By David Zakhodin
When the best golfers in the world kicked off their 2016 Major season at Augusta, we were focused on capturing the story behind the New Triumvirate. Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy had played at such a high level the two previous years that everyone including us at The Fan’s Country Club expected their dominant run to continue. However, as they often do, the golf Gods threw a curve ball at us and crowned four first-time Major champions. That’s not to say the dominance of Jason, Jordan, and Rory ended. They are still ranked first, third, and fourth, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking. But when the stakes were highest on Sundays at Augusta, Oakmont, Troon, and Baltusrol, other well deserving men rose to the occasion to permanently etch their names into golf’s trophies and history books.
Unlike the final three Majors of the year, the Masters looked like it would award the Green Jacket once again to defending champion Jordan Spieth. The prohibitive favorite after 54 holes in the lead, Jordan inexplicably chunked two shots in a row on the twelfth hole and surrendered the lead to eventual champion Danny Willett. While Jordan scrambled to recover from his poor wedge play, Willett remained steady on the back nine and an hour later watched Jordan awkwardly put the Green Jacket on his back. The Englishman undoubtedly deserved the victory, but perhaps Jordan’s struggles sent a more overarching message to the rest of the field that the so-called Triumvirate was vulnerable. Jason and Rory were nowhere near contention during the weekend, and Jordan faltered to the point where he was unfairly brought down to the Greg Norman level of choke artist.
Whether or not the field carried their observations regarding the Triumvirate from Augusta to Oakmont won’t really be known because there was no one getting in the way of Dustin Johnson this time around at the U.S. Open. Other first-time Major winner candidates such as Shane Lowry and Scott Piercy made some noise throughout the tournament, but Dustin was locked in and wouldn’t even let the USGA’s idiocy prevent him from lifting the trophy that he had failed to lift in previous years. Sure, Dustin became a first-time Major winner, but it definitely felt like his U.S. Open trophy ceremony was something waiting to happen as opposed to something unexpected. The few questions surrounding Dustin’s game prior to the victory were all about his putting, and he proved he could putt well under pressure on a golf course with treacherously fast greens.
Similar to the way Dustin putted at Oakmont, Henrik Stenson was locked in during his battle royale with Phil Mickelson at Troon. Another golfer who was labeled as a candidate to win a Major throughout the decade, Stenson silenced the critics who said that his opportunity had come and gone. Not only did he best the hot play of Mickelson, a former winner of the Claret Jug who would have won it again had it not been for Stenson, but he tied the all-time low score at a Major. Making the victories of Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson more impressive was the fact that they absolutely took the bull by the horns to claim their first Major. Whereas Danny Willett played well and happened to benefit from the sloppy play of Jordan, the champions of the U.S. Open and The Open Championship proved that their past record of finishing highly at Majors was no fluke. Rightfully, they have both joined Jason, Jordan, and Rory in the top five of the Official World Golf Ranking and will undoubtedly continue pushing each other for future Major titles. Moreover, a dream scenario to end the 2016 PGA Tour season would involve Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson facing off against each other on the last day of the Ryder Cup in match play. Having seen what these two golfers were able to accomplish against the rest of the field in their respective victories, what a treat it would be to see them represent their teams and potentially decide the fate of one of the sport’s most prestigious competitions.
While Henrik Stenson may have wanted more time to celebrate his historic victory at Troon, the PGA Tour schedule would not allow him that luxury. Because of the 2016 Rio Olympics he would have to tee off at The PGA Championship only a mere eleven days following his hoist of the Claret Jug. And despite not putting as well as he did at Troon, Stenson followed up his win at The Open with a top seven finish at Baltusrol. Despite fading in the last few holes due to fatigue, the Swede had a share of the lead during the second round and demonstrated his merit as the world’s fifth ranked player. If anything, Stenson’s hot play in the second and third rounds pushed eventual champion Jimmy Walker to never relinquish his lead. Becoming the first man to win The PGA Championship wire to wire since Phil Mickelson at Baltusrol in 2005, Walker was able to parry all the punches thrown at him. First, he was challenged by Major champions Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer. Then, he had to sit out all of play on Saturday due to weather and risk losing his streak of hot play by having to go 36 holes on Sunday, which featured an extremely early start time. In many of our stories about champions in tennis and golf, the concept we often highlight is poise. And on this weekend in New Jersey, Jimmy Walker defined what it meant to have poise. Maintaining his lead after the third round and changing into a Batman-like all all black outfit, he came out onto the difficult front nine and made par on every hole. Often we see first-time fourth round leaders at Majors struggle out of the gate; Jimmy Walker was as cool as a cucumber making mid-range putt after mid-range putt. But despite the amazing bunker shot on the tenth hole that enabled him to start separating himself from those playing in front of him, his final challenge came in the form of defending champion Jason Day. As we would expect nothing less from the world number one, Jason eagled the par five eighteenth and forced Walker to make one more par to win the tournament outright. Jimmy sank the putt and found himself cupping The Wanamaker half an hour later.
For the first time in five years, golf has experienced a fairy tale season of four first-time Major champions. Not only did Willett, Johnson, Stenson, and Walker foil the run of dominance that Jason, Jordan, and Rory were on, but they also made names for themselves in career defining fashion. And even though the fate of the 2016 Major golf season was decided by blistering drives and well read putts, it’s the small moments that demonstrate how much winning even one Major means to these fierce competitors. These moments featured Danny Willett jumping on his caddy in the clubhouse at Augusta, Dustin Johnson embracing his family instead of quarreling with the USGA, Henrik Stenson taking his shirt off mid fourth round, and Jimmy Walker sprinting out of a bunker with fire in his eyes. Sure, these golfers will remember the moments when they stood in front of the members posing with a Green Jacket or with heavy trophies. But it’s the snapshots of success, energy, and happiness that truly capture what it means to beat a field of over 150 men fighting for the same goal.
With 2016 showing us that experience and poise are the ingredients that make up the recipe for breaking through into golf’s elite league of Major champions, it wouldn’t surprise us at all to see more first-time winners in 2017. While there is still a lot of marquee golf let to be played this season, including the Rio Olympics, FedEx Cup Playoffs, and Ryder Cup, many golfers will already have their sights set on Augusta. Specifically, the likes of Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, Patrick Reed, and Sergio Garcia have all knocked on the door of Major titles in the past. When looking at age and career accomplishments, the story of Sergio Garcia is one with many parallels to the story of Henrik Stenson. On the other hand, Fowler, Grace, and Reed are at younger stages of their career and will be looking to channel the sort of composure and consistent putting that young Danny Willett exhibited when winning The Masters. The last time four first-time Major winners triumphed in 2011, two more first-time winners followed suit in the 2012 Masters and U.S. Open. Therefore, it would be no surprise to see the aforementioned golfers be motivated by the success of their rivals and to capture victory for themselves.
Despite many casual observers claiming the 2016 Major season to be a letdown, it is clear that golf is in a better place than it was at the start of the year. From a fan’s standpoint, we were able to simultaneously enjoy the spotlight around Jason, Jordan, and Rory while watching emotional moments alter the lives of four new champions. Whether it be Jordan’s shocking collapse at The Masters or Dustin Johnson defeating the field and the organizers at Oakmont, the tournaments were filled with the controversy and high pressure situations that make the fourth round of a golf Major one of the most exciting hours in all of sport. And when Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson engaged in their own match play at Troon or when Jimmy Walker staved off the world’s best player at The PGA, we saw history unfold at a record-breaking level. If anything, the way these Majors have played out will pave the way for an exciting finish to this season and an even more highly anticipated start to the next one.