The Year in Retrospect
A television commercial leading into the Masters featured Rory McIlroy as a young boy in Northern Ireland. As he developed into a world-class golfer by practising in the dark and in the rain and in his living room, video images of Tiger Woods winning championships played in the background. The boy was watching. He was mesmerized and inspired, and the spot ended with McIlroy blossoming into a star and teeing off with Woods in the final round of a World Golf Championship. The title of the commercial was “Ripple,” and the concept summed up the year in professional golf because it portrayed the impact Woods had on the next generation.
Only it wasn’t just McIlroy, who wound up playing a supporting role.
Consider where golf was at the end of 2014. He was coming off two straight major championships and was No. 1 with an average that was nearly three points greater than 39-year-old Henrik Stenson. Yes, this surely was the heir to Woods. The broad question going into 2015 was not who was the best in golf, it was a competition to see who would be best suited as McIlroy’s chief foil. McIlroy won four times, including a World Golf Championship, and he captured the Race to Dubai on the European Tour for the second straight season. And he ended the year at No. 3 in the world.
The envy of golf turned out to be Jordan Spieth, the 22-year-old Texan whose will to win is largely derived from his hatred of losing. Spieth became only the fourth player since 1960 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam, joining Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He won five times and set a PGA Tour record with just over $12 million in earnings. And that doesn’t include the $10 million bonus from winning the FedExCup. Spieth was the No. 1 player in the world — just barely.
Chasing him the entire summer, and catching him briefly in August and September, was Jason Day, the 28-year-old Australian who tumbled to the ground at the U.S. Open with symptoms of vertigo in a frightful scene, only to get back up and appear to be close to unbeatable over the next three months when he won four times in seven events, including his first major in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits where he became the first player to finish 20 under par in a major.
For the first time since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986, the year ended with the top three players all in their 20s. There was never a time in three decades of the World Ranking where No. 1 was a game of musical chairs. It changed hands six times in six weeks from Spieth to McIlroy to Spieth to McIlroy to Day to Spieth. So close were these three young stars in points that, at one stage, McIlroy twice returned to No. 1 without playing and Spieth got back to No. 1 after missing the cut. Spieth, by virtue of his victory in the Tour Championship, held the top spot for the final two months of the year, knowing that No. 1 was up for grabs in the 2016 opener. Stay tuned.
One part of the commercial was accurate. It all evolved around Tiger Woods. His game, his future, everything about the guy who has been the face of golf for 20 years never looked more muddled. More on that later.
What became abundantly clear was the massive ripple effect he had on the world of golf. Most evident over two decades was the impact Woods had on television ratings, on prize money and on bringing more attention to the sport. No other player moved the needle since the early days of Arnold Palmer. But for the first time, at least clearly, golf began to see his effect on the competition.
“He was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best that we could be,” McIlroy said. “You get a lot of guys that are my age and they’d say the same thing. He was a hero to us growing up, and that’s why you have so many guys in their 20s that are so good right now.”
And it was a long list that stretched beyond the so-called “New Big Three.” Day was watching Woods in Australia. Hideki Matsuyama was watching in Japan. “Tiger was my hero growing up and still remains the man to me. When I would watch him on TV in Japan, I can remember thinking that he was so good and so cool and his swing was so pure,” Matsuyama said.
Perhaps most telling was a comment from Patrick Reed, who idolized Woods so much that he wears black trousers and a red shirt on Sunday. Reed was asked how he tried to copy Woods. “Be stubborn. Focus on what you’re doing and not anyone around you,” Reed said. “You could see it just by looking at him in the eyes. If looks could kill you, he would literally kill you. It’s not because he’s not a good guy. He was just so focused and determined to play well. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The stage for 2015 was set early in the year. McIlroy was a runner-up at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, and then he won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic two weeks later to assert himself as the player to beat. His World Ranking average was 11.66, and Stenson was next at 7.61. Day was at No. 8 with a 5.64 average, and Spieth was another spot behind at 5.52. That same week and 11 times zones away, Woods made his 2015 debut in the Waste Management Phoenix Open by shooting a career-worst 82 to miss the cut by 12 shots. A week later, Day won for the first time of the year in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where Woods again had atrocious short-game problems and withdrew in the opening round because of what he described as his “glutes” not activating. The following week, he took an indefinite break. A month later, Spieth’s slow start to the year ended with a playoff victory in the Valspar Championship when he finished with two clutch pars in regulation to get into a playoff and then won on the third extra hole at Innisbrook by pouring in a 30-foot putt.
No one was talking about a “Big Three.” The first three months of the PGA Tour featured 14 tournaments and 14 different winners. On the European Tour, the only repeat winners were Andy Sullivan of England and Anirban Lahiri of India, neither of whom started the year in the top 50 in the world. In retrospect, those three months were the prelude to a drama that featured a revolving door of protagonists and ultimately defined a massive shift to a new generation.
Even at such a young age, McIlroy already was accustomed to the spot- light from his record score in winning the 2011 U.S. Open, another major at the PGA Championship in 2012 and ending 2014 with back-to-back majors. Given his talent, and his power, it was not hyperbole to suggest he was equipped to match Woods’ feat as the only players to sweep the four majors as Woods did from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters. This was Rory’s world. As much attention as Woods commanded through- out the course of his career, even his absence didn’t detract from McIlroy’s road to the Masters and his quest for the career Grand Slam, and perhaps winning them all. He had either won or finished second in eight of his last 13 starts worldwide.
