The only “title” for McIlroy this year turned out to be a wedding ring. He married Erica Stoll in an elaborate wedding in Ireland, and then returned to work at The Players Championship, his least-favorite venue on the PGA Tour. He tied for 35th, but along the way began to feel more soreness in the same area as his rib injury. The result was another month off for rest, returning to the U.S. Open and missed cuts in three of his next four starts. It was like that all year. He managed respectable finishes in The Open Championship, the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship. But it there, at Quail Hollow, when he revealed minor spasms in his upper back. He hinted about shutting it down for the rest of the year, say- ing April — the Masters — was all that mattered. Instead, he played three FedExCup Playoff events until he didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship, twice in Britain, and that was it. For the first time since 2008, a year ended for McIlroy without a trophy.
Day’s plight was more complex. When he won The Players Championship in 2016, he built the largest lead in the World Ranking since the Tiger Woods era. It looked as though he would stay there for a long time, and even though he withdrew with back pain from his final two events of 2016, he began the new year by announcing his intention of staying at No. 1 for an entire calendar year, something that had not been done since Woods in 2009. Day’s goal lasted just over two months. He had only one top-10 finish in his first five starts until dropping a surprise at the Match Play when he walked off the golf course after six rounds of his opening match and withdrew from the tournament. Day said his mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer in Australia and told she had 12 months to live. At times breaking down, he said he decided in March to bring her to Ohio, where Day lives with his wife and two children, and there was hope that surgery might change her outlook. The surgery was a success and his mother was on her road to recovery. Day’s game? Not so much.
Right when it looked as though he might turn the corner, he was on the verge of winning the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship until he three-putted on the 18th hole for bogey in a playoff against Billy Horschel. A month later, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, his first weekend off at a major in five years dating to Kiawah Island for the 2012 PGA Championship. It never got any better. In the early part of the year, Day spoke of the burden of being No. 1, comments rarely heard from players who previously occupied that spot. Whether it was that pressure, the distractions of his mother’s recovery from cancer or lacking the discipline in practice that took him to the top, Day wasn’t sure or wasn’t saying. But after missing the cut in the U.S. Open, he never finished closer than five shots off the lead the rest of the year until his final event. Day made a rare trip to his native land to play in the Emirates Australian Open. He had the lead going into the final day until closing with a 73 to finish three shots behind another player from the youth brigade, 24-year-old Cameron Smith, who shot a 64.
McIlroy and Day had one other thing in common. They both sacked their longtime caddies and replaced them with friends. McIlroy parted with J.P. Fitzgerald after The Open Championship. He used Harry Diamond, who had a good amateur career in Ireland, to work the Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship, and they stayed together the rest of the year. McIlroy planned to keep him for the start of 2018. Day’s move was even more of a shock because Colin Swatton was much more than a caddie. He was the coach and father figure who took in Day at a young age and with a poor attitude and guided him to No. 1 in the world. The change was abrupt, though Day said he would keep Swatton as the only swing coach he’s ever had. Day used a friend, Luke Reardon, with whom he grew up playing in Australia.
The biggest caddie change involved another player who went through the year without winning, though that had nothing to do with Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay parting ways after the U.S. Open that Mickelson didn’t even play. Both said publicly that the relationship had simply run its course. And thus ended one of the longest stints for a caddie. Mackay was there with Mickelson when Lefty made his professional debut at Pebble Beach for the 1992 U.S. Open. He was there for all but two tournaments since then, and he was there for all 45 victories and five majors, the most recent of both being The Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013.
Mickelson extended the longest drought of his career, though he managed to keep one streak going even at age 47. Mickelson was selected for the Presidents Cup for the second straight time, giving him 23 consecutive appearances in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. He went unbeaten at Liberty National, a 3-0-1 mark. The next target is making his 12th consecutive Ryder Cup team with hopes of something he has never done — win a Ryder Cup in Europe. There’s also the last leg of the career Grand Slam — the U.S. Open — that has eluded him since 2014. This year, he didn’t even get a chance. Mickelson’s middle child graduated from high school during the first round of the U.S. Open and he didn’t want to miss that. He didn’t withdraw until it was clear there would be no weather delays in Wisconsin that might allow him to fly from California and get there in time. Mackay was at Erin Hills walking the course in case there was a chance. It was a fitting end. The last time they worked together, they were apart. Mickelson used his brother as his caddie the rest of the year, meaning split duty for Tim Mickelson. He also was Jon Rahm’s agent.
Rahm and Justin Rose round out the top five in the World Money List, and the Spaniard showed a world of promise. Everyone knew that he likely would be Europe’s next big star. The only surprise might have been how quickly Rahm rose to the top. He began the year at No. 137 in the world. He ended it at No. 4, and he earned it. More than just his victory in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines was the two World Golf Championships that followed. An eagle on the back nine at the Mexico Championship and another birdie gave him the lead ever so briefly until a couple of mistakes down the stretch. He really showed his passion in the final of the Dell Technologies Match Play. Rahm was furious with his putting and the emotions lingered. He missed par putts from six feet and eight feet, a birdie putt from four feet. The more he missed, the angrier he looked. Dustin Johnson was 4 up with six holes to play when Rahm showed the other side of his passion. He boldly drove over the water to the 13th green, the start of three birdies in four holes that eventually pushed Johnson to the 18th hole until the American won. “It’s amazing how he’s able to keep cool the entire round,” Rahm said, something he has yet to learn. But he’s making progress. He won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in a runaway. He won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. He is here to stay.
