The calendar year of 2016 was incredible for professional sports, and golf was no different. Despite the lengthy absence of Tiger Woods, one of the most bankable superstars in sports history, golf still managed to thrive in a supersaturated sports marketplace, thanks mostly to a plethora of young, exciting talent, combined with competitive and amiable veteran leadership.
Tournaments were consistently intense and dramatic as 2016 brought us unforgettable moments such as the awe-inspiring American victory at the Ryder Cup, Dustin Johnson’s major breakthrough, the best Spring Break ever, and golf’s triumphant return to the Olympic Games.
More than any in recent memory, it was a season that truly had something for everyone.
At Pro Golf Weekly we’ve reflected on and assembled a comprehensive “Best of” list, highlighting everything great that happened in this remarkable 2016 season.
TRIBUTE OF THE YEAR
Jack Nicklaus Says GoodBye Arnold Palmer
In late September, the golf world was devastated at the news that one of its biggest icons, and possibly its most likable superstar, the legendary Arnold Palmer, passed away at the age of 87.
As tales, tributes, and well wishes rushed in from all over the world, it became obvious, if it wasn’t already, that the man they called Arnie had a positive and prodigious influence on absolutely everyone he met.
Perhaps the most touching tribute came from the man Palmer became most associated with during his illustrious career: 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus was Palmer’s greatest contemporary, and as ambassadors of the game, they stayed close long after each had sunk their last putt in a competitive tournament.
This is what Nicklaus had to say on Twitter about Palmer:
— Pro Golf Weekly (@ProGolfWeekly) October 4, 2016
“I just got the news at about 8:45 that Arnold had passed. I was shocked to hear that we lost a great friend—and that golf lost a great friend.
At this point I don’t know what happened, and I suppose it is not important what happened. What is important is that we just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports. My friend—many people’s friend—just wore out. I know he was in Pittsburgh trying to find out how to make himself better.
That’s what Arnold has always tried to do. He has always been a fighter and he never gave up on anything. He didn’t give up even now. Maybe his body did, but I know Arnold’s will and spirit did not.
I wish I had another chance to talk to him, but I am so glad we talked a couple weeks ago on his birthday (Sept. 10), when he sounded great. So Barbara and I are just in shock and incredibly saddened. Our hearts, thoughts, prayers and sympathies go out to Kit, his kids, grandkids, great grandkids, and his entire loving family.
He was one of my best friends, closest friends, and he was for a long, long time. I will miss him greatly.
Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans—Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed.
He was the king of our sport and always will be.”
BREAKTHROUGH GOLFER OF THE YEAR
It would be easy to give this to Dustin Johnson, who with a win at the U.S. Open at Oakmont (his first major victory) went from being one of the best on tour to being one of the elites, but juxtaposing 2015 with to 2016, nobody’s improvement was more spectacular than what was seen from the LPGA’s Ariya Jutanugarn.
Jutanugarn, the 21-year-old pride of Thailand, had a very up-and-down 2015 season. She had four top 10 finishes, with a best result of T2 at the Pure Silk- Bahamas LPGA Classic in early February.
After looking like a potential 2015 breakout candidate early, Jutanugarn completely lost her game. She posted a respectable T20 at the Ana Inspiration in April, the first LPGA major of the year, but she then went into an absolute nosedive, missing the cut in 11 of her next 12 events, with her only made cut in that stretch being a dismal T76 in a tournament where she had three rounds of +5 or worse.
Following the RICOH Women’s British Open in late July, Jutanugarn slowly got her game back, making her next 10 cuts (in her last 10 events of the season), but not finishing higher than solo-fifth in any tournament.
Her start and then her finish to 2015 were promising, but nobody outside of perhaps Jutanugarn’s immediate family saw coming what she did in 2016. After a solo-fourth place finish at the 2016 Ana Inspiration, Jutanugarn went on a tear that asserted her as the most dominant golfer on the LPGA.
