Year In Retrospect

Year In Retrospect: Golf takes a bow as fans return

Contributor: Doug Ferguson

The moment lasted only about 10 seconds, an act never seen at Augusta National and one that so beautifully captured the respect and honour rooted in centuries of golf. The occasion was Hideki Matsuyama becoming the first Japanese player to win the Masters. As he headed to the scoring room to sign his card, caddie Shota Hayafuji walked across the 18th green with the yellow pin in his right hand and the flag — the traditional trophy for caddies — in his left. Replacing the pin in the cup, Hiyafuji removed his green cap and bowed ever so briefly to the golf course. “He was showing respect to the course, the Augusta National Golf Club, and the other players in the field. He never thought it would receive the attention it generated,” Matsuyama said. It was as poignant as any image, a message that resonated across the world of golf in 2021.

This was a year for golf to take a bow, particularly in the land of the Rising Sun. Matsuyama delivered the first men’s major championship to his golf-crazed country, and it was a double win for Japan that week with Tsubasa Kajitani winning the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Equally successful was how Japan, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic that barred spectators from around the world, staged the Olympics and produced a pair of pulsating finishes at Kasumigaseki Country Club. Xander Schauffele, whose mother was raised outside Tokyo, saved par on the final hole to win the gold medal. Nelly Korda held on for a one-shot victory to win the gold and cement her status as the next American star in women’s golf. Mone Inami, the most decorated winner in the world of professional golf with eight titles on the Japan LPGA, picked up the silver medal in the Olympics.

By the end of the year, the future looked even brighter for Japan with a final round of 66 from Takumi Kanaya on the Japan Golf Tour that secured his place in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. That sends him back to the Masters, alongside the number one amateur in the world, Keita Nakajima, who won the Asia-Pacific Amateur and the reigning champion. “Matsuyama accomplished something that we had not been able to do in the past, so I feel like we’ve discovered a whole new world. We can’t wait to see what the new world would offer us,” said Isao Aoki, the 1980 US Open runner-up.There was so much more beyond the borders of the Pacific island nation.

Phil Mickelson scored a big one for the old-timers when, at age 50, he became the oldest major champion in history by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. For the first time since 2013, the men’s majors were distributed among three continents — North America (Mickelson and Collin Morikawa), Asia (Matsuyama) and Europe (Jon Rahm). The powerhouse in women’s golf, South Korea, failed to win a major for the first time in 10 years, though Jin Young Ko made up for that with her second straight Race to CME Globe title. Bernhard Langer, of Germany, was ageless as ever in capturing the Charles Schwab Cup on the PGA Tour Champions, even under the threat of cameo appearances by Mickelson, who became the first player to win a major and a senior event in the same season. The PGA Tour Champions and the developmental Korn Ferry Tour each kept score over two years, effectively double seasons to account for time lost during the pandemic.

Spectators slowly returned, a trickle as early as the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, slightly larger galleries through Florida and into the Masters, and then to a point where no one was sure how many spectators were allowed, particularly when Mickelson was swallowed up by what seemed like all of South Carolina on the final hole at Kiawah Island. The Open Championship at Royal St George’s allowed 32,000 spectators, perhaps the first sign that golf at least was trying to return to normal. The bubble was still in place for much of the year, even as the vaccination rate improved and some tours stopped testing. By the last big event of the year, the Ryder Cup, it was a full house. The clear sign of the pandemic still being felt was the distinctive American cheering at Whistling Straits — loud and occasionally obnoxious. Travel restrictions were so tight that very few European fans were able to attend, and most of those were already in the US. It was a one-sided Ryder Cup in more ways than one. That wasn’t the case at the Solheim Cup — a large American crowd at Inverness Club, yes, but silent in a strong European victory.

This also was a year of emergence. That starts with Morikawa, a 24-year-old Californian with a Japanese heritage, who established himself as a veritable star when he won The Open at Royal St George’s with an impeccable short game. He also won his first World Golf Championship title at the Workday Championship in Florida, and he capped off his breakthrough year by winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to win the Race to Dubai, becoming the first American to be Europe’s number one player. So dominant in the richest events was Morikawa that he won the World Money List at $11,262,648, more than $4 million ahead of Sam Burns. And to think it was only in the summer of 2019 that Morikawa graduated from college and turned pro. He finished the year at number two in the OWGR, missing a chance to overtake Rahm for number one when losing a five-shot lead on the last day of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

Rahm narrowly won the Mark H McCormack Award for holding down the number one ranking for 27 weeks, first taking over for Dustin Johnson when the Spaniard won the US Open at Torrey Pines and returning to number one for the rest of the year with his spirited finish at Royal St George’s to finish tied-third in The Open. That only scrapes the surfaces of a year filled mostly with great triumphs, sprinkled with the occasional frustration.

His wife gave birth to their first child, a son named Kepa, right before the Masters. Rahm was never more overpowering than at the Memorial Tournament, where he matched the 54-hole scoring record at Muirfield Village and had a six-shot lead going into a final round. That was as far as he got. Before he could even sign his card for the third round, the PGA Tour informed him he had a positive Covid-19 test and was out of the tournament. Two weeks later, he was a major champion. Toward the end of the PGA Tour, a reporter posed a question to Rahm that has been asked of countless players: How would you characterise your year? Rahm could only laugh.

