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Tour Confidential: Best, most underrated stories of 2017
The Tour Confidential team looks at the most memorable and most underrated golf stories of the year.
By Michael Bamberger
Friday, December 29, 2017

Here it is, golf people: your final top-10 list for 2017, GOLF.com-style. The golf year in review, three threesomes and a singleton plucked from a kitchen sink heaving with dishes, wine glasses, roasting pans and the game's most memorable figures, moments and events. Beyond our borders, it was a dismal year. But it was a good golf year, wasn't it? So we got that going for us. Which is (all together now) … nice.

10. (two-way tie): Sung Hyun Park, Bernhard Langer

Park was the premier player in women's golf this year. The slender Korean who lives in Orlando won the grand dame of women's events, the U.S. Open, with Donald Trump in a glass cube on a golf course bearing his name. She also won the Canadian Open. Park is 24, she knows how to close — she's won 10 times in Korea — and she's poised to do more of the same. Oh, and she won $2.3 million in LPGA earnings this year.

Langer dominated the Champions tour in 2017 in a way that brought to mind Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin in their post-49 primes. In the year he turned 60 — sixty! — Langer won seven times, including the Senior PGA Championship and the U.S. Senior Open. He earned $3.7 million and had to contend with whisper campaign that his split-gripped putting stroke violates golf rules by having his left (upper) hand make contact with his chest, violating the ban on anchored putting. It would seem to be an unfair charge, as no rules official has ever assessed Langer with a penalty and the rules allow for contact with billowing clothing.

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No. 9: Tiger Woods

For the lion's share of the year, Tiger Woods wasn't even part of the golf conversation. He didn't play in any of the majors this year. When that happened in 2016 (when he didn't play at all) his absence was noted, repeatedly. In 2017, golf events without Woods were expected and accepted. As the year wore on, it became, sadly, easier and easier to imagine Woods becoming a ceremonial golfer, especially after his Memorial Day weekend arrest. And then came the 18-man Hero World Challenge, concluding on Dec. 3. Woods finished in a tie for ninth, and the golf world was abuzz. Tiger was back. That is, there's no reason to think he won't be playing a full schedule in the new year. The last time he did that was 2013.

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No. 8: Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson won twice and finished third on the LPGA money list. She established herself as the American face in the global women's game, and the LPGA's most powerful and physically imposing player. But it was her playoff loss in the first major of the year, the Ana Inspiration — aka the Dinah Shore — that is, by far, the most memorable moment of her 2017 season. While playing in the Sunday finale she was assessed a four-shot penalty for mis-marking her ball on a short putt on the 17th hole in her Saturday round. If the commentary on social media is an accurate barometer, the overwhelming majority of golf fans saw Thompson as a victim, another example of a tournament being highjacked by a TV viewer with a hi-def TV, a basic understanding of the rules and too much time on his or her hands. A smaller percentage saw it as a further erosion of the underlying code of the game, by which the golfer takes responsibility for the complete accuracy of his or her scorecard and the requirement to play by all of the game's 34 rules.

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7. The R&A and the USGA

In response to the Thompson ruling, and other rulings in a similar vein, golf's two governing bodies announced in December that, as of January, TV viewers will no longer be able to call-in potential rules violations. The USGA and the R&A also announced that players will no longer be assessed an additional two-shot penalty for rules violations about which the player says he or see was unaware. In the past three years, that rule has been softened from automatic disqualification to two shots to no shots. As a result, the incentive for a player to call a penalty on himself or herself has been diminished, for the prospect of a DQ for signing an incorrect card was a serious incentive.

6. Jordan Spieth

The oddest half-hour of the year, and one of the oddest half-hours in the history of professional golf, came in July, when Jordan Spieth played the par-4 13 hole at Royal Birkdale, in the fourth round of the British Open, in five crazy shots. It was the bogey heard 'round the world, and it was the bogey he needed to right his ship and win golf's oldest championship and complete the third leg in his effort to win the career grand slam.

5. Team USA

At its core, the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup was the same as the American team at last year's Ryder Cup. It is reasonable to think that the sixsome that played with such gusto at Liberty National in September — Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka — will gather in Paris next year for the Ryder Cup. There's no real secret to winning these team matches: the better team wins. The Presidents Cup tally over the Internationals, 19-11, was a statement about American strength in the global golf village. That can change over time, but not over night. The Europeans will have their hands full in the new year.

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4. The Masters

There's no scientific way to quantify this, but over the course of the last 20 years, since Tiger Woods won at Augusta for the first time in 1997 at age 20, by 12 shots, the Masters has been in a period of ascendency. It has become the most watched major and the most coveted major. But for the Masters to retain its status, it needs drama and compelling leading men on Sunday. It needs to produce talking points and memories. Bubba Watson won by three in 2014, Jordan Spieth by four in 2015, Danny Willett (?) by three in 2016. What comes to mind? Then came this year's event, two Ryder Cup stalwarts and close friends, doing old-fashioned mano-a-mano battle. They were tied for first through 54 holes, they played together on Sunday, they both did miraculous and zany things in the finale. Sergio made an eagle on the par-5 15th, and that tied the game up. Naturally, it went to a playoff, Garcia making a birdie to Rose's bogey on 18, the first hole of the playoff. Good for Sergio. (He's headed to the Hall of Fame now, for sure.) It was the Masters the Masters needed.

3. The U.S. Open

The U.S. Open is on a cold streak. Brooks Koepka manhandled Erin Hills, a picturesque resort course in rural Wisconsin that looked like a British Open course, without the charm, the sea, the grandeur or the history. It didn't feel like the American national championship. In 2016, at Oakmont, bad weather and an odd ruling debacle robbed the event of its customary grandeur. The year before, the winner (Jordan Spieth) was dissing the course (Chambers Bay), or at least its setup. In 2014, at storied Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer won by eight, and it was a snooze. In 2013, Justin Rose won at Merion, and the course was so tweaked in the name of par-protection it was almost unrecognizable. The 2018 U.S. Open is at Shinnecock Hills. Shinnecock Hills! The USGA needs a good one. The British Open is knocking on its door.

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2. Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas won five times in 2017, including the PGA Championship, and was voted as the PGA Tour's Player of the Year. He is the modern player in every way, with a fast swing and a say-the-right-thing instinct. A year ago, he was not in the conversation with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson and his buddy Jordan Spieth. Now he's at its center. The question from here is how good will he be? If history is a predictor, he'll wind up in the Hall of Fame. Why? Because golfers who win multiple events in a single year nearly always prove, over time, to be the best of the best. Yes, Mark Wilson won twice in 2011 and Wayne Levi won four times in 1990. Thomas doesn't remind you of those two. The golfer he brings most to mind is Nick Price.

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1. Donald J. Trump

No matter what you think of him, Donald J. Trump is the most famous person in the world and, by extension, the planet's most famous golfer. The game and its settings have played a formidable role in Trump's first year as president. The Senior PGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open were played on courses bearing the Trump name, and the 45th president was on hand for the conclusion of the Presidents Cup. He played golf this year with a select group of pros, including Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Justin Thomas, and also Shinzo Abe and Lindsey Graham, who claimed Trump shot 73, with no gimmes, in his presence. Branden Grace shot 62 in the third round of the British Open, becoming the first person to ever shoot lower than 63 in major championship. Which incredible score do you think got more attention? A Google search suggests Trump's 73 got twice as much notice. #Winning!

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.

 

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