Johnson posted his eighth consecutive round in the 60s when he shot 69 on Saturday, going into the final round tied for the lead with Kevin Chappell. East Lake is built for power. It’s built for Johnson. But he couldn’t finish. He started missing fairways, missing putts and dropping shots. He stumbled to a 73 and finished seven shots out of a playoff. But he still was poised to win the FedExCup. The only way Johnson would not claim the $10 million prize would be if McIlroy won the three-way playoff involving Chappell and Ryan Moore. McIlroy won. The consolation prize for Johnson? He won the PGA Tour Player of the Year, the Vardon Trophy and the PGA Tour money title. He tied Day for most victories (three), though there was no denying he was the PGA Tour’s best player in 2016.
Was he the best player worldwide? He might win such a vote, though not without serious consideration for Stenson. The Swede was on the cusp of joining the elite three years earlier when he challenged at the final two majors, won the Tour Championship to claim the FedExCup and won the DP World Tour Championship to capture the Race to Dubai. A year later, he was part of a four-way tie for the lead on the back nine at Valhalla in the PGA Championship until McIlroy won the final major of 2014. Stenson won the DP World Tour Championship again to reach No. 2 in the world. And then he was left behind by the emergence of Spieth and Day. More than anything, Stenson was becoming far too accustomed to finishing second. From that victory in Dubai at the end of the 2014 season, he endured seven runner-up finishes without a victory, the last one at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. And then he started the new year in 2016 by tying for third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
For the first half of the year, it didn’t look as though this year would be much different from the last one. The closest Stenson came to winning was the Shell Houston Open, where he was one shot behind journeyman Jim Herman and poised for a playoff until Herman showed remarkable guts by blasting his drive on the 18th hole down the middle to set up a par for the win. Stenson was never a factor at the Masters or the U.S. Open. In fact, he never finished the U.S. Open at Oakmont. After opening with a 69, he was 10 over through 16 holes of the second round and had no chance of mak- ing the cut when play was suspended by darkness. Stenson never returned Saturday morning, citing minor neck and knee issues but allowing that he should be able to return the following week. Did he ever.
As much as Stenson will be remembered for his duel with Mickelson at Royal Troon, he considers his victory in the BMW International Open in Germany to be significant to his success. For starters, it ended a drought of 37 tournaments worldwide without a victory. He had a one-shot lead over Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark going into the final round and closed with a 71 to win by three shots. Three weeks later, when he was posing with the silver Claret Jug, that was all but forgotten. But not for Stenson. “It was very important to me to get that win in Germany a couple of weeks prior to The Open. It really gave my confidence a little extra boost, and I think that was a crucial part of me winning the Open Championship,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a little thing that happened. It wasn’t a little thing winning, but something else that was outside the actual week of Troon that pushed me in the right direction.”
Royal Troon brought out the best in Stenson — and Mickelson, for that matter. But it was the manner in which he decimated the Ayrshire links that brought to mind the Stenson of old. His dry humor gives way to an appearance of being cold and calculated. He has that small hitch right before he starts his swing, and he attacks it with a controlled violence. His irons are as pure as can be. And, like most winners, he was holing putts. And while he didn’t win again the rest of the year, it looked as though he could have at any given moment.
Stenson was still running on fumes — right after winning his first major, he headed to Switzerland to make good on a charity appearance for Sergio Garcia — when he got to the PGA Championship, and after opening with three straight rounds of 67 at Baltusrol, he was just two shots behind Walker going into the final round in his bid to join Ben Hogan as the only players at age 40 to win successive majors. Winning the last two majors of the year? Only five other players had done that since the Masters began in 1934 — McIlroy (2014), Padraig Harrington (2008), Woods (2000 and 2006), Nick Price (1994) and Lee Trevino (1971). Alas, the Swede ran out of steam in a 36-hole Sunday brought on by rain. He closed with a 71 to tie for seventh. Making his year even more remarkable is that Stenson ended 2015 by hav- ing surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee, and that little “minor knee issue” he mentioned at Oakmont when he withdrew was the start of what became a partial re-tear of the same meniscus. He posted the lowest 72-hole score in major championship history with slightly torn cartilage in his right knee. That prompted him to say, “Given the summer I’ve had, maybe I should have torn it earlier.”