She won her first tournament of the season in early May, the Yokohama Tire Classic. She won again the following week, and again the very next week – becoming the first golfer in history to win her first three tournaments in consecutive weeks.
Once Jutanugarn started winning, she couldn’t stop.
She finished first in five 2016 tournaments including her first major victory at the RICOH Women’s British Open. In addition, she had an unbelievable 16 top 10s, and did not miss a single cut. If it weren’t for an injury at the Olympics (Jutanugarn was the first round leader), she might even have a gold medal as well.
Jutanugarn led the LPGA Tour in earnings, she won the season-long Race to CME Globe title, and she won the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year Award, overcoming what early on appeared to be an insurmountable lead for World #1 Lydia Ko.
DOMINANT TOURNAMENT PERFORMANCE
Jason Day at the WGC-Dell Match Play
To say that Jason Day was running into a buzzsaw for the championship round of the WGC-Dell Match Play Tournament in March would be an enormous understatement. His opponent in the final match, Louis Oosthuizen, was looking like the offspring of Hercules and Ben Hogan.
Less hyperbolic, Oosthuizen had looked like the guy who ran away with the Claret Jug in the 2010 Open Championship, winning by seven strokes at what was presumably a different course than everyone else was playing.
After sweeping group play, Oosthuizen made quick work of an impressive gauntlet of then-World #1 and two-time major champion Jordan Spieth (4&2), 2016 Player of the Year Dustin Johnson (2&1), and future European Ryder Cup star Rafa Cabrera-Bello (4&3).
Day was in the midst of a personal tear of his own and had won the Match Play two years prior, but at the very least, the final match looked like it would be a battle of the titans.
Day got off to a hot start and Oosthuizen never got close, ultimately losing 5&4.
DOMINANT TOURNAMENT PERFORMANCE II
Jordan Spieth at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Nobody got their 2016 off to a better start than 2015 PGA Tour Player of the Year Jordan Spieth. In the season-opening event in Hawaii, Spieth finished at an unbelievable 30-under-par, coasting to an eight-stroke victory over Patrick Reed.
After his blowout win in Hawaii, coming off such an historic season, the expectations for Spieth were through the roof. However, his spectacular crash in the final round of the Masters at Augusta National sent Spieth’s confidence spiraling.
While he won a month later at the DEAN & DELUCA, the 22 year-old Texan never truly recovered, and mostly played less-than-elite golf for the remainder of the year – never really contending in the big events (MC-THE PLAYERS, T37-US OPEN, T30-BRITISH OPEN, T13-PGA CHAMPIONSHIP, T17-TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP).
DOMINANT PRO GOLFER OF THE YEAR
Several golfers had a 2016 that could be considered dominant, but there was no larger gap between #1 and #2 than Bernhard Langer on the Champions Tour. The 59-year-old German, who won The Masters in both 1985 and 1993, put up video game numbers on his respective tour in 2016.
At $3.02 million in earnings, Langer made nearly double the $1.7 million that the next highest-earning player (Colin Montgomerie) made, the eighth time in the past nine years he finished #1 on the season-ending money list. Langer won the Schwab Cup fairly easily for the third straight year, and fourth overall.
In 21 Champions Tour starts in 2016, Langer won four times, had four other runner-ups, 11 finishes in the top 3, and never finished worse than T13. It is not possible to be much more dominant than that.
Turning pro over 40 years ago, Langer has saved his best work for his latest years.
BEST SHOWING OF PLAYER UNITY
Response to the Dustin Johnson-U.S. Open Controversy
Dustin Johnson has made a habit of being the central character in controversies in majors, most notably in 2010 when he blew a lead on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship after grounding his club in what he didn’t realize was a bunker.
He had been in contention many times at majors, but as of June 2016, he had never come out victorious, with those failures happening rather spectacularly. That is why it was no surprise to see DJ in the middle of a contentious situation with the USGA at the U.S. Open at notoriously difficult Oakmont.
