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Monday Scramble: The win of the year – and the decade

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In this season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble, we look back at Tiger Woods' remarkable Masters victory, the blossoming rivalry between Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar's no-good-very-bad year, the clutch moments that defined the women's game and more.

 

THE TAKEAWAY

In this space last year, in the wake of Tiger Woods’ game-changing victory at the Tour Championship, we wrote that 2019 represents Woods’ “best opportunity to win a major since 2008.”

Not earth-shattering stuff, obviously, but all of these months later it’s still incredible to think that Woods actually accomplished it. (In case you missed it: my game story from that historic Sunday at Augusta.) 

His Masters victory shook us to the core, both then and now, and overshadowed everything else that transpired over the past calendar year, a season during which Brooks Koepka continued to play like a generational talent, Rory McIlroy authored his best statistical season ever and Suzann Pettersen created the most indelible Solheim Cup moment in history.

That alone isn’t surprising – Woods’ reach has long transcended the sport. But only blind believers could have seen Woods coming from behind to win major No. 15 after an 11-year drought, and then claiming PGA Tour title No. 82 after offseason knee surgery.

Woods turns 44 later this month. History, both his own and the sport’s, suggests that he has only a finite number of swings left. That we should temper expectations moving forward, because players this old and this brittle cannot continue to contend against players who are bigger, stronger, faster.

But every time Woods tees it up in 2020, he has a chance to become the winningest player in Tour history. He’ll have the chance to move one step closer to a record that seemed unattainable only a few years ago.

Tiger Woods won a major in 2019 – and it was the victory of the decade.

 

THE SCORECARD



1. The 2019 Masters began and ended on the 12th hole Sunday.

With tee times moved up for the first time because of impending storms, Woods played in the final three-ball, alongside Tony Finau and tournament-leader Francesco Molinari. While waiting on the 11th green, Woods saw two of the players in the group ahead rinse their shots on the notoriously tricky par 3. Then he watched as Molinari – the unflappable major champion, the European Ryder Cup hero, the unlikely Tiger nemesis – and Finau both made the same critical error, coming up short in Rae’s Creek. Woods safely found the green and two-putted for par to tie it up.

After that miscue, Molinari didn’t stand a chance. He found the pond again on 15. He finished in a tie for fifth. And he hasn’t been the same player since.

Coming April 2020: Dozens of oral histories on the 12th hole.

2. What a scene in the aftermath of Woods’ cathartic victory.

His guttural screams on the 18th green. His emotional embrace with son Charlie that immediately recalled the hug he shared with his father in 1997. His caddie, Joe LaCava, waiting in the parking lot, the flag tucked into the trunk of his SUV. His green-jacketed peers waiting to congratulate him by the scoring building. His fellow competitors rooting him on.

But in the winner’s news conference afterward, what stood out most was Woods’ fatigue. He looked worn out. Like he could fall asleep at any moment, if not for the adrenaline.

We’ll probably never know the full extent of his treatment, or how his team of doctors got his creaky back ready for the quick turnaround that fateful Sunday morning. But we soon learned that Woods’ back wasn’t his only issue.    




3. It remains one of the most bizarre statistics of the 2018-19 season: The win at the Masters was the only time all season that Woods finished within eight shots of the winner. Other than that seismic achievement, he didn’t contend in another tournament.

And then, in the fall, he revealed part of the reason why: That he didn’t just suffer from an emotional hangover, but rather his knee had nagged him for a year and he finally underwent arthroscopic surgery.

In his first start back, at the inaugural Zozo Championship, he appeared in vintage form. At least until the marathon Sunday/Monday finish he looked spry, beating an elite, limited field to tie Sam Snead’s wins record.

4. And so now every start next year will be must-see TV, as Woods continues to (ahem) Chase History.

After pushing himself to the brink in late 2018, Woods vowed to listen more to his body and find the balance of playing enough to remain sharp but not too much to break down. That sounds good in theory, but 2020 presents some rare opportunities. Sure, he can cash in on this stellar play to reach 83 wins and contend in a few more majors, but it’s also his last (realistic) chance to play in the Olympics. The cutoff is in late June; does he add an event or two to cross the finish line as one of Team USA’s four qualifiers?




