And just like that, it’s over.
The condensed PGA Tour season wrapped up on Sunday with a revamped Tour Championship, which saw Rory McIlroy pick up his third victory of the season and win the $15 million FedEx Cup grand prize.
As was the idea, the meaty part of the golf schedule is over just in time for the first full slate of college football games and, a week after, the NFL’s Week 1. The good news is your cravings for high draws and plugged lies and one-hop-and-stop wedges will be satisfied quite soon—there are only two golf-less Sundays before the first event of the 2019-20 season, the Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.
To be exact, the offseason is exactly 17 days. But it’s an offseason nonetheless, so now is as good a time as ever to reflect on the 2018-19 season with 18 Parting Thoughts.
1. You have to love when things work out. Rory McIlroy deservedly won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup on Sunday. Deservedly because he was the most consistent player all year. Deservedly because his overall strokes gained was the highest of any season this decade. Deservedly because not only did he win the staggered Tour Championship, he shot the lowest 72-hole score of anyone in the field.
What a remarkable season it was: 19 starts, three wins including the Players, 14 top 10s, 16 top 25s, $24+ million in earnings, the Vardon Trophy. The only thing it lacked, of course, is a major. And in this day and age, when majors trump all, this season will never get the credit it deserves. Brooks Koepka will win his second straight Player of the Year award, thanks almost entirely to his fantastic finishes in the four big ones: a win at the PGA, seconds at the Masters and U.S. Open and T4 at the British. He will be a deserving winner, but this is a case-study in just how much more the majors matter than anything and everything else.
2. A few words about the new Tour Championship format, which received so much criticism from the woke corners of Golf Twitter. The most common line of complaining I heard highlighted possible scenarios in which someone like Abraham Ancer wins the FedEx Cup, as though that wasn’t also a possibility under the old format. There was also shuddering at the absolutely horrifying possibility that someone would be credited with a PGA Tour victory without actually shooting the lowest score for 72 holes…ignoring the fact that winning the old Tour Championship required beating just 29 other guys, not exactly the most deserved title.
Mind you, these complaints poured in well before the first ball was struck at East Lake.
In the end, none of those “possibilities” became a reality. The most consistent player all year won the FedEx Cup. He also shot the lowest score for four days. We were treated to a delightfully entertaining weekend of golf and a quasi-showdown between the two best players on Earth, with a third world-class player in Xander Schauffele having a chance as well.
It’s amazing to me how people always find something to complain about. Golf courses are criticized for being too hard, and also for being too easy. Players for being too open with the media, and also for being too shut off. The Tour deserves credit, not ridicule here. They tried something, and it produced the desired outcome: entertainment. We already have 40+ standard, 72-hole stroke play events. Is it really the worst thing in the world if we pivot away from that format once per year?
Now, zooming out a bit…
3. Tiger haters be damned, the enduring image of Golf in 2019 will be that of Tiger Woods, amidst a light drizzle, on the 18th green at Augusta National, pumping his fists into the air and delivering one of the all-time greatest sports moments in the process.
Woods’ Masters win is remarkable on so many levels.
First, the sheer unlikelihood. At the nadir of his injury woes, the notion of him even teeing it up at Augusta—let alone contending, let alone winning—was tragically farcical. He was finished. A punchline. Talked about more for his mugshot than his golf. Counted out by virtually everyone, probably even himself.
Second, the textbook nature of the comeback. It was a progressive journey, one that started with a simple video of him hitting pitch shots…then a video of a very tentative iron swings…then rumblings that he was keeping up with young pros in casual games around Jupiter…then a press release saying he would play in the 2017 Hero World Challenge…then doing so without any injury scares and swinging it close to 120 miles per hour…then making his first cut in 29 months…then contending at a PGA Tour event…then contending at a major…then winning a PGA Tour event….then, finally winning a major.
Third, how dramatic that final Sunday was. Players were sent off in threesomes off both tees—both tees, at the Masters!—in anticipation of a storm that held off just long enough. Woods started the day two shots behind Francesco Molinari, who had shown no signs that he was capable of making a bogey. The leaderboard was comically stacked with huge names. Koepka, Schauffele, Cantlay, Poulter, Day, FInau, Fowler, Rahm. They all folded. He never did. A birdie at 16 all but sealed the deal, and Woods eventually won his first major after trailing after 54 holes. A comeback to complete a comeback.
