In 2016, McIlroy won three tournaments and he was getting far more attention than when he won four times in 2015. Part of that was because of how strongly he played toward the end, and how that bodes for the fol- lowing season.
The focus was, and will be, on the Masters and his bid to become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. With a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi and a victory in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy was trending early. But then putting problems arose, and there was a perceived panic when, after he missed the cut at the Honda Classic, he showed up at Trump Doral with a cross-handed grip. McIlroy said he had used it for drills and felt comfortable taking it through the Florida swing on the road to the Masters.
It didn’t help. He lost a final-round lead at Doral by failing to make a birdie on Sunday until it was too late to catch Adam Scott. He had a chance to win the WGC – Dell Match Play until losing to Day in the semi-finals. And he was right there in the Masters, one shot behind Spieth going into the weekend, in the final group on Saturday for the first time at Augusta National since 2011 when he lost a four-shot lead in the final round. This time, he shot a 77 to fall out of contention. There were signs that he was getting close, from his late charge to tie for fourth in the Wells Fargo Cham- pionship to his second-round 64 at The Players Championship on a course that always has given him fits. A week later, he hit a pair of magnificent three-wood shots at The K Club to win the Irish Open for the first time. Before a home crowd, it felt like a boost for the rest of the year. And it was — eventually. But he would have to wait out three more majors.
McIlroy opened with a 77 at Oakmont and missed the cut in the U.S. Open. He caught the wrong side of the draw in the Open Championship, though it would not have mattered this year in a major that belonged exclusively to Stenson and Mickelson. McIlroy finished 16 shots out of the lead. The only other time he had finished more shots out of the lead at a major was in 2011 when he was 19 shots behind at the PGA Championship. He tied for 62nd that week. At Royal Troon, being 16 shots behind meant a tie for fifth. And then his year seemingly hit rock-bottom at Baltusrol when McIlroy missed another cut. It was the first time since 2010 that he missed two cuts in the majors in one year. And then, just like that, he looked like a world-beater once again. Seven shots behind at the halfway point of the Deutsche Bank Championship, McIlroy closed with rounds of 66-65 to overcome Chappell and Paul Casey and win for the first time on the PGA Tour in 16 months. The FedExCup has never been particularly kind to McIlroy because so much emphasis is placed on the final four tournaments, with the points reset going into the Tour Championship so that all 30 players have a math- ematical chance. He won back-to-back FedExCup Playoff events in 2012 and was the No. 1 seed, only to lose out when Brandt Snedeker won the Tour Championship. Two years later, McIlroy was the undisputed No. 1 player after winning two majors and he was in position to win the Tour Championship and claim the $10 million prize until Billy Horschel beat him on the last day.
This time, the odds were not in his favor. Because of mediocre finishes in the first (The Barclays) and third (BMW Championship) Playoff events, McIlroy’s victory at the TPC Boston did not make him one of the top five seeds at East Lake that only had to win the Tour Championship to claim the FedExCup. He needed help, and that looked unlikely when Dustin Johnson began to pull away. Johnson faded on the final day, though he still would win the FedExCup provided McIlroy did not win.
McIlroy was three shots behind with three holes to play. But it all changed with a pitching wedge that McIlroy holed for eagle on the 16th, and a birdie on the 18th that got him into a three-way playoff that he wound up winning on the fourth extra hole. “I’ve made it no secret that it’s one of the last things I feel like I had left on my golf CV, and I made it a big goal of mine to win it. To be here and to win the FedExCup … to play the way I have in the last few weeks to get it done, is very special,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy, Day and Spieth were looked upon as a modern “Big Three” at the start of the year. Part of that was due to a sporting culture that lives for the moment. And part of that was because all three were in their 20s, they had won five of the past six majors and taken turns at No. 1 in the world. They did not own youth, and youth did not own the game as evidenced by Dustin Johnson (age 32) and Henrik Stenson (age 40). And there were others in their 20s on the cusp of joining them.
