In 2016, Golf Entered a New Era

Golf’s Loaded Field Started To Hit Its Potential This Year

For years, golf seemed to be lost, looking for what would define the next era of the professional game. Since Tiger Woods’ downturn, the televised game had been lacking that sparkplug; something that can drive the water cooler conversations that keep anything broadcast on television going.

In 2016, the search ended. Golf now can center itself around the most loaded field of professional golfers in recent memory. An ascendant season by Rory McIlroy and another by Dustin Johnson, coupled with two of the most memorable showdowns the sport has seen in decades, herald a new era for the game.

It is a new breed that has taken over. Golfers are now stronger than they have ever been, a testament to the amount of training that has become a part of professional golf in the past twenty years. These are big swinging golfers who thrive off of energetic crowds.

For most of Masters week, it looked as though Jordan Spieth would continue his meteoric rise through the golf ranks. Last year’s sensation was continuing his overpowering game into 2016, right up until the back nine on Sunday.

Spieth’s lead after nine holes on the final day was five strokes over Danny Willett. On a week where only a handful of players were under par at all, Jordan Spieth was at -7. That was when the wheels came off. He bogeyed 10, then followed it up with another on 11. On 12, the returning champion carded a 7, dropping a total strokes in what seemed like an instant.

Spieth’s “collapse” was coupled with an extremely strong finish by Willett, who went -3 in the final nine holes to finish -5 overall and win the tournament comfortably. It was a tremendous win for the British golfer, and a painful reminder that golf can flare up and punish anyone at any time.

The Masters’ strange Sunday, as it turned out, would prove to be a trend. Coming into the final round at the US Open, it looked as though Ireland’s Shane Lowry might run away with the tournament at Oakmont. He finished his third round on Sunday morning after rain had its way with the tournament, sitting at -7 with a four stroke lead over the rest of the field.

Minus seven through three rounds is not the kind of score that we are used to seeing at the US Open, and Arnold Palmer’s home course seemed to recognize that. Oakmont roared on the final day, sending Lowry tumbling down the leaderboard with a 76 while Johnson had to deal with a strange rule quirk.

Johnson tapped the ball while preparing for a putt on the fifth hole. For minutes, he and a rules official discussed this, and at the time it was determined he would not be penalized. However, while he was still on the course, the ruling changed. Johnson was not informed of this development until after he finished. Fortunately for everybody who enjoys sanity, DJ was so far ahead at that point that the penalty stroke did not matter.

The Open Championship had a tough act to follow, then, but delivered fireworks immediately, care of a resurgent Phil Mickelson. Mickelson turned in a 63 on Thursday, taking a three shot lead over the crowd at Royal Troon. He was -10 coming into the weekemd, leading by a shot over Henrik Stenson. Unlike the first two majors of the year, this was a scorer’s tournament, and Stenson and Mickelson rose to the occasion.

Stenson took the lead on a more subdued Saturday, setting up a Sunday pairing with both members up on the rest of the field by five shots. The duel lived up to expectations and then some. Mickelson carded a 65 to get to -17 through four rounds. That was not enough. Stenson finished with a remarkable 63, winning a tournament that came down to the final green.

Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time in over a century, and it was not without controversy. Citing fears about health and safety, and concerns about a course that had been created brand new for this specific event, a number of the world’s finest golfers opted to stay behind, most notably Rory McIlroy. McIlroy was very outspoken not just in his decision to stay home, but his opposition to the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics in general.

Even without McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and many others, the field was still formidable. Stenson was in contention throughout. Justin Rose had a hole in one on one of the first holes of the tournament.

There were some hitches. The course seemed unnatural. The event being structured like any other golf tournament missed an opportunity to create a unique event. Yet once again, the event came down to the final day, and the final hole. Rose won the gold medal, Stenson the silver, and Hunter Mahan took the bronze after a frantic finish.

Like the US Open, the PGA Championship was messed with by rain, creating a situation where more than 18 holes were scheduled for Sunday. It was a good week for defending champion and 2015 star Jason Day, who finished the third round just a shot behind leader Jimmy Walker.

Walker, who had never won a major before, put a 67 up in the final round. He needed every bit of it, as Day carded an identical 67 to fall just one stroke short.

