McIlroy started the year with seven consecutive top-10s, including his win at The Players and a runner-up finish in the WGC – Mexico Championship. He played in the final group three times in his first six events. For the year, he finished out of the top 10 only six times in 25 events worldwide. McIlroy won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted season average. So consistent was his year that he captured the World Money title at $10,820,758, a scant $65,930 more than Rahm. And because he finished just as strong as he started — a tie for third in the Zozo Championship, a playoff victory in the HSBC Champions, fourth in the DP World Tour Championship — he nearly replaced Koepka at No. 1 in the world. Instead, Koepka finished the year at No. 1 for the second straight year. McIlroy was close enough that a return to No. 1, where he hasn’t been since September 14, 2015, appeared to be a matter of time.
Was it his best year? No. McIlroy won two majors in 2014, the year he won four times and was runner-up five times. He was no less pleased because he was consistently great for so much of the year. McIlroy pays close attention to the “strokes gained total” statistic provided by the PGA Tour since 2004 through its ShotLink scoring system. It measures the average number of strokes per round a player is better than the field average that day. Woods is the only player to have an average greater than 3, which he achieved three times. McIlroy was at 2.55 this year, the best total by anyone outside Woods. “The Holy Grail is 3. I’m not going to stop until I get to 3 because Tiger has done that multiple seasons, and when you get three strokes gained, you’re just in another league,” McIlroy said. “One of my goals every year is plus-3. I’m getting closer. It’s my best season to date.”
Typical of the reaction to McIlroy, a solid start to the year was not without some level of negativity. He had gone nine months without winning. And when he arrived in Hawaii for his debut in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, he pointed out that he had played in the final group six times and had given himself 10 realistic chances to win tournaments. “The more you keep knocking on the door and putting yourself in those positions, sooner or later you’re going to get really comfortable and rack up the wins,” he said. By the end of the week, he played in the final group and tied for fourth. He played in the final group at the WGC – Mexico Championship and finished second to Dustin Johnson. He played in the final group at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and tied for sixth. Focus shifted from consistently good play to whether he could close.
Maybe it was just his luck that McIlroy was in the penultimate group at The Players Championship, one shot behind Jon Rahm, his best at the tournament and the golf course that had vexed him over the years. In a final round that featured eight players with at least a share of the lead at some point, McIlroy was tied with four holes to play when he delivered his best swing — a six iron from a bunker to 15 feet, which he later called his best shot of the year; a 347-yard drive down the par-five 16th to set up an easy birdie; and a tee shot drilled down the 18th fairway for the one-shot win over Jim Furyk.
The timing was ideal. It ended talk about his ability to close, and the Masters was only a month away, the missing piece of the career Grand Slam. Alas, it remains that way. He didn’t break 70 until the final round, and by then he was 12 shots behind. For such a great year, the majors were where McIlroy was lacking. He was an afterthought at the PGA Championship (14 shots behind after three rounds) and the U.S. Open (five shots back going to Sunday). And at his home Open in Northern Ireland, he didn’t even make it to Sunday. McIlroy missed the cut. It was the first time since 2013 that he was never closer than eight shots of the winner in all four majors. That he was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year speaks to the overall quality of his game in 2019.
Rahm wasn’t too far behind. He made a late push for the World Money List and had a lead late in his final event at the Hero World Challenge until Henrik Stenson made an eagle and wound up winning by one shot. Rahm headed home to Spain for his wedding, and there was plenty of good tidings had he chosen to look back on his year. For the third straight year, he won three times worldwide in tournaments that offer World Ranking points. His fourth victory was shared with Ryan Palmer at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, the PGA Tour’s only team event. Rahm turned pro after the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2016. In the 86 events he has played, he has 10 victories and 45 finishes in the top 10, a rate of 52 percent. In that respect, this year was no different from the others.
Even so, Rahm has started so consistently well that even having celebrated his 25th birthday by the end of the year, he is looked up to as the next player who needs to break through for his first major. The Spaniard became one of the favorites for the Open Championship when he won the Irish Open for the second time in his career. Rahm did well in the majors, except for missing the cut in the PGA Championship, just not enough to seriously challenge. He had top-10s in the Masters and U.S. Open, and he was just outside the top 10 at Royal Portrush, the tournament that Shane Lowry turned into a one-man race.
The second half of the year was worth watching because he was always part of the action, or at least it seemed that way. From his tie for third in the U.S. Open, Rahm finished no worse than third in eight of his last 13 tournaments. That included victories in the Irish Open, the Spanish Open and the DP World Tour Championship with its handsome payday. He was runner-up at the Hero World Challenge and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. With each victory came more comparisons with his idol, the late Seve Ballesteros, and he was close to tears when told in Dubai that he joined Ballesteros as the only Spanish players to finish a season as Europe’s top player. That seemed to be as valuable as the $5 million he had just won $3 million for the tournament, $2 million for the Race to Dubai. “Seve is such an idol for all of us, and so are Sergio [Garcia] and Ollie [Jose Maria Olazabal] and so many of the great Spanish players. And to think that I’m putting my name there before they do is hard to believe. I can’t believe some of the things I’ve accomplished.” The pressure to perform figures to increase with every major going forward.
