2018 Year In Review

Tiger, "Big Mama" and a firefighter: The 15 best feel-good golf stories of 2018

On TV the other morning, a group of talking heads were squawking how 2018 "was the worst." You don't have to travel too far down any news site or social feed to see similar sentiments, sentiments which are embedded in harsh truths. But while the negativity can feel suffocating at times, there were plenty of bright spots this year too, particularly from the world of golf. From a firefighter who turned into a folk hero to a 79-year-old legend holding her own at a USGA event to the return of a certain 14-time major winner, here are, in no particular order, the 15 best feel-good golf stories of 2018.


A firefighter's 15 minutes of fame

A firefighter's 15 minutes of fame
Matt Parziale's story—a former mini-tour player turned firefighter—surfaced following his victory at the U.S. Mid-Amateur last fall. His tale stood out in a sport filled with sameness, transforming the 31-year-old into a folk hero by the time he reached Augusta National. And because the USGA awarded the Mid-Am champ a spot in the U.S. Open field for the first time, Parziale received another cup of coffee at Shinnecock. Though he had a quick exit at the Masters, he made the most of his U.S. Open bid, reaching the weekend and finishing a respectable T-48 to share low-amateur honors.

Korda wins after surgery

Korda wins after surgery
Last December, Jessica Korda underwent an elaborate procedure on her jaw, one aimed to eliminate painful, chronic headaches she had suffered for years. The surgery required her nose and jaw to be broken and 27 screws placed to reset the bones, sidelining her off-season and likely keeping her on the DL for the beginning of 2018. Except, in her first start of the new campaign (and still unable to feel part of her face), Korda rolled the field at the LPGA's Honda Thailand event, winning by four shots. "Coming in after surgery I didn't know what to expect,” said Korda after the win. “I didn't know how I was going to be received. Obviously when I look at myself I still don't feel like I look like myself yet. That will come. I'm just very, very happy. All the hard work I was putting in in the off-season when I could has paid off rather quickly.”
On the eve of his Augusta debut, Tony Finau made a hole-in-one during the Par 3 Contest, only to suffer injury—specifically, a dislocated ankle—while celebrating, putting his Masters in doubt. But not only did Finau tee it up on Thursday, he found himself on the leader board thanks to a four-under 68. Finau, not a man prone to self-promotion, called the performance "nothing short of a miracle."

Golfer wrongly convicted set free

Valentino Dixon, a man wrongly imprisoned for murder, was set free after his charge was vacated. Dixon came to prominence for golf illustrations he drew in his prison cell, which led to a Golf Digest profile. Through the piece, GD's Max Adler discovered Dixon's true story, one of innocence and a flawed judicial system, and Adler, along with the efforts of a group of undergraduate students from Georgetown University, were able to right this wrong.

Montana lifts spectator ban on high-school golf

Last year we relayed the plight of Montana parents, who, due to a state rule, were unable to watch their children golf. That ban was lifted in September, as the Montana High School Association introduced a rule on a trial bias allowing non-competitors to be on the course.

Big Mama turns back the clock

JoAnne Carner's legacy was well intact when she arrived at Chicago Golf Club for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open, but the player known as "Big Mama" left the Windy City by augmenting her legend status. Carner, who won the U.S. Open in 1971 and 1976, birdied the 18th hole to shoot 79, her age, in her opening round. Not bad for someone who hadn't walked a golf course in 15 years.

One heck of a bounce back

Scott Gregory won the British Amateur in 2016, but his name was in headlines for the wrong reasons in June after the then-23-year-old shot an opening-round 22-over 92 at Shinnecock. "It’s all a bit of a blur,” Gregory said afterwards. "I gave it everything I had. I’m not one to give up. I just tried to keep plugging away. I just couldn’t get driver in the fairway and it spiraled out of control." But Gregory didn't stay down for long. In November, he made it through three stages of qualifying to finish T-11 at European Tour Q-School, earning his tour card for next season. “It’s been a tough year with injury, and I didn’t have my best day at the U.S. Open,” Gregory said after. “I probably came under some unfair criticism, so to do this not only proves it to myself but it proves it to them. It keeps a lot of people quiet."

Venerable vets return to the winner's circle

It had been some time since Kevin Na and Charles Howell III hit paydirt; for Na seven years, and more than a decade for Howell. Na broke through at the Greenbrier, tearing up afterwards when thanking his family, friends and country for their support, while Chuckie Three Sticks got his W in a Sea Island playoff. Howell, who's been knocked for his lack of career victories, emotionally summed up the feat: "My kids are now at an age where they’re into it. They’re into sports, they’re into golf and all that. They get what’s going on, that I’ve failed a lot of times, so fortunately, it’s different today.”
Lexi Thompson's life has been a roller coaster ride the past year, battling demons both inside the ropes and out. But following a brief summer sabbatical (where she said she wasn't happy playing golf) and admission of body-image struggles, Thompson won the CME Group Tour Championship in November, on the same green where a missed two-footer lost her the event a season before. "To be able to end the year like this and just keep on fighting throughout the whole year has meant the world to me," Thompson said. "Just shows anything is possible. You have to fight through whatever you're going through."

Pro earns status after clubs stolen

Cody Blick needed to jump 34 spots in the final round of Q-School to earn Web.com Tour status. A challenge daunting in itself, especially so after Blick's equipment was stolen following the third round. All Blick did is turn in a Sunday 63, highlighted by a back-nine 31, a score that vaulted him into the 25 to grab guaranteed starts next season. Not bad, given the borrowed set in tow. "Hitting bad shots was OK, almost, like, 'Dude, I have a mismatched set. It’s not expected of me to hit good shots,'" Blick said. "In a weird way, that was comforting.” Sorry Johnny Miller, but there's a new best all-time 63 in town.
Lara Tennant, 51, won the U.S. Senior Women's Amateur this fall in Vero Beach, Fla., knocking off Australia’s Sue Wooster in the 18-hole final, 3 and 2. But Tennant gained attention not for her win but who it was shared with, as her 78-year-old father, George Mack Sr., was her caddie for the event. “It’s been such a blessing to have him here, and it’s amazing to share this experience with my dad,” Tennant said. “That was a joy, but also so helpful, because we hit the ball about the same distance, especially with our irons, so he clubbed me perfectly."
Following a career season in 2015, Sangmoon Bae was forced to put his clubs away, obligated to serve a two-year military commitment to his native South Korea. He returned in the fall of 2017 on a PGA Tour exemption, but the rust in his game was clear with just five made cuts in 17 starts. He also battled a wrist injury throughout the summer. However, he showed signs of life in the Web.com Tour Finals, posting a T-6 at the DAP Championship before capturing the Boise Open, a win the returned his tour card.

76th time is a charm

Angela Stanford was able to shake off the ignominious "best player to never win a major" LPGA label at the Evian Championship. The 41-year-old Texan, who has played 18 years on tour, won in her 76th major start, which is believed to be a record. "It's the one thing I couldn't get my hands on. I'm not letting go now," said Stanford, clutching the trophy in her post-win interview.

Garrett Rank makes U.S. Open debut

An amateur qualifying for the U.S. Open is newsworthy. Rank's story goes much deeper than the "A" next to his name, as he's a full-time NHL official. More impressively, Rank battled and beat testicular cancer back in 2011. Rank, who was a medalist at his sectional qualifier, missed the cut but did get to play on the weekend, serving as marker for Andrew "Beef" Johnston.
This went under the radar, but Tiger Woods returned after a lengthy absence from competitive golf. All the 42-year-old did was almost win the claret jug and Wanamaker while claiming his first tournament in five years at the Tour Championship.