BY SCOTT MICHAUX
ATLANTA | Tour Championship week lived up to the host city’s nickname: Hotlanta.
Scorching temperatures and a smoking-hot, star-studded leaderboard made for a compelling finale to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup season at East Lake – at least until Viktor Hovland happened. Honestly, it was rather shocking to see how many patrons tolerated the triple-digit heat index to watch the best players in the world compete for a silly amount of money.
The players have, at the least, grudgingly accepted the handicapped scoring model as the best version yet for determining the Tour Championship winner and the recipient of the $18 million bonus prize (which reportedly will balloon to a more obscene $25 million next season). For about 40 holes, the staggered scoring system made for a nicely packed leaderboard until Hovland took the drama out of it by building a six-shot 54-hole lead. The normal leaderboard would have had Hovland and Collin Morikawa starting Sunday tied at 12-under, with Xander Schauffele just one and Keegan Bradley two strokes behind.
Hovland was obviously the big winner, but the 2023 season was so full of twists and turns that it gave us a lot to digest:
BIRDIE: Hovland. The Norwegian solidified his place as “elite” with the FedEx Cup title. He not only became just the third non-American age 25 or younger in the last 40 years to win three PGA Tour events in the same season (joining Rory McIlroy in 2012 and ’14 and Hideki Matsuyama in 2017), but he featured prominently in every important event, and did it with a combination of flamboyance and likability that is hard to mesh.
BIRDIE: Player of the year? Tough choice between Jon Rahm (who won four times, including the Masters, Tournament of Champions and the designated Riviera event), Hovland (three wins, including the FedEx Cup) and Scottie Scheffler (who won twice: the Players and the designated Phoenix event). One of the Europeans will take it.
PAR: Peace. Whether or not you think it’s a good idea for the established tours to partner with the Saudi financiers of LIV Golf, it’s a welcome relief to have no more constant litigation updates. And you can either enjoy or ignore the breakaway exhibition circuit with a smaller pinch of rancor and snark.
BOGEY: Justin Thomas. Of the prominent stars who didn’t qualify for the cut-down playoffs, Thomas endured the most precipitous decline, missing the cut in three majors and finishing T65 as defending champion in the PGA and T60 as a former champ in the Players. I’d still pick him for being the emotional heart of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Other notable FedEx Cup faceplants: Adam Scott and Shane Lowry.
BIRDIE: Comeback stories. Rickie Fowler roared back from a four-year descent into the wilderness as low as world No. 185, winning in Detroit and showcasing in the U.S. Open. Jason Day snapped a five-year drought with a Byron Nelson win and Open Championship runner-up. Keegan Bradley continued his rise from relative ashes during COVID with two wins this season. Justin Rose snapped a four-year drought at Pebble Beach. Lucas Glover reversed his latest career ebb with back-to-back wins in August. All re-reside inside the top 40.
PAR: Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman has been carrying the weight of the PGA Tour for so long in its battle to remain relevant that it’s no wonder his back gave out right before the big finish. It was a strange year that included his usual close calls in majors, a midseason mental-health sabbatical after a devastatingly disappointing Masters, and some pullback from his spokesman role after the tour about-faced on him without warning regarding LIV. Hope his back holds up for a big month in Europe ahead.
BIRDIE: Keegan Bradley. Of the American Ryder Cup bubble candidates, Keegan likely made the biggest final impression on captain Zach Johnson with his showing in Hotlanta. Dims Glover’s hopes of getting the good call from cap’n.
WD: Will Zalatoris. Perhaps the most disappointing and discouraging story of the year was the abrupt injury shutdown of the “major specialist” and rising star. He had to withdraw from last year’s playoffs and Presidents Cup with a back injury, and after trying to restart in 2023 had his season ended Masters week with microdiscectomy surgery to repair two herniated discs. The 27-year-old is eying the middle of October to start playing again.
QUAD: Merger. PGA Tour HQ has been rightly skewered for terrible messaging regarding the many changes that have been coming at breakneck pace ever since LIV Golf emerged. But the ham-fisted and confusing rollout of the “framework agreement” with the PIF in June was an all-time gaffe. Whoever even suggested any variation of the word “merge” should be demoted. The loss of credibility and trust for commissioner Jay Monahan likely will linger even if everything is in the best interests of the tour.
BIRDIE: Putters. It’s amazing what kind of magic a new wand can conjure on the greens. The Odyssey Jailbird 380 had quite the run with back-to-back-to-back wins by Wyndham Clark, Bradley and Fowler this summer. Then Glover turned back the clock and reprogrammed his mind with a broomstick-style L.A.B. Mezz.1 Max putter and rekindled his career.
DNF: Monahan. For a man who seems genuinely to care about his constituents, the commissioner was so affected by the negative fallout from players and critics after the announced peace/partnership agreement with the Saudis that he was forced to take a midseason leave of absence to deal with his anxiety and mental health. It illustrated the human toll that golf’s civil war has taken.
BOGEY: Bad putting. Scheffler leads the tour in four strokes-gained categories as well as greens in regulation, but he’s a miserable 145th in strokes gained putting and was dead last at East Lake. If he could putt half as poorly, he’d be hoarding trophies en masse. Same could be said for McIlroy in the majors, where he let the U.S. Open slip away in similar fashion to last year’s British Open by having 36 putts in his final round.
BOGEY: Field limits. The worst trend in golf is reduced fields, which the PGA Tour will adopt whole-heartedly with its 2024 “signature” events after spending so long mocking its rival’s 48-man, no-cut format. Trimming playoff qualification this year from 125 to 70 was a radical shift and further reduces opportunity for the “Cinderella stories” that have long made golf great.
