From Sergio, to Tiger, to testing policy, golf packed punch in 2017

Sergio Garcia 2017 Masters Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

From Sergio, to Tiger, to testing policy, golf packed punch in 2017

Golf

From Sergio, to Tiger, to testing policy, golf packed punch in 2017

Choosing the top three golf stories of 2017 feels a little like trying to identify the three prettiest snowflakes in a blizzard. This year has been an embarrassment of riches, from the high drama of Jordan Spieth’s detour onto Royal Birkdale’s driving range to the low spectacle of Lexi Thompson’s issues marking and making short putts.

Since redemption is a common theme of sport, let’s start with Sergio Garcia’s Masters victory. An elite sportsman seldom gets to rewrite the entire narrative of his career, especially one that’s already two decades old. It’s more uncommon still for fans to cheer a player who has often been an unsympathetic figure, prone to petulant and boorish behavior.

But cheer Garcia they did that Sunday afternoon in Georgia, because they’ve seen the game inflict on him what it has done to the rest of us: frustration, followed by breakdowns, then anguish and, finally, resignation. Garcia is unusual among PGA Tour professionals in that he freely gave voice to the agonies of the game, and the emotional toll of 12 top-5 finishes in majors was writ large on his face long before he arrived at Augusta National last April. The exuberant teenager scampering up the fairway at Medinah in ’99 had grown into a 37-year-old man with perennially slumped shoulders and an air of fatalism.

Five years earlier at Augusta, Garcia had declared he didn’t have the game to be a major champion. “I’m not good enough,” he said, sounding like a man who not only believed in golf gods but felt they were out to get him. And golf offers plenty of evidence to bolster the notion that every bad bounce is a personal injustice.

The old Sergio would have slumped as his tee shot on the 13th in the final round sailed left into the trees. The new Sergio – a man who was on the cusp of marriage and perhaps finally aware that golf was no longer the most important thing in his life – did no such thing. He made a thrilling bounce-back eagle on 15 and prevailed in a riveting playoff with Justin Rose.

It was one of those rare, uplifting sporting moments, an enormously talented athlete finally realizing a dream that he had begun to lose faith could be achieved, even if his fans hadn’t.

If the rise of Sergio is one highlight, the return of his nemesis surely ranks as another. The choreography of Tiger comebacks has been dispiritingly familiar in recent years: a burst of hoopla followed by a tentative, fearful performance, re-injury and retreat. Of course, surgeries and comebacks are routine only if you’re Cher. But Woods’ reappearance at the Hero World Challenge this month finally offered the promise of one last competitive chapter worthy of the game’s best.

He looked physically robust and was swinging aggressively, earning effusive praise from seasoned observers on his swing rebuild with Chris Como. More importantly, he looked and sounded happy, befitting a man who has come awfully close to losing both his career and quality of life to physical malady.

And while his return will inevitably juice up the Tiger haters for another charge around social media, genuine golf fans will relish 2018 for an opportunity to talk about Woods because he’s on a leaderboard again, rather than on the nightly news.

But if we are to choose the most important golf story of 2017 based on what will shape the landscape in the years ahead, then wins and comebacks don’t top my list. That seismic event struck in June with comparatively little fanfare, but we saw its first waves wash ashore this week.

The PGA Tour announced it was adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances and introducing blood testing for players. That brought golf into line with global, Olympic sports. But the most significant departure for the Tour was a new policy of making public the names of players who are suspended for violations involving performance-enhancing or recreational drugs – a level of transparency foreign to Jay Monahan’s predecessor as Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

Mark Hensby became the first to be so named last week after being suspended a year for failing to provide a urine sample at the Sanderson Farms Championship in October. Offering a convoluted excuse for his failure, Hensby invited fans to condemn him for stupidity but not for cheating, which many fans surely would have done, had they heard of him.

It seems reasonable to assume that more stringent testing policies will in turn lead to more naming and shaming in the years ahead. And that will finally lay to rest the self-serving romanticism that insists every professional conducts himself with honor. Most do, of course, but for too long golf’s approach to drugs (or indeed any disciplinary issue) has been to write rules designed more to protect the reputations of the many than to reveal the infractions of the few.

Adopting a less secretive approach, one more becoming of a global sport, is the most significant development golf witnessed this year. And whatever grim revelations it ushers in down the road, the game will be better for it.

(Note: This story appears in the Dec. 18, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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