5. The one American who is almost guaranteed to be on that squad (if he wants) is Brooks Koepka.

Following up on his two-major 2018, King Koepka seized control of the No. 1 spot in the world ranking, added another major to his haul and finished in the top 4 in every Grand Slam event. Oh, and he also found his voice, turning what used to be dull press briefings into an entertaining back and forth on the game’s hottest topics, with molten takes on slow play, regular Tour events, TV commentators, posing nude and his competition.

It’ll be fascinating to see what Koepka does next year. He’s due for some regression in the majors – he has finished in the top 6 in eight of his last 10 – but we’ve also never really seen a talent like his: flipping a switch in the events that matter most.




6. Still, in what was a fascinating reflection of what matters to Tour players, Koepka didn’t win Player of the Year in 2018-19. That honor instead went to Rory McIlroy, who won just as many events as Koepka (three), including The Players and Tour Championship, but failed to seriously threaten in any of the majors.

What’s that tell us?

Perhaps that Tour players really value consistency (14 top-10s in 19 starts). Or that Koepka’s majors-above-all mantra alienated (or at least didn’t resonate) with the rank and file. Or that The Players and FedExCup are increasingly important. Or that the members delved into advanced statistics. Or that it’s a popularity contest. Maybe it’s a matter of not enough Tour members voting for the award. (The Tour does not publicize the vote totals.)

McIlroy had a strong case, of course, but in the four biggest events of the year he fell flat. (He earned the 20th-most, world-ranking points in the majors.) That he was so consistently excellent in the other events only served to highlight his major shortcomings.

Now five-plus years without a major, McIlroy just enjoyed what was the best statistical season of his career and seemed to find a scheduling formula that allowed him to play his best most often. He’s closing in on Koepka’s No. 1 ranking. But now it’s make-or-break time to reclaim his throne as the best player of his generation, because Koepka appears to be living in McIlroy’s head at the moment.


Wolff, Morikawa in running for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors


7. Quick transitions to the PGA Tour are nothing new for college stars – think Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth over the past decade – but the Class of 2019 skipped a couple steps on their way to stardom.

Both Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa won in their first three months out of school, taking the Tour by storm with a flashy swing, an all-around game and a knack for the moment. They’re full-fledged Tour members for 2020, along with Viktor Hovland, the former U.S. Amateur champion who set a record this fall with consecutive rounds in the 60s.

Who will be the best of the bunch?

For now, think of it this way: Wolff has the highest ceiling, but Morikawa and Hovland seem poised to have steady, long, fruitful careers.   




8. The women’s game saw the emergence of a new No. 1 in Jin Young Ko, the quiet slide of Ariya Jutanungarn and the outright disappearance of Lydia Ko, but this year will always be remembered for Suzann Pettersen’s walk-off birdie.

She didn’t just end the Solheim Cup with her dramatic 10-footer on the final green, she ended her career, announcing that after earning the clinching point she was hanging up her spikes and focusing on her family.

It was fairy-tale stuff: The former intimidator who became a controversial captain’s pick and then, as the last woman standing, delivered the clutch putt to win the event that has most defined her career.

Pettersen’s intensity will be missed, but here’s hoping she finds happiness on the other side. There’s been no better capper to a career.

 

THE WTH? MOMENT OF THE YEAR



Matt Kuchar’s entire year was one big forehead slap.

Seriously, not since Tiger’s run-in with the hydrant has one man’s reputation been sullied so quickly. Early in the year Kuchar showed a breathtaking level of ignorance when he stiffed his Mayakoba caddie and then repeatedly defended his cheapness. It was stunningly bad PR, made even worse a few months later with his role in a couple of questionable rules dramas.

Kuchar is no longer just the smiling assassin or the backdoor top-10 machine. He’s apparently also a cheapskate who embarrassed his grandma with a series of bad decisions.