But his summer wasn’t quite over. Stenson was on fumes leaving the final major of the year and rode that to Rio to play in the Olympics. He was cranky before the men’s competition began, especially during his pre- tournament press conference when he fielded one question after another about the top players who chose not to play because of Zika fears. Stenson largely was irritated that a player of his stature — especially now as the “champion golfer of the year” — would have to spend more time speaking of others. He channeled that into more brilliant golf, particularly with his putting. In the second round, he holed a 60-foot birdie putt and a 108-foot par putt on the front nine. By the final round, he looked as tough to beat at Rio as he did in Troon, locked in a battle with Justin Rose. It all turned on the back nine when Stenson said his spine locked up on him. He was stretching on all fours on the 13th, and on the 14th a therapist came out
to work on him. That’s where he made bogey to fall out of the lead. Still, they were tied playing the par-five 18th until Stenson hit a poor wedge for his third to 20 feet and Rose stuffed his shot to three feet for the winning birdie. Stenson kept it all in perspective. A silver medal was still good work, and a nice partner for his silver jug.
The meniscus finally caught up with him at the start of the FedExCup Playoffs, where he withdrew after one round at The Barclays and then chose to skip the third event at the BMW Championship. That meant Stenson would fall out of the top 30 and fail to advance to the Tour Champion- ship. And that was okay with him, for the Swede still had the Ryder Cup, and that was his priority. By resting two weeks, he was able to play all five matches at Hazeltine. Stenson went 2-3-0, one of the losses while teaming with Ryder Cup rookie Matt Fitzpatrick, and Stenson beat Jordan Spieth in singles. It didn’t matter, as Europe lost for the first time since 2008.
Stenson took a month off and then finished his year with a pair of runner- up finishes — by seven shots to Hideki Matsuyama in the HSBC Cham- pions, and by two shots to Matsuyama in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge. He went to No. 4 in the world, and finished in the eighth spot on the World Money List with $5,321,165. He ended the year by preparing to move into a new home, one that sure had a special spot set aside for a Claret Jug.
As good as Stenson was toward the second half of the year, Day was bor- dering on unbeatable during one stretch in the middle. The Australian first ascended to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking when he won the 2015 BMW Championship, and he spent a total of four weeks at the top before Spieth replaced him. But it was that stretch of golf from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March through The Players Championship in May that put Day back at No. 1 for the rest of the year. He was so dominant that even with Johnson and Stenson thriving the second half of the year with majors, and with McIlroy coming out strong late with a pair of FedExCup Playoff events, no one could get close to Day. He just didn’t have a major to show for it.
The Australian had been gone from the public eye for nearly three months when he showed up at Kapalua to start the 2016 season with high expecta- tions. After the Presidents Cup, he went home to Ohio as his wife prepared to have their second child. He skipped tournaments in Australia. He only left his house twice, and both times he was captured on television — holding a camera on the sidelines of an NFL game in Detroit, and sitting courtside at a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game when LeBron James plowed into his wife while chasing after a loose ball. She was removed on a stretcher. For once, it was someone else in the family coping with a minor medical crisis. Not to worry. Day would resume that role before long, even as he was winning tournaments. After a tie for 10th to start the year in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions — though he was 15 shots behind Spieth — Day missed the cut in the Farmers Insurance Open while battling flu-like symptoms. A month later, he started to hit his stride.
Bay Hill was missing its eight-time champion — Tiger Woods — for the third straight year since his 2013 victory. He trying to heal a wounded back in 2014 that a week later required surgery. He was trying to fix his chipping in 2015, and he was recovering from two more back surgeries in 2016. But he remained a big part of the conversation because of the interest that Woods had taken in Day. They were texting frequently, with Day asking most of the questions. He spoke about Woods giving him advice that ranged from finding the balance between patience and aggressiveness, how to expand the lead and how to post a score when the game wasn’t there.
