Nelly Reaches No. 1

Nelly Reaches World Number One

Contributor: Doug Ferguson


Women’s golf, for a change, had a distinctive red, white and blue tone to it, and that much was evident from the start when Americans won the first three tournaments on the schedule. The last time that happened was in 2007. The run started with the Kordas — Jessica won the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, Nelly at Lake Nona in the Gainbridge Championship — and then Austin Ernst the LPGA Drive On Championship in Florida. By year’s end, Americans had won more LPGA Tour events than any other country, with nine titles including the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. But it was the second tournament of the year that provided insight into a big year.

Nelly Korda was a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour, but never on US soil. That changed at Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida. Her year didn’t really start to take off until later, and she was searching in June when she missed the cut at the US Women’s Open at The Olympic Club. But she bounced back the following week to win the LPGA Meijer Classic with a 62 in the third round, and then she overwhelmed Atlanta Athletic Club in the KPMG Women’s PGA for her first major title, reaching number one in the world. “That has a lovely ring to it, not going to lie,” she said of her new status. Speaking of rings, it was even sweeter to pose before the Olympic rings at Kasumigaseki Country Club with big sister Jessica, part of the four Americans who qualified for the Tokyo Games. Korda was the favourite, and she answered the challenge with more dominant golf. She had a shot at 59, needing a birdie on the 18th hole, until she didn’t realise the tee boxes had been moved forward, hit through the fairway and behind a pine tree and made a double bogey for 62. No matter. She never lost control until she stood on the podium and bit into that gold medal around her neck.

“It’s been a tough year for the South Koreans,” Inbee Park said as she left the Olympics. A country that dominated women’s golf for so long was finding only sporadic success. Patty Tavatanakit led the Thailand charge by going wire-to-wire in the first LPGA major of the year at the ANA Inspiration. Three other Thai players won on the LPGA Tour. Yuka Saso, of The Philippines, won the US Women’s Open. Minjee Lee, of Australia, captured the Amundi Evian Championship, while Anna Nordqvist won the AIG Women’s Open. At that point Park, Hyo Joo Kim and Jin Young Ko accounted for the only three LPGA wins by South Korean players. But when the Solheim Cup ended, Ko picked up the banner.

Ko won the Cambia Portland Classic, gave up a late lead in the ShopRite LPGA Classic and atoned for that the following week by winning the Cognizant Founders Cup, adding a second straight victory two weeks later at home in South Korea. The LPGA Tour suddenly had a rivalry, even if it didn’t feel like one because they were not all playing the same events. After the Olympics, they played in the same tournament only three times over the last four months. One of them was the Pelican Women’s Championship, where Korda made a triple bogey on the 17th hole in the final round, birdied the last hole to join a four-way playoff with Lydia Ko, Sei Young Kim and Lexi Thompson, and won with a birdie. That set the stage for the LPGA Tour finale, essentially a winner-take-all for Ko and Korda.

It came down to the final round of the year with both of them part of the final grouping. Ko not only putted for birdie on every hole in the final round of a 63, she didn’t miss a green in regulation since the ninth hole on Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club. “It was the Jin Young Ko show today, and honestly, it was cool to see. I just sat back and watched,” Korda said. There was really nothing else she could have done. The LPGA Tour bases its awards on points, not votes, and the final victory tipped the balance toward Ko. Still, Korda had a major, an Olympic gold medal and the number one ranking at the end of the year. She had no complaints. Capping off such a memorable year was playing with her father, Petr, the 1998 Australian Open men’s tennis champion, in the PNC Championship. She even met Tiger Woods.

Not to be overlooked was Lydia Ko, a former number one and dominant player in women’s golf whose game had taken a downturn. She started the year just inside the top 30 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Ranking and had gone nearly three years without a win. But she closed with a 62 in the ANA Inspiration that made Tavatanakit sweat out the final two holes before winning by two. The following tournament, Ko won the Lotte Championship in Hawaii by seven shots. She later won the Aramco Saudi Ladies International by five shots. And the Kiwi added to her LPGA Hall of Fame point total by capturing the Vare Trophy for having the lowest scoring average. It was a sign she was on her way back, sure to add to the increasing standard in women’s golf. Ko was winning as a teenager — she reached world number one as a teenager, too — and while she has endured the ups and downs so prevalent in golf, she still was only 24 with her peak years ahead of her.

