Ko’s First Major
After winning the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, Ko captured her first major championship at the ANA Inspiration and moved to No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. In the summer, she closed with a four-under 67 for a two-shot victory in the Evian Championship for her second major of the year. And with a tournament-record 262 in the CP Women’s Open in Canada for a five-shot victory, she picked up her LPGA-best fourth vic- tory of the year. Her short game, particularly her putting, carried her to a dominant year. Even without winning the CME Group Tour Championship and its $1.5 million prize, Ko still won the LPGA Tour money tile and the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. The LPGA Rolex Player of the Year is based on points. Ko clinched that with a month to go in the season. Her year painted a broader picture of women’s golf. Yes, the Koreans remained the force on the LPGA Tour by winning 15 of the 32 official events on the schedule by eight players. Ko, Kim, Sung Hyun Park and M.J. Hur won multiple times. But sustaining dominance over a year was shown to be more difficult. The previous year, Ariya Jutanugarn won the U.S. Women’s Open among her three LPGA titles, was the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year, won the Vare Trophy and the money title with nearly more money than the next two players on the list. In 2019, Jutanugarn didn’t win a single LPGA event. In 2017, the player of the year was shared between Park and So Yeon Ryu. Park shared player-of-the-year honors as the rookie of the year. And to think it was only four years ago when the future belonged to Lydia Ko. It was more evidence that great depth and parity had arrived on the LPGA Tour. The Americans showed some strength with four winners. Nelly Korda led the way with two victories, and she was in the mix for the Race to the CME Globe at the end of the year. Korda finished the year at No. 3 in the world.
The best American performance might have belonged to the commissioner, Mike Whan. The LPGA Tour was losing sponsors and tournaments during the recession when Whan came along with high energy and big plans in 2010. The LPGA had 24 tournaments with official prize money of $41.4 million, and only one tournament — the U.S. Women’s Open, run by the USGA — had a purse of $3 million or more. This year, the LPGA had 32 official events with $70.2 million in prize money. Five tournaments offered $3 million or more, and the CME Group Tour Championship to wrap up the season had a $5 million purse. Whan, who signed a long-term extension as commissioner at the end of the year, says it wasn’t only numbers that allowed him to measure how far women’s golf had come. “It was putting women on a platform that had never been seen before. I’m not sure we’re there yet. And there’s certainly a long way to go. But some really cool signs,” he said.
The future of women’s golf was blossoming, too. Paving the way was the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which brought women to the home of the Masters for the first time to compete. Along with illustrating progressive thinking by Augusta National, it brought more attention to the women’s game by showcasing potential stars for the future. Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi were among those who took advantage of a new LPGA Tour policy by earning cards at the Q-Series — a qualifying tournament of eight rounds stretched over consecutive 72-hole tournaments — by deferring their membership. By staying an amateur, they were able to compete at Augusta National, and they put on a show. Fassi is a powerful, dynamic personality from Mexico, and she appeared to take control in the final round. Kupcho developed a migraine in the middle of the final round, so severe she had trouble seeing. But she recovered just in time with a back-nine charge that was memorable, mostly the two shots she hit with a three-hybrid — to six feet on the 13th for eagle, and a hard draw around the trees and over the water to the 15th that set up birdie. They turned pro for the U.S. Women’s Open, and despite only having just over five months, both kept their LPGA cards. Kupcho advanced to the CME Group Tour Championship.
The LPGA Tour has been looking beyond American shores for a while it was the first truly international tour. Whan took an extraordinary step late in the year by promoting a partnership with the Ladies European Tour. The members of the LET agreed to the 50-50 joint venture to pool resources without it being an American takeover. Each tour will have six members on the board. The LET has been struggling for years to keep tournaments and sponsors. Whan saw it as a way to build opportunities for European countries, knowing there would be a path to the LPGA Tour. “If you read the mission of the LPGA, it’s to provide women the opportunity to pursue their dreams in the game of golf, period. I don’t see a boundary or a fence around that statement,” Whan said. “So I said to my board, I think we should do this because we can. And I think it’s our responsibility. Our founders would have done it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Europe’s greatest achievement this year was winning the Solheim Cup for the first time since 2013 in Colorado. Golf continued to thrive in Asia, too. Ai Suzuki won seven times on the Japan LPGA, the most victories by a professional in the world this year, male or female. Hinako Shibuno won five times — four in Japan, and one on the road. But that was a big one. Shibuno, with her charming style and devil-may-care attitude, won the AIG Women’s British Open in her first major. Instead of taking up LPGA Tour membership, she decided to remain at home in Japan, still not sure — even after a major — her game was ready for the LPGA Tour. Ko, meanwhile, had five victories by adding another title on the Korean LPGA Tour.
