FOUR MORE WORLD NUMBER ONES
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
Jon Rahm is still looking for his first major with time on his side. He has been a large presence since turning pro after the 2016 US Open at Oakmont — Johnson’s first major — both on the PGA Tour and the European Tour, along with a Ryder Cup debut in 2018 in which he took down Woods. Rahm has yet to seriously contend in the majors, at least in the final hour. At age 26 and with just over four years of professional golf under his belt, it is too early to judge him with that measure.
But the fiery Spaniard ticked off one box in the summer when he reached number one in the world for the first time. He got there with a wild ride at Muirfield Village to win the Memorial, leading by eight shots at the turn, watching it shrink to three shots with three holes to play, and then holing a tough flop shot out of deep rough for birdie on the 16th hole. That birdie turned into a bogey because of a two-shot penalty for causing his ball to slightly move before the shot. No matter. He still won and shared a fist-bump — the Covid-19 version of a handshake — with Jack Nicklaus. He joined his idol, Seve Ballesteros, as the only Spaniards to reach number one in the world. He also captured the BMW Championship with that magnificent birdie putt in a playoff to beat Johnson. That was as far as he got. It’s still progress. It was his fourth consecutive year of at least two victories around the world.
Justin Thomas has been to number one. His problem is staying there. He first rose to number one in 2018 and lasted four weeks. In 2020, he won the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational — his second World Golf Championship title — over Brooks Koepka and stayed there all of one week. But he has staying power. Thomas never fell out of the top five all year, and it was his fourth consecutive season of at least two victories on the PGA Tour. No one since Woods a decade ago has put together such a streak. Even so, there was reason for Thomas to feel disappointed as he looked back on his year at what was within his reach. He had the 18-hole lead at the US Open and he shared the 36-hole lead at the Masters, both times faltering on the weekend. He was in Sunday position at five other tournaments — he had the lead in three of them — without converting. “I’ve got to figure that out,” he said. Nothing burned him more than losing a three-shot lead with three holes to play in the Workday Charity Open at Muirfield Village and losing to Collin Morikawa in a playoff.
It wasn’t all bad. He took advantage of a three-putt par by Xander Schauffele on the 72nd hole of the Sentry Tournament of Champions to get into a playoff, twice hit a hook with his three-wood in the playoff and somehow escaped with a victory. His victory at the FedEx St Jude Invitational included a wild tee shot that missed a hazard by hitting a cart path and turned a potential bogey into a tournament-winning moment. As his game matures, his expectations rise. The PGA Tour stopped giving out a trophy for the leading money winner as it has become all about FedEx Cup points. It used to be the Arnold Palmer Award, and now that goes to the rookie of the year. It’s still worth noting that Thomas finished at number one on the PGA Tour money list at just over $7.3 million, not a bad total considering three months were lost to the schedule. It was the third time in the last four years Thomas has led the PGA Tour’s money list. He also won the points-based award from the PGA of America as player of the year, mainly because the standings ended before the last two majors were played.
The forgotten number one for 2020 was McIlroy, and an argument can be made that no one was hurt more by the pandemic. When he tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was his seventh consecutive top five around the world, which included a victory in the WGC HSBC Champions at the tail end of 2019. McIlroy contended every week he played, and he returned to number one for the first time in nearly five years in February. He didn’t win in the four chances he had at the start of the year, and his year ended the same way. Coming out of the pandemic, McIlroy was poised to keep right on going. He was in the mix at the Charles Schwab Challenge only to close with a 74. And so began a streak of a different variety. McIlroy went eight straight tournaments without a top 10, and he finally let on that he was having a difficult time adjusting to the quiet, spectator-free environments.
Simply put, he found himself going through the motions.“That’s partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I’m playing. I’m not inspiring myself, and I’m trying to get inspiration from outside sources to get something going,” he said. McIlroy also had plenty on his mind off the course as his wife, Erica, gave birth to a daughter they named Poppy. He had a pair of top 10s in the majors to close out the year but number one in the world looked farther away at the end of the year than it was at the beginning. More troublesome for McIlroy is another year without a major. He now has gone six years without.
Brooks Koepka, who began the year at number one, was among those who effectively were missing in action. Koepka was coping with injuries to his left leg and hip during an offseason that kept him from playing in the Presidents Cup. He didn’t return until two tournaments in the Middle East, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the Saudi International, and neither were inspiring. It was like that when he returned to American soil. And then the pandemic arrived, costing him more time off he neither wanted nor needed. By then, Koepka was in danger of missing out on the FedEx Cup postseason for the first time since he joined the tour, and he found some form when it was too late. He had a chance to defend his title in the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational until hitting his drive on the 18th hole in the water.
And he was full of confidence — or sounded the way — at the PGA Championship when he was trying to become the first player to win three successive years in strokeplay. Positioned nicely just two shots behind Johnson going into the final round at Harding Park, he surveyed the leaderboard and said he liked his chances, with a dig at his one-time friend Johnson. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalised. He’s only won one. I’m playing good. I don’t know, we’ll see.” It was a rare dose of trash talk, and it backfired. Koepka shot 74 and tied for 29th. He missed the cut in the Wyndham Championship the following week, and at 97th in the FedEx Cup, withdrew before the opening playoff event and his season was over. Koepka ended the year at 12th in the world, the first player since Jason Day in 2017 to start the year at number one and finish outside the top 10.
Rickie Fowler fell out of the top 50 for the first time since 2014 and faces being left out of certain majors. Francesco Molinari also was a no-show. The Italian had not been the same since losing the lead on the back nine at Augusta National in 2019. A year devoted to pulling himself out of a slump turned into a year at home. Molinari decided during the pandemic to move from London to Los Angeles. He played four times before the pandemic and three times after golf returned. He started the year at 18th in the world and ended it at 112th. Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth kept searching and kept spinning his wheels. He remained winless since The Open Championship victory at Royal Birkdale in 2017. Spieth showed flashes when golf returned from the pandemic, but not for long. He ended 2020 closer to falling out of the top 100 than moving back into the top 50.
The other absentee was Tiger Woods, whose future gets more tenuous with each passing year. The question going into 2020 was more about when he would break the PGA Tour’s career victory record he now shares with Sam Snead at 82. By the end of the year, the pulse was leaning more toward “if ”. The Masters he won in 2019 really was a crowning moment in so many ways. His first major in 11 years. His fifth green jacket, and first Masters title in 15 years. The comeback from four back surgeries and the fallout from medication. And his two children were there to witness what they previously had only known from video highlights. Throw in another classic Woods victory in the Zozo Championship in Japan — wire-to-wire, soft course, giving no one else chasing him reasonable hope — and closing out the year with perhaps his crispest golf in a playing-captain victory at the Presidents Cup, and he was primed. And then just like that, he wasn’t.