Standing on the 18th green for the LPGA Tour’s final event to present the trophies to the Kos — Jin Young as Player of the Year, Lydia for the Vare Trophy — was a new face in golf. Mollie Marcoux Samaan was hired as the ninth commissioner of the LPGA Tour, taking over for Mike Whan and his decade of growth in women’s golf that led to a bigger, richer schedule and created an alliance to provide stability on the Ladies European Tour. Whan retired at the start of the year in a surprise move that made a lot more sense a few months later when he was hired as the chief executive officer of the US Golf Association. Marcoux Samaan came to the LPGA Tour after spending seven years as the athletic director at Princeton University. She had golf in her blood. Her senior thesis as a student at Princeton was a historical construct of women in sports and the role golf played. She is the second woman to be the LPGA commissioner in its 71-year history.

Another newcomer to golf leadership caused a little more consternation. Greg Norman, the two-time Open champion, announced in late October he was the CEO of a group called LIV Golf Investments, which was backed by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund. His first order of business was to announce putting $200 million into the Asian Tour for 10 new tournaments, beyond the Saudi International that already had become part of the Asian Tour. The cause for trepidation was what else was to follow. There have been rumblings of a new golf league for the last several years, and Jay Monahan at the PGA Tour already had stepped in by saying any player who joined would risk his tour membership. That led to an alliance with the European Tour, and there was a sense of battle lines being drawn. Norman was said to be approaching players with offers of guaranteed riches to join a new league that would be a team concept involving 14 tournaments around the world with huge purses beyond the guaranteed money. By the end of the year, there was no more development and no player had publicly announced he was joining. All the while, another group known as the “Premier Golf League” also was trying to get its foot in the door at PGA Tour headquarters in Florida to create a new league. “This is only the beginning,” Norman said, hinting at what he referred to as “additive new opportunities” around the world.

For Norman, it was his second try at what amounts to a world tour. He had a proposal for the leading players in 1994 and was ready to break away until Arnold Palmer stepped in to say he wasn’t interested, and it fell apart soon thereafter. Even without anyone publicly announcing support, there already was movement in other areas. The European Tour, rebranded late in 2021 as the DP World Tour, renewed its alliance with the PGA Tour of Australasia and extended its partnership with the Sunshine Tour. And the PGA Tour, fresh off signing a mega media rights deal, began offering players even more riches. One of those was the Player Impact Program, a $40 million bonus pool paying 10 leading players — $8 million to the winner — who moved the needle based on five metrics involving TV appearances, Google searches and social media impact, among others. By the end of the year, Monahan announced The Players Championship prize fund would be $20 million ($3.6 million going to winner), while the FedEx Cup bonus pool would increase from $60 million to $75 million, and the bonus pool for the Comcast Top 10 — the leading 10 players in FedEx Cup points through the regular season — would go from $10 million to $20 million. “We are positioned to grow faster in the next 10 years than we have at any point in our existence,” Monahan told the players in a memo.

The alliance with Europe starts with the Scottish Open becoming a joint tournament for Europe and the PGA Tour, with two PGA Tour events — the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship — providing access to European Tour members. Golf was bracing for some of its biggest changes, no matter what shape it took.

It was a big boost for the Asian Tour, to be sure. While golf returned as close to normal as the pandemic and sponsorship would allow, the Asian Tour shut down in March of 2020 and did not resume until Chan Shih-chang won the Blue Canyon Phuket Championship the final week of November in 2021. The China Tour managed to stage nine tournaments during the year. The Japan Golf Tour cancelled or removed 20 tournaments from its 2020 schedule and decided to have a super season that included 2021. Chan Kim won the Order of Merit and won two times, while Takumi Kanaya took the scoring title.

The PGA Tour Champions also went to a double season because of the pandemic. That meant Bernhard Langer would be one year older, without really missing a step. The two-time Masters champion from Germany was 64 when he won the Dominion Energy Charity Classic in a playoff. It was his 42nd career victory on the 50-and-older tour, and made him the oldest winner in PGA Tour Champions history. “I feel like a puppy next to him,” Ernie Els said. “But he plays like a young man and he’s got that desire still, which is incredible.” Six players at 62 or older had won on the PGA Tour Champions. Langer did it twice. And while it was his only victory in 2021, along with just one win the previous year, his consistency was as astounding as ever. Langer played 39 times in this double season and had 24 finishes in the top 10. Mickelson played only four times on the PGA Tour Champions in 2021 and won two of them, including the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. That still wasn’t enough to keep Langer from winning the Charles Schwab Cup for the sixth time. Jim Furyk, another newcomer to the senior circuit, led the World Money List among seniors at $2,460,391. Langer finished fifth with $1,761,762. Furyk’s lone victory was a big one. He captured the US Senior Open, 18 years after his only major in the US Open at Olympia Fields.

