What a year this was on the PGA Tour. From the comeback of a certain superstar to the emergence of a new alpha male to backstopping to Le Golf National, 2018 did not lack for drama, compelling storylines or unforgettable moments. This time of year has us in a reflective mood, so let’s take advantage of this tournament-less week—there are no events offering any world ranking points this week, the last such week until around this time in 2019—and keep with the holiday spirit by handing out our year-end awards. These highly prestigious honors, the result of a distinctly unscientific voting process by a panel of one, shall henceforth be known as the Golfies.
Without further ado, your 2018 Golfies…
For better or worse, an elite golfer’s success is judged—at least by the media—by how he fares in major championships. Winning one ensures your season is thought of as a great one; winning two virtually guarantees player of the year status. It comes as no surprise, then, that despite posting only seven top 10s in 19 starts and missing the first chunk of the season with a wrist injury, this year’s U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka gets the award.
With three major victories over the past two seasons, Koepka has proven himself a cold-blooded closer, the type of player who relishes the biggest moments on the biggest stages. This year, he held steady as competitors crumbled on a ruthless Shinnecock setup, eventually becoming the first man to win two straight U.S. Opens since 1989. Two months later, he denied the sports world an all-time story by holding off a furious Tiger Woods run at the PGA Championship to win by two. Those tournaments were as different as it gets—he won one at one over par, the other at 16 under—but there was a common thread: Koepka’s unwillingness to flinch in the most pressure-packed moments. It seems only appropriate that the 28-year-old will finish the year as the world’s top-ranked player, and he’s a no-brainer for our Player of the Year.
With all due respect to Watson, who dropped as low as 117th in the world rankings this year before storming back with a three-win campaign to make the Ryder Cup team, he’s up against an absolute buzzsaw here in Woods. Let’s not mince words: Woods’s resurgence is one of the two most incredible comebacks in golf history, joining Ben Hogan’s comeback from a near-fatal car crash to win six majors. Woods was considered finished by virtually everyone in the sport…and can you blame anyone for reaching that conclusion? He had spinal fusion surgery, his fourth back operation, in April 2017 at the age of 41. At the President’s Cup last September, he said in the most somber of tones that he didn’t know if he’d ever compete again on the PGA Tour. His goal then was to become pain-free so he could enjoy time with his children. That goal would soon shift to winning major championships.
Most Entertaining Player of the Year
You simply never know what you’re going to get with DeChambeau, golf’s edition of a mad scientist. Here’s an incomplete list of some headlines the single-length-club-wielding, goofy-hat-wearing, physics-blabbering 25-year-old made this year:
• Wins four times on Tour, including back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events, rises to No. 5 in the world rankings
• At the U.S. Open, complains the course setup is “clown golf”
apparent meltdown on the range at British Open” data-reactid=”43″>• Caught having an apparent meltdown on the range at British Open
• Uses geometric compass in competition, forcing USGA to issue ruling that bans their use on course
• Blows lead at European Open, gives petulant handshake, storms off course, draws ire from media
• After winning second straight playoff event, he was asked how much better he can get: “I would say it depends on what I can do in the restrictions of my biomechanics. So it’s all about air, air tolerances”
• Reveals after winning Shriners Hospitals for Children Open that he sliced part of his finger off earlier in the week at a hockey game
As you might imagine, he’s also quite fun to watch on the course. DeChambeau’s discussions with his caddy Tim Tucker are unmatched in their content and specificity. They discuss what percent slope the ball is lying on, the wind speed and other atmospheric conditions before settling on a swing that corresponds with a time—He hits a “7:30 wedge” rather than a three-quarter wedge. His demonstrative demeanor is exacerbated by his wonderfully emotional face, which during a typical round ranges from unbridled joy to anguished despair. There is simply no experience quite like the Bryson DeChambeau experience.
Round of the Year
On Saturday of this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock, the golf course became the story. (It’s never a good thing when that happens.) The USGA mishandled the setup, putting pins in remarkably difficult locations given how firm the greens were. How bad it actually was is a matter of opinion—Zach Johnson famously delved into “the golf course is gone” territory, while others told me it was nothing more than a tough test and that others’ complaints stemmed from bruised egos—but the fact of the matter is only three of 67 players broke par. Predictably, the setup was a bit more manageable the next day, and my-oh-my did Fleetwood take advantage.
The Brit started the day six shots off the lead but worked his way into contention with four birdies through his first seven holes. After suffering his lone blemish with a bogey on nine, Fleetwood reeled off four birdies in a row on the back side. That’s when things got really serious; he had a legitimate chance to break the U.S. Open scoring record of 63 and win the freakin’ U.S. Open in the process. After a glorious long iron to about eight feet on the 18th, it looked like he might do exactly that. But Fleetwood’s putt went begging, and he eventually lost out to Koepka by a single shot. Still, shooting 63 on that golf course, while in contention in the final round of the U.S Open, is a round for the ages.
Shot of the Year
There is perhaps no shot that personifies the modern game quite like Johnson’s tee shot on the 430-yard, par-4 12th at the Kapalua Plantation Course in Hawaii. Johnson, then No. 1 in the world, stepped to the tee with the Sentry Tournament of Champions already essentially in hand. But rather than go conservative, DJ crushed a tee shot high into a helping wind, landing it perfectly on the very left side of the fairway. It then kicked forward, then kicked again, then again, before rolling directly at the hole for what looked to be one of the greatest aces in golf history. The ball would wind up inches short of the hole for a tap-in eagle … on a 430-yard hole!