Going into 2016, among the young players attracting attention were Branden Grace, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka. Slightly overlooked, but only because he was coming off the first winless season of his professional career, was Hideki Matsuyama. He tied for last place in the 18-man field at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas to end 2015, and the powerful Japanese star began the new year by missing the cut at the Farmers Insur- ance Open. One week later, Matsuyama was headed for a runner-up finish in the Waste Management Phoenix Open when he was two shots behind Fowler with two holes to play. Fowler drove into the water on the reach- able 17th at the TPC Scottsdale; Matsuyama came up with clutch putts and then won on the second playoff hole. It was his second PGA Tour victory and the start of a year that ranked as his best, not so much in number of victories but quality of victories.
Matsuyama had some reasonable tournaments throughout the summer, including a tie for seventh at the Masters and a tie for seventh at The Play- ers Championship. Much like Stenson and McIlroy, he found his stride late in the summer, starting with a tie for fourth in the PGA Championship and capping off the FedExCup Playoffs with a fifth-place finish at the Tour Championship.
The turning point was the Deutsche Bank Championship, but not in the result. Matsuyama was held back by his putting, and good friend Hiroshi Iwata gave him some advice on practice. He used the “Pelz Putting Tutor,” a small metal plate with two tiny steel balls at the end that are set apart just over the width of a golf ball. It is designed to help players with lining up putts and with their stroke. He also copied Iwata’s drill by making 10 short putts in a row with a conventional grip, using only the left hand and then only the right hand. It didn’t take long for it to pay off.
Three weeks after the Tour Championship, Matsuyama won one of his biggest tournaments to date at the Japan Open before family and friends. His next stop was the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, where Matsuyama closed with a 66 to finish second behind Justin Thomas, who shot 64. From there, Matsuyama went over to Shanghai for the WGC – HSBC Champions and decimated a strong field to become the first Asian player to win a World Golf Championships title. He was a birdie machine at Sheshan International, pouring in 19 birdies over the opening two rounds and never letting up in a seven-shot victory over Stenson and Daniel Berger. That gave him three PGA Tour victories, matching the total of Shigeki Maruyama.
At age 24, Matsuyama already was taking his place as one of the best to ever come out of Japan. The icon growing up — aside from Tiger Woods, his longtime golfing hero — was Jumbo Ozaki. The difference was that Ozaki won only one time out of Japan. Matsuyama made it a point of traveling early, finding a residence in Florida and building his career around the stron- gest tour in the world. “If I would have just stayed in Japan, I don’t think my golf game would have improved as much as it has,” Matsuyama said. “I needed to go out. I needed to go to America. Winning this week proves to me that I did make the right decision, and it gives me more motivation to win more.” And that he did.
After a one-week break, Matsuyama won the Mitsui Sumitomo Visa Tai- heiyo Masters on the Japan Golf Tour for his third victory in four starts, and then he took two weeks off before wrapping up his year in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge. The focus that week was on the return of Tiger Woods, who competed for the first time in 15 months while recovering from a pair of back surgeries. Woods finished 15th, though it was regarded as a solid return. Lost in the hype over Woods was Matsuyama, looking more powerful by the week. He built a seven-shot lead over Stenson, and then held on at the end for a two-shot victory.
McIlroy came on strong at the end of the year, but as much attention was paid of Matsuyama with four victories and a second-place finish over the final two months of the season. He was at No. 6 in the World Ranking, right behind Spieth, and placed second on the World Money List, earning $8,085,371. “I think he’ll be a major champion within the next couple of years, personally. It’s awesome to see him tearing it up here,” Spieth said.
Woods at least kept alive a streak of playing, which looked doubtful when he missed all four majors for the first time. With his back fully healed, Woods announced his intentions to play the Safeway Open, Turkish Airlines Open and Hero World Challenge, stoking the intrigue and curiosity over his return. It was a bit of a false start. Woods was a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, and the time away from practice left him feeling vulnerable. It was odd to hear Woods, who for so long was renowned for mental strength, using such terms as “vulnerable.” But he was ready in the Bahamas, at times looking as though he was still capable of winning. Matsuyama was the only player in the Bahamas who had more sub-par holes than Woods, who was hurt by double bogeys brought on by bad shots, bad decisions and no shortage of rust.