Then Day followed the best advice of all, which was to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And it required some late heroics. Right when it looked as though Kevin Chappell would break through for his first PGA Tour victory, Day overcame a few mistakes by hitting a towering five iron to 10 feet for a rare birdie on the par-three 17th, right about the time Chappell found the rough off the tee on the 18th that led to bogey. Just like that, Day went from chasing to leading, and he saved par from a bunker on the 18th for a one-shot victory. It was his fifth victory in his last 12 starts, and it put him within range of overtaking Spieth at No. 1 in the world.
Palmer chose not to hold a press conference or appear live on television to talk about his tournament or his hospitals, instead taping a spot with NBC Sports. He was spotted occasionally early in the week, mainly as he watched his grandson, Sam Saunders, on the practice range. But he was there at the end, watching Day hold on for the victory. “I was able to walk up there and have a special moment with the King. That’s something I always wanted to do.”
From there, Day headed to Austin (Texas) Country Club for the WGC – Dell Match Play to play a new course. Wanting to conserve energy because of the potentially long week, he didn’t show up until Tuesday to walk the course and played it for the first time in the opening round. He had no trouble with Graeme McDowell. He had big trouble with a nagging back injury, dropping to his knees in pain. Day gingerly left the course without speaking, and it was not certain he would return. Because of the new round-robin format in its second year, he could have forfeited his match on Thursday and played on Friday with hopes of advancing out of his group. But he had treatment overnight, took a deep breath on the first tee and drove the 381-yard hole to 12 feet for an eagle. He won that match, and then got a reprieve on the third day when Paul Casey retired after six holes with the flu. Every day brought concerns that Day might not be able to make it. And yet, the only close call he had all week was against McIlroy in the semi-finals, and Day held him off on the 18th hole. The championship match against Louis Oosthuizen was his easiest of the week, a 5-and-4 victory that gave Day yet another trophy and moved him to No. 1 in the world.
He stayed there for the rest of the year. With the Masters two weeks away, and given a pair of close calls he had at Augusta National, Day was a strong favorite to finally win a green jacket. He was on the verge of tying for the lead late in the opening round at the Masters only to drop five shots in three holes that led to a 72. He was six shots behind and never caught up.
The last time Day was at the TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship, he shot 81 in the second round and missed the cut. This was not about atonement, however. This simply was Day in full stride. After a couple of indifferent tournaments — by his standards, anyway — Day was 18 shots
better at Sawgrass than his most recent round, tying the tournament record with a nine-under 63 to take the lead. He broke Greg Norman’s 36-hole record the following day with a 66. And when the greens received an extra cut and an extra roll and were the fastest in memory, Day overcame two double bogeys for a 73 that felt much lower. He had a four-shot lead, and then it was a matter of hanging on. There were a few anxious moments on Sunday, but not nearly enough to keep Day from his seventh victory in the last 10 months. He put his stamp on No. 1 in the world, and he sounded as though he was just getting started.
“I want to be able to be looked back on and know that ‘he was one of the greats in the game.’ If I have the opportunity to do that, I’m going to try my best,” he said. “And I have the opportunity to do that right now, try and work has hard as I can to really leave my footprint in this game. I’m very motivated to win as much as I can right now.” Few could have imagined it would be his last victory of the year.
He opened with a 76 at the U.S. Open and only a great weekend gave him a satisfactory top 10. Day threw away a chance to win a second World Golf Championships title of the year when he failed to hit a green over the final six holes at Firestone Country Club and lost the Bridgestone Invitational to Dustin Johnson. Then, he failed to break par in the opening round of a third straight major with a 73 at Royal Troon and was never in the game. The most noise he made all summer was that two iron to 15 feet for eagle on the final hole at Baltusrol, though it wasn’t enough. He finished one shot behind Jimmy Walker in the PGA Championship. By then, the back began to act up again. Day withdrew after eight holes of the BMW Champion- ship and after his opening-round 67 at the Tour Championship. That was his last tournament, as he again chose to stay home and try to get fit for a full season. What didn’t change was his position in the World Ranking. He ended the year at No. 1.