The majors come quickly now. This year was the first in coping with a rapid-fire playing of the four biggest events on the golfing calendar, which required moving parts by three organizations. The PGA Tour was eager to finish their reason before the American football played the first game. The PGA of America was growing weary of its PGA Championship being referred to as the last of the majors, and jokingly referred to as the least of them. It needed energy, and a move to May would allow it to be in the heart of the major championship season instead of the end. It also positioned the PGA Championship away from changes during Olympic years. That required the PGA Tour to move The Players Championship back to March, where it had been until 2006. Left behind was the European Tour, which typically stages its flagship event in May at Wentworth. It appeared to work well for everyone involved. The BMW PGA Championship attracted most of Europe’s best, along with Americans such as Patrick Reed, Tony Finau and Billy Horschel. The Rolex Series on the European Tour saw significantly stronger fields, especially with the BMW PGA Championship and the Italian Open moved to later in the year. The only potential problem would have been the PGA Championship in May because it already was set for Long Island in New York. The weather was cold early in the week — not any colder than Pebble Beach in February — and delivered heat inside and outside the ropes. Still, it was an adjustment for the players. Justin Rose spoke what several players were thinking. There used to be a chance for players to catch their breath after the Masters until the next major in June. There was no time for that in 2019.
The other change was far more significant. Sometime after the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2010, top rules experts from around the world began meeting privately to discuss blowing up the Rules of Golf and essentially starting over. The Royal and Ancient game needed to adapt to a modern culture. They wanted rules that made sense without losing the tradition or ethos of a game with six centuries behind it. After releasing a proposed draft, and then confirming it, the modern Rules of Golf went into effect at the start of the year. It was not the smoothest transition, at least by appearance.
The two changes getting most of the attention were leaving the flagstick in during putts on the green, and how to get a ball back in play. The first took getting used to by the fans. The other was a problem for the players. To get the ball in play quicker, the new rule was to drop it from the height of a player’s knee instead of the shoulder. Players from tours around the world had been dropping it the same way their entire lives. Rickie Fowler never liked the look of it, and then he paid a steep price in the WGC – Mexico Championship when he was penalized one shot for using the shoulder-level drop. Fowler knew he made a mistake but was no less furious, calling it a “terrible change” and suggesting such rules gave golf a bad look. It got even worse the following week at the Honda Classic.
The rule change that met with so much approval during the draft wound up causing the biggest stir. The intent was to keep caddies from lining up their players, but it was written in such a way that players were unclear how and when it was enforced. And it didn’t take long for the outrage to spill over. First, Haotong Li received a two-shot penalty on the 18th green at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic because his caddie stood on a line behind his ball. The penalty knocked him from a tie for third to a tie for 12th. A week later in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Denny McCarthy was penalized two shots for his caddie standing behind him during practice swings. Officials adjusted the rule so caddies could stand behind the players as long as the players stepped away and started over with the pre-shot routine. But a month later, Adam Schenk was penalized because his caddie was standing behind him in a bunker to discuss a tough shot.
Justin Thomas, maturing into a strong voice at age 26, took to Twitter to say the rules were terrible. Someone at the USGA tweeted back to accuse Thomas of skipping planned rules meetings and suggesting that he call. Thomas said no meetings were ever scheduled, making the USGA look worse, and this genteel sport was losing its civility. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan delivered a stern memo to players to be patient, still be vocal, and to realize everyone was in this together. Besides, according to ShotLink data, only three penalties under the new rules had been assessed to tour members out of roughly 258,000 shots hit in the first 10 tournaments of the year. It wasn’t long afterward that the firestorm was put out, and the attention returned to birdies and bogeys instead of the rule book.
Thomas, meanwhile, joined a growing list of injuries in golf. By the end of the year, Woods, Johnson and Koepka all had procedures on their knees. Johnson wound up missing the WGC – HSBC Champions in Shanghai and the Hero World Challenge a week before he returned at the Presidents Cup. Koepka lost out on the HSBC Champions and the Presidents Cup. Thomas had to sit out during a more crucial part of the year. He tried to hit a shot off a tree root at the Honda Classic in early March, shook his wrist and kept going. What followed were mediocre performances, and after the Masters, he chose to sit out for nearly two months to let it heal. That meant missing the PGA Championship. And when he returned, he missed the cut in two of his next four starts, including the U.S. Open. From there, he continued to emerge as the best of an age group that includes Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele. Thomas won the BMW Championship for his second FedExCup Playoffs victory. He won the CJ Cup in South Korea for the second time. Starting with the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, he never finished worse than a tie for 17th in his last 10 tournaments of the year.
The slow start and the injury kept him from a chance to win the PGA Tour money list for the third straight year. Thomas was No. 5 in the World Money List at just over $7 million. He finished behind Tommy Fleetwood, who finished at No. 4 with $7,783,428. Fleetwood made most of his money in five tournaments while winning just once, the fewest victories among the top five on the World Money List. The biggest payoff for Fleetwood was winning the Nedbank Challenge for $2.5 million. Add that to a runner-up finish in the DP World Tour Championship, the Open Championship, a tie for third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a tie for fifth in The Players Championship, and those five tournaments represented 70 percent of his earnings for the year.
While arguments could be made for the best of the men in 2019, there was no debating who ruled the world of women’s golf. Jin Young Ko turned pro when she was 18 and won 10 times on the LPGA of Korea Tour in a four-year span. She was runner-up in the Women’s British Open in 2015, and her victory in the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in Korea was her ticket to America. Ko won the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in 2018, finished in the top 10 at slightly more than half of her tournaments and was the Louis Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year. That was the warm-up act.