Golf’s Top 10 Stories From 2016

By M. James Ward
M. James Ward
M. James Ward
December 28, 2016 Updated: December 28, 2016

* Arnold Palmer’s passing.

 The date of September 25 will forever be remembered. On the eve of the Ryder Cup Matches golf’s King — Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87. Palmer’s role in American sports is at the highest of levels. His coming onto the scene intersected with the ascension of television. Arnie’s presence brought golf out of the shadows and transformed a sport previously viewed as a recreation only for the affluent into a game for the masses. Palmer resurrected The Open Championship as a major event. His ability to secure life long fans long after his playing career had ended came about because of his endearing personality and gentleman stance in all areas.

Whether Arnie won in glorious fashion — “charging” to victory in the 1960 US Open with a final round 65 or losing inexplicably with crushing losses at the 1961 Masters or the seven shot lead he surrendered with nine holes remaining in the 1966 US Open — Palmer’s grace and dignity never waivered. His Army loved him even more.

The King is sadly gone but will never be forgotten.

Arnold Palmer made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as "The King," . (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Arnold Palmer made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as “The King,” . (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

* USA recaptures Ryder Cup.

When you lose 8 of the last 10 and the past three consecutive encounters — the enormity of the moment was clearly at-hand when the USA squad faced off against Europe at Hazeltine National in Chaska, MN. The pressure was on the Americans to reverse a tide — most notably after the USA squandered a four point lead heading into the final day of the ’12 matches at Medinah when last played in America.

Led by returning Captain Davis Love III the American squad demonstrated a sustained team effort — winning the Cup without Tiger Woods in the line-up. Young players such as Patrick Reed stepped up noticeably — with Reed besting McIlroy in one of the most anticipated singles matches in quite some time at the Ryder Cup.

* Stenson / Mickelson in epic duel at The Open at Troon.

 In 1977 Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus staged an epic confrontation — forever known as the “Duel in the Sun.” The brilliance of the play was not concluded until Watson sunk a two-foot putt at the final hole. 39 years later two men did similarly — Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and American Phil Mickelson bolted far ahead of all competitors with shotmaking harkening back to the time when Watson claimed the throne over Nicklaus at Turnberry. Mickelson came within a whisker at the 18th hole in the first round in setting a major championship record for 18 holes with a round of 63. Stenson would also shoot 63 – his coming in the final round matching what Johnny Miller did at Oakmont in winning the ’73 US Open.

Stenson made ten birdies during the final round and for Mickelson who shot a final round 65 — the margin was far tighter than the eventual three-stroke margin that it ultimately became. Stenson’s four round total of 264 is the lowest 72-hole score in a major. Amazingly, Phil Mickelson’s 267 total has only been bested three other times. The next closet competitor after Mickelson was J.B. Holmes at 278. Incredible play — beyond peer. 

* Olympics golf resurfaces — future in Games remains uncertain.

Golf returned to the Olympic Games for the first time in 112 years and while various national golf organizations were excited about the inclusion of the sport — key players on the men’s side showed mix reaction. With professional golf schedules adjusted to include the 72-hole event in Rio de Janeiro players such as Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott opted to spend their time elsewhere. Winning the men’s golf golf medal was England’s Justin Rose and while the event went smoothly the lack of real excitement on the men’s side among the elite players is something that will need to change for golf to remain in the Olympics.

On the women’s side there was uniform involvement and overall excitement but the real question is can golf stay beyond the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020? That remains to be seen.

Dustin Johnson made it a clean sweep of the tour's biggest honors that are named after its most prominent players. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Dustin Johnson made it a clean sweep of the tour’s biggest honors that are named after its most prominent players. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

* Dustin Johnson redeems himself — wins US Open — saves USGA embarrassment.

