2018 Newsmakers of the Year

Golf Digest

It’s an annual tradition at Golf World. Our “Newsmakers of the Year” package has helped cap the year in golf now for more than two decades. From our former print magazine to our current digital publication, readers have been treated to a thoughtful review of the previous 12 months, our writers returning to the players, events and moments that helped define our sport in hopes of offering a hearty encore to the season. During the next two weeks, we’ll continue the tradition by unveiling the top 25 Newsmakers of 2018—Nos. 25 to 11 from Dec. 3-7 and Nos. 10 to 1 from Dec. 10-14. There will be a few no brainers—spoiler alert: U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka makes our list—but also some storylines that are less obvious but, we think, no less worthy of our collective appreciation. So come back each day to see who makes our list as we countdown to our No. 1 Newsmaker of 2018. —Ryan Herrington

A look ahead to Tuesday’s Newsmakers: A Hall of Famer's legacy comes into question and the winner's circle gets a lot of old friends making return visits.

<cite class="credit">Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images</cite>
Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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No. 9: Valentino Dixon

Any time a long-standing murder conviction is overturned, it’s major news. But the story of artist Valentino Dixon was extra compelling for the unlikely way it came about. Dixon had been locked inside Attica Correctional Facility for nearly two decades when the superintendent, a recreational golfer named James Conway, asked the inmate to draw a picture of Augusta National’s 12th hole as a favor. Raised in a tough neighborhood of Buffalo, Dixon had never set foot on a golf course, but the tranquil look of the grass and trees he found appealing. So he started drawing more golf-scapes, using a neighboring cellmate’s back-issues of Golf Digest as reference material. Therapeutic as it may have been to lose himself in long hours creating Edenic images, Dixon believed his art also had a purpose: to be so beautiful so as to catch the attention of someone who would believe his claim of innocence. It worked. He shared his art with Golf Digest, which then in 2012 produced the first national expose of the miscarriage of justice against him. This sparked more media attention, notably a poignant 2013 television program by Golf Channel. A group of undergraduates from Georgetown University applied further pressure with key findings from their investigation. Finally, on Sept. 19, Dixon walked free after 27 years in prison. With his mind, body and spirit intact, the 49-year-old plans to make a life selling art and advocating against mass incarceration. —Max Adler

BONUS READ: → Valentino Dixon’s redemption

<cite class="credit">Drew Hallowell/Getty Images</cite>
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

No. 10: Ariya Jutanugarn

It’s been nearly 10 years since the LPGA has had a single, dominant star. That’s not to say the tour has lacked the talent to entertain, but since Lorena Ochoa retired in 2010, the question has lingered: Who will be the next to win with Lorena’s consistency and apparent ease, or take command of the winner’s circle with the unapologetic confidence of Annika Sorenstam before her? In 2018, we got a clearer view than ever of who that may be. Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn recorded top-10 finishes 17 times in 2018—including three wins. At the end of the season, Jutanugarn had won every award available to her: Player of the Year, money leader, the new Leaders Top 10 competition, Rolex ANNIKA Major Award, and she walked away from the tour championship with the $1 million CME season-ending bonus. It’s a resume that’s impressive without explanation, but even more impressive with it. One of those three wins was the U.S. Women’s Open. Jutanugarn blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to land in a playoff with Hyo-Joo Kim. It was a painful reminder of events early in Jutanugarn’s LPGA career when she struggled to close out tournaments. But diligent work on her mental game paid off at Shoal Creek, as she resurrected her championship to win after four playoff holes. The 23-year-old’s talent has never been in question. After that win, any concerns with her ability to finish off a tournament were silenced, too. The only thing that may be lacking is that feeling that she’s going win every tournament that she shows up at. It’s something that’s a bit out of her control: She’s playing on a tour where pretty much anyone could win every event. With 26 different winners in 2018, the LPGA has never been deeper, making it harder than ever for an individual to become a dominant force. But Ariya’s 2018 performance is certainly a move in that direction. —Keely Levins

RELATED: Back from a monumental collapse, Ariya Jutanguarn grabs U.S. Women's Open in playoff

<div class="caption"> Bryson DeChambeau walks to the 18th green during the final round of the 2018 Northern Trust. </div> <cite class="credit">Andrew Redington/Getty Images</cite>
Bryson DeChambeau walks to the 18th green during the final round of the 2018 Northern Trust.
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

