PGA TourNovember 19, 2018

The reign of Koepka, golf's new Champ and something involving Tiger and Phil: 8 things you missed this fall

WGC - HSBC Champions - Day Two
Andrew Redington(Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The PGA Tour schedule features 46 tournaments in a 52-week span. That itinerary lends itself to distinct cadences; on this spectrum, the fall series is genuinely considered a time of hibernation. Most fans check out, their attention captured by other sports. Ditto for the game's elite players. This period, or anything of it, barely registers in golf's zeitgeist.

Yet that's not how things shook out in 2018.

This autumn delivered on a weekly basis with storylines and stars and "Did you see that?!" moments in every connotation. There was a new No. 1, the introduction of a disrupter, and mounting evidence that something's severely off with one of golf's premier attractions. Even a handful of off-the-course matters managed to make a blip on the radar. (Tearfully pours out a 40 for Johnny.) But in case you have tuned out the past two months, here are eight things you missed from the PGA Tour's fall season:

The reign of Brooks is upon us

Is there anything more apropos than Brooks Koepka, a player who’s built a career off disrespect, both perceived and real, becoming No. 1 in the world while America was asleep? That, my friends, is staying on brand.

Unfortunately, this narrative—along with the notion his victories were second-page items to other headlines (the Saturday set-up at Shinnecock, Tiger’s run at Bellerive)—have blinded us from a more extensive, profound question: Where does Koepka go from here? Three majors in six starts (remember, he missed Augusta with injury) is rarefied territory; that he has nine other top-15 finishes in majors signals it’s more than a heater.

Though those results should convey this sentiment, it bears mentioning: Koepka is more than a muscle-bound bomber. An “unflappable mind-set” and “cold-blooded” sound like uninspired commentary, but it shows in the stats, where he ranks ninth in scrambling, 20th in bogey avoidance and first in final-round scoring. Few are better in approach from the fairway (fifth in proximity) or far from the pin (second in approaches from 200+ yards), and he’s one of the better long-distance putters on tour (13th in putts longer than 25 feet).

In a curious way, Koepka winning the CJ Cup, away from the bustle that clouded his majors, provided a sense of clarity of his present, and more importantly, future. Koepka, Justin Rose and others will play hot potato with the No. 1 ranking in the upcoming months—Rose took it back again on Sunday by .0012 points—but there’s no doubting who the best player in golf is. Don’t expect that reign to be short-lived.

Sadiq Asyraf/AFP/Getty Images)

Fall is the new Spring

The advent of the wrap-around schedule was supposed to strengthen fall events. For the better part of its inception, that’s been more aspirational than reality, with Web.com Tour graduates filling tournament fields while bigger names stayed at home. No offense to the following, but the winners from the 2014-'15 autumn slate aren’t exactly a murderer’s row:

Sangmoon Bae
Ben Martin
Robert Streb
Ryan Moore
Nick Taylor
Bubba Watson
Charley Hoffman

Call it providence or a byproduct of the tour’s wealth of talent, this year’s victors packed a mighty punch. The roll call: the Player of the Year (Koepka), the game’s hottest player (Bryson DeChambeau), a top-20 talent (Marc Leishman), a fledgling star (Xander Schauffele), a fledgling mega-star (more on this in a moment), a heralded amateur finally breaking through (Kevin Tway), and two respected vets fighting off Father Time (Matt Kuchar, Charles Howell III). That’s a lineup the brass in Ponte Vedra Beach would love at any part of the calendar, let alone in the heart of football season.

It’s an interesting dynamic, considering what lies on the horizon. What’s been left unsaid about the new PGA Tour schedule—specifically, the 2019 Tour Championship’s conclusion in August—is its upshot: a longer fall season. Three events will be added to the wrap-around series in 2019-'20: the Greenbrier Classic, the Houston Open and Steph Curry’s San Francisco event. With nearly a fourth of the season to be conducted in the fall, marquee players won’t have the luxury of calling it a year post-Atlanta without potential consequence. That may sound absurd, but the prospect of beginning 11 tournaments behind in FedEx Cup points come January is not ideal. Ironically, while the motivation to end the season before September was to support the FEC Playoffs, it might have done the same for the fall.

However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows …

Icon Sportswire

TV ratings remain catatonic

Despite its administrative and systematic nightmares, the NFL remains programming king. College football draws similar eyeballs, the MLB’s postseason takes a bite of the pie and the NBA’s viewership is on the rise. Fighting this beast is, has and will be a futile endeavor.

But it’s not just the behemoths the sport is losing to. Mayakoba failed to rank in the top 40 sports programs, losing to a NASCAR practice race, multiple UFC fights and European soccer. The Shriners recorded a 0.24 figure, which doesn’t sound bad until realizing the World Gymnastics Championship came in at 0.88. The Asian Swing went 0-for-3 in registering a rating of significance.

We addressed this issue last year, but it's worth repeating: the current viewership is so minimal that the tour should feel a sense of freedom to experiment with its presentation. New formats, more color in the broadcasts, Monday/Tuesday finishes. Basically, now’s the time for the tour to do its best Keith Pelley impersonation.

