Perhaps more startling about 2015 was the quality of players who didn’t win at all. One could almost say that represented a “Big Three” of its own. It starts with Henrik Stenson, who was No. 2 in the world going into the year and finished at No. 5. So it wasn’t a bad year, rather a frustrating one. Stenson had a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished second. He closed with a 65, not enough to beat Pablo Larrazabal in the BMW International Open in Germany. And then he began the FedExCup Playoffs with consecutive runner-up finishes in The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship. He never had a chance at The Barclays because Jason Day pulled away on the back nine and won by six. What stung was the Deutsche Bank Championship, where a tee shot into the water on the 16th hole gave Fowler the opening he needed. Either way, the runner-up finishes were starting to pile up. Stenson added yet another one at the Tour Championship in the FedExCup finale. If someone other than Spieth had won at East Lake, there’s a chance Stenson could have won the FedExCup without ever having won a tournament. He closed out the year with a sixth runner-up finish at the Nedbank Challenge. For his efforts, he had to settle for $6,287,540 to finish at No. 7 on the world money list. So it wasn’t a total loss. He just didn’t win. “With the chances I’ve had this year, to be winless is a little disappointing, but all in all, it’s been a solid year,” he said. “I’ve got to look at the good results, the amount of World Ranking points and all the rest of it.”
At least he was in good company. Phil Mickelson didn’t come close to cracking the top 10 until he worked some of his magic at the Masters, offered a brief challenge to Spieth on the back nine Sunday and finished second. It never got much better the rest of the way. He had good results at the Wells Fargo Championship and the FedEx St. Jude Classic. He disappeared quickly at the U.S. Open, never really got into the mix at the other two majors and failed to get to East Lake for the Tour Championship for the second straight year.
His only consolation was getting on the Presidents Cup team for the Americans. Mickelson has not missed a Presidents Cup or a Ryder Cup since 1993, and he never had to rely on a captain’s pick since 1994 when Presidents Cup captain Arnold Palmer chose him and Jay Haas. That was so long ago that Haas was now captain of the Presidents Cup in South Korea. He took Mickelson at No. 30 — the lowest anyone has been in the standings to get a pick — and said it was largely because all the players wanted him. Mickelson lived up to the pick by going 3-0-1. Even so, he went into 2016 have gone 49 tournaments worldwide over more than two years without winning. The last trophy he held was that silver claret jug at Muirfield in the summer of 2013.
The other member of this not-so-illustrious group was Adam Scott, who only a year ago had risen to No. 1 in the world. The former Masters champion surprised everyone when he turned up for his first event of the year at the WGC – Cadillac Championship using a conventional putter. Scott faced enormous attention in 2015 because it was the final year before the new rule that bans the anchored stroke used for the long putter. Scott tied for fourth at Doral and all was well. A week later, however, he missed the cut in the Valspar Championship when he missed four putts inside five feet and shot 75 in the second round. That ended the longest active cut streak on the PGA. He had gone 45 events on the PGA Tour — and 57 worldwide — without missing a cut, dating to the Byron Nelson Championship in May 2012. Not to worry. These things happen, Scott reasoned. But when he finished in the middle of the pack at Bay Hill the following week, and with the majors looming, Scott decided to go back to the long putter. It didn’t help. He went three months without being a factor in any tournament, and only at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay — coincidentally, the worst greens all year in America — did he find a spark, at least for one round. He closed with a 64 to tie for fourth, two shots behind Spieth.
One reason for Scott being a poster boy for the long putter was the timing. He never fared well in the majors, but the year he switched to the long putter (2011), he made a strong bid at the Masters, the next year he was runner-up at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and the following year he won the Masters. But it was in 2013 that Geoff Ogilvy once said of his friend’s putting, “The long putter doesn’t make Adam a great putter. It just makes his bad days less bad.” What hurt Scott this year was that he putted poorly even with the long putter, and thus wasted an entire summer when he could have been making the switch. He changed back over to conventional for the Presidents Cup, and while he missed some short putts (those always make for good TV), he buried Rickie Fowler in singles. Scott finished one shot behind Justin Thomas at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, tied for second in the Australian Open, and put up a good fight for two days until tying for 10th in the Hero World Challenge at Albany in the Bahamas, where he lives. That was his last tournament. He went without a victory anywhere in the world for the first time since his first year as a professional in 2000.
An even bigger surprise among those who didn’t win: Stacy Lewis. The LPGA Tour was slightly ahead of the curve when it came to the Big Three. Lewis and Inbee Park were the best in women’s golf, and then New Zealand teenager Lydia Ko came along and captured the CME Race to the Globe as a 17-year-old in 2014. The year ended with Lewis, Park and Ko as the only LPGA Tour players to surpass $2 million in earnings. That set the stage for another battle in 2015, and it didn’t disappoint.
