The Year in Retrospect
The biggest golf events in 2016 had a connection to someone who never hit a shot. Arnold Palmer truly had a larger-than-life presence.
The King was at Augusta National, just like he had been for the last half-century, even though this time he wasn’t able to hit the ceremonial tee shot. On a bright Thursday morning, his eyes lit up when he looked at the wall of fans creating an aisle to the first tee. Palmer had the unique talent of taking the affection of the people and returning it to them tenfold.
Two months later, the U.S. Open returned to his home turf of western Pennsylvania at Oakmont, where he lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus in 1962 and played his final U.S. Open in 1994. Palmer couldn’t make it out to the golf course for the final round, but he was watching. Dustin Johnson won his first major while playing the final seven holes without knowing if he would be penalized because his ball moved on the fifth green. It reminded Palmer of the 1958 Masters — his first major — when he had a dispute with a rules official over his belief that he was entitled to relief from an embedded ball on the fringe behind the 12th green. Palmer played two balls until he could reach the rules chairman — double bogey with the embedded ball, par with the second ball — and on the 15th hole, the rules were on his side. “I played two holes” without knowing the score, he said.
Then, the conversation turned to the next major at Royal Troon. That’s where Palmer won the Open Championship for the second time, by six shots in 1962. He would be missed that week. “I might be there,” Palmer replied. “I’m thinking about playing.” The determination in his 86-year-old face soon gave way to that familiar wink and a smile. “Or maybe I’m just being ornery.” He was watching, as always, when Henrik Stenson outlasted Phil Mickelson in a duel that ranks among the best in major championship history.
The presence of Palmer was felt the strongest at the Ryder Cup. On September 25, an hour after the Tour Championship ended and players were making their way to Hazeltine National in Minnesota for the Ryder Cup, word began to emerge that Palmer had died in a Pittsburgh hospital while preparing for heart surgery. There had been signs all year that Palmer was slowing and his health was sliding. That did not ease the shock and sadness. And when the matches began five days later, next to the first tee was Palmer’s golf bag from the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley, his second and final time as captain. That was the last time the Americans had swept the opening session in the Ryder Cup, until that Friday at Hazeltine when they eerily and fittingly repeated the feat.
The joyous celebration of a rare victory — only the third for the Americans since 1993 — gave way to the somber mood at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe for Palmer’s memorial service. Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson accompanied the gold trophy to Latrobe for the service. Mickelson had one of the strongest connections to Palmer, in part because of his go-for-broke nature on the course, and in part because of the endless attention, he paid to the fans. For all the time Mickelson spent around the King, he said the most important lesson was to never walk past anybody. “He always made eye contact. He always acknowledged they were there,” Mickelson said. “We all try, but we never live up to his standard. He made the difficult look easy.”
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was in Hawaii at the start of the year, talking about what was ahead. Golf was back in the Olympics for the first time since 1904, and while the golf course finally was built in Rio de Janeiro after lengthy delays, he was trying to find players for a mandatory test event ahead of the Rio Games. Jordan Spieth was No. 1 in the world and coming off an eight-shot victory to start the year at Kapalua. Tiger Woods was nowhere to be found with rumors swirling that his two back surgeries late in 2015 could keep him away from golf for longer than anyone imagined. The new rule that outlawed an anchored putting stroke was in effect, and there was speculation how this would affect everyone from Adam Scott to Bernhard Langer.
Sponsorship was ended at some important tournaments, including a FedExCup Playoff event outside Boston. It was the usual assortment of issues and trends. But his thoughts didn’t stray from Palmer. For those who had spent time around Palmer, there was growing concern about the inevitable. “That’s going to be a tough day,” Finchem said.
Finchem was among the speakers at Palmer’s memorial service, and the tribute was filled with examples that Palmer was about so much more than golf. It was the personal touch. He took that powerful, exciting golf swing and not only won a U.S. Amateur and seven professional majors, he turned that into an appeal unrivalled in golf. “When you saw him play, it was the same as meeting him,” Finchem said.