There also was a growing trend toward putting men and women together, sometimes at the same golf complex, sometimes on the same golf course, playing for the same prize money and even competing against each other. One such occasion was the ISPS Handa Vic Open, co-sanctioned by the LPGA Tour and the European Tour. It featured men and women competing on the same course, with winners from each tour receiving equal prize money. The Jordan Mixed Open in April featured players from Europe’s senior Staysure Tour, the Challenge Tour and the Ladies European Tour. Daan Huizing of the Netherlands, who plays on the Challenge Tour, won by two shots over Meghan MacLaren of the LET. The Challenge Tour also had the ISPS Handa World Invitational for men and women, who competed for separate trophies on the same course at Massereene Golf Club in Northern Ireland. Women were invited again to play in the GolfSixes event on the European Tour, while the European Tour and LET staged events in Morocco on the same golf resort, but different courses.
And it wasn’t stopping there. Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam got involved by announcing they will host the Scandinavian Mixed in 2020 in which players from the European Tour and LET will compete for one trophy, a prize fund of 1.5 million euros and world ranking points. Missing were the details, but not the momentum. “The European Tour has been leading the way in terms of innovative formats, and I believe this is certainly one that can be part of the way golf is played in the future,” Stenson said.
Innovation was on the mind of the PGA Tour when it tried to find a cleaner end to is points-based system. The FedExCup has been around since 2007, and the system has been tweaked over the years. But there still was some confusion on the reset of points, along with the possibility of having two winners in one day — the winner of the Tour Championship, and the winner of the FedExCup. So it went for perhaps its most radical idea. The idea was to reward the best, most consistent season, but also to make the Tour Championship the deciding event for the FedExCup and the $15 million bonus. So it went with a staggered start. Whoever was leading the FedEx- Cup after the regular season and two postseason events — Thomas in this case — started the Tour Championship at 10 under par. Patrick Cantlay was second, so he started at eight under. It went all the way down the list for the top 30 until the last five players started at even par. And then the first shot was struck. It was odd, mainly because of the chance that whoever shot the lowest 72-hole score might not win the tournament. The upside for the tour was that fans could keep track of one score — whoever was lowest to par at the end. For one year, it worked out fine. McIlroy played so well that he would have won either way. He shot 13-under 267, which was three shots better than anyone else. With his head start at five under (he was No. 5 in the standings), he was credited with 18 under for a four-shot victory. The math still wasn’t easy, except for counting the $15 million he won.
Youth showed itself around the world, an increasing trend in golf. Joaquin Niemann of Chile won A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier by five shots, and then was chosen by International captain Ernie Els to become the first Chilean to play in the Presidents Cup. Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand featured at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black until he faded to a 77 in the final round and tied for 14th. Janewattananond easily won the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour by winning four tournaments, including the last two to crack the top 50 in the world and earn his first trip to the Masters.
On the PGA Tour, three players who turned pro after the NCAAs made an immediate impact. One month after Matthew Wolff won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top player in college at Oklahoma State, he rolled in an eagle putt on the final hole of the TPC Twin Cities to win the 3M Open by one shot over Collin Morikawa, whose eagle attempt to force a playoff narrowly missed. Morikawa, who graduated from California, grew up with Wolff north of Los Angeles. Not to worry. Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nevada, a month later. The other was Viktor Hovland of Norway, another star at Oklahoma State. Hovland did well enough to earn his PGA Tour card without winning, but he got everyone’s attention with 19 consecutive rounds in the 60s, starting with a 64 in the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic in June, ending with a 74 in the third round of the CJ Cup in October.
One of those young stars used to be Jordan Spieth, who in 2019 went from the “Who’s Who?” of golf to “Remember Them?” It wasn’t that bad for Spieth. He accomplished so much so quickly — 14 wins worldwide (11 on the PGA Tour) and three legs of the career Grand Slam at age 23 — that he became one of the biggest stars in the game. That made his slump all the more pronounced. Coming off a year when he failed to win or even reach the Tour Championship, Spieth suddenly began to struggle on the weekend as he worked to get his swing back to where it once was. He was in contention going into the weekend of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am until closing with rounds of 74-75. He had a shot at the Genesis Open the following week at Riviera and shot 81 in the final round. There was a 74-75 weekend at the RBC Heritage, a final round over par (71) at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He played in the final group of the third round at the PGA Championship with Koepka and fell back with a 72. The result was the same — no victories, no trip to East Lake for the Tour Championship. Spieth began 2019 at No. 17 in the world and was at No. 44 when it ended, in danger of falling out of the top 50 for the first time since his rookie year in 2013. He wasn’t alone. Spieth and Jason Day once battled for No. 1 in the world, and the Australian also took a tumble in the ranking. Coming off a two-win season, Day started with promise until his back began to act up again. He tied for fifth in the Masters, and then had only one top-10 the rest of the year as his World Ranking fell to No. 37 and he didn’t make it to the Tour Championship. He was a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup, but then withdrew because of another back injury.
