SEI YOUNG KIM DOMINATES
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
The majors contained one big surprise after another, except for one. Popov, Mirim Lee at the ANA Inspiration and A Lim Kim at the US Women’s Open were all first-time major champions. So was Sei Young Kim, though she was hardly a surprise. She already had won 10 times on the LPGA Tour when she dominated the field at Aronimink in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Kim added a second title in the Pelican Women’s Championship, a new tournament that was salvaged by moving to October. Kim and Kang were the only multiple winners in a season that still managed to squeeze in 18 tournaments and crown a Race to CME Globe champion in Jin Young Ko, the number one player in women’s golf.
Ko stayed mostly out of sight during the pandemic except for six appearances on the Korean LPGA — four top 10s, no victories. It was a time for her to be home. And then there was Emily Kristine Pedersen, once a rising star from Denmark who benefited greatly from the shutdown. Pedersen made her Solheim Cup debut in 2017 in Iowa at age 21 and it proved to be a tough week for her and for Europe. She lost all three of her matches and so went her confidence. She struggled to make cuts and lost her LPGA Tour card. She fell out of the top 500 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. “I sat down with my coach in March and he said, ‘How are we getting through this lockdown better than everyone else?’ And that motivated me. If I hadn’t had my struggles, I don’t think I would have learned.” She learned, and she won — a lot. Pedersen won the Tipsport Czech Ladies Open for her first title in five years. And then she closed out the LET season with three in a row — the Saudi Ladies International, the Saudi Ladies Team International and the Andalucia Costa del Sol Open De Espana.
There was golf on the PGA Tour Champions, but no conclusion. While the PGA Tour managed to crown a FedEx Cup champion (helped by a season that began last September), it decided the PGA Tour Champions would have one season wrapped into one year. Bernhard Langer won again, because that’s all the German does. He captured his 41st career title on the PGA Tour Champions and by the end of the year — but not the season — he was leading the Charles Schwab Cup points race. Four-time major champion Ernie Els won for the first time in the last event before the pandemic at the Hoag Classic, and the Big Easy won again late in the year. He was among four multiple winners in the 15 tournaments that were held. The other was Miguel Angel Jimenez, and then two rookies to the 50-and-older circuit.
Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson were born a month apart in 1970 and made their Champions debuts at different times. Furyk started at the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills in Michigan, one of his favourite places when it held the Buick Open on the PGA Tour. He won on his debut, and then he won again on another familiar course, Pebble Beach, at the Pure Insurance Open. Mickelson played more out of desperation. He failed to advance beyond the first week of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which presented a problem. Mickelson had no tournament to play for the next two weeks with the US Open in September approaching. He entered the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National in Missouri, shot 22 under par in the 54-hole event and won on his debut. He played again in the Dominion Energy Charity Classic and won that event, too. Two starts, two victories, $755,000. That was about half of what he earned in 16 starts on the PGA Tour the previous season. Mickelson thought about playing the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Arizona as his tune-up for the Masters, and then changed his mind and went to the Vivint Houston Open. He missed the cut and then beat only four players at Augusta National. The PGA Tour Champions probably hasn’t seen the last of him.
Every year, golf keeps getting younger because players keep getting better. They are ready to win. Gone are the days of any feeling that some apprenticeship must be served. Collin Morikawa graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 2019. Within two months, he was a winner at the Barracuda Championship, and then he backed it up in 2020 with victories at the Workday Charity Open and the PGA Championship. Matthew Wolff left Oklahoma State after his sophomore year and was a winner within a month. He contended on the back nine at the PGA Championship and US Open, losing out to Morikawa and DeChambeau. By the end of 2020, 14 of the top 20 players in the world were in their 20s, and 20 out of the top 50.
And more, undoubtedly, were on the way. With age comes experience, however, and golf lost a foursome of rules and tournament knowledge that covers over 160 years. On the European Tour, chief referees John Paramor and Andy McFee decided to retire. They have been the voice and often the logic of rules on the European Tour for some 40 years each. Once frustrated over being summoned for the most simple of rulings, they established a policy in which players who called for a ruling they should have known — relief from a cart path, for example — they had to watch a special rules DVD that McFee and Paramor created before entering their next event. In America, the PGA Tour announced the retirement of Mark Russell and Slugger White, each with some 40 years of experience, who had served as vice presidents of rules and competition.
