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2018 produced a number of major storylines with plenty of surprises. Here are a number of key highlights from a most fascinating year.

THE TIGER WOODS RESURRECTION
(Photo Courtesy to Tiger Woods Facebook page)

Who can forget the police mugshot of Tiger Woods after being found asleep at the wheel while driving near his home in Jupiter, FL in May of 2017? The same Tiger who had endured four back surgeries since 2014. This is the same person who opined at the ’17 President’s Cup that he did not rule our the possibility in possibly never playing the game competitively again. Hard to imagine that the perennial world number one player had fallen to 1,199 in the official world golf rankings. Woods would tee it up in his first PGA Tour event at the Farmer’s Insurance event in February ’18 — exactly one year earlier he had done so before leaving the stage.

The process was a slow one.

Woods needed to get a number of starts to get acclimated to tournament golf. Yet, two unknown questions still lurked — would Tiger’s body be able to handle the amount of play needed and what type of swing would Woods use given the work carried out on his back?

The fanfare tied to Woods returning was certainly present. Golf fans, of all ages, were eager to see Tiger return to the top rung in golf’s ever changing competitive ladder. Woods showed promise at the Valspar event — finishing in a tie for 2nd but had many questioning why he opted to hit an iron off the tee at the 72nd hole when a much bolder course of action was needed.

Returning to Augusta for his first Masters since 2015 the speculation that Woods would once be a factor faced hard realities when Tiger barely made the cut and only scored one sub-70 round and that in the final round. His tie for 32nd was clearly showing that more work needed to be done.

At the US Open at Shinnecock Hills — his first back in America’s championship since 2015 — Woods started the event with a triple-bogey at the opening hole on Thursday and was simply lack luster throughout. His missing the cut was only the 3rd time he had done so in his career.

But, things clearly turned round when returning to The Open Championship at Carnoustie. Woods was in the hunt — even leading for a brief moment on the early stages of the final 9 holes before stumbling. The momentum at The Open spilled over when Woods played superbly at the PGA Championship at Bellerive — finishing solo 2nd to winner Brooks Koepka and firing a career best final round 64.

With the FedEx Cup Playoffs Woods started slowly at The Northern Trust  and Dell Technologies events, but his performance accelerated at the BMW event opening with a 62 and ultimately finishing in a tie for 6th.

Then Woods did what many thought could not ever happen again — winning on the PGA Tour. Tiger claimed his 80th victory at The Tour Championship at East Lake and the win marked his first since the WGC Bridgestone Invitation at Firestone in August 2013. The victory also pushed Woods to 13th in the world golf rankings where he is now. Given where he was and where he is now is truly an amazing story. But, the ultimate success will be if and when Tiger is able to claim his 15th major championship — the last coming nearly ten years ago at the US Open at Torrey Pines. 2019 will certainly mark a pivotal year in showing if the eye of the Tiger is indeed still hungry to re-establish himself at the top of the golf pecking order. Betting against that happening has been a constant chorus of naysayers, however, in each instance Woods has shown the wherewithal to not only confound his critics but rise above them. 2019 will indeed be a year to watch if the “eye of the Tiger” is ready to pounce on all comers.

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CAN THE MILLENNIAL MYSTERY BE SOLVED?

Golf’s dilemma facing player growth has been happening for a number of years now. The core of those who play the most rounds and spend the most money in the sport is aging. And that aging process is now moving at a far more rapid pace. Golf course closings have easily outdistanced new course openings — and that situation was already in place prior to the start of The Great Recession in ’07. More and more clubs are facing ice-cold realities that without meaningful new blood the wherewithal to stay operational is not going to happen.

The Baby Boom generation which has spearheaded the surge of players is now moving into senior citizen status. Many private equity clubs which for years had simply relied on this base of players is now facing hard financial decisions. Some clubs have opted to “double down” and reinvest significant resources in order to demonstrate their connection to a new younger audience.

