The Big Three and the big zero
Throw out the crystal ball and let's start over for the major championships of 2017 after a year of surprises which confounded pundits, punters and even some of the biggest names in the sport.
This time last year the world of golf basked in the glow of youthful exuberance as exemplified by Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
Spieth's 2015 Masters and US Open victories at the tender age of 22; Day's long-awaited breakthrough in the US PGA Championship; and McIlroy's comeback from a severe ankle injury to retain his Race To Dubai title heralded the arrival of a new 'Big 3'.
Tiger Woods was in the shadows, reduced to a bystander role due to serious back problems which required multiple surgeries.
His years of dominance were over, and the new kids on the block were taking the game by storm.
Eager anticipation was the mood as winter gave way to spring and the countdown to the Masters began in earnest.
The rivalry between the American, the Northern Irishman and the Australian, albeit friendly off the course, promised fireworks on the hallowed fairways of Augusta National.
Which of them would take the Green Jacket?
Would McIlroy achieve his career Grand Slam this time?
Could Spieth fend off all challengers and win for the second successive year?
Would Day thrive now that he no longer had to listen to backhanded compliments that hailed him as one of the best players never to win a major title?
In essence, the speculation boiled down to how many majors the 'BigThree' would win between them in 2016.
As events transpired, the 'Mystic Meg' wannabes were proven totally wrong. The 'Big 3' got a big fat zero in their major accounts as the golfing gods saw fit to bestow their blessings on four first-time major champions. Danny Willett, aged 28, was the youngest of the quartet and the oldest was Henrik Stenson (40).
Serial choker Dustin Johnson triumphed in the US Open and Jimmy Walker, a solid pro but nobody's tip for the title, collected the Wanamaker Trophy, closing the door on the last chance saloon of the major campaign for messrs Spieth, McIlroy and Day.
Augusta National, April 7-10. Par 72
1 Danny Willett -5, 283 (70, 74, 72, 67) €1,573,839
T-2 Jordan Spieth -2, 286 (66,74, 73, 73)
T-2 Lee Westwood -2, 286 (71, 75, 71, 69)
Irish: T-10 Rory McIlroy +1, 289; T-39 Shane Lowry +10, 298.
Missed cut: Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke.
The tournament started in surreal fashion with an Ernie Els shocker when the five-time major champion took six putts on the first green.
Little did we know, but Els was not the only big name destined to come to grief in this, the 80th staging of the Masters.
McIlroy succumbed to the pressure of the career Grand Slam challenge with a 77 on Saturday taking him out of contention.
Spieth's swing was not totally in sync, but his putting kept him on track as he led the field through Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Sunday began with Spieth on -3, Smylie Kaufman at -2, and the teak-tough 58-year-old veteran Bernhard Langer joint-third alongside Hideki Matsuyama on -1.
Almost as a sideshow, a remarkable three aces were recorded on the 170-yard, 16th hole - first by Lowry (8-iron), then by Davis Love III (7-iron), and finally by Louis Oosthuizen (7-iron).
Back at the business end of the tournament, Spieth extended his lead on the field to five shots after the front nine. Game over - or so we thought.
Bogey on 10, not a huge problem.
Bogey on 11? Raised eyebrows, murmurings through the galleries...but this is Spieth we're talking about. A minor setback, surely?
Nope. There was more horror to come.
Spieth opted to try to fade his approach to the Golden Bell, the par-3, 12th measuring 155 yards, but saw his ball splashed into Rae's Creek. He knew afterwards he should have gone with a draw, but he compounded the error by hitting his next attempt heavy.
This ball drowned too, and as it sank to the bottom, so did Spieth's Masters.
A quadruple bogey seven by the reigning champion threw the tournament wide open, and Willett was the man to walk through the door to glory.
Full marks to the Masters for once again delivering great drama on the back nine on Sunday. Spieth's collapse was bizarre but when Willett got the chance, he grabbed it in fine style.
That said, it's hard to get away from the nagging feeling that Willett is a good champion, not yet a great champion. Does he care? Not likely. It's his Green Jacket for ever more.
Oakmont, June 16-19. Par 70
1 Dustin Johnson -4, 276 (67, 69, 71, 69) €1,595,888
T-2 Jim Furyk -1, 279 (71, 68,74, 66)
T-2 Shane Lowry -1, 279 (68, 70, 65, 76)
T-2 Scott Piercy -1, 279 (68, 70, 72, 69)
Other Irish: T-18 Graeme McDowell +6, 286.
Missed cut: Rory McIlroy.
Oakmont, an iconic US Open course. The scene of Johnny Miller's famous 63 in the fourth round to win in 1973. The 'Big 3' out to atone for Masters misery. What could go wrong? Well, the weather for a start. Thunderstorms on Thursday changed the character of the course and the speed of the greens, and disrupted play so much that sections of every round got pushed into the next day. It was a marathon, with the final section of round three finishing around noon on Sunday.