Johnson started his Sunday four strokes back of Ireland’s Shane Lowry, but was playing easily the best golf of anyone near the top of the leaderboard. Then on the green on the fifth hole, something innocuous-looking happened: his ball moved very slightly as he stood over it, although it was obvious that Johnson had not caused it to move.
Nobody thought much of it until mid-round, when officials informed him that he might be getting penalized, but a ruling would not be made until after his round. He would be forced to finish up without knowing his real score. He ended up being penalized one stroke, which did not ultimately matter as he walked off 18 with a three-shot advantage.
It ended up being a disastrous situation for the image of the tournament host, the USGA, as player after player eviscerated them over social media.
The USGA is hoping everyone forgets what happened, but the way the entirety of the PGA Tour stuck up for one of their own was inspiring.
STORYLINE OF THE YEAR
First-Time Major Winners
Coming into the 2016 season, five of the previous eight major championship winners were Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day, the ‘Big Three’ in golf at the time. With the superstars making all the headlines, it was believed that those young elites would dominate the 2016 major season.
Here are the four 2016 major winners:
The Masters: Danny Willett
U.S. Open: Dustin Johnson
The Open Championship: Henrik Stenson
PGA Championship: Jimmy Walker
All four of those players were first-time major winners, a surprising twist to a great season.
If the trend holds, here are the players who should be looked at most closely for 2017:
Hideki Matsuyama – The young Japanese phenom was somewhat disappointing in the 2016 major season. He finished T4 at the PGA Championship, but was never really in the mix. He did win at the Phoenix Management Open, and has been the hottest golfer on the planet to end 2016, winning the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Hero World Challenge, in addition to several international events.
Rickie Fowler – Finished in the top five of all four majors in 2014, but has largely struggled on the biggest stages since. The Ryder Cup Captain’s pick won the Players Championship and Deutsche Bank Classic in 2015, and had 8 top 10s in 23 events in 2016.
Patrick Reed – The American Ryder Cup Star has not yet made his presence in a major, although he did make some early waves at the 2015 U.S. Open before finishing T14. At just 26 years old, Reed already has five PGA Tour victories, including a win at the first event of the 2016 FedEx Cup Playoffs. His time may be coming very soon.
J.B. Holmes – The Kentucky bomber led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2016 and played well in the majors, finishing solo third at the Open Championship (albeit 14 strokes out of first place) and T4 at The Masters.
Other would-be first time major winners to watch in 2017 include Justin Thomas, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Moore, Matt Kuchar, and Russell Knox.
OFF-COURSE STORY OF THE YEAR
Golf fans will recognize #SB2K16 as the hashtag used by the young, exciting quartet of Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, and Smylie Kaufman on their enchanting post-Masters Bahamas vacation. The experience was extensively documented on social media (mostly by Fowler), and induced more jealousy than perhaps any 2016 story in any sport.
It gave fans a captivating close-up look of what goes on behind the scenes in a way that has not been possible in the past. It ended up being tremendous for the images of the four involved, and even moreso for the image of the PGA Tour.
WEB.COM TOUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Wes Bryan, most well known for the trick shot videos he and his brother post on social media, was recently named Web.com Player of the Year by the Tour. It was the right, and the very easy decision. Bryan was the only player on the Web.com Tour to earn an in-season promotion to the PGA Tour, which he achieved by winning three events.
Despite playing just 15 events on the season, and not participating in the Web.com Tour Finals, Bryan was a runaway #1 on the money list. He was even relevant in his brief PGA Tour action, holding the 36-hole lead at the John Deere Classic before pair of weekend 70s dropped him to T8.
BEST INDIVIDUAL VICTORY OF THE YEAR
Inbee Park at The Olympics
An LPGA Hall of Famer as of this season, seven-time major winner Inbee Park did not have much left to prove in her career, but that did not stop her from adding something amazing to her resume: Olympic Gold Medalist.
Despite her incredible career, Park was something of an afterthought going into The Olympics, where women’s golf was an event for the first time in 116 years. All the attention was on the young trio of Lydia Ko, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Brooke Henderson, but all Park did was absolutely blow away the field, winning by five strokes over silver-medalist Ko.