The very definition of the words “country club” is now in state of flux. Prospective younger members are not interested in simply being seen and not heard. The adaptability of clubs to respond to the varied needs of such a younger membership in concert with their growing families will likely play a pivotal role in whether those clubs maintain existence.

Golf is facing other more broader issues. The game itself takes up time — no less than 4-5 hours and often more to play 18-holes. Those defined as Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — are now becoming the critical group for golf’s future. How such a group defines leisure time and where and how golf does fit in are all questions needing answers.

The issue is further exacerbated by the hurry-up world that exists today. Golf was created as a means to get away from such activity. Millennials came of age where constant activity on several fronts is viewed as a desirability.

Golf is also facing a shortage of players from a gender and racial side. Pre-existing barriers have played a role in keeping such participation numbers from growing. There are also socio-economic issues as golf remains a costly game to play regularly on both the equipment side and in fees to play at various venues. Given golf’s overall difficulty — there is also the lack of effective teaching spread throughout the ranks of golf. Patience, which was a feature of earlier generations, is not as prevalent amongst those who want near instant positive feedback.

There are various efforts already underway but whether they can be effective for the long term remains a question to be answered. Such reach outs efforts for junior players via First Tee have been helpful but the impact has been limited.

Other efforts have come in repackaging golf — most notably via Topgolf. The company has surged since going full bore just a few years ago with various locations popping up in America with constant regularity and including sites in the United Kingdom and Australia. The company states roughly 70% of the people coming to Topgolf for the first time had never picked up a golf club before. Whether even a small percentage of those going to Topgolf actually takes up traditional golf is an issue to be studied. There’s little question the age demographic at Topgolf is certainly much younger than the base age at traditional golf outlets. But will those who view golf in purely the narrow entertainment window that Topgolf provides really step out and play the real game? No one can say with any certainty now.

The 18-hole model product is also evolving. Now, courses are providing less than 18-hole options. The reality for golf is that is in competition with a slew of different activities looking to secure the ever shifting attention span of a younger generation that views golf in a far different light than their predecessors. How the situation evolves will clearly dictate the shape and nature golf will be in the 21st century.

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EUROPE’S CRUNCHING RYDER CUP WIN OVER USA

Photo Courtesy: Ryder Cup Team Europe

After losing possession of the Ryder Cup following the matches at Hazeltine National in ’16, the general feeling was that the American squad had turned the corner and that with a younger squad now becoming regular participants the balance of power would shift.

Someone forgot to remind the Europeans of that.

When the matches were played in Paris it was clear from nearly the outset that the Americans were not going to slow down the juggernaut Team Europe adamantly displayed.

The 17 1/2 to 10 1/2 margin was a worse beat down than what happened the last time Europe hosted the matches in ’14 at Gleneagles.

Europe led by  a canny Captain Thomas Bjorn was able to consistently make crucial shots when called upon.

Much was made of the return to Ryder Cup play of Tiger Woods — the first time since the ’12 event at Medinah. Woods had just come off his first PGA Tour win at The Tour Championship for his 80th career triumph but his play at Le Golf National was to say charitably — lacking. Tiger played in four of the five sessions and garnered a flat zero points total.

The heroes for Team Europe were led by Italy’s Francesco Molinari and England’s Tommy Fleetwood. As the reigning Open champion, Molinari was the beneficiary in being in the right place at the right time when the matches were officially resolved. Molinari watched as his match against Phil Mickelson was conceded after Lefty promptly disposed of his approach into the adjoining pond at the par-3 16th hole. How glorious for Molinari and how revealing of Mickelson given his woeful overall Ryder Cup record.

Certain members of the American squad were quick to bemoan the courser set-up but frankly these same players were in need of a compass in order to find fairways which European players were finding with constant regularity.

What does this all prove?

On the European side the deep and abiding love all members have for the event is clearly self evident for those with eyes to see. No matter the situation the European side has shown a stubborn “you must beat me” mentality. The focus on team — and not on the individual — lies at the core of why Europe has won seven of the last nine and four of the last five.

