed his momentum and cost him a chance to build on his major résumé. Now 26, Thomas’ lone major remains the 2017 PGA, and he was a non-factor (or a no-show altogether) in the last three majors of the year. By late July he’d rediscovered his world-beater form, and he blew away the field at the BMW Championship and then took it deep again at the CJ Cup.
Even in a “down” year he ranked fourth in strokes gained: overall. All signs point to a monster year in 2020.
8. Na shows another side (well, kind of)
That Kevin Na was able to outduel sixth-ranked Patrick Cantlay in Las Vegas was surprising enough. Then he walked off the 18th green and opened a vein.
Speaking in Korean for more than a minute, blinking back tears, Na attempted to address the “false rumors” to his fans back home. It was a puzzling rant for American viewers, but we soon learned the hidden meaning: Na was fed up with the lingering fallout from his broken engagement with a native Korean woman. Salacious details of the couple’s sex life had been tabloid fodder for years, and every time Na won (this was his fourth) the old stories were brought up again.
Na had stayed silent for five years, and his emotional public statement overshadowed what was a hard-fought victory.
With this compelling backdrop he’s even more interesting than we already thought.
7. Niemann whispers: Don’t forget about me
Any discussion of the game’s young guns typically leaves out one of the youngest: Joaquin Niemann, who only turned 21 earlier this month. The Chilean didn’t go to college, and so he didn’t receive the same sort of splashy introduction as Matthew Wolff (20), Collin Morikawa (22) and Viktor Hovland (22).
Though he earned his Tour card without going through Q-School, Niemann fully announced his arrival with a resounding win in the season-opening Greenbrier. He’ll soon star on another big stage, as a captain’s pick for the upcoming Presidents Cup.
6. Koepka still has a bum knee
The No. 1 player in the world is on the DL. This fall Brooks Koepka revealed that his knee had bothered him for months and required stem-cell treatment after the Tour Championship. Upon his return he said that he was happy to finally play pain-free, then he slipped on wet concrete in Korea and reinjured it.
Details on Koepka’s injury have been sparse, but it’s troublesome enough that he withdrew from the Presidents Cup. His return date to the PGA Tour is unclear, but it doesn’t figure to be a long-term issue – he’s signed up for another trip to Saudi Arabia in the middle of January.
With the extra time to heal, Koepka should come back firing in 2020.
5. Tiger gives Presidents Cup the lift it needed
It’s possible that the build-up will be more interesting than the actual competition, which over the past two decades has been laughably one-sided. There was the will-he-or-won’t-he? drama surrounding Tiger Woods’ playing-captain decision. There was Woods granting former pariah Patrick Reed a one-year reprieve. And then there was the uncertainty regarding the health of the No. 1 player in the world, with Koepka bowing out and Woods tapping a rusty Rickie Fowler with his extra captain’s pick.
Worldwide travel, a unique venue and the risk of embarrassment should keep this Presidents Cup close. But if it’s another American rout, at least the run-up to Royal Melbourne has been highly entertaining.
4. Winning for 'Pops,' Champ gains even more fans
Instead of withdrawing from the Safeway Open to spend more time with his ailing grandfather, Cameron Champ instead decided to honor him by playing – and then winning.
Mack Champ had endured racial discrimination while growing up in Texas, but he was the man responsible for molding the game of one of the Tour’s uber-talented prospects.
Champ won in the fall of 2018 but tweaked his back and failed to live up to lofty expectations. Mack’s stomach-cancer diagnosis hit the family hard, and all Cameron needed to get back on track was a little inspiration.
In the teary aftermath of his victory in Napa, he said, “This will be the greatest moment in my golf career.”
The greatest, maybe not, but it’ll certainly be the most meaningful. Mack Champ died less than a month later.
3. Koepka inadvertently fuels the 'rivalry' talk
It was a typical Brooks Koepka answer: Honest, blunt, with a dose of dismissiveness. When asked about the storyline that Rory McIlroy is threatening his throne, setting the stage for an epic duel in 2020, Koepka scoffed: “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.”
What Koepka said, of course, is true. And McIlroy didn’t disagree, even if he said he didn’t need to be reminded of his major shortcomings. Though McIlroy didn’t fire back publicly, it’s reasonable to think that Brooks’ barb got under his skin. How could it not?
Letting his clubs do the talking, McIlroy finished the year strong: a third at the Zozo, a win at the WGC in China and then a fourth-place showing in Dubai, narrowing the gap at the top of the world rankings.
Koepka might not view this as the beginning of a rivalry with McIlroy, but his icy dismissal likely just created one.
2. Todd rises from the dead
A year ago one-time Tour winner Brendon Todd considered opening a pizza franchise – that’s how dire things had gotten. The full-swing yips had torpedoed his confidence and left him without a permanent place to play, but his work with swing coach Bradley Hughes and mental coach Ward Jarvis kept him invested in the process.
Results were steady but unspectacular, at least until this fall, when he ripped off a win in Bermuda, backed it up in Mexico and then was 18 holes from notching three wins in four weeks.
Everyone loves a comeback story, but Todd’s is one of the most improbable in recent memory. He ended last year at No. 2,006 in the world. He now sits at 72nd.
1. Tiger keeps finding ways to surprise us
Tiger Woods’ resounding Masters victory had us making bold predictions for the future – 83! 19! – and then he looked hobbled the rest of the season. It wasn’t until this fall that we learned why he’d fallen off: He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery to fix an issue that apparently had bothered him for a year.
When he showed up in Japan for the inaugural Zozo Championship, the conventional wisdom held that Woods would be rusty but needed a good performance to warrant a pick for the Presidents Cup. Then he looked nearly flawless in beating an elite, limited field to win for the 82nd time on Tour, matching Sam Snead’s all-time record.
Woods’ swing looks as pure as ever, but how he’ll play in 2020 is anyone’s guess. How will his soon-to-be 44-year-old body hold up to the stress of another full season? Will he add a few events to try and qualify for his last Olympics? Can he move even closer to Jack?
As always with Woods, it’ll be fascinating to watch.