The year did not end without golf losing some notable figures, most prominently Lee Elder. The first Black man to compete in the Masters in 1975, Augusta National paid tribute to him by asking Elder to join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the first tee of the Masters to be an honorary starter. By then, Elder’s health was failing. He was in a wheelchair and could only raise his driver — without hitting a shot — to acknowledge the gallery. He died on November 28. “Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people. The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder,” Nicklaus said. Elder got into golf as a caddie and polished his game while serving in the US Army. He joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s, and at age 33, he could afford PGA Tour qualifying school and earned his card. No victory was more monumental than the 1974 Monsanto Open, which came with an invitation to the Masters and the historic breakthrough. Elder went on to win four times on the PGA Tour and eight titles on the PGA Tour Champions. His impact on the game went beyond winning Elder was back at the Masters in 1997, standing proudly under the large oak tree, when Woods became the first player of Black heritage in a green jacket.

Others who passed in 2021 were Ben Wright, the British television announcer who for years worked for CBS Sports and was remembered best for his call, “Yes, sir!” when Nicklaus stormed from behind to win the 1986 Masters; Renton Laidlaw, of Scotland, a golf correspondent who transitioned to radio and TV and became known in later years as the “voice of the European Tour”; Billy Maxwell, the 1951 US Amateur champion and a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour; Jocelyne Bourassa, a leading Canadian who won 15 amateur titles and what now is the Canadian Women’s Open on the LPGA Tour; and Bruce Fleisher, a longtime club professional who showed that tour life can begin at 50 when he won 18 times on the PGA Tour Champions, including a US Senior Open.

The year ended with plenty of cause for celebration, particularly in Japan. Even with no spectators at Kasumigaseki for the Olympics, the anticipation of rising golf in the land of the Rising Sun was palpable. Matsuyama wasn’t on the podium, and yet it might have been as strong of an effort as he had all year.

About a month before the Olympics, he was in isolation for Covid-19 and desperate to record a negative test to have any chance of competing. Even when he was back to golf, it was a matter of building stamina for the stifling heat of summer in Tokyo, not to mention the rust from not having played a full tournament since the US Open (his positive Covid test was during the Rocket Mortgage Classic). He was more determined than ever, and worked his way into the final group, one shot behind Schauffele. “I definitely could not have believed it,” he said. It just didn’t hold for the final day. One shot behind with four holes to play, the putts stopped falling. He had a shot at the bronze until missing a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole. That put him in a seven-man playoff for the bronze, and he was eliminated with a bogey on the first hole.

Mone Inami concluded these Olympics on a high note, however. Already given the honour of hitting the opening tee shot, she made five birdies in a six-hole stretch and was tied for the lead after an eight-foot birdie on the 17th hole. But having gone over the 18th green the previous day, this time she was tentative and came up short, plugged in the sand, and she did well to make bogey for a 65. So that was a silver medal for the host nation, and that was enough.
As for Matsuyama, no gold, silver or bronze. But he still had a green jacket, as big a prize as any in golf. And he wasn’t finished. When Matsuyama returned from Augusta National, he had to quarantine for 14 days. There were no spectators to honour him at the Olympics. But in October, he returned home for the Zozo Championship outside Tokyo. It was the first time Japanese fans could watch their star, and Matsuyama delivered. He finished with a three-wood that descended from the sky and landed near the cup, causing delirium outside the ropes. He made a 12-foot eagle putt to cap off a five-shot victory. What a year for Matsuyama. What a year for Japan.

And while the world ranking was top- heavy with American players, there was more evidence of how the game continued to develop talent all over the world. In the women’s game, Thailand was looked upon as developing a new crop of stars, such as Tavatanakit and Atthaya Thitikul, an 18-year-old rookie who finished number one on the Ladies European Tour. And if 18 sounds young, consider Ratchanon Chantanauwat, the 14-year-old amateur from Thailand who made the cut twice on the Asian Tour when it finally was able to emerge from the pandemic late in the year.

Higgo was among 11 players from South Africa in the PGA Championship, a country that only had three players in the PGA field 20 years ago. Wilco Nienaber was one of them, known mostly for the prodigious lengths he could hit the golf ball. Abraham Ancer won his biggest event in the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational, giving Mexico two players in the world top 50 at one point. Rahm, McIlroy and Hovland were the class of Europe.

And it was not time to say goodbye to yesteryear’s heroes, particularly Mickelson. There was a popular automobile commercial in America years ago with the slogan, “What will Phil do next?” The popular Lefty showed that’s very much a relevant question. As for Woods? His car crash was so severe that he said doctors contemplated amputation of his right leg. Ten months later, he was dressed in his Sunday red shirt and occasionally striping shots, leading to heavy speculation that perhaps another comeback was in the works. If that’s the case, it doesn’t figure to be easy because golf is getting younger and deeper by the year, if not the minute. That much hasn’t changed.

Doug Ferguson is golf correspondent of the Associated Press


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