News & Opinion

New year features many fresh storylines

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2019. A possible permanent government shutdown. Congressional in-fighting (with nunchucks, I hope). War with China. The rise of robots and apes.

You know, the usual.

Let’s put down those rose-colored glasses, though, and stick to golf. Good or bad, 2019 will be worth remembering because it will be different. Here’s how:

The ‘G’ in PGA Tour is for Gardeners
Golf’s governing bodies (USGA and R&A) enacted major rules changes for 2019 and did a commendable job of simplifying the rules and making them more equitable.

You, the golf viewer, will notice two obvious changes. One, the two-stroke penalty for hitting the flagstick while putting from on the green has been removed. It may be disconcerting the first time you see Bryson DeChambeau (or someone else) leave the flagstick in from 5 feet away while putting, but it is legal now, so get used to it.

Two, golfers may now repair spike marks on their putting line. Before, a golfer could fix only ball marks. This rule could be infamous. Tour pros already are notoriously slow on the greens where they perform a “kabuki dance,” as one industry wag describes it. He’s right. The pros plumb-bob, finger-aim and talk it over with their caddies at length. Now they’re going to meticulously smooth out a path to the cup, too?

I want to see putting, not a Better Homes & Gardens instructional video. This rule is guaranteed to cause slow play. I’m still in shock that this rule was approved, and I hate it already. This rule means you can tag every PGA Tour tournament course with a new nickname: Tampa Downs.

A triple crown
Brooks Koepka felt under-appreciated by the world’s golf media, even after winning three major championships in two years, and he had a point. But be careful what you wish for.

Koepka won’t be overlooked this year. Starting with his first interview, in January or February, he’ll be asked about trying to win a third consecutive U.S. Open, because no one has done it since Willie Anderson in 1905. Ben Hogan won four Opens in six years but never three in a row. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods never won consecutive Opens, FYI.

The second time Koepka does an interview, he will be asked about the three-peat again. This process will continue at every Tour stop he plays and grow ever-more tedious (for Koepka) until Pebble Beach, where he’ll be asked about it daily until he does or doesn’t pull it off. If he wins, he’ll be asked about four in a row. If he doesn’t, he’ll get, What went wrong? You can’t win this game sometimes, even by winning. Welcome to stardom, Mr. Koepka.

The guides of March
With apologies to the PGA Tour’s entire West Coast Swing, the year’s first Big Deal Tournament will happen in March. The Players, the PGA Tour’s flagship event, has returned to its original date when it was traditionally overshadowed by the approaching Masters Tournament and the NCAA basketball tournament.

I remember once pursuing Fred Couples to the players’ lounge after his round because he didn’t want to miss another minute of NCAA tournament coverage. He congenially answered a few questions about his round but spent more time talking hoops.

This is a big move, and while the switch to May could be seen as a failed experiment, it’s just business. The FedEx Cup needed an earlier finish, and the PGA Championship wanted a May date. History says the weather for the Players will be wetter, wilder and windier in March. That may make for better TV, because who doesn’t love the par-3 17th hole when the wind is gusting 30 mph or more and the world’s best golfers aren’t sure they can land a shot on dry land?

The March date sounds like fun. But bring rain gear.

Now batting second …
The Masters champ barely will have time to get his new green jacket dry-cleaned before the year’s second major championship is in his face.

Meet the all-new PGA Championship, which went from the last (and least) major championship to second in the order of play.

The PGA already had booked some northern sites, including this year at Bethpage State Park, where two previous U.S. Opens held in June were contested in muddy quagmires. How’s Farmingdale, N.Y., in mid-May? The 2018 weather on the dates for this year’s PGA (May 16-19) dates wasn’t pretty. Day by day, it looked like this: 65 degrees, .38 inches of rain; 68, .53 inches; 63, no rain; and 57 with .84 inches. That’s 1.75 inches of rain in four days, but, hey, at least it was chilly.

As interstellar philosopher Han Solo often said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this …”

Down Under par
The Presidents Cup will be played in Australia in December. Please contain your excitement. Tiger Woods will be the U.S. captain. You want a prediction? The Americans will wear red on Sunday. (I’m just guessing!)

The history channel
It was a galvanizing surprise last year when Tiger Woods returned to competition, contended in the year’s last two majors and won the Tour Championship, his first victory in five years. So, Tiger is chasing history again. He needs two more victories to tie Sam Snead on the all-time win list at 82, and he needs one more major championship – No. 15 – to resume his Countdown to Jack Nicklaus and 18 majors and the ensuing hysteria that would follow. If those things happen, interest in Woods, who recently turned 43, and TigerMania could hit all-time highs. You won’t hear any TV executives complaining.

Happy Gilmore lives
Golfers dig the long ball. That’s why Cameron Champ is en route to becoming a star. The Texas A&M alumnus led the Web.com Tour in driving distance last year with an average of 343 yards, 24 yards longer than Rory McIlroy on the PGA Tour.

Champ already won a PGA Tour fall event, and his massive drives have left jaws dropped among fans, fellow players and officials.

Golf sees a big-hitting marvel who blows it 30 yards past all comers every decade or so. There was a young Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples, John Daly, Tiger Woods and now Champ.

Once Champ plays some marquee Tour events and drives or nearly drives some 400-yard holes – or maybe flies it across the lake and onto the green at Bay Hill’s par-5 sixth hole, he officially will become a national sensation.

Golf for dummies
The FedEx Cup series has been downsized from four events to three – yay! – and the indecipherable points system that once led Bill Haas to ask who won the FedEx Cup after he’d just won it has been replaced.

There will be controversy on the new finale, however, because some media and golf purists don’t quite get it. Before, the FedEx Cup points list was reset for the Tour Championship in Atlanta, creating a staggered start using points, to give the leaders an advantage. Now, the points list will be reset for a staggered start using strokes.

It’s the same concept and, yes, it will seem odd and un-golfy that the FedEx Cup leader will be 10 under par before he hits a shot at the Tour Championship. The points leader will tee off with a one-stroke advantage over the No. 2 points-getter, two strokes over No. 3, and three shots over No. 4, with the strokes bunched for the rest. No player will start more than 10 shots back.

The change effectively means that there is no Tour Championship per se, just a FedEx Cup finale, and there is only one winner (unlike last year ,when Woods won the event but Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup) and viewers, players and media always will know where they stand. No more convoluted chalkboard scenarios and wasted jibber-jabber about points.

Ignore the inevitable fine whines to come and focus on what the Tour Championship really has to sell: multimillionaires playing for multiple more millions. Yay.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle