Highlights, awards and memories from the latest PGA Tour season
The PGA Tour doesn’t provide a lot of time to announce awards between seasons. The Tour Championship finished up last week and next season starts in two weeks. Whatever happened to an off-season? Nevertheless, here are my highlights of the 2018-19 season:
The Tigermania 3.0 Award
Naturally this has to go to Tiger Woods, who began his latest comeback from four back surgeries and who knows how many knee procedures with his improbable win at last year’s Tour Championship. At the Masters, Tiger put himself in position, then stayed patient while most of the contenders went for a dip in Rae’s Creek. With a fifth green jacket in hand, fans wondered if they were seeing Tiger of old. Turns out it was just old Tiger as he played sparingly for the rest of the season without any success and announced another knee procedure the day after the Tour Championship.
The Monday Qualifier Award
Each year on the PGA Tour, somebody Monday qualifies enough times to earn enough money to get into the Top 125 and become exempt for the next season. At the Valero Texas Open in March, Canadian Corey Conners Monday qualified to get into the field, then went on to win the darn thing. That led to further top finishes until lo and behold, Conners found himself inside the Top 30 for the Tour Championship. At season end, he had $2.9 million in official prize money and was 26th in the FedEx Cup rankings. That position not only gives him exempt status for the Tour next year, it also makes him eligible for all the invitational events, the Players Championships and the majors. Nice going Corey!
The I’m Not Done Yet Award
You might think Tiger’s win at the Masters would make him a shoo-in for this award but at 43, and subject to the skill of his surgeon, he may still have some play left in him. However, Phil Mickelson, who might also be eligible for the Energizer Bunny Award if only Bernhard Langer would let go of it, rallied to win yet another trophy as he captured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am for the fifth time. This one was significant because at age 48, one might wonder how much gas Phil has in the tank, but Pebble Beach was also the host site for the US Open, the major Phil needs to complete his personal Grand Slam. Unfortunately, success at Pebble in February did not carry over to June. Nonetheless, well done Mr. Mickelson. Any win at your age is special.
The Where Did That Come from Award
When Charles Howell III turned pro in 2000, he was projected to be another Can’t Miss Kid. With a silky-smooth swing and above average distance, expectations for the kid from Augusta, Georgia were very high. Chuck got his first win in 2002 and another in 2007. Along the way he garnered enough top finishes to annually keep him in the running for the ATM Award. In fact, his role on Tour turned into lots of contender spots and over $35 million in career earnings – but no victories. That is until The RSM Classic last fall, where he finally managed to break through and prove he still had the magic touch. The 12 years between victories isn’t a record but it’s close.
The Horse’s Ass Award
When Sergio Garcia won the Masters in 2017, it was noted that he was a more mature, patient player. Perhaps marriage had mellowed the fiery Spaniard somewhat. Well, apparently not. A series of temper tantrums since has made Sergio far more noteworthy for his bad behaviour than his golf game. The latest run started at the Saudi International in February, where Garcia went ballistic in a bunker and was subsequently disqualified. The following month at the WGC Match Play Championship, Matt Kuchar didn’t concede a putt fast enough for Sergio, so he swiped at it and missed. That led to an ugly confrontation with Kooch. At the Open Championship, Sergio hit his tee shot out of bounds on the drivable 5th hole at Royal Portrush and then flung his driver at his unsuspecting caddie in frustration. A gouged tee box the following week at Memphis rounded out Sergio’s spate of behavioural issues. This award should also come with a time out – perhaps a few months on the sidelines.
The Maybe I’m Not Such a Nice Guy Afterall Award
Matt Kuchar has a reputation as one of the good guys on Tour. Always smiling, Matt is popular with fans and other players too, so it was somewhat surprising to hear that he stiffed his caddie at the Mayakoba Classic last November. There are two sides to every story but no winners in this one. Kuchar’s regular caddie had to be off the week of the tournament, so Kooch picked up a local caddie and agreed to pay him $4,000 for the week. When Kooch won the tournament and earned $1.3 million in prize money, he upped the caddie fee to $5,000. The caddie thought he deserved a larger share of Kuchar’s windfall, but the golfer didn’t see it that way. A deal is a deal he said. Ultimately, saner heads prevailed in the Kuchar camp and the caddie got $50,000, still a few shekels short of the standard 10% payout a regular caddie would get. In the media brouhaha that followed, Kuchar came off as cheap and petty – a definite blow to his good guy image.
The Duel in the Sun Award
This award is named for the epic contest between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at Turnberry for the 1977 Open Championship – a classic two-man battle, with both players matching each other shot-for-shot. Over the years, a number of notable battles have ensued, including Mickelson and Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in 2016 and Garcia and Justin Rose at the Masters in 2017. It’s no puzzle that these classic matches always seem to happen on great courses in majors. This year, the best head-to-head match occurred at beautiful Pebble Beach, as odds-on favourite Brooks Koepka tried to keep pace with eventual US Open champion Gary Woodland. Well done gentlemen!
The Beaver Award
With Corey Conners winning the Valero Texas Open, that might be enough Canadian content for one year, but our very own RBC Canadian Open held further highlights for local golf fans. It all started with the announcement that Rory McIlroy would make his first appearance on Canadian soil. The Northern Irishman didn’t disappoint as he scorched Hamilton Golf & Country Club with a sizzling 22-under par score, including a final round 61, and blitzed the rest of the field by seven shots. He even managed to take in a Raptors playoff game while he was here. For a pure feel good moment, another Northern Irishman, Graeme McDowell, clinched a spot in the Open Championship that would be played in his hometown of Portrush. McDowell rolled in a 25-foot downhill breaking putt on the 72nd hole to garner a tie for 8th and punch his ticket to Royal Portrush. With all this Irish content, maybe we should change the name of this award. What’s the national animal of Ireland?
The Irish Eyes are Smiling Award
This seems to be the year of the Irish. With the Open Championship back in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951, the chance for a local lad to win his national championship seemed pretty high. Rory McIlroy came into the tournament ranked number 2 in the world and fresh off a win in Canada. He already held the course record at Royal Portrush. Right behind him was McDowell, who grew up in Portrush and had played the course thousands of times, and Darren Clarke, a few years closer to retirement but not too far removed from his own Claret Jug in 2011. Other top players from the Republic also ranked high on the list of hopefuls. When McIlroy missed the cut, a lot of air went out of the balloon, but over the next two days Shane Lowry surged to the lead and never let go. David Feherty, another Irishman, called it the loudest moment in golf and all over the Emerald Isle, Irish eyes were certainly smiling.
Player of the Year Award
Some have put forward the notion that Tiger Woods deserves this award for his stirring win at Augusta, but the POY Award looks at entire seasons, not just one memorable tournament. 2019 included lots of highlights and memories but Player of the Year comes down to just two players: Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka. McIlroy won three times (Players, RBC Canadian Open, Tour Championship) and had 14 Top 10’s in 19 starts. He didn’t win a major and finished the season ranked #2 in the World. Koepka also won three times (the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges, PGA Championship, WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational) and had nine Top 10’s in 21 starts. He also finished Top 4 in all four majors, dusted McIlroy in a head-to-head match in Memphis and finished the season with the #1 World Golf Ranking. McIlroy got his revenge of sorts at the Tour Championship when he overtook Koepka in the final round to nab first place and the $15 million-dollar payday. Is a major and a WGC better than the Players and the Tour Championship? It’s almost too close to call but we don’t like ties. We’re giving Player of the Year to Rory McIlroy.