A Curious Year
A CURIOUS YEAR FOR TIGER
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
Woods hasn’t won at Torrey Pines since 2013, before the first of his back surgeries. The course is long, the rough is thick and wet, the Pacific air is cold. He broke par all four days in the Farmers Insurance Open, and while he was never seriously in contention and finished six shots behind, he still tied for ninth. It was his next start at Riviera for the Genesis Invitational where he is tournament host that his season began to look curious. Woods has never won at Riviera, even in his prime. In early 2000, when he won or was runner-up in 10 out of 11 official PGA Tour events he played, the exception was Riviera. He tied for 18th. This time, it was a 76-77 weekend in cold air and a last-place finish among those who made the cut. He said he felt stiff all week. No one would have guessed then he would not play again until July.
Woods skipped the WGC Mexico Championship. And then he chose to sit out the Arnold Palmer Invitational as an eight-time winner at Bay Hill, saying his back and neck needed rest. Another dagger was The Players Championship, which he had missed only four previous times, all injury-related. The tour shut down after the first round, the Masters was postponed, golf was postponed and Woods was out of the public view. He did join Jim Nantz during a re-airing of the previous year’s Masters. He was shown having his own Masters dinner while wearing his green jacket on what would have been Tuesday at the Masters. Golf resumed. Woods stayed home. It wasn’t until the Memorial that he returned and was never a factor.
It was like that all year. Woods played twice before the pandemic. In the seven tournaments he played after the return, he finished a combined 107 shots out of the lead in the six events he made the cut. At the Masters, he generated a buzz with a 68 in the opening round and was well out of it when he made a 10 on the 12th hole of the final round. “My body just has moments where it just doesn’t work like it used to,” he said after the Masters. “No matter how hard I try, things just don’t work the way they used to, and no matter how much I push and ask of this body, it just doesn’t work at times. Yes, it is more difficult than others to be motivated at times. Yes, because things just ache and have to deal with things that I’ve never had to deal with before.”
His year ended on a high note. Playing with 11-year-old son Charlie in the PNC Championship, they finished seventh and Woods was a proud dad. Two days before Christmas, he had a fifth surgery on his lower back, this one the maintenance variety. All that did was lead to more questions about his future.
Another player moving closer to the twilight of his career sure didn’t play like it. Lee Westwood tied for fourth in The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in 2019 and took particular delight in knowing it would get him back to the Masters the following year. He had fallen out of the top 100 in the world near the end of 2018 until winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. He was still well outside the top 50 before Portrush. But then he started 2020 with a victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, his second title in a Rolex Series event, and he suddenly had reason to feel much younger than his 46 — soon to be 47 — years. Such is the staying power of Westwood that his victory gave him a European Tour title in each of the last four decades, and it was the 25th career title on the European Tour. Just like that, he was back among the elite. Coming over to America for the run-up to the Masters, he tied for fourth in the Honda Classic before golf shut down. Westwood thought he had played the Ryder Cup for the last time at Hazeltine, and now it was on his mind again. “I really enjoyed watching everybody else suffer in the last one. Now I give myself a chance to play,” he said. That was put on hold, but not his season.
The Race to Dubai was so disjointed because of the pandemic. It began with 11 events dating to the autumn of 2019, though there was only one Rolex Series event, one World Golf Championships event in Mexico and two other events that offered a regular allotment of points in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Throw in another World Golf Championship and majors in August and September, and the race to be Europe’s number one had a red, white and blue tone to it. Patrick Reed was the leader for much of the season; Reed plays a global schedule and has been a big supporter of the European Tour for years. Right there with him was Collin Morikawa, who had never played on European soil or even taken part in a regular European Tour event. He moved up the standings primarily due to his PGA Championship victory. But the 23-year-old American came over for the DP World Tour Championship, as did Reed. In a most exciting finish to a most unusual year, Reed made enough mistakes over the final holes in Dubai that Matt Fitzpatrick won the tournament and Westwood captured the Race to Dubai.
