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How bad was 2020? On PGA Tour, we've seen worse

Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson at 2020 U.S. Open
As Bryson DeChambeau (left) threatens to revolutionize the game in 2020 with his prodigious length, Dustin Johnson remains at least a step ahead.

As new millennium finally emerges from Tiger Woods' dynasty, history will be kind to the winners. John Hawkins? Not so much

Some years are better than others, a point driven home with excessive force in 2020. The good old days never have seemed older or better. Back when a handshake was a gesture of goodwill, not a life-threatening decision, life still threw us curveballs, but they were wiffleballs, not boomerangs.

Golf balls are what matter here. Twenty-one PGA Tour seasons have been played in the new millennium. Ranking them in order (worst to best) would have been much tougher if one guy hadn’t turned the entire first decade into his personal keepsake. Greatness deserves recognition, and though the intention here certainly isn’t to pay homage to Tiger Woods in a slightly different format, his footprint on the game’s landscape is aptly reflected in the sequence below.

A subjective measure in a plaintive year, based largely on historic significance and mainstream impact. Two decades of pro golf in three minutes.

2011: If the PGA Tour had a Chinese calendar, this would have been the Year of the Donkey. Luke Donald won Player of the Year honors. Keegan Bradley was named top rookie, and just to make sure that everybody got the punchline, Bill Haas sneaked out of Atlanta with the FedEx Cup crown. Haas has just three victories since. Bradley has two, and Donald has one. Greatness calls. Sometimes, nobody picks up the phone.

2003: Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel, back-to-back major champions? Every now and then, golf stops making sense. This was the second of three consecutive years that produced a highly unlikely winner of a Big Four gathering. Micheel will forever remain one of the game’s ultimate rarities: a player whose only PGA Tour victory occurred at a major. He held off Chad Campbell, not exactly a household name himself, to win the PGA Championship. A month earlier, Curtis was handed the Claret Jug by Thomas Bjorn, who played the final four holes in 4 over to lose by a stroke.

2007: Hello, world? Uh, not exactly. The debut of the FedEx Cup shook up the Tour schedule to a greater effect than several decades of annual changes combined. This was commissioner Tim Finchem’s baby, highlighted by a four-event postseason that, unfortunately, wasn’t properly structured in terms of valuing regular-season performance or allocating playoff points. In other words, it was a mess. Although Camp Ponte Vedra has revised the format numerous times over the years, the modest percentage of golf fans who do care either don’t understand it or don’t like it. Other than that, it has worked wonderfully.

2012: Domination returned in the form of 23-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, who won four times and was virtually unbeatable in August/September. In something akin to a practical joke, however, Brandt Snedeker claimed the FedEx Cup title when McIlragged stumbled to a final-round 74 at East Lake. Hey, better to be lucky than great.

2020: The coronavirus cost us two of the game’s five biggest gatherings and three months of the regular season, but even without a Players Championship and British Open, it was a dark year made fascinating by high-end youth. PGA winner Collin Morikawa, U.S. Open runner-up Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland represented pro golf’s best crop in a while. Bryson DeChambeau reconstructed his body and threatened to revolutionize the game, but it was Dustin Johnson who capped a career season with his second POY and first FedEx Cup triumph. Without further delay, D.J. won a Masters in November. Better late than not at all.

2005: Few players in any era have gotten more out of less than Chris DiMarco. He won just three Tour events and never cracked the top five in the OWGR, but a more pugnacious schnauzer simply did not exist, best evidenced by DiMarco’s runner-up finishes at three majors from 2004 to 2006. Woods’ miracle chip from behind Augusta National’s 16th green in the final round of the ’05 Masters? DiMarco was on the wrong end of that. He would make a spirited charge at Woods down the stretch at the 2006 British and come up short, reminding us that some gnats just won’t go away.

2009: What are the mathematical possibilities of winning 14 consecutive majors after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead? The answer? Y.E. Yang. In one of the most mind-boggling turnabouts ever to transpire on a golf course, the South Korean journeyman toppled the Woods Dynasty with his come-from-behind victory at the PGA. It was, of course, the beginning of the end for Elin Nordegren’s ex-husband. He won six times in ’09, procured yet another money title and another POY, but all anyone will remember is the Only One that got away. Yang soon would disappear. So would Woods’ pristine public profile.

2017: The game’s growing hierarchy made room for Justin Thomas, who swept all the big awards, won the PGA Championship and made the Tour look a little smarter by cashing in on the FedEx Cup sweepstakes. Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka claimed major titles, and if you didn’t know better, you’d incorrectly guess which of the two would win three more over the next 23 months. Sergio Garcia’s Masters victory, meanwhile, was the feel-good story of the year. Sergio? Feel good? It’s a crazy game, this golf thing.

2002: Eighteen years later, it’s easy to forget but worth remembering that Bethpage Black became the first municipal course to host a U.S. Open. The Long Island beast had no problem living up to its reputation or USGA standards; Woods (-3) was the only player to finish under par. The sexiest competitive storyline from a major occurred at the PGA, where unheralded Rich Beem held off a creeping Woods, whose bid to win a conventional Grand Slam had succumbed to a third-round downpour at the British Open. Oh, and the U.S. lost the Ryder Cup. Is that actually news?

