A Generation Inspired

A Generation Inspired by Tiger

Contributor: Doug Ferguson

Golf has been heading in this direction for some time. A world of golf without Woods is inevitable, and he has said as much himself. “Father Time remains undefeated,” Woods likes to say. But what golf has seen in recent years — and 2021 was no exception — is that Woods by example and by inspiration has raised a generation of players who are working hard on their games and their fitness, who are fearless when it comes to winning, and who have raised the game around the world to levels of great play previously seen by only a few players. Some of them can be seen coming from a distance, such as McIlroy or Jordan Spieth, more recently Rahm and Morikawa.

Morikawa actually was overlooked in his class of rookies by the unorthodox, yet powerful swing of Matthew Wolff, and the precise play of Viktor Hovland, of Norway. Morikawa’s ascent was spectacular in how steady it was — a winner at the opposite-field Barracuda Championship as a rookie in 2019, the PGA Championship at Harding Park in 2020, which was the first major back after the Covid-19 pause and the first major without fans. Greatness only occurs when the level of play is sustained, and Morikawa was all of that.

He was supposed to wear black trousers and a red shirt on Sunday at the WGC Workday Championship to honour Woods the week of his accident. The clothes got lost in shipping, so Morikawa did the next best thing. He played like Woods. This was a classic case of getting in front and not making mistakes, forcing the field to catch him and no one did. Morikawa is not long by today’s standards. He switched to a putting grip that resembles the claw because of so many missed putts. But his efficiency is frightening, and the Workday Championship was an example of that. By winning, he joined Woods as the only players to win a major and a WGC event before turning 25. He lost in a playoff at the Memorial, and then saved his best work for the Open Championship, where he played the final round without a bogey. Catch him if you can, and good luck with that. He struggled again with the PGA Tour’s postseason for the FedEx Cup — no one gets everything, do they? — only to rebound with a sterling Ryder Cup debut. He was undefeated with Dustin Johnson as a partner, and while he halved his singles match with Hovland, such was the year for Morikawa that he earned the clinching point in a rare American victory.

Even if he didn’t play well during the lucrative portion of the PGA Tour season, the Californian wasn’t done. After a month’s break following the Ryder Cup, he closed with a 62 and nearly overtook McIlroy at the CJ Cup at Summit. He flew halfway around the world to Japan and tied for seventh in the Zozo Championship. And then he flew to Dubai, where this time he rallied to overtake a hard-luck, faltering McIlroy in the DP World Tour Championship to claim the Race to Dubai. Even with all that, Morikawa never lost sight of the big picture. This was one year, with what he hopes is more to come. “It’s not a swan-song farewell to what I’m doing in 2021,” he said in Dubai. “I’m going to set some high goals. I always have. I’m going to set the bar as high as I can and keep going.”

The Ryder Cup, a 19-9 rout for the largest margin ever against Europe, was a snapshot of the year in some respects. This was a young US team — eight players in their 20s, six of them Ryder Cup rookies — which was only fitting as golf continued to get younger. Morikawa was among 10 players at 25 or younger who finished the year among the top 50 in the OWGR.

Another youngster was Sam Burns, who presumably was the first man left off the American team for the Ryder Cup. No one was talking about Burns at the start of the year. He had never won and only had two reasonable chances, one of them when he lost a 54-hole lead in the Houston Open. Burns started the year at 154th in the world. After losing a good chance to win in the Genesis Invitational, there was no stopping Burns at the Valspar Championship, his first professional victory. There was a playoff loss in the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational, and then after getting left off the Ryder Cup team, he won the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi for his second win of the year. He finished as the world number 11, and he was second to Morikawa on the World Money List.

For Rahm, the Ryder Cup was the end of a year filled with more triumph than turmoil, with no shortage of either. Europe was overmatched in this Ryder Cup, and the big Spaniard practically lifted the entire team on his shoulders. Rahm and Sergio Garcia took down Jordan Spieth twice, Brooks Koepka twice. Rahm played all four sessions on the first two days until running out of gas and running into the hot hand of Scottie Scheffler on Sunday.