Rahm’s meteoric start was nothing like when Rose turned pro and famously missed his first 21 cuts. Rose had high hopes for 2017 after winning the Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro for his seventh consecutive year with at least one victory. He finished in the top five in three of his first four starts and was pointed in the right direction until somebody had to lose — Rose — at the Masters. What followed was a summer of malaise, leading to questions whether the Englishman was suffering from a hangover from his playoff loss to good friend Sergio Garcia at Augusta National. Two of his best finishes were in tournaments where the winner won by a big margin (Rahm at the Irish Open, Leishman at the BMW Championship). Rather, Rose had been making some technical changes in his swing that took time to set in.
Yes, he was disappointed not to win the Masters when he was two shots ahead with six holes to play. But it was a conversation with Henrik Sten- son, who reminded Rose that except for a few good breaks that went his way in Rio, the gold medal would belong to the Swede. Golf is like that for everyone. “It’s one of those moments in your career,” Rose said of the Masters. “Fortunately, it’s not a defining moment for me.” He said that as a U.S. Open champion, and Rose saved his best for last with three victories late in the year. That’s eight straight years with at least one victory, moving closer to the company he wants to keep. “Winning is a habit,” he said. “And I feel like I was getting out of the habit.”
Rahm didn’t win the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, but he gave himself a reasonable chance considering he played only five tournaments, beyond the four majors and the four World Golf Championships. Fleetwood opened the year by winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, kept in the mix with runner-up finishes in the Mexico Championship and Shenzhen International, and then began pulling away. He took over the lead in the Race to Dubai by winning the HNA Open de France, and no one caught him the rest of the year. The final two majors were won by Americans, and Hideki Matsuyama won the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational. Garcia tapered off until a win late in the year in Spain, while Rose began his run too late with just a month until the end of the season. But it came down to the very last hole. Rose had a one-shot lead going into the final round of the final event, the DP World Tour Championship. He led most of the day until dropping shots on the 12th, 14th and 16th holes. Needing an eagle to overtake Fleetwood in the standings with a tie for second, Rose could only manage a birdie to tie for third. That was enough for Fleetwood to win the title. “It’s the biggest day of my career, for sure,” Fleetwood said.
Garcia (Masters) and Rose (HSBC Champions) were the only Europeans to win one of the eight tournaments claimed by both the PGA Tour and European Tour, through Europeans were bracing for a new influx of stars. Garcia, Fleetwood, Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton and Lucas Bjerregaard, a big hitter from Denmark, each had multiple titles on the European Tour. Europe also introduced its Rolex Series, eight tournaments that offered at least $7 million in prize money that included enhanced television coverage. Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, introduced them as a way to keep the European Tour as a viable option. Rahm won two of them, while other winners came from among the top 25 in the world — Fleetwood and Rose, Hatton and Branden Grace and Rafa Cabrera Bello, who made his Ryder Cup debut the previous year.
With golf going on across the six continents, leading officials from each major tour were meeting privately with an eye toward making the Rules of Golf more current and less cumbersome. A project that began five years earlier resulted in a proposal of modern rules that will be the most comprehensive overhaul since the first set of rules was published in 1744. The proposal would reduce the number of rules from 34 to 24. In many cases, penalties will be rescinded, such as for the ball accidentally moving or a player’s club touching the ground while in a hazard, or when a ball caroms off the sodded wall of a bunker and strikes the player. Players would be allowed to repair anything on the green, including spike marks. Caddies would no longer be allowed to stand behind their players as they line up their shots. “The primary objective was, ‘How do we make the rules easier to understand and easier to apply around the world?’” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status.
Some rules couldn’t be changed fast enough. The first major of the year took place on the LPGA Tour at the ANA Inspiration in the California desert, where it appeared that Lexi Thompson was well on her way to winning that major for the second time. She had a three-shot lead with six holes to play when the tournament was thrown into chaos. Someone who was looking at action from the third round noticed that Thompson had marked her ball for a 15-inch putt on the 17th green, picked it up and quickly returned it to a slightly different location. Not many doubted the violation, regardless of her intentions. It was a two-shot penalty. However, because Thompson had signed her card (Saturday), she would be docked an additional two shots for signing an incorrect scorecard. Sue Winters, an LPGA Tour rules official, had the unpleasant task of informing Thompson. The four-shot penalty mean she went from a three-shot lead to a one-shot deficit. “Is this a joke?” Thompson famously inquired. She managed to rally with a birdie and got into a playoff with So Yeon Ryu, but Ryu ended up winning. Such was the outrage — partly on the use of video evidence, mainly that a player could be penalized for signing an incorrect card when she thought it was correct upon signing it — that it was the hottest topic for two days at the Masters. At least until word got out that Dustin Johnson had slipped down the stairs.