They used to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire, a nod to its worldwide omnipresence. With the PGA and more than a dozen other major tours, golf enjoys a similar pervasiveness. But rarely do so many big events take place globally at once, as happened this past weekend.
While many Americans slept on Saturday night, Jordan Spieth won the Australian Open. As daylight continued westward early Sunday, Brooks Koepka won in Japan, followed by Matthew Fitzpatrick in the Middle East as Henrik Stenson captured the season-long Race to Dubai, and concluding on Monday with unheralded Mackenzie Hughes winning a five-man playoff at the rain-delayed RSM Classic in Georgia.
We have now hit what could be called golf’s offseason, a six-week stretch that will take us into the new year. Yes, there will still be tournaments, but for all intent and purpose, golf will be quiet. Those who now are in the top-50 in the world mostly will still be there come Dec. 31, an important designation to qualify for the Masters.
Let’s go around the world, with our final Monday Backspin of the year.
Spieth won in Sydney for the second time in three years. He defeated a pair of Aussies, up-and-comer Cameron Smith and out-of-nowhere Ashley Hall, on the first playoff hole. Spieth made some clutch putts to get into the playoff, but if not for 54-hole leader Geoff Ogilvy’s back-nine collapse, there would have been no playoff. Spieth as usual showcased his elegant short game, but there were still concerns, the same accuracy issues that cost him throughout last season and resulted in a drop from No. 1 in the world to his current No. 5. In a deeper field, Spieth might not even have been in position to prevail. (OWGR.com ranked the Australian Open last among the four big events of the weekend with a strength-of-field rating of 93, compared with the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan at 114, the RSM Classic at 152 and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai at 359.) Last year at this time, Spieth was making a cash-grab around the world, and it admittedly tired him for the PGA Tour season. This was his lone venture overseas this time around, so Spieth should be fresh come January and beyond. But as we saw at the Australian Open, parts of his game still need work if he’s to capture another major and rise above his No. 5 ranking in 2017.
The 23-year-old has been on the PGA Tour the past three seasons, with limited success. He’s 4-for-4 in cuts so far in 2016-17, with one top-10. Smith impressed as he fought from behind in Sydney and claimed the outright lead until a bogey on the 72nd hole. Still, this experience should serve him well and put him further onto the radar of gamers. And, most importantly for Smith, he qualified for the Open Championship, which takes the top three Australian Open finishers not previously in the field.
Hall began the week No. 902 in the world , worse than even Tiger Woods, at 861. But the Aussie blew past Woods to climb into the 400s. Like Smith, he’ll be in the Open Championship, but that doesn’t mean Hall is ready for prime time. He’s 33 years old and has been toiling on the Web.com Tour the past three years. This was just an aberration, albeit a fantastic aberration, for Hall.
Baddeley struggled on the back nine with wayward drives, and he ended in a tie for fourth, two shots out of the playoff. But he will join Smith and Hall at Royal Birkdale this summer. That might matter to gamers only in the sense that it could give one of the game’s best putters a little more confidence going forward.
Ogilvy came to No. 15 with a one-stroke lead but bogeyed the hole and then disastrously doubled the par-5 16th, ending his bid for a prestigious national title and a berth in the Open Championship. Having lost his PGA Tour card, Ogilvy is playing this season on a one-time exemption for being among the top-50 career money leaders (you heard that right: Geoff Ogilvy is among the 50 top earners all-time). A victory in Sydney would not have helped him with PGA Tour status, but it might have been a huge confidence boost. Gamers again can now put the veteran Aussie on a back burner.
Koepka won for the first time since Phoenix – the one in Arizona – back in February. His victory in Japan will lift him to a career-best No. 17 in the OWGR. Despite the relatively weak field -- Justin Thomas (T4), Smylie Kaufman (T11), Harold Varner III (T11) and Emiliano Grillo (T16) were other notables – it’s another notch for Koepka, who continues to show he could be a factor in majors this season.
