Reviewing the 2019 PGA Tour Season
THEY would never admit it, but the PGA Tour got lucky. Rory McIlroy won the FedEx Cup, and a $15m bonus pot, at East Lake after recording the lowest 72-hole score of the 30-man field. But a convoluted handicap system meant that the likes of Justin Thomas or Brooks Koepka could have “won” the tournament without shooting the lowest score.
“Ask me how I feel about the handicap system on Monday,” McIlroy had said before the Tour Championship got under way. He began the week five shots behind Thomas and wasn’t convinced about the format. He also questioned the size of the bonus fund. In truth, $15m amounts to little more than spending money for an individual such as McIlroy. He has spoken about the FedEx Cup creating some kind of legacy for the game, especially given the fact that the US PGA Championship now takes place in May. And he clearly believes money alone will not achieve that. He is right.
The PGA Tour were lucky that their champion was a man who performed more consistently than any other golfer during the year, with the exception of world number one Koepka. Yes, he missed the cut at The Open, but this was his third victory of the season, including The Players Championship, and he had 14 top-10 finishes in 19 starts. By anybody’s standards, that is a pretty impressive body of work. His performances in the majors were largely forgettable but when he is on song, he remains the best and most exciting player on the planet - if you doubt it, check out his play when he won the Canadian Open and his play throughout the week at East Lake.
The powers-that-be will, no doubt, be giving themselves a pat on the back and telling themselves that they got it right. In fairness, it was clear that something had to be done. Previously, the FedEx Playoffs comprised three tournaments before concluding with the Tour Championship. It was well-nigh-impossible to work out who would pick up with FedEx Cup until the winning putt was holed. The PGA Tour decided that they needed a format everybody would understand, so all 30 players began the week at East Lake with scores ranging from 10 under par to level par.
With Justin Thomas beginning the week on 10 under par after winning the BMW Championship, it meant that the man who started at East Lake in 30th place (Brandt Snedeker) would have to better Thomas’s score by at least 11 shots to have any chance of winning. To give the PGA Tour credit, the new format meant that spectators could look at the leaderboard at any time during the 72 holes and know precisely who was in front (even if they weren’t actually in front!). It all came out in the wash precisely because McIlroy produced what was easily the best gross score over four days. But it could all have gone horribly wrong.
So, in what other ways were the PGA Tour lucky in 2018-19? Early in the season an incredible ball striker called Cameron Champ began his rookie season with a victory. And later in the year he was followed by another rookie called Matthew Wolff, who also collected a victory. Both young men are prodigiously talented golfers who also happen to hit the ball into the middle of next week. And both have techniques that are all their own. Boy, when they hit that golf ball, it stays hit. Champ was hit by injury and struggled in the latter part of the year, but then along came Wolff.
Lucky? Koepka confirmed that he truly is the best golfer on the planet when, after finishing second at The Masters, he made a successful defence of his US PGA Championship title. It was his fourth major victory. He also very nearly won the US Open for a third successive year, beaten only by Gary Woodland. And then, after holing nothing for four days, he was fifth at The Open. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, and that is a mystery. He is not a faceless, robotic golfer - he has plenty of opinions about all sorts of things and is not afraid to share them. Woodland may not be the most exciting golfer you have ever watched but, like Koepka, he is an incredible physical specimen who thoroughly deserved his major breakthrough.
Lucky? Players are finally speaking out about slow play. It all came to a head after Bryson DeChambeau took two minutes to play a simple 70-yard pitch shot and the same again to strike an eight-foot putt, which he duly missed. He defended himself after being at the centre of a social media storm, with the likes of Koepka, McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and Thomas criticising DeChambeau. Patience is also fast running out with the likes of JB Holmes and Kevin Na.
With tournament rounds routinely taking more than five-and-a-half hours to complete, players have decided that enough is enough. While the European Tour has already announced new penalties for the coming season, the PGA Tour continue to drag their heels. But they know that something has to be done, that putting players “on the clock” and fining them is no longer good enough. Who knows? We may soon see tournament rounds played in under four hours.
Lucky? Jon Rahm continues to prove he is a world-class golfer. It is surely only a matter of time before he wins his first major. Patrick Reed. Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to ignore him, and the tour is better for having him winning again. Phil Mickelson. Still winning even though he is now almost old enough to play on the Champions Tour. Rickie Fowler. Still looking for that elusive first major, still a consistent performer. Xander Schauffele. A young American on the cusp of greatness. Justin Rose. Continues to get better with age.
Lucky? Oh yes, and then there was that guy who won The Masters. Tiger Woods, written off by most of us, completed the most remarkable comeback of all, winning his 15th major at Augusta, 11 years after claiming his 14th. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he walked off the 72nd green and embraced his children. It didn’t matter that the rest of his season was an anti-climax as he once again struggled with his fitness. With another season just around the corner, hope springs eternal that he will somehow be able to drag his battered body back to the summit.
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