As 2016 draws to a close, we asked Jezz Ellwood, Contributing Editor of Golf Monthly, to reflect on the golfing season.
I suppose every year is memorable in its own way, but 2016 feels a little different, for while there have been, as ever, surprise winners, multiple winners, young winners, old winners and return-to-form winners, 2016 has also had a real “it was about time” feel about it in several instances.
So, to repeat our headline: “2016 – it was about time that…”
…a British player won The Masters
Well done, Danny Willett! Not since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 had a European player donned the Green Jacket, and you have to go back to 1996 to find the last British winner – Sir Nick Faldo in his perfectly executed last-round reeling-in of an ultimately toothless Shark. This seems unfathomable to golf fans of my age, fed a heady diet of near-annual British or European Augusta success – our men stole the Green Jacket from under American noses no fewer than 11 times from 1980 to 1999. A European victory certainly didn’t look likely when defending champion, Jordan Spieth, entered the back nine on Sunday with a healthy lead. Then, the young American blew up spectacularly on the 12th, leaving Willett and Lee Westwood to take up the challenge. When Westwood three-putted the 16th and Willett made birdie, the Green Jacket was the former World Amateur No.1’s to lose. He didn’t buckle, closing out with two gutsy pars to triumph by three. Might Willett’s victory spark another golden Augusta era for Europeans?
…Henrik Stenson claimed his first Major
It’s easy to forget that the tall Swede had endured two career-threatening slumps, and fallen seriously foul of the Allen Stanford scandal financially. When I last spoke to him in early 2013, he was on the road to recovery from his second slump, having won in South Africa in 2012 for the first time in five years. But I claim no part at all in what transpired to be a miraculous 2013 – Stenson would claim the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai that year, winning both the Tour Championship and the DP World Tour Championship on the way. The popular Swede was back, and all his CV now lacked was a Major, which he finally added this summer at Royal Troon in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. In an epic final round shoot-out with Phil Mickelson, both men played almost supernatural golf. In the end, Stenson’s 63 helped him break the all-time Major scoring record with a four-round total of 264, and saw him become the first male Swede to win a Major, and the first non-American to win at Troon since Bobby Locke in 1950.
…Dustin Johnson claimed his first Major too
The outrageously big hitter with the laid-back demeanour had come perilously close several times, and wasn’t about to let the USGA’s bungled handling of a rules incident in the US Open at Oakmont deny him again. In 2010 at Pebble Beach, he imploded spectacularly when leading the US Open by three with a round to go; two months later, he suffered a final-hole penalty in the USPGA for grounding his club in a tiny Whistling Straits bunker; a year later, he sprayed an untimely shot out of bounds at Royal St George’s when vying for the Claret Jug with Darren Clarke; and in last year’s US Open at Chambers Bay, he three-putted from nowhere on the final green to gift the trophy to Jordan Spieth. If anyone deserved a Major, it was Dustin, and everyone in the golfing world was rooting for him when the USGA dillied and dallied over a ruling, before ultimately handing him a penalty that no-one thought he deserved. It didn’t matter, he was far enough clear to take it on the chin and still win by three.
…the Americans won the Ryder Cup
America hadn’t won since 2008 at Valhalla, and some in the game were voicing concerns that we needed an American victory to keep things healthy. Whether or not that’s true, that’s exactly what we got, with Davis Love’s men taking the event by the scruff of the neck in a 4-0 Friday morning foursomes whitewash. Spearheaded by a talismanic Patrick Reed, whose vocal cords must have sustained at least temporary damage over the course of three days, Team USA would never relinquish that lead, ultimately easing to a 17-11 victory. Did we want Europe to win? Of course. Is it good that the USA won? Probably!
…golf returned to the Olympics
It had been 112 years since golf had last featured in the Olympics, with its 2016 return following some tireless campaigning by those in charge of the game. From early concerns about the course, to later concerns about the Zika virus and scheduling - which prompted a number of high-profile withdrawals - golf’s Rio return faced several challenges, but few would now view it as anything other than a triumph. Some of golf’s biggest names battled it out for the medals, with Justin Rose edging out that man Stenson again to become golf’s first male Olympic gold medalist since Canadian George Lyon in 1904. Inbee Park then fended off Lydia Ko to claim the women’s gold. Let’s hope Rio did enough to capture everyone’s imagination for golf in the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and hopefully beyond.
…Jimmy Walker won a Major
It would be fair to say that the 37-year-old from Oklahoma has been something of a late developer. Having spent a decade flitting between the Web.com Tour and the main tour, Walker finally found something in 2010, since when he has become a multiple winner and a bit of a money-making machine. He had to wait 187 events for his first win in the 2013 Frys.com Open, but then proceeded to win two more of the next seven events. Fuelled with self-belief, Walker made his Ryder Cup debut in 2014, added two more titles in 2015… and joined the list of players expected to make a Major breakthrough. That came in 2016’s final Major, when Walker led wire-to-wire in the USPGA at Baltusrol, going bogey-free in the final round to have just enough in reserve to absorb defending champion, Jason Day’s, final-hole eagle.
…a golfer won BBC’s SPOTY!
Okay, premature (the event takes place on December 18th), and indeed unlikely given that Rory couldn’t even win in his double-Major 2014 season, but we can but hope that Danny Willett’s Augusta heroics back in April will strike a chord with the voting public. Sir Nick Faldo was the last golfer to triumph back in 1989, taking down Frank Bruno!
… Tiger returned to Tour action
Well almost, for the Hero World Challenge isn’t an official PGA Tour event, but even those with a degree of antipathy towards Tiger will have been following his every move in the Bahamas in early December with interest. Woods had it going in three of the rounds too, getting a bogey-free 65 safely across the line in round two to ride high on the leader board. Yes, rounds one and three may have slipped away late on, while round four was one to forget, but there were enough hints in there that the great man can still play to leave golf fans looking forward to 2017 with renewed interest.
Contributing Editor, Golf Monthly
P.S. ...and of course, the ever-popular Padraig Harrington popped up out of nowhere to claim the Portugal Masters in late October thus paving the way to end-of-year tournaments not even on his radar. Since his Major-winning exploits of 2007 and 2008, the Irishman has at times been a shadow of his former self, slipping to as low as 119th on the 2015 Race to Dubai. The previous year he had also surprised everyone with a play-off victory in March’s Honda Classic on the PGA Tour, so it’s clearly still in there somewhere. Perhaps his unlikely renaissance should give us all hope that we might just be able to ‘do it’ still as we head on in to 2017!