After having lost the ’15 US Open with an inexcusable three-putt at the 72nd hole — Dustin Johnson rebounded in grand fashion — winning the same event one year later at a brutally demanding Oakmont CC outside of Pittsburgh. Adding to Johnson’s desire to win his first major championship was a near monumental rules fiasco courtesy of the USGA. During the final round Johnson was found not to have caused his ball to move prior to holing out at the 5th. At the tee of the par-5 12th Johnson was approached by USGA officials who said they were reviewing the issue and that a final determination would be made when play concluded.

The resulting uncertainty placed a very real possibility a post event penalty would be applied and that players would need to adjust their approach to playing. A clear debacle for sure. Johnson, to his considerable credit, handled the situation calmly and proceeded to play the most consistent golf down the stretch — ultimately winning the event by three shots and saving the USGA’s hide in the process. Uniformly, the USGA quite rightly took considerable criticism in the manner by which the situation was handled. Fortunately, a corrective rules change has now taken place by both the USGA and R&A regarding similar such matters.

For Johnson – the redemption from Chambers Bay to Oakmont was indeed a defining moment. Dustin had gone through several breakdowns during the final round of several different majors — his US Open triumph portends the very real possibility future major wins are certainly a very distinct possibility. Johnson earned player-of-the-year honors but the real question is can he finally climb the golf mountain and attain the #1 position? Dustin is determined to do no less.

* Tiger Woods returns to professional golf — future impact unknown.

After being away from competitive professional golf for nearly 16 months — the last time coming in August ’15 during The Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, NC — Tiger Woods returned as a competitor when playing in his Hero World Challenge event in the Bahamas.

Woods had been hinting at a return for several weeks prior to his December start but backed away in claiming his game was “vulnerable” and would wait before coming back.

His play in the Bahamas was a mixed bag. Woods made the most birdies for the event and his 2nd round 65 showed his capabilities are still present. However, in a number of recurring situations Woods was careless in his executions. Tiger did complete 72-holes but his near the bottom finish shows plenty of work on his part still needs to happen.

Woods has said he is ready for a full schedule in ’17 — looking to return to his winning ways. That remains to be seen. Tiger’s last major win came in ’08 – his last PGA Tour came in ’13 — plenty of time has passed. Woods will need to show he has the passion and willpower to do so. This challenge will be greater than any other Woods has experienced. Nonetheless, the return of Tiger Woods will bring plenty of eyeballs to the television screen. Should Woods even remotely show signs of true form the resulting surge in interest will clearly be present.

*Trump’s election — his role in the game.

With the election of Donald J. Trump as America’s 45th President the spotlight will intensify with various golf course properties he owns becoming the stage for a number of key golf events. Two will come in ’17 — the Senior PGA Championship in the Washington, DC area in May — followed by the US Women’s Open in July in Bedminster, NJ. In 2022 the PGA Championship is planned to be also held at the same Garden State location. Trump has also made a major push to have his flagship Scottish property – Turnberry — be considered for a near term Open Championship. The R&A has not made any commitments to date — but it also has not ruled out the possibility either.

During an intense campaign — Trump made various comments concerning minorities and women that were anything but endearing. The major organizations within golf jointly stated a clear distancing from such statements saying golf is an inclusive game but none has opted to pull the plug from a Trump  property to date.

With Trump in the White House for four years the major golf organizations are in a difficult bind — future comments from the soon to be President could mean an intensification from those wishing to see such events be held elsewhere. The sponsoring organizations are clearly in the crossfire and likely squirming at that reality happening.

Donald Trump tosses a ball while standing on the 14th fairway during a pro-am round of the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Donald Trump tosses a ball while standing on the 14th fairway during a pro-am round of the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

* Nike leaves golf club and ball business — others to follow?

The Nike involvement with golf was not long on years — commencing in 1984 just with golf shoes — then 14 years later with hard good such as club, balls and bags. The big splash came in signing Tiger Woods just as his professional career was taking shape. The famous “swoosh” became front and center as Woods became the Nike identifier to millions around the world. Despite having Woods — and then years later adding Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie — the Nike reach into the golf market was a limited one — failing to break the stranglehold from such more established competitors as TaylorMade, Titleist, Callaway and PING.

