A definitive ranking of golf’s wildest controversies this PGA Tour season

August 31, 2019

With the 2018-19 PGA Tour season in the books, it’s time to reflect on another year on golf’s biggest stage. There were plenty of memorable shots, landmark victories and young stars on the rise — and we’ll get to those. But this piece is about appreciating the game’s spicier moments. Golf’s “controversies” are often borne of small issues. Perceived slights! Arcane rulings! Over-served fans! But that just serves to make them more entertaining. So here, as determined by a GOLF panel (of one), broken down by category, awards-style, are GOLF’s Controversies of the Year.

Golf's biggest names kept things interesting throughout the 2018-19 season.
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EPIC FEUD DIVISION

This is golf, so we’re asking you to give us some leeway with the definitions of both “epic” and “feud” here. Grading on a curve, if you will.

The finalists:

BROOKS VS. BRYSON — This is really Brooks vs. slow play, but J.B. Holmes didn’t respond to Koepka’s criticisms, whereas DeChambeau confronted him on the putting green at the Northern Trust. Reasonable move, given Koepka had called DeChambeau’s slow play “embarrassing” and suggested it be addressed. Regardless of what they say about that meet-and-greet publicly, this seems like a clash of philosophical differences that isn’t going away.

DALY VS. WALMART — It was a shame to see two foundational Arkansas institutions at war, but that’s exactly what happened after John Daly swore off the retail giant in early May. “I will never step foot into #Walmart again!” he wrote on Twitter. Heavy accusations followed: just one open checkout line and “lazy staff.” Time will tell if this one gets resolved. After all, Daly has never really seemed like the Blue Apron type.

HANEY VS. TIGER — Hank Haney made a series of dismissive remarks involving Korean women’s players. Haney got suspended. Tiger said Haney “got what he deserved.” Haney responded in a tweet: “Amazing how Tiger Woods now has become the moral authority on issues pertaining to women,” and finished it off with #glasshouses. That’s what you call escalating quickly.

The winner:

BROOKS VS. BRANDEL — The year began with golf’s most famous take-smith ripping Brooks Koepka for, well, a bunch of things, including his decision to lose a bunch of weight for an unknown photoshoot. The year ended with World No. 1 Brooks Koepka earning Player of the Year honors just days after those photos were released to the public. In between there was plenty of Brooks-Brandel back-and-forth — but this is a results-based, game, which means Koepka got the last laugh.

CADDIE SHOWDOWN DIVISION

Professional golfers spend as much time with their caddies as they do with their families — sometimes more. That leads to plenty of bonding time, and to the occasional clash…

The finalists:

SERGIO THROWS A DRIVER — Players throw things to their caddies all the time. Divots. Water bottles. Putters. But there’s an important distinction between throwing to and throwing at. It’s probably best practice never to throw a driver, say, at your caddie. Even if said caddie is your brother. Someone should point that out to Sergio Garcia — but wait until he’s in a proper mood to hear it.

MATT WALLACE GAINS A REPUTATION — Most of the incidents involving Matt Wallace’s temper aren’t caught on camera but rather passed around by word of mouth. But he drew particular heat for berating caddie Dave McNeilly on the 18th hole of the BMW International. Legendary coach Pete Cowen took him to task. “The best thing would have been if his caddie had dropped his bag — I’d have chucked it in the bloody lake — but that wouldn’t do Dave McNeilly any good,” he said afterwards.

BRYSON SHIFTS BLAME — With Bryson taking heat for a couple instances of particularly egregious slow play, he was eager to redirect blame for five-hour rounds elsewhere. Other players. Slow walkers. And yes, caddies. Just not pace-setter Steve Williams.

“Let me give you one example, guys. Stevie Williams. I played with him at the WGC, right. Guess how long it took us to play that round, the third round? Does anyone know?” DeChambeau asked. “Might want to go check that out. Because we were on their tail every single hole playing with Jason Day and Stevie. A lot of it’s the caddies.”

The winner:

SPIETH’S TENSE U.S. OPEN — Jordan Spieth is a big-time talker, particularly when he’s anxious or frustrated. Does that excuse him showing up longtime looper Michael Greller on national TV at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after a series of poor decisions?

“Two perfect shots, Michael,” he said after airmailing the 8th green. “You got me in the water on one and over the green on the other.”

Tense times and TV exposure can combine to show fractures in even the most rock-solid pairings. “Yeah, I may have looked like the bad guy there,” Spieth acknowledged afterwards.

GOLF AS A CONTACT SPORT DIVISION

It’s not exactly football or hockey, but golf has its moments — just keep an open mind as we stretch the boundaries of this category, too.

The finalists:

SERGIO HITS THE SAND — As is often the case with Sergio Garcia, (look no further than the rest of this list) he got a little carried away here. Plenty of players swipe at bunkers after poor shots. Garcia? He went full combat mode on this thing.

ONE BALL HITS ANOTHER BALL — Every few months, an incident of “backstopping” (where one player doesn’t mark his or her ball, providing a potential advantage for their playing partner) draws the ire of golf commentators everywhere. This got lost in a year’s worth of Kuchar controversies, but Frank Nobilo was eager to express his displeasure with the Sony Open’s final pairing.

ONE PLAYER HITS A SPECTATOR, AND THEN… — When Kyle Stanley hit a wayward tee shot at Royal Portrush, he apparently didn’t yell “Fore!” which turned particularly awkward when the ball struck his playing partner’s caddie’s mother. “He’s just standing watching it,” European Tour rookie Bob MacIntyre told reporters afterwards. The lesson here? Always yell “Fore!” It’s a good, healthy release after a bad shot anyways.

