Wrapping up the wildest, most tumultuous year in PGA Tour history

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The most tumultuous season in PGA Tour history is finally in the rearview mirror.

A season that started in September with Max Homa winning the Fortinet Championship in Napa, California, a week before Team USA put a beatdown on Team Europe in the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits (doesn’t that seem like years ago?) ended on Sunday with Rory McIlroy coming from behind in the final round to win the Tour Championship and an $18 million winner’s purse.

In between, 15-time major champion Tiger Woods made his return, six-time major champion Phil Mickelson went into exile, Scottie Scheffler became the best player in the world and the Greg Norman-led LIV Golf Invitational Series made its debut.

“Everyone on tour has had to deal with a lot,” McIlroy said Sunday. “Even the guys that have [gone] to LIV have had to deal with a lot. It’s just been a very tumultuous sort of era in our game.”

While Scheffler, McIlroy, Cameron Smith and Woods dominated the on-course headlines, the PGA Tour’s ongoing battle with LIV Golf for the best players in the world consumed the sport since February.

Here are the biggest moments in the 2021-22 PGA Tour season:

Player of the Year favorite

Scottie Scheffler’s breakthrough season ended on a sour note, as he squandered a 6-shot lead in the final round of the Tour Championship and finished tied for second behind McIlroy.

Still, after failing to win in his first two seasons on tour, Scheffler won four times in six starts in 2022, including his first major at the Masters in April. He also won the WM Phoenix Open, Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

“It’s got to be some of the best golf that has been played over the last 15 or 20 years,” Brian Harman told ESPN.

“Cam Smith had a great year, but he set the record for birdie conversion and had a hot putter all year. Scheffler has done it with his putter, his irons, his driver and his short game. He’s a complete player and he hits it far. He has great touch. He’s a killer, man.”

Scheffler ranked 19th on tour in driving distance (311.6 yards), first in greens in regulation (72.3%) and fourth in scoring average (69.29).

Rookie of the Year favorite

It’s difficult to believe Cameron Young started the 2020-21 season without even having Korn Ferry Tour status. He earned a special temporary membership and finished 19th in points, earning him a PGA Tour card.

Young, from Briarcliff Manor, New York, enjoyed immediate success on tour, becoming the first player since Vijay Singh in 2003 to record five runner-up finishes. He was second at the Sanderson Farms Championship, Genesis Invitational, Wells Fargo Championship, Open Championship and Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Young is only the second player since 1958 to finish in the top three in his debut at both the PGA Championship and The Open; Collin Morikawa won both events in his first start.

Young, 25, is the first PGA Tour rookie to earn more than $5 million in a season, with $6.5 million in earnings. He and his wife, Kelsey, were able to purchase a house after living with their families the past few years.

“It’s obviously a huge honor, especially in the name of Arnold Palmer,” Young said of the Arnold Palmer Award, which goes to the tour’s top rookie. “Anything he is involved in is something special. Hopefully to be given an award in his name is certainly a great start to my career. It’s not something I necessarily set out to do as a specific goal, but I accomplished a few of the things I set out to do this year.”

Biggest story

The PGA Tour’s battle for survival against the Saudi Arabia-financed LIV Golf circuit dominated the season, starting at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February. On the driving range, practice green and in news conferences, one question dominated the conversation: Who’s going?

On Tuesday, Smith and fellow Australian Marc Leishman, along with Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, Americans Cameron Tringale and Harold Varner III, and India’s Anirban Lahiri became the latest PGA Tour members to defect to LIV Golf.

There will be 32 now-former or suspended PGA Tour members competing in LIV Golf’s next event, scheduled to start Thursday at The International outside Boston. The bleeding has seemed to stop — at least for now.

Last week, LIV Golf joined seven of its players as a plaintiff in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour. The case might not go in front of a jury until September 2023. It figures to be the most compelling storyline in men’s golf for quite some time.

Caddie of the Year

Ted Scott’s second loop on a bag might end up being better than his first. After helping Bubba Watson win two Masters titles and 10 PGA Tour events during a 15-year partnership, Scott was lured back to the course to take over Scheffler’s bag in November.

With Scott guiding the way, Scheffler figured out how to win and became the best player in the world.

With the victory at Augusta National, Scott tied Jim “Bones” Mackay for fifth place among caddies for most victories in the Masters with three. Willie “Pappy” Stokes and Willie Peterson worked for players who won five green jackets; Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery and Steve Williams were on the bag for four Masters wins each.

Comeback Player of the Year

No one moves the needle like Tiger Woods, and when word began to circulate that the 15-time major champion was thinking about playing in the Masters in April, it turned the golf world upside down.

It was Woods’ first official event since he was seriously injured in a car wreck outside Los Angeles in February 2021. Only 14 months after nearly losing his right leg, Woods made the cut at Augusta National and finished 47th.