BIRDIE: East Lake. The long-time home for the Tour Championship will shut down for a full year to undergo an extensive restoration at the hands of Andrew Green, the architect of lauded renovations at Oak Hill and Congressional. The architectural pedigree at East Lake includes Tom Bendelow, Donald Ross, George Cobb and Rees Jones, but it’s Ross whom Green will try to channel as he did at Oak Hill, Wannamoisett, Scioto and Inverness. The upgraded design and infrastructure will cement the club’s role as a permanent site of the tour’s season finale.
BIRDIE: Major consistency. Twelve players, including three LIV Golf stars, made the cut in all four majors: Scottie Scheffler (cumulative 18-under), Viktor Hovland (-16), Jon Rahm (-15), Brooks Koepka (-10), Xander Schauffele (-7), Patrick Cantlay (-5), Tommy Fleetwood (-4), Cam Smith (-2), Hideki Matsuyama (+3), Patrick Reed (+4), Tyrrell Hatton (+6) and Ryan Fox (+12). Only Scheffler and Hovland finished par or better in every major. Everyone except Rahm and the three LIV guys also made the Players Championship cut.
EAGLE: Nick Taylor. In arguably the most compelling tournament of the year, Canada’s own Taylor ended a 69-year national drought by winning the RBC Canadian Open in a four-hole playoff with Tommy Fleetwood that had all the intensity of a Ryder Cup match and ended with Taylor’s remarkable 72-foot eagle putt that brought down the house.
BIRDIE: Eric Cole. It took a lot of mini-tour grinding for the 35-year-old son of Bobby Cole and Laura Baugh to finally get a chance to make a name for himself as this year’s best PGA Tour rookie. He announced his presence with a spirited runner-up at PGA National in March and has been a consistent performer to finish top 50 and guarantee signature event starts in 2024.
BIRDIE: Breakouts. There were 12 first-time PGA Tour winners this season, but it’s hard to top the major breakthrough performances of Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman. Clark is a young guy who nearly quit the game twice before his breakout wins at Wells Fargo and the U.S. Open in six weeks. Harman is a never-say-quit bulldog who took a long time to live up to the major potential he had as a junior phenom.
ALBATROSS: Nickname of the year. The British press (and galleries) became unhealthily obsessed with the hunting interests of the “champion golfer of the year.” While it’s laughable that the country that introduced fox hunting to the world would be so judgmental, it did lead to the best nickname in ages for the man who demolished the Open field: the Butcher of Hoylake.
BIRDIE: Lone Stars. Texas A&M’s Sam Bennett made a big splash contending into Sunday as an amateur at the Masters before turning pro and making $303,155 in five made cuts in eight tour starts. But then Texas Tech’s newly crowned PGA Tour University king Ludwig Åberg of Sweden showed up and earned $737,964 in seven starts shooting 63s, 64s, 65s and 66s with regularity.
BOGEY: Reversal. We should have known it would be a year of upheaval right from the start when the last wraparound season started at the Fortinet Championship in Napa with Danny Willett three-putting the last from 3 feet, 7 inches for bogey to lose after Max Homa’s 32-foot birdie pitch-in from an awkward lie in the rough.
BIRDIE: Multiple winners. The 2022-23 season produced nine winners of multiple events among 36 total winners. Rahm led the way with four wins followed by Hovland with three. Seven others won twice: Scheffler, McIlroy, Homa, Bradley, Clark, Glover and Tony Finau.
BOGEY: WGCs. The last – and best – of the global golf series concept originally stolen from Greg Norman had its curtain call in Austin, Texas, with Sam Burns winning the final WGC Match Play event 24 years after Jeff Maggert won the inaugural one. Its demise opened the door for Houston to return to a March date on the calendar.
BIRDIE: Designated drama. The newest idea borrowed (if not stolen) from Norman are the lucrative elevated/designated/signature events created to stave off the defections of top talents. The concept worked well and produced compelling events and prominent winners who managed to thrive despite full fields and cuts.
BOGEY: Mexican shuffle. The well-regarded Mayakoba Resort cast its lot with LIV Golf and El Camaleón course designer Greg Norman, forcing the World Wide Technology Championship to leave Riviera Maya for the Baja coast and the Tiger Woods-designed El Cardonal course at Diamante in Los Cabos.
BIRDIE: Cut masters. Schauffele (32 consecutive), Hovland (27) and Scheffler (25) did not miss a cut all season (though Schauffele did have to WD with injury after shooting 3-under in the first-round of the no-cut event in Kapalua). Rahm has not missed a cut in 17 consecutive majors dating to the 2019 PGA Championship, the longest active streak.
BIRDIE: First pitches. Golfers generally have acquitted themselves well through the years delivering ceremonial first pitches at baseball games. Instead of soft tosses delivered high over the plate as we’ve seen from Bubba Watson, Bryson DeChambeau and Keegan Bradley in the past, Harman (a lefty golfer who throws right-handed like Phil Mickelson) put a little heat on his low-corner strike at the Braves-Mets game before the Tour Championship.
BOGEY: Goodbye, Honda. The longest-running continuous title sponsor on the PGA Tour departed after 42 years with its name on the South Florida event. It will be called The Classic in The Palm Beaches until the tour can find a new sponsor willing to take over the weakened field event at water-logged PGA National.
BIRDIE: Tiger Woods. For a guy whom we don’t see often anymore, Tiger’s power just keeps growing as the new addition to the Tour Policy Board that gives the players a majority vote in all matters.