Yes, there was a lot going on. As much as Morikawa raised his own stature, Rahm elevated his game to another level. And he looks to be just getting started.

That also was true of Patrick Cantlay, at least at the end of the year. Cantlay took advantage of Rahm’s early exit from the Memorial. He went from six shots behind to a tie for the lead when Rahm had to withdraw, and Cantlay wound up winning in a playoff over Morikawa, offering sympathy to Rahm for his plight but no apologies for having the lowest score over 72 holes. The former number one amateur in the world, Cantlay showed his pedigree as a professional with perhaps the most clutch putting performance of the year to beat Bryson DeChambeau in a playoff at the BMW Championship. Staked with a two- shot lead in the new scoring system at the Tour Championship, Cantlay held on to win at East Lake by a six-iron into 12 feet on the par-five 18th hole and a two-putt birdie to win by one shot over Rahm and claim the $15 million prize as the FedEx Cup champion. That ultimately was the deciding factor when players voted Cantlay as the PGA Tour player of the year, and after a spectacular Ryder Cup debut by going unbeaten in four matches, Cantlay sat out the final 96 days of the year. No one was in more dire need of a big exhale.

Still, it was hard to find a real rivalry in the men’s game. Sure, there was the social media acrimony between DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, which led fans to call DeChambeau, “Brooksie”. Both of them staged a fake hug after the Americans won the Ryder Cup, and then staged a made-for-television exhibition match over 12 holes in Las Vegas during the Thanksgiving weekend. Koepka won, and nothing was really settled. Rahm and Morikawa each won a major and had the most consistent years from start to finish. Rahm and Cantlay did battle over the final event of the PGA Tour season on the golf course and in the pursuit of awards. Rory McIlroy had his moments, winning the Wells Fargo Championship to end 18 months without a title, and then he won again late in the year at the CJ Cup at Summit in Las Vegas, the second time the South Korean event moved to America because of the pandemic. Johnson’s only victory was the Saudi International, and perhaps even more
alarming was his not having many chances to win elsewhere.

If there was a rivalry, it could be found in women’s golf, and even that didn’t really feel like one. Korda started strong. Ko finished strong. This was more two ships passing in the night than on a collision course. Korda captured her first major with that sweet swing at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, and then she was golden in the Olympics with another powerful display. Ko was dealing with sadness in the family when her grandmother died in the spring. Her motivation was lacking until she picked herself up and piled up the victories. She won five times over the last 20 weeks of the season, including back-to-back starts at the Cognizant Founders Cup in New Jersey and the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea, the latter returning her to number one in the world. They came to the CME Group Tour Championship each with four LPGA victories and most of the important awards riding on the outcome. Ko got the last laugh with her silky putting stroke to win the final event, win the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year and capture the money title. “Player of the Year is best. It’s really tough to get Player of the Year, especially this year with Nelly,” Ko said. She won $1.5 million and led the World Money List for women at $3,502,161. It was the third-highest total in women’s golf history, and it was the third straight year Ko led the list.

For year a that began with limited spectators, it nearly was a year without Woods. He was last seen in 2020 playing the PNC Championship with 11-year-old son Charlie, and then golf was only three weeks into 2021 when Woods disclosed he had had a fifth back surgery to remove a pressurised disc fragment in his back. That would force him to miss two West Coast tournaments he normally plays, and then presumably gear up for the Masters. He was in the television booth for the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles, for which he is the tournament host, and he presented the trophy at Riviera to Max Homa. Two days later, on February 23, Woods ran his SUV through a median and down a hill in the Los Angeles coastal suburbs. Just like that, his year was over before it started, and there was deep concern he might never play again. Woods had multiple fractures in his right leg and ankle. He was pieced together at a trauma centre, then had a long and detailed surgery to insert pins and rods in his leg. He spent three months in a makeshift hospital bed brought into his Florida house, aching to get outside and feel the sun. Players wore red shirts on Sunday at the WGC Workday Championship in Florida the week of his accident. No one knew if they would ever see him inside the ropes again.

All it took was a three-second video, two words and one swing in a video he posted to social media in November. “Making progress,” he wrote. Two weeks later, after his first public press conference at the Hero World Challenge, he was seen at the back end of the practice grounds of Albany Golf Club hitting full shots with a three-wood one day, a driver the next. And then when the week was over, it was a matter of days before Woods announced he would return to the PNC Championship. The previous year, all eyes were on the son of Tiger and how much his traits — the swing, the club twirl, the fist pump — resembled his father. This time, everyone wanted a look at the 15-time major champion, amazed that he could go from nearly losing his right leg in a horrific car crash in February to playing in a 36-hole tournament in December. Tiger and son briefly had the lead on Sunday, only for the birdies to dry up and John Daly and his son to emerge with a one-shot victory. All that did was lead to speculation when Woods could play again. The remarkable footnote in history? Even with a fifth surgery on his back and perhaps the most damaging of all injuries from his car crash, he managed to keep alive a streak of playing at least one tournament each year as a professional. And he looked good doing it, helped by being allowed to ride in a cart.

“This is my environment,” Woods said. “This is what I’ve done my entire life. I’m just so thankful to be able to have this opportunity to do it again. Earlier this year was not a very good start to the year and it didn’t look very good. But the last few weeks, to push as hard as we have the last seven months … and to have this opportunity to be able to play with my son and to have these memories, it’s worth all the pain.”


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