At last, the scene was set for the final shoot-out when the leader Lowry teed off alongside hitherto unknown Andrew Landry at 3.30pm local time. A four-shot cushion for Lowry.
Would he have been better off being four behind with nothing to lose? Maybe so, but the fact was that an inner tightness was evident in his swing from the start, and the round eventually slipped away from him with bogeys on holes 14, 15 and 16.
Meanwhile, Johnson played superb golf over the last six holes despite knowing he could be docked a shot for that fractionally-moving ball on the fifth hole. He saved the USGA's blushes by having a couple of shots to spare, so the addition of the penalty shot for a 69 did not affect the outcome.
A worthy champion and a hugely popular winner with the galleries.
A great story, given his history of failures, particularly at Chambers Bay in 2015.
From an Irish perspective, Lowry showed how well he can challenge at this level.
If he can take the positives and detach from the negatives, as I'm sure he can now that he has engaged the services of a sports psychologist, Lowry will know better how to handle this type of situation in future.
Royal Troon, July 14-17 Par 71
1 Henrik Stenson -20, 264 (68, 65, 68, 63) €1, 363,834
2 Phil Mickelson -17, 267 (63, 69, 70, 65)
3 JB Holmes -6, 278 (70, 70, 69, 69)
Irish: T-5 Rory McIlroy -4, 280; T-22 Darren Clarke +2, 286
T-36 Padraig Harrington +3, 287; T-63 Graeme McDowell +10, 294
Missed cut: Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne.
Cold, windy, and wet at times at Troon but on Sunday afternoon, the sun shone and the weather played its part in making this a championship showdown to savour.
Two veterans - Mickelson, aged 46, and Stenson, aged 40. Turnberry '77 had the 'Duel in the Sun' between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Troon 2016 matched, if not surpassed the battle between the 'Golden Bear' and 'Young Master Watson' as Peter Alliss called him more than three decades ago.
Mickelson came within a hair's breadth of holing out for 62 on day one, but his opening 63 reflected a man in tune with his links surroundings. Stenson shot 68 in the first round.
With 36 holes gone, Mickelson still led, but this time by just a shot on 10-under from the Swede who was in second place at -9, two clear of nearest challenger Keegan Bradley.
After Saturday, Stenson had reached -12, and Mickelson was on his tail at -11. Bill Haas was best of the rest on six-under par.
Sunday, blessed Sunday. A magnificent head-to-head contest which captivated those lucky enough to watch it in person and the multi-million television viewership around the globe. They went at it like prize fighters, trading blow for blow, and were level with five to play.
Mickelson did little, if anything, wrong. His problem was that Stenson holed for birdie on the 14th, then drained a 50-footer across the 15th green to go two ahead at a crucial stage.
On 16, a par-5, the galleries groaned as a Mickelson eagle attempt came close but not close enough to drop for a three. In normal circumstances, Mickelson could be delighted with a birdie at this stage of the championship. Unfortunately for him, Stenson's up-and-down for birdie from left of the green maintained the status quo. And to rub it in, he holed his 10th birdie of the day on the 18th to win by three shots, scoring 63 to Mickelson's 66.
The best finish to a major in years, and one of the greatest in Open history.
Stenson is a great champion who produced a masterful display. Mickelson could hardly play better on the final day of a major but lost to a deserving winner.
Baltusrol (Lower), July 28-31. Par 70
1 Jimmy Walker -14, 266 (65, 66, 68, 67) €1,627,295
2 Jason Day -13, 267 (68, 65, 67, 67)
3 Daniel Summerhays -10, 270 (70, 67, 67, 66)
Irish: T-13 Padraig Harrington -6, 274.
Missed cut: Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell.
By now, the talk was of the 'Fab Four' who led the world rankings after Dustin Johnson's Oakmont triumph. Surprise followed surprise all through the summer, but surely enough was enough? Was it not time for the superstars to assert themselves in the premier championships?
The answer was in the negative, with the honourable exception of Day, the only one of the world-leading quartet to make a real run at this major. Nobody saw Walker coming. A solid journeyman aged 37, he had improved in the last three years once he engaged the services of top coach Butch Harmon.
But a major winner? Unlikely.
Walker had come close to opting out of the game in 2007 in despair at his lack of progress, but decided to give it another go. Progress was still slow.
He did not gain a top-10 on the PGA Tour until 2009. His first Tour win was in 2014, in the Frys.Com Open. He went into Baltusrol having added four more victories and a Ryder Cup appearance in 2014 to his golfing CV. However, in his five previous major appearances, Walker had made only one cut, so he was not burdened with favouritism.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man in black. Walker shot four rounds in the 60s of another weather-disrupted major, and had the guts to make a crucial par with a pitch and two putts on the 72nd hole to fend off Day.
In terms of atmosphere and excitement, the US PGA suffered from its scheduling so close to the Open, and the weather forced the last five groups to play 36 holes on the Sunday.
Walker might not have sent the TV ratings soaring, but he never faltered and coped brilliantly with being out in front going into the final round. His composure as Day ramped up the pressure down the stretch was impressive.