The millions of dollars that golfers make in endorsements can be traced to Palmer. The wall-to-wall television coverage? Palmer co-founded the Golf Channel. It was Palmer who first gave thought to a modern Grand Slam in 1960. And it was the King who made private air travel the norm instead of the exception. His co-pilot, Pete Luster, flew Palmer’s plane around Saint Vincent College for an hour before the memorial service. And when it was over, and golf ’s most influential figures spilled out of the basilica, the plane (tail number N1AP) took one more pass and tipped the wing before it soared high in the blue sky, disappearing behind a large, white cloud.
Golf produced first-time major champions for the first time since 2003. Woods went an entire PGA Tour season without playing for the first time in his career. Jason Day ended the year at No. 1 on the Official World Golf Ranking, the eighth consecutive time that a different player was at No. 1 from the previous year. The LPGA Tour had another rivalry, this one between Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn, and it came down to the final tournament of the season. Justin Rose and Inbee Park each won just one time in a year marred by injury, but it was a golden moment as Olympic champions. Rory McIlroy finally won the FedExCup. But nothing dominated the year like a player who never hit a shot. Jack Nicklaus summed up Palmer’s legacy at his memorial service. “The game gave so much to Arnold, but he gave back so much more.”
Did anyone really rule golf in 2016? Not like Spieth did the year before with his bold pursuit of the Grand Slam. Not like McIlroy in 2014 with his back-to-back majors. Not like any of 10 years involving Woods. Dustin Johnson was voted the PGA Tour Player of the Year on the strength of his U.S. Open title, a World Golf Championships victory at the Bridgestone Invitational and a FedExCup Playoff event at the BMW Championship. He appeared to have the FedExCup title wrapped up until he faltered on Sunday and McIlroy won the Tour Championship. Even so, Johnson won the PGA Tour money title and the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average. He also led the World Money List with $9,347,352.
Stenson won the European Tour Player of the Year for his record-setting victory at Royal Troon, where he joined Johnny Miller as the only players to win a major by closing with a 63, and his 264 was the lowest in a major. Stenson also won the BMW International Open in Germany, and he captured the Race to Dubai for the second time. Both of them broke through for their first major, and both of them were due. It was only the second time that two players in the top 10 in the world had won their first major in the same season. Johnson and Stenson each were at No. 6 when they won, and both had endured their share of close calls. Jim Furyk (U.S. Open) and Mike Weir (Masters) each were No. 10 when they won their first majors in 2003, though neither had quite the cachet of Johnson and Stenson.
Two contradictory questions seemed to follow Johnson ever since his awesome athleticism and prodigious power first showed up on the PGA Tour in 2008. The first: When will he fulfill his talent and win a major? The second: What will go wrong next? The latter was getting asked more often going into 2016. Johnson was stung by his three-putt par on the final hole at Chambers Bay to lose the 2015 U.S. Open to Spieth. He opened with a 65 a month later at St. Andrews only to fall apart on the weekend. Whatever chance he had going into the final round at the PGA Championship ended with a quadruple-bogey-eight on the opening hole. If there was trouble to be found, it seemed to find Johnson. This year would be different, even if it didn’t look that way over the first couple of months. He had a chance at Riviera and failed to convert. He finally contended at the Masters, but a pair of double bogeys cost him. The breakthrough came at Oakmont in the U.S. Open, the toughest course for the toughest test in golf. In reality, the breakthrough came in the rain at Riviera after a pro-am round.
