Monday Scramble: All the glory, all the controversy in the year-end special

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The PGA Tour model gets challenged, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau dominate the headlines, Tiger Woods faces even more uncertainty, a new LPGA rivalry takes shape – plus some Best of 2021 awards – in this season-ending edition of Monday Scramble:

Jay Monahan
Jay Monahan

Rumored for years, golf's rival tours emerged from the shadows this year, albeit not completely.

The Saudi-backed golf league has a new front man in Greg Norman but neither a name nor any concrete details or big-name commitments, despite all of the bluster.

The Premier Golf League, too, promises a brighter future and collaboration with the PGA Tour, but Jay Monahan and Co., evidently won’t even take their calls.

What’s left, then, is the players (and, by extension, their agents) in a rare position of power, able to leverage these perceived threats into an even cushier gig. A star-heavy schedule. Appearance fees. Enormous paydays. That’s what the players seek, and that’s what the PGA Tour is poised to deliver them in a few years, if not sooner.

Purses were already scheduled to receive a significant increase once the new TV deal goes into effect, but some of these other initiatives – including a rumored proposal of four to six lucrative international invitationals in the fall – could be seen as a direct response to the specter of the breakaway tours. The Saudi league and the PGL might never even get off the ground, but they forced the Tour to reevaluate its long-standing belief that it should cater to the entire membership, not just the stars.

Not anymore.

For their loyalty, the top players are about to receive a boatload of cash – and even more power.

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Their melodrama dominated the news all summer, and it culminated in ... a 12-hole charity match that featured plenty of pre-round promotion but little on-course hostility.

Brooks vs. Bryson, or Bryson vs. Brooks, turned out not to be much of a contest at all: Koepka treated the latest edition of The Match like his own personal major championship, trouncing DeChambeau, 4 and 3, to get the last word. For now.

It was a contrived end to what was a very real feud, with real hurt feelings, at least on DeChambeau’s end.

The polarizing star stirs up plenty of controversy on his own, but his summer of discontent was filled with so much animus and heckling that the Tour brass altered its policy toward spectator behavior. That part was unfortunate, and unnecessary, and Koepka could have been the bigger person and put an end to the abuse. But there was little incentive to do so, not once they learned that their animosity could be monetized in the form of The Match.

And so they cashed in.

That’s their choice, but whatever happens next – any internet chirping, any driving range dustup – now must be viewed skeptically. They have ulterior motives. By continuing to play up the drama, they know they will reap the rewards, either through another made-for-TV exhibition or the social media-driven Player Impact Program that is set to swell to $50 million next year.

As golf observers, we can’t help but feel robbed. This needed to be settled on a major Sunday, not on a Black Friday in Vegas when both players laughed all the way to the bank.

Tiger Woods' 2021 crash site
Tiger Woods' 2021 crash site

Tiger Woods’ status for 2021 was always going to be an unknown.

Twelve months ago, he labored through the PNC Championship with son Charlie, clearly bothered by the same back issues that had threatened to derail his inspiring comeback. He underwent another microdiscectomy – his fifth back procedure – and by the time the Genesis Invitational rolled around in early February, Woods was ready for hosting duties but not any tournament competition. Asked about the Masters then, he said, “God, I hope so.”

That return never materialized, of course, not after his world was upended by a horrific car crash shortly after his appearance in the TV booth. Speeding and showing no signs of braking, Woods rolled his SUV and sustained such serious injuries to his right leg that some in the medical community predicted that he might struggle to walk, let alone play championship-caliber golf.

But earlier this month, with his Hero World Challenge drawing nearer, Woods uploaded a swing video that energized the golf world – “Making Progress” read the caption, the same words he chose in 2017 as he prepared to return from the last-ditch spinal fusion surgery.

It’s anyone’s guess where Woods goes from here, and we won’t waste this space speculating. He’ll be 46 in a few weeks. His battered body has been through countless wars. In a few days, if Woods meets with the media in the Bahamas ahead of the Hero, we’ll likely learn more about what happened that fateful February day, where he stands in his recovery, and what he still hopes to achieve, if anything, in his golfing future.

That he even has the option at all is a borderline miracle, considering the scenes from the crash.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson

A snapshot of the year in the men’s majors:

Imagine that – Phil the Thrill had the least dramatic major win of the year. That didn’t make it any less impactful, for the 50-year-old became the oldest major champion in history with his turn-back-the-clock performance to win the PGA Championship. In a head-to-head showdown at Kiawah Island against big, bad Brooks Koepka, it was Mickelson who emerged victorious – and he did so convincingly. Lefty had done nothing prior to that victory: 17 events without a top-10. And he’s done nothing since: nine in a row without a top-10. But fluke or not, his Kiawah title was a monument to his greatness and incredible longevity. If he could pop up and beat the best major field of the year, there’s no reason to think he can’t summon the goods throughout his 50s and beyond.