Finally, his dropoff since. Woods has made six starts since that Sunday: one top 10, two missed cuts and a withdrawal. His game has looked rusty and his body has looked frail. A quiet fall will do him well, but his form post-Augusta has only served to make that victory even more unbelievable.
4. If Tiger’s win was the feel-good story of the year, Shane Lowry’s win at the British Open was second. Of course, an Irishman winning the first Open on Irish island since 1951 is storybook stuff. But just as heartwarming was seeing just how much this meant to Shane Lowry. Deep down, he knows this is not a harbinger of multiple majors to come. He knows he is not one of the most talented players in the world. He knows that this darn well could be the crowning achievement, the absolute zenith, of his career…and he celebrated like it. There was something so refreshing about that.
5. The shot of the year, for me, was Gary Woodland’s chip on 17 at Pebble Beach. So, so much can go wrong there. You can chunk it and leave yourself a difficult two putt. You can catch it thin and send it bounding to the back bunker. It would have been so easy to simply putt it, give yourself 12 feet and take your chances. Instead, he trusted himself and his vastly improved short game, nipped it perfectly and spun it to tap-in range.
You can’t play not-to-lose golf and win a major. This was the definition of playing to win, and he was rewarded sweetly.
6. This season feels like it flew by, until you revisit some of the storylines and realize they feel like ages ago. Remember when Cameron Champ was the next big thing? Collin Morikawa and Matt Wolff and Viktor Hovland were still juggling golf with schoolwork back then. Remember when we thought Dustin Johnson had reasserted himself as the man to beat, after he won a WGC by five and finished 10 clear of third? Brooks Koepka finished T27 that week. Remember after the Players, when we thought Rory had reasserted himself as the man to beat and that he was about to rip off another major binge? He has now gone a full five seasons without winning one. Remember when Matt Kuchar was enemy No. 1 of the golf public? Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio Garcia had yet to have their word.
We—and media types are some of the main culprits here—are often prisoners of the moment. There’s a temptation to make sweeping, declarative statements after every event. Almost always, though, the full story doesn’t crystallize until we slip on the hindsight glasses.
7. What a peculiarly scandalous year this was in golf. Scandal and golf usually go together like lamb and tuna fish. But this year, some of the sport’s stars just couldn’t get out of their own way.
A surely incomplete list of tabloid-worthy happenings in 2019:
• Matt Kuchar stiffs El Tucan
• Sergio Garcia vandalizes a golf course in Saudi Arabia (what a sentence that is)
• Brooks Koepka loses 25 pounds for the ESPN Body Issue ahead of the Masters
• Matt Kuchar begs for spotty drop at the Memorial
• Golf Digest article suggests players considered boycotting the U.S. Open to stick it to the USGA
• Sergio Garcia vandalizes a golf course in Memphis
• Brooks Koepka suggests he purposely gets put on the clock to pressure slow players
• Brooks Koepka repeatedly calls out Brandel Chamblee
• Hank Haney puts his foot in his mouth with comments about Asian LPGA Tour players
• Bryson DeChambeau becomes the scapegoat for the anti-slow play zealots, fires back
Is this good for the game? Bad for it? You decide…but what’s inarguable is these brought non-golf fan eyeballs to our sport. That can’t be a bad thing.
8. The major venues this year were fantastic and will be hard to beat moving forward. Augusta is Augusta. Bethpage Black was a punishing beast, and while the Long Island fans aren’t the type to bring to your member-guest, having legitimately rowdy fans is a fun change of pace. Pebble Beach is just a preposterously beautiful place. And despite complaints that the USGA was too gentle in its setup—which is probably true, but also not the unspeakable heresy it was made out to be— Pebble rewarded good shots and punished bad ones, which is all you can ask from a golf course. Royal Portrush and the Northern Irish crowds welcomed the Open like they’d been waiting for it for 68 years, and you’d be hard pressed to find any negative talk about the setup all week. In today’s golf climate, that’s virtually unheard of.