No. 11: Bryson DeChambeau

A common complaint about modern-day star athletes is that they are too robotic, too calculated in their every move. Then, when they do show a shred of emotion, like Bryson DeChambeau did on numerous occasions this past season en route to a four-win, told-you-so 2018, we attack their character, write them off as “crazy” and demand an apology. It’s no wonder they never want to come out of the box in the first place. Fortunately for golf fans (and those of us in the media), DeChambeau doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The driving-range meltdowns; the handshake controversies; the geometric compass (and subsequent prohibition of the geometric compass); and the, um, coefficient of restitution of the flagstick, it’s all part of the Bryson charm, and it’s leading to a whole bunch of success. In addition to the victories, DeChambeau threatened to take the FedEx Cup title and grabbed a Ryder Cup captain’s pick. In 2015, the year he won the NCAA title and the U.S. Amateur crown, a prominent college coach noted “in five years, Bryson will either be No. 1 in the world or in a straitjacket.” After rising from No. 96 to No. 5, it appears like the former will come true, though if he learns that a straitjacket could somehow help him get there, he’ll be wearing one on the range soon. —Christopher Powers

RELATED: The contradictions of Bryson DeChambeau

<cite class="credit">Cy Cyr/PGA Tour</cite>
Cy Cyr/PGA Tour

No. 12: Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller will forever be remembered for the number 63—and yes, for often referring to that historic final round at Oakmont in 1973—but two other impressive totals finally prompted the Hall of Famer to hang up his headset as one of sports’ most-talked-about announcers: 50 consecutive years as either a professional golfer or broadcaster and 24 grandchildren. “It just seemed like a nice number,” Miller, 71, said of his half century of being on TV in one form or another, the last 29 years of which he worked for NBC Sports. “It’s been a great run.” And it will end in the Arizona desert, where Miller had arguably his greatest run in 1975 when he won consecutive PGA Tour events by a combined 23 shots. Miller will provide his unvarnished analysis one final time for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which concludes on Super Bowl Sunday. By the time the big game kicks off, we’re guessing there won’t be a dry eye in that 18th-hole tower. —Alex Myers

BONUS READ: → The Johnny Miller you ought to know

<cite class="credit">Ethan Miller/Getty Images</cite>
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

No. 13: Golf & Gambling

History could one day view it among the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions of the early 21st century. In May, by a 6-3 vote, the high court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which made it unlawful for states outside of Nevada to authorize sports gambling. In turn, an industry some estimate could be as large as $6 billion annually was born. How professional sports navigate the brave new world of legalized betting remains unclear, although the PGA Tour appears to be embracing this major change in a progressive manner. The possibilities for pre-tournament and in-round wagering were seen during last month’s pay-per-view telecast of “The Match,” with live odds shown for each hole in Tiger and Phil’s head-to-head showdown. The PGA Tour recently signed a multi-year agreement with a major sports-betting service and content distributor, IMG Arena, which will allow the company to take the tour’s ShotLink statistics and develop data specifically geared for sports-betting purposes. What exactly does that mean? Could golf telecasts of the future show the odds of a player executing a particular shot or holing a putt? Seems possible. With only eight states having taking advantage of the new opportunity so far, the betting landscape has yet to fully emerge. But given the nature of gambling and how closely tied wagering is to our sport recreationally, nothing would surprise us in 2019 (and beyond) regarding the full potential of the sports-betting-meets-golf relationship. —Stephen Hennessey

RELATED: How to bet on golf legally

<cite class="credit">Scott Barbour/Getty Images</cite>
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

No. 14: Jarrod Lyle

Following two successful bouts against leukemia, Jarrod Lyle succumbed to the deadly disease on Aug. 8, passing at age 36. The Australian golfer’s fight came to prominence in 2012, as he stepped away from the PGA Tour during a career campaign when his cancer, which first emerged as a teenager, returned. He mounted a comeback to golf in 2014, and earned the tour’s Courage Award for his perseverance and disposition in the face of adversity. But the leukemia sadly reappeared in late 2017, and though he put up another lionhearted effort, his body could not take anymore. Though he made just 121 career tour starts, Lyle was a popular figure, his wit and affable demeanor making him a locker-room favorite. Players and caddies on tours around the world grieved and honored him, wearing yellow ribbons and “Leuk the Duck” pins Lyle had sported to help raise awareness around childhood cancer. “Jarrod was a true inspiration in the way he faced cancer with a persistently positive attitude,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, “and he carried himself with incredible grace, dignity and courage through the recurrences of this relentless disease.” Lyle is survived by wife Briony and daughters, Lusi, 6, and Jemma, 2. —Joel Beall

