2018. Golf. A strange kind of year.
Almost vintage, but not quite. A vaguely transitional year at every level of the game, but not entirely. A huge comeback. An epic team performance. Reputations gained. Reputations tarnished. So that was the year that was. Lets delve into some of the details.
The Major season started at Augusta with a victory by the most hated man in golf. In this era of political doubt and indecision, rarely is anything unanimously agreed upon. But you will struggle to find anybody outside of his immediate family that does not believe Patrick Reed is a tosser.
With the good guys including Rory, Rickie and Jordan making runs but ultimately coming up short, we were left with the most excruciatingly awkward Green Jacket presentation since Faldo in the early 1990’s.
The golfing star of the year with 2 major victories and World Number 1 status was Brooks Koepka. But nobody seemed to care. Routinely missed off sportsman of the year polls, Koepka would hardly be recognised in his own town, let alone by non-golfers. Is it a dull personality? A difficult to pronounce surname? A media obsession with Tiger? Whatever the reason, BK is grossly undervalued.
Who would have thought that an Italian would be the Golfer of the Year. But Frankie Molinari (pictured in the British Masters at Walton Heath) was good value for his Open triumph. With his classical technique and precision course management, Molinari is a slight throwback to the pre-bomb and gauge generation but his diligent and calculated improvement of a previously flaky mental approach and putting stroke is a lesson for us all.
The Italian was an unbeaten member of the European team that trounced the Americans in the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National. Whilst it is a joy to celebrate a home win and to laugh at the civil war in the US ranks, the influence of course set-up should be a concern.
European Captain Bjorn had set-up the course with narrow fairways bordered by thick rough to counteract the big-hitting American style. This worked perfectly but was a reaction to the set-up at Medinah 2 years previously. where a complete lack of rough enabled the Americans to bomb away to their heart’s content and contributed to a heavy defeat for the Europeans.
Will we now see a tit for tat see-saw of course conditions? Is this interesting if the home team has such an advantage? Perhaps it is time for a more neutral approach.
Whilst he flopped in Paris, the media story of the year was clearly the return of the Tiger. Back into the World top 20, a contender in the final 2 majors of the year and a season ending victory in the Tour Championship was indeed a remarkable comeback from serious back surgery. This is a guy who has his own tracker on twitter with over 300k followers (the wonderful @GCTigerTracker). He truly does move the needle and his continuing story is massive for interest in the sport.
The ladies game in the UK was given a huge boost by the fabulous victory by Georgia Hall in the Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes. A skillful and gutsy win for the young Englishwoman is enough to inspire a generation.
But elsewhere, the Ladies game has problems. The near collapse of the Professional Tour in Europe remains unresolved and is a serious barrier to young hopefuls making a career from the game. In the US, the dominance of the Asian women is a tribute to their relentless mindset and dedication but does not play easily to the Western audience, who would feel more connection with homegrown heroes.
The grassroots game in England continues to transition. Plenty of Clubs have gone out of business this year but the reality is that this helps the strong Clubs get stronger.
At the entry-level of the game, TopGolf and high quality Adventure Golf have introduced great facilities for beginners and young people to try the game. If these replace dingy concrete-laden Driving Ranges and muddy Pitch and Putt venues, then I think this is a step-forward for the sport. New rules and handicapping systems will hopefully make the game quicker and easier to understand.
At the top-level of the Club game in England, historical VAT claim windfalls have enabled Clubs to invest and improve their facilities. These Clubs charge high green fees, but the vast majority are open for visitors.
So, as we move towards 2019, we can look towards another exciting year for golf. And the most tantalising thing – nobody really knows what the future holds and in this world of rigged elections doping scandals that is a great thing.