2016: new golfers come out of the woods
It was not the usual year in golf.
There was little news about Rory McIlroy and even less about Tiger Woods, who didn’t play until December. Leader boards were dotted with new names and winners. Golf made a comeback to the Olympics after a century.
In India, we saw a resurrection of the game, the return of many older players, and surprise wins through the year. In the women’s game, new winners emerged besides Lydia Ko, like Aditi Ashok from India, while three (Ariya Jutanugarn, InGee Chun, Shanshan Feng) of the four biggest money earners of 2016 were from Asia.
All four majors in 2016 had first-time winners, players who had never won a major before. Englishman Danny Willett won The Masters at the Augusta National in Georgia—he picked up the title by three strokes over Lee Westwood and Jordan Spieth.
In June, Dustin Johnson got the US Open. Henrik Stenson became the first Swedish golfer to win a major, with The Open at Royal Troon in Scotland. In this championship, the famous Claret Jug remained elusive for Phil Mickelson, who was three shots behind at the end of the tournament but in contention many a time to win it. “Lefty” didn’t really disappoint his fans in 2016, although he has gone without a major title for three years in a row.
The final major was the PGA Championship, where Jimmy Walker defeated Jason Day, the defending champion.
Rolling in Rio
As golf returned to the Olympics after 112 years, Justin Rose picked the gold for the UK, while South Korea’s Inbee Park placed her nation on top with a gold in the women’s category.
Aditi trended in the top 10 for the first two days before settling at 41st among the women.
S.S.P. Chawrasia and Anirban Lahiri tied for the 50th and 57th spots, respectively. Lahiri, currently 77th in the world golf rankings, tied at third place in November at the CIMB Classic—and can approach 2017 with confidence. The PGA Tour picked Lahiri as one of its 30 “Players to Watch”.
Gaganjeet Bhullar made a comeback after injury and collected two wins over two months on the Asian Tour. “Mentally, I never accepted that I was struggling. It was just a matter of time that I would come out of it,” says Bhullar, who has moved base to the US in a bid to strengthen his game.
“He didn’t make a single mistake and was confident on the course,” says professional golfer Digvijay Singh.
Chawrasia, a four-time runner-up at the Hero Indian Open, finally took the trophy in March and, later in the year, won the Manila Masters, securing his place in the European Tour for 2017 and ending his victory drought in style.
Vani Kapoor had a record seven wins and topped the Order of Merit, while Amandeep Drall picked four wins in what was the best season of her life. For veteran Smriti Mehra, a win in the last few legs of the Hero professional tour was a perfect close to 2016.
Long live the King
Two years ago, in a surreal experience, I was sipping an “Arnold Palmer” at Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club in the US while Palmer was lunching at the next table shortly after our hour-long interview. He died days after his 87th birthday this September, leaving a void that cannot be filled.
The American golfer was known to have taken the game global, the rise of his game coinciding with that of the sport on television. Not only was he an international ambassador of the game, he was by far its most followed gentleman. “I believe international golf is very, very important. For that reason, I went to The Open in St Andrews (Scotland) at the start of my career. The idea was to promote golf internationally and the (former) British colonies are the reason golf is truly international,” Palmer had told Mint.
Woods returned to competitive golf after a back surgery at the Hero World Challenge in December. He hit 24 birdies over four days.
Not only was he swinging right, he was also happier on the course. “There's no doubt I felt it. It was nice. It felt good to have that adrenalin surging through the system again. It's been a long time,” he said in an interview with GolfingIndian.com earlier this month.
The next year promises to be the one to watch Woods as well as Indian golfers who may widen the winners’ pool globally. For fans, new winners and the return of legends can only be good news.