News & Opinion

TigerMania elevates season in major way

How would you rate the 2018-19 golf season?

How would you rate the 2018-19 golf season?

In PGA Tour terminology, I give it 447 FedEx Cup points. (Yes, the FedEx Cup scoring system reign of terror continues … mu-ha-ha!)

In Roman Colosseum emperor lingo, it’s a thumbs up. (Darn it; put the lions on hold, Flavius.)

In 20th-century “American Bandstand” terms, I score it a 90. (It had a beat you could dance to, but it was no Chubby Checker.)

In movie ratings, I score it 4.5 stars. (I didn’t like the hyphen in the title, but Rory McIlroy’s big ending made up for it.)

As a kindergarten report card, I give it an A. (But nap time still needs work.)

This isn’t rocket science, no relation to Rocket Mortgage, one of two new PGA Tour sponsors this year, along with the 3M Open.

Tiger Woods
With his Masters victory, Tiger Woods set in motion a memorable 2019 golf season.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
With his Masters victory, Tiger Woods set in motion a memorable 2019 golf season.

This golf season locked up an A as soon as Tiger Woods won the Masters. Never mind that Woods won only after seemingly everybody in the field, and maybe even the Toronto Raptors, hit a ball into Rae’s Creek at the 12th hole on Sunday. Everybody rinsed one except Woods, who didn’t miss a shot on the last six holes.

Major victory No. 15 revived TigerMania in a big way, this time letting a new generation in on the hysteria. How big was TigerMania? So big that even some newspapers (the ones that aren’t dead) started covering golf again. Well, they started covering Woods again. Same thing, to them.

The duct tape didn’t hold, however, and Woods evaporated. He missed the cut in two of the other three majors, was sidelined by what he said was an oblique injury, didn’t advance to the season finale at the Tour Championship and, a few days after it, announced that he had undergone another surgery to his left knee. It supposedly was minor knee surgery, but there’s no such thing as minor when it involves Tiger Woods.

Does this new version of TigerMania have a second act? No one knows. We might get a clearer idea if Woods plays in a fall event in addition to the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan or picks himself for the Presidents Cup team that he will captain in December and plays a few matches (“Do right thing, Tiger: Don’t play Prez Cup,” Aug. 28).

That Masters may have been his version of Jack Nicklaus’ Augusta encore in 1986. Or maybe Woods can manage his back, his knee and his other non-bionic parts well enough to contend a few more times. Woods remains the story – and the mystery – of the year.

There are no guidelines on grading a golf season, by the way. I’m not downgrading this one, even though the major championships lacked intense last-hole drama. Unlike serious golf movies – “Caddyshack” and “Happy Gilmore” – nobody holed a putt on the final green for the victory, and no explosives, gophers or Volkswagen Beetles were involved.

Woods won the Masters with a closing bogey, and the other major winners had cushions, too: Brooks Koepka won by two at the PGA Championship; Gary Woodland by three, U.S. Open; and Shane Lowry by six, British Open.

The majors still were entertaining. Koepka, our new dominant player, was on the verge of going all Jean Van de Velde and losing a big final-round lead, until he turned it around and closed strong at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course.

The single stroke I most remember from the year was Woodland’s chip from the putting surface at the par-3 17th hole at Pebble Beach. It was a stroke of genius not only because he nearly made it, making the par that locked up the U.S. Open, but because he didn’t take a divot.

For sheer emotion, an Irishman winning the Open in Northern Ireland was a beautiful scene. I don’t understand why Lowry’s face isn’t already on boxes of Lucky Charms.

Woods had the 1 and 1A moments. When he finally returned to the winner’s circle after five years at last year’s Tour Championship, he looked like the Pied Piper as he and Rory McIlroy walked to the 18th green while the gallery broke loose and chased after them. The Boston Marathon’s start is about as orderly.

Woods at East Lake in August of 2018 and then hugging his family after the Masters are things we’ll still be referencing in 20 years.

This could go down as the year we said goodbye to Woods, the player, but I’m not going there. Betting against Woods is something I’ve always avoided, and I’m not starting now, even if I’m skeptical about the state of his spine, knee, neck and his other knee.

We witnessed history. The season ended earlier, in late August, and about that change, PGA Tour, Atlanta might not be the ideal choice to conclude a golf season then. The temperature and the humidity were in the 90s, and there’s little chance of it being any cooler that time of year. Here are some optional sites that might be cooler in August: Winnipeg; Boston; Vancouver; Butte, Mont.; and, of course, our inevitable 51st state, Greenland.

The PGA Tour had two fewer tournaments, and two newcomers (in Detroit and Minneapolis) were success stories. A World Golf Championship event moved and nobody missed Akron (sorry, Akron), at least not until they got to Memphis and played TPC Southwind, which is no Firestone Country Club.

Woods aside, Koepka ruled men’s golf. He created some buzz before the PGA Championship when he said that winning double digits worth of majors was a reasonable goal. The doubters went away when he backed it up by winning that week, his fourth major title. His major finishes were 2-1-2-4. I like his chances at double figures. He won three times overall and left skid marks on a few opponents, notably Woods, Dustin Johnson and McIlroy.

Koepka made an impact on other players. When McIlroy outdueled Koepka for the FedEx Cup title in Atlanta, McIlroy said he really wanted to win as a way to avenge his loss to Koepka in Memphis. If these two men grow into a golf rivalry – please, please, please! – it started here. I don’t remember anyone beating Woods and saying something like that in the early years of his reign. I also don’t remember anybody beating Woods head-to-head until the legend known as Y.E. Yang.

In mid-year, Koepka looked unstoppable. Well, he was stopped, and now McIlroy is back after Players and FedEx Cup titles as the leader of the pack that will try to stop him. Justin Thomas rebounded from a wrist injury and looks ready to be a major contender again.

The rest of the pack is under review. Jordan Spieth was close to resolving his swing issues but didn’t. Jason Day’s year of promised hard work failed to pay off. Johnson wasn’t a factor after the PGA in May. Rickie Fowler won in Phoenix despite a final-round triple bogey, a cool never-give-up moment, but he was not among the chasers in the majors, which was a disappointment.

New stars were minted. Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland were the most impressive. Expect to hear their names again this fall.

We learned at least two other things in 2019, too.

One, leaving the flagstick in while putting did not ruin the game, as traditionalists feared, and it actually helped TV viewers see the target.

Two, Phil Mickelson still has game … on Twitter. He has found a new way to embrace and entertain fans online. He will step on your neck and make you laugh while he does it.

Mickelson gets the same grade for Twitter as men’s golf gets for the year: A.

The 2020 golf season has a tough act to follow.

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