RELATED: An emotional Rickie Fowler pays tribute to Jarrod Lyle at the PGA

<cite class="credit">Caryn Levy</cite>
Caryn Levy

No. 15: PGA Tour’s revamped schedule

Next year’s race to the FedEx Cup title reminds one of the film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” It will be that frenetic. But the payoff is better. With golf in the Olympics and the PGA Tour keen to end its season before the NFL begins, commissioner Jay Monahan made good in July on the desire to reconfigure the 46-event schedule for 2019. The PGA Championship will be played in May for the first time in 70 years, which means, starting with the Masters in April, the majors line up on the runway one per month. Meanwhile, the Players Championship is going back to March for the first time since the inception of the FedEx Cup in 2007. The Playoffs have been pared to three events and will end at the reimagined Tour Championship—where the FedEx Cup points leader will get a head start and the winner will claim both titles—on Aug. 25, a full month earlier than this past season. Finding time off will be challenging for the top players, but they shouldn’t mind. The postseason bonus pool doubles to $70 million, with $15 million to the champion. Additionally, the top 10 regular-season finishers share a separate $10 million pool. Mad, indeed. —Dave Shedloski

RELATED: 7 takeaways from the new 2019 PGA Tour schedule

<cite class="credit">Getty Images (8)</cite>
Getty Images (8)

No. 16: Everybody’s No. 1

Chalk it up to fierce competition, or perhaps a fallacy in the point system. But the No. 1 ranking in professional golf in 2018 was not so much a crown as it was a hacky sack. The title changed hands nine times in the men’s game between Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka this season. Since August alone it’s happened seven times—the most in any previous year was seven in 1997—while each week of November featured a new top dog. Although not occurring at the same frequency, the women’s No. 1 was also a hot potato, with four different players—Shanshan Feng, Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and Sung-Hyun Park—holding the honor. For the record, the current No. 1s are Koepka and Jutanugarn. In short, don’t expect the records for most consecutive weeks at No. 1—Tiger Woods at 281, Lorena Ochoa with 158—to fall anytime soon. —Joel Beall

RELATED: The World No. 1 is broken. Here’s how to fix it

<cite class="credit">Stacy Revere/Getty Images</cite>
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

No. 17: Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson gave an unexpected glimpse into her mind in 2018. The 23-year-old opened up about struggles with body image and spoke about the need to take time away from the game mid-season to maintain her mental health after a tumultuous year and a half on and off the course. But if 2017 was about survival for Thompson, 2018 was about healing and redefinition. After openly facing the struggles within, Thompson crossed paths with another demon during the CME Group Tour Championship in November. A year earlier at Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, Fla., she had missed a two-foot putt and the chance to win the championship and lock up player-of-the-year honors. In 2018, she walked to the 18th green with a big enough lead she could’ve five-putted and it wouldn’t have mattered. By season’s end, Thompson remained the top-ranked American player in the world, sitting on 10 career wins in her still burgeoning career. Yet in 2018, she showed that she isn’t a powerful, golfing machine. She’s a powerful human who plays golf. And accepting her humanity doesn’t negate her ability to dominate. If anything, it may have just made her stronger. —Keely Levins

RELATED: Lexi’s 2018 win in the LPGA season finale makes amends for 2017 loss

<cite class="credit">Image Studios</cite>
Image Studios

No. 18: Distance debate

It’s been said that figures don’t lie but liars can figure. And with the completion of the 2017-’18 PGA Tour season, it’s time to figure out whether it was the former or the latter as it relates to the ramped up debate on distance. What the USGA once described as a “slow creep” in distance exploded in 2018—at least on the PGA Tour. Driving distance leapt from 292.1 yards to 296.1—a four-yard increase. That came after a 2.1-yard jump the year before, a number that caused the USGA and R&A to launch the Distance Insights Project, an 18-month, comprehensive study that will blend data with input from virtually all of the game’s stakeholders, including everyday golfers, via online and telephone surveys. Although some who have participated feel the questions have been biased toward a negative impression of distance, there’s no denying at the elite level that the game’s best have gotten longer. Fourteen players averaged 310 yards or more this past PGA Tour season and 60 topped 300 yards compared to 7 and 40, respectively, the year before. The reason for such increases, however, are still to be determined. USGA CEO Mike Davis stated at the U.S. Open that “one set of rules is very important to the game long term,” seemingly inhibiting the possibility of rules bifurcation. How things will play out, then, remains unclear. What is known is this: the discussion itself will undoubtedly remain spirited. —E. Michael Johnson