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Ten players were within a shot of the lead at one point on U.S. Open Sunday, and the leaderboard featured some of the biggest names in the sport, known to most simply by one name: Rahm. Rory. Bryson. Brooks. Louie. There were countless mistakes, both shocking and subtle. DeChambeau imploded with an inward 42. Koepka bogeyed two of the last three. McIlroy ended his bid with an ugly back-nine double bogey. Oosthuizen found the hazard on the 71st hole. Slamming the door (and punctuating his ascendant career) was Rahm, who rammed home birdie putts on each of the last two holes to capture his first major title. There was no one better in 2021 (more on that in a bit), and now he’s no longer the best player in the world without a major.

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Winless since 2017, Hideki Matsuyama delivered Japan its first men’s major championship at the Masters. It was a continuation of what became a standout year for the country, boasting not just the Masters winner but also the Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion, the Olympic women’s silver medalist and Asia-Pacific Amateur winner. It was a relatively sleepy final round until the last hour, when Xander Schauffele, mounting a late charge, found the water on the 16th hole to hand the title to Matsuyama. In the aftermath, the normally stoic Matsuyama – playing without the usual media crush because of COVID-19 restrictions – helped produce two of the year’s most iconic images, with his tearful walk to the scoring building while his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, removed his hat and bowed his head in a sign of respect.

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All Collin Morikawa does is shatter expectations. In his first appearance at The Open, he stared down Jordan Spieth and took home the claret jug with a typically excellent ball-striking exhibition. A pro for two-plus years now, Morikawa has amassed a large enough sample size that we can safely type this: If he only putts above average, he’s going to win, or least have a serious chance. His iron play is that good, that superior; he averaged more than a shot gained on the field per round last season, establishing himself as the Tour’s preeminent sharpshooter in the post-Tiger era. Thriving in pressure situations and lethally precise, it’s a pleasure to watch him compete in this bomb-and-gouge era.

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Lydia Ko emerging from the wilderness was one of the feel-good stories of the year, but let’s be honest: The season boiled down to two players, Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda, and their budding rivalry adds even more juice to the LPGA.

Ko won five times, all since July and each while battling a bum left wrist. Korda was a four-time winner, not including her Olympic triumph. They finally squared off in the season finale ... and all Ko did on the final Sunday of the year was fire a round-of-the-day 63 to collect the $1.5 million check and decisively earn Player of the Year bragging rights.

Still just 26, Ko has staked her claim as one of the best players of this generation. Telegenic and athletic, the 23-year-old Korda oozes with transcendent, superstar talent, especially once she grows even more comfortable on this stage. In this space previously we’ve gushed about the potential for a rivalry (anyone remember Ariya Jutanugarn vs. Lydia Ko?), but this feels different. Jin Young and Nelly are miles ahead of the rest of the pack, with room to get even better.

THIS YEAR'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Best Male Player: Jon Rahm. Even though Patrick Cantlay had the best season of his career, winning five times, including the FedExCup, Rahm played the best golf this year. He led in scoring average, top-10s, official money, birdie average, strokes gained: tee-to-green and strokes gained: total – all while carrying the burden as the world No. 1 and dealing with a host of off-course distractions (some of them, of course, his own making). Crown him.

Best Female Player: Nelly Korda. Though she trailed Ko, 5-4, in the win category, Korda played fewer events and her triumphs were arguably more impactful: her first major, at the Women’s PGA, and an Olympic gold. She also had the lowest unofficial scoring average.

Best Senior Player: Phil Mickelson. All credit to Bernhard Langer, still thriving at age 64, but Mickelson is now 4-for-6 when teeing it up against the over-50 set. Our only wish is that he’d do it more often, to challenge for the title of senior GOAT.

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Best Non-Major Tournament of the Year: BMW Championship. Track meets aren’t fun every week, but this shootout at Caves Valley was a thrilling watch, with Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau throwing haymakers down the stretch and into overtime. Throw in a little extra spice for flavor – DeChambeau scolding Cantlay for walking while he’s over a shot, all the “Brooksy!” calls, DeChambeau’s post-round confrontation with a fan – and this was easily one of the events of the year, major or otherwise.

Biggest Breakthrough: Tony Finau. No one had done less with more over the past five years than Finau, who kept finding creative ways to remain winless. That’s what made his playoff-opening win at Liberty National so inspirational – he blocked out the haters, clutched up when he needed to and prevailed in a playoff for his second Tour win. Now that the weight has been lifted (and his putting stroke improved), the possibilities are endless.

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth

Most Intriguing Story: Jordan Spieth’s return. Spiraling toward the top 100 in the world, Spieth’s loyalty was rewarded as he stuck with the same team and came out the other side. After a string of near-misses on the West Coast, he busted the drought in Texas, racked up another high finish at the Masters and chased the claret jug at Royal St. George’s. Down for so long, he’s all the way back to No. 11 in the world – with his arrow pointing back up, again.

Most Likely to Go to the Next Level in 2022: Viktor Hovland. Every now and then his under-construction short game will get exposed, but he’s markedly improved in that area. Fortunately for him, he’s a flusher who rarely needs to lean on it. The 24-year-old’s next step is major contention, and we expect to see him factor in, well, just about all of them next year.

