Golf's biggest controversies of 2019
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The 2019 season in professional golf was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which being the year’s Big Three: The magnificence of Tiger Woods’ Masters victory, the dominating major performances of Brooks Koepka and the remarkable week-to-week consistency of PGA Tour player of the year Rory McIlroy.
But it was also a year filled with controversy, on the course and off it. Perhaps that was simply a product of the social-media times we live in, or a larger divisiveness that has become more pervasive in all areas of life. Whatever the reason is, has there ever been a year filled with so much drama?
So, as another year comes to a close, here’s a look at 14 of pro golf’s most controversial stories of 2019. Tis’ was the season, all right.
Caddiegate: Who would have thought golf’s version of Mr. Rogers (or so many believed) would see his otherwise sterling reputation called into question? It turns out no one likes a cheapskate, though, which is what Kooch (or Mooch as some galleries derisively called him) was branded after his victory at the Mayakoba Golf Classic last fall, when he paid just $5,000 of his $1.3 million winnings to the local caddie he used in the event, David (El Tucan) Ortiz. Once the news surfaced in January, the negative reaction caused Kuchar to eventually apologize and make El Tucan whole with $50,000 in total. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all? In the face of this (and another controversy we’ll get to), Kuchar put together one of the best seasons of his career with two wins, two runner-up finishes and more than $6 million in earnings.
The new Rules of Golf: USGA chief Mike Davis described the January rollout of the most sweeping changes to golf’s code in 60 years as “a huge success.” Players had a different initial take, however, as they struggled to adjust. Justin Thomas described them as “terrible.” Adam Scott said they were turning the game into a “laughing stock.” And Rickie Fowler made a mockery of the new drop procedure. Things grew uglier when the USGA got into a tweetspat with Thomas before the association relented. The noise from everyone eventually—and thankfully—subsided, but not before a few months of squabbling and consternation.
Slow play: If you remember the painstaking length of time it took J.B. Holmes to play his final round at Riviera (5½ hours!) more than his actual win at the Genesis Open, you wouldn’t be alone. It was yet another instance of slow play becoming a public lament for fans—and even fellow players. Holmes’ pedestrian ways resurfaced during the final round of the Open Championship, his playing partner (and outspoken slow-play critic) Brooks Koepka unable to (completely) hide his disgust. But Holmes’ methodical ways were overshadowed when video of Bryson DeChambeau’s dawdling at the Northern Trust went viral. Koepka once more went public with him anger about the issue, calling out DeChambeau by name, a rarity amongst the brotherhood. Both the PGA Tour and European Tour have plans to address the issue in 2020, but will it be enough for slow pokes to truly pick up the pace?
Saudi International: The European Tour’s decision to hold an event for the first time in Saudi Arabia set up its chief, Keith Pelley, and the players competing in the tournament—including World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, eventual winner Dustin Johnson and major champions Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose—for political blowback given the country’s suspect history on human rights. That the inaugural event took place just months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with his death linked to the Saudi government that he was critical of, only made the decision to play the event more perplexing to some. Tour officials and players said bringing golf to the country was a way to help grow the sport in the region, but that did little to quiet naysaysers, who had a new player to be upset with after Phil Mickelson announced in December he would be playing in the tournament when it’s held again in January 2020.
Sergio’s desert DQ: That a player would be disqualified from a golf tournament for “serious misconduct” generally requires, well, a “serious” bit of bad judgment. But that’s what Sergio Garcia displayed at the Saudi International. When golfers playing behind the Spaniard during the third round at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club accused Garcia of purposely damaging greens with his putter on several holes, the tour stepped in with the DQ. Garcia admitted to the act and apologized. Combined with video of him throwing a temper tantrum in a bunker the previous round, Garcia left the Middle East with his reputation battered.
Garcia vs. Kuchar: Amazingly, both men were involved in another maelstrom, this time at the WGC-Dell Match Play in March. Garcia and Kuchar met in the quarterfinals, where on the seventh hole at Austin Country Club, Garcia missed a short putt that Kuchar claims he would have conceded had Garcia given him time to do so. But Garcia moved too quickly to the ball, and a official said that the rules don’t allow for a putt to be given retroactively. The incident engendered bad blood when a few holes later Garcia suggested Kuchar concede a hole to “make things even.” Kuchar eventually won the match, and the two came out with an awkward video a few days later in which they claimed things were smoothed over. OK, then.
