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From Rory McIlroy to Brooks Koepka, Lavner hands out his 2022 major awards

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The trophies might already have been handed out, but that’s not the last of the honors this major season.

These might just not mean as much:

Best Player

Rory McIlroy

Here are the lowest aggregate scores of the players who made the cut in all four major championships this season:

Rory McIlroy: 29 under
Will Zalatoris: 21 under
Matt Fitzpatrick: 16 under

In the other words, McIlroy was the best major performer in 2022. He’s just the third player in the last 50 years to finish eighth or better in all four majors in the same season.

That’s what makes his empty haul even more dispiriting.

His Masters performance, oddly enough, will go down as his best major finish of the year, even if he wasn’t really in contention; his Sunday 64 allowed him to surge up the board and ultimately finish three shots back of Scottie Scheffler. But McIlroy had a chance to win each of the last three majors, and that’s what’ll gnaw at him. A Saturday 74 doomed him at Southern Hills. He backed up again in the third round of the U.S. Open. And though he hit every green Sunday at St. Andrews, his only two birdies were two-putts on a day when the scoring average dropped to 69.7. He was good, not great, as has often been the case in the majors with his drought extending to eight-plus years.

“I can’t be too despondent because of how this year’s went and this year’s going,” he said. “I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open.”

He’ll have to wait an agonizing eight months for another opportunity.

Highlights: Smith surges to win The Open

Highlights: Smith surges to win The Open

Best round

Cameron Smith’s final-round 64 at The Open

Five minutes on the practice putting green Saturday night was all it took for Smith to remember he’s the best putter on the planet.

The next day, he made everything from everywhere, overcoming a four-shot deficit to McIlroy and Viktor Hovland and roaring to a one-shot win at the Old Course.

His back-nine 30 was the lowest closing-nine score by a winner in the long history of The Open.

For the week, Smith gained 11.98 strokes with his putter – more than a shot and a half better than any other player – and the final round was his masterpiece. He ripped off five birdies in a row to start the back nine, but his most memorable play was a par save on the treacherous 17th hole, when he ran his third shot around the edge of the Road Hole bunker and then buried a 10-footer to preserve his advantage.

“To watch Cameron shoot what he did,” said runner-up Cameron Young, who shot 65 in the penultimate group, “it was pretty amazing.”

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Best shot

Matt Fitzpatrick’s fairway bunker shot at the U.S. Open

Staked to a one-shot lead at The Country Club, Fitzpatrick tugged his final tee shot low and left – a nervy shot for the Englishman who was trying to capture his first major title.

Looking to force a playoff, Will Zalatoris sized up Fitzpatrick’s lie in the left fairway bunker.

“I walked by it,” Zalatoris said, “and I thought that going for it was going to be ballsy.”

“It was 1-in-20, at best,” he added.

Those odds still were good enough for Fitzpatrick.

From 155 yards away to an elevated green, he made crisp contact and hoisted his 9-iron over the steep lip and onto the green, his ball plopping 18 feet away from the flag – one of the most clutch 72nd-hole shots in recent memory.

“The fact that he pulled it off and even had a birdie look was incredible,” Zalatoris said.

Fitzpatrick’s closing par (and Zalatoris’ 14-foot miss) secured his first major and validated his remarkable transformation from a short, scrappy ball-striker to a powerhouse.

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Best breakout

Scottie Scheffler

And to think, just five months ago Scheffler had yet to win on the PGA Tour.

Now he’s a four-time winner, a major champion and a contender for Player of the Year.

His breakthrough at the Masters capped a spring hot streak, when he rolled into Augusta having won three of his past five starts, including a marathon victory at the WGC-Match Play that moved him to No. 1 in the world for the first time.

Five shots ahead at the halfway point of the Masters, Scheffler may have looked in complete command, but he still faced his own doubts. The morning of the final round, he admitted to breaking down in his wife’s arms as the humble Texan wondered whether he was ready for everything – the attention, the fame, the expectations – that came with a major victory.

Turns out, he was.

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Most inaccurate prediction

Jon Rahm’s dominance

Apparently, much can change in nine months.

Last summer, it looked as though Rahm might never again struggle. Despite a series of COVID-related setbacks, the fiery Spaniard stormed to victory at Torrey Pines and then finished the season with four consecutive top-10s. Even with his team on the verge of a historic loss, Rahm was the best player on either side at the Ryder Cup.

Though he ended his European schedule early last fall because of burnout, it seemed a wise move for Rahm to reset, intent on getting even better in 2022.

That never materialized.

His lone victory this year came against a weak field in Mexico, and he was a non-factor in all but one major. He broke par only once at the Masters (T-27). He ballooned to a T-48 at Southern Hills. Trying to go back to back at the U.S. Open, he retreated with a Sunday 74 (T-12). And then he shot in the 60s only once at St. Andrews, finishing 34th, during a week when the winner tied the lowest score to par in major-championship history.

It's the first time since 2017 – his first full year – that Rahm ended a major season without at least one top-10.

As a result, he has dropped from world No. 1 to his current fifth position.

Consider us surprised.

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Most confidence-building

Will Zalatoris

If most major champions need to have their heart broken at least once before winning a major, consider Willy Z fully primed and ready.

His career jump-start may have come at the 2021 Masters, when he held his own in the final group, but Zalatoris took his game to the next level in 2022.

