2017: A Year of Phenomenal Storylines

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There certainly wasn’t a dearth of storylines in the year that we just bid adieu to. Golf not only welcomed a few new stars to the fairways but also witnessed pleasant surprises at the Majors. There were other talking points too, of course, which gave aficionados reasons aplenty to follow the sport in situ or on television; everyone waited with bated breath to see one of the greatest golfers ever make his return from injury, a certain powerhouse in the sport continued holding a prestigious biennial in a vice-like grip. Karthik Swaminathan of Golf Digest India looks back at five topics that stood out in 2017…

TIGER OUT IN THE OPEN 

What clearly was one of the most awaited moments in 2017 did not disappoint as 14-time Major titlist Tiger Woods made his return to competitive action at Albany for the Hero World Challenge. Arguably one of the most complete golfers of all time, the 42-year-old put on a show as he drove with aplomb, chipped the ball from dire positions and even sunk 50-foot putts.

In his first competitive event since February 2017, the 79-time winner on the PGA Tour finished the tournament he hosts tied ninth – easily surpassing most expectations – and gave his World Ranking a significant boost (from 1199 to within 700).

What awaits the decorated champion in 2018, then, one muse. He ended ties with swing coach Chris Como and announced his intentions to play the full PGA Tour season and later committed to begin playing at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Athletes of his stature are known to find a way to return to the top as the 2017 men’s pro tennis season indicated: Tiger’s good friends Rafa Nadal (who, incidentally, was present at Albany and followed the action from close quarters) and Roger Federer defied time, age and naysayers to finish atop the rankings.

GARCIA THE NEW MASTER 

Back in April 2012, a deflated Sergio Garcia bemoaned that he was “not good enough” to win a Major. He left Augusta three-over-par 75 and, with him, everyone wondered if the talented Spaniard would ever hold aloft one of golf’s four prestigious titles, leave alone all four. Was success, even for someone with his skill, a perennial mirage?

To possibly understand the intertwining strands of emotions in sport, one only needs to go back a couple of years, albeit to another discipline: with the Rod Laver Arena and the world watching in the beginning of 2010, Britain’s Andy Murray fought back tears in his runner-up acceptance speech. “I can cry like Roger [Federer]. It’s just a shame I can’t play like him.” Fast forward to 2012, and incidentally soon after Garcia’s own disappointment, Murray cut a forlorn figure at Wimbledon. And how. Quivering and wincing, as he spoke, “I’m getting closer…” Four defeats from four Major finals.

Of course, while the Scot faced down more disappointments, he did go on to savour Olympic, Grand Slam and world ranking glory. Garcia, however, still had to bide his time.

Cut to February 2017. Following his betrothal with Angela Akins at the start of the year, Garcia completed a wire-to-wire victory at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. It was his first European Tour title in more than 3 years and he was quoted saying, “Hopefully it will be the beginning of a great year.” He couldn’t have been more prophetic.

Five years on from that Masters disappointment, El Niño finally broke his Major duck. It was but poetic that the moment came at Augusta National, as the Spaniard holed his birdie putt to beat Justin Rose in a sudden-death playoff. Garcia would go on to win his third title of the season at the Andalucía Valderrama Masters a fortnight later.

The 38-year-old was fittingly named European Tour Golfer of the Year. With the Ryder Cup coming up, one perhaps imagines Sergio Garcia encouraging himself with a ¡Vamos!

FLEETWOOD’S SURGE TO RANKING SUMMIT 

Easily his best season to date, Tommy Fleetwood savoured some of the finest highs of his career in 2017. The signs were there towards the end of 2016 when his consistency stood out – Fleetwood made 11 successive cuts commencing with the Czech Masters right till the finale in Dubai.

Unsurprisingly, success followed soon after as the Englishman triumphed at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship before tasting further success at the HNA Open de France (his maiden victory at a Rolex Series event). In between, he finished runner-up at the WGC-Mexico Championship and at the Shenzen International. Fleetwood also recorded his best performance at a Major when he finished fourth at the US Open.

While victory in France took him to the top of the Race to Dubai, the resurgence of Fleetwood’s compatriot Justin Rose meant that the pair took the battle for the European Tour ranking to the season-ending event in Dubai, the DP World Tour Championship.

Rose’s birdie at the par-five 18th, when he needed an eagle, meant it was Fleetwood who clinched the European Tour Order of Merit.

Collecting the Race to Dubai title, Fleetwood said, “My ultimate goal in life is to be the best player in the world.” He clearly is on the right track to becoming just that!

USA’S STRANGLEHOLD OVER PRESIDENTS CUP 

There have been 12 editions of the Presidents Cup since the inaugural event in 1994 and Team USA have won on all but two occasions. Team International won in 1998 and the two teams fought to a tie in 2003. In short, the head-to-head reads 10-1-1 in favour of USA (who have, also, never lost at home). That’s not just dominance, that’s a stranglehold!

And 2017’s event wasn’t even close as America were already within a point and a half of sealing victory on what was just Day 3 of the 4-day tournament.

Of course, while it helped that the Americans had in their ranks the likes of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, among others, it would be naïve to put down the result to just the chasm – in terms of player profile or talent pool – between the sides. 11 of the 12 American golfers in their team had qualified for the Tour Championship and 6 of them were in the top-12 (Official World Golf Ranking).

To even make a match of it, the Internationals had to hit the ground running but as it transpired, their leading players – Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day – were far from their best.

Sunday’s singles were the only leg that the Internationals led, and eventually won 7½-4½, thereby making the final scoreline, a 19-11 defeat, less lopsided. But even that pales into significance if one looks at the other, starker, reality: USA had as many as 10 players who notched up two or more wins each, while Team International had just one in Louis Oosthuizen!

CONSISTENT THOMAS CROWNED FEDEX CUP CHAMP 

World No. 4 Justin Thomas can look back at his 2017 season on the PGA Tour with a sense of pride. The American racked up 5 titles, the PGA Championship being the highlight, and 7 other top-10 finishes.

Thomas commenced the year with a victory at the CIMB Classic, and followed that up with titles at the SBS Tournament of Champions and at the Sony Open in Hawaii. A lull followed between February and August when he missed the cut in 6 of the 14 tournaments he entered in that period, besides 3 other top-10 showings. However, the Louisville resident more than made up for it by winning his first Major title at the PGA Championship. He would also hoist the Dell Technologies Championship before finishing runner-up (to Xander Schauffele) at the season-ending TOUR Championship. Thomas was, undisputedly, the PGA Tour No. 1 and took home the FedEx Cup trophy and a US$10 million bonus.

For a long time, Thomas seemed to be in the shadow of compatriot, fellow 24-year-old and World No. 2 Jordan Spieth, but – given his breakout year – he will be confident that this may well not be the case going forward. Victory at the CJ Cup, which is the third event of the 2017-18 season, seems to be pointing in that direction. Team US, meanwhile, has yet another talent to call upon as they prepare for this year’s Ryder Cup.

(Read more in the February issue of Golf Digest India. Download here.)

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