Prior to The Olympics, Park was having a nightmare 2016 season. A thumb injury led to lots of missed time and very poor results. She had not even made a cut on Tour in four months. None of that mattered in Rio, however, and Park has now done basically everything that can be done in a successful career in golf.
EUROPEAN BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Thomas Pieters showed in 2016 that he might be Europe’s best young player this side of Rory McIlroy. The 24-year-old Belgian Pieters was heroic at the Ryder Cup, finishing with a 4-1-0 record. His four points were the most for EITHER team.
In group matches, the team of Pieters and McIlroy won all three of their matches before the 18th hole, knocking off big-name Americans such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Matt Kuchar.
In Sunday singles, he was too much for J.B. Holmes, winning 3&2; one of just four European singles victories in 12 matches. Pieters made his presence known at the Olympics as well, just barely finishing off the medal stand with a solo-fourth place finish that included a final-round 65.
In Europe, he won the Made In Denmark in August and took second place at both the Czech Masters and the Abu Dhabi Championship.
EUROPEAN BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR II
Largely unknown to casual fans prior to 2016, 32-year-old Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello had big years on the PGA Tour and the International Stage. In America, he finished solo-third at the WGC-Dell Match Play, shocking past champion Rory McIlroy in the consolation match. He also finished in the top 5 at the Shell Houston Open and the Wyndham Championship.
In Europe, he finished 8th in the final Race to Dubai standings, finished runner-up twice, and was one of Europe’s best players at the Ryder Cup, where at 2-0-1, he was the only undefeated player on his team. He beat PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker 3&2 in his Sunday singles match. To cap it off, he was also T5 at The Olympics.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Si Woo Kim
The young Argentinian Emiliano Grillo was named the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, an award that he was worthy of consideration for.
In his maiden year on Tour, Grillo won the first tournament of the 2016 season (the season-opening Frys.com Open in October 2015) and also fared well in the FedEx Cup Playoffs with a T2 at The Barclays and a T10 at the Tour Championship.
Over the course of 2016, however, Si Woo Kim was the more consistently good rookie, and as such, is given the Pro Golf Weekly Version of the Rookie of the Year award. Kim finished the year with one victory, a five-stroke triumph at the Wyndham Championship, and was in the top 25 in nearly half his starts (16 of 34).
The 21-year-old from South Korea led the Tour in total birdies (400), and was ninth in strokes gained: around-the-green.
MOST IMPROVED TOUR GOLFER
Early in 2011, Columbia’s Jhonattan Vegas looked like he was going to take the PGA by storm. In just his second event of the year, his rookie year, Vegas defeated Bill Haas and Gary Woodland in a playoff to win the Bob Hope Classic. He chased that breakthrough victory with a T3 at the Farmer’s Insurance Open the very next week.
Vegas could not have imagined a much better start to his young career. He was a little bit up-and-down the rest of that season, but lost his top form quickly after that 2011 season.
Over the next four seasons combined, he had no victories and just four top 10s. In those four seasons, he earned a combined $1,999,911, a mere $145,000 more than he made in 2011 alone. 2015 was especially brutal for Vegas, as he managed just one top-25 finish in 27 events. His 2011 success had become long forgotten.
The 2016 season, however, was different. Vegas posted five top-10 finishes, including his first win since the 2011 Bob Hope, an impressive come-from-behind victory over a crowded leaderboard at the RBC Canadian Open. He also had what tied for the second-lowest round of the year, a 60 at the Barbasol Championship.
Perhaps most impressively, Vegas qualified for the 30-man field at the Tour Championship, the last event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He finished the playoffs at 29th in the standings, an enormous improvement over finishing 153rd in 2015. He earned $2.5 million in 2016, and with the exemptions he gets for making the Tour Championship, he stands to make even more in 2017.
MOST UNEXPECTED WIN OF THE YEAR
Billy Hurley III at the Quicken Loans National
Over the past 20 years, a disproportionate amount of PGA news stories have centered around Tiger Woods. Taking the year off to recover from back surgery, Tiger did not quite dominate the headlines like in past years, but arguably the best story of the season would not have happened without him.