Complicating matters for Nike was the flat growth rate within golf — most especially over the last decade or so. The sport is attempting to woo new players — especially Millennials, minorities and women but the sport has simply gone a in reverse with less total players and courses. That trend has not changed. And, there is strong evidence that when baby boomers fade from the scene the net migration of active golfers will be even far less.

Nike will remain in soft goods – shoes and apparel. But the real issue is whether other companies with golf equipment as part of their offerings will follow suit. That question remains in play.

* Tim Finchem steps down as PGA Tour Commissioner.

Continuity is something the PGA Tour has been able to demonstrate with its top leadership. When first formed in 1968 after splitting from the PGA of America the top position was offered to Joe Dey in 1969 — the long time former Executive Director of the United States Golf Association (USGA). Following Dey’s short five-year-run — Deane Beaman, a former top amateur and professional, held the leadership position for 20 years commencing in 1974 and ending in 1994.

That’s when Tim Finchem entered the scene and held it through the end of ’16. In that span Finchem was able to escalate PGA Tour Purses — from $56.4 when he entered the scene to $256.8 by ’06. Sizeable television contracts clearly helped. But, much of accomplished through good timing — having the like of both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson competing in their primes.

The PGA Tour became the ultimate safe place for advertisers and sponsors — never having to fear like other major sports in having athletes in trouble with the law or other such headline grabbing situations.

Finchem was schooled in politics at the highest levels — having worked in the Carter White House and was extremely successful in keeping the focus on keeping sponsors happy and with it the tour players he served. Finchem’s replacement — Jay Monahan — has been groomed to take the top spot. Monahan will need to negotiate new television contracts and likely have to handle the growing clamor from sponsors that increasing future purses can only come with clear assurances that the world’s best players will actually be in the fields. That situation is clearly a work in progress and to be determined.

* Keeping golf relevant — alternate options coming forward.

During the heady times in the 1990’s when golf was seen as a “cool” sport — there was little worry about the sport fading from view. The belief was that the emergence of Tiger Woods — a multi-racial player whose presence was global in his reach would serve as a galvanizing force in sustaining golf’s growth with more and more players.

While the surge of interest in Tiger’s career was noticeable through television ratings going up whenever he competed — the movement to the actual sport never really took hold.

With The Great Recession in ’08 — the bubble in golf burst in a big time way. Player levels have gone down — followed-by a net loss of more golf courses closing than opening year after year. Much of the golf course construction boom was tied tightly to the continued health of the real estate market and that crash was loud and deep.

In the aftermath has come forward a series of “alternative golf” elements. The most fascinating and the one that has taken the industry by storm is Top Golf. Originally started in 2000 in the United Kingdom the company was then purchased by a Dallas-based group. By 2017 — 50 locations are expected to open. Top Golf took the conventional driving range model and morphed it into a glorified cocktail party where golf just happens to be part of the menu. Top Golf is the modern equivalent of what old time bowling popularized.

Incredibly, 60% of the people who come to Top Golf had never picked up a golf club before. The unknown is whether those first time golfers migrate into traditional golf. Thus far, there’s no metric to show if that does happen.

There’s also been movement in other ideas with Hack Golf — a fanciful idea in which the golf hole is enlarged considerably. In addition, there’s been also a number of courses placing a combination of golf and soccer together with Foot Golf. Snag Golf is another concept in which younger golfers are pursued by introducing them to golf through elementary schools connection via a physical education connection. There is also First Tee — a youth development outreach sponsored by a number of major golf organizations and active in core urban areas.

There has also been the desire to play rounds of golf which are less than 18-holes given the urgency people have placed on their leisure time. 9-hole courses have re-emerged — with lesser hole rounds also available.

Have any of these efforts really turned the tide in building a new base of players for the 21st century? That remains to be seen. However, clearly the range of options is an admission that relying upon traditional golf models is not going to be the porthole as it has been. Stay tuned.