As you get older, time really seems to fly by. It makes sense, I suppose. When you’re four, a calendar year is one quarter of your entire existence, but by the time you hit forty, well, it’s one fortieth. As you can probably tell, maths has always been one of my strong suits, but as I sat down to write this reflection on the year in golf, I can’t help but think there’s something anomalous about it.
Has it really only been a year since Cameron Smith shot 34-under to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii? It seems much longer, but with all that’s happened over the past 12 months, it’s hardly surprising. In the thirty-odd years that I’ve been following golf, there has never been a more tumultuous period. Not even close!
Despite heavy rumour – and various players allegedly actively attempting to recruit others on the putting green at the PGA Tour events – little was officially known about who would and wouldn’t be making the jump to the Super Golf League (SGL) as it was then known, prior to an excerpt from Alan Shipnuck’s forthcoming Phil Mickelson biography being published on The Fire Pit Collective website in February.
To say the excerpt was explosive may be the understatement of the year, and it really cast a shadow over the entire landscape of professional golf. Mickelson has always been a polarising figure, beloved for his daredevil bravado and well publicised generosity, but many saw through that veneer and despised the narcissism and self-serving nature of the same acts.
The raft of public statements that followed from many of those reported to have signed preliminary contracts with the SGL, all distancing themselves from the venture and pledging their allegiance to the PGA Tour, had a little bit of a ‘hostage video’ feel to them, especially Dustin Johnson’s that was released on the PGA Tour Communications Twitter feed. To all and sundry, it was dead in the water.
But of course, money talks. And vast sums of money bellow. The SGL became LIV Golf (LIV being 54 in Roman Numerals) presumably because just about everybody thought the ‘S’ stood for Saudi as opposed to Super, and the train rambled on. To be fair to Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer and a couple others, they never yo-yoed – if the new Tour got off the ground, they were in. It did, and they were.
By the time LIV Golf held their debut event at Centurion Club in London, we were halfway through the year, and the comings and goings of the upstart had dominated media coverage, just as it is dominating this reflection of 2022.
It helped that 2022 hadn’t really caught fire on the course, to that point. Sure, there were highlights – Hideki Matsuyama winning the Sony Open by hitting a 277-yard 3-wood to two feet in the playoff, Cameron Smith winning the Players Championship despite almost setting himself on fire on the final hole, Scottie Scheffler winning the Masters in his first start as world number one, Rory McIlroy’s final round charge at the same event, Justin Thomas taking his second PGA Championship title at Southern Hills and Tiger Woods valiantly making the cut at both majors through sheer grit and determination – but there were too many ‘meh’ weeks in between.
Great a player as he is, Scheffler doesn’t exactly get the heart racing, and his win at Augusta was his fourth of the year. Tom Hoge, Hudson Swafford, Luke List, J.J. Spaun and Sepp Straka were also among PGA Tour winners who, through no fault of their own, don’t make for big headlines. Even Jordan Spieth’s win at the RBC Heritage was a bit of a damp squib given that Spieth finished well ahead of the final groups, all of whom contrived to make a calamitous mess of the closing holes.
Not that LIV events were any better. With the exception of Dustin Johnson’s win at LIV Boston where the shotgun-start format came into its own and there was a period of about 15 minutes where six players – including Cameron Smith, Lee Westwood and Joaquin Niemann – all had a chip or a putt to win or tie, there was nothing remotely box office about the events.
No, it was the lead up to LIV events where headlines were generated as the media focus was all on who would be making the leap next. Smith, Niemann, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson all defected at various stages, all creating a media storm as they did, but as time progressed and the wave of rebels subsided, so too did any real interest.
In many ways, Rory McIlroy became the story of the year, both on and off the course. Four PGA Tour wins doesn’t really begin to tell the story of a year where he returned to the top of the world rankings, collected over $40 million in non-endorsement-related earnings and led the resistance against the perceived enemy on the doorstep.
There was the previously mentioned runner-up at Augusta, there was the opening 65 to take the first-round lead at the PGA, there was the ‘nearly but not quite’ tie for third at the US Open, and there was the Open Championship. A victim of his own success, McIlroy’s major record since winning his fourth eight years ago is used as a stick to beat the 33-year-old. Cameron Smith was, of course, a worthy winner at St. Andrew’s – as was Matt Fitzpatrick at Brookline – but having McIlroy in the hunt resonates in a way that only Tiger Woods can supersede.
It seems odd for an Irishman to reflect on a year’s professional golf that’s seen Leona Maguire capture her maiden LPGA title, Shane Lowry win Europe’s flagship event, Séamus Power win his second PGA Tour event, and both Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington win Champions Tour majors, with a sense of what might have been, but there are four annual tournaments that stand above all others. Yes, we’ve been spoiled in recent years, but you can’t un-ring that bell.
Who knows what 2023 has in store for professional golf? Will LIV continue to pick off big names until it’s genuinely on a par with the PGA Tour in terms of talent? Will they go after the women’s game next to further sanitise their image? Will the major championships honour their traditions and extend invitations to those already exempt? Will Rory finally end his major championship drought? Will Leona take the next step and capture her first?
With Ryder and Solheim Cups to look forward to, a Men’s US Open at L.A. Country Club and a Women’s US Open at Pebble Beach, it’d be great if the major headlines are all generated on the course but with so many questions yet to be answered, that seems a long shot.
One thing’s for certain though; for better or worse, there’ll never be a year like 2022.