Six burning questions entering the break
November 14, 2017
By Staff, PGATOUR.COM
JT reviews his FedExCup-winning season
The early stretch of the 2017-18 PGA TOUR season is nearly finished, as The RSM Classic marks the end of the fall schedule. After Sunday, the next time the pros will compete for FedExCup points at an official TOUR event will be the first week in January at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
Although some questions have already been answered -- yes, it looks like Justin Thomas is headed for another big year -- several other burning questions remain going into 2018. Our group of writers answer six of those questions (six being the number of Sundays without a TOUR winner being crowned).Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
JUSTIN VS. JORDAN
Will Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth have the better season in 2018?
By Mike McAllister
The first time Justin Thomas played against Jordan Spieth was in April of 2007 at Walnut Creek Country Club in Mansfield, Texas, less than an hour from Spieth’s hometown of Dallas. It was the AJGA’s inaugural Junior All-Star event, and the 13-year-old Spieth was making his first AJGA start. He won by five strokes. Thomas finished in a three-way tie for second – and has been playing catch-up ever since.
It took 10 years but Thomas finally seems on equal footing with his good friend, fellow Class of 2011 star and summer break buddy. His breakthrough 2016-17 PGA TOUR season, in which he won the FedExCup and his first major while being named the Player of the Year after a five-win season, bested Spieth’s three-win season that included a third major title.
For the first time since they both turned pro, there is no clear-cut consensus on which golfer will have the most success.
Spieth, of course, has the better career numbers. In 119 TOUR starts, he has 11 wins, 13 seconds and 52 top 10s. He wins at a rate of once in every 10.8 starts. Thomas, meanwhile, has made 94 TOUR starts, with seven wins, one second and 28 tops. His success rate is once every 13.4 starts.
Having reached the elite level, Thomas must deal with the fallout – the increased expectations, additional media demands, higher scrutiny. Getting there is one thing. Staying there is an altogether different – and tougher – challenge.
It’s the same situation Spieth faced two years ago after his 2014-15 season that included five wins, two majors and the FedExCup title. Spieth won twice on TOUR the following season but was often questioned if he considered it a disappointment. Thomas admits this new season will be a challenge. He said he plans to ask legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods how they stacked one successful year on top of another. He also may reach out to Spieth.
“Those are the only people I know that have had success in one season multiple times, and they’ve had to deal with resetting their goals and re-evaluating,” Thomas said.
He’s off to a good start, having won in Korea. But Spieth wasn’t in that field. It won’t be until 2018 that they’ll face each other in an official TOUR event.
And when they do, who’ll have the better season? Well, Spieth enters with a sustained track record, but Thomas has more momentum. Perhaps it’s just easier to imagine them splitting the TOUR’s biggest treasures in the regular season and letting the FedExCup decide the winner at the tape.
Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (Photo by Russ Kinnaird/Getty Images)
After a winless 2017, will Rory McIlroy and Jason Day end their droughts in 2018?
By Ben Everill
Heading into 2017, the notion of Rory McIlroy and Jason Day failing to win anywhere in the world was downright laughable.
You might have believed at an absolute stretch that one of the former World No. 1s could have a rough year. But both? Come on.
Yet this is exactly what transpired … albeit both certainly had their excuses.
The 2016 FedExCup champion McIlroy suffered a rib injury early in the season, forcing him out of action. The lingering affects continued all year.
Despite the problems, his 14-start season on the PGA TOUR yielded six top-10s, two of them in majors and three of them in World Golf Championships events. But we never really saw him seriously contending.
Day started the year as the top-ranked player in the world, having won eight PGA TOUR events in the last two seasons. But his usual competitive fire was missing -- and we found out why in an emotional revelation of his mother’s cancer diagnosis in March.
His motivation to play had waned – he wanted to be with his mother instead. By the time things picked up for her, Day’s game had suffered just enough to put him behind the 8-ball.
Just five top-10s came on the season. He probably should’ve won at the AT&T Byron Nelson – he had the lead with three holes to play but eventually lost in a playoff to Billy Horschel.
Now he’s almost certain to end 2017 outside the world top 10.
So let’s now look to 2018? Can we expect rebound years from the pair, or are they already heading into the back nine of their careers?
Day just turned 30 and as such, is officially out of the young gun’s club. McIlroy is 28, so he can take over the father figure position of the 20-somethings group, currently led by Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, that’s taking the game by storm.
Interestingly, they’ve both moved on from career caddies and decided to put friends on the bag (see question 5 below). Whether this proves astute or not is still up in the air.
