Keeping Score

For ‘The Disappointed,’ a season to forget

America loves a winner. Unless it’s the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys or anyone who touched George Steinbrenner

America loves a winner. Unless it’s the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys or anyone who touched George Steinbrenner. Universal goodwill has limits.

On the PGA Tour, there are winners and there are non-winners. Do I mean losers? No, there’s no such thing on the Payday Gigantic Again (PGA) Tour. Its 125 fully exempt players annually compete for absurd riches, including a $70 million season-ending bonus pool. I’d love to swim a few laps in that pool.

The Tour is such a desirable, successful marketing vehicle that many players pick up six figures from a corporate sponsor or golf manufacturer just by being there and having a Tour card. Nice work, if you can get it, philosopher Frank Sinatra once said.

The Tour is ultimately about competing, though – 49 tournaments in 44 weeks in the 2019-20 season, which begins next week. That’s where success is measured and the frustration that is golf plays out. The big money doesn’t necessarily erase that frustration. In fact, plenty of well-paid players in the recently completed 2018-19 season left feeling more disappointed than a cat who unwrapped a Christmas present only to learn that it’s not that kind of mousepad.

Here’s a small sampling of The Disappointed, name players who didn’t get all that they wanted out of their seasons or were viewed as underachieving by fans:

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth, who hasn’t won since the 2017 British Open, finds himself struggling on weekends.

Jordan Spieth. The poster child of The Disappointed is battling through a slump. No argument there. He rose to No. 1 in the world, won 10 times on the PGA Tour in a 28-month period and chased the Grand Slam in 2015. Now he ranks 33rd and hasn’t won since the 2017 British Open. He didn’t advance to the Tour Championship final 30, and didn’t make the Presidents Cup team on points.

He talked all year about making progress. There were good signs, including a third-place finish at the PGA Championship in tough conditions. Spieth got his putting stroke back, which makes him a threat to win, and his short game became a weapon again. There were disconcerting signs, too. His errant driving is still a problem. Yet he ranked 10th in birdies per round. If he just drove it only slightly better …

“Just like Tiger Woods, Jordan went from artist to engineer,” Paul Azinger, an NBC golf analyst and winning Ryder Cup captain, said of Spieth’s evolution after Spieth tweaked his swing following the success of his early years. “Maybe he tried to squeeze another 2 degrees of loft out of his driver so he could hit it farther; I don’t know. He’ll fight through it. He’s two or three swings away from playing great.”

The most-discussed issue for Spieth was his weekend play. He ranked ninth and first, respectively, in scoring for the first two rounds, but 170th and 187th, respectively, on the weekend. One obvious conclusion: he was trying too hard. The obliging Spieth understandably has wearied of talk about his struggles. “I’ve gotten too far off in the long game,” Spieth said at the BMW Championship in August.

He’s 26, and he’s smart. He’ll be back soon.

Michael Kim. This University of California alumnus made the cut at the season-opening Safeway Open, then had a Bob Uecker-like season. He went oh-for-everything. Kim made checks in three events that had no cuts but otherwise worked no weekends.

His slump is stunning, given how he won the John Deere Classic in 2018. He blistered the TPC Deere Run course with a 27-under 257 score, and smoked the field by eight shots. Kim tied for 35th the next week at the British Open, his only other made cut before the Safeway Open.

What’s with the Debbie Downer streak? Kim switched coaches before that winning week and now, with a two-year exemption window of opportunity that winning afforded him, he’s still working with John Tillery to fine-tune the swing changes that were so successful during that one week in Illinois. Before July’s John Deere Classic, Kim conceded simply that the changes have taken longer than he hoped. Patience is a virtue, but nobody said it’s fun.

Dustin Johnson. I keep getting asked, “What happened to Dustin Johnson?” What happened was Rory McIlroy at the Players, Tiger Woods at the Masters and Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship. Johnson was fifth at the Players and runner-up in those two majors, a year that would thrill most players.

Johnson has the curse of greatness and its ensuing expectations. The former No. 1-ranked player won a World Golf Championship, had six other top-10s and racked up $5.5 million in winnings in the 2018-19 season. It sounds like a strong performance, but it didn’t look that way because he evaporated after the PGA Championship in May. He didn’t have a finish better than 20th for the rest of the season. Did losing that duel to Koepka at Bethpage Black take something out of him? Clearly, Johnson was ready for the season to be over at the Tour Championship, where he straggled in at T-29 in the 30-man event.

We know he’s much better than that. His career is Hall of Fame-ready, with 20 victories, including a U.S. Open title, and a remarkable active streak of 12 straight years in which he has won at least once.

Here are two stats that might mean something: Johnson ranked 74th in strokes gained putting, down from 25th the year before, and golf’s strongest player had a curious power outage: he was 184th in percentage of eagles made.

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Jason Day, conceding that he ‘seriously underachieved’ in his career, struggles to balance family duties and world-class golf.

Jason Day. The media interview of the year happened before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Day, who always has freely discussed his feelings, said he has “seriously underachieved” in the game and that his agent, wife and a friend told him that he wasn’t working hard enough on his game. It was real Dr. Phil stuff.

Day hired Steve Williams, the all-time winningest caddie, to help him turn things around and regain his winning drive. The pairing lasted only two months, and Day went through a season without a victory.

Day is 31 and facing a common mid-career Tour quandary. He has won 12 times, including a major, raked in more money than he’ll ever spend and enjoys life near Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and three children so much that he finds it tougher than ever to leave home for weeks at a time to play tournaments. It’s real life. Family matters more than golf.

Day was fifth at the Masters, one of six top-10 finishes, but he had no top-3 finishes, a sign that he didn’t come that close to winning. Day called his season “below average” and said it was “very disappointing” not to make the season-ending Tour Championship but, he added, “It happens.”

Rickie Fowler. How bad can things be when you’re in every commercial during a golf telecast and get more weekly TV airtime than Vanna White? Fowler is a lovable marketing juggernaut for mortgages, insurance, tax preparers and, oh yeah, all things golf.

I wonder whether the misperception that he had a poor year comes from the one hole I remember most in 2019, the weird triple bogey that Fowler made on the back nine at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. While Fowler surveyed the green, his ball suddenly moved and rolled down an embankment, into a water hazard. This mini-disaster led to a gutsy comeback by Fowler and, eventually, a victory. Who makes triple on the back nine Sunday and still wins? It was one of the year’s highlights, plus Fowler was second at the Honda Classic, ninth at the Masters and sixth at the British Open.

No, he didn’t get his elusive first major, and, no, he didn’t qualify for the Presidents Cup team on points. So those were disappointing for Fowler. But, c’mon. Any year with a 'W' is a good year. Ask Tiger Woods.

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


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