Column: Tales from the PGA Tour after fractured year in golf
Behind the ropes in the Bahamas were a pair of longtime PGA professionals. One was David Young, getting ready to retire after 20 years at Sleepy Hollow in New York. The other was Mike Thomas, now retired from Harmony Landing in Kentucky.
Both are the only swing coaches Cameron Young and Justin Thomas ever had. On this day, the fathers were watching their sons play golf.
“Well, one of them is playing golf,” said Mike Thomas, always the wisecracker, as his son searched for an errant tee shot in the dunes.
Justin Thomas is never too far off, as he showed in coming from seven behind to win the PGA Championship. Neither is Cameron Young, the PGA Tour rookie of the year who did just about everything but win this year.
They were among big performers in a year that for all the disruptions brought on by a rival league still delivered plenty of fun moments that went beyond birdies and bogeys.
Golf is a family affair for Steve Stricker, and this year was rewarding. He recovered from a health scare that caused inflammation around his heart to win four times on the PGA Tour Champions. His oldest daughter made it through the first stage of LPGA qualifying. His youngest daughter won the state high school championship in Wisconsin.
His wife, Nicki, was caddying for him again, just as she did before the girls were born. She has seen it all, and that raised a question as she watched Stricker stand over a birdie putt in his final event of the year. What exactly is she thinking out there?
“I would love to know that,” oldest daughter Bobbi Maria said.
Stricker was walking up to the 18th green at Timuquana, victory all but secured, when Bobbi Maria looked at her phone and perhaps got her answer.
“Mom just texted me from the fairway,” she said. “Domino’s for dinner.”
The next young star to emerge from Japan might be Taiga Semikawa, a 21-year-old who won twice on the Japan Golf Tour before turning pro.
Worth noting is his first name.
Taiga was not all that common some 20 years ago. It can translate to “big river,” but more intriguing is how it is pronounced — “TY’-guh” — which sounds a lot like Tiger.
Semikawa is 21, born about the time Tiger Woods completed his historic sweep of the majors. Is that a coincidence? Maybe. But try to explain how the Japan Golf Tour lists 18 players who have Taiga for a first name. All are in their 20s, and all but three of them are 25 or younger. This year was the 25-year anniversary of Woods’ first Masters victory.
A Japanese reporter pointed this out in October at the CJ Cup in South Carolina, the same week Semikawa won the Japan Open for his second straight JGTO win. The reporter pulled up a golf site in Japan that listed all of the players named Taiga.
As the reporter walked back to his desk, he turned and smiled when he said, “No Phils.”
Cameron Young managed to find hope amid the frustration of so many close calls in his rookie season. He had five runner-up finishes and twice finished one shot out of the lead in majors. The PGA Championship in May was his third straight time in contention.
“If I keep putting myself in a tie for the lead or one back with nine holes to play, one of those times I’m going to shoot 5 under on the back, and that’s going to be good enough,” he said at Southern Hills. “It wasn’t today. There will be another one.”
And there was. Two months later at the British Open, Young shot 31 on the back nine at St. Andrews.
Cameron Smith shot 30 and beat him by one.
Tiger Woods commands attention whenever he plays, which was only three majors this year. He attracted a big crowd of media on Sunday before the British Open at St. Andrews.
The group behind him was virtually ignored but no less significant.
Henrik Stenson was playing with Phil Mickelson.
This wasn’t about reliving their duel at Royal Troon in 2016. Mickelson is seen as the chief recruiter for Saudi-backed LIV Golf. Within 10 days, Stenson joined LIV Golf and was stripped of his Ryder Cup captaincy.
For all his success, Jordan Spieth has his share of frustration, such as making a bogey on the par-5 ninth at Kapalua in his first round of the year. When it was suggested he picked a fun sport to play for a living, Spieth replied, “I don’t know what else I could do.”
Was he good at math? He nodded. Perhaps he could have been an accountant.
“I’d rather be in sales so I could play lots of golf,” Spieth said.
That led to another question: Did he ever have a job as a kid?
“Nope,” he said. “I kept waiting for my parents to make me get one, but I was getting better at golf and what would have taken away from it. Nothing I’m proud of.”
Someone chimed in that this probably felt like work. Spieth smiled and headed to the 10th tee.
Tom Kim was invited to the 2020 PGA Championship at age 18 before anyone really knew who he was. Now they do. The 20-year-old from South Korea contended in the Scottish Open, won the Wyndham Championship and delivered big moments in the Presidents Cup.
But it’s not just his game that stands out.
Justin Thomas was home in Florida when he got a text message from Kim that said, “How can I get an exemption into your AJGA event?” Thomas couldn’t stop laughing when he shared the text.
“I told him, ‘For one thing you’re too old,’” he said.
This was two weeks after the Presidents Cup. Kim was in Las Vegas when he sent the text. The week ended with him beating Patrick Cantlay in a playoff.
Winning doesn’t come easily, a refrain repeated over the years on the PGA Tour. Xander Schauffele knows this as well as anyone. He was on his third year without winning, though he was playing well enough to never have dropped out of the top 15 in the world.
During the pro-am at the Valspar Championship, he was intrigued by a discussion on players who have yet to win the Masters. How often it has been said, “He’s not going to win one Masters, but multiple Masters.” It didn’t work out that way for Tom Weiskopf or Greg Norman, for David Duval or Ernie Els. And now the subject is Rory McIlroy.
Schauffele finished the third hole and a fan asked him to sign his Valspar Championship flag.
“You’re going to win this,” the man told him.
“Multiple times,” Schauffele said under his breath with a smile.
Schauffele did wind up winning multiple times, at least in 2022 — the Zurich Classic with Patrick Cantlay, the Travelers Championship and the Scottish Open.
It wasn’t easy.
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