Tiger Woods makes it look easy again, and Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and, more recently, Tommy Fleetwood find will to win
Hard as it is to believe, we’re already 10 events into the new 2019-20 PGA Tour season and one week from the end of the seemingly endless European Tour season.
Here’s what we’ve learned in the past 11 weeks:
* Tiger Woods won his 82nd Tour title and made it look easy. Woods’ victory at the Zozo Championship in Japan was seemingly so effortless that it created a different kind of buzz around him. First, the Presidents Cup now has way more juice – which is to say that any juice it has is more than it previously had – now that Captain Woods used his last pick on himself. A lot more television sets will be tuned to golf in December.
And, the knee procedure that Woods underwent in late August was credited by him and others with the freedom that he now has in his swing. That has made people wonder when – not if – win No. 82 will come and whether that will be major No. 16. April in Augusta can’t come soon enough.
* Rory McIlroy validated his Player of the Year selection. Yes, the WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai was a limited field, but it was plenty strong enough that McIlroy’s victory should get your attention. This newly imagined rivalry with Brooks Koepka – whether Koepka sees it that way – seems to have motivated McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman always competes better when he has something to play for, and Koepka’s public dismissal of McIlroy just might have privately ticked him off enough to raise the level of his game, especially in the big events.
* Justin Thomas reminded everyone that he is still a factor. Thomas, in winning the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in Korea for the second time, has 11 Tour victories, including a major championship, at age 26. Four of those wins have come in Asia, whatever that means. He won the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., and quite a number of observers thought that after that first major title, he’d win majors in bunches.
That hasn’t happened and, in fact, Thomas hasn’t even threatened another major, but he has won six Tour titles in the 2½ years since claiming the Wanamaker Trophy. He’s a quiet No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and you can’t help but wonder whether this is the year, while most of the attention is being paid elsewhere, that Thomas makes his presence known again on the big stage.
* Tommy Fleetwood shed the weight of the world in South Africa. The Englishman won for the first time in almost two years, capturing the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge on Sunday in South Africa and its first-place check of $2.5 million. It’s not the money and it’s not even the trophy. For Fleetwood, it’s the ponderous weight of expectations.
Since his previous victory in January 2018, Fleetwood posted two runner-up finishes in major championships. Because of that, the cognoscenti believe that Fleetwood is one of the next players – perhaps the next – to break through and carve out his place on the top rungs in the game. When a golfer starts believing that himself, he can create such undue burdens that he forgets how to win tournaments. Now that Fleetwood remembers, perhaps he can give people something bigger by which to remember him.
* Cameron Champ is more than a one-off. When Champ won the Sanderson Farms Championship in the fall of 2018, the golf world went breathless over the young man’s other-worldly length off the tee and his touch around the greens. Tidings of great things to come were on the lips of nearly everyone with a voice in golf. Instead, he faded into yesterday’s stories and became just another long hitter in a seemingly endless sea of bombers in the game.
That is, until late September, when he won the Safeway Open. It was his second Tour title, which validates the idea the hardest tournament to win after your first is your second. That he won the tournament as his beloved grandfather – Mack “Papa” Champ, who introduced Cameron to the game – wasn’t expected to live much longer, tugged on the heartstrings of everyone who watched. Papa Champ died three weeks later.
* Brendon Todd stared at oblivion – and didn’t blink. Any other year, Todd would be the best story of the fall. But that doesn’t make his journey any less compelling. Todd’s victory in the inaugural Bermuda Championship, his second Tour win and first in 5½ years, is less than the half of it. He completely lost his game with the full-swing yips for about three years. Entering the 2019 calendar year, he had made just six cuts in his previous 47 events. At age 31, he was seriously considering another profession.
A new swing teacher and a performance coach set Todd back on the correct path, but nothing would have made a difference had he lost all self-belief. Monday morning, he was tied for the lead with four holes remaining in the weather-delayed Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico (scores). It’s a comeback story that’s hard to top.
* Jeff Maggert’s walk-off wedge provided the wildest finish ever to the Charles Schwab Cup. Maggert holed out for eagle on the second playoff hole to win the Champions Tour’s season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship and handed the season-long race to Scott McCarron. Ironically, Maggert won the playoff over Retief Goosen, who would have won the Schwab Cup had he beaten Maggert and won the tournament.
“I think [McCarron] owes me some good red wine or something,” Maggert said.
* The LPGA tour concludes this week with a $1.5 million prize for the winner. The CME Group Tour Championship will offer the richest prize ever in women’s golf. South Korea’s Jin Young Ko is 1,241 points ahead of Canada’s Brooke Henderson in the Race to CME Globe. But the way the race is structured, whoever from among the 60 qualifiers for the CME Group Tour Championship wins the tournament will win the race. Regardless, Ko has won four times this year and has locked up the Player of the Year title.