Year in Review
19 quotes that sum up the highs, lows and in-betweens of the year in golf
There’s no shortage of end-of-year-lists. They’re an Internet rite of passage, it seems. This very website has recapped 2021 in golf through the lens of Newsmakers, memes, comebacks, controversies and things you forgot happened altogether. But as far as conveying meaning and significance, words remain the gold standard. This, then, is our opportunity to tell the story of the golf year without slant or opinion—straight from the horse’s mouth. These 19 quotes serve as a time capsule for another wild year in the game we love so much.
“It’s embarrassing. That’s not me and it’s inexcusable. There’s no excuse. I’m an adult and there’s no place for that. It doesn’t matter who you are, no one’s above that. I have no excuse.” —Justin Thomas, Jan. 9
Thomas uttered a homophobic slur during the third round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, plunging golf into a controversy during its first tournament of the new year. Thomas expressed genuine contrition immediately following the mistake but was dropped his main sponsor, Polo Ralph Lauren. Thomas announced the passing of his grandfather Paul, whom he was very close with, less than a month later—a trying time for one of the game’s young stars. In March, he turned the page on a turbulent start to the year by winning the Players Championship.
"It's an unfortunate situation, obviously but at the end of the day when you finish a round, and the head rules official comes up to you and has the video and shows everything that went down to the whole group and says that you've done this perfectly, you did this the exact right way, the protocols you did were spot on—at that point, I feel great about it." —Patrick Reed, Jan. 31
It may feel like a decade ago, but Reed’s latest rules imbroglio did indeed fall in 2021. On Saturday of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Reed claimed his second shot on the par-4 10th embedded into the wet turf, which would entitle him to a free drop. The only problem is, television cameras quite clearly showed the ball bouncing in the rough, which would’ve made it virtually impossible for the ball to embed. Reed also picked up the ball before calling a rules official, so the official wasn’t able to see the lie before making a determination. By the letter of the Rules book, Reed did not break any rules (players are allowed to determine on their own if a ball is embedded or not) and was not penalized. He went on to win the tournament by five shots with a breathtaking short-game display, but all anyone wanted to talk about were his active fingers. People simply don’t forget.
“We’re entering into the solution phase from an equipment-standards standpoint. This is the first step in re-engaging the manufacturing community in looking at possible solutions for the long-term distance challenges that the game is facing.” —Thomas Pagel, Feb. 2
The latest update in the USGA and R&A’s drawn-out crusade against distance dropped in early February, when officials but signaled an intention to roll back equipment. Predictably, the news did not sit well with PGA Tour pros, with Rory McIlroy calling the Distance Insights Report a “waste of money” and Justin Thomas throwing his support behind equipment companies: “I think it would be extremely selfish of the USGA and the R&A to do that because of all the hard work that [the manufacturers] have put into making their equipment and golf balls as great as they possibly can.” In October, the governing bodies announced a rule limiting driver shafts to 46 inches, a two-inch decrease from the previous limit.
“Tiger was involved in a single-car accident earlier this morning in California. He has undergone a long surgical procedure on his lower right leg and ankle after being brought to the hospital.” —Tiger Woods’ Twitter account, Feb. 23
An otherwise sleepy Tuesday morning turned into a horror show when the news of Woods’ horrific car accident dropped. Woods had given CBS a sobering interview the day before—he didn’t look great and told Jim Nantz that he didn’t know when he might return from back surgery—but this marked the darkest day in the saga of Woods’ career. He’d stay in a Los Angeles-area hospital for three weeks before returning to his South Florida home, where he was on a bedrest in a hospital-type bed for months thereafter. Forget golf; the entire sporting community was relieved that the icon was still alive.
“This is a monumental win for me, one I’ve thought about for a long time.” —Jordan Spieth, April 4
The first signs that the Jordan Spieth of old was about to return came in Phoenix, when he holed everything he looked at in shooting a dizzying third-round 61 only to fade on Sunday. A T-3 at the following week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am suggested it was only a matter of time until golf’s most curious winless streak expired. It happened in his home state, at the Valero Texas Open, nearly four years since his last victory and one week before Augusta. Spieth would post top-five finishes in both the Masters and Open Championship and has regained his place among the world’s elite. How is it possible that this man is still two years short of his 30th birthday?!
“I was thankful.” —Shota Hayafuji, April 22
Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie explained to Golf.com the bow seen ‘round the world. Hayafuji’s gesture proved the signature moment of his boss’ monumental victory, which provided the golf-mad nation of Japan its first male major champion. He was grateful for the moment, and he expressed his gratitude in a distinctly Japanese manner.
