News & Opinion

A perfect 10? No, but 2019 ranks right up there

The recently completed golf season, with its new rules and an old (though obviously not too old) major champion still worth his stripes, produces the sort of memories that will stand the test of time

Time can’t actually stand still because it doesn’t have legs, but a clock has two hands, and pro golf gave us plenty to hold onto in 2019. The year’s biggest stories offered the usual mix of triumphant and troublesome, awkward and authentic, captivating and exasperating. News doesn’t have a conscience. It comes in all shapes and sizes, arrives on a moment’s notice and leaves a lasting impression, whether you like it or not.

In a world plagued by short attention spans and governed by social media, our game moves slowly and cherishes its past. Those anachronistic qualities are part of what makes golf special. Twenty years from now, people will remember 2019. Here are the 10 biggest reasons why:

10. The new rules – It would be a reach to say the updated bylaws had a dramatic impact at the professional level, but the progressive mentality exhibited by the USGA in itself is cause enough to include it here. A handful of guys, most notably Adam Scott, left the flagstick in the cup virtually every time they reached the green. The mandate prohibiting caddies from aligning players over a putt came into play at January’s Dubai Desert Classic, where a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole cost Haotong Li $98,000 in earnings.

Some news items grow in size; this one definitely didn’t. Scott still missed more than his share of 5-footers. Li still made 50 grand. Business as usual. In this walk of life, business is always good.

Presidents Cup 2019
Matt Kuchar experiences the highs and lows of a winning season cheapened by a highly avoidable misstep.

9. Kooch the Mooch – Another early-season skirmish involving a caddie. Matt Kuchar’s first PGA Tour victory in 4½ years came at a high price, so to speak, when it was discovered that he paid David Giral Ortiz, his looper in Mexico that week, just $5,000 off a first-place check of almost $1.3 million. It took more than two months for the story to reach a rapid boil, but when it did, one of America’s most popular tour pros found his impeccable image heading south in a northbound lane of the Cheapskate Highway.

It was only after Kuchar realized that he’d be returning to Mexico for the WGC in late February that he compensated Ortiz in a more appropriate fashion. It’s funny how a man’s eyesight gets worse after he becomes extremely wealthy.

8. Spieth’s ongoing struggles – It was the slump of the year because Jordan Spieth was so good at such a ridiculously young age. Nobody notices when a journeyman stinks it up. When you win three majors before your 25th birthday, then go 2½ years without winning a tour event of any size, scrutiny becomes a burden. Spieth’s driving miseries have been the obvious source of his downfall. He can’t beat guys who hit it 30 yards past him when he’s standing in the right rough, although his loyalty to Cameron McCormick, his swing coach since childhood, remains steadfast.

The glass remains half-full. For now.

7. The return to Northern Ireland – All it took was 68 years for the R&A to reacquaint itself with perhaps the finest golf terrain on earth. The British Open at Royal Portrush represented a monumental leap of faith for an organization instinctively bound to its traditions, which made this host venue as improbable as the possibility that someone could shoot a 63 on the brute. Shane Lowry’s remarkable third round carried him to a six-shot stroll over Tommy Fleetwood, resulting in an unlikely champion who was born (and still lives) just across the border in the Republic of Ireland. From beginning to end, there were surprises aplenty in God’s country.

6. Shakeup at CBS – It was the type of personnel move you would expect from a struggling ballclub, not a major network with a deep and successful history of televising professional golf. Gary McCord and Peter Kostis, two of the most experienced and recognizable commentators ever to call birdies and bogeys, were unceremoniously terminated by CBS in October, a purge sold to the public as an attempt to appeal to younger viewers.

Say what? Kids watch golf? “There’s a fine line between familiarity and staleness,” Kostis said of the dismissal. “It would have been nice to have a year to go out and say goodbye. I thought it was a bit disrespectful.” Davis Love III, now 55, was quickly added to the CBS broadcast team, a move that doesn’t exactly cater to a youthful audience. Will the changes work? Pardon the pun, but that’s anybody’s call.