 

TAKE A BOW

This year's award winners ... 



Breakthrough of the Year: Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Wrote last week that it was my most memorable moment of the year, a tournament and a final-round duel that made anything seem possible in a segment of the game that has been woefully underserved.

Queen of Clutch: Sei Young Kim. Even though it was Jin Young Ko who swept the major LPGA awards, Kim got the biggest prize of all, draining a 25-footer on the final green to take home the $1.5 million, winner-take-all Race to the CME Globe.



Oldie but Goodie: Scott McCarron. Apparently some of these guys aren’t in it for the cart rides, six-figure checks and camaraderie. McCarron’s teary reaction to winning the season-long race (thanks to an epic, walk-off hole-out by Jeff Maggert) was a reminder that the senior tour offers a chance for these career grinders to fulfill their championship dreams.




MIA: Jordan Spieth’s long game. His putter was hotter than ever, which unfortunately shows the depths that his ball-striking has reached. His strokes-gained numbers were outside the top 140 and he was one of the worst on Tour over the weekend. Double yikes.

What to Watch: Condensed schedule fatigue. A few of the top players mentioned that the revamped schedule of big events renders the rest of the season insignificant and increases the likelihood of injuries. Valid points, but to us there’s something tidy about the new March-September emphasis.

Well, That Didn’t Go As Planned: Dustin Johnson’s season. After finishing second in the first two majors of the year, DJ battled knee discomfort and eventually went under the knife, ending a stretch of uninspired golf that once again saw him play the role of Big Bad Brooks’ talented-but-underachieving sidekick.




Intrigue Galore: Playing-captain Tiger Woods. One big event remains during the calendar year, and it’s one in which Woods will take on the role of playing captain for the U.S. Presidents Cup team. From his pairings to his singles lineup, his decisions will be a window into his competitive psyche. Whom does he trust, and whom does he want to hide?  

King of the Comeback: Brendon Todd. His scorching-hot play this fall didn’t earn him a spot on Woods’ American roster, but Todd’s comeback from the full-swing yips to two wins this season was an all-timer.  




End of an Era: Phil Mickelson. Despite winning at Pebble Beach, Lefty’s age finally caught up to him in 2019. As wayward as ever, he tumbled out of the top 50 in the world for the first time since 1993 and, at this rate, will need a special exemption to play in the U.S. Open on his 50th birthday. It was bound to happen eventually, but his decline happened so suddenly.

Much Ado About Nothing: New rules. Sure, there were a few notable exceptions that show the “simplified” rules still need simplifying, but tapping down spike marks and putting with the flagstick in proved mostly inconsequential to tournament golf. Now, about the slow-play epidemic at the top level ...  

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Jason Day. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Day’s best days are behind him. And that’s a shame, because he’s a) only 32 years old and b) has shown the potential to be a world-beater. But until someone retools his ultra-violent move, he’ll continue to be dogged by a bad back and slide in the world rankings (now 31st).  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Year: Bryson DeChambeau. Even if the Mad Scientist is striving for consistency, he’s always been a player who runs hot and cold – such is life for an incessant tinkerer. But to post zero Tour wins was a surprise after his four-win campaign in 2018. Maybe next year he’ll once again be known for more than his slow play.




Tournament of the Year: The Open. Even without any late drama, the year’s final major delivered on so many levels. It introduced to a worldwide audience Royal Portrush, which just might be the best course on the Open rota. It showed McIlroy faceplant in the biggest tournament of his life, only to redeem himself the final day with an epic chase to try and make the cut. And it produced the most popular winner of the year, Shane Lowry, who was swallowed in a sea of fans as he walked up the 18th fairway. Good stuff, all around.

Our Way-Too-Early Prediction for 2020 Player of the Year: Justin Thomas. A wrist injury derailed his momentum last season, and yet he still wound up fourth in the Tour’s overall-strokes-gained statistic. All of the pieces are in place for a three- or four-win season (he already has one) and the addition of another major title. That should be enough to earn POY honors over Rory, DJ and ... Patrick Cantlay.