“Although I believed it, until I actually did it, there was a lot of doubt. Certainly one of the moments I'll cherish my entire life.” —Phil Mickelson, May 23
It’s not just that Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship to become golf’s oldest-ever major champion; it’s that he won it out of freakin’ nowhere. He’d gone 17 events without even a top-20 finish, dropped outside the top 115 on World Ranking and entered the week at 300/1 to win the title. After a strong opening round, you figured he’d fade on Friday. He threatened to run away with the thing on Saturday afternoon, but it felt like a fever dream. Surely final-round pressure and playing with Mr. Major Alpha Male, Brooks Koepka, would do him in. Clock would strike midnight. Right? No sir. This time, Father Time finished second.
“I lost my train of thought hearing that bulls*@%.” —Brooks Koepka, May 24
Phil’s time in the sun lasted exactly one day. On the Monday following the PGA Championship at Kiawah, a rogue video surfaced on social media showing Koepka rolling his eyes and growing extremely annoyed as Bryson DeChambeau walked by during an interview with Golf Channel. This threw gasoline on a long-simmering feud between golf’s jock and golf’s nerd. The beef would dominate headlines throughout the summer and culminated with a made-for-TV match in Las Vegas—a fitting end to a distinctly modern rivalry that played out almost exclusively on social media.
“I have just confirmed it through the PGA Tour that Jon Rahm has tested positive for COVID-19.” —Dottie Pepper, June 5
It was the nightmare scenario for the PGA Tour, the worst series of events possible once golf returned from its COVID hiatus. What would happen if a player, leading the tournament, tested positive the night before the final round? We found out: He’d be forced to withdraw. Rahm led by six shots after a stellar third-round 64 at the Memorial. He was waltzing to a huge title and brimming with confidence until he was given the news on live television. A truly surreal scene. Rahm quarantined and received clearance to play just in time for the U.S. Open, which he won for his first major championship victory. What a roller coaster.
“I get LPGA? Are you kidding me?” —Yuka Saso, June 6
As Lexi Thompson struggled on the back nine Sunday at Olympic Club, Saso at 19-year-old from the Philippines, held steady to join Inbee Park as the youngest-ever winners of the U.S. Women’s Open. This moment, caught by a cellphone camera after the life-changing victory, perfectly conveyed Saso’s unassuming nature—she legitimately had no idea that winning perhaps the biggest title in women’s golf gave her playing privileges on the LPGA Tour. On that chilly afternoon in San Francisco, a star was born.
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images
“I think the biggest thing right now that I'm trying to do is enjoy myself again and just take care of myself really. I love these fans and I want to play well for them, but right now I'm just really trying to be happy and I, like I said, I live a great life and I want to enjoy it.” —Matthew Wolff, June 17
Mental health emerged from the shadows in 2021 to become a frequent topic of conversation in the world of sport. Its main champion in golf, at least in the men’s game, came via an unlikely source: a 21-year-old kid with the world at his fingertips. Matt Wolff finished top five in both his first two major championship starts, and his sui generis swing and ebullient personality quickly made him one of the more popular players on PGA Tour. But by late spring, Wolff was clearly struggling. It wasn’t anything outwardly visible, but that didn’t make his injury any less real or any less painful. Wolff stepped away from the game for two months to address a simple goal: His happiness. His decision to take a break drew praise from his peers and commentators alike.
“At 24 years old, it's so hard to look back at the two short years that I have been a pro and see what I've done because I want more. I enjoy these moments and I love it, and I want to teach myself to embrace it a little more, maybe spend a few extra days and sit back and drink out of this. But I want to—yeah, I just want more.” —Collin Morikawa, July 18
On a sun-soaked afternoon in Sandwich, Collin Morikawa accomplished something that Tiger or Jack never could: his Open Championship victory made him the first player ever to win two of golf’s four major championships in his first try. The win came a week after his maiden foray into links golf, a frustrating trip to Scotland that saw the best iron player in the world struggle to find the center of the face. A last-minute equipment tweak did the trick, and Morikawa’s second major sent a shiver down the spine of his competitors for the manner in which he won it: with his putter, which had previously been his Kryptonite.
