Two moments just seven days apart drunk in euphoria and magnums of merriment defined golf in 2018. First there was the superlunary sight of Tiger Woods marching towards the 18th green at East Lake Golf Club, the maniacal claque of ‘I was there’ disciples leapfrogging the fairway rope to watch the teary-eyed 42-year-old win his first tournament in 1,876 days and complete one of sport’s most remarkable comebacks.
Then just five rounds later Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood doused and danced in a rain of champagne in another greenside mob, this time on the outskirts of Paris as Europe downed a feckless USA in the Ryder Cup.
It was but a speck of the golfing calendar in September – 168 hours to be precise – yet shrouded the entirety of what came before: the two major triumphs of Brooks Koepka, the table-topping ranking of Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson’s own return as he won for the first time in 101 tournaments.
Still now, as the PGA Tour restarts amongst the alohas and petal necklaces of the impossibly divine Kapalua Plantation in Hawaii, you wonder how even such therapeutic serenity could wake the sport from the hangover.
And so again we start the new year in the same Woods obsessive cycle, the old will he won’t he, the can he really, the oh he hasn’t surely. The twilight hour stretched into days after Tour Championship victory. The pursuit of a coveted 15th major which means so much in the immediate but ultimately little if he isn’t to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ 18 continues. This time, though, Woods enters each time as the favourite.
Yes, golf is in that helpless situation where once again no matter the achievements of its finest players – Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and now Koepka – one deft flick of the old blade and Woods washes them away like swill. Perhaps now we will accept that if someone is to seize the game by the scruff of its tweed-acred collar in 2019 as Woods did over two decade ago, it will come from a younger generation who looked up to Woods’ aura rather than lived in its shadow.
Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau are those pole-placed princes in waiting. Both Ryder Cup rookies who spent their childhood fawning over Woods montages, the just turned 24-year-old Rahm crowned a year where he won three events, peaked at No 2 in the world rankings and finished fourth in two of 2018’s majors by defeating Woods in the Sunday singles in Paris.
Maverick American DeChambeau, a year Rahm’s senior and famed for his rigid one-plane swing and wild neuroticisms, won four PGA Tour events and peaked at No 5 in the world rankings. Both have the ability to dethrone their hero and now too a maturity to wear his pelt.
They will also jostle in the prolonged battle for world No 1 status, exchanged a record nine times between Koepka, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson last year like an unwanted crust.
Rose remains the most relentlessly consistent player on the planet – his maiden victory in the season-long FedEx Cup a testament to that – but as he nears 40, adding to an unbecoming tally of a lone major victory in the 2013 US Open takes on total priority. Rose has contended at a major ever year since 2011 and Augusta, where he was felled in a playoff by close friend Sergio Garcia in 2017, has always been well-tailored to his straight-hitting.
Ryder Cup teammate Fleetwood also holds hopes of of going one better having finished 2nd at the US Open and starred at Le Golf National, while the always tempestuous Tyrrell Hatton and ever wry Eddie Pepperell head a rich contingent of English challengers hoping to build on career-best seasons.
But, of course, the greatest golf feat of 2018 came on home soil and not by way of any of the aforementioned names when Georgia Hall stunned South Korea’s indomitable golfing division to become England’s first Open champion for 14 years.
Next September, the 22-year-old will spearhead Europe in the 16th edition Solheim Cup which takes place at Gleneagles and promises a huge boost to the women’s game. Certainly, it is the only team event worth seconds in 2019 as the President’s Cup offers up another futile procession of patriotic fanfare as the USA conquer the ‘rest of the world’. In 12 editions of the lopsided tournament, the International Team has won just once.
No in 2019 golf returns to traditional etiquette. The gaze reverted to the rolling summer months of majors, even if the PGA persist in trying to group them together on one slope as a way of transforming the season-ending Tour Championship into an informal fifth rather than another vulgar money-spinner.
Speaking of which, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson won’t promise to spare us of another nauseating pay-per-view match either.
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