Mike Ehrmann

Dawn of a new Champ

Something spectacular, or spectacularly bad, has to happen for casual observers to take notice of an alternate event. Thankfully for the good folks at the Sanderson Farms Championship, it was the former, serving as the pulpit for Cam Champ. And what a message he delivered, winning in just his second start as a tour member. The victory alone would have generated enough buzz to keep fans energized until Hawaii. That Champ followed with runs at Mayakoba (T-10) and Sea Island (sixth) has only added to the excitement level.

Of course, it’s not just that he’s submitting low scores, but how. What Champ does with a driver is how Dr. J operated in the air, not so much mastering the skill as redefining what we know to be possible. Champ’s barely six feet and weighs in at 180 pounds, yet his swing is visceral, almost mythological, like watching Paul Bunyan taking down a redwood.

After pacing the Web.com Tour with an average of 343 yards, the 23-year-old is leading the PGA Tour in both distance and strokes gained/off-the-tee in the early going. Better yet, he has made the most of the opportunities with the big stick, ranking second in birdies. Champ showed in the minors he’s not a one-trick pony, coming in fourth in greens in regulation and eighth in birdie-or-better putt conversions. That Champ almost won the RSM Classic, which has routinely awarded “accurate” (re: short) hitters and second-shot savants—Austin Cook, Max Hughes, Kevin Kizner, Robert Streb, Ben Crane—is further proof to this claim.

Lest this hype train careens off the tracks, fans and media are prone to hyperbole when it comes to youthful flashes; after all, it was less than a year ago that Shubhankar Sharma stole our hearts. And as a veteran writer—whose acumen on these things is unmatched—noted, the jury is still out if Champ is a really good putter or merely on a really good putting streak. But who are we to rain on this parade? Chicks Fans dig the long ball, and with most tour venues catering to the bomb-and-gouge strategy, Champ should see his share of leader boards come 2019.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Golfers are tougher than hockey players

Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux once missed six weeks after hurting himself playing golf. Yet Bryson DeChambeau played through a hockey injury to win the Shriners. These are facts.

Ok, technically it was an injury suffered while watching hockey. What needs no caveat is the play of DeChambeau, whose Vegas victory was his third win in his last five starts and his fourth W of 2018. To those caught up in DeChambeau’s unconventional methods, well, look past L'Artiste's eccentricity and start appreciating his art.

Besides, who knows how many trophies he’ll rack up now that he can putt with the flagstick in.

(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

There's a match involving Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

As a golf writer, I'm contractually obligated to mention Woods and Mickelson are doing their version of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf on pay-per-view. Frankly, an uncensored Charles Barkley—who's part of the broadcast team!—is well worth the $19.99.

Chris Condon/PGA Tour

Goodbye, old friend

NBC Sports will have a new color commentator next season, as Johnny Miller announced after his Safeway Open that he is hanging it up after 30 years in the booth.

"It just seemed like a nice round number," Miller told Golf Digest's Alex Myers. "I've been on for 50 years with no break. I had my 24th grandchild yesterday. All my friends were retiring, and it got to the point where I was like, 'Hey, how come I’m not retiring?' It’s been a great run. I’ve done everything I can do announcing wise."

Miller's "call em likes I see 'em" candor was a welcomed respite against golf broadcasts' buddy-buddy, pious landscape. Even towards the end when he was, ahem, less than magnanimous towards Justin Thomas and Branden Grace for their record scores at majors, Miller seemed genuinely interested in delivering an honest take, criticism be damned. Miller has one tournament left, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, before riding off into the sunset. Here's hoping Oakmont Johnny goes out like every gunslinger should: cannons blazing.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

What to make of Spieth

In a vacuum, Jordan Spieth’s two fall appearances—a T-55 in Vegas, missed cut in Mexico—are not concerning. But players of Spieth’s caliber aren’t afforded such latitude, especially when his starts were emblematic of a season he is trying to forget.

Any hopes of an autumn spark were doused by his driving, or lack thereof. Spieth ranked second-to-last in strokes gained/off-the-tee at the Shriners, a showing attributed to putting a new driver—the Titleist TS2—in play. Alas, that explanation lost merit when Spieth hit just 12 of El Camaleon’s 28 fairways with the old club (the 915 D2) the following week. The big stick has never been Spieth’s forte, yet this degree of erraticism rendered his iron prowess, arguably the best in golf, moot. (One bright spot: Spieth’s short game, the bane of his existence last season, was decidedly better, ranking 30th in sg/putting after finishing 136th on tour in ‘18.)

Strong outings, even a win, wouldn’t have erased Spieth’s pitfalls of the summer. When you reach the level he operates on, you’re judged by what you do at the majors, not at Mayakoba. It’s worth noting this campaign wasn’t a total loss; the man was a hole away from winning the Masters, and entered Sunday at the Open in the final group. Conversely, given his relative struggles of the past year, that this funk endures—especially after a month-long break—is somewhat troubling, and more than a little vexing.

Another sabbatical is on the horizon, with an upcoming wedding and his failure to qualify for Kapalua keeping Spieth away from the tour spotlight. His trajectory remains that of an all-time great, and next year’s major venues are conducive to his skillset. Still, Spieth’s push to return to that orbit—in the face of his own struggles, and those presented by Koepka, Thomas, DeChambeau and other young studs—will make for a fascinating study, and arguably the storyline to watch in 2019.

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