Eight Takeaways From the PGA Tour's Regular Season
The fall is near—which is good news for those yearning for a reprieve from late-summer heat, but bad for those who draw great pleasure from high-stakes golf tournaments.
Sunday’s finale of the Wyndham Championship—won by J.T. Poston, who didn’t make a single bogey all week and closed with 62 to win by a single shot—put a bow on the first edition of this new, condensed PGA Tour schedule. The regular season is over, which means just three FedEx Cup playoff events stand between now and the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign.
The 43 events thus far have delivered Tiger at Augusta and Brooks at Everywhere Else and El Tucan and a ridiculous class of rookies. Anything can happen in the postseason, as the saying goes, so now feels like a good time to lay out some takeaways of the regular season. Here are eight thoughts on what we’ve seen so far in 2018-19.
Brooks Koepka is golf’s alpha male
It’s hard to believe, but Brooks Koepka was something of an afterthought on the PGA Tour just 14 months ago. He was the reigning U.S. Open champion, but that victory was (unfairly) watered down by complaints over a too-generous Erin Hills setup. He was ranked No. 9 in the world, but he was coming off a wrist injury and had missed the Masters. He was collectively thought to sit behind Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler in the landscape of 20-something Americans. He was a good player, a Ryder Cup player, but not much more than that.
Then he won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, holding off Dustin Johnson. Then he won the PGA Championship, edging Tiger Woods. Still, there were doubters—all three of his majors had come on bombers golf courses where his greatest strength, the driver, was of utmost importance. He had won just one non-major tournament in his career. Heck, he didn’t even finish the year as the world No. 1. He had established himself as an elite player, but he wasn’t yet the elite player.
We can now say without hesitation that Brooks Koepka is the elite player.
His 2019 major campaign will go down as one of the best in history—a wire-to-wire victory at the PGA, where he blinked but did not fold on Sunday; being one well-struck iron shot from ruining Tiger’s magnum opus at Augusta; finishing solo second at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where length was neutralized and guile ruled the day; and finishing T4 despite putting like a blind ferret at the British Open, where his high ball flight was supposed to be a detriment. He cruised to a three-shot win for his first WGC title two weeks ago in Memphis and also sauntered to a four-shot win at the CJ Cup in October. He’s the only player with three wins on the season and the only player this year (and just the fifth ever) to finish in the top five in all four majors. And no matter how he fares in this trio of Playoff events, he will win become the first player not named Woods to win back-to-back player of the year awards since Nick Price.
You’re forgiven if you came into 2018-19 thinking DJ or Rory or JT or even Spieth would reign supreme. But you were incorrect.
Tiger can still win huge events—when the stars align
The enduring image of this golf season will be of Tiger Woods, cathartically pumping his fists into the air, completing the most remarkable comeback any of us can remember. Woods did the impossible by winning another major—his fifth Masters—then basically disappeared for the remainder of the season.
He played just four events between Augusta and this week, when he will tee it up at Liberty National, and did not fare particularly well in those starts: a missed cut at the PGA, a T9 at the Memorial, a listless T21 at the U.S. Open and a missed cut at Royal Portrush. This, it seems is the new normal. When Woods has time to get his game in shape, when the weather is right and when his energy levels are not depleted, he proved he can still win the biggest tournaments in the world.
But for as magnificent as the win at Augusta was, in hindsight, it seems to have torpedoed the rest of his season. We can delcare for certain, though, that Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods when all the stars align. Stars just don’t align that often.
The major season goes by wildly fast
We knew this new schedule—with the PGA shifting to May and all four majors being played in a three-month stretch—would quicken the rhythm of the season, but it went by even faster than anyone could have imagined. As always, the lead up to Augusta dragged on for months…and then, in what felt like an instant, it was all over.
The cadence of the major season can only be described as Triple Crown-like. Just as the hoopla from one major dies down, the hype for the next one commences. There are benefits to this: Golf is never far from the sports world’s conscience, and the PGA no longer feels like an afterthought. There are drawbacks to this: It makes it harder to peak four times a year and it creates a nine-month period of major-less purgatory. But whether or not we like it, it’s here to stay. Get used to it.
Jordan Spieth’s fall is hard to believe
It was a pretty big story when Jordan Spieth missed the Tour Championship last year—a shocking end to what was, at least then, the worst season of his professional golf career. (It didn’t help matters that, by missing East Lake, he failed to fulfill the Tour’s minimum start requirement and faced discipline from the Tour).
This year has been….worse. Considerably so. The stats paint a bleak picture—just seven top 25s in 21 starts, ranking outside the top 150 in strokes gained off the tee, approach and tee to green—but the eye test might be worse. Spieth’s ball striking is breathtakingly sloppy right now. He continues to discuss changes he’s making with instructor Cameron McCormick, and he’s admirably maintained optimistic, but progress is nowhere to be seen. He’s masked his tee-to-green deficiencies with unconscious putting weeks and thus has mustered some respectable finishes, but he’s a tremendously far cry from the player who won five times and two majors in 2015.