Woods faced a long road at the end of the year at No. 652 in the world, and with a bevy of younger players whom he effectively taught how to win. They grew up watching Woods and wanting to be like Woods. Now they want to beat Woods at his best. Still to be determined was whether they would ever get that chance.
The European Tour had a few emerging players, and six of them made their debut in the Ryder Cup, led by Thomas Pieters of Belgium, who went 4-1 at Hazeltine and won in Denmark to become a captain’s pick by Darren Clarke. Rafa Bello-Cabrera, Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan, former U.S. Amateur champion Matt Fitzpatrick and Masters champion Danny Willett also made their Ryder Cup debuts.
Missing from that group was the European who had the best year in terms of victories. Alex Noren began 2016 at No. 96 in the world. The Swede won the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open and followed that with a victory in the Omega European Masters. It still wasn’t enough for Clarke to take him to Hazeltine, and the captain might have had second thoughts when it was over. Noren added two more victories on the European Tour, at the British Masters and then the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. Noren joined a small group of European Tour members who had won four times in one year exclusive of the majors and World Golf Championships over the last 20 years — Branden Grace, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Ernie Els, Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer.
Langer was 45 when he won the last of his 42 official European Tour titles. The German, a two-time Masters champion, is going just as strong on the Champions Tour. Even with the new rule that outlaws the anchored stroke Langer had used with his long putter, he was as dominant as ever on the 50-and-over Champions Tour. Langer won four times, including two more majors, and at age 59 captured another Charles Schwab Cup.
Youth was never more prevalent than on the LPGA Tour, where anyone over the age 25 was deemed to be a dinosaur. Okay, that’s a slight exaggera- tion. But consider that when 30-year-old Brittany Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open on July 10 in the 20th official LPGA event of the year, she was the oldest winner to date. The youngest winner was Brooke M. Henderson of Canada, who was 18 years and nine months when she captured the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee. There were 25 winners in their 20s, and seven winners in their teens. And the average age of LPGA win- ners this year was 22.3. But women’s golf was about more than just youth. While the focus at the start of the year was on a new “Big Three” in men’s golf, only in women’s golf did that actually materialize. And two of them were surprising.
Lydia Ko was the No. 1 player on the Rolex Rankings, 18 years old to start the year and coming off her first major the previous season at the Evian Championship in France. Following victory in the New Zealand Women’s Open in February, she picked up her first U.S. win of the year at the Kia Classic outside San Diego, and then the Korean-born, Kiwi sensation rallied over a faltering Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand to win a second straight major at the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills.
At the time, there was no stopping Ko and the shocking collapse by Juta- nugarn was an afterthought. The burly Thai had never won on the LPGA Tour. She had shoulder surgery that held her back, though her promise could be found much earlier when she qualified for an LPGA Tour event at age 11 in the Honda LPGA Thailand. By the end of the year, Jutanugarn eased off her aggressive style and found a winning formula that even Ko could not match. They engaged in a rivalry so compelling on the golf course that all the big awards — Rolex LPGA Player of the year, the money title, the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average and the Race to the CME Globe came down to the final tournament.
Joining the mix was Henderson, a precocious Canadian who became the first player to stand in Ko’s way. Ko was headed for a third straight LPGA major at Sahalee when Henderson wouldn’t back down, holing chips and sinking long eagle putts and making clutch putts for par to stay in the game. Ko missed a short putt late in the tournament and wound up in a playoff with Henderson. On the 18th hole, the first playoff hole, Henderson hit a seven iron to within three feet for a birdie and the victory. She won again at the Cambia Portland Classic and gave the LPGA another rising star.
In the meantime, Jutanugarn bounced back from her early disappointment in a big way. She won three straight tournaments on the schedule, starting with the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic, followed by the prestigious Kingsmill Championship and then the LPGA Volvik Championship.
Ko won her third LPGA title of the year at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, and she added the Marathon Classic a month later. And then it was Jutanugarn’s turn. The 20-year-old Thai won her first major at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and after the Olympics, she won her fifth event at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, the tournament that Ko had ruled. Neither of them won over the final three months of the season, but Jutanugarn did just enough to sweep all the big awards. Toward the end of the year, Ko fired her caddie and then decided to part ways with swing coach David Leadbetter.