The bottom line is if they are to return to the winner's circle, the hunger must be there. They are going to need to want to work as hard, if not harder, than they ever have before.
McIlroy is newly married. Will family life become a factor? Will the off-season provide his troublesome rib with enough rest?
Day’s wife Ellie is pregnant again with their third child. Will this limit the vigor in which he can apply himself to his craft?
They don’t like losing. The last time McIlroy found himself in a season like this, he went to Australia late in the year, won the Australian Open, and then won two majors the following season.
Coincidentally Day’s only start left in 2017 is the upcoming Australian Open.
So, I’ll go out on a limb and say they will indeed find their form – in fact at least one of them will win a major and both will contend heavily for the FedExCup.
Tiger Woods. (Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images)
After another lost year, what can we really expect from Tiger?
By Helen Ross
February 2nd is a few months away, but when it comes to Tiger Woods, it already feels like Groundhog Day.
Here we are again, about to enter the holiday break between the fall portion of the schedule and the new year, and we don’t know whether Tiger Woods will compete – much less contend – on a regular basis. It’s the third consecutive year an air of uncertainty surrounds his schedule.
Yes, he will be in the field at his Hero World Challenge in December, but beyond that? Who knows. In 2016, his only appearance was at the Hero. He was 15th among the 17 finishers, then made two early starts in 2017 before undergoing spinal fusion surgery that has kept him sidelined ever since.
That operation followed a series of three microdiscectomies on his chronically painful back, the first performed in the spring of 2014. Since that time, Woods has played in just 16 tournaments and the proud winner of 79 PGA TOUR titles has just one top-10.
As recently as the Presidents Cup, where Woods resurfaced as an assistant to victorious U.S. Captain Steve Stricker, he said he didn’t know what his future holds. He also said he was in “no hurry.” But in a recent – and lengthy -- podcast with Geno Auriemma, Woods was decidedly upbeat, telling the UConn women’s basketball coach he feels “really good in the fact that my back’s not aching, my legs are starting to come back and my overall golf fitness is starting to come around.” Woods also said he was surprised at how far he’s hitting the ball.
The spotlight will shine brightly on him in the Bahamas. But we shouldn’t read too much into his performance – good or bad -- there. He just got the OK to start hitting full shots in October, after all, and walking four rounds could be a challenge, although a healthy Woods’ fitness is never in question.
If all goes well, we’ll see a more prepared Woods teeing it up at Torrey Pines in January. But even there, where he’s won eight tournaments, Woods deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t expect his schedule to vary much from previous years. He’ll be at THE PLAYERS Championship and in the majors as a past champion, regardless of what happens in 2018. That said, his world ranking, which has slipped to 1184th after he spent a record 683 weeks at No. 1, would keep him out of the World Golf Championships, where he has racked up 18 wins.
Whether Woods will be a factor when he plays in 2018 remains to be seen. He is nothing if not determined, and the 42-year-old is more focused than any competitor this side of Jack Nicklaus. For all his positive talk, though, no one can predict whether that back that has been repeatedly surgically repaired will hold up. Only time will tell.
Remember, though, as recently as 2013, Woods won five times. He has goals – Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors looms large, as does Sam Snead’s all-time TOUR win total of 83. Of the two, Snead’s mark seems more in the realm of possibility given Woods’ track record on certain PGA TOUR courses, as well as the unlikely odds of winning four majors after the age of 40.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just let Woods play.
U.S. Team at Presidents Cup. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
STARS AND STRIPES
Has American golf -- and its future -- ever been stronger?
By Sean Martin
The United States can claim the reigning FedExCup champion, as well as the top three players in the Official World Golf Ranking. It’s also the first season since 2003 that three separate Americans won major championships, with 27-year-old Brooks Koepka the oldest member of that trio.
For just the second time since 1994, the American team has been victorious for three consecutive years in the Presidents and Ryder Cups (by a combined margin of 51-1/2 – 36-1/2). The United States’ dominance last month at Liberty National – it beat the International Team, 19-11, after nearly clinching the Presidents Cup on Saturday – had many American fans salivating for next year’s Ryder Cup, when the U.S. will try to win on European soil for the first time in a quarter-century.
These are exciting times for American golf fans, but it is too soon to call this the heyday of American golf. Don’t let this bit of honesty damper your enthusiasm, though. This cohort of young Americans is easy to cheer for, as they’re not only charismatic but delivering in golf’s biggest championships. That’s a difficult combination. Our most popular players usually err on one side of that spectrum.
