Double Major Koepka
Men placed young children on their shoulders so they could see. Young adults climbed trees at Torrey Pines and East Lake. And with no trees at Carnoustie, one young girl proved to be especially resourceful. She climbed atop a large trash bin near the concession area, located about 30 yards beyond rows of fans who had lined the first fairway for the final round of The Open Championship. Out came the mobile phone, pointed over the heads of more people than she could count. She had a reasonable view of what everyone wanted to see: Tiger Woods playing golf, competing again, contending again, and eventually winning again.
In a year that produced three wins or more for 27 players around the world, a double major season for Brooks Koepka and the first major championship for Italy, nothing was as compelling as Woods. He was must-see golf, just like old times. He finished his comeback season at the Tour Championship, where he outplayed Justin Rose on Saturday and Rory McIlroy on Sunday. There he was in his Sunday red shirt, both arms raised in victory. For so many years, that was an indelible image of a sport ruled by Woods. On this occasion, it was simply surreal. “I can’t believe I pulled this off,” said Woods, who only a year earlier was still recovering from a fourth back surgery and had not yet received clearance from his doctors to even make a full swing. Woods dropped as low as No. 1,199 during his time away to try to heal an ailing back, which led to desperate measures. He opted for fusion surgery of his lower spine, as much for quality of life as his golf. He started the year at No. 656 in the world when he showed up at Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open, where he made the cut on the number with a two-putt birdie from some 90 feet on his final hole. Who could have known then it would be the start of a season that Woods found as gratifying as any considering how far removed he had been from the game? He wasn’t sure what he could do when he started. He wound up playing all four FedExCup Playoff events, winning the last one at East Lake, going to Le Golf National outside Paris as a Ryder Cup player instead of a vice captain, and finish- ing at No. 13 in the world, one spot ahead of two-time winner and former
world No. 1 Jason Day.
It was vintage Woods in one respect: He managed to overshadow just about everything. That starts with Koepka, who was voted the PGA Tour player of the year by becoming the first man in 29 years to win back-to- back at the U.S. Open, and by joining an elite group of players — Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen — to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year.
Even then, the final day at Bellerive was as much about Woods and his runner-up finish. It felt like a rock concert. It sounded even louder. Woods would make a birdie and pockets of cheers, some loud and some distant, could be heard as the moment was replayed in corporate tents. “It’s pretty obvious when Tiger makes a birdie. Everybody on the golf course cheers for him,” Koepka said. There were plenty of cheers to go around. Along with his two majors, Koepka won the CJ Cup in South Korea that allowed him to reach No. 1 in the world. He became the fourth player in 2018 to reach the top of the World Ranking. Never in the 32 years of the Official World Golf Ranking has there been such a battle for No. 1. Actually, it was more like a revolving door. Dustin Johnson started the year at No. 1 and looked as though he would become the first player since Woods in 2009 to start and finish the year at No. 1. Johnson overwhelmed the winners-only field at Kapalua with an eight-shot victory in the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Just over a month later, he had a share of the lead going into the final round at Pebble Beach, where he was a two-time winner. He failed to cash in that day. He failed to win a major for the second straight year. And eventually, he failed to keep that No. 1 ranking. First, it went to Justin Thomas, who was coming off a breakthrough 2017 and kept playing at a high level. Johnson got it back with a victory in the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Justin Rose took over with a playoff loss at the BMW Championship in September. Johnson took it back a few weeks later. And toward the end of the year, the No. 1 ranking alternated between Koepka and Rose four times in four weeks, including three times when the guy who went to No. 1 wasn’t even playing. That’s how close it was at the top. That’s how much depth golf has among the elite players. Jason Day found out just what it takes to reach the top these days. The Australian was determined to get his game back on track. He started the year at No. 13, won twice on the PGA Tour, and ended the year at No. 14.
The World Ranking wasn’t the only measure of depth. For the second straight year, four players won at least $8 million on the PGA Tour. Thomas won the Arnold Palmer Award for earning the most money in a season. The last player to win the PGA Tour money title in successive years was Woods in 2006 and 2007. Newcomers to the $8 million club were Rose, who wound up winning the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus, and Bryson DeChambeau, who showed his unique approach to the game actually works. He won three times during the PGA Tour season, and then added a fourth victory in 2018 when he cashed in at Las Vegas.
