Oh what a year it was in golf, and by year I mean the 2014 calendar year, because now the PGA Tour season starts in October. Even though it’s still 2014 when you’re most likely reading this, it’s the 2014-2015 season, not the 2013- 2014 season on the PGA Tour.
For our purpose, the season really began with pain (Tiger’s back) and ended with whining (the U.S. Ryder Cup team.)
In the midst of all that, a guy who has two career PGA Tour titles pulled off one of the darndest runs in major tournament history, and a player who was considered washed up years ago is outpacing Ben Hogan.
In February, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods injured himself at the Honda Classic, walking off after 13 holes, and there was a collective gasp in the halls of Nike.
He returned a few weeks later for the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but played poorly. Woods shut it down after that and underwent microsurgery on his back, not returning until June for the Quicken Loans National, just after the U.S. Open. The entire Golf Channel staff was inconsolable during the hiatus, but they found the strength to soldier on.
So there was no Woods at the Masters, and it seemed like nobody cared once play began. During Sunday’s broadcast his name was mentioned maybe three times. In year’s past there would have been a 12-minute segment about his recovery.
When play ended and Gerry “Bubba” Watson was handed the trophy, it still seemed as though nobody cared, even with Bubba’s tears. It was his second green jacket in three years, and there was all the buzz of a beehive suffering from colony collapse disorder. Just for the record, Ricky Fowler finished fifth.
What everyone really cared about, or at least what the Golf Channel and then CBS focused on, was that the famous Eisenhower Tree at the 17th hole had been turned into kindling by a winter storm. It was just a memory when the tournament commenced.
The tree was not part of the Alister Mackenzie-Bobby Jones design and, in fact, messed with the original strategy. The tree won’t be missed, but listening to the talk in the week leading up to the tournament you would have thought Rae’s Creek flooded and washed away Amen Corner. Rumors of a candlelight vigil for the tree during Masters week couldn’t be confirmed.
“You know what a tree is good for?” a guy asked after hearing some talking head go on and on about the dearly departed venerable hardwood. He then answered his own question. “You put some lights on it and shove presents underneath it. It has no place on a golf course.”
Get that man a beer.
Thankfully, once golf balls began flying nobody gave a flying anything about the tree. When it was alive, it didn’t affect the pros, only getting in the way of the average player. That’s a good strategy. Let’s make it harder for the 20-handicap but have no bearing on the best players in the world.
The big news in April, other than the Eisenhower Tree, was that Golf Digest would have a woman on the cover of the May issue. It was an unfortunate decision for two reasons. First, it was not a golfer. Second, it was Paulina Gretzky, the fiancée of golfer Dustin Johnson. Her appearance on the cover was justified in the fact that she was part of an article about golf-related exercises. Right, just what we need, fitness tips from someone who gives the impression she spends her day shopping and going to the tanning salon.
Later in the year, Johnson was either suspended by the PGA Tour for testing positive for a banned substance or took a leave of absence to confront “personal challenges,” depending on who you read or heard. Either way, his season ended abruptly, and he did not participate in the Ryder Cup after earning a spot.
The previous time Golf Digest put a woman on the cover was May 2013 with Holly Sonders. Her job at the Golf Channel seemed to entail a lot of standing around and smiling.
The last time an actual female golfer was on the cover of Golf Digest was Lorena Ochoa in August of 2008.
The LPGA and its players were peeved with the Gretzky selection.
“We don’t get respect for being the golfers that we are. Obviously, Golf Digest is trying to sell magazines. But at the same time you’d like to see a little respect for the women’s game,” Stacey Lewis told the New York Times.
Later in the year, Lewis regained the world No. 1 ranking for women’s golf.
In June it was on to Pinehurst No. 2, which pulled off the improbable — hosting the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks.
Thanks to a restoration by the architecture team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the rough was out and sand waste areas were back. The place was hard as granite when the men pulled into town. Martin Kaymer hit his drive on his opening hole Thursday, and for all intents and purposes the tournament could’ve ended right then. He won by eight shots.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the place except Watson, who called the native areas “weeds” and generally disparaged the layout, comparing it to a course he and some friends played growing up, as if that was somehow an insult.
Kaymer opened with a pair of 65s and finished at 9-under, eight shots ahead of two others, including Ricky Fowler.
Watson didn’t have to contend with the weeds after the second round. He missed the cut.