Johnson’s freakish power has never been in question. When he started working with Butch Harmon, the emphasis was on dialling in his wedge game. There was progress, but not enough. The light came on under the grey clouds off Sunset Strip after his pro-am round in the Northern Trust Open. For reasons that those around him can’t explain, instead of going in for lunch after his pro-am round, Johnson headed straight for the range to use Trackman, a radar-based device that measures everything from launch angle to clubhead speed to ball speed to carry. He wanted it specifically for his wedges, and he spent nearly two hours on the range. That became a regular part of his routine, and it started paying off in a summer that allowed Johnson to thrive. “All I look at it for is carry numbers, just so I have more of a feel when I’m on the course. I felt like that was one area I needed to improve on. I felt like I was good with it, but I was too streaky.” Johnson found consistency, and it was a scary combination. Not to be overlooked was another change, moving away from his draw to a fade. He felt that would improve his accuracy, and if nothing else, his misses weren’t as wild. As usual, there wasn’t a ton of analysis. Asked if it was more in the swing, the grip or the setup to switch to a fade, Johnson said, “You’ll have to ask my coach.” He just does it.
Johnson fit the profile of some past Oakmont champions who were great drivers of the golf ball — Angel Cabrera in 2007, Ernie Els in 1994, Jack Nicklaus in 1962. For all the talk about questionable decisions, however, his head was a major factor in winning the U.S. Open. Whether the USGA was right in assessing Johnson a one-shot penalty for his ball moving on the fifth green (Rule 18-2), the criticism was largely in waiting until after the round — the final round — to review it. Johnson didn’t know the score. Would he get a penalty shot or not? Was he leading or tied? Was he trail- ing or tied? He chose not to look at a leaderboard the rest of the way and play each shot for what it was, try to post the lowest score and see where it stood up.
Still, when he wound up winning by three shots (after the penalty was assessed), Johnson shed some light into the psyche of too much going wrong in the majors. Asked what was going through his head when the USGA approached him on the 12th tee, Johnson smiled and said, “Just one more thing to add to the list, right?”
But there was a determination not to let this one get in the way. Spieth observed of Johnson and others at the end of the year. “You’re seeing these guys pretty much just stand up to this barrier and say, ‘Not only am I going to close this thing out, but I’m tired of the way it’s been and I’m going to do it in style.’ It’s really cool.”
Johnson headed off to the Bahamas to celebrate, and when he returned, it was as if nothing had changed. At the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational, he powered his way to victory with help from a fading Jason Day to win at Firestone. That took him to No. 2 in the world, and he felt he had all the momentum on his side going over to the Open Championship at Royal Troon, and then the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. It never materialized. No one had a chance at Royal Troon the way Stenson and Mickelson were playing, and Johnson missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
That ended a streak that illustrated how well Johnson had been playing. Dating to a third-place finish at the Memorial, where he finished one shot out of a playoff, Johnson had six straight tournaments where he finished in the top 10. That included two majors and a World Golf Championship. He was runner-up at the Canadian Open and closed with a 63 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic to finish fifth. The majors were over. Johnson was a late withdrawal from the Olympics, primarily because of concerns over the Zika virus. But his year was far from over.
Johnson went into the FedExCup Playoffs narrowly trailing Day, and a bad round in The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship kept him from contending. All that changed at Crooked Stick, the course just north of Indianapolis first made famous by big-hitting John Daly winning the PGA Championship in 1991. Johnson switched to a new putter for the BMW Championship, a TaylorMade Spider that he had painted black. Why the color change? Day had been using that model all year, and it was red. Johnson didn’t want anyone to think he was copying him. Color schemes aside, it certainly worked. He set the course record with a 63 on Friday, took a three-shot lead into the final round and then held off a brief charge from Paul Casey to win by three shots and head to East Lake for the Tour Championship with a clear shot at the $10 million prize.
Also at stake in the FedExCup finale were all the awards. Johnson had a slim lead in the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average. He had three victories — a major, World Golf Championship and FedExCup Playoff event — but if Day were to win the Tour Championship, that would have given him four victories (one of them was The Players Championship, the next best thing to a major). It became a moot point when Day continued his late-season slide and Johnson was on the verge of winning the tourna- ment and ending his year in style.