Next year, the PGA heads to TPC Harding Park, the U.S. Open to Winged Foot and the British to Royal St. Georges. Advantage 2019.
9. A shout-out to the Korean Cal Ripken. We speak, of course, of Sungjae Im. The 21-year-old was the only rookie to reach the Tour Championship and will almost certainly win rookie of the year. A year after leading the then-Web.com Tour moneylist from wire to wire, he posted seven top 10s and 15 top 25s in a remarkably consistent and profitable season, netting roughly $3 million in on-course earnings before his $512,500 bonus for finishing T18 in the FedEx Cup.
The most impressive part of his year, though? The dude played 35 times. Thirty-five. He only sat out two tournaments for which he was eligible. We joke about how “grueling” golf can be, but traveling from city to city to city to city to city to play week after week is legitimately exhausting. Kudos to a guy who knows he’s young and that his body won’t ever be better-equipped to handle such a workload. Nothing is guaranteed in this sport. You can lose your game and your playing privileges with seemingly little warning. Strike while the iron is hot. Get yours while you can.
10. Im wasn’t the only outstanding rookie this year. Phenom Matt Wolff won the 3M Open in just his fourth professional start, edging Collin Morikawa by one shot. A few weeks later, Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship to secure his PGA Tour card for next year and beyond. And Viktor Hovland set the amateur scoring record at the U.S. Open before eventually securing his card through the Korn Ferry Tour finals. All three members of the Class of 2019, as they have/will come to be known, should be forces on Tour for a long time.
11. Phil Mickelson has spent virtually his entire career in Tiger Woods’s shadow. This is usually a negative thing, as we tend to under-appreciate Lefty’s tremendous career simply because it is always compared to Woods’s ultra-ultra-tremendous career. But it goes both ways—sometimes Mickelson’s lows are overshadowed by Woods’s lows, which tend to be deeper and darker.
This year is one of those times. So much virtual ink has been used in discussing Tiger’s post-Augusta slump, but Mickelson’s game is in a similarly dreary place. Like Tiger, he started the season extremely strong. Like Tiger, he faded hard through the summer months. Mickelson made 10 starts after the Masters. He missed the cut five times and had no finishes better than T48 (which was at the BMW, in a 70-man field), and just five of his 30 scores were in the 60s.
If Woods’ precarious health makes his struggles extra concerning, Mickelson’s age has the same effect. He’s still one of the longest hitters on Tour, so it’s easy to forget—his 306.3-yard average off the tee was 19th best—but Mickelson turns 50 next June, meaning he’s eligible for…gasp…the Champions Tour in less than a year. While I don’t expect Phil to play more than maybe one senior event (the U.S. Senior Open) next year, there is a depressing possibility that we have seen the last of Phil Mickelson as the type of world-class player who can compete week-in, week-out.
The good news for Mickelson is that this season followed a very similar arc to 2017-18, in that he started well and finished poorly. Why is that good news? It’s clear Lefty still has what it takes when he’s rested, as he is in the beginning of the season. He’d do well to take a lesson from Roger Federer and Tiger and begin greatly scaling down the number of tournaments he plays. The 20 starts he made this year were way too many. If he wants to keep his 26-year streak of being in the world top 50 alive, quality over quantity is his best bet.
12. Another player faded considerably down the stretch, and his fall was more surprising than that of Woods or Mickelson: Dustin Johnson. He did not manage a finish better than T20 in any of his eight starts since challenging Koepka at the PGA. That barren run comes right after posting six top 10s in the eight starts prior, including the solo second at Bethpage and a T2 at Augusta. Unlike Woods, DJ doesn’t have issues with his body (that we know about) and unlike Mickelson, he is not about to turn 50. He will be back, but as of right now, it is clear that Koepka and McIlroy are miles ahead of everyone else. Including DJ.
