The Year in Retrospect
Golf had the biggest overhaul of the rules book in centuries. The PGA Championship moved to May for the first time in 70 years. Golf ’s oldest championship was held outside Britain for the first time since 1951. Women competed at Augusta National for the first time ever. The PGA Tour ended its season with a radical scoring system at the Tour Championship in which players began with a score under par before the first shot was struck. Change was so abundant in 2019 that at times it was hard to keep up.
And yet for so much that felt new, the year was defined by something gloriously old: A bright red shirt under a Masters green jacket.
Big moments in sport become colossal when comparisons are immediate. Tiger Woods winning the Masters after all he had been through — calamity in his personal life, four surgeries on his lower back, the unseen struggle to cope with the pain — fit that description. Was it the greatest comeback in sport? Ben Hogan winning the U.S. Open at Merion a year after a near fatal car accident gave pause to the hyperbole. Was it the greatest Masters ever? Jack Nicklaus winning a sixth green jacket at age 46 remains a special moment in golf history. This was simply Tiger Woods, Masters champion. And that was enough.
He was not the best player in 2019. Rory McIlroy was voted the PGA Tour Player of the Year by his peers for three victories and consistency that only Woods could appreciate in the last decade. Brooks Koepka had another astounding run through the majors by winning the PGA Championship, finishing second in the Masters and U.S. Open and tying for fourth in the Open Championship. Nicklaus, Woods and Jordan Spieth are the only other players to have finished no worse than fourth in all four majors. Koepka easily won the PGA of America award as Player of the Year, which is based on points. The Golf Writers Association of America also voted Koepka a narrow winner over McIlroy. The Associated Press gave its male athlete of the year to NBA star LeBron James. Woods wasn’t even on the ballot.
Woods would be the first to say it wasn’t his best year. He won only two times, the Masters and the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan, and really only had a fleeting chance at one other title in the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play. He missed the cut in two majors and wasn’t a factor in the other, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 2000 with what many consider the greatest performance in golf. Woods didn’t even make it to the Tour Championship. “The rest of the tournaments I didn’t really play as well as I wanted. But at the end of the day, I’m the one with the green jacket,” he said. Never has he smiled so wide after failing to meet a goal.
Woods still owned the year for that moment so many thought they would never see again, and that explained his appeal that touched young and old, and transcended the sport as only he can. The younger generation really only knew Woods from video highlights, so powerful that over time it felt more like Hollywood than real life. On this Sunday at Augusta National, memories turned into reality. The older generation, which saw him win the Masters by 12 shots and the U.S. Open by 15 shots, which remembered when he held all four majors at the same time, was mesmerized because there was reason to doubt it would ever see him win another major.
Augusta National was oozing with history this year even before Woods took the stage. Under the leadership of chairman Billy Payne, the club invited its first female members, created a youth initiative called the “Drive, Chip and Putt,” and established amateur championships in Asia and Latin America. In his first year as chairman, Fred Ridley announced the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which featured two days of competition at nearby Cham- pions Retreat, a practice round at Augusta National for all 72 players, and the final round at the home of the Masters for the 30 players who made the cut. Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi delivered a duel on the Saturday before the Masters that added a chapter of lore to the back nine at the most famous tournament course in the world. Kupcho emerged the winner with an eagle and three birdies over the last six holes for a four-shot victory.
The rest of golf ’s biggest events tried to leave their mark. They were always going to be in the shadow of Woods at the Masters. Koepka and McIlroy showed early signs of a rivalry that took an entire year to marinate. Koepka joined Woods as the only back-to-back winners of the PGA Championship in stroke play, but not before nearly making the wrong kind of history when he lost all but one shot of a seven-stroke lead in the final day. “I was going to make history one way or another,” Koepka said later.
He also won his first World Golf Championship at the FedEx St. Jude Invitational by rallying to beat McIlroy in the final round. McIlroy, who won The Players Championship in March, returned the favor by coming from behind to beat Koepka in the Tour Championship for the $15 million prize that comes with the FedExCup.
Jon Rahm won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open again and closed out the year with consecutive victories in the Mutuactivos Open de Espana and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, that latter offering the biggest official check in golf at $3 million. Much like McIlroy, his year was built around consistency. McIlroy had a 76 percent rate of finishing in the top 10 around the world, 19 out of 25 tournaments. Rahm was at 69 percent, with 18 top-10s out of 26 events. Both won four times, which includes a team title for Rahm in New Orleans.