Brooks vs. Brandel: From calling Koepka’s weight loss ahead of his photo shoot for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue “reckless self-sabotage,” to questioning his toughness, to wondering if he is truly great, Chamblee might be most responsible for Koepka’s success in 2019 more than any workout or work he put in on the course. And if you’re looking for the spat’s true zenith, well this might be it:
Backstopping back in the spotlight: The practice of “backstopping” has been a much discussed issue on the PGA Tour, but the debate moved into the women’s game in February at the Honda LPGA Thailand. During the second round at Siam Country Club, Ariya Jutanugarn chipped her third shot to within a few feet of the hole on the par-5 18th, setting up a short birdie putt. Before Jutanugarn marked her ball, however, she waited as one of her playing partners, Amy Olson, facing a similar chip, went and played her shot. Olson’s chip wound up hitting Jutanugarn’s ball, a seemingly classic case of backstopping. Olson and Jutanugarn laughed and fist-bumped as they walked to the green, which only made things feel less coincidental. Both Olson and Jutanugarn are highly respected players on tour and each vigorously defended their actions, saying there was no purposeful intend side-step the Rules of Golf. The LPGA assessed no penalty, but the incident reignited the fierce discussion on whether the practice belongs in the game.
John Daly and a cart: Nothing quite says major championship like John Daly cruising around in a cart during the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, a smoke in one hand and a Diet Coke in the cupholder. The PGA of America approved Daly’s use for the cart, citing ADA laws. It was an image that didn’t fly with the R&A, which denied Daly the use of a cart for the Open Championship at Royal Portrush (different country, different laws), so he withdrew from the event.
Hank Haney: It was one thing for Hank Haney to be unaware the U.S. Women’s Open was being played in a particular week, or where it was being held, but things quickly spiraled on his SiriusXM PGA Tour radio show when he predicted that a Korean would win and followed with, “I couldn’t name you six players on the LPGA Tour. Maybe I could. Well … I’d go with ‘Lee,’ if I didn’t have to name a first name. I’d get a bunch of them right.” Haney, a longtime Golf Digest teaching professional, apologized shortly afterward for the comments but doubled down on Twitter, touting that he was “right” when South Korea’s Jeongeun Lee6 went on to victory at the Country Club of Charleston. Haney never returned to SiriusXM, starting a new program on iHeartRadio, and filed a lawsuit in December against the PGA Tour, alleging it harbored a “vendetta” against him.
Non-conforming drivers: This time it was the R&A at odds with a player, Xander Schauffele, when word got out that the 25-year-old’s driver had failed testing on Tuesday of the Open Championship. “The R&A, they pissed me off,” Schauffele said at the time, “because they attempted to ruin my image by not keeping this matter private. This is me coming out and treating them the exact way they treated me.” Never mind that it appeared Schauffele might have been the one to first mention to the press that his driver had failed the test. Schauffele’s was one of 30 drivers tested, and the episode was another ugly one between one of the game’s young stars and a governing body.
LPGA Q-Series advice problem: Kendall Dye claimed to be surprised to learn that she had violated Rule 10-2 for soliciting advice during the sixth round of LPGA Q-Series in November. On the tee of the par-3 17th hole at Pinehurst No. 9, Dye gestured to playing partner Dewi Weber’s caddie, Jacqueline Schram, to confirm what club Weber was hitting, something Dye claims is common on tour. But when the third player in their group, LPGA veteran Christina Kim, brought this up to a rules officials, Dye was hit with a two-stroke penalty. So was Weber, even though she was unaware of what happened, because of her caddie’s involvement in the matter. Somehow, though, it was Kim who seemed to receive the most criticism for her part in the affair, having to defending herself on social media by noting that players are responsible for knowing the rules and that it was her responsibility to protect the rest of the field.
Bio Kim suspension: It’s understandable that the 29-year-old South Korean was admonished by the Korean Tour when he made an obscene gesture to fans during the final round of the DGB Financial Group Volvik Daegu Gyeongbuk Open. But Kim, a former PGA Tour pro, didn’t get hit with some small fine. Rather he was suspended for three years for flipping off a fan whose cellphone camera shutter went off during his swing. Kim received plenty of support from those deeming the penalty too harsh, but in Korean culture such actions carry more gravity. Eventually the KPGA backed off but still suspended him for a year.
Patrick Reed vs. the sand: A year after embroiling himself in a Ryder Cup controversy, Reed was at it again, this time at the Hero World Challenge. During the third round, TV cameras showed Reed twice knocking away sand from behind his ball while taking a couple of practice swings in a waste bunker. Reed was penalized two strokes for improving the line of his stroke, but claimed he had no ill-intent and that the cameras caught him at a bad angle. This only fostered more negative chatter toward him. The controversy followed Reed the next week to the Presidents Cup in Australia, where the home team’s fans were relentless with their insults. Reed’s caddie, Kessler Karain, eventually got into an altercation with a fan, resulting in the looper being removed from the bag for Sunday’s singles matches—and providing one last controversy in a year littered with them.