A month later, Woods was back at the PGA Championship and rallied to make the cut. But cold and wet conditions were too much for his surgically repaired right leg and back, so he withdrew after 54 holes.

Woods, 46, had circled the 150th Open at St. Andrews as an event he had to play. He missed the cut, but his walk down the 18th fairway in Scotland became one of the most memorable scenes in golf history.

Best shot

Holding a 1-stroke lead over Will Zalatoris on the 18th hole in the final round of the U.S. Open on June 19, Matt Fitzpatrick hooked his tee shot low and left. His ball ended up in the sand, below a steep lip.

This is how Zalatoris assessed his lie: “I walked by it and I thought that going for it was going to be ballsy. It was 1-in-20, at best.”

Those were good enough odds for Fitzpatrick. The Englishman clipped his second shot from 155 yards perfectly and his ball ended up on the elevated green, 18 feet away from the hole. He two-putted for par and won his first major, after Zalatoris narrowly missed a birdie try of his own. “The fact that he pulled it off and even had a birdie look was incredible,” Zalatoris said.

Best putt(s)

After starting the final round of the Valspar Championship 3 shots behind leader Davis Riley, Sam Burns forced a playoff. On the second playoff hole, he defeated Riley by making a 32-foot bomb. It was his second straight victory at Innisbrook and his third PGA Tour win.

About nine weeks later, Burns overcame a 7-shot deficit in the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge to force a playoff. On the first extra hole, Burns made a 38-footer from the back fringe to take down Scheffler in his home state.

Best drive

Bryson DeChambeau had been the biggest hitter on the PGA Tour in recent seasons, but he was sidelined with a hand injury early and then defected to LIV Golf in June. DeChambeau’s longest drive of the PGA Tour season was a 403-yarder in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the first event of 2022.

The longest drive of the season actually belongs to Scott Stallings, who had a 460-yarder during the second round of the WM Phoenix Open. It was 31 yards longer than the next-closest drive, a 429-yarder by Adam Schenk in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

Best round

Smith couldn’t make anything on the greens of St. Andrews during the third round of the Open Championship in July. The next day, he couldn’t miss anything while winning the Claret Jug and his first major championship.

Smith, from Australia, carded a 6-under 30 on the back nine — the lowest closing-nine score in Open history — to rally from a 4-shot deficit to Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland. Smith posted a bogey-free 8-under 64 and defeated Cameron Young by 1 stroke.

Smith was only the third winner to shoot 64 or better in the final round of The Open, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Henrik Stenson (63 at Royal Troon in 2016) and Greg Norman (64 at Royal St. George’s in 1993) were the others. Smith’s 20-under score also matched Stenson’s 72-hole total in 2016 for the lowest score to par in Open history.

“To watch Cameron shoot what he did,” Young said, “it was pretty amazing.”

Best comeback

Justin Thomas started the final round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in seventh place, 7 shots behind leader Mito Pereira. None of the other guys in front of Thomas had ever won a major, and he was seeking his second one, after winning the 2017 PGA Championship.

Thomas carded a 3-under 67 in the final round, forcing a playoff with Zalatoris after Pereira made a double bogey on the 72nd hole. Thomas had birdies on two of three holes in an aggregate playoff to hand Zalatoris another painful defeat. On the 17th hole — the second extra hole — Thomas knocked a 3-wood from 301 yards to 35 feet and made a two-putt birdie for his first lead of the day.

Best finish

After so many near misses, Zalatoris finally picked up his first PGA Tour win with a playoff victory over Sepp Straka in the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs, at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. Of course, Zalatoris would have to endure another wild playoff to end his drought.

The three-hole playoff featured three penalty drops and zero birdies. On the par-3 11th hole, Zalatoris’ tee shot hit the bank of the island green and bounced seven times on a rock wall. It finally came to rest between the rocks and deep rough. Straka’s ball also hit the bank and bounced into the water.

Straka went to the drop zone and knocked his third shot into a greenside bunker. He chipped out to 4 feet. Zalatoris spent several minutes with his new caddie, Joel Stock, debating what to do. Stock advised him to go back to the drop zone, instead of trying to attempt a miraculous shot. Zalatoris finally agreed and hit his third shot to 7 feet, before sinking a putt to win.

“It’s hard to say, ‘About time,’ when it’s your second year on tour, but it’s about time,” Zalatoris said. “Considering all those close finishes, it means a lot.”

Best tweet

On Dec. 29, Phil Mickelson claimed he had won the PGA Tour’s inaugural Player Impact Program, and the $8 million that came with it. The only problem: Woods actually won the top prize after a late surge. Woods couldn’t help but rib his longtime rival on social media.

Quote of the year

“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” — Mickelson to author Alan Shipnuck, on why he was considering leaving for LIV Golf. Mickelson was suspended by the PGA Tour and skipped the Masters and the PGA Championship, an event he had won the year before, while taking time away from golf.

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