A year in golf: Tales from the Tour
Steve Stricker made it clear that money was not important.
His plan was to defend his title at Kapalua and walk away from the PGA Tour for the rest of the year. Over the holidays leading into 2013, he reached a compromise and cut his schedule roughly in half. He contacted his sponsors, and they supported him.
Stricker didn’t have great expectations starting his year of semi-retirement.
“If I could just make enough money to pay yearly expenses, I’m fine with that,” he said. “If we don’t have to touch anything I’ve put away ... I don’t need to do what I’m doing just to make money. I’d rather be staying at home, doing things at home with the foundation and with my kids.”
No one else was around during this conversation, but Stricker still leaned in and lowered his voice as he stated what everyone already knew.
“You know, we’re pretty conservative with our money,” he said.
Stricker was runner-up that week at Kapalua and made $665,000. He didn’t play for six weeks, and then reached the quarterfinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship to earn $275,000. Two weeks later, he was runner-up at Doral and brought in $880,000.
That should pay the bills.
He finished the year with just over $4.4 million, the third-highest total of his career. His world ranking improved 10 spots to No. 8. And by the end of the year, he had several players contemplating a similar schedule.
Along the way, there were plenty of other moments that showed more about players than just their birdies and bogeys, and the checks they cash.
Rory McIlroy generated a buzz no matter where he went at the start of the year. He had the hefty deal from Nike. He was No. 1 in the world. And he was struggling early with a missed cut in Abu Dhabi and a first-round departure in Match Play. Nothing caused a stir like Friday at the Honda Classic, when he abruptly shook hands with Ernie Els as they were making the turn and walked straight to the parking lot.
Information was a trickle. He was vague during a brisk walk to the car. Later, a statement from his management company said he had a sore wisdom tooth.
There was a golf tournament still going on. Michael Thompson shot 65 on that Friday to move to the top of the leaderboard. It was early afternoon and no one seemed interested. The announcement sounded more like a plea. “We have Michael Thompson in the interview room,” the official said.
One voice broke the awkward silence. “Is he a dentist?” a reported asked.
No. But he did win his first PGA Tour event that week.
Angel Cabrera is a man of few words and loud actions.
A month after losing the Masters in a playoff, he was walking off the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass following a practice round. Fans thrust programs and flags for him to sign. There was bumping and pushing, and a marshal started to bark at everyone to back up.
Cabrera stepped back about 10 feet, and then instructed only the children to come under the ropes and join him. He spent the next 15 minutes signing for them.
The Pure Silk LPGA Bahamas Classic was played on a 12-hole course at The Ocean Club because of flooding. The first round didn’t finish because of another storm system in the area. Players gathered in darkness outside the rules trailer to find out the plan for Friday. A computer error led players to believe — only for a moment — that they would keep their same tee time for the second round. Chaos ensued, filled with heated arguments among players and rules officials.
And it was at this moment the LPGA showed its true international flavor.
A group of Swedish players were off to the right, raising their voices in their native language. The Americans were in the front of the pack. The South Koreans were in the back. The Spaniards were in the middle. The Germans were over by the hedges. It was the ultimate melting pot.
And they ultimately got it all worked out.
Among the visitors at The Players Championship was Ulises Mendez, who plays on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. The Argentine earned his card last year when he tied for 15th in Latin America Q-school. His player badge allowed him access to the tournament, and he camped out just beneath the bleachers behind the 17th green.
He stood there for an hour as the best players came through the 17th. It was an inspiring day.
“To know where you need to be,” Mendez said, “you need to see where you want to go.”
There is no love lost between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, as both made clear at The Players Championship and in the weeks that followed. The same could be said for Garcia and Padraig Harrington, as the Irishman showed on a couple of occasions this year in his subtle style.
Speaking to a small group of reporters at the TPC Sawgrass, where the Woods-Garcia flap was starting to unfold, Harrington said of all the times he has played with Woods he considered his etiquette “absolutely impeccable.”
“I’ve played with Tiger many times,” Harrington said. “I give him an A-plus on his etiquette on the course. I give him an A-plus for his respect for fellow players on the course.”
A British reporter then asked Harrington what kind of grade he would give Garcia.
“I’m not in a position to rank players,” he replied.
Later that summer, Harrington finished a practice round at Muirfield and was signing autographs. One fan had the British Open program turned to the page that showed Harrington winning his first claret jug. That was in 2007 at Carnoustie, after a playoff with Garcia.
Harrington signed the page and held onto the book for the longest time, staring at the photo with a satisfied smile.
“You like that picture?” the man said.
“More than you know,” the Irishman replied.
The woman behind the counter at Starbucks in the Denver suburbs was making small talk with a customer when she learned he was headed to the Solheim Cup.
“Annika Sorenstam was just in here,” she said. “Well, I think that was her.”
Not only is the Swede the most famous LPGA Tour player of her generation, one would suspect writing the word “Annika” on the cup would be a dead giveaway. Except that in this case, she can be excused. Turns out Sorenstam doesn’t go by “Annika” when she’s in Starbucks.
Her code name is Maria.
“Maria is the one name that translates on every continent,” Sorenstam said when she confessed to her alias. “So I’m Maria Swenson.”
The first day of the Solheim Cup nearly didn’t finish because of a rules decision that took nearly a half-hour to determine — and as it turned out, it was the wrong decision. It proved a pivotal part of the fourballs match, which Europe went on to win.
It wasn’t the first time a rules official had made the wrong call. Former USGA President Trey Holland, one of the most skilled in the Rules of Golf, mistakenly gave Ernie Els relief in the U.S. Open from a temporary immovable object that was movable. But when an official makes a ruling, it stands.
Brad Alexander, a respected LPGA official, made the wrong call at the Solheim Cup. When the day was over, confusion and anger lingered. Alexander volunteered to accompany both captains to the media center to handle any questions from the press. He explained what happened. He made no excuses. He accepted all the blame. It was classy.
That kind of accountability would have come in handy at Augusta National this year.
The final week of December is the one week no meaningful tournaments are played on any tour in the world.
The golf year is endless, and it can feel even longer.
Mark Fulcher, the caddie for Justin Rose, has been at this a long time. The crowning moment was at Merion, where Rose won the U.S. Open for his first major. This was in late October, halfway around the world in Shanghai. Everyone was tired. Rose was just starting the stretch run to the end of his year. The caddies were talking about the drudgery of early rounds at a tournament.
Except for “Fooch.”
“The day I stop caddying, I’ll either be dead or I won’t be excited on a Thursday morning,” Fulcher said that day. “Thursday is the greatest day in golf. It’s the perfect reset, isn’t it? You’re reminded, even if you won, that everyone starts all over the next week. And if you’ve played absolute rubbish, there’s always the belief that it’s about to turn around. I love Thursday. Just love it.”
It’s a good reminder for everyone involved in this game. You never know what’s going to happen next. Or when.