From a global perspective, it was hard to beat the year of Francesco Molinari. Koepka and his two majors are hard to beat because so few players accomplish that — Mark O’Meara, Woods (four times), Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth were the others over the last 25 years. Even so, Molinari left his footprints on both sides of the Atlantic. He won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, and then made a peculiar decision to skip the French Open — on the course where the Ryder Cup would be played three months later — to play against one of the weaker fields on the PGA Tour at the Quicken Loans National. The Italian wanted to boost his FedExCup standing, and he delivered one of his strongest performances of the year. He closed with a 62 on the TPC Potomac at Avenel Farms for an eight-shot victory, matching the largest margin on the PGA Tour in 2018. He also broke the tournament record by seven shots with a 259. Woods, the tournament host for the last time, handed him the trophy. They would meet again on Sunday two weeks later, this time on the first tee at Carnoustie. Molinari received another trophy that day. If that wasn’t enough, he became the first European to win all five matches under the current configuration of the Ryder Cup.
While it was difficult to find a dominant male, there was no mistaking the best in women’s golf. Ariya Jutanugarn won three times on the LPGA Tour, tied for most with Sung Hyun Park, while putting together a season so strong that she clinched the points-based Rolex Player of the Year award with three tournaments left in the season. She captured the $1 million bonus for winning the Race to the CME Globe. She reached No. 1 in the world and stayed there over the last two months of the year. And she picked up her second major championship by winning the U.S. Women’s Open. If all that wasn’t enough, the 23-year-old Thai also led the tour with 17 finishes in the top 10, the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average (69.42) and the money title. Her $2,743,949 was nearly more than the next two players, Minjee Lee and Park, combined.
Bernhard Langer ended four successive years winning a major on the PGA Tour Champions, and his victory output was down. He won only two times, compared with seven in 2017 and four victories in 2016. There still was no one better. The two-time Masters champion again showed remarkable consistency with six runner-up finishes, more than $2 million in earnings for the seventh consecutive year and the Charles Schwab Cup for the fourth time in the last five years.
Not everything stays the same going forward, however, with a couple of big changes on the horizon. The PGA Championship is moving to May for the first time in 70 years, with The Players Championship going back to March. It’s all part of a compact PGA Tour schedule that will end in late August, before American football gets started. Even bolder is the PGA Tour’s new system for deciding its FedExCup champion. Based on the season and two Playoff events, the 30 players who qualify for the finale will have a handicap start to the Tour Championship, with the leader at 10 under par before he hits his first tee shot. The idea is to get away from the prospects of one player winning the Tour Championship and another winning the FedExCup. Such was the case this year, with Justin Rose winning the FedExCup and Woods winning the Tour Championship.
As for all tours, the Rules of Golf will have a modern look to them. A project more than five years in the making, involving rules experts from all the main tours around the world, resulted in a new edition aimed at making them simpler. Among the changes: Dropping the ball from knee-height instead of shoulder-height, eliminating a penalty for a ball accidentally moving on the green or a club touching the ground in a hazard. It was the most comprehensive change to the Rules of Golf since the first set was published in 1744. Only in this case, the rules book became smaller.
The biggest change in 2018 was seeing that red shirt on the broad shoulders of Tiger Woods. The previous two years, Woods had as many back surgeries as tournaments he completed — three each. His only appearance in 2016 was the Hero World Challenge, his unofficial holiday event in the Bahamas. The following year, he played two rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open (missing his only 36-hole cut at Torrey Pines), one round in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic (a 77 in calm conditions), and four rounds at the Hero World Challenge. So when he started 2018 after recovering from a fourth back surgery to fuse his lower spine, the prudent question was not so much whether he could win again, but whether he could make it through an entire season. Even Woods had his doubts. “I didn’t know if I would be able to make it to Florida and to play the Florida Swing,” he said. “Let’s just start out at Torrey and see how it goes.”