Hojgaard Twins Show Promise In Europe
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
With more money and world ranking points in America, the stream of talent kept heading toward the PGA Tour. The European Tour marched on, still hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, making it tougher for new stars to emerge at home. Among the more promising moments was a pair of 20-year-old Danish twins, Rasmus and Nicolai Hojgaard, who won European Tour events in consecutive weeks. There were key moments early with Tyrrell Hatton (Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship) and Paul Casey (Omega Dubai Desert Classic) winning during the strong Middle East swing, all but securing their spots for the Ryder Cup later in the year. Rahm gave Europe a major championship for the fifth time in the last six years.
The effects of the pandemic were still being felt on the European Tour, however. The tour put together a 40-tournament schedule, not including the Olympics or the Ryder Cup, and there were still clusters of tournaments in the same region for ease of travel. There were five successive weeks in the UK, including The Open. There were back-to-back weeks in Kenya, and three-tournament stretches in Spain in the spring and the fall, and the season ended with back-to-back weeks in Dubai. The spring swing through Spain was a launching pad for Garrick Higgo, of South Africa, who won two out of three, and then later cemented his status as one to watch when he captured the Palmetto Championship at Congaree in South Carolina on the PGA Tour, a replacement for the RBC Canadian Open.
But with prize money lacking outside the Rolex Series events, the Race to Dubai was led by two American players. It’s not unusual for US players to feature in the European standings because of the four majors, the World Golf Championships and a few Rolex Series events that attract strong fields. At least in this case, they won on European soil. Morikawa captured his first international win at just the right time, at Jumeirah Estates in Dubai to claim the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. Billy Horschel, who won the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas in March, won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. This was one week after Horschel was left off the US Ryder Cup team again. He finished second in the Race to Dubai behind Morikawa, with Rahm in third. The top finisher who played exclusively in Europe was Min Woo Lee, of Australia, who won the abrdn Scottish Open and finished the year among the top 50 in the world ranking.
Not to be overlooked was Viktor Hovland, the Norwegian star who came into his own on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Hovland, who played his college golf at Oklahoma State and still chooses Stillwater, Oklahoma, as his US base, picked up his first European Tour victory in the BMW International Open in Germany, and that was the start to a big finish of the year. The win came just a week after he had to withdraw from the US Open with an eye injury. Hovland won again in the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba, his second victory at that Mexican resort, and then capped it off by beating Morikawa, his good friend, at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. The tournament Woods hosts is not attached to any tour and the money is not official. But world ranking points are available, and the 20-man field is strong. Hovland had to beat the likes of Burns, Scheffler, Thomas, Patrick Reed and Morikawa, with whom he shared a room for the week. So when asked if it felt like a real win, Hovland replied, “Hell, yes.” Three wins in a year moved Hovland into the top 10 in the world, and he finished the year at number five on the World Money List at $6,035,079.
Hovland was one spot on the money list behind a surprising figure, not because of what he had accomplished in his young career, but because of where he had been. Jordan Spieth was three-fourths of the way to the career Grand Slam when he walked away from Royal Birkdale with the Claret Jug in 2017. He had not won since, and his slump had become so pronounced that when he started his year by missing the cut by one shot at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Spieth was on the verge of sliding out of the top 100 in the world ranking. That was a serious plunge for a three-time major champion at age 23, for the player who came within three shots of a chance of a calendar Grand Slam in 2015, for a former world number one. He was feeling the pressure like never before. One weekend off, and one round in Phoenix, appeared to change everything.
Spieth shot a 61 in the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, holing putts from everywhere, just like old times. He landed in the final group, though he failed to hold on, closing with a 72 to tie for fourth. Remarkably, that was his best finish since a tie for third in the 2019 PGA Championship. But it was a start. The following week in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Spieth holed out from the fairway for eagle on the 16th hole to build a two-shot lead going into the final round. Again, he struggled to cross the line and tied for third. He contended for two rounds at the Genesis Invitational, for three rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He reached the quarter-finals of the Dell Technologies Match Play. There was hope, even if there were no trophies. And still plenty of eyeballs on the can’t-miss kid from Texas who had been missing for more than three years. “That’s what I get for the start of my career, which was awesome,” he said. “Anything asked in a negative manner, it’s not like I don’t feel that way in my own game. I know what I’ve done. I know what I’m capable of doing. And when I don’t, it’s more frustrating for me than it is anyone else.”
Frustration gave way to sheer relief when he won the Valero Texas Open. Was he back? He was on the right path, anyway. And as he shared a warm embrace with his wife, Annie, after his victory in San Antonio, only they knew at the time she was pregnant with their first child. It was going to be a memorable year regardless. He had chances at the Masters until Matsuyama pulled away. He was in position to win the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial until a three-over 73 on the final day. Most devastating was the Open Championship, where a poor finish on Saturday and a sluggish start on Sunday left him too far back to track down Morikawa. Even so, he was back among the elite. For one week, at least, he reached number 10 in the world, his first time back among the top 10 in three years. And being among the elite meant he was an obvious captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup. Spieth would have missed his first US team as a pro if not for the match being postponed one year by the pandemic. “For the first time in years, I feel like I’ve got some momentum,” he said at year’s end.
It was an example of how quickly fortunes can change in such an unpredictable sport, even for supreme talents. McIlroy has had plenty of mini-slumps over the years and once famously said when golf is going well, players forget what it was like to play poorly. And when they’re in a slump, they feel like they’ll never get back. That was the road facing Rickie Fowler, who fell out of the top 100 in the world and failed to even qualify for the PGA Tour playoffs. Ditto for Jason Day, a former world number one from Australia who when his game was on appeared to have no weakness. He ended the year 123rd in the world, with seven Australian players ahead of him. Westwood at age 48 surged his way back into the top 20 with two close calls at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship, runner-up in both events. But a year after he won the Race to Dubai, he was approaching two years since his last victory and wondering if those days were behind him. Henrik Stenson, the 45-year-old Swede, was another who struggled to find his game as he tumbled out of the top 100. Part of his setback was a slip on the ski slopes during a holiday with his children that injured his ribs. All had a long climb. Some, like Westwood and Stenson, and to a lesser extent Day, no longer had as much time on their side.
Mickelson no doubt was feeling that. He could look back to August 22 1993 — Spieth was a month old and Deane Beman was still the PGA Tour commissioner — when Mickelson won the International against a field that included Jack Nicklaus and Roger Maltbie. That was significant because Mickelson moved into the top 100 in the world for the first time in his career. And there he stayed for the next 1,425 weeks until he fell to 101st in the first week in March. It’s a streak that will be tough for anyone to challenge, and it looked to be the beginning of the end to one of the game’s greats. Mickelson fell as low as number 115 until one magical week among the dunes of Kiawah Island brought his sixth major championship. “One of the moments I’ll cherish my entire life. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of excitement and fulfilment and accomplishment to do something of this magnitude when very few people thought that I could,” he said. He never finished better than a tie for 17th the rest of the year on the PGA Tour, though he won twice on the PGA Tour Champions. No matter. Phil Mickelson a major champion at age 50. Who saw that coming? It made him exempt for all the majors through 2025. The measure of his satisfaction was best reflected the following week at Colonial. He shot 73 and said, “Yeah, I didn’t play well. I shot three over. But I won the PGA.”