Why 2016 Was Golf’s Best Year Ever

December 31, 2016
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Before we talk about how 2016 finished, it’s worth remembering where it began.

At the end of 2015, golf faced an uncertain future: Fresh off two back surgeries, would Tiger Woods ever return to competitive golf? If so, when? And if not, what would golf look like without him?

Turns out, 2016 was pretty good, with the added bonus of seeing the Big Cat back in action just in time for the holidays.

We’ll get to that, but for now, let’s get back to why 2016 was the best year in golf, ever.

It was a year of many firsts: Golf’s return to the Olympics, four first-time major winners, 16 first-time Tour winners, the first round of 58 in PGA Tour history.

It was also a year of many accomplishments. The much hemmed-and-hawed-about Ryder Cup Task Force paid off as the U.S. finally hoisted the Cup at Hazeltine. The PGA Tour announced new stops in South Korea and Mexico, continuing their commitment to overseas expansion. The LPGA boasted a record amount of events and purse totals, a testament to the tour’s growth under Mike Whan’s leadership.

All around the globe, the next generation of golfers proved just how good they could be, cementing the safety of the professional game for years to come. Young stars Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, Smylie Kaufman, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Lydia Ko — average age 22.3 years — all won tournaments this year.

(MORE FROM 2016: What Happened to Tiger Woods? It Remains the Most Vexing Question in Sports)

And then there was the “old guard,” showing flashes of their vintage selves: Bernhard Langer shot a 2-under 70 in the third round at the Masters at the ripe old age of 58, Steve Stricker nearly won the FedEx St. Jude Classic and put up two subsequent top-5s, Se Ri Pak endured a stumbling-yet-touching close to her two-decade career on the LPGA Tour, and of course, Phil Mickelson took a run at history at the British Open, where he narrowly missed a putt for 62 in the opening round (and narrowly lost an unforgettable duel that Sunday to Henrik Stenson).

Golf fans were winners all around. Golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio produced a condensed major season and must-see TV almost every weekend of the summer. Yes, some big names skipped Rio, but many stars played the Gil Hanse-designed track, and a swath of fresh faces emerged – from Aditi Ashok, who at 18 years old put Indian golf on a big stage, to Adilson da Silva, who struck the first Olympic tee shot in 112 years in front of his countrymen and women.

(MORE FROM 2016: Kevin Na, a Case Study in the Frailty of a Golfer’s Psyche)

The majors featured many moments of high tension and drama. Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the Masters – while not “the best” part of 2016, was nonetheless shocking and unforgettable. Dustin Johnson made an epic march to his first major title at the U.S. Open in the face of a rules controversy that left fans stupefied – and on the edge of their seats. The Mickelson-Stenson showdown sparked the highest television ratings (3.3) and viewership (4.9 million) of an Open Championship in seven years. And Jimmy Walker’s ride to the PGA Championship winner’s circle featured one of the most intense final hours of the year, as World No. 1 Jason Day made a run over Baltusrol’s closing holes.

It was also a year of perspective, as even the “bad stuff” had some good in it. Johnson and the USGA’s golf rules snafu resulted in some quick, important work by the USGA and R&A to introduce changes that should appeal to pros and amateurs alike. Months of speculation surrounding Woods’s return created a wave of hype and optimism that made his T17 finish a cause for celebration. Even the passing of Arnold Palmer had its own positive impact: golfers around the globe, both professional and not, turned inward to give thanks to the man who loved the game so dearly.

One of the only real disappointments of the year was the much-hyped “Big Three” of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy failing to win any of the summer’s majors. But Spieth and McIlroy look primed for bounce-back seasons, and Day, health pending, is locked in as the current World No. 1.

(MORE FROM 2016: Stacy Lewis on the Gender Pay Gap in Professional Golf)

But I would argue that the biggest story of 2016 was, once again, Tiger Woods. First, it gave us a Woods who was injured and despondent. But soon after, as he rehabbed, he happily filled an elder-statesman role, attending clinics for children, presenting trophies, and serving as a vice captain for the U.S. Ryder Cup squad. That might have been enough. But then he made it back to the course this month at the Hero World Challenge, and shot a Friday 65 that offered hope that the 14-time major winner might still make magic on the course for a little while longer.

Add it all up, and this year was the best.

On to the next.