13. One more slump to discuss: Jordan Spieth’s. The stats paint a bleak picture—he had just eight top 25s in 23 starts, ranked outside the top 140 in strokes gained off the tee, approach and tee to green—but the eye test might be worse. Spieth’s ball striking is breathtakingly sloppy right now. He continues to discuss changes he’s making with instructor Cameron McCormick, and he’s admirably maintained optimistic, but progress is nowhere to be seen. He’s masked his tee-to-green deficiencies with unconscious putting weeks and thus has mustered some respectable finishes, but he’s a tremendously far cry from the player who won five times and two majors in 2015
The odds, still, say that Spieth will get back to his winning ways sooner rather than later. But he has not hoisted a trophy anywhere in more than two years, and he has now missed the Tour Championship two years in a row.
14. The biggest elephant in the USGA/R&A meeting rooms is driving distance. The results form the Insights Project have still not been released, and neither governing body has given any sort of definitive plan on what to do. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to do something, because they do. Statistically, average driving distance was down just a tick from 2017-18, but the eye test tells a different story. Take the BMW Championship, where the once-formidable Medinah—3 over once won a U.S. Open there, and this was at one time thought to be one of those courses that could host a major tomorrow—was brutally beaten into submission. 7,600 yards, thick rough…and the winning score was 25 under.
Absent a rollback, which does not seem likely given all the blowback from ball manufacturers it would spark, the best remedy are firm and fast greens that don’t hold shots from the rough. The problem, of course, is that golf is played outdoors and sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. If it rains, firm is virtually impossible. What, then, can we do? Adjust par? Accept the death of the long-iron approach into a par 4? Become okay with 25 under winning every week? It’s a complicated issue with no simple answer.
15. The second-biggest elephant in that room is slow play. You’ve likely read umpteen articles detailing all the nuances of the problem, so we’ll keep it short. We all hate it. We all know what needs to be done. Penalize the players, and not just no-names well out of contention. Until a star is penalized while in contention on Sunday, nothing will change.
16. To illustrate just how much more important ball striking is than putting, here are the top 10 finishers in strokes gained tee to green:
• Rory McIlroy
• Justin Thomas
• Hideki Matsuyama
• Adam Scott
• Patrick Cantlay
• Paul Casey
• Byeong Hun An
• Dustin Johnson
• Corey Conners
• Jon Rahm
Eight of those 10 player made the Tour Championship. Here are the top 10 finishers in strokes gained putting:
• Denny McCarthy
• Jordan Spieth
• Dominic Bozzelli
• Graeme McDowell
• Andrew Putnam
• Aaron Baddeley
• Patton Kizzire
• Wyndham Clark
• Vaughn Taylor
• Beau Hossler
None of those 10 players made the Tour Championship. The next time someone says “drive for show, putt for dough” to you…just smile to yourself. It’s not worth the battle.
17. I spent just an absurd amount of time watching golf on various platforms this year. Announcer’s voices and styles vary greatly, but there are some go-to clichés that seemingly everyone just can’t quit. A few of the best (or worst, depending on your perspective:
• Henrik Stenson love his trusty 3-wood (and Henrik Stenson’s shots sound different at impact)
• Sam Saunders is Arnold Palmer’s grandson
• Brooks Koepka is built like a linebacker.
• Brandt Snedeker has a “pop” putting stroke.
• Tiger Woods is a “grinder.”
• When (Player X) is on his A-game, there’s nobody better.
• Dustin Johnson worked on his wedges really hard and it helped him get to world No. 1.
• -Justin Rose missed a lot of cuts in a row right when he turned pro.
• The course is in the best shape we’ve ever seen it.
This isn’t meant to call out any specific announcer…it’s more an acknowledgement of just how hard broadcasting golf is, when there are so many players hitting so many shots across so many events. There is so much downtime, it’s virtually impossible to avoid talking in circles.
18. Speaking of broadcasts…they’ve become much more tech-y this year, which is awesome. Top tracer is fantastic, and we all love different slow-mo cameras and the like. Here’s one thing we need more of: mic’d up players. There is nothing more entertaining (and educational) than listening to a player and caddie discuss a tricky shot. This exchange between Kevin Na and his caddie from a year ago…this is the best type of content. More of this, please.
Enjoy the next 17 days. Do what you must to survive. I’ll see you on the other side.