Even in such a moment of glory, Westwood turned his thoughts to the real winner of the year. He sits on the Players’ Committee on the European Tour. He was in the meetings. He was helping with the decisions. “It didn’t look good for a period of time there, and we played every week pretty much. That’s a phenomenal achievement with what’s going on to get those tournaments on,”Westwood said. He considered the protocols and the bubbles, the masks and the refrain from socialising so valuable on the tour. Everyone bought into the plan Pelley and his staff laid out. “To actually play tournaments and play a full tour this year has been an incredible job by everybody at the tour, and Keith deserves a pat on the back.”
Westwood was number one in Europe for the third time, but he wasn’t the best in England. That fell to Tyrrell Hatton, who came into his own with two big victories. One of them was all about timing. Tommy Fleetwood had a chance to win the Honda Classic in Florida and came up short. Paul Azinger, still regarded as “Captain America” for leading his US team to a rare Ryder Cup victory in 2008, was handling the television commentary. He said Fleetwood had a chance to prove he had what it takes to win. “You can win all you want on that European Tour or in the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” he said. It was a stinging comment — particularly the use of THAT European Tour — and Westwood and past Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn were quick to call him out. Fleetwood wasn’t listening and wasn’t bothered. But it was only fitting that the following week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Hatton closed with seven straight pars in some of the toughest conditions of the year for a one-shot victory, his fifth worldwide and first in America.
That was only the start for Hatton. Bay Hill turned out to be the last tournament for three months on the PGA Tour, even longer in Europe. The time off did not hurt Hatton, however, as he made a bold move at the RBC Heritage and tied for third, added a tie for fourth in the Rocket Mortgage Classic and then won the next best thing to a major. He used to attend the BMW PGA Championship as a child. He even recalls the time he was at Wentworth as a five-year-old with his father and was nearly struck by the tee shot of Vijay Singh. And here he was, at the flagship event of the European Tour, the only player to post scores in the 60s all four rounds for a four-shot victory. Even against a stronger field and tougher course conditions he faced at Bay Hill, this was his signature victory.
“This was a goal of mine, to win this tournament in my career,” he said. Another goal was to reach the top 10 in the world, and he achieved that the same week. The next target are the majors, and that could stand some improvement. One year after he made the cut in all four majors, he was among six players who missed the cut in all three majors played in 2020. No matter. It was a very good year.
It was a great year for the women, too, considering what they were up against. LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan felt he had loads of momentum going into 2020 with a schedule of 34 official tournaments and 10 years of hard work and good sponsorship that created a reserve fund for a tour that for more than a half-century has been on its own. Whan even led a unique joint business venture with the Ladies European Tour with hopes of strengthening women’s golf worldwide. The LET was able to boost its schedule to 24 events with a $5 million increase in total prize funds. The pandemic cost them the Asia Swing in March, the popular West Coast Swing through Arizona, California and Hawaii in the late spring to general concern how much of a financial blow it would be to women’s golf. Whan was quick to shut down the tour and slow to return, with no apologies. He preached caution, and it paid off. Danielle Kang won back-to-back in Ohio, staking her claim as America’s best on a tour where Americans are easily lost. Stacy Lewis won the Scottish Ladies Open. And then the winner’s circle was filled with one great story after another.
Those three Cactus Tour events in Arizona that Sophia Popov won were only a precursor. She went from caddieing for a friend to getting into a tournament in Ohio, and she did well enough to earn a spot in the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon, where she had the week of her life to capture her first LPGA title and her first major. She had to miss the next one, the ANA Inspiration, because much like the Masters, the field had been set as if it were being played in April. Mel Reid, a fierce athlete and sympathetic figure while coping with her mother’s death in a car accident that derailed her promising career in England, broke through with her first victory in the ShopRite LPGA Classic. Austin Ernst and Ally McDonald added their first titles.