It was the eighth consecutive time that a different player ended the year atop the World Ranking — Woods in 2009, Lee Westwood in 2010, Luke Donald in 2011, McIlroy in 2012, Woods in 2013, McIlroy in 2014, Spieth in 2015 and now Day. Perhaps that speaks to how much Woods dominated golf during his prime, for he was No. 1 all but once over a 12-year stretch. Or perhaps it signaled that the talent pool was deeper than ever.
Spieth found that out the hard way. By numbers alone, he accomplished much of what he set out to do at the start of the year. He dismissed notions of encore at Kapalua, speaking more in terms of a continuation. And that’s exactly what it looked like in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. There was a brief battle with Patrick Reed before Spieth seized control with a 65 in the third round for a five-shot lead, and no one seriously challenged him. Every time anyone looked up, there was Spieth holing long putts and smiling because there was really nothing left to say. The 22-year-old Texan had the golf world at his feet. He set a goal on the final day of not only winning, but reaching 30 under par. He holed an eight-foot birdie putt on the 18th at the Plantation Course for a 67 and an eight-shot victory over Patrick Reed. His winning score was 30-under 262. Only one other player in PGA Tour history had completed 72 holes in 30 under or better, and that was Ernie Els in 2003 when he won at 31 under at Kapalua. Was it a statement? Spieth, even for his age, knew better. “I still think it’s going to be very difficult to have a year like last year.”
Before the week began, Spieth laid out a few of his goals without getting too specific. He was asked, in the simplest of terms, what he would consider a great year. “Last year,” he said with a laugh. Turning serious, he mentioned the desire to close out tournaments without putting a number on victories. He wanted to “be there” in a couple of the majors on Sunday and have a chance to win.
By the end of the year, he wasn’t far off. He won three times, following his victory at Kapalua with impressive rallies at Colonial and at the Austra- lian Open. He was runner-up at the Masters, so that counts as a chance to win (considering he had a five-shot lead going into the back nine Sunday, it sure felt more like a blown chance than an opportunity). He was never a factor on the weekend at the other majors. Even so, he had only three finishes out of the top 25 after missing the cut at The Players Championship. He still had an outside chance at the Vardon Trophy going into the final two weeks of the PGA Tour season. The ledger would show three victories, two runner-up finishes, 11 top-10s in 24 tournaments worldwide, roughly $6 million in earnings worldwide. It had all the trappings of a very good year, except that it came on the heels of a great one.
It all began to sink in after the U.S. Open. Even with a victory at home, when he birdied the last three holes to win at Colonial, Spieth realized that he couldn’t top last year. “What’s interesting is every year from when I was about 12 years old, I had a more significant accomplishment than the year before,” he said at the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational. “I felt like I was a better player than the year before. And this is the first year where I don’t have — to this point — an amount of significant accomplishments that I can say, ‘Hey, that was a stronger year than last year.’ Every single year before that, I can say that.”
That’s not to suggest the year was a total loss. He was on a winning Ryder Cup team. At age 23, after just four years as a professional, Spieth already has 11 victories and two majors. And he learned what it’s like to face enormous expectations. The problem with winning so easily at Kapalua to start his “encore” year was falling into the trap of thinking golf would be easy. Spieth knows better than that and tried to guard against it. “I said the right things,” he said at the end of the year. “There were certainly times where it was hard to stay true to that, and I learned a lot from that experience. I think the patience will be something that I will improve on and will continue to improve on throughout my career. But it’s something that I needed to learn a bit.”
McIlroy had been down that road before. He can be one of the most excit- ing players in the game, which can be spectacularly good and bad. McIlroy has spells where he looks unbeatable, followed by spells where he can’t make a cut. He could appreciate what Spieth was going through in 2016 because McIlroy went through a similar challenge the year before. He was coming off a four-victory season in 2014 that included the final two majors, a World Golf Championships title and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the flagship event for the European Tour. The following year, he won four times and was an afterthought because of an ankle injury that kept him from defending his Open Championship title and because Spieth was chasing the Grand Slam.