News & Opinion

Parting shots on a season well played

From Tiger Woods’ sheer will to win to Brooks Koepka’s major season to Gary Player’s love for golf, the 2019 season reinforces the appeal of a game like none other. Just ask Amy Bockerstette

The Year in Golf, 2019 edition, was bound to be outstanding once we witnessed Tiger Woods standing triumphantly on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club in April, ready once more to have that beautiful green jacket slipped over his shoulders. It had been nearly 11 years since he’d won a major, and his emotional victory delivered a beautiful, full-circle scene as he hugged his children off that 18th green. It set the tone for a terrific, and memorable, year ahead.

Here are a few things that we learned, and that we’ll remember, from 2019:

• Never underestimate the sheer power of being stubborn. When Woods was down and out and a non-factor on Tour for roughly five seasons (2014 to the end of 2018), there remained a small seed of thought that, if healthy enough for long enough, he’d be back to do something big, at least one time. Every time some other player or TV announcer said that Woods was done, the words stored into his steel-trap mind like nickels into a third-grader’s piggy bank. In April at the Masters, he cashed in. Skill is great, sure, but don’t ever underestimate one man’s stubbornness and the great fruits it can bear. It’s a pretty good trait for champions.

2019 Tour Championship
Brooks Koepka reinforces his major chops by winning another one of golf’s biggest prizes and contending in the others.

• We’ll have to circle 2019 as being the year that Brooks Koepka almost, nearly (#SoClose) got the respect that should be coming any day now to his doorstep. Those not fully convinced he had staying power as The Guy to beat at the major champions had a taste of this dish he served up: Back-nine run at the Masters (T-2); wire-to-wire at the PGA Championship (a fourth major title); a run at a third U.S. Open title (Pebble Beach, second); and a tie for fourth at Northern Ireland’s Portrush in the British Open, playing hard for his caddie, Ricky Elliott, who grew up there. That’s 2-1-2-4 on golf’s biggest stages. Stunning. All that, and he ran second (to Rory McIlroy) in the PGA Tour’s race for player of the year. (Also stunning.) What’s that old music saying? No. 1 with a bullet.

• When the beers flow this holiday season and you find yourself arguing about golf’s player of the decade, here’s a sleeper candidate for you: Bernhard Langer. He is 62 now, and we all thought he was due for at least a consultation with Father Time. (Then we made the stark discovery that he is Father Time!!) How is this for a decade’s body of work: In 2010-19, Langer made 210 starts on the Champions Tour, had 32 wins, 33 seconds, 19 thirds and finished in the top 10 an amazing 144 times (or 68.57 percent of his starts). Geez, too bad he was injured in 2011 and missed about four months because of left-thumb surgery, or he really could have put up some numbers.

• We actually played a PGA Championship in May, not August, and a Players Championship in March, not May, and nobody died.

• The PGA Tour statistical gurus need to add a category. We’re calling it Strokes Gained: Heart. For instance, look at Jordan Spieth. Yes, he struggled mightily in 2019, with a T-3 at the PGA Championship his best finish in 24 starts. But consider this: How does a player barely inside the top 100 in driving distance (88th, 295.2 yards) who finished 181st in driving accuracy (53.12 percent) and 179th in greens in regulation (62.80 percent) end up a respectable 35th in scoring (70.45)? One word: Heart. Oh, and great putting doesn’t hurt.

• Thank goodness that golf remains a game in which there are so many ways to get the job done. The arrival of PGA Tour rookie Matthew Wolff and his unorthodox and powerful kids-don’t-try-this-at-home corkscrew swing made Jim Furyk’s action look like Iron Byron. On second thought, looking at Wolff’s results, maybe kids should try to swing like him.

• I recently watched 84-year-old Gary Player competing at the PNC Father-Son Championship in Orlando. He said he feels like he’s a man still in his 30s. Player said he has broken his age on a golf course more than 2,500 times. It often is stated that the secret to longevity in golf is a long backswing (Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, et al.). The real secret to longevity in golf is how much the game resides in your heart. Player flew to Orlando from South Africa, teed it up with his grandson, a strapping lad named James Throssell, then got on a plane pointed back to South Africa. The man loves golf. When paired with Jack Nicklaus and Nicklaus’ grandson G.T. on the first day of competition, Jack kept double-checking golf balls in the fairway to see whether he or Player had the longer drive. These days, Player is the longer of the two. “Man,” Player told his old pal, “how do you think I felt for 50 years?”

• (While flying somewhere over England): Hey, Santa, look down there … that’s Danny Willett. He’s back to 29th in the world, and no longer a resident on the island of Golf’s Misfit Toys! (Santa’s elves as one): Hooray!

• Most expensive Sunday of the year? That’s easy. It had to belong to J.B. Holmes. He started the final round of the British Open at Portrush in third place, then yanked his opening tee shot OB, and things didn’t improve much from there. He shot 87 and plummeted all the way to a tie for 67th, beating only three other competitors who’d made the cut. Third place paid $718,000 – which was $692,912 less than Holmes would take home ($25,088) for his week’s work.

• Speaking of rough weeks, Lee Ann Walker incurred 58 penalty strokes – that’s right, folks: 58! – at the Senior LPGA Championship after she learned that it no longer was legal to have a caddie lining a player up over putts. The infraction was not brought to Walker’s attention until she was playing her second round, so she had to go back and count up the instances it had happened to that point. She then accepted with grace her penalty shots, signing for an adjusted two-day total of 127-90. Locals in French Lick, Ind., had not seen scores like that since Larry Bird played high school basketball in town.

• Think back to the start of 2019 and what a big thing (at the time) putting with the flagstick seemed to be. Revolutionary! We still see a few players doing it, sure, but all these months later, the flag is out and it seems to have been little more than a passing fad. Like bell-bottoms. And “seaming.”

• When the Presidents Cup was introduced in 1994, it was going to be something different than its counterpart, the Ryder Cup. More matches, more points, all tied matches heading to extra holes, and even a one-on-one playoff to decide the cup, if necessary. So many of the things that made it different have gone away. This Presidents Cup was terrific, but the PGA Tour got lucky in one regard. There’s an elephant in the room that needs addressing before 2021: Find a solution to fix a potential tie. Really, had this great competition finished 15-15 on Sunday, would anyone – players, captains, caddies, fans, anyone – have been satisfied?

• Three heartwarming stories from 2019: Nate Lashley, who lost his mother, his father and his girlfriend in a plane crash when he was a junior at Arizona in May 2004, winning the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic; Gary Woodland and Amy Bockerstette in Phoenix; and Suzann Pettersen’s winning walk-off putt at the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland. Afterward, Pettersen said she was retiring from golf to be a mom. Now, that is a mic drop!

• And finally, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I can think of only two men in the history of the planet who gained 15 pounds during the holiday season and really felt great about it: Santa Claus and Bryson DeChambeau.

Happy holidays. Go easy on the fruitcake.