All sorts of season-ending trophies, titles and bonuses are being handed out at this time of year and the professional tours have been recognising the best of the best. Meanwhile, the amateurs up and down the land are trotting forth to try and win a Christmas turkey, braving all sorts of adverse weather conditions and perhaps being inspired by their heroes.
In this most disruptive of years in the professional game we have had some really heart-warming stories and there’s no better place to start than in the women’s game with New Zealander Lydia Ko. Now 25 years of age, Ko amazingly has just completed her ninth season on the LPGA tour. In her early days she swept all before her, becoming the youngest ever world No 1 back in 2015 at the tender age of seventeen. For a while she could do no wrong but an extended period of a revolving door of instructors and caddies derailed her to the point that she slipped outside the top 60 in the world.
Many a player would have been thrilled to have owned Lydia’s record during these “off” years. She “only” recorded two victories on the American tour between the 2016 and 2022 seasons but her work ethic and innate charm never wavered despite her travails on the course. I remember interviewing her after one of her rounds in the 2016 Women’s Open and not looking forward to it as she had driven OB at the last and finished with a double bogey. Players can be very thorny after a finish like that and need to be approached warily (think Colin Montgomerie or Darren Clarke or almost anybody). Lydia, however, couldn’t have been more courteous or co-operative and added a sparkle that I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never forgotten it.And now she’s back to her best, tucking away a cheque for $2 million dollars last Sunday – the largest first prize in the women’s game – for winning the CME Group Tour Championship. This was her third win of the year enabling her to scoop up the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average as well as the Rolex Player of the Year award. In her own words it has been a “dream season” and with her wedding to look forward to on December 30th it will be a year she never forgets. She’s a class act.
Finishing runner-up to Lydia last week and pocketing the biggest cheque (US$550,000 or thereabouts) of her four and a half year professional career was another class act, Ireland’s Leona Maguire. She notched her first LPGA victory back in February and had three other top five finishes, most notably a fourth place in the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield. This has all been instrumental in propelling her to a career best eleventh place in the world rankings.
Leona’s 2022 report card has not been the only positive one produced by European players, which must be very pleasing for Solheim Cup captain Suzanne Pettersen, who is undoubtedly already sizing up the contenders for the match in Spain in September. For golf fans from these islands the maiden LPGA wins of Jodi Ewart Shadoff and Gemma Dryburgh were real high points, as was Charley Hull winning for the second time on the American tour. There was also continued good play from Celine Boutier and Georgia Hall, two stalwarts of last year’s Solheim victory.
The ever reliable Swedish production line seems to be rolling along nicely with the phenomenal new talents of Linn Grant and Maja Stark and I was particularly pleased to see Anna Nordqvist finish highly last week after a difficult season. So, all in all, I’d suggest that it’s quite a rosy picture for captain Pettersen to contemplate.And perhaps things aren’t quite so bad for Luke Donald either as he ponders his selections for the Ryder Cup, also being played next September and also a home European fixture. Rory reigns supreme, having climbed the world ranking mountain to the No 1 spot again, at the same time finishing top on both sides of the Atlantic. In my, clearly unbiased, opinion he has been No 1 both on and off the course, assuming the role of chief spokesman on behalf of the PGA tour and its players in the ongoing LIV saga.
Sterling performances from Matt Fitzpatrick, the US Open champ, the ever formidable Jon Rahm, and the resurgence of Tommy Fleetwood, Dubai’s newest resident, will surely gladden Donald’s heart. And whenever he casts his eyes towards American shores, he’ll see Ireland’s Seamus Power sitting proudly atop the standings.
Seamus has had a golden month, starting with winning for the second time on the PGA tour at Bermuda. He followed this up by being in contention in his next two starts, finishing third and fifth and growing ever more comfortable in the heat of being in contention. It’s a long time till the Ryder Cup in Rome but it’s a great start.
Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry, Alex Noren and Tyrrell Hatton will all surely be noted in Donald’s little black book but I’m sure he’ll also consider the super talented Hojgaard twins from Denmark and Scots Ewen Ferguson, Richie Ramsey and Bob McIntyre.
Perhaps Europe’s Ryder Cup team will be less affected by the LIV desertions than the Americans. After all, who are we losing? Sergio, Westwood, Poulter, Casey…? All in their forties with, dare I say it, their best golf behind them. On the other hand the Americans will be without DJ, Koepka, Dechambeau, Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson, all but the latter potentially in their prime. Somehow, come Rome, I don’t think we the golf fans will be giving any of the aforementioned a single passing thought – we’ll be caught up yet again in an enthralling Ryder Cup tussle. So, no, we won’t miss them.
I started with a Kiwi and can’t finish without the mention of another Kiwi, Ryan Fox, who finished runner-up to Rory in the DP World Tour rankings. His has been an outstanding year which is all the more heartwarming coming after difficult Covid years when he could barely get back home to see his wife and young family, so difficult was it to travel in and out of his native land. It seemed like he was in contention every week – two wins, four seconds and a third place bear testament to that – and a meteoric rise from 213th in the world rankings at the start of the season to 27th (one ahead of Seamus) assures him of starts in all the majors for 2023. His is a very well-deserved off-season.I must add one PS for fear of not being allowed back into Ireland if I don’t mention Padraig Harrington’s stupendous maiden campaign on the US Seniors’ tour. With four wins under his belt there was no one to touch him…..except Steven Alker, who also notched four victories and played golf of the highest order.
And, oh yes, Alker is another Kiwi. There’s clearly been some sort of magic dust sprinkled on the men and women from the land of the long, white cloud in 2022. Wonder if we could bottle it too?Congratulations all.