Then the woman arrived. Michelle Wie was victorious. Remember her? She’s been supposedly washed up since she was 18. Now, seven years later, she has a degree from Stanford along with three LPGA Tour titles, including the LPGA Lotte Championship in 2014 and a major. Let’s put that in perspective. At 25 Ben Hogan had zero victories, zero majors and no college degree, and he went on to do pretty well. Maybe the assessments that Wie was just hype were a tad premature.
Wie caused a mild stir post-tournament when a photo of her swigging beer from the trophy made its way onto the Internet. Many noticed the similarity of Wie’s putting stance to her drinking stance (bent over 90 degrees at the waist) and predicted back troubles.
Winner of the other women’s majors were Kraft Nabisco, Lexi Thompson; RICOH British Open, Mo Martin; Wegmans LPGA Championship, Inbee Park; The Evian Championship, Hyo-Joo Kim. None of the aforementioned females made it onto the cover of Golf Digest in 2014.
For the men, it was on to Royal Liverpool Golf Club, or Hoylake if you prefer, for the Open Championship. Yes, that’s the proper name. It’s not the British Open, just like it’s not the U.S. PGA Championship, no matter what every media outlet in Europe and Asia say to the contrary.
The big news: Woods was back! Yes, and the savior of all that is golf fired a 69 in the first round and everything was right in the world, and golly gee the Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman even smiled again.
Oh, but the joy did not last long. Woods followed up with a 77-73-75 and ended in 69th place. Only three players who made the cut finished below him.
Rory McIlroy opened with a 66 and led wire-to-wire for his first Open title and second major. Fowler and Sergio Garcia tied for second.
Woods, of course, saw some good things in his game and was happy with his progress coming off the back injury, so fans the world over were bolstered when it came time for the PGA Championship in August at Valhalla Golf Club.
The PGA of America reinstated the long drive contest among the tournament participants, but good ol’ Watson wanted none of it. So the prodigious long hitter had a hissy fit, made a pouty face and swung a 3-iron. That showed ’em, Gerry.
“I was just trying to prove a point that nobody cared about [it],” he said. “I’m not here to goof around, ” adding later the contest “just seems hokey to me. Like it or not, that’s just who I am.”
You know who sided with Watson? Nobody. Here’s what Jack Nicklaus had to say about the event, which he participated in and won when he was on tour.
“It was a great gallery favorite,” Nicklaus said. “The people came out and they watched it. You went out and saw big, long drives, things you probably wouldn’t do in the tournament. I think it created some excitement.”
As Jeff Rude so eloquently pointed out to Watson in a Golfweek column, there were plenty of reasons to have embraced the occasion.
“It’s called being fan-friendly. It’s about giving back to the paying customer. It’s about connecting with those who indirectly pay touring pros’ handsome salaries. It’s about reaching out.”
Watson later apologized. Whoop dee doo.
McIlroy chalked up his second major of the year and third of his career winning the PGA Championship for the second time, on this occasion by a shot over Mickelson, who shot a final round 66.
Watson, his concentration apparently ruined by the stupid contest, tied for 64th.
Woods’ remarkable comeback continued only in Tilghman’s dreams. He shot a par of 74s and went home two rounds early.
It’s now been eight years since Woods won a major.
Fowler finished third and became the only golfer other than Nicklaus and Woods to notch top-five finishes in all four majors in a single season, yet he didn’t win one. In fact, he hasn’t won anything since 2012.
The year ended as expected. The U.S. Ryder Cup team went to Scotland and lost. Then the losing U.S. Ryder Cup team whined and pointed fingers. Then the U.S. golf media made more of the loss than was necessary. Oh yeah, and the U.S. golf media was appalled at how one of the European players celebrated. This time Ian Poulter was lambasted for his reaction to holing out a pitch shot.
After the sniping died down, a collective soul searching was called for in the American professional golf world. In assessing the meaning of the loss one point was overlooked: Not that many golf fans really care.
The Ryder Cup is nothing more than a glorified all-star game, where the teams are chosen by a flawed system that puts as much weight on performance two years ago as the three weeks leading into the event.
Still, it was great to watch Mickelson’s petty verbal attack at U.S. captain Tom Watson, and then McIlroy and his lawsuit against a management company. Mickelson acted like a petulant, spoiled rich kid.
Barely had the bickering subsided when the PGA Tour season began anew. By the time you read this, they’ll already have played at least seven tournaments, including stops in Malaysia, China and Mexico.
It’s 2014, welcome to the 2015 golf season.
HEADER PHOTO BY: LAWRENCE AYLWARD