The odds, still, say that Spieth will get back to his winning ways sooner rather than later. But he has not hoisted a trophy anywhere in more than two years, and he enters the playoffs in 69th place—in danger of missing not just the Tour Championship, but the BMW Championship.
Slow play is plaguing the game
It’s been a thing for a while now, but the malignant tumor of slow play metastasized all over the PGA Tour in ’18-19. A few particularly deliberate players had considerable success this year (J.B. Holmes, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Cantlay come to mind), and broadcasts were often hard to stomach.
The causes are numerous—mental coaches who tell players to zone out until it’s their turn to hit, players consulting green-reading books that are complicated enough to puzzle a nuclear physicist, an increased amount of data points that players consider before each shot—and there is no quick fix. The good news is a number of high-profile players, led by anti-slow play zealot Brooks Koepka, have become more vocal in complaining about how brutally slow their peers are.
But the simple fact remains that until the PGA Tour starts handing out penalties for slow play—not warnings, not behind-closed-doors fines, but stroke penalties—nothing will change.
The Class of 2019 is something special
Before the season, I predicted zero rookies would make the Tour Championship. I will likely be proven wrong, but I have a solid excuse: I was looking at a list of 21 names who started the season with Tour cards. And none of those names were Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa or Viktor Hovland.
These three players turned professional within a month of each other, and each has started his career with tremendous success. Wolff won in just his third professional start at the 3M Open, making eagle on the last hole to edge DeChambeau and Morikawa by one. Morikawa won in his sixth start and has already cracked the top 100 in the world. And Hovland has finished T16 or better in five of his last six starts, including a record-setting T12 as an amateur at the U.S. Open. And this says nothing of 21-year-old Sungjae Im, who leads the Tour in rounds in the 60s and currently sits 23rd in the FedEx Cup standings.
Wolff, Morikawa and Im have already locked in their playing privileges for 2019-’20. Hovland finished less than five FedEx points short of getting his PGA Tour card for next campaign, but he’s more than likely to lock one up through the Korn Ferry Tour finals this month should he continue this run of form. These four players are here and they are here to stay. Im is a lock to make the President’s Cup team, but don’t be surprised if Wolff, Morikawa and Hovland elbow their way into Ryder Cup consideration for Whistling Straits 2020.
One scandal can tarnish a legacy
If we narrow our focus to his scorecards, this has been one of the best seasons of Matt Kuchar’s career. He won twice, finished second twice, made 18 of 19 cuts, finished T16 or better in three of the four majors, earned more than $6 million and enters the playoffs third in the FedEx Cup standings.
And yet, his reputation is worse than it has ever been. Before El Tucan, Kuchar was known as a harmless, smiley dad-figure. Since El Tucan, he can’t play a single hole without being reminded of his tipping habits.
You remember this, but a quick refresher can’t hurt: in November, Kuchar used a local caddie, David “El Tucan” Ortiz, at the Mayakoba Classic, won the tournament and the $1.3 million paycheck that comes with it. Adhering to an agreement he made with El Tucan before the week, Kuchar paid him $5,000 for his work, roughly 0.3% of his winnings. Standard procedure on Tour dictates that a caddie gets about 10% of winnings.
This didn’t come to the light until Kuchar’s second win of the year, in January, but it did not waste any time shifting public perception of Kuchar from pleasant guy to out-of-touch rich guy. (His petulant begging for a drop at the Memorial did not help matters). No matter how you feel about the El Tucan scandal or Kuchar in general, this served as a reminder of just how fragile reputations are when our most untoward skeletons are one tweet away from seeing the light.
American golf is deeper and younger than any time in recent memory
Koepka is the top dog. Dustin Johnson is still No. 2 in the world. And Tiger Woods won the Masters. But it’s the next group of American golfers that will make this year’s Presidents Cup squad perhaps the most talented collection of players ever in a team golf competition.
Remember when we talked about how great a year Kuchar has had on the course? There are still 11 Americans higher than him in the world rankings, including the three aforementioned as well as…Bryson DeChambeau, who was the hottest player in the world last summer; Patrick Cantlay, who looks to be a fixture on American teams for years to come; Justin Thomas, a former world No. 1 who has only fallen from the top because of injury; Xander Schaufffele, who has emerged as a Koepka-light with his major prowess; Webb Simpson, who has quietly re-asserted himself as one of the most consistent players on the planet; Gary Woodland, who finally cashed in on his all-world talent at the U.S. Open; Rickie Fowler, who isn’t playing his best but still picked up a win this year; and Tony Finau, who always seems to pop on major leaderboards.
It probably won’t happen this way, but if those 12 end up being the President’s Cup roster, then Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth will all watch from home (if they’re willing to set alarms for whatever ungodly hour the broadcast will air in the U.S.). With this preposterous talent pool and a sparse International side—the highest ranked player eligible is No. 20 Adam Scott—the U.S. should cruise to victory at Royal Melbourne. The real challenge will come in 13 months when Steve Stricker will try to guide the U.S. to just its third Ryder Cup victory since 1993.