There was no reason for anyone to like Billy Hurley III’s chances going into the Quicken Loans National. The only reason he was even in the field was that tournament host Tiger Woods granted him a sponsor’s exemption.
The 34-year-old Navy grad was in the midst of another difficult season where he had missed six of 12 cuts and had no finishes higher than T41. A local to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, the tournament host, Hurley III enjoyed tremendous crowd support on his way to a shocking victory where he took the 36-hole lead and never backed down.
His victory came one year after a lachrymose situation at the 2015 Quicken Loans National where Hurley III’s asked for help through the media, after his father went missing.
MOST UNEXPECTED WIN OF THE YEAR II
Vaughn Taylor at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am
At Pebble Beach, 40-year-old Vaughn Taylor entered the week not having won on Tour in 11 years, and had not even eclipsed $600,000 in earnings since 2010. Despite all that, Taylor shot an incredible final round 65 to defeat Phil Mickelson by one stroke.
In his next seven tournaments after the Pebble victory, Taylor missed six cuts and posted a T64.
MOST UNEXPECTED WIN OF THE YEAR III
James Hahn at the Wells Fargo Championship
James Hahn could not have gone into the Wells Fargo Championship colder, having missed his previous EIGHT cuts. Battling a leaderboard with big names like Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, and Rory McIlroy near the top, Hahn finished -9 for the week and defeated Roberto Castro in a playoff for his second career victory.
After his unexpected win in North Carolina, Hahn would never finish inside the Top 40 for the remainder of the PGA TOUR’s regular season.
SHOWDOWN OF THE YEAR
Henrik Stenson vs Phil Mickelson at The Open Championship
As many great duels as there have been in PGA Tour history, this year’s unbelievable final round at The Open Championship is right up there among the best ever. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson absolutely annihilated the rest of the field with Stenson’s 10 birdies in the final round ultimately being the difference in his three-stroke victory.
Stenson’s 8-under 63 tied the major championship record, yet was still just marginally better than Mickelson’s bogey-free 65.
Illustrating how much better they were than the rest of the field, Stenson finished the tournament at -20 (which tied the major record for most strokes under par), Mickelson was -17, and third place was J.B. Holmes all the way back at -6.
It was an incredible show put on by two elite players at the top of their games. We may never see another one quite like it.
SHOWDOWN OF THE YEAR II
Patrick Reed vs Rory McIlroy at the Ryder Cup
It was the singles matchup the golf fans wanted to see, and it lived up to its hype and billing. For about an hour on the final Sunday of the Ryder Cup, as the leadoff match, Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed absolutely lit up the Hazeltine National golf course, and just about blew up the Internet.
The two superstars traded clutch birdies with a showmanship never seen before in professional golf. And it produced one of the most scintillating four-hole stretches of golf in modern history.
It was an instant classic while in progress, and the clips and memes will live on forever.
Reed defeated McIlroy 1-up, and gave the United States the jumpstart it needed to capture the Cup.
SHOWDOWN OF THE YEAR III
Brooke Henderson vs Lydia Ko at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship
The most exciting action of the LPGA season occurred at Seattle’s Sahalee Country Club in early June. 18-year-old Brooke Henderson, the world’s #2 ranked women’s golfer at the time defeated 19-year-old world #1 superstar Lydia Ko on the first playoff hole.
The Canadian-born Henderson made a series of clutch shots down the stretch, including a long birdie putt on 17 and a 12-foot par save on 18. She also executed the defining shot of the tournament: a pristine 155-yard 7 iron to within 3-feet on the first playoff hole. She tapped in for birdie while Ko’s birdie putt slid by the hole, securing her first career major victory.
It was a thrilling look into what could become the next great rivalry in women’s golf. As great as it was, it was nearly even better: Ariya Jutanugarn just barely missed getting into the playoff herself. It could have been the LPGA’s big three in sudden death at a major.