RELATED: USGA indicates increasing concern in latest distance report

<cite class="credit">Jamie Squire/Getty Images</cite>
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No. 19: Akshay Bhatia

Akshay Bhatia found plenty of ways to win junior tournaments in 2018. The 16-year-old from Wake Forest, N.C., won despite being penalized for using a rangefinder (Junior Invitational at Sage Valley). He won from out front (Polo Golf Junior Classic by 10 strokes). He won from behind (Junior PGA Championship, with a chip in for eagle on the last hole that went viral). He won as part of Team USA (Junior Ryder Cup in Paris). It all turned the lanky lefty (6-foot, 125 pounds) into a junior phenomenon with more buzz than any boy since the high school days of Jordan Spieth. Interestingly, the highlight of 2018 was a tournament the AJGA Rolex Player of the Year didn’t win. “Getting to the finals of the U.S. Junior was a huge learning point this year for me,” says Bhatia, where he fell to good friend Michael Thorbjornsen, 1 up. “It was definitely depressing because you play great golf for I think more than 100 holes and then you just fall one shot short. That’s hard to swallow. But it motivates me for next year.” As does becoming the first American still in high school to make the U.S. Walker Cup team in 2019. —Ryan Herrington

RELATED: Akshay Bhatia's legend grows with chip-in eagle for the win at Junior PGA

<cite class="credit">Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images</cite>
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

No. 20: Backstopping

Backstopping as a routine isn’t entirely new on the PGA Tour, but it became more out in the open in the fall of 2017. That’s when Justin Thomas confessed his right to play faster even if it means taking advantage of a ball near the hole and not waiting for it to be marked. The previously little-spoken occurrence gained more attention in June when Jimmy Walker found himself at the center of a firestorm after saying, “If you don’t like a guy you will mark anyway. If you like the guy you might leave it to help on a shot. Some guys don’t want to give help at all and rush to mark their ball. To each his own.” Fellow tour pros—Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Luke Donald among them—took issue (rightfully so) with Walker’s stance. The most notable examples of the practice took place at the 2017-’18 season opener when Tony Finau hit a greenside bunker shot from a plugged lie as playing partner Jason Kokrak didn’t mark his ball that was next to the hole. At this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, there was a similar situation involving Thomas and Brian Harman. The latter led to Paul Azinger blasting the idea of helping a fellow competitor—and in turn hurting the rest of the field. There have been other occurrences as well. But given the genial relationships between many of today’s young players, and with no rule in place for something that is almost entirely intent-based, don’t expect this controversy to die down anytime soon. —Brian Wacker

RELATED: Jimmy Walker's 'backstopping' comment sparks heated Twitter debate

<cite class="credit">Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America via Getty Images</cite>
Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America via Getty Images

No. 21: Pete Bevacqua

A golf executive switching from one big organization to another doesn’t always register with the general public, but Pete Bevacqua’s impact on the game has been bigger than most. The PGA of America CEO announced in July he would be taking a new position as president of NBC Sports Group, but only after presiding over several bold moves during his PGA tenure. In moving the PGA Championship from August to May, Bevacqua was giving the so-called fourth major a chance at a new identity. He helped secure a lucrative future for the Ryder Cup by establishing a 15-year rights deal between the PGA and NBC Sports, and set in motion a lucrative deal to move the PGA of America headquarters from South Florida to Texas. All were efforts to distinguish the PGA of America from the PGA Tour, two easy-to-confuse golf bodies with distinct missions. Bevacqua didn’t see all of those efforts come to their finish—the first May PGA is not until 2019, and the move to Texas is pending local approval—but if there’s a reason NBC wanted the charismatic Bevacqua on its team, it’s because of a proven ability to get big ideas off the ground. —Sam Weinman

RELATED: Why we’re moving the PGA to May, By Pete Bevacqua

<div class="caption"> Tiger Woods, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, will be published March 27 by Simon &amp; Schuster. </div>
Tiger Woods, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, will be published March 27 by Simon & Schuster.