But let’s not let recent success rob of us of our sense of context. After all, the United States won 33 of the 40 majors played in the 1970s. Arnie and Jack were dominant in the 1960s, and the Great Triumvirate (Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead) starred in the 1950s.
Just imagine what it would have been like if Twitter had been around during those fruitful times.
Of course, golf is a global game now, so the great players of yesteryear weren’t facing nearly as many international challengers as today’s players. And time could prove me wrong. We could be sitting at the 2043 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony and fondly recalling this golden age of American competition, when Spieth and Thomas dueled for decades with a handful of their high-school friends.
But for now, it is way too early to compare this era to the heydays of players such as Palmer and Nicklaus or Hogan and Snead.
As it always does, time will tell. We’re in for some great times ahead. It’s just too early to call them the greatest.
Tim and Phil Mickelson (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Is the buddy/bro-on-the-bag thing trending on TOUR?
By Cameron Morfit
Reporters hovered close by as Jason Day finished his Wednesday pro-am round at the BMW Championship in September. He was going to speak to why he’d split with his caddie, coach and father figure, Col Swatton, and surely, the thinking went, Day had been inspired by the summer splits between Rory McIlroy and J.P. Fitzgerald, and Phil Mickelson and Jim (Bones) Mackay.
Was there a trend afoot?
Day said the decision was all his, adding that he would put his old golf academy roommate, Luke Reardon, on the bag, which sounded familiar. McIlroy was already trying out the best man in his wedding, Harry Diamond. Mickelson’s new caddie was his brother, Tim.
The breakups were surprising and newsy, but as tempting as it is to connect the three high-profile splits, and use it as supporting evidence for a trend going into 2018, it’s not that simple.
Mickelson is near the end of his career, and Mackay, after a double knee-replacement, now carries a one-pound microphone for Golf Channel. As for McIlroy and Day, two former No. 1s, they were simply going through a lot of off-course stuff, good and bad, at the same time. Both said they didn’t want work relationships to poison personal ones and both reached for friends to temporarily take the bag. And none of the three was doing anything all that new.
Brothers and buddies have always been caddies, whether temporary or permanent, the best examples of the permanent kind being Austin Johnson (brother of Dustin) and Joe Skovron (childhood friend of Rickie Fowler). And veterans can often do well regardless of caddie if they know the course. Mickelson went 3-0-1 at the Presidents Cup at Liberty National, where he is a member. Day finished fourth at the BMW at Conway Farms, where he had won in 2015. And a reasonably smart trolley could probably caddie for Rory McIlroy at Quail Hollow.
But even they would admit that when it comes time to learn a new course; or play for your country; and/or history hangs in the balance as the blimp circles overhead and the cameras move in for a close-up, a seasoned pro on the bag is the way to go.
Brooks Koepka. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Will the number of players without an equipment contract increase?
By Jonathan Wall
The beginning of January is usually reserved for the unveiling of new equipment signings. That will once again be the case as the calendar turns to 2018, with Sergio Garcia rumored to be on the move to Callaway following a 15-year stint with TaylorMade.
No doubt others will follow Garcia's lead and sign elsewhere in the coming months, but a bigger equipment storyline to watch may be the players who decided to forego a 13- or 14-club contract for the opportunity to sign separate club agreements (woods, irons, golf ball) — or forego a deal altogether.
Nike's departure from the hard-goods industry at the end of 2016 altered the equipment signing landscape in professional golf and turned some high-profile names (Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau, Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood) into free agents.
While McIlroy and Woods signed on elsewhere, a small contingent, headlined by Koepka, opted to forego a new landing spot and bet on themselves. Koepka, along with Finau and Fleetwood, cashed in with career years, finishing the 2016-17 TOUR season inside the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking without club contracts.
With the equipment endorsement pie shrinking — the contraction is mostly due to Nike's exit and TaylorMade's acquisition by private equity firm KPS Capital Partners — some players are at least entertaining the idea of playing without an equipment deal.
Chris Kirk recently cut ties with PXG at the beginning of the 2017-18 season to play a mixed bag of clubs without a club contract; it's possible others follow his lead in the coming month as deals expire.
Full bag deals will remain the norm for a majority of golf's best and brightest, but similar to a popular equipment trend that generates additional interest on TOUR, players are starting to take notice of the former Swoosh equipment trio.
For those with apparel deals or other sources of income, it's no longer necessary to sign on the dotted line with an equipment manufacturer. Now that others have proven that winning without a club deal is possible, don't be surprised if it turns into an equipment trend in 2018.