The winner:

DOWN (ALMOST) GOES TIGER — Remember when Tiger Woods won the Masters? Now, remember when he almost didn’t thanks to one overzealous member of his security staff who came inches away from a full-on muddy slide-tackle? This wasn’t controversy, but it sure was high-stakes drama.

(RULES) CHANGE IS HARD DIVISION

Most golfers don’t like change, and most golfers DO like complaining about the rules. That made the USGA’s 2019 rules changes an easy target…

The finalists:

DUSTIN JOHNSON — The honorary winner of the “first weird rules penalty of the year” was awarded to Dustin Johnson, who played the wrong ball from a penalty area despite new rules allowing him to check and identify it first. Lesson learned, I guess?

BRYSON DECHAMBEAU — Even the biggest defender of the new flagstick-in putting rule couldn’t justify another change to the USGA book: knee-height dropping. “That you have to drop it from knee height is a bit absurd, unfortunately,” DeChambeau said. We may have moved past this by now, but it took a while for several players, including:

RICKIE FOWLER — Not a fan of the new drop rule, Fowler got penalized for doing it the wrong way early in the year — but got his revenge with some strange rules trolling.

The winner:

JUSTIN THOMAS — “This is ridiculous… the fact this is a penalty is mind blowing,” Thomas wrote in response to a penalty Denny McCarthy was assessed for his caddie standing behind him (incidentally) as he took practice swings. The penalty was ultimately overturned, and this led to a series of tweets with JT and the USGA that were so cringeworthy we should just pretend they never happened.

SEMANTICS DIVISION

This is the true golf nitty-gritty.

The finalists:

WHAT’S A HOLE-IN-ONE, REALLY? — GOLF’s resident provocateur Luke Kerr-Dineen poked the bear with a list of 21 times your hole-in-one doesn’t count. It enraged plenty of people, including Scott van Pelt, who called it a “list of nonsense.” Take a read and decide for yourself…

DALY WANTS A RIDE — And he was granted one at the PGA Championship. At the Open Championship, not so much. The R&A declared walking “an integral part” of competing in the tournament, and because Daly was unable to do so, he couldn’t play. “I could not disagree more with their conclusions,” he wrote in a statement.

THE PRESIDENT CLAIMS A TROPHY — Can you win a club championship without playing in it? It helps if you’re president of the United States — and you own the club. That’s what happened at Trump International in 2018. For those of you with club championships still to come this summer, we’d recommend a different strategy.

The winner:

MATT BENDS THE RULES (AND THE LAWS OF PHYSICS) — You’ve seen a golf ball plug in a fairway before. Have you ever seen it plug on its second bounce? None of the rules officials at the Memorial Tournament had, either, despite Mr. Kuchar’s protestations.

Matt Kuchar and Robby Ware, with Rickie Fowler looking on.

SERGIO GARCIA/MATT KUCHAR DIVISION

This was the season Patrick Reed handed off the “controversial lightning rod” baton to two PGA Tour colleagues.

The finalists:

SERGIO AND THE TEE BOX — You’ve probably seen your buddy do this, but there’s something slightly less palatable about watching professional golfer Sergio Garcia take a rage-swipe at the tee box, particularly given his recent history with damaging golf courses…

KUCHAR’S CADDIE CONUNDRUM — Look, you already know this one by now. Matt Kuchar wins golf tournament. Matt Kuchar pays local caddie .38 percent of his winnings. Matt Kuchar doubles down, then half-apologizes, then ultimately fully apologizes — and pays up. All’s well that ends well, I guess? Regardless, “cheapskate” will be a tough reputation for Kuchar to shake.

SERGIO AND THE GREENS — At golf tournaments, frustrated players are about as common as divots. But how often does that frustration get channeled into using your foot to gouge a course’s greens? This was a first.

The winner:

MATT, SERGIO AND THE CASE OF THE MISSING PUTT — Sure, Kuchar’s caddie conundrum was the bigger story, but this one involves both of them, and it’s so weird that it requires a step-by-step breakdown. See if you can follow along.

1. A frustrated Sergio Garcia faces a seven-footer for par at No. 7 in his match with Matt Kuchar at the WGC-Match Play. He misses the putt left of the hole, and it rolls past the cup — less than a foot away.

2. Acting quickly, Garcia goes to scrape in the putt backhanded, presuming the putt is good and the hole is halved. But his tap-in lips out.

3. Matt Kuchar points out that, uh, that putt wasn’t exactly good. To quote the man: “I saw him off the green, I said, ‘Sergio, I didn’t say anything, I’m not sure how this works out.'” The ruling comes down: Kuchar wins the hole.

4. Garcia suggests a remedy for the situation. Because Kuchar would have given that putt, the match should have remained Kuchar 1-up. Garcia points out that Kuchar could concede a hole — but Kuchar doesn’t bite. “I thought about that and said I didn’t like that idea either,” he said.

Garcia and Kuchar were seen discussing the ruling as they played the 12th hole.
Golf Channel

5. Things get weirder from here. It’s tense the rest of the way, and Kuchar ends up winning 2-up on 18. Garcia takes the blame, sort of, and they release a strange video that’s supposed to clear up any bad blood but raises far more questions than it answers. Petty back-and-forth, murky rulings, tense fairway standoffs — in some ways, this was golf’s perfect controversy.