So during the pro-am at the Honda Classic, where McIlroy made his American debut, one television analyst mentioned what so many were think- ing: How can he not win the Masters? Who is capable of beating him? “This is the position I want to be in. And I want to be in it as long as I can,” McIlroy said, clearly relishing his role as the player to beat. His opening tee shot was out of play, and two days later McIlroy had missed the cut. “I wouldn’t worry and read too much into it. Rory has been by far the best player in the world for the last year or so,” Luke Donald said.
Even so, frustration began to set in a week later at the WGC – Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral. Already 11 shots behind after the opening round, McIlroy pulled a three iron into the water to the left of the par-five eighth hole, took a few steps and then hurled the club into the middle of the lake. Donald Trump, no stranger to the grandiose moment, hired div- ers to retrieve the club and made a grand presentation of the three iron to McIlroy on the final day. He salvaged a top-10 at Doral, and then tied for 11th in his debut at Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Sticking to the plan, McIlroy took the next three weeks off to prepare for the Masters. It was the seventh time in the last 20 years that a player had a shot at winning three straight majors — Woods three times (at the 2007 Masters, the 2002 British Open and the 2000 PGA Championship), Padraig Harrington (2009 Masters), Phil Mickelson (2006 U.S. Open) and Nick Price (1995 Masters). And when Woods disclosed that he had solved his short-game woes and would return to competition at the Masters, Augusta National braced itself for a week of golf ’s two biggest stars.
Spieth went along without too much attention. After his remarkable rookie season, he went without a victory on the PGA Tour until a strong finish to 2014. He shot 63 in the final round to win the Australian Open, and then he crushed a strong field at Isleworth in the Hero World Challenge to win by 10 shots. That did more for his own psyche than to persuade anyone that he might be golf’s next big thing. If anything, he became the leading contender to challenge McIlroy. The victory in the Valspar Championship was impressive, though mildly overlooked. Although the Copperhead course is regarded as among the best tournament courses in Florida, it gets the least amount of hype stacked up against a World Golf Championship, the Honda Classic and Palmer’s event. But the strength of Spieth was evident. He saved par from a nasty spot in the rough above the 17th green and got up and down by making a 10-foot putt in regulation to join a three-man playoff, and then he closed it out with a 30-foot putt to beat Reed and Sean O’Hair.
Spieth also had a pre-Masters plan, though this was more about his Texas roots than preparing for a shot at history. Jimmy Walker had the Valero Texas Open seemingly wrapped up until Spieth made every putt coming down the stretch and put a scare in Walker. A week later in the Shell Houston Open, Spieth went into the final round with the lead and had to scramble to get into a playoff. He made bogey from the bunker on the 18th in the first extra hole, and J.B. Holmes went on to win over Johnson Wagner. In his three events leading to the Masters, Spieth won and was runner-up twice.
All it took was one round at Augusta National for Spieth to do the unthinkable — he managed to make the Masters about more than just the quest of McIlroy and the return of Woods. He opened with a 64 — the best opening round at Augusta National in 19 years — and no one was closer than three shots to him the rest of the week. He became the second-youngest Masters champion behind Woods (who was five months younger when he won in 1997), and a bogey on the 72nd hole forced him to share the scoring record with Woods at 18-under 270. McIlroy’s bid was over quickly, thanks to Spieth. He was 12 shots behind going into the weekend and managed to finish fourth. McIlroy was still No. 1 and Spieth was a far margin behind him. But it became apparent with a 21-year-old in a green jacket that McIlroy had a clear threat.
Spieth showed his mettle a week later when he contended in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head while running on fumes. The day after winning the Masters for his first major, he went to New York for a media tour that featured no fewer than 12 interviews in 12 hours on television and radio. His head still dizzy when he arrived on the sleepy South Carolina beach resort, he opened with a 74 and looked certain to miss the cut. The next day, he answered with a 62, which at the time tied his career-low on the PGA Tour, and contended through the weekend until fading to a 70 and a tie for 11th. And then he headed home to Dallas for a week of rest.
For McIlroy, his failure to complete the Grand Slam at Augusta National (and a shot at holding all four professional majors at the same time) was easier to take from Spieth’s runaway. McIlroy knew a green jacket would have to wait over the final two rounds. The golf world was filled with talk about Spieth’s first major and the palpable challenge to McIlroy’s reign. Such is the sporting society of this generation. Whatever just happened today makes yesterday feel longer ago than it really was. If that’s the case, the next two weeks went a long way toward reminding fans that this McIlroy kid was still pretty good.
They next met in San Francisco for the WGC – Cadillac Match Play — not on the golf course at Harding Park, but in the lunchroom. Spieth was having lunch with his agent when McIlroy walked by and congratulated the Texan on his Masters victory. The conversation was easy, just as one would expect from a couple of golfers in their 20s. Spieth said he would love to support McIlroy in the Irish Open that year except that his schedule wouldn’t allow, and he noted that McIlroy was about to embark on a hectic time of his own.
McIlroy let slip that he had added the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, site of his first PGA Tour victory, which would mean five straight weeks and then a short break before the U.S. Open. That paid dividends for McIlroy in the short term.