Every comeback success for a PGA Tour star has an inescapable corollary in that some other struggling player will be shunted into the crosshairs of pitiless commentators who were previously focused on his now-resurgent peer. For that reason alone, Jordan Spieth ought to stand Rickie Fowler a drink when they next meet.
Like all professional golfers, Fowler is accustomed to criticism. The slings and arrows of Strokes Gained statistics will draw blood from even the very best, much less someone struggling with swing changes who has managed only four top 20 finishes in the past year. But whereas Spieth was scrutinized almost exclusively for his on-course performance, judgments on Fowler seem less about play than perception, the chaffing sense among golf fans that he is coasting down Easy Street.
When historians eventually tally the cost of the Donald Trump era, the manifold indecencies of which culminated in Wednesday’s sacking of the United States Capitol during a failed insurrection, golf will not be counted among its casualties.
The game will instead be portrayed as Trump’s refuge, something he did while ignoring a pandemic that has claimed 365,000 lives, refusing to acknowledge a resounding electoral defeat, and inciting feeble-minded fascists to violence that left five people dead at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
That’s the best case scenario.
The alternative? That a sport which prides itself on values like honesty, integrity and devotion to the rules will be characterized as a welcoming sanctuary for a brazen and amoral insurrectionist, a world in which a racist con man was never discomfited, even while taking a wrecking ball to the constitution and the rule of law.
Alpha dog athletes don’t rely solely upon the tools of their trade to stake out their territory. A well-timed gesture or pointed comment can be just as corrosive to the confidence of rivals as any excellence in the arena. Roger Federer was a master of it, sometimes congratulating a victorious opponent for having played the match of his life (translation: you had to play the match of your life to beat me!). Tiger Woods is golf’s greatest practitioner of psych ops, so he’s unlikely to have missed Brooks Koepka’s exquisite mastery of the dark art at Bethpage Black.
Not that pre-tournament press conference, during which he declared majors easier to win than regular PGA Tour events. No, Koepka’s alpha doggedness was on display in subtle drone strikes targeting Woods himself.
It was a glistening, 420-horsepower Cadillac Escalade that ferried John Daly to the distant 10th tee at Bethpage Black Thursday afternoon, and a mud-spattered, 3.3 horsepower electric cart that he pointed down the fairway to begin his opening round in the 101st PGA Championship. His ride, like his career, a faded carbon of what it once was.
A man who quickly swaps vehicles deep in the Long Island woods might fall under suspicion of doing something illegal, but in the case of Daly it was merely something unsporting. And unsurprising.
For Ricky Elliott, 2018 ended much as it began: going downhill fast.
In December, that meant a maiden ski trip to Colorado. January hadn’t been as much fun for Elliott, the longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka. Just a few holes into the year in Hawaii, a wrist injury benched his man for three months.
“It was worrying. I honestly thought if we could play at all this year it would be a bonus,” Elliott said. “It was one of those dark areas where there was no timetable on his comeback. It was a long period of not knowing if you’re going to have a job. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.”
You can learn a lot about how a president governs by watching his golf game. Bill Clinton, for example, had a reputation for cheating. George W. Bush rushed along, blind to the bigger picture. Gerald Ford was endearingly hapless. And then there’s President Donald J. Trump.
I played with him just once, on August 20, 2010, and it was quite an experience. At the time, I worked at Golf Magazine and had been invited to join the editor in chief and a corporate executive at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Back then, Trump was overly solicitous of golf media, eager to influence their course ranking lists to include his properties. The character I saw and heard over those few hours has since become a familiar part of public life.
One day after the PGA Championship wrapped, I joined Damon Hack on Golf Channel to talk about the likely picks Jim Furyk will make for the Ryder Cup, and reliving Tiger’s great run at Bellerive. Watch it right here.
It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.
There are a few elements essential to the character of a major championship.
It starts with the field. If the world’s best consider it optional, it’s not a major. Injuries or indictments are the only acceptable excuses for a player’s absence.
A weepy Jim Nantz retrospective helps too. Granted, his tendency to wring tears from even the most banal Tour stop has cheapened the currency, but viewers must be persuaded that they’re catching glimpses of a significant tournament between the commercials and fluffing of CEOs.
But nothing contributes more to the sense of a major than the golf course. The venue was a vital character in the plots of 2018’s majors. Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie were not incidental to the action.
Which may explain why – so far, at least – this major feels decidedly minor.
This ought to be a week that Shaun Micheel savors, returning to a major championship where he can wrap himself in gauzy memories of his finest achievement. Instead, he approaches the 100th PGA Championship with a familiar gnawing anxiety, conscious that every mention of his “once upon a time” fairytale victory in 2003 brings detractors eager to emphasize the “once.”
“I look forward to getting back, but I have some trepidation about the noise that’s going to start appearing on social media before too long,” he said last weekend.
It was with the 7,277th stroke of his U.S. Open career that Phil Mickelson finally conceded he will never win the only major championship missing from his mantelpiece.
That was the stroke with which he intentionally hit a moving ball on the 13th hole of Saturday’s third round at Shinnecock Hills, a casual, contemptuous swipe that all but acknowledged the quest had finally broken him.
“I’ve had multiple times when I’ve wanted to do that, and I finally did,” he told Fox Sports’ Curtis Strange afterward, sounding for all the world like an entitled, petulant child who has just been busted for torching his parents house.
In that single stroke, Mickelson’s carefully constructed veneer fell away, the years of pained diplomacy and outward optimism with which he greeted every failed, painful tilt at the national Open. It was a quiet scream, seen but not heard.
In an era when relationships among the world’s best golfers lean more toward hugs than hostility, Paul Azinger is an unapologetic throwback to a time when Tour pros would think twice about even giving each other a Heimlich.
He doesn’t play much these days, but Azinger’s love of competition – the honor of it, as much as the thrill – remains undimmed. If only some of today’s players felt as competitive as the guy in the booth at the 118th U.S. Open Championships.
It should come as no surprise that the Fox Sports lead analyst is openly hostile to backstopping, the controversial “helping hand” practice that has been the subject of heated debate on the grounds at Shinnecock Hills.
When you’ve had a season like that of Justin Thomas, it can be difficult to determine the most important metric amid such heady success. Unless you’re his dad.
Mike Thomas can recite chapter and verse on the accomplishments that are expected to earn his son the PGA Tour Player of the Year award: the five wins, the first major victory at the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup title, record-setting rounds (59 at the Sony Open, 63 at the U.S. Open), the Arnold Palmer Award for topping the money list, the 3½-1½ record in his first U.S. team appearance at the Presidents Cup.
The 2017 season has brought an avalanche of accolades for the 24-year-old, but none of those tops his old man’s list of what matters.