Wire-to-Wire Koepka

Even with another win — finally — under his belt after all his injuries and mishaps, there remained some curiosity about Woods at the start of the year. Sure, he won the Tour Championship in the fall of 2018, but then he turned in a dud at the Ryder Cup during another U.S. loss away from home, and he was out of the public eye until his Hero World Challenge, where he finished 17th against an 18-man field. Torrey Pines used to be a good barometer for Woods because he had won there eight times as a pro, including his last major in 2008 at the U.S. Open. This didn’t give much reason for hope because he already was 11 shots behind going into the weekend and tied for 20th. It was like that for the next two months — a rugged start, one good round to raise hopes, a Sunday in red finishing well before the leaders. And then he missed the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill citing a neck strain. He said it was not related to his fused lower back, though that didn’t quell speculation that yet another injury was going to get in the way. He returned at The Players Championship and didn’t break 70 until the final day, which helped him to a tie for 30th. The Masters was approaching. Woods was in neutral.

His final tune-up for Augusta National was the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, his first time competing in Texas since 2005. It also was his first time competing in the Match Play since 2013. Since then, the event had changed courses twice and the format once. What had not changed was how to advance — by winning — and Woods did just enough to get out of the group stage to set up a fourth-round duel against McIlroy. It lived up to the hype until McIlroy had a pitching wedge into the par-five 16th with a chance to square the match, except he missed it badly, hit his next shot out-of-bounds and didn’t even finish the hole. Woods was on to the quarter-finals where he lost to Lucas Bjerregaard of Denmark. Even so, Woods had seen enough of his game and the shots he was hitting that he was in a perfect place heading to Augusta National.

Nothing fuels optimism more than Woods winning, especially in a major. In a Golf Digest survey from 2002, after Woods won the Masters and U.S. Open for his eighth major at age 26, the overwhelming vote was he was going to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors. Two years later, when he had gone 10 majors without winning, a similar survey revealed an overwhelming number saying the Nicklaus record was safe. During the worst crisis of his career, when Woods went from not winning majors to not contending in majors to not even playing in them, the general belief was that Woods could no longer get there. The sight of him in a green jacket was enough to put him squarely back into the race, and soon. The question in some corners was how much ground he would cover by the end of the year.

The PGA Championship was at Bethpage Black, where Woods won the U.S. Open in 2002. The U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach, site of his historic 15-shot victory in 2000. The Open Championship? Woods didn’t know Royal Portrush — not many did — but links golf was perfect for his short game, imagination and creativity. The game was on.

Slowly, it fizzled out, and it wasn’t until the end of the year that anyone understood why. The emotions of winning a major for the first time in 11 years took a toll on Woods, and he chose not to play between the Masters and PGA Championship. He played a practice round at Bethpage Black a week before the PGA Championship. He played nine holes in nasty weather on Monday — temperatures barely reached 50 degrees — had light practice on Tuesday and then chose not to come to the course on Wednesday. Woods was in the same group as Koepka and Francesco Molinari, and couldn’t keep up. With rounds of 72-73, he missed the cut at the PGA Championship for the third time in his last four attempts. Perhaps more daunting was watching Koepka, the modern golfer Woods now had to beat, posting a major championship record for 36 holes at 128.

At the Open Championship, he opened with a 78, matching his third-worst score in a major. Then again, Woods had played only 10 rounds since his Masters victory. “Playing at this elite level is a completely different deal. You’ve got to be spot on. These guys are too good. There are too many guys that are playing well and I’m just not one of them,” Woods said in a somber assessment. And then it got worse.

Combined with a light schedule, the mediocre results put Woods at No. 28 in the FedExCup going into the postseason. At the Northern Trust he promptly opened with a 75 to fall 13 shots behind and withdrew the next day with what he described as a mild oblique strain. At that point, he looked done for the year. He was a long shot to make the Presidents Cup team — Woods was the U.S. captain — much less advance to the Tour Championship. He showed up at the BMW Championship, but didn’t have enough firepower to advance to the top 30 and reach East Lake for the FedExCup finale.

Instead of being in Atlanta, Woods had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee that week to repair minor cartilage damage. He later would say it kept him from practice, from squatting to read putts and from moving gracefully to his left side. It was his fifth surgery on his left knee. Alarm bells sounded. And when he returned 10 weeks later at the Zozo Championship — the first PGA Tour event in Japan — the hype machine was purring.

Woods looked indifferent in a Skins Game streamed live around the world by Discovery-owned Golf TV with McIlroy, Matsuyama and Day. And then he won the Zozo going away. He began the rain-soaked tournament with three straight bogeys. The PGA Tour said it was rare for a player to finish in the top 10 after starting a 72-hole event with three straight bogeys. Woods was the first to win, and it was another big moment. It was his 82nd career victory, tying him with Sam Snead for most all-time on the PGA Tour. And it was another number to associate with Woods. There was the 15-shot win at the U.S. Open, the 142 consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour, the 11 times he has won PGA Tour Player of the Year, and now 82 victories. “It’s just hard to imagine anybody doing that again,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. Except that Woods wasn’t finished.

The victory was a week before Woods — the U.S. captain for the Presidents Cup — had to make his four wild-card selections. He had no choice but to select himself. He was the first playing captain since Hale Irwin in the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994, and the first playing captain who made himself a captain’s pick. And he didn’t disappoint. Woods won his opening two matches with Justin Thomas. He sat out all of Saturday. And then he won in singles for a 3-0 mark, and another U.S. victory. While a strong finish for Woods built anticipation for the next year, Koepka was going the opposite direction.