5. The POY farce – If you thought the McCord/Kostis sacking made no sense, the selection of Rory McIlroy over Brooks Koepka as PGA Tour Player of the Year turned logic into a form of dark comedy. It was a sobering example of what can happen in any sport when the competitors vote on awards for their peers. Popularity trumps performance more than any tour pro could possibly justify. It all explains why McIlroy’s reaction to claiming POY honors for a third time left him somewhere between flabbergasted and speechless.

As for Koepka, who is well-known for finding motivation in slights of any authenticity, this was the Godzilla of insults. If his reputation as the town villain keeps growing, the guy could have 20 major titles by the time he turns 40. Koepka, not Godzilla.

4. The ultimate walk-off – For all the indifference to women’s golf and negative media attention directed toward the LPGA, September’s Solheim Cup produced the best finish anywhere in 2019. European team captain Catriona Matthew was skewered for using an at-large pick on Suzann Pettersen, who had been out of the game for the better part of two years. That Pettersen holed a 7-footer for birdie to give Europe its first triumph over the U.S. since 2013 was heroic enough. That she announced her retirement from competitive golf immediately afterward added a procession of exclamation points to a feel-good story with flavor.

Pettersen piled up 15 LPGA victories, including two major titles, and six more on the Euro circuit. She owns two major titles, and though she never reached No. 1 in the women’s world ranking, Phil Mickelson never found his way to the top of the men’s standings, either. Is Pettersen really done? Is changing diapers more fun than toppling entire countries? Sometimes, exclamation points turn into question marks very fast.

3. The major monster – Maybe he’s not as embittered as we all think. Maybe he really does practice. Maybe he says things just to get a rise out of people. There are more questions than answers when it comes to deciphering the big-tournament titan who remains the man to beat when winning matters the most, but it’s pretty obvious that Brooks Koepka likes it that way. A little mystery to go with the history.

When he wasn’t dabbling in a running feud with Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee or posting R-rated pictures on Instagram with his ultra-photogenic girlfriend, Koepka found his way to a fourth major title in 23 months at the PGA Championship. He began last season with a victory in South Korea and flattened McIlroy in a head-to-head, final-pairing matchup at Memphis’ WGC event in July. Koepka’s worst finish at any major was fourth. He was the best player in the world in 2019, just as he was in 2018, and if you don’t like him, that’s your business.

His, too.

2. Catching The Slammer – Given the depth of today’s fields and what Tiger Woods has been through physically, plus the personal issues that he brought upon himself, Woods’ 82 PGA Tour victories equals about 1,000 home runs in Major League Baseball. It is an astounding accomplishment, a 23-year journey that culminated in October at the Tour’s first official event in Japan, where Woods won by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama. Uncharted territory? You could say that. Many golf pundits have questioned the legitimacy of Sam Snead’s 82-triumph dossier, all of it compiled before the game had a credible method of tracking such things, which is an inadvertent tribute to longevity if one ever existed.

Snead’s record lasted for more than a half-century before someone possessed the greatness and grit to match it. You thought this was a big deal? Wait until Woods gets to 83.

1. Comeback complete – You easily could make a case that Woods’ fifth Masters title and 15th major overall didn’t pack nearly the historical punch of the previous entry. It took him 359 tournaments and a lifetime of range balls to tie Snead; he needed just four days and a bit of good fortune to sneak past a stumbling leaderboard in April. In terms of mainstream impact and big-picture reverberation, however, it’s not even close.

Tiger’s triumphant performance at Augusta National is the story of the year because it touched so many people; because it capped a career resurgence no one possibly could have expected it 18 months earlier; because it moved Woods one step closer to Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 majors. Because majors are the only true measure. Because even tough guys wept when the champ thrust his arms into the air on that 18th green on the evening of April 14. Because that same cold-blooded competitive warrior who used to win tournaments by force of habit has become a far more fallible and appreciative man.

From American icon to woebegone and back. That’s a damn good storyline.