So who dominated men’s golf? That depends on how it’s measured. It was far simpler in women’s golf. Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand led every major category, and had such a commanding lead in the points-based race for Rolex LPGA Player of the Year that it was mathematically over with three tournaments left in the season.
Jutanugarn won three times on the LPGA Tour, the same number as Sung Hyun Park of South Korea. She won the U.S. Women’s Open, giving Jutanugarn the same number of majors in 2018 — one — as Park, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Dominance comes with a deeper look. Jutanugarn led the LPGA Tour in scoring (69.41) by a wide margin. She was the best in putting when hitting the green in regulation. Her 470 birdies were the most ever on the LPGA. She led in most rounds under par. She had top-10 finishes in 17 of her 28 starts. She set an LPGA record with 57 rounds in the 60s. And she won the money title with $2,743,949, which was nearly twice as much as the two players behind her, Minjee Lee of Australia and Park. For Jutanugarn, it was all about attitude. “My goal is I want to have a good attitude. I want to have good self-talk. Of course, I want to win the tournament. I want to win everything I can. But when I keep thinking about that, it never helps me to get it. So this year, mainly just work on that. I achieve my goal this year a lot.” She capped it off by winning the CME Race to the Globe.
She won the Kingsmill Championship for her first victory of the year, and while it was only May, the LPGA was on pace for another year of parity. In 12 tournaments, there were 12 winners, and Lee would make it 13 the following week. Jutanugarn’s defining moment came in the next week at the U.S. Women’s Open, regarded as the biggest event in women’s golf. It went to Shoal Creek, and Jutanugarn not only showed great skill, but great resilience. She had a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, when Shoal Creek morphed into Olympic Club in 1966, where Arnold Palmer blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine of the U.S. Open and Billy Casper beat him in a playoff. This one, however, had a different ending. In a two-hole aggregate playoff, Jutanugarn delivered one clutch shot after another to stay in the game, and she wound up winning with a tremendous bunker shot on the fourth playoff hole. “After you have seven-shot lead and end up with you have to go to playoff, I have no expectations,” she said. “I kind of got mad a little bit with my back nine, but okay. If I have a playoff, I’m going to do make sure I do my best every shot. I feel I have last chance to make myself proud.”
Her final victory was in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open, and she took it all the way to the finish line. Jutanugarn became the first player to sweep all the biggest honors — Rolex LPGA Player of the Year, money title, Vare Trophy, Race to the CME Globe and No. 1 in the world. An ESPN Magazine project on the 20 most dominant athletes had Jutanugarn at No. 4. It did not have Koepka on the list at all, but this was based not on number of majors, rather metrics aimed at defining dominance. And she was dominant by every measure.
There was still room for parity in women’s golf, of course, with 26 play- ers winning the 32 individual tournaments on the LPGA Tour schedule. Jutanugarn and Park each had three victories, while Brooke Henderson of Canada and Nasa Hataoka of Japan each won twice. Michelle Wie won early in the year before she was slowed by more injuries. Lexi Thompson endured her longest drought and was largely absent for most of the year until she won the CME Group Tour Championship at the end. Park was coming off a 2017 debut in which she was Rolex LPGA rookie of the year and shared player-of-the-year honors. The encore wasn’t bad with her three titles and another major in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. The biggest event was no surprise — the UL International Crown, the most inventive new event to come down the pipe in some time, match play for eight countries of four players each. South Korea, the dominant country in women’s golf, won on home soil before an enormous gallery.
Minjee Lee of Australia began to get more results for that beautiful swing. She won the LPGA Volvik Classic as her only tour victory, though she had nine other events among the top five. She also won the Vic Open in Australia, the one tournament where men and women play concurrently on the same course for the same prize money. She rose to No. 6 in the Rolex Rankings, and the Australian media awarded her the Greg Norman Medal for the best year by an Australian. She beat out Jason Day, who won twice on the PGA Tour in strong events.
Jiyai Shin, a former No. 1 player in the world, now resides and plays almost exclusively in Asia. She had five victories, four of them on the Japan LPGA Tour and once in Australia. Sun-Ju Ahn also won five times, all on the Japan LPGA Tour.
Bernhard Langer cleaned up again on the PGA Tour Champions, minus the sheer dominance the German marvel has exhibited in recent years. He had won seven times in 2017, including three majors. He had won four times in 2016, including two majors. He turned 61 in 2018, and it still didn’t matter. Langer ended the year winning the Charles Schwab Cup for the fourth time in the last five years, the object of every player on the 50-and-older circuit. It just didn’t seem like the dominant performance of seasons past. For one thing, Langer didn’t win until his ninth start on the PGA Tour Champions, and it was right after back-to-back playoff losses. He didn’t finish among the top 10 in the first three major championships until a runner-up finish at The Senior Open, where a closing 68 on the Old Course at St. Andrews left him one shot behind Miguel Angel Jimenez. But he was steady as ever. That’s Langer’s trademark.
