Every golfing year has a main headline by which it is remembered – for 2016, some would always recall Dustin Johnson’s travails, while others would point to golf returning to the Olympics as their #1 memory. But the past 12 months were probably marked most indelibly by a great sadness, the death of Arnold Palmer.
The longevity of The King’s influence on the game both on and off the course was unprecedented. When news broke of his passing in late September, it was the day before the start of Ryder Cup week, perhaps golf’s most anticipated tournament of the year and yet Arnie still took center stage.
Players at Hazeltine on both sides had strong personal relationships with the man they called “Mr. Palmer” and tributes were both constant and appropriate that week, not least when The King’s original 1975 Ryder Cup golf bag was placed on the first tee like a monument to his greatness. Players took the time to either touch the bag in Palmer’s memory or even have their photograph taken next to it.
The 87-year-old from Pennsylvanian had been very loved during his golf career – after all, not even Tiger Woods has had a drink (iced tea with lemonade) named after him. Although a winner of only seven majors (great rival Jack Nicklaus won more than twice that number), it was the cavalier style of Palmer, the uncomplicated power of his game and the smiling humility of his good nature that caused his fans to create Arnie’s Army.
His 90 worldwide tournament wins were also his great legacy, particularly because he took his game around the globe, reinvigorated interest in the Open Championship in the early 1960s. Off the course, his influence was just as remarkable. Palmer linked up with another sporting legend, Mark McCormack, the sports agent and entrepreneur, to all but invent the idea of athletes as brands. His TV appearances, his sponsorships, his appearance money were all contributing factors to an enormous wealth and a sporting business model copied by every top sportsman and woman in the last 50 years. And that wealth was poured back into various charities, hospital-building projects and other good causes.
Insightful golf fans had predicted Palmer’s passing when they saw him gaunt and rather feeble at the Masters in April. Palmer was too ill to hit a ceremonial opening day tee shot at Augusta; it was a warning that sad news was imminent.
Elsewhere this year, there were other unusual significant moments. Most notable was an unfortunate focus on the rules of golf, concerning slow play and, more vividly, regarding the wildly complex nature of what constitutes a moving ball penalty.
In terms of slow play, the year had begun with the European Tour proudly announcing a new Pace Of Play policy to speed things up and Jordan Spieth (regarded as one of pro golf’s most notable “snails”) was fined in a tournament in Abu Dhabi in January. Spieth might have been the first to suffer, but he would not be the last and the phrase “this group’s now on the clock” became very familiar to television golf fans.
But the slow play rule debate was nothing compared to the one that happened on the final afternoon of this year’s US Open. The eventual winner, Dustin Johnson, acknowledged that his ball moved as he was about to putt on the 5th green at Oakmont, Pennsylvania, in a tournament plagued with ultra high winds and very slick greens. But Johnson had not touched the ball nor grounded his club, so the referee on site and his playing partner agreed ‘no penalty’ should ensue. However, the USPGA organizers could not leave the matter alone. They subsequently studied TV super slo-mo replays and, over an hour later, informed Johnson that he might be penalized. “Farcical,” cried all the TV commentators, as none of the contenders then knew what score they needed to win. Somehow the tall man from South Carolina composed himself to finish strongly and even an eventual one-shot penalty imposed while he sat in the scorer’s tent could not deny him the title.
Johnson’s major win, two others – including a WGC event – and finishing with the best scoring average on the PGA Tour made him player of the year in America. His only disappointment was a loss to Rory McIlroy in the FedEx Cup final.
Johnson was one of four first-time major winners in 2016 – something that had not happened since 2003. Danny Willett of England at the Masters, Henrik Stenson of Sweden at the Open Championship at Troon, Scotland, and Oklahoma’s Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship in Baltusrol, New Jersey, were all worthy champions.
Willett’s victory was a result of some typical back-nine-on-Sunday drama at Augusta. Jordan Spieth was looking good to retain the famous green jacket with a five-shot lead as he came to the 10th tee, but he then plopped two balls into the water in front of the short 12th green, took a quadruple bogey and was suddenly in fourth place. The Englishman’s unexpected victory, however, was underlined by his nerveless last few holes in a title-winning final round of 65.
Stenson performed even more heroically for his major. The Swede and America’s darling Phil Mickelson swapped so many birdies on that Sunday that it reminded fans of the Tom Watson-Jack Nicklaus ‘Duel in the Sun’ at nearby Turnberry almost four decades earlier. Leftie shot a 65 in the final round, yet somehow finished as runner-up in a major for the 11th time as Stenson countered with a record-tying 63.
Meanwhile, the PGA Championship was hit by horrid weather and players faced 36 holes on the final day with 37-year-old Walker (who had led from day one) emerging at the top despite a late charge by defending champion Jason Day of Australia.
The newly-crowned PGA champion was then a member of a strong American team that would win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008. Led by likable captain Davis Love III, the US never looked like losing after winning all four of the opening morning’s foursomes. Their eventual 17-11 victory was inspired by a remarkably passionate performance by Patrick Reed whose singles win against Rory McIlroy on the final day had the crowd in Minnesota screaming like it was a boxing match. Emotions ran high all week and this was golfing theater like never before. Reed won that match on the last hole and Love’s team was always too experienced for a European team with six rookies.
However, the significance of a US Ryder Cup victory was overshadowed by the return of golf to the Olympics in August. It had taken 112 years and had been mired in controversy (many of the world’s top men players chose not to travel to Brazil because of the rare Zika virus), yet both the men’s and women’s events were eventually judged as huge successes.
The men’s gold medal went to England’s Justin Rose who edged Henrik Stenson with America’s Matt Kuchar in third place. Rose and Stenson fought out a thrilling final 18 holes with a birdie from the Englishman securing victory.
Although the women’s tournament had a very clear champion in Inbee Park of South Korea, there was a tremendous battle for the silver and bronze medals. Eventually, Lydia Ko of New Zealand finished second and China’s Shanshan Feng was third.
Golf’s Olympic triumph happened just weeks before Arnold Palmer’s death. Few could argue that even though The King had long retired from tournament play, the sport’s inclusion at the Games in Brazil was yet another example of his influence. And how wonderful that he lived long enough to see it.
Ross Biddiscombe’s two acclaimed golf books – Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School – are available in hardback, paperback or eBook formats on Amazon.com.