The other major went to In Gee Chun at the Evan Championship.
Perhaps the biggest victory of the year, and most amazing under the circumstances, belonged to Inbee Park. The former world No. 1 had been battling a thumb injury and had trouble even finishing tournaments. She did not win an LPGA event this year. For the immediate future, the goal was simply to get in enough tournaments to meet her 10-year requirement for the Hall of Fame. She accomplished that at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and that was the last anyone saw of Park for the next two months. She missed the next two majors.
At home in South Korea, the most powerful nation in women’s golf, there were whispers that Park should give up her spot in the Olympics to another Korean who would have a reasonable chance at winning a medal. Park would have none of that. She played a small Korean event before heading to Rio to try to shake off the rust, and then she reminded the golfing world of her greatness. In her first elite competition in more than two months, she blew away the field in Rio, including Ko in the final round, to capture the Gold Medal. And then she was gone again. “Because I had an injury, a lot of people were saying maybe it was better to have another player in the field, which is understandable. But I really wanted to do well this week to show a lot of people that I can still play,” Park said.
What stood out as much as the youth movement was the vanishing act of the Americans. Lexi Thompson won the Honda LPGA Thailand in the fourth tournament of the year. Lang won the U.S. Women’s Open. Those were the only two American winners this year. Stacy Lewis was shut out, and while Solheim Cup hero Gerina Piller made a spirited run at a medal in the Olympics, she still hasn’t won an LPGA event. Lang, on the strength of her prize money from the U.S. Women’s Open, finished ninth on the LPGA money list (no other American was among the top 15), and stood only 15th in worldwide money. Oddly enough, the Americans won the UL International Crown team event.
Golf returned to the Olympics for the first since 1904, and it turns out getting the course built was the least of its worries. Concern over the Zika virus led to one player after another withdrawing from the Rio Games — McIlroy and Johnson, Spieth and Day among the headliners. But it managed to put on quite a show, and the International Olympic Committee surely took notice that golf in the final round had one of the few sellouts. The gallery was treated to quite a show, with the six medals (men and women) going to players from six countries — Justin Rose (England) won the gold, followed by Stenson (Sweden) and Matt Kuchar (United States). For the women, Park (South Korea) won the gold over Ko (New Zealand), with Shanshan Feng (China) taking the bronze.
Getting golf back in the Olympics was something PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem wanted to see before he left. He signed a one-year extension, though he made it clear that he would not be staying that long and he was true to his word. Finchem retired at the end of the year and handed the PGA Tour job over to Jay Monahan, whom he had hand-picked as his deputy commissioner. And so ended 23 years as the PGA Tour commissioner, starting the same year Woods won his first U.S. Amateur title. PGA Tour purses rose dramatically to an average prize fund of roughly $7 million per tournament. During Finchem’s reign, the Presidents Cup began in 1994, along with the creation of the World Golf Championships in 1999. He also acquired or began smaller circuits in China, Canada and Latin America.
It was big business, much bigger than Palmer would have imagined in 1969 when he and Jack Nicklaus spearheaded a split from the PGA of America to create what is now the PGA Tour. For all that transpired in 2016, no moment was more sobering than the farewell to the King. No moment was more poignant than the single tear that filled Nicklaus’ eye as he spoke at his service. “He was the king of our sport, and he always will be,” Nicklaus said.
Golf lost so many others in 2016 — Christy O’Connor Sr., the Irishman who played on 10 Ryder Cup teams, died in June at 91. His nephew, Christy O’Connor Jr., who hit the two iron into the 18th at The Belfry that helped Europe win the Ryder Cup in 1989, died in January at 67. Golf also lost Peggy Kirk-Bell at age 95, the foremost advocate for women’s golf as an instructor and owner of Pine Needles Lodge, and Barbara Romack, the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, who was 83. Dawn Coe-Jones of Canada died of cancer at age 56, a member of Canada’s golf Hall of Fame.