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Biggest Letdown: Ryder Cup. Hopes were high for an ultra-competitive cup, after another year of buildup, but the Americans proved to be one of the best teams of all-time while Padraig Harrington’s veteran crew never stood much of a chance. The result was the most lopsided in the history of the competition, 19-9, and seemed to herald a new era of American dominance.

Event We’re Most Looking Forward to in 2022: St. Andrews Open. Slated for Quail Hollow, the Presidents Cup figures to be another U.S. thrashing, so our eyes, predictably, are on the Old Course. Seven years later, how will it stand up to the modern players? Will Tiger return? How much golf will we lowly scribes squeeze in beforehand? Can’t wait.

Biggest Disappointment: Patrick Reed. Even his emphatic victory at Torrey Pines was shrouded in controversy, as it often is, after another rules dispute. That paled in comparison to his dramatic fall, when he was hospitalized with a severe case of double pneumonia and missed out on a chance to represent Team USA at the Ryder Cup ... all while a mysterious burner account continued to vociferously defend him. Yikes.

Best Newcomer: Will Zalatoris. Though he forced his way onto the big tour in late 2020, the wiry Texan became a household name with his play early in the year. He held his own in his Masters debut, finishing one shot back, and then followed it up with another top-10 at the PGA. A back injury derailed his progress midway through the long year, but he’ll bounce back and continue to be a force as a fixture in the OWGR top 50. Don’t be surprised if he’s on the Presidents Cup team.

Best Quote: Patrick Cantlay on Bryson DeChambeau. Given a few days to process what happened at the BMW, Cantlay turned up at East Lake and delivered a well-thought-out monologue on all things Bryson. Growing increasingly comfortable in his own skin, Cantlay is incredibly thoughtful and articulate – and we’re all better for it.

Biggest Surprise: Dustin Johnson. When 2020 came to an end, it was DJ’s world and we were all just living in it. His November Masters victory capped a dominant stretch that was reminiscent of Tiger’s prime. Even after a lengthy break his early win at the Saudi and close call at Riviera seemed to signal that he was here to stay, but from that point forward Johnson was shockingly pedestrian, both in his tournament results and statistically. Now 37, he is still capable of the spectacular – he did go 5-0 at the Ryder Cup, after all – but it was odd that he failed to win on Tour in the calendar year.

Best TV Moment: Rory McIlroy at the Ryder Cup. After being benched for the first time in his Ryder Cup career, McIlroy knocked off Xander Schauffele in Sunday singles and then opened a vein. In a pair of teary interviews, he talked about how disappointed he was to let down his team, and that it’s collective glory, not personal achievement, that makes this game so special. It was heartfelt and beautiful, and it seemed to propel McIlroy forward. He won in his next start at the CJ Cup, then held the 54-hole lead in Dubai, stirring hopes (again) for a monster 2022.

Worst TV Moment: Jon Rahm at the Memorial. For the second year in a row, Rahm was blindsided as he walked off the 18th green at Muirfield Village. Last year, it was because of a penalty he was about to incur. This time, staked to a six-shot lead with one round to go, he was being told by masked Tour personnel that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and needed to withdraw. It was the worst-case scenario in the Tour protocols – especially with a player of Rahm’s stature – but the fiery Spaniard accepted the tough news with grace and perspective. It helps, too, that in his next start he won the U.S. Open.

Best Shot: Xander Schauffele’s third shot to seal the Olympics. One of the top players in golf, Schauffele was hearing rumblings about his closing ability – and that noise didn’t get any quieter after his watery finish to the Masters. Here was an opportunity to slam the door at the Olympics, and he didn’t disappoint. After finding the trees and laying up on the 72nd hole, he wedged to 5 feet to save par and claim the gold medal, a hugely significant victory considering not just his own personal journey but also that of his parents, with his mother’s ties to Japan and his father’s own Olympic dreams being dashed because of a drunk driver. For the delayed event, it was just about the best possible ending.

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Worst Meltdown: Lexi Thompson at the U.S. Women’s Open. Winless anywhere since June 2019, the most recognizable American player surged in front at the biggest women’s major, grabbing a five-shot lead as she played out the back nine at Olympic Club. What followed was a collection of errors both big and small, culminating with a hard-to-watch 72nd hole that saw her miss out on the playoff, eventually won by Yuka Saso. Turning 27 early next year, Thompson has been dusted by Korda as the preeminent U.S. star, and her fragile finish to the Pelican recently reminded us that her beleaguered putting stroke still can’t hold up in crunch time.

Story to Watch: Which big names sign up for the rival leagues, if any. The breakaway circuits aren’t going away, not with the deep-pocketed Saudis involved. If all they can attract is a bunch of aging warriors (example: Lee Westwood turned down the 2023 European Ryder Cup captaincy, perhaps because of the Saudi league connection) then it’s hard to see them disrupting the sport. But if the Phil Mickelsons and Dustin Johnsons and Brooks Koepkas of the world jump on board, well...