Curtain Of Curiosities
Peering Behind Golf’s Curtain Of Curiosities
Contributor: Matt Cooper
It’s very easy for us to be distracted by golf’s endless pursuit of the player who ends a tournament with the trophy in his or her hands. It’s a necessary pursuit, of course, because without winners (and losers) all sport would be as baffling an exercise as life itself. Yet sometimes that narrow focus prompts us to forget, or simply overlook, the turning points, red herrings and cameo performances which precede the final act. Each tournament has a large cast and with so many tours there are many stages. The sport’s multi-narrative format is therefore abounding with quirks and curiosities, yet history often recalls only those stood on stage when the curtain dropped.
In 2021 there were, as always, many background tales. Like that of the nation which, without anyone appearing to observe, has edged close to superpower status in the sport. It can lay claim to over 150 tour wins since 1975, including 16 major championships, with three of the latter triumphs arriving in the first six months of 2021 alone. Naturally, of course, this assertion is somewhat whimsical, otherwise there would be no mystery. In reality, the golfers responsible for this haul — the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, Bernhard Langer, Alex Cejka and Sandra Gal — only share Czech ancestry, rather than wave the flag. Imagine it were otherwise, though, and that the central European state was a remarkable hothouse of the sport (arguably, it is in any case). In a wonderfully elaborate twist to the tale, the Czech Republic also missed out on Nelly Korda’s gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, while near neighbour Slovakia claimed bronze thanks to Rory Sabbatini (the South African who resides in the USA and is married to a native of his new nation). Other side-stories are unveiled over weeks. In April, South Africa’s Garrick Higgo appeared inspired by the popular mantra of “be better than you were yesterday”. He carded 72-71-69-68 to finish tied fourth at the Austrian Golf Open and a week later he maintained the improving run, shooting 65-64-63 to grab the 54-hole lead in the Gran Canaria Lopesan Open. He could only match his latest score in the final round, but it was enough to ensure victory and he even added another 63 in the first round of the following week’s Tenerife Open. Nine competitive rounds and he never once needed more shots than he’d taken in the previous circuit.
There was a touch of fairy tale when Minjee Lee and her brother Min Woo both won in July, the former at the Amundi Evian Championship, the latter in the Scottish Open. In itself, the sibling double was a remarkable feat, but Minjee revealed Min Woo had spotted something even more astounding. “He told me that every single day we had the exact same score and we both won in a playoff,” she said. “What are the odds that could happen? It was kind of creepy, but fun and cool in a good way.”
There were narrative echoes at play, too, in Sophia Popov’s return to Carnoustie for her defence of the AIG Women’s Open title. Ten years earlier she had played in the first group out on Thursday and very briefly led the tournament. At the time her parents and a friend who waved a flag with her name on could never have guessed what the next decade would have in store for her. That flag had embarrassed Popov in 2011 (she felt undeserving of it), but in the summer of 2022 she was recognised at the airport on arrival and had extensive media duties to fulfil. Her picture was everywhere, the transformation from imposter to poster star complete – and who had she played with in that first group in 2011? Anna Nordqvist, who succeeded her as champion. Echoes everywhere.
Is there any greater golfing cameo than the hole-in-one? A moment of indulgence for the player and gallery, like an old ham granted an ovation for a familiar routine. But have two golfers ever had such wildly contrasting fortunes when bagging not one but two of them in the same tournament as Japan’s Nasa Hataoka and Akira Yamaji this year? The former made her pair on the way to victory in the LPGA’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. The latter’s duo came in the second round of the JLPGA’s Resort Trust Ladies, but couldn’t help her make the cut.
There are times in golf when the wins don’t relate to trophies. Take Patrick Rodgers who, with four holes of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship to play, was clinging to his PGA Tour card for the 2021-22 season whereupon his tee shot at the 15th found deep fescue. His group were well aware of the perilous situation and hunted in growing desperation for the ball. When playing partner Tyson Alexander finally found it he immediately turned to the official and asked for a time: “2.58” came the answer. Rodgers hacked out of the grass, completed his par, birdied 17, and landed the 23rd of the 25 cards on offer. The slender divide between playing on the top or second tier? In Rodgers’ case, a mere two seconds.
“THE GREATEST TOP 60”
A few weeks later, needing solo 67th or better to gain conditional PGA Tour (and full KFT) status, Jim Knaus made the cut at the Bermuda Championship on the number. Two days later, walking to the tee of his 72nd hole of the week, he noted he was T61st on the leaderboard. Undeterred, he made birdie and afterwards joked that it was: “Probably the greatest top 60 of all time.”
Not all such stories have happy endings. Jin Jeong was once the world’s top-ranked amateur, he was Low Amateur at the 2010 Open, and he won on the 2013 European Tour. He also finished second in the 2014 Joburg Open but then made just four cuts in his next 52 starts on the circuit, averaging over 77 shots per round. He had not been seen on any main tour for three years ahead of Monday qualifying for the Shriners Children’s Open with a nine-under-par 63. Redemption? Salvation? It may yet come, but it didn’t that week. Five days later he missed the cut.
A final thought for the numbers which pepper the sport, sometimes obscuring the plot, other times illuminating it. Minjee Lee’s Evian victory when facing a seven-shot deficit in her final round was impressive but maybe not so much as the fact that she was 10 shots back at halfway. She was the first player to win on the LPGA from that position at the end of any round since Louise Friberg in 2008 (the Swede was actually 10 back with just 18 holes to play). In the 96 women’s majors played in the 21st century it was the largest overhaul of any shot deficit at the end of any round, bettering the nine-stroke halfway deficit Yani Tseng overcame in the 2008 LPGA Championship.
In a similar vein, Rasmus Hojgaard’s victory at the European Masters was secured by an excellent final round of 63 which saw him leap from a pre-Sunday position of T15th. He was only the 25th player to win from T15th or worse on a pre-final round leaderboard in the 1,841 PGA and European Tour events played in the 21st century.
And what of the excellence which goes unrewarded with a tournament victory? The scene-stealer. The one day when a player outshines his or her peers to a degree that is truly outstanding. If we use adjusted scoring averages (which compares field average with a player’s actual score, also factoring in the field strength) then the finest round of the year in the men’s game was the second-round 60 carded by Bryson DeChambeau at the BMW Championship. After missing the putt for a 59 he revealed, you’d hope with a devilish glint in his eye (but probably not), that: “We got a lot of great numbers out of the rough today.” The second-best effort was Justin Rose’s opening 65 at the Masters and it will be scant consolation to Jon Rahm that his third-round 64 at Muirfield Village (completed seconds before he received news of a positive Covid test) was third.
In the women’s game, the top two places were taken by the 61s carded by Jeongeun Lee6 and Leona Maguire at the Evian Championship. The Irishwoman’s fine season was re-emphasised by the fact that she was the only golfer to appear more than once ineither of the the top-20 lists — and she did so no fewer than three times. She has shone with minor roles and also as a team player at the Solheim Cup; a solo performance on centre stage awaits her.
Matt Cooper is a freelance golf journalist