All four majors came down to the final green of the final hole.

September saw the final days of Arnold Palmer, one of golf’s greatest ambassadors and a man who came to define American golf in so many ways. First a long-hitting young man from humble beginnings, then an established champion that elevated himself to historic levels, finally the cordial and wise elder of the sport.

Palmer flew directly in the face of every negative stereotype the game of golf has. He wasn’t from a country club beginning, he never took on an air of pretentiousness, he returned home as often as he could, and he did his part to make golf a more inclusive game. He was truly one of a kind.

Palmer’s passing started to add to a feel that the 2016 Ryder Cup would be special. It was remarkable, however, just how special it turned out to be.

The United States came into the week as underdogs, with a European opponent loaded with golfers in absolute top form as well as players with a long history of success in the event. Yet, as the US had a deep roster of their own, Europe was not an overwhelming favorite.

As the week began, somebody who would not even be playing on the weekend sent the energy of the week to a new level. Danny Willett’s brother Peter wrote an op-ed for an English outlet about his personal distaste for American fans and their rowdy behavior at tournaments.

The next sign that the Ryder would be special came when, during a practice round, a fan made a joke at Henrik Stenson’s expense after a missed putt. Stenson playfully invited the spectator down to try the putt, offering a hundred dollars if he made it. The person from the crowd drained the putt and the crowd roared. More importantly, so did Team Europe, who immediately recognized their role in this.

What unfolded was one of the most entertaining golf events in the history of the sport. With a crowd that behaved more like fans at a baseball game, both teams elevated both their game and their attitude, playing to the crowd and thereby feeding it.

On Saturday, as part of the team play portion of the Cup, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson sent the event to a level it had never seen before, a level golf had never seen before. The crowd was going crazy for what was already a great team duel featuring those two. Then the fist-pumping started. Both made puts and reacted in a way no golfer really ever reacted to anything, and the crowd lost their minds.

Phil Mickelson found himself a big part of the action as well. Pairing Mickelson up with Rickie Fowler on Friday and again Saturday morning seemed like a wild recipe, two unpredictable golfers who are known for taking risks. They won a thrilling match Friday, coming back Saturday morning and taking McIlroy to the edge. In the afternoon, up against Ryder stalwart Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer, Mickelson and playing partner Matt Kuchar took that Saturday afternoon match to an extremely loud gallery.

McIlroy was set to face off with Patrick Reed on Sunday. The two fed off each other. They fed off the course. They fed off the crowd. The foremost pairing on Sunday did not disappoint, as the US team took the Cup with a thrilling and unforgettable weekend. This is the power of the new field, the one built in Tiger’s image.

It was a strange year in general for Rory. He started off poorly, but rallied in August in September to the point that he finishes the year in the best form of anybody. His energetic showing at Hazeltine could be the beginning of a new chapter in the still young champion’s career. Winning the FedEx Cup doesn’t hurt, either.

Adding to the intrigue for 2017, Tiger Woods appears to be on the comeback trail. After more surgery and more time off to find his swing, Woods returned in December for a tournament of mixed results. Woods finished near the bottom of the field at the Hero World Challenge, but even in doing that he showed some flashes of an improved putting stroke. As he plays in more tournaments, interest will go up around him, but he has never faced a field like this one.

Before he was able to play again, Tiger appeared at the Ryder Cup as a vice captain, a bit of an unexpected move for the US team. Rather than soak up the attention, Woods mostly stayed in the background, really taking to his coaching-oriented role.

Looking forward to 2017, Woods will join the field that has been shaped so tremendously by the example he set. Once we looked for the “next Tiger,” now the field is full of next Tigers and it creates a feeling that anything can happen moving forward.

We will watch to see if Spieth can regain his juggernaut form, to see if Rory can return to his, to check in on the quickly-rising Dustin Johnson and see if Rickie Fowler can break through. We’ll look to see if Garcia has another major threat in him, if Stenson can keep it up after a strong year, and if Mickelson recovers from another back surgery. Of course, we’ll also watch Tiger to see if he can once again become a champion.

Here’s wishing you all fairways, greens, and the best round of your life so far next year.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.