Ko won the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in the third event of the year. Two weeks later, Park answered by winning the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. And at the first major of the season at the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, California, Lewis was primed to capture another major. Brittany Lincicome had other plans. She made an eagle on the par-five 18th at Mission Hills to pull even with Lewis, who missed a birdie putt just inside 15 feet for the win. They returned to the 18th in a playoff, and Lewis had two more chances from nearly the same line. She missed from 15 feet. She missed from 12 feet. On her fourth time playing the hole, Lewis came up short from a sand-filled divot, chipped to 12 feet and missed her par putt, and Lincicome won with two putts from 10 feet. It was Lincicome’s second leap into Poppie’s Pond.
“It just wasn’t quite meant to be today,” Lewis said. Little did she know, it wasn’t meant to be the rest of the year. That was her third runner-up finish already, and it was only April. Three more would follow.
Instead, it became a show between Park and Ko for so much of the season, along with some great golf by LPGA Tour rookie Sei Young Kim, who won three times. Ko won for the second time in the year at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic at Lake Merced just south of San Francisco. Ko celebrated her 18th birthday on Friday, and two days later made an eight-foot birdie putt to get into a playoff with Morgan Pressel. Ko won with a birdie on the second extra hole. It was her second straight year winning the tournament. “At her age, she plays with so much poise and calmness I don’t think you see from other kids her age,” Pressel said, pausing before she added with a smile, “I guess she’s not a kid anymore.”
For a number of years, however, age was becoming a non-issue in women’s golf. Michelle Wie was competing for majors at 15. Pressel won a major at 18, while Yani Tseng, Hyo Joo Kim and Lexi Thomson won majors at 19. Charley Hull of England was the youngest to play the Solheim Cup in 2013 at age 17. Even at Lake Merced, 17-year-old Brooke Henderson of Canada was on the leaderboard all week.
So was it really asking too much for Ko to hurry up and win a major?
She had to hurry up and wait. Park answered Ko’s victory in San Francisco by winning the following week in Texas, but where the South Korean really set herself apart was winning the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Westchester Country Club, and then Park won at Turnberry in the Ricoh Women’s British Open for her second major of the year, even if this one came two years too late. Remember, it was in 2013 when the soft-spoken Korean with the magic putting touch won the first three majors of the year, only for her bid for the Grand Slam to end in the Women’s British Open at St. Andrews. She still picked up one Grand Slam, though even that required a definition. Park won her seventh major at Turnberry — the old Kraft Nabisco (now ANA Inspiration), the U.S. Women’s Open twice, the LPGA Championship (now Women’s PGA Championship) three times and the Women’s British Open. That’s the traditional career Grand Slam. But the genesis of the Grand Slam is to make it a clean sweep of the majors, and the LPGA Tour in 2013 added the Evian Championship as its fifth major. Park has yet to win that as a major, though she won the tournament (Evian Masters) the year before it became a major. The LPGA Tour called it a career Grand Slam. Park was too busy celebrating to join the debate.
Park won for the fifth time at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. The LPGA Tour’s points system for Rolex Player of the Year does not include a bonus for winning majors. That enabled Ko to end the year on top in so many ways. And most importantly, the teenage star finally picked up her first major. Ko first reached No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Ranking even when she lost a chance to win the season-opener at the Coates Golf Championship in Ocala, Florida. But she seized the top spot with her bold finish that allowed her to capture so many big awards.
Even so, the major was, well, major. She tied for 51st in the ANA Inspiration, a finish rarely seen by the top players on the LPGA Tour. She followed that with an even poorer performance in the next major, missing the cut at the Women’s PGA Championship. She tied for 12th in the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club in Pennsylvania, and at least made progress with a tie for third in the Women’s British Open. Her final chance was the Evian Championship in France, the fifth major on the LPGA Tour docket. She won it in style. Two shots behind going into the final round, Ko closed with a 63 to win by six shots. Call it an exclamation point. “Everyone won’t be asking me when I’ll win my first major,” she said.
She wasn’t done with her year. Ko won for the fifth time at the Fubon LPGA Taiwan Championship, and her tie for seventh at the CME Group Tour Championship allowed her to win the CME Race to the Globe and its $500,000 bonus for the second straight year. Ko also won Rolex LPGA Player of the Year. “It’s been a long season. Up and down,” Ko said. “Mostly up.”
Park, meanwhile, won the Vare Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, which gave her the final point needed for the LPGA Hall of Fame. All she needed to be inducted was her 10th year on the LPGA Tour, which will be 2016.