Koepka ended the year at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, the first player to end consecutive years at No. 1 since Woods in 2008 and 2009. McIlroy was closing in when he finished up the year. But there is no longer talk of a modern Big Three, or a big anything. Golf was getting too deep — with early signs of emergence down the road in Asia — for any group to remain at or near the top for longer than a year. Jordan Spieth drove home that point at the start of the year. He had gone through a winless 2018 (with another winless year to follow) when he said to reporters it was only a few years ago that everyone was mentioning a “Big Three.” Spieth said none of those players was being mentioned as much. A few reporters in the room that day, some of whom had written about this new Big Three, looked at each other to figure out which players he meant. It was Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day. On the day he spoke, they were No. 8 (McIlroy), No. 11 (Day) and No. 17 (Spieth). Time moves quickly.
What doesn’t move as quickly is the game inside the ropes. All it took was a few anecdotal moments to bring more outrage on the pace of play, whether it was J.B. Holmes during a rain-delayed, 36-hole Sunday at Riviera in the Genesis Open, Koepka pointing to his watch as Holmes played Royal Portrush during the final round of the Open Championship, and Bryson DeChambeau taking more than two minutes to hit an eight-foot putt (and missing). Those ill-timed TV moments were enough for the PGA Tour to begin working on new pace-of-play measures expected to start in early 2020. The European Tour got ahead of it quicker, announcing a four-point plan for 2020 that included stronger vigilance of players who take too long and perhaps limiting field sizes.
There is nothing in the Rules of Golf, the previous version or the modern version, that mandates how long golf should take to play. Everything else about the rules were revamped. The changes getting the most attention were the knee-high drop instead of shoulder-length and the option for players to leave in the flagstick while putting on the green. One was modified early involving caddies lining up their players. Because of the way the rule was written, Haotong Li was penalized in Dubai and Adam Schenk was penalized in the Honda Classic because their caddies were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The caddie alignment ruling, oddly enough, was not an issue on the LPGA Tour. It was odd because it was most prevalent in women’s golf, with caddies standing behind players to check their alignment on the tee, the fairway, sometimes the green. Rules were only an issue in men’s golf, it seemed.
The attention on women’s golf was on Jin Young Ko, the latest player to dominate the LPGA Tour. She won four times, two of them majors at the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship. She might have won the Race to the CME Globe any other year, except for a change to the season-long competition that made the goal of reaching the CME Group Tour Championship, and any of the top 60 players in the field only had to win the tournament to capture the bonus. That fell to Sei Young Kim, whose birdie on the last hole gave her the victory and $1.5 million in official money, the largest payoff in women’s golf.
Even that wasn’t the biggest moment for women’s golf. Suzann Pettersen was thought to be retired after having her first child. She was a vice-captain to Catriona Matthew for the Solheim Cup, and then Matthew suggested Pettersen practice in case Europe needed her at Gleneagles. Pettersen went from vice-captain to captain’s pick. And on the final shot of the Solheim Cup, Pettersen had a seven-foot putt. Make it and Europe wins. Miss it and the Americans win for the third straight time. Pettersen holed the putt, and then announced her retirement. It was the ultimate walk-off.
It’s always a show whenever the U.S. plays Europe, even though Asian-born players continue to dominate in the world of women’s golf. There were signs Asia was starting to really take hold as a golfing power in the men’s game, too. Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand won the Asian Order of Merit and challenged for the money title in Japan. Perhaps the best evidence was the International team on the Presidents Cup, where five Asian players filled out the 12-man team — two from South Korea (Sungjae Im and Byeong Hun An), one from Japan (Hideki Matsuyama), one from China (Haotong Li) and one from Chinese Taipei (C.T. Pan).
The biggest buzz in Thailand had nothing to do with golf. Woods caused a lot of commotion when he returned to Thailand on vacation with his two children and his girlfriend, all of them dressed in yellow. Twenty years earlier, when Woods was at his peak and defeated Ernie Els in an epic playoff at Kapalua to start the year, Els said, “He’s 24. He’ll probably be bigger than Elvis when he’s in his 40s.” At times in golf, it felt that way.