x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The five lessons learnt from this year's golf season

From McIlroy's promise to Woods' revival and a need to rewrite the rule book, John McAuley examines the most compelling storylines in the aftermath of the US PGA Championship.

Rory McIlroy said he wanted to prove his critics wrong by winning the US PGA Championship. John Raoux / AP Photo
Rory McIlroy said he wanted to prove his critics wrong by winning the US PGA Championship. John Raoux / AP Photo

The curtain came down on golf's major season on Sunday with Rory McIlroy winning the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

The Northern Irishman shone brightest on the coast of the Atlantic; the brilliance of Bubba Watson illuminated the Masters; Webb Simpson finish strongest in the US Open at the Olympic Club; and Ernie Els turned back the clock at Royal Lytham to lift his second British Open – and spark a putter controversy.

Here we analyse the five main talking points from the year's top tournaments.

McIlroy will become Europe's greatest player

So much for the slump in form. McIlroy (four missed cuts in five starts and without a top title in 14 months) became golf's fifth youngest multiple major champion in emphatic fashion at the US PGA Championship.

The 23 year old's eight-stroke victory eclipsed by one Jack Nicklaus's record winning margin for the event. McIlroy is the youngest winner of the tournament since 1958.

He annihilated the field on a course recognised by Golf Digest as the toughest in America, not bad for someone apparently too preoccupied with his tennis star girlfriend.

Having added to last year's US Open, won by the same margin, the question that remains is how many more?

Since the Second World War, only Seve Ballesteros has collected two majors at an earlier age; the mercurial Spaniard eventually reeled in another three. Harry Vardon, Europe's forerunner in major wins, finished on seven.

McIlroy, on evidence of two history-generating triumphs in little more than a year, should surpass that before his 30th birthday.

"Bubba Golf" is a welcome phenomenon

It may be premature to expect a flurry of pink drivers on the tee boxes of the National Course or the Majlis, but Watson's brilliance at the Masters has given rise to a new type of golf.

Lessons? Pah. Swing analysis? Baloney. Just hit it as hard as possible and take the consequences.

Watson, an unabashed American with a penchant for the spectacular, conjured his own brand of magic on the second play-off hole when the initiative seemed to be with Louis Oosthuizen. A 40-yard hook from under a tree to two-putt territory saw him seal his first major and slip into the Green Jacket.

In a sport where caution is encouraged, Watson represents a wild free spirit. "Pretty easy," was how he described that shot from the pine needles. Golf needs individuals like Watson.

The 33 year old leads a renaissance among his compatriots, with Simpson's surprise triumph at the US Open giving the Americans two major titles for the first time in three years. Maybe newly acquired or impending fatherhood – as was the case with Watson and Simpson – imbues relative novices with a sense of major entitlement.

Tiger Woods
is only halfway there

Few men other than Woods would label a year with three standout victories a "so-so season", but such is the 14-time major champion's obsession with hunting down Jack Nicklaus's record tally.

It is not as if Woods did not have chances: he held a share of the lead at the halfway point of both the US Open and the PGA. But third-round collapses attributed to finishes outside the top 20 and top 10 respectively.

Much has been made about an aura diminished by problems in his private life and an ailing body, and gone are the days of that ruthless killer instinct.

His temperament, too, is a work in progress, portrayed when tossing away his driver after another errant drive on Saturday, or the drop-kick on his nine iron as he disintegrated in the second round at Augusta. At least that pesky Achilles injury seems to have healed, though.

Luke Donald and Lee Westwood can't duck issue

The questions, however unfair, continue. Another season, another wait to discover if either Donald or Westwood, both recent world No 1s, will win his first major.

Donald was golf's leading light last year, yet this campaign has brought at best a tied fifth at the British Open, a missed cut at US Open and lowly finishes in the other two majors.

The Englishman says his quest to win his first major is weighing heavily, insisting "something clicked" at Royal Lytham, yet a score of eight-over at Kiawah Island signals much more work is needed.

Westwood, despite finishing tied third at the Masters, suffered his worst year in the majors since 2008. A tied 45th at the British Open is not good enough for a man with eight top threes in his previous 15 majors, and his missed cut at the weekend led to a shock split from his long-term coach Pete Cowen.

He led the field from tee to green at both Augusta and Kiawah Island; it does not take an expert to realise where the problem lies.

Westwood is almost 40, although he will take heart from the past two British Open champions, Darren Clarke and Els, who landed the Claret Jug at the age of 42. But Westwood knows time is running out.

The rule book needs a major reworking

The din that accompanied the fine achievements of Simpson and Els was loudest away from the final greens at the Olympic Club and Royal Lytham, where professionals and analysts flocked to give short shrift to the long putter.

Simpson and Els favour the anchored flat stick, damned for its aesthetic repulsiveness and the perceived advantage it provides.

The Royal and Ancient and United States Golf Association, the game's lawmakers, held an emergency meeting at the British Open – 43 of the 156 players had used an anchored putter – and an announcement, presumably to ban the implement, is expected next month.

However, the more pressing issue remains how the rules of the game are defined. Amateur bodies determine the laws that govern professional golf, when having two separate rule books should be enacted.

The PGA Tour and its European sibling are more than capable of devising a less complicated and convoluted body of rules for professionals, and should be entrusted to do so.

On Sunday at Kiawah Island, Carl Pettersson was subjected to two counts of golf's nonsensical regulations, and when Adam Scott's ball rolled from its stationary position greenside during the final round of the British Open the rules official in the Golf Channel's commentary booth began his explanation with "I think". If he didn't fully understand the rules, then what hope for the rest of us?


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