Loyal to his roots, Rahm headed home to Spain for two European Tour events. After a sluggish weekend in Madrid, he missed the cut at Valderrama and said upon leaving, “This is the first time in my life I don’t want to see another golf club.” True to his word, he did not play the final 77 days of the year, and what a year it was.

There are similarities between Morikawa and Rahm, mainly how they started out their professional careers. Both graduated from college in four years — Morikawa with a business administration degree from California- Berkley, Rahm in communications at Arizona State, having arrived speaking no English. Rahm is three years ahead, plays a more global schedule and has won with more frequency. What sets them apart from others, and what they have in common, is their consistency. Morikawa played 23 events as a pro before he missed a cut, Rahm missed only one cut in his first 21 tournaments. For the 26-year-old Spaniard, he can look back at 2021 as his biggest year in so many ways.

His son was born the weekend before the Masters, and that was everything to him. If there was a key moment related to his golf, it was Saturday afternoon at Kiawah Island in the PGA Championship. Rahm was a long shot to win on the weekend, but he was no less furious when he finished the third round with consecutive bogeys and was testy with the press. That became an awakening for the passionate Spaniard, especially being a new father. So he made a deal with himself that day. “I wasn’t happy with how I ended, and I could have handled it better. And I vowed to myself to be a better role model for my son. He won’t remember any of this. But I do,” Rahm said. He shot 68 the next day and tied for eighth, and that turned out to be the worst finish he had all year in the majors.

What it brought was perspective, which Rahm would say later he dearly needed. That was never more tested than at the Memorial. He had been in contact with someone who had the coronavirus, meaning Rahm had to test each day he was at Muirfield Village. He passed each test for the virus. He smashed every test that came his way on the golf course. And then came that most awkward of moments, Rahm walking off the 18th green only to be greeted by two PGA Tour officials. Rahm doubled over when he heard the news of his positive test, his hands resting on his knees, and then he leaned up and cried out, “Not again!” The positive test meant 10 days of isolation when he should have been winning the Memorial for the second straight year — only Woods had ever done that on the course Jack Nicklaus built — and when he should have been preparing for the US Open at Torrey Pines, scene of his first PGA Tour victory in 2017 and one of his favourite cities in America. Except that Rahm didn’t sulk. He followed the procedures calmly, returned to work slightly ahead of schedule and was more determined than ever to claim his first major championship. It was historic in one respect: no one had ever birdied the last two holes of a US Open to win by one shot.

Rahm made a spirited run at joining a short, but distinguished list of players to win golf ’s two oldest Opens in the same year — Woods was the most recent in 2000 — and he charged to the finish line at Royal St George’s. He just couldn’t catch Morikawa, and he tied for third. From there, Rahm was on to the PGA Tour postseason with more chances. Rahm had the lead at The Northern Trust until losing two shots to the field late in his round — one a bogey, the other a par — to miss out on a playoff. That would end up costing him, for the third-place finish contributed to Rahm starting the Tour Championship four shots out of the lead in the staggered scoring system. He made up only three shots on Cantlay.

It was a tough way for Rahm to close out a big year — the birth of his son, a victory taken away from him by Covid-19, his first major championship, and then one shot short of claiming the FedEx Cup. Rahm and Kevin Na had the lowest 72-hole score at East Lake. Due to the staggered start as part of the FedEx Cup points system, Rahm finished one back. And there was no blaming the system, no bitterness in his voice. He gave credit to Cantlay for getting up-and-down for bogey on the 17th hole to stay one shot ahead on the leaderboard, and then hitting a clutch shot with a six-iron at the last to secure a two- putt birdie and the win. “Even though I might have been the better man over the week, he earned it,” Rahm said. “I think you can say he won this.” It was a gracious concession, all part of the package that made Rahm one of the elite performers in 2021, certainly the most consistent. He was third on the World Money List at $6,649,489. He earned more world ranking points than anyone but Morikawa, and Rahm finished the year at number one. He had 13 finishes in the top 10 in the 21 tournaments he played worldwide, and that did not include the withdrawal from the Memorial when he had the six-shot lead. And he won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average.


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