Clutch Performance of the Year
On the surface, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood don’t come off as an obvious Ryder Cup pairing. For starters, Molinari is Italian and Fleetwood is British. Molinari is 36 and Fleetwood is 28. But the two players became great friends on the European Tour, and Thomas Bjorn said he always felt great about pairing the two at Le Golf National. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Europeans have had the edge over Americans in recent Ryder Cups—their players come together, regardless of nationality or background or age, to form a cohesive unit. And what a unit “Moliwood” turned out to be.
It’s hard to remember given how lopsided the matches turned out, but there was a time when Team Europe had its back against the wall. In the morning fourball on Friday, the Americans won the first three ties, leaving it up to Moliwood to ensure the Europeans wouldn’t get shut out heading into the afternoon fourball. The team beat the pairing of Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed with some fantastic back-nine play, flipped the momentum around and played lights-out golf the rest of the way. That afternoon, they beat the Americans’ best pairing of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, 5&4, then followed it up on Friday by beating Woods and Reed again, 4&3, then Woods and DeChambeau, 5&4. In the process, they became the first European pairing to go a perfect 4-0 at the Ryder Cup. The legend of Moliwood was born, and they’ll likely have the chance to add to their lore at Whistling Straits 2020.
Moment of the Year
As Woods walked up the 18th fairway with the tournament essentially in hand, thousands of fans chanting his name walked with him…quite literally. It was a scene reminiscent of the British Open, where fans are permitted to sprint up the 18th fairway to get a better vantage point. Playing partner Rory McIlroy sped ahead to avoid disaster. Unfazed, Tiger didn’t break his stride, seemingly drinking in a moment he never thought he’d experience again. It was a surreal scene: a once-battered legend, having overcome astronomical odds to once again reach the summit of his domain, inching closer to the completion of his redemptive journey, aided by a chorus of admirers chanting his name. After tapping in to seal the victory, Woods raised his hands in triumph and fought back tears. Whether you root for or against Woods, the emotion of that final walk up 18 was undeniable. It is the lasting image of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season.
Quote of the Year
Anytime you’re favored and lose the Ryder Cup by seven points, it’s going to be a bit of an ugly scene. Reed’s comments exacerbated the situation by adding the nasty stench of dysfunction to an already embarrassing defeat. In the process, he might have permanently damaged his reputation among fellow players and fans. That tends to happen when you start pointing the proverbial finger hours after defeat, particularly so when it appears the claims made were not factual. How the reigning Masters champion interacts with his Ryder Cup teammates this season, and particularly Spieth, is absolutely worth monitoring.
Rules Dispute of the Year
The putt heard ‘round the world! On the third day of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, which was also his 48th birthday, Phil Mickelson was struggling with his game and frustrated by greens that toed the line between challenging and unfair. On the 13th hole, he hit a downhill putt too hard and sent it racing by the hole. Instead of letting it trundle down a ridge, Mickelson jogged to the other side of the ball and putted it…while it was still moving. Mickelson was assessed just a two-shot penalty under Rule 14-5, which addresses when a player hits a ball in play, rather than disqualified under Rule 1-2, which covers when a player “stops or deflects” a ball. What differentiates a stop/deflect from what Mickelson did is anyone’s guess—it would appear the USGA competition committee did some serious verbal gymnastics in deciding 14-5 was the applicable rule. Virtually every one who watched it happen thought he should have been disqualified. Including myself–if you purposefully break a rule, you should be disqualified. Mickelson purposefully broke one of the simplest rules of golf—you cannot hit a moving ball—and got to finish the tournament…Huh?
A remarkable sequence on Hole 13, where Phil Mickelson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball and ended up making a 10 on the hole. pic.twitter.com/kx6ieYiOGR
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 16, 2018
Mickelson’s cavalier action sent golf purists into a fury, with announcers calling on him apologize and suggesting he did immeasurable damage to such an honorable sport. The indignation was so pure, so visceral, that it reached “think of the children” level. Lefty didn’t initially apologize but later expressed regret for the whole snafu. Whether it was a brain fart or a calculated f-you to the USGA, it was certainly odd to see a legend of the game revert to a classic mini-golf move at the United States Open.
Social Media Post of the Year
It was one of the weirder Twitter threads you’ll ever see—a professional golfer admitting, in e-writing, to breaking the rules. Walker replied to a Tweet showing a video of Ben An hitting a chip with John Huh’s ball unmarked right beyond the hole. Walker wrote back, “Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it. If you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.” The term “backstopping” officially entered the golf lexicon—it refers to when a player consciously doesn’t mark his ball so it serves as a backstop for his playing partner. That seems nice and generous and all, but there’s one small problem: It’s distinctly, clearly, indisputably, absolutely, 100% illegal. Rule 22 of the official Rules of Golf makes that clear: “In stroke play, if the Committee determines that competitors have agreed not to lift a ball that might assist any competitor, they are disqualified.”
Usually a guy will ask if he would like to mark it. If you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.
— Jimmy Walker (@JimmyWalkerPGA) June 9, 2018
Backstopping is in bad faith, sure, but what was really puzzling about Walker’s tweet is why he felt the need to post it. He wasn’t the player in question, nor was he mentioned in the initial video. My best guess: he had no idea the outrage his tweet would trigger. I’d also guess the tweet didn’t go over well with his playing partners, as it brought attention to a don’t ask, don’t tell, look away-type practice. The result of this will be that players will mark their balls with much more frequency, erring on the side of caution rather than risk disqualification or public shame. Thus, in the end, this whole ordeal was probably a good thing. The ends justify the peculiar means, I suppose.