DP World Tour Challenge
Fitzpatrick sure looked like a lamb at the Ryder Cup, a 22-year-old rookie on foreign soil. But the Englishman showed grit in beating an elite field in the Euros’ version of the Tour Championship. He impressively birdied the 72nd hole to edge countryman Tyrell Hatton by a stroke for the biggest title of his career. Get Fitzpatrick’s Ryder Cup performance out of your head; he finished sixth in the Race to Dubai and is now 29th in the world. If he’s not a factor in majors and WGCs next year, he will be soon.
Stenson didn’t win the tournament, but he did win the Race to Dubai for the second time in four years, putting a crescendo on his career-best season. The Open Championship winner and Olympic silver medalist closed with a 7-under 65. The T9 cash was enough to hold off Spieth and maintain his No. 4 world ranking. The Swede had been troubled by a knee injury back in September, but he showed no signs of it this past week.
Hatton led by a shot heading to 18 but he bogeyed, and fell out of a tie when Fitzpatrick birdied. The Englishman has had a number of high finishes in big events, and his career-best world ranking of 24th is proof. He may not be ready to join the elites and contend for majors, but he’s getting there.
The Dane eagled the final hole to move into a tie for fourth and, infinitely more important, into the top-50 in the OWGR. Safely positioned at No. 45, Kjeldsen should be still be there at year’s end. He was already exempt into the Masters, but his standing shows the status of his game and how you should view him in 2017.
After opening with a 75, McIlroy went 68-68-65 for another backdoor top-10 – T9, to be precise. Still, the Northern Irishman over the past few months showed that he’s ready to contend for the world No. 1 ranking. He’ll end the year at No. 3 and should be on everyone’s short list come major time.
Hughes birdied the third playoff hole early on Monday morning at St. Simons Island, Ga., to eliminate the three remaining golfers in the playoff. The 26-year-old Canadian rookie did it despite terrible GIR numbers (T50 in the field). Instead, he did it by finishing second in scrambling and third in SGP. And nowhere was it more evident than on the par-3 deciding hole, when Hughes missed the green and hit a poor chip that still wasn’t on the green before sinking an 18-footer from off the surface. He then watched Camilo Villegas, Blayne Barber and Henrik Norlander all miss par putts inside of 10 feet. It’s not unusual to see guys come out of nowhere to win tournaments, especially in the fall. Regardless, Hughes just became a more valuable chip in draft/auction leagues. He may go the rest of the year and beyond without so much as a top-10, but when you need to fill a lineup in the big tournaments, Hughes now will be an option. We’ll next see him when the tour resumes with the Tournament of Champions right after the New Year. He’ll also be in the Masters, the Players, the PGA and the WGC-Bridgestone.
Villegas has four career wins, with three of them on Bermudagrass greens. He came close again at Sea Island until missing a short par putt on the third playoff hole. It’s hard to understand what makes certain golfers do well on certain grasses, but it’s a real thing, and Bermudagrass matters to Villegas. If the greens are Bermudagrass, he’s usually a good option. If not, steer clear.
This is Barber’s third full season on tour, and the co-runner-up showing is his best cash. He had a T3 at the Honda last season, but these chances at victory don’t come along often for most touring pros. There’s no reason to see this as a breakthrough for Barber, and no reason to all of sudden elevate his standing in your lineup planning. One caveat: He’s still somewhat young, not turning 27 till Christmas Day.
Like Barber, this was the second-year tour player’s best career cash. He’s almost three years older, and this could easily be his best result of the season. The Swede nonetheless turned a sponsor invite (he lives in Augusta, Ga.) into a top-10 and, thus, a berth in January’s Sony Open, which is the next full-field event on tour
Horschel was the most successful of the five playoff golfers, and he also was the first man out, before darkness hit on Sunday evening. And he did it in agonizing fashion, missing about an 18-inch putt on the first extra hole. While Horschel should be in the mix going forward more often than the other four guys, he remains winless since his miracle end to the 2013-14 season. And the outcome was costly on another front: It would have moved him into the top-50 in the world.