No. 22: Tiger Woods biography

The ambitious biography, Tiger Woods, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, delivered its share of juicy nuggets regarding the 14-time major champion—notably about his infamous sex scandal, his father’s infidelities and the particulars behind his decision to turn professional. But really what set this 512-page tome apart from the countless other profiles of Woods is how it created a three-dimensional picture of Woods’ curious existence—how he became arguably the greatest golfer of all time, but also someone who felt increasingly isolated at the height of his stardom. Of course there were elements of the book that Woods’ camp didn’t like—they cited a few small factual errors. Yet the book’s impact wasn’t so much in what it said, but in convincingly explaining why Woods ended up the way he did. —Sam Weinman

RELATED: A Q&A with Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

<cite class="credit">Stuart Franklin/Getty Images</cite>
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

No. 23: Shubhankar Sharma

Shubhankar Sharma’s first true introduction to golf fans on the world stage involved an actual—and awkward—introduction with one of his heroes back in March. Sharma, the surprising 36-hole leader at the WGC-Mexico Championship, approached Phil Mickelson on the practice green before the third round and was initially blown off by the five-time major champ, who mistook him for a member of the media. Mickelson wound up winning that week, but Sharma was the event’s breakout star with a performance that helped him earn a Masters invite two days later, making him just the fourth Indian golfer to tee it up at Augusta National. By year’s end, Sharma had collected the European Tour’s rookie-of-the-year award for a two-win campaign and finished 28th in the Race to Dubai. During the Open Championship, Sharma was surprisingly serenaded by a packed restaurant in Carnoustie for his 22nd birthday. Expect even more people to know who he is in 2019. —Alex Myers

RELATED: How Shubhankar Sharma manages as a vegetarian tour pro

<h1 class="title">joel-dahmen-sung-kang-newsmakers-2018-logo.jpg</h1> <cite class="credit">Getty Images (2)</cite>


Getty Images (2)

No. 24: Joel Dahmen/Sung Kang

Cheating is golf’s biggest taboo. It engenders a code of omerta, a cognizance of the scarlet letter that comes with the slightest assertion. It all made Joel Dahmen’s accusation that fellow competitor Sung Kang had knowingly broken the rules at the Quicken Loans National in July the talk of the tournament. Kang, Dahmen’s final-round playing partner, found a hazard at TPC Potomac’s 10th hole. Kang believed his ball passed over the stakes; Dahmen disputed the account, alleging Kang failed to cross the water. The argument continued so long that the group behind played through. Though a rules official eventually sided with Kang—whose T-3 finish earned an Open Championship invite—Dahmen, 31, remained steadfast, taking to Twitter to air his grievance: “Kang cheated. He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost.” Speaking at Carnoustie, Kang defended his actions. “I did the right thing,” the 31-year-old from South Korea insisted. One silver lining from the thorny incident: Dahmen, a career journeyman, seemed galvanized by the matter, reeling off four consecutive top-15s to keep his card for 2019. As did Kang. —Joel Beall

RELATED: Joel Dahmen's caddie uses off season to create Oscar-level movie trailer involving his boss

<cite class="credit">Robert Laberge/Getty Images</cite>
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

No. 25: Bernhard Langer

Bernhard Langer, such is his consistency and resistance to aging, has turned the PGA Tour Champions season into an endless loop. For the fourth time in the last five years (and the fifth time overall), the World Golf Hall of Famer won the season-long Charles Schwab Cup and its $1 million bonus. His 14 top-10s led the tour for the seventh straight year. His earnings ($2,222,154) also led the tour for a seventh straight year. In those seven years, he’s led the tour in scoring average four times, and finished second three times, including this year. At 61, he is spotting the competition as many as 11 years in age, and is still dominating. His 38 career senior wins are seven shy of Hale Irwin’s all-time record, which seems distant, if it weren’t Langer doing the chasing. The one honor that Langer walked away with in 2018 for the first time? The PGA Tour’s Payne Stewart Award for quality of character and philanthropy. —John Strege

RELATED: The clubs Bernhard Langer used to win on the PGA Tour Champions in 2018


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