ROUND OF THE YEAR
Jim Furyk’s 58 at the Traveler’s Championship
Given the big stage, the stakes, the pressure, and accounting for the difficulty of the course, this could just as easily go to Henrik Stenson’s immaculate final round 63 at The Open Championship, or even to Phil Mickelson’s first round of that same tournament, which was less than an inch away from being the first ever 62 in a major.
But when somebody shoots the lowest round of all-time, it feels wrong to award this to someone else.
Most of Furyk’s year had been a struggle, as he missed months with a wrist injury, and couldn’t find much consistency after his return, but on that Saturday morning in early August at the Travelers’ Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut, everything went right.
Furyk, starting the final round in 70th place after a poor third round, caught fire almost immediately, going out in an unfathomable 27. With nothing to lose, he kept his foot on the accelerator early on the back nine, finishing the day with 10 birdies and an eagle for the new PGA Tour single-round record.
After birdies on 10, 11, and 12, a real feeling set in that this could be an all-time round. Playing the last six holes at even par would give him a 59, anything less than that would put him in uncharted territory. He birdied the par-3 16th and shot par on the rest leading to the 58 that could have been even lower.
PGA TOUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Dustin Johnson, who was named Player of the Year by the PGA Tour, left the door slightly open late in the year when he disappointed at the PGA Championship (missed cut after a round one 77) and in the final round of the Tour Championship, where his final round 73 allowed Rory McIlroy to overtake him for the FedEx Cup.
Still, barely else became a serious contender, and DJ takes this easily. It was a career year for the player who was already great. He came into the year having won at least one tournament in each of the past eight seasons, but this year he finally captured what we were all waiting for: his first major.
The man who had come agonizingly close so many times finally broke through at the U.S. Open, where he won by three strokes (amid much controversy) over Jim Furyk, Scott Piercy, and Shane Lowry. At -4, he was the only player in the field to finish multiple strokes under par. He also won two other tournaments: the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW Invitational.
DJ led the tour in top 10 finishes with 15 (the next closest was Patrick Reed with 11), and in earnings, where his $9.4 million was $1.3 million more than the #2 earner (Jason Day), and nearly $4 million more than his previous best season.
PGA TOUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR, RUNNER-UP
World #1 Jason Day was the only other player on Tour with three victories, but with none of those being in majors, he finishes second to DJ in this category.
Unfortunately for him, he had to withdraw from the Tour Championship in round 2 (after a round one 67) with a back injury. Going into the Tour Championship, he was #4 in the FedEx Cup Standings, so a win in that tournament would have meant winning the FedEx Cup.
Even still, Day had a tremendous year, with wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the WGC-Dell Match Play, and The Players Championship, and while he didn’t claim victory at a 2016 major, he finished in the top 10 in three of them, including a runner-up finish to Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship.
The 29-year-old Australian was far and away the best putter on Tour in 2016, and was second on Tour in scoring average (Dustin Johnson).
FAN-FRIENDLY PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston
One of the most exciting developments of the season was Englishman Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston entering the Web.com Finals and playing well enough to earn his 2017 PGA Tour Card.
The 27-year-old played mostly in Europe in 2016, but was in enough tournaments on the PGA Tour to instantly become one of the most beloved athletes in all of sports. Beef has a contagious upbeat personality and elicits laughter with basically everything he does. He is very engaging both online and in real life, and more than anyone on golf in recent years, Beef consistently goes above and beyond to make fans feel a part of the experience.
His exposure increased even further when he became a spokesman for Arby’s in what is one of the most apropos sponsorships of all-time, right up there with Charles Barkley and Weight Watchers, Bob Dole teaming up with Viagra, and Kiefer Sutherland doing spots for Jose Cuervo.
Beef isn’t just an awesome guy who happens to play golf: he is actually pretty good at it. He finished 8th at The Open Championship, playing in the second-to-last group on Sunday. He also won the European Tour’s Real Club Valderrama Open de Espana, and took solo third at the Omega European Masters.