On the American side there can be no feeling of completeness until they are able to win on European soil. Something not done since 1993. There’s also the need to push aside the singular gun fighter mentality which plays well in individual competitions but does so very little in a team format.

Whistling Straits is two years away but the clock is ticking until the next encounter. Given the hyper emotions attached it can’t happen fast enough.

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MIKE DAVIS

Being a golf administrator is not suppose to draw attention to yourself but for Mike Davis, the head man for the United States Golf Association, is in the middle of self-inflicted bulls-eye.

The most important task that Davis has taken complete charge of deal with the set-up for the US Open — America’s national championship for golf. Over the last several years the event has been plagued with one serious issue or the other.

In 2013, the set-up for Merion, the famed layout just outside of Philadelphia, was pushed far beyond the intrinsic qualities that the historic layout provides. In 2015, the USGA took the event to the Pacific Northwest for the first time at Chambers Bay and the pushback from players was pronounced. The fescue greens were simply not up to the task in performing consistently. In 2016, there was the rules imbroglio at Oakmont involving Dustin Johnson and at the height of the near fiasco Davis was nowhere to be seen or heard. In 2017, the US Open went to Wisconsin — again for the first time — and the set-up or Erin Hills was panned for having fairways as wide as Texas and not really balancing the requisite balance between power and accuracy.

Given all that — the 2018 championship was being hailed as the quintessential test with the finest of host clubs involved — Shinnecock Hills. The Southampton based club was one of the founding members of the USGA and smartly through the skills of former Executive Director Frank Hannigan was brought back into the unofficial Open rota starting in 1986 — then again in 1995 and 2004.

Unfortunately, at the ’04 event the USGA lost control of the course set-up and the 7th green became the enduring symbol of incompetence as players could not stop balls no matter what was done. The USGA failed to accept responsibility for the debacle up and until the USGA media day for the event at Shinnecock in ’18. It was then that Davis, on behalf of the organization, admitted the association had goofed and that not enough water was applied as good senses would have done. Davis, then went further and announced that the ’18 event would be far different given the available resources at the association’s disposal.

Fast forward to the actual event and a sense of deja vue reemerged. On Saturday’s 3rd round several pin positions were placed too close to the edges of the putting surfaces. The resulting player car wrecks became obvious that the lessons that were supposed to have been learned were not actually carried out. It did not help matters when the USGA looked the other way when Phil Mickelson proceeded to take a clownish action by hitting a moving ball on the 13th green. Instead of a swift disqualification as likely would have happened if Joe Dey, the long time executive director would have issued, Mickelson simply received a two stroke penalty.

Unlike at Oakmont, this time around Davis did come on television before the end of that day’s telecast, and stated in clear terms the actions taken in setting locations for certain pins was poorly done. Given that the association was feasted royally, it then abdicated a desire to present a fair and stern final round test by setting up pin location in a much more benign fashion. No offense to Tommy Fleetwood, who nearly scored a 62 in the final round, but the test that Shinnecock should have presented was compromised from what had happened the day prior.

The challenge for Davis does not lessen with the ’19 event — returning to the famed Monterey Peninsula and the iconic Pebble Beach. The ’19 event marks the 100th anniversary since Pebble first opened. The USGA will need to show a keen sense in presenting a rigorous but fair challenge. A number of people have opined that making the US Open a demanding test is something that should be done and that far too many players have been given a free pass to whine instead of buckling down as earlier generation of players demonstrated..

Davis will once again be on the hot seat no matter what is done. The tagline “US Open champion” needs to be defined in terms that do what former USGA President Frank “Sandy” Tatum so eloquently stated when asked if the USGA were out to embarrass players during the demanding 1974 event at Winged Foot. His response was vintage — “We are not here to embarrass players but to identify them.”

Getting it right is the microscope Davis is now under. No one knows that better than the man himself. Pebble Beach is one of America’s grand layouts — how befitting for a US Open that truly showcases the course and celebrates the play of its eventual champion. We shall see.

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