Koepka, Tiger and a worldly women’s game: 2018 in golf was as memorable as it gets

December 31, 2018

This was the year Brooks Koepka took over golf. After winning the 2017 U.S. Open on a big, brawny modern course (Erin Hills), the powerful Floridian won the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, a course of confounding mystery. Two months later, he won the PGA Championship. By the time the year was over, Tom Watson, among other deeply knowledgeable observers of the game, was declaring Koepka, who is only 28, as golf’s next big thing. He became the first golfer since Curtis Strange, in 1988 and ’89, to win consecutive U.S. Opens. He became the first golfer not named Woods to win the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in the same year since Jack Nicklaus did so in 1980.

And in other golf news, Tiger Woods re-established himself as one of the most electrifying figures in sports history in 2018, contending in tournaments several times and then claiming the final event of the PGA Tour season, breaking his five-year absence from the winner’s circle. As recently as April of 2017, he had confided in a friend that he did not know if he would play tournament golf again, as a series of injuries was making it a struggle for him to walk, let alone swing a club. Now he is a candidate to win an award named for Ben Hogan as the Comeback Player of the Year.

Women’s golf again showed that that no sport is more global. There were LPGA winners this year from the United States, including two of the game’s most popular players, Brittany Lincicome and Lexi Thompson. Brooke Henderson of Canada won the Canadian Open. Georgia Hall of England won the British Open, but there is way too much parity in the women’s game to suggest there is a pattern there. Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand won the U.S. Open and Sung Hyun Park of South Korea won the PGA Championship. Michelle Wie won for the first time since 2014. A banner year.

brooks koepka tiger woods
These were the newsmakers who defined 2018 in golf.

Woods showed this year that he is unlike any golfer who has come before him, and that it is impossible to predict what he will do. In his first three events, playing tournament golf again for the first time since back-fusion surgery in late April 2017, his game looked absolutely ragged, but he insisted that he was on a path to playing top-level golf again. But by mid-March, at the Tour stop in Tampa, he finished one stroke behind the winner, Paul Casey, and generated frenzied on-course fan interest and TV ratings unlike anything the event, the Valspar Championship, had ever seen before.

In 2018, the USGA and the R&A, golf’s two governing bodies, finalized the biggest changes to the game’s rules since 1990, when the two governing bodies agreed upon a single ball size. The current changes, which go into effect on Jan. 1, are meant to simplify and speed-up the game, but also acknowledge, for the first time, that golf at the elite level and at the recreational level are in ways fundamentally different. The most significant example of that is the new rule that allows the creation of a local rule that will permit golfers to drop lost balls, and balls that come to rest out-of-bounds, within the vicinity of their departure, with a two-shot penalty. There is also a new rule that allows players to make putts with the flagstick in the hole without penalty.

Through three rounds of the British Open at Carnoustie, Woods was four shots behind the leaders. It represented the first time in five years that he was even remotely in contention in a major, and again fan interest, in person and on TV and other platforms, surged. In the fourth round, he was briefly in the lead, playing alongside the eventual winner, Francesco Molinari. Later, he acknowledged that when he played a brilliant shot from a fairway bunker on the 10th hole, he felt he would win the event. After finishing, and huddling with girlfriend and children, Woods looked completely spent while showing once again what a captivating figure he is.

On the PGA Tour Champions, Bernhard Langer, at age 60 and turning 61 in August, showed again that he is in the pantheon of golfers who have been able to retain their golf skill. He won twice in 2018, was the leading money-winner and had the lowest scoring average. He has joined the ranks of Sam Snead, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Bob Charles, in terms of the astounding longevity of his career.

One of the surprises of Woods’s season was to see subtle changes in his interactions with players, fans and reporters. He signed more autographs and acknowledged spectators more than he has in the past, he was more generally patient and open in his comments to reporters and he seemed to be more aware of other players than he was in the past. When he was named as the U.S. captain for next year’s Presidents Cup team, the youngest person to have that role, it suggested an awareness that his place in the game is evolving. After a second-place finish in the PGA Championship, Woods hung around the Bellerive County Club clubhouse, on a steamy Sunday in St. Louis, to congratulate Koepka. In his earlier incarnation, Woods was not one to do things like that.

Given the extraordinary year Koepka had, it would only be fitting that he have the final word in this summation of the 2018 season. Here is one telling comment he made after the PGA Championship:

“I think, other than me and my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger. I mean, as they should. He’s the greatest player to ever play the game, and to have the comeback that he’s having is incredible. You look at the British Open, when he finally got that lead, how energetic that crowd was. And then when he started making that run, it brought me back to when I was a kid and when I was watching him and you heard those roars. I remember I went to the British Open, when Ben Curtis won. And he was kind of making a charge, and you could hear the roars. I mean, being a part of that as a fan is cool. And even when you’re playing, it’s still pretty neat. It kind of pushes you to step up your game. I mean, you have to because you know he’s right there, if you fall.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_bamberger@simail.com.