He had six runner-up finishes, a career high since he became eligible for the Champions just over 10 years ago. He went over $2 million in earnings for the seventh consecutive season. Langer picked up another in the SAS Championship in North Carolina, and he had a runner-up finish in the Dominion Charity Classic to start the PGA Tour Champions’ version of postseason play. That was just enough to hang on to win the Schwab Cup in the final event, though he needed some help. Vijay Singh’s closing 61 at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship for the victory enabled Langer to claim the $1 million bonus. “At age 61 to do it is quite an achievement,” Langer said, holding a glass of red wine on the balcony at Phoenix Country Club. “Maybe there’s another in me.” Scott McCarron needed to win the final event for a Schwab Cup title, and he went into the final round with a one-shot lead, only to hit a shot out of bounds and then get run over by Singh.
McCarron had to settle for two victories in a year in which no one really stood out, except for Langer and his consistency. Jimenez won two majors at St. Andrews and the Regions Tradition, but not enough the rest of the year to overtake Langer. Paul Broadhurst won the Senior PGA Champion- ship for his third senior major, while David Toms won his first at the U.S. Senior Open and Singh got into the act with the Constellation Senior Players Championship. As for the Schwab Cup, it was the first year the tour changed its postseason points, after Kevin Sutherland won the final event in 2017 and overtook Langer and his supreme season. In 2018, the playoff events were double in value and accumulative, instead of a points reset for the final event.
Postseason change was even bigger on the PGA Tour. Officials have been trying to figure out how to eliminate confusion in the FedExCup when one player wins the Tour Championship and another wins the FedExCup. That happened in 2017 as well as this year, and most famously in 2009 when Phil Mickelson won the tournament and Tiger Woods won the cup. The result was a major overhaul that fits in with even more changes on the PGA Tour going forward. First, one of the Playoff events was eliminated, so the postseason had three events instead of four. The tour also introduced a new scoring system for the Tour Championship — a staggered leaderboard adjusted to par depending on players’ positions in the standings. They announced at East Lake that, starting in 2019, the No. 1 player in the standings will start the Tour Championship at 10 under par and will have a two-shot lead over the No. 2 player before a tee shot is even hit. The final five spots in the 30-man field will start at even par. The lowest score to par at the end of the week gets credit for the Tour Championship and claims the bonus, which was increased to $15 million.
That wasn’t the only change in golf. Far more relevant to professionals and recreational players around the world was the largest makeover in the Rules of Golf since 1744. It was the culmination of a five-year project to modernize and simplify the rules, involving top rules experts from every major golf organization. “This was out of recognition that in trying to make the rules more fair, they became too complicated. With 30-plus years of tinkering, they got complicated, and that wasn’t good for the game,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status. The rules book went from 34 rules to 24 rules. It eliminated the need for the Decisions on the Rules of Golf, a supplement that became more voluminous than War and Peace. Among the most noticeable changes are allowing players to leave the flagstick in the cup while putting on the green, and dropping from knee-height instead of shoulder-height. Searching for a lost ball now has a three-minute limit instead of five minutes, and there is no penalty for the ball accidentally moving. Also, players can repair spike marks on the green and repair other imperfections.
Rules officials from main tours did not look at the new rules until their seasons were over so there would be no confusion about blending new with old. One thing never changes regardless of the rules. Low score still wins. And the game is getting deeper and deeper with young talent. When the Web.com Tour ended and 50 players earned promotions to the PGA Tour, the roster showed 29 players at 25 or younger who had PGA Tour status. Stewart Cink was reminded of his rookie season in 1997, when for the first three years of his career, Tiger Woods was the only player younger than him on the PGA Tour.
Twenty-one years later, following four surgeries on his left knee and four surgeries on his lower back, Woods was still going strong.
Golf lost some of its greatest champions in 2018, including Peter Thomson. He won The Open Championship five times, and he was the only player in the 20th century to win golf ’s oldest championship three straight years. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and died June 20 at age 88. Thomson was the most prolific champion from Australia, who along with five claret jugs captured the national titles of 10 countries, including the Australian Open three times. Doug Ford was 95 when he died on May 14 as the oldest surviving Masters champion. Ford was the PGA player of the year in 1957 when his three victories included a green jacket. He won the PGA Championship in 1955, part of his 19 tour victories. Another multiple major champion who passed was Hubert Green, who won the 1977 U.S. Open and 1985 PGA Championship among his 19 tour victories. The most famous of his two majors was the U.S. Open at Southern Hills, where he played the final round aware of a death threat against him that he would be shot when he reached the 15th green. He had been battling throat can- cer. From the LPGA Tour, Carol Mann died at age 77. She had two majors among her 38 titles. All four of them are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.