Dustin Johnson was nowhere near that category. It just seemed that way the second part of the year. He won the WGC – Mexico Championship for his 20th career victory on the PGA Tour, this after winning the inaugural Saudi International. He had his best finish in the Masters as a runner-up. He nearly made history at the PGA Championship when he tried to overcome a seven-shot deficit to Koepka, a rally that ended on the 16th hole. And then he went quiet. Johnson didn’t record another top-10 the rest of the year — eight tournaments, his longest streak without a top-10 since the end of 2011 and the start of 2012. It made sense when he revealed he had surgery on his left knee, which had been bothering him most of the year and made him hang back on his right side instead of getting through the shot. Johnson said that led to a straight ball. Is that so bad? “It is when you’re aiming for a cut,” he said.
The other disappearing act after a victory belonged to Phil Mickelson. For starters, he disappeared from the world top 50. Mickelson really is an ageless wonder who remains as enthused about competition at age 49 as when he turned pro at age 22. When he won the WGC – Mexico Championship in 2018, Mickelson said he was certain he would reach his goal of 50 wins on the PGA Tour. That was his 43rd. And in February, he made it No. 44 with his fifth victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. It was there that Mickelson peeled back the curtain of reality. “The fact is it’s very difficult to win out here, and to win seven more times — now it’s only six — is not going to be easy,” he said at Pebble. “It’s still a goal of mine. But I also need to be realistic. That’s going to be a tough goal to attain. But that’s why it’s such a fun challenge.” The more immediate goal was a U.S. Open to complete the career Grand Slam. He missed again, this time at Pebble Beach. Then, it was to make his 25th consecutive team, Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, already a record and one that might not be matched again. That seemed easy enough after Pebble Beach. It wasn’t.
Mickelson only cracked the top 20 one time over his next 19 tournaments worldwide, a tie for 18th at the Masters. He was resigned to being left off the Presidents Cup team. More resignation arrived in Shanghai for the WGC – HSBC Champions, when Mickelson tied for 28th. It was enough for him to fall out of the top 50 for the first time since the last week in November in 1993. That adds to nearly 26 years of being among the top 50, a record so impressive that the OWGR board recognized Mickelson during the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. It requires perspective. The last time Mickelson was not in the top 50, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were still in diapers. Jose Maria Olazabal had yet to win the Masters. Deane Beman was still commissioner of the PGA Tour. It was the first time Mickelson looked his age. Undeterred as ever, he pledged to return. “It was a good run. Unfortunately, the last eight months I played terribly and I’ve fallen out. But I’ll get back in there,” Mickelson said. He didn’t play again the rest of the year and slipped all the way to No. 70. It looked like a tough road back.
Bernhard Langer also saw his streak come to an end. The two-time Masters champion had won the Charles Schwab Cup on the PGA Tour Champions a record five times. Even with his 62nd birthday approaching in the summer, he was considered the player to beat. Langer won his second start of the year, and then lost in a playoff the following week. He extended his senior record with his 11th major championship in the Senior Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, his 40th victory on the PGA Tour Champions. But he only had three top-10s until the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs, and at No. 7 he was too far behind to make up ground. Langer wound up at No. 4 in the final standings, his lowest since he was 24th in 2011.
Instead, the PGA Tour Champions became a one-man show, at least in terms of points, from Scott McCarron. He went to No. 1 with his victory in the spring at the Mitsubishi Electric Classic outside Atlanta, and he stayed there the rest of the year. McCarron won twice more — but no majors — and built such a big lead that not even a slump toward the end of the year could keep him from the $1 million annuity. Jerry Kelly tried to keep it close, but couldn’t get it done in the final event. Retief Goosen had a chance to win the Schwab Cup, but the former U.S. Open champion missed a three-foot birdie putt in a playoff loss to Jeff Maggert at the Schwab Cup Championship in Arizona, and Goosen had to win the tournament to win the cup. Steve Stricker didn’t play the PGA Tour Champions after July, but he still had a big year with two senior majors. One of them was the U.S. Senior Open, which makes him exempt for the U.S. Open return to Winged Foot.
Woods turned 44 at the end of the year, and he has often said he is closer to players like Stricker and Fred Couples and other PGA Tour Champions players than to his peers on the PGA Tour. But it was clear, especially in his final act of a special year, what the younger players meant to him. It was Thomas and Rickie Fowler, in particular, who encouraged Woods when he was struggling with his back. They played several practice rounds in Florida. He was their idol when they were teenagers, and it was inspiring to be around him on the same level. Most striking about Woods winning the Masters were the players who waited outside the scoring room to greet him. That didn’t happen a generation ago, the last time Woods had won a major. Woods always had the awe of the public and the utmost respect of the players he beat. At this stage in his career, he was embraced by players who for years knew him best from highlights or video games.
He came to life this year, at least for one week at Augusta National to become a major champion again, and again in Japan to match a record that no one will touch for a long time, if ever. And until he stops playing, who knows what that PGA Tour career victory record will be?