The world lost some powerful figures in golf. The older crowd will remember the smooth swing of Peter Alliss, an eight-time Ryder Cup player and Europe’s best player in the 1960s whose 23 victories did not, sadly, include The Open Championship. Old and young alike will know the voice — distinctively British, raw opinions, often humorous, always honest. Small wonder Alliss became known as the “Voice of Golf ” for his work on the BBC in Britain and ABC in America, along with other countries who had the pleasure of hearing him. He was three months shy of his 90th birthday when he died on December 5. “Pure madness” is how he described Jean Van de Velde playing the 72nd hole at Carnoustie when he carelessly threw away a chance to win The Open Championship. On the day Tiger Woods was going for the third leg of the Grand Slam and shot 81 in the raging wind off Muirfield, Alliss said, “It’s like turning up to hear Pavarotti sing and finding out he has laryngitis.”
The golf should not be overlooked. He was proud of of his 1-0-1 singles record against Arnold Palmer in the Ryder Cup. He won the Vardon Trophy as the leading player on the British PGA, the precursor to the European Tour, in 1964 and 1966. He represented England 10 times in the World Cup. Alliss was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012 for his golf, for his voice, for a little bit of everything.
Mickey Wright was all about golf, considered by many to be the greatest woman player in history. Kathy Whitworth won more tournaments. Babe Zaharias had more flair. But any conversation about the best female golfer starts with Wright, who died on February 17 at age 85. She won 82 times and 13 majors, and perhaps her lasting legacy is that Ben Hogan once said she had the finest swing he ever saw. For all the attention heaped on Woods, Wright might have had it worse. During the early years of the LPGA Tour, she averaged 30 tournaments a year between 1962 and 1964 because sponsors who put up money expected her to play. From 1960 to 1964, she averaged 10 victories a year. She retired from full-time competition in 1969 at age 34.
It was only fitting the USGA began awarding the Mickey Wright Medal to the US Women’s Open winner. Wright was a four-time winner. The USGA also dedicated a separate room in its museum to Wright, an honour only otherwise bestowed on Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Hogan. She donated some 200 mementos to the USGA, along with a synthetic mat from which she hit balls onto the fairway from her back porch to feel the sensation of a properly hit shot. Kathy Whitworth once said, “I’ve had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and all of them. And some of our ladies had wonderful swings. But nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody.”
Others whom golf lost in 2020 were Doug Sanders, who brought a flamboyance to golf fashion ahead of his time, a colourful character known as much for the 20 times he won on the PGA Tour as the majors that got away. That included a short putt he missed on the final hole at St Andrews, losing the next day to Jack Nicklaus in 1970. “If I was a master of the English language, I don’t think I could find the adjectives to describe how I felt when I missed that short one,” Sanders said. Pete Dye left behind some of the most clever and “Dye-a-bolical” designs in golf, most notably the TPC Sawgrass and Crooked Stick. His objective was to make golfers feel uncomfortable at what they saw, and he often succeeded.
For the rest of golf, it was mainly about survival. The Open Championship was lost for the year, and so was the Evian Championship on the LPGA Tour. The major tours froze their membership rolls so that no one lost a job, even if that meant a holding period for those next in line. But they kept playing. For every PGA Tour event Jay Monahan attended, the commissioner had to test negative for Covid-19 and receive a vinyl bracelet around his wrist. He kept every one, a reminder that another tournament was in the books and the next one was on the horizon.
Dustin Johnson became a footnote in history twice without even realising it. He can say he is the first Masters champion to have had to recover from the coronavirus. And because the Masters was played in November, he only gets to keep the green jacket for 141 days before the next Masters. There’s a long list of oddities like that.
“I know 2020 has been a really strange year,” Johnson said. “But it’s been good to me.”