Ko and Park didn’t win every week, even if it seemed that way. In-Gee Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open as part of a big year that included eight victories around the world. Gerina Piller felt like the biggest winner in golf even though she still doesn’t have a trophy to call her own. Her 15-foot putt was the clincher that gave the Americans a much-needed victory in the Solheim Cup in Germany, a remarkable American rally under Juli Inkster. The other big winner was Laura Davies, who finally was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame — even though she missed her big moment. The World Golf Hall of Fame changed its voting method to include a panel that nominated players and another panel that voted for them. The induction is to be held every other year, and officials selected the home of golf — St. Andrews — to stage an elaborate ceremony at St. Andrews University. It was the Monday night after the U.S. Women’s Open, however, and Davies had flight delays that made it look next to impossible she could make it. She had a taped acceptance that was played, and Davies actually watched it from the car that was rushing her from Edinburgh to St. Andrews. Right when it looked as though she would miss out on the entire celebration, she made it for the reception and her arrival produced one of the biggest cheers of the night. “I look in the room and see Arnold Palmer and Bernhard Langer and all these great faces,” she said. “It was a bit intimidating.” Also inducted were Mark O’Meara, David Graham and architect A.W. Tillinghast. McIlroy brought a small degree of normalcy to the European Tour by winning the Race to Dubai again, though little else followed the script. The 12 players on the Ryder Cup team that beat up on the Americans at Gleneagles in 2014 combined for just 11 victories — six of those by McIlroy and Justin Rose. Two others, Sergio Garcia and Jamie Donaldson, didn’t win until late in the year in Thailand and Vietnam. Stenson, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter didn’t win at all. Much like the Americans went through with a generational shift, perhaps one is on the way in Europe. Andy Sullivan won twice at the start of the season in South Africa, and then added a third victory in Portugal. Danny Willett only won one time in at the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, though he tied for sixth in the Open Championship and reached the semi-finals of the Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco, winning the consolation match. The next Ryder Cup team could have an entirely different look.
Keith Pelley can only hope the entire European Tour has a new look. The Canadian television executive was appointed the European Tour chief when George O’Grady retired, and he didn’t waste any time showing how much he would fight for his players. Because of the Olympic year in 2016, worldwide scheduling became difficult. And so when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced that the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational would be held two weeks after the U.S. Open — and the same week as the French Open — Pelley responded with a bold move. He said the Bridgestone Invitational would not count toward prize money or Ryder Cup ranking points for European Tour members, and the French Open would have an increased prize fund and would count as two starts toward the minimum requirement for membership.
It no doubt put some players in a tough spot, particularly defending champion Shane Lowry of Ireland. Pelley, however, felt he needed to fight for the French Open and its history on the European Tour. Pelley also changed the membership requirements with a clever system that he hopes will keep more of his players from migrating to America. Instead of 13 co-sanctioned events to keep European Tour membership — for the top players, that invariably included the four majors and four World Golf Championships — he lowered the minimum to five European Tour events that did not include the majors or WGCs. That didn’t change anything for a player in the top 50, though it helped players like Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell who had fallen out of the top 50 keep their European Tour membership. Still to come was Europe developing its partnership with the Asian Tour, with all signs point- ing to a merger.
Asian golf on the men’s side continued to make inroads. Byeong-Hun An won the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour at Wentworth. Four others won on the European Tour, with two victories each by Anirban Lahiri of India and Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, Ashun Wu winning the Volvo China Open in his home country and the ageless Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand winning in Germany. Jaidee became the oldest player on the International team to make his debut in the Presidents Cup. And perhaps it was only fitting that the Presidents Cup was held in Asia for the first time. It featured players from three Asian countries, another record, with Sangmoon Bae of South Korea joining Lahiri and Jaidee.
And it was the best Presidents Cup in years, with the Americans in con- trol all week until a surprising window of opportunity for the International team that closed quickly with two putts. The International side staged such a strong rally on the last day at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea that it looked certain to win when Lahiri had just over three feet for birdie and Chris Kirk faced a difficult 15-foot birdie putt. The match was all square. If Lahiri won, it would be enough for the International team to win. A halve would put the onus on the final match of Bae and Bill Haas, son of U.S. captain Jay Haas. Kirk holed his putt, and Lahiri missed, and all that was left was for Haas to hold on against Bae. The Americans won, 15½-14½. Lahiri starred in defeat with his grace. Bae would have had to chip in on the 18th for any reasonable chance, and he stubbed the shot and covered his face with his hands before a home crowd. A month later, Bae was off for his two-year mandatory military service.
There was the “Great Triumvirate” from more than a century ago. Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid won the Open Championship 16 times in a span of 21 years, and at least one of them was runner-up in the five years neither of them won. The original “Big Three” was Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — all three clients of IMG founder Mark McCormack — who combined to win the Masters seven straight times at the start of the 1960s and who collectively piled up 19 majors in a span of 11 years. The Big Three swept the majors in 1962. So this modern “Big Three” has a ways to go.
By the end of the year, they had won five of the last six majors (Zach Johnson’s win at St. Andrews was the exception) and owned the top of the World Ranking. With technology across the board (golf equipment, teaching, launch monitors, computers), players are getting better at a younger age. Golf is getting stronger, deeper. That speaks to the performance by the best, particularly Spieth and Day. Not since 1973 had two players won at least five times on the PGA Tour (Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino). This is just one year. It could fizzle out. It could become a lot more than the “Big Three.”
Spieth said as much toward the end of the year in Shanghai for the WGC – HSBC Champions. “In order to create an era, you almost need a decade of years like this,” he said. “Sure, we have the potential to do it. But this was the first year of it. But unless we keep our heads down … unless we’re aware of it, and it drives us, and we get the right breaks, there’s a lot of factors. So maybe it’s a bit premature to say that. But, I believe there was step needed in the right direction, and it took place this year. If we can ride with that, it will be significant.”
One thing is certain. This year deserves a sequel.