"I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit's definitely bitten me and I'm excited how this week's turned out and excited for the future.” —Rory McIlroy, Aug. 1
Five years after Zika sucked the fun out of golf’s return to the Olympics, another, more infamous virus threw a wrench in proceedings once again. A number of top players opted against making the trip to the COVID-delayed games in Tokyo, and the ones that did—including McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, the eventual gold medalist—expressed ambivalence toward restrictions. There was hardly any buzz … until the tournament started. Something about national pride seems to always ratchet up intensity, and Sunday’s battle took on a major-like feel. McIlroy’s comments after the tournament finished (and he’d nearly won a bronze medal) captured the new mood: the Olympics were awesome, and I can’t believe I almost didn’t come. Something tells us Paris will be a star-studded affair.
"I think, unfortunately, it might be a symptom of a larger problem, which is social-media driven and which is potentially Player Impact Program derived. I think when you have people that go for attention-seeking maneuvers, you leave yourself potentially open to having the wrong type of attention, and I think maybe that's where we're at it, and it may be a symptom of going for too much attention.” —Patrick Cantlay, Sept. 1
This was part of a much longer, highly impressive answer to a question about fans heckling Bryson Dechambeau. Cantlay shot to stardom this year not just with his play on the course, but also his mild-mannered, introspective musings. His assessment of the PGA Tour’s controversial Player Impact Program perfectly summed up the dangers of such an endeavor. He won the FedEx Cup five days later, and for one week at least, this was Patrick Cantlay’s world.
“It's probably one of the best European teams I think I've seen. They're just really, really a lot of great putters—not good putters, great putters—and when it's tight like that, it's a putt or two here and there.” —Stacy Lewis, Sept. 6
More often than not, match play comes down to who’s making putts and who isn’t. At the Solheim Cup at Inverness, the answer to that question was clear: Europe. The visitors made the putts, the home Americans missed them, and so the underdogs pulled off an upset on enemy soil. Catriona Matthew pressed all the right buttons in sending her best players out first in singles, preventing the U.S. from gaining momentum and getting the crowd involved.
“I woke up this morning and I was trying to tell the guys, let’s get to 20 points. Because this is going to be the next era of Ryder Cup teams for the U.S. side. We’ve got a lot of young guys, and I think they’ll be on teams for a long time. I wanted to send a message.” —Patrick Cantlay, Sept. 26
The U.S. entered the Ryder Cup as the prohibitive favorites on paper. But that’s been the case plenty of times before, and World Ranking disparities haven’t seemed to bother European teams of years past. But this American side was full of new blood, of young players unburdened by a decade of losing. Simply winning wasn’t enough; they wanted to sow existential dread in their aging opponents. Mission accomplished. A 19-9 whipping at Whistling Straits made for the most lopsided Ryder Cup under this current format, and all the sudden its Europe that must take a long, hard look at its Ryder Cup ecosystem.
“On course, the top guys don’t get enough. Look, I’m not selling a single ticket. Maybe to a couple buddies, but I probably gave them free tickets anyway. I’m not bringing anyone here. I’m not adding a ton of value outside of maybe some Twitter stuff. The top guys who actually move the needle, who get people to watch, absolutely do not make enough.” —Joel Dahmen, Nov. 3
The PGA Tour’s challengers—yes, plural, for there is Greg Norman’s LIV Golf Investments and the Premier Golf League—have shined a light on the tour’s payment structure. What Norman in particular hope to exploit is the tour’s debatably outdated payment structure, which rewards Tiger Woods the same as Joel Dahmen the same money for finishing eighth. Dahmen thinks that’s ludicrous, and the Tour has begun to concede to the stars’ wishes by establishing the PIP and reportedly kicking around an idea for a newer, richer version of the World Golf Championships.
“I told my mom, I was like, I’m going to be third wheeling with the two. I might be third in the race to CME, but I feel like I’m 100 compared to them … I think it’s seldom that there are two that have had a year like they did.” —Lydia Ko, November 17
Ko speaks of Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko, who put distance between themselves and everyone else in the women’s game this year. Both entered the year-end CME Group Tour Championship with four wins, only for Ko to jut her nose out in front at the finish line with a fifth and final victory to close the season. Korda, however, won the gold at the Olympics and was the lone golfer named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.
“Making progress.” —Tiger Woods, Nov. 21
Woods dropped a video of him flushing a short iron, and the golf world lost its mind. This was the first evidence—apart from grainy, Bigfoot-like photos of him—that Woods had even considered resuming golf activities after his accident. Turns out, he was way further along than anyone could’ve imagined. The following week, he was seen hitting balls four times during the Hero World Challenge and committed to competing alongside his son at PNC Championship on Dec. 18. Woods might still be a ways away from playing a PGA Tour event, but all signs point toward an eventual return. Which, given the images that surfaced post-crash, is downright remarkable.