Even if he doesn’t have the trophies to prove it.

At Southern Hills, he went spike-to-spike with Justin Thomas, falling to Thomas’ two birdies in the aggregate playoff. That loss stung – why wouldn’t it? – but Zalatoris felt encouraged after holing clutch par pars coming down the stretch just to force overtime.

A month later, at the U.S. Open, he once again played his way into the final group, this time with Fitzpatrick. Zalatoris shot par or better all four rounds, but he narrowly missed birdie putts inside 15 feet on each of the last two holes, ultimately losing by one.

When reflecting on his series of close calls (six top-10s in 10 career appearances), Zalatoris reminded us that he’s mere inches from having multiple majors.

“It’s something that has fueled my fire, for sure,” he said, “and I know that eventually I’m going to get one one day.”

If not a handful.

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Worst fade

Brooks Koepka

It’s fair to wonder if Koepka’s reign of terror is over.

Easily the best major performer since 2017, Koepka never finished inside the top 50 in the four biggest events. That dismal run snapped a streak of eight consecutive years with at least one top-10 in the majors.

Then again, it’s been a bizarre year full of uneven play, injury speculation and distractions.

Let’s start with Koepka’s golf: It hasn’t been very good. Deep runs at the Phoenix Open and Match Play were his only top-10s in 16 starts. He ranked 138th on Tour in ball-striking less than a year after switching equipment companies. (He had been a free agent.) Since March he has posted only four rounds in the 60s. The majors were merely a continuation of his poor play.

Then there was more talk of injury.

Having battled issues with his wrist, knee and hip over the past few years, Koepka (sometimes angrily) dismissed speculation that he was hurting, but his excuses didn’t add up. He said at the U.S. Open he had “a lot going on” with his upcoming wedding, but earlier he had mentioned that his now-wife had handled almost all of the planning. He said that his body was fine, but earlier he had said that he took time off to ensure he was as healthy as possible. At the PGA, a source close to Koepka expressed concern that he was about to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. But when asked about it, Koepka huffed that apparently the reporter knew more about his body than he did.

And then, of course, were the distractions.

Less than a week after privately reassuring his peers that he was committed to the Tour, Koepka announced that he was bolting for LIV, for a reported nine-figure signing bonus. That about-face was four months after Koepka himself said that those who left would “sell out.” On some level, the multi-year deal makes sense – he’ll be 33 next May, with a body ravaged by past injuries – but it wouldn’t surprise if his game never rebounded. Motivation will be hard to find. He has never much cared for regular-season play; now he’s being paid handsomely just to show up.

When Koepka arrives at the 2023 Masters (assuming he’s still eligible to play), he will be nearly four years removed from his last major title. He has earned the right to talk smack – but his barbs only land if he remains a force.

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Biggest mystery

LIV defectors

With nine months to go, golf’s leading bodies have critical decisions to make ahead of the 2023 majors.

There was a noticeable shift in tone as major season unfolded – no surprise, really, since LIV was more rumor than reality when Masters chairman Fred Ridley addressed the media ahead of the year’s first major. But by the time Martin Slumbers took the mic last week, the landscape had shifted: LIV was real, and it was poaching marquee players, with more rumored to go after the playoffs.

For now, what becomes of those defectors remains uncertain.

In April, Ridley expressed his support for golf’s current ecosystem, but that was before five recent Masters champions bolted for LIV (and rampant speculation surrounded a few others). Augusta National holds its past champions in the highest regard; would it really ban them from playing because of their affiliation with a rival tour?

Mike Whan (USGA) and Slumbers (R&A) operate independently but also seemed on the same page: Because they oversee “open” championships, they indicated they have little interest in banning LIV players. What they could do, however, is make it more difficult for them to play, by rerouting those players through various levels of qualifying. Both Whan and Slumbers said they’ll reexamine their exemptions and qualifying criteria for the 2023 championships, as they do every year – but that this time, there’ll be a greater sense of urgency.

Standing in line with Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, PGA chief executive Seth Waugh has threatened to come down hardest on the LIV players. According to the tournament guidelines, only PGA members are eligible to play in the year’s second major, and the players who have either been indefinitely suspended or resigned their Tour membership have consequently lost that eligibility.

A hugely important piece outstanding is the Official World Golf Ranking. OWGR officials confirmed last week that LIV had applied for membership and that its application was currently under review. Approval at this point seems unlikely; the board consists mostly of members from golf’s five families.

For now, the Masters and Open take the top 50 in the world, the U.S. Open automatic exempts the top 60, and the PGA’s unstated goal is to host the top 100.

If LIV events don’t offer world-ranking points, those who play will plummet in the rankings and are projected to drop out of the top 50 by the end of the year – complicating their path back to the majors, unless, perhaps, they add a few Asian Tour events. Only those who are eligible because of past major victories (Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Dustin Johnson, Koepka, for instance) will be able to compete – but that exemption criteria might change, too.

Players who signed up for LIV understood the potential repercussions but forged ahead anyway. Most figured the established tours and LIV would come to an agreement. Some believed the OWGR dilemma would resolve itself. Those past their prime didn’t care either way – their major dreams over, they were happy to collect the guaranteed payday.

Forget tournament favorites – how the major fields are assembled is the biggest story to watch in 2023.