08/05/2016

After Rory McIlroy won two major championships in 2014 and Jordan Spieth matched that total a year ago, most golf fans expected more of the same in 2016. With Jason Day getting the proverbial monkey off his back last August—and winning almost everywhere else as well—we accepted a new reign in the sport led by that triumvirate at the top.

That’s not exactly how things played out. If for years people searched for the next Tiger Woods, or at least a challenger for him, perhaps 2016 taught us what we should have known already. Golf is as deep and international as it’s ever been. There are reasons for this, most of them influenced by Tiger—better equipment, more money, greater TV exposure and a whole host of players who grew up idolizing Woods.

We may yet see a golfer reach Tiger’s dominance. The more likely scenario is a pack will trade blows for supremacy. Now we can view 2016 in this light.

The four first-time major winners were not up-and-comers or flash in the plans. These were legitimate players who broke through the most difficult fields the sport has ever put together. Including their major victories, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker have combined for 39 wins on the PGA and European Tours. All have at least six. Juxtapose those totals with the last time we had four first-time winners.

The 2003 quartet of Mike Weir (The Masters), Jim Furyk (US Open), Ben Curtis (British Open) and Shaun Micheel (PGA Championship) have combined for 30 wins over their careers. Furyk has 17 of them.

I posed the question to the No Laying Up podcast whether it was more surprising that Spieth, McIlroy and Day went winless at the majors or that we had four first-time winners?  Soly said the former. I agree, because the quality of the four newbies suggested they had good chances of winning majors in any season. It just so happened that all four won this year. Let’s look back with clips from our Sunday recaps.

Spieth Collapses, Willett Wins

Spieth bogeyed 10. He bogeyed 11. Then on 12, the unflappable, poised, mature-beyond-his-years, 22-year-old, two-time major winner choked. Spieth sent two shots into Rae’s Creek as silence, shock and awe dominated Amen Corner. The two balls never had a chance. The first bounced off the slope and crept into the drink. The second was a flub. Or maybe a chunk. Either way, Spieth’s shot drowned in the water and so too did the Texan’s Masters hopes…

Of the four first-time winners, Willett was easily the most surprising. Not just because he plays full-time on the European Tour, but also because of how it transpired. Spieth led The Masters by five strokes as he stood on the 10th tee. He gave away every stroke in the next three holes, which culminated on the disastrous 12th.

We’re left with an odd scenario. Willett won’t legitimately own that Green Jacket until he proves he’s worthy at a later date, whether that’s another major or a dominant performance at this fall’s Ryder Cup.

Redemption Song: Dustin Johnson Gets His Major

What is the distance between a golfer and his first major? For Dustin Johnson, it might have been the last four feet of Oakmont he traversed—a birdie putt on the 72nd hole, the same length he faced last year at Chambers Bay.

Johnson left no doubt this time around—doubt over the outcome, doubt over his mental fortitude, doubt over a penalty he may or may not have incurred (more on that)—and celebrated like only he could. A stuttered fist pump. Muted. Cool. Like he had more holes to play. There is no sense of relief for a man who is always relieved. Somehow, Johnson managed to ignore the emotions that we all felt for him over the last 12, torturous months.

Johnson has his US Open title. He has his major championship.

And the distance he faced in that last four-foot putt was greater than anyone in memory.

How does a man with a super model at his side (the daughter of a sports legend as well) and millions in his bank account become a sympathetic figure? You need to go to two places to find out: 18 at Chambers Bay and the back nine at Oakmont. Johnson had an eagle putt to win the US Open in 2015 and a short birdie attempt to force a playoff. He missed both.

Then just as he was looking to run away with the 2016 championship, the USGA stopped him in his tracks with a possible rules infraction. Johnson’s ball had flinched on the fifth hole. His playing partner Lee Westwood didn’t think Johnson caused the movement. The official on hand agreed. But the USGA reviewed the incident and accessed a one-stroke penalty. Only they didn’t tell Johnson right away. They simply told him that they would confirm after his round.

No matter, Johnson kept his cool as his fellow tour players lost theirs on social media.

 

The 2003 quartet of Mike Weir (The Masters), Jim Furyk (US Open), Ben Curtis (British Open) and Shaun Micheel (PGA Championship) have combined for 30 wins over their careers. Furyk has 17 of them.

 

Postage Stamp: Henrik Stenson Gives Sweden Its Major

By Saturday evening, Stenson caught and passed (Phil) Mickelson. The man seeking his first major led the 5-time winner and 2013 British Open champion by one stroke, -12 to -11. The rest of the field was playing for third place.

That was confirmed not long after the pair, a combined 86 years old in this new age of the sport, teed off. Mickelson started 3-under through four. Stenson followed a bogey at the first with three consecutive birdies to keep pace. And he never stopped. He collected 10 birdies along the way against two bogeys.

This was the final round golf fans deserved. Spieth’s meltdown dominated the news at The Masters, the USGA’s idiocy the US Open. The Sunday duel between Stenson and Mickelson at Royal Troon, however, will live on in golf lore.

Jimmy Walker Breaks Through

Through it all, the one man who seemed to be in control of all aspects of his game was the one at the top. Not needing the birdies that others sought, Walker methodically walked from tee to fairway to green. He parred the front nine then all but sealed the championship with two birdies to start the back.

The first came off a spectacular bunker shot at the 10th, the second a center-cut putt on 11. Still, Day was making a charge and Walker needed one more confident, controlled stroke to put the championship away. He found it on 17. Walker’s knee-knocker birdie caught the lip of the cup and dropped in. With that putt, he had a three-shot lead on Day going into the last.

Not even a Day eagle and a wayward approach from Walker threatened the tournament.


Everything about the PGA Championship felt rushed. It came just two weeks after the Open Championship due to golf’s participation in the Summer Olympics. Then the weather didn’t cooperate. Rain all but washed out the third round, leaving the players at the top of the leaderboard with a 36-hole Sunday.

If anything, that helped Jimmy Walker, who led wire-to-wire. It wasn’t just his first major. It was his first win after March. Walker now has six victories to his name, six more than anyone expected of him five years ago.