The 2021 Golf Season: Bombs and Hijinks

Let’s just say it: the PGA Tour season, which began in September 2020 and ended a year later when Patrick Cantlay won the FedEx Cup, more or less revolved around Bryson DeChambeau. Bryson hits bombs. He leads the Tour in driving average and it became a commonplace occurrence this summer to watch him rip off a 350-yard tee shot, leaving the guys in the booth gasping for words. When Bryson played, people watched. But sometimes not just for the golf.

There’s a spanking coming

Bryson, with a little help from Brooks Koepka, became the player that people loved to razz. He’s full of eccentricities. All of his clubs are the same length, he retooled his body to the point where he could play the Hulk, he developed a putting stroke that emulates the testing machine at USGA headquarters, it’s rumored he uses a protractor to figure out putt angles, and he wears an old-school flat cap like Ben Hogan. Add to that a touch of arrogance and, voila, you’ve got the Tour’s new “Fig Jam.” (Woody Austin told a story to a friend of mine while playing together at a Pro-Am: early in his career, while Phil Mickelson was romancing the fans with his swashbuckling play, he was alienating a lot of the players with his arrogance, earning him the locker room nickname of “Fig Jam,” which stands for “F— I’m Great, Just Ask Me”).

The story of the year, of course, was the social media spat between Bryson and Brooks. Brooks was on camera when Bryson walked by in his metal spikes, Brooks rolled his eyes, and the thing took off. Near the end of the season, at the BMW Championship, fans were heckling Bryson with chants of “Brooksie!” He seemed to brush it off, but did he really? He missed an easy putt that would have given him a score of 59 on one day, and failed to clinch the win after an exhilarating six-hole playoff with Cantlay. The heckling led Tour boss Jay Monahan to issue a stern warning to fans, lest tournaments start resembling the 16th hole at the Phoenix Open or, worse yet, an English soccer game.

OK, the Brooksie-Bryson spat was kind of juvenile, but it was fun to watch and created some great social media content, like this video of Brooks and his beer in his backyard. Both players ended the season frustrated — Brooks because of an injury that forced a WD from the final tournament at East Lake and Bryson because he just couldn’t seem to close the deal late in the season.

But hijinks aside, Bryson put the long ball on the map in the 2021 season. It’s thrilling to watch him hit driver with a swing that seems to defy basic physics (which was his major at Southern Methodist University). He leads the Tour in driving distance at 324 yards, followed by Rory McIlroy (319), Cameron Champ (317), Matt Wolff (316) and Will Gordon (315). It may the that in the next few years the basic approach to Tour events will be “go long or go home.” If so, Bryson will have had a lot to do with it.

Bryson took the long way to get on to the 18th green at East Lake

And, like Phil, Bryson is just plain entertaining to watch. Here’s an example. On the penultimate round of the FedEx Cup at East Lake, on the 18th hole, a par 5, Bryson pulled his tee shot into the 10th fairway. When he couldn’t find the ball it was discovered that a fan had picked it up and walked off with it. Bryson gets a free drop, from which he launches a sweeping hook that lands on the green, only the fifth player to reach in two at that point. He two-putts for birdie. To quote Joe Biden, c’mon man!

Showing a little respect for Augusta

Aside from distance and social media dust-ups, the PGA Tour this year was distinguished by the high level of competition. The year had lots of breakthrough moments. Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese player to win the Masters (producing a classic moment when his caddie turned to the course and bowed after Hideki clinched the win on 18). Jon Rahm became the first Spanish national to win the U.S. Open, and, of course there was the so-called “geezer” breakthrough: Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at age 50, the oldest player to do so. Other winners popping up for the first time included Jason Kokrak, Carlos Ortiz, Sam Burns, Abraham Ancer and Erik Van Rooyen, to name some. Oh, and 24-year-old Colin Morikawa won his second major when he beat Jordan Spieth by two strokes at the Open Championship. The pipeline of talent on the PGA Tour is bulging.

The finish at the Wyndham looked like a runway at LaGuardia

The competitiveness of the season was best captured at the Wyndham in August, which forced a six-man playoff, only the third in PGA history and the first since 2001 (Kevin Kisner won, by the way). On a side note, the Wyndham, the BMW and East Lake made it abundantly clear that the most important club in the bag usually ends up being the flat stick. So practice your putting!

“Patty Ice” and “Rahmbo”, aka respect and sportsmanship

But even with all these young names popping up, the FedEx Champion and likely Player of the Year is Cantlay, who is halfway to journeyman status by now. He entered the season as a sleeper and ended it with a $15 million check and a new nickname, “Patty Ice,” for his unruffled style. Patrick turned pro in 2012 and struggled for several years, first with a debilitating back condition and then due to the tragic death of his best friend and would-be caddie. But he persevered and ended the 2021 season spectacularly. Patrick also brought a welcome measure of humility and equanimity to the game. He saw what the fans did to Bryson during the BMW and in comments afterward gracefully provided cover to his colleague. “I think it’s a tough situation,” Patrick said. “I think, naturally, of course there is some sympathy because you don’t want to see anybody have a bunch of people be against you or even be heckled. I think anybody that watches sports and sees someone being heckled, they don’t like that inherently because if you imagine yourself as that person, it wouldn’t feel good.” Smooth, Patrick, just like your putting stroke.

Tiger was conspicuous by absence

I have to say, the Tour also struck a grace note when Matt Wolff, a young new player who was on a super hot streak, suddenly pulled out and took a break because of mental health issues. He was very transparent about how the pressure was affecting him and said his mental state and personal life were more important than Tour wins. He received nothing but understanding and best wishes from the rest of the field. Watch him, he’ll be back. Another notable absence this year, of course, was Tiger. Severely injured in a February car crash, Tiger has a long road of recovery ahead of him. Everyone on Tour — and I mean, everyone — wishes him well.

There were several weird covid-related moments during the season. Last year’s U.S. Open, which was scheduled for June, was delayed until September (Bryson won), so we actually had two U.S. Opens in the same season; ditto with the Masters. We had the makeup Masters in November of 2020, without spectators (which was truly weird; the patrons are part of what make the Masters so unique), and then the regularly scheduled Masters, with patrons, happened five months later in April. And poor Jon Rahm. With a six-stroke lead on the third day of the Memorial Tournament in June he tested positive and had to withdraw. He tested positive again a month later and had to withdraw from the Olympics. It’s a testament to his mental attitude that he bounced back and only missed winning the FedEx cup by a stroke.

Phil the Funny Man

I’ll close with one more highlight. Phil Mickelson scored a breakthrough of another kind this year. He established himself as a bonafide comedian. We knew he was a Houdini who could swing his way out of any jam; we knew he was an obsessive (check out his coffee recipe here); and we knew he loves to gamble. But this season, Phil the comic broke through. His “Phireside with Phil” series on YouTube is pitch perfect (pun intended) and his 60-second video of him riding around in a golf cart with the Wanamaker Trophy, well, as they say, you can’t make that stuff up. We love ya, Phil, keep it going!

One comment

  1. Russ, that was a very entertaining blog! Your comment about so many good new “golfers in the pipe” is so parallel to what’s going on in the tennis world both on the men’s and women’s side. Both sports are being taken to a new level but it is great for spectators to watch! Amen

Leave a Reply