2010: Career milestones for Phil Mickelson (third Masters victory) and Jim Furyk (FedEx Cup champ), as the post-hydrant era began with Woods going winless for the first time ever. Rickie Fowler was an easy choice for best rookie. Ten years later, he makes commercials for a living.

2014: For the second time in three seasons, McIlroy’s brilliance (two more majors, money crown, POY) was interrupted by another head-scratching FedEx Cup champ. Billy Horschel rode a three-week hot streak to the $10 million, entering the playoffs with two top-10s in 23 starts before leaving the Tour Championship in a Brink’s truck. Only in a flawed postseason format does Player of the Year yield to flavor of the month.

Tiger Woods wins 2019 Masters
Tiger Woods wins a 5th green jacket in 2019 before tying Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour victory mark later in the year. Yet, as good as 2019 proves to be for Woods, it fails to approach the level of his 2000 season.

2019: The man who began the 2000s with perhaps the greatest season in golf history added a fresh coat of luster to his legend with a fifth Masters title. Six months later, Woods tied Sam Snead’s all-time victory mark, winning for the 82nd time on the Tour’s first official event in Japan. Not a month after failing to observe the five-year anniversary of his last major conquest, McIlroy added a second FedEx Cup crown to his bank account. A correlation between the two? Hmmm….

2008: Before his life began unraveling in late 2009, Woods found that his body started to fall apart, perhaps due to all that trophy lifting and the burden caused by carrying an entire sport on his shoulders. In just six ’08 events, Woods won four before calling it a year, just a few days after winning his 12th major of the 2000s (14th overall) at an unforgettable U.S. Open. Rocco Mediate was perfect in his role as the potential spoiler, but the Dude in the Red Shirt, mangled knee and all, would not be denied. Torrey Pines was the third and last time Woods needed extra holes to chase down a big prize. In each case, David was almost as heroic as Goliath.

2018: Koepka’s improbable climb to the top of the food chain featured triumphs at the U.S. Open and PGA, but ’18 was all about Woods and his hyperbolically acclaimed comeback, a resurrection validated by his first victory in five years, at the Tour Championship. Four guys won three times, including Thomas, Johnson and breakout star Bryson DeChambeau, but Woods was the story from January to September – a story to be punctuated the following spring.

2015: The year ended with Woods falling to 416th in the Official World Golf Ranking. It basically began in March, when Jordan Spieth won at Innisbrook and quickly elected himself as the new sheriff in town. His Masters victory was a huge deal. His U.S. Open triumph was more Johnson’s loss, but you don’t cop back-to-back majors by complete accident. Spieth’s swift and sudden emergence was a healthy kick in the pants for a game wandering aimlessly in a Tigerless era.

2016: Johnson’s mammoth potential was fulfilled by a U.S. Open victory and three triumphs overall, but he had company. McIlroy, Spieth, Adam Scott and Jason Day won multiple tournaments. McIlrobbed finally prevailed at the FedEx Cup derby he’d been deprived of twice previously, but Johnson deservedly received POY honors during a season in which the rich only got richer.

2004: As was usually the case with anything Woods did in the mid-2000s, his decision to hire swing coach Hank Haney became the ultimate non-story with legs, pro golf’s answer to “Who Shot J.R.?” Having parted with longtime mentor Butch Harmon in the summer of 2002, Woods attempted to diagnose himself for about 18 months, going majorless for the entire stretch. Speaking of which, Mickelson’s maiden major title always will rank as a Masters for the ages. He beat Ernie Els, who somehow would lose a playoff to Todd Hamilton three months later at the British Open.

2001: Woods’ completion of the Tiger Slam was the obvious headline, but a lot more happened than Eldrick’s annual rewrite of the record book. Retief Goosen, David Duval and David Toms, all of whom were among the most productive players in the world at the time, each claimed his first major title. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to the cancellation of a WGC event and a one-year postponement of the Ryder Cup, and the year ended with several rivals appearing ready to challenge Woods’ reign.

2006: A terrific year, if you love deep drama or an accelerated heartbeat. Mickelson won his third major in a 24-month span, then followed up that Masters triumph with his infamous 72nd-hole collapse at the U.S. Open. Woods missed the cut that week at Winged Foot, still grieving the loss of his father six weeks earlier, before staging one of the most remarkable performances of his career en route to victory at the British, a dedication to dad. The post-round emotion that we saw from Woods that afternoon was unlike anything we’d seen before or since. Some machines do have feelings.

2013: After three years in various states of disarray, Woods reminded us who drives the bus by winning five events and his 10th money title. Adam Scott ended a lifelong majorless drought with his clutch triumph at the Masters. Mickelson topped that with a heroic finishing kick en route to victory at the British Open, his grandest and least-expected accomplishment. Not for nothing, Jordan Spieth was named Rookie of the Year. Remember him?

2000: Having edged Sergio Garcia in the last major of the 1990s, Tiger Woods embarked on a tear for the ages in what technically was the final year of the 20th century. His dominance reached unforeseeable levels, not just in the silly margins of victory, but the degree of consistency. Woods went six months without shooting a round over par. His scoring average of 68.17 is a record that may never be broken. He won nine times, three of them majors, the first two of those by a combined 23 shots. Nobody has ever played the game at a higher level. A hundred years from now, that could still be the case.

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