Unlike the previous year, when he was slowed by injury, Koepka appeared to be slowed by indifference. He was at No. 1 in the world. He already had three majors, including his repeat titles in the U.S. Open. The knock against Koepka, if it could be called criticism, was that he wasn’t winning enough regular tournaments. In 2018 when he won the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea to reach No. 1 for the first time, it was only his fifth PGA Tour title, three of them major. He also won twice in Japan and in Turkey. Koepka hardly featured at all except for his hometown Honda Classic, where he missed a playoff by one shot when Keith Mitchell birdied the final hole. He revealed at The Players Championship in March that he had been on a strict diet to lose weight, and it was only learned later that was to pose partially nude for ESPN’s annual nudity issue in its magazine. Did he care more for vanity than trophies? Koepka never cares what anyone thinks, and he quieted any critics with his close call at the Masters, another major. One month later, he delivered what he later said were the best two rounds he has ever had in his career, and probably ever will, during his wire-to-wire win at the PGA Championship.

That made it four majors, along with five “regular” victories on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Japan Golf Tour. And then after a bottom-of-the- pack performance at the RBC Canadian Open, Koepka chased Gary Woodland to the finish line in the U.S. Open for another runner-up finish in a major. He played two more PGA Tour events, the Travelers Championship and the new 3M Open in Minnesota, and didn’t crack the top 50.

Maybe it took the majors to bring out his focus. Or maybe, as Koepka had suggested during the PGA Championship, the majors were the easiest to win. Speaking about the fields at majors, Koepka said, “You figured at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat. From there, you figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about 35. And then from 35, some of them just … pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys. I think one of the big things I’ve learned over the last few years is you don’t need to win it. If you hang around, good things are going to happen.”

It might have sounded brash, but he backed it up with results. When he headed to Northern Ireland for the final major of the year, Koepka had gone 1-2-1-2 in the previous four majors. Koepka laughed when he was asked at Royal Portrush whether he would have expected more or less if told that he would have two runner-up finishes and a victory in the majors that year. Yes, it was incredible. He also spoke to the disappointment of not winning the other two majors. More disappointment followed, at least by his standards, when he couldn’t get a putt to fall on the links of Royal Portrush and tied for fourth.

That disappointment lasted all of a week. Back in America, Koepka overpowered the TPC Southwind with a 64-65 weekend to capture his first World Golf Championships event at the FedEx St. Jude Invitational. His lead atop the World Ranking kept growing. He was the best in golf, and there was no debate, and the PGA Tour Player of the Year should have been an easy choice. But it apparently wasn’t after Koepka failed to win the Tour Championship, leaving McIlroy with a stronger record for the entire year, and Koepka with a superior record — an unreal record, to be fair — in the four events that matter the most.

McIlroy won the vote of his peers for the Jack Nicklaus Award, and that left plenty of questions. The PGA Tour chooses not to release the vote totals, not wanting anyone to focus on anything other than who won. Left unsaid was the margin of victory, and perhaps more importantly, how many PGA Tour players even voted. If Koepka considered that a slap, he wasn’t saying. He showed up in Las Vegas six weeks later and said he doesn’t play for awards, only to win tournaments. And then he left one little nugget, drawing comparisons to LeBron James and the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. “LeBron has only won four MVPs, and I’m pretty sure he’s been the best player for more than just four years,” Koepka said. Point taken.

If his comments about not having many players to beat at the majors rubbed some the wrong way, he made another coy reference to his ability at Las Vegas with a surprising revelation that he had stem cell treatment on his left knee during his short offseason. Koepka says his patella tendon was partially torn and he had spent the last several weeks in rehab. He never mentioned his injury during the season. But he says the knee hurt enough that “I didn’t practice at all.”

He won the PGA Tour money title with $9,684,006 dating to the start of the tour season in October. For 2019, he was third on the World Money List at $8,013,992. Imagine what he might have done if fully healthy. “I finally feel good enough where I can actually practice and feel prepared coming into golf tournaments, not trying to find it on Tuesday or Wednesday,” he said. Maybe he spoke too soon. Two weeks later, Koepka was walking down a slope off the tee at the par-five third hole in the second round of the CJ Cup when his right foot hit a wet piece of concrete and he landed hard on his left knee for support. He shot 75 and withdrew after the round, returning to Florida for treatment. That was his final round of the year. He withdrew from the Presidents Cup and spent a big part of December in treatment, preparing for a return.

Koepka played three rounds over the last four months of the year — a missed cut in Las Vegas, the withdrawal in South Korea. His World Ranking average was 12.65 after the Tour Championship, and the closest player to him was McIlroy at 9.63.

McIlroy’s victory in the Tour Championship under any scoring format at least allowed for consideration on who had the better year. If anything, it might have been a referendum on The Players Championship and how PGA Tour members view it. The records between Koepka and McIlroy each had strong points. Koepka was bullish in the majors, while McIlroy didn’t really come close to winning one. But he did win The Players Championship, which features the strongest, deepest field in golf on a demanding course at the TPC Sawgrass. Koepka won a World Golf Championship. McIlroy won the FedExCup. Both won three times for the tour’s October-to-August season (McIlroy added a fourth title at the WGC – HSBC Champions). McIlroy, however, showed alarming consistency.


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