Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2021

A Good Run For Second Acts

There was widespread rejoicing among golf fans when Jordan Spieth won the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago.  Yes, the field was not the strongest, but Spieth has a huge fan base, and winning on the PGA Tour is never easy, even if he made it look so for a time.  When he outdueled Matt Kuchar over the final eighteen holes of the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale to capture his third major title and eleventh win on Tour, all before his 24th birthday, no one would have guessed that Spieth would blow out those candles four days later and eventually sample three more birthday cakes before again tasting victory.

While Spieth wandered in the golfing desert, the consensus among fans was that he would return to the winner’s circle.  The popular logic was that he was too good and too young to be permanently denied.  But that easy conclusion ignores history.  A generation ago, playing in the shadow of Tiger Woods, David Duval’s record rivaled Spieth’s.  In his first two years on Tour, Duval posted seven second-place finishes.  Then, in a span of less than four years, from October 1997 to July 2001, he won thirteen times.  Those victories included a Tour Championship, a Players Championship, the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic where he shot 59 in the final round, and the 2001 Open Championship.  Duval was just 29 when he stood on the 18th green at Royal Lytham and raised the Claret Jug.  Yet he never won again, and today younger fans know him only as a Golf Channel analyst.

Many of those same fans would not be able to identify Yani Tseng at all, though she is now only a couple years older than Duval was when he won for the final time.  Tseng’s first victory on the LPGA Tour was a major, the 2008 LPGA Championship (now the Women’s PGA Championship).  She was still a teenager and in her rookie season on the Tour, after splitting her first year as a professional between her native Taiwan and Canada.  But she quickly came to dominate the premier tour of women’s golf.  After another win in 2009, Tseng posted three victories in 2010 and seven more the following season.  When she won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in July 2011 at the age of 22, Tseng became the youngest golfer, male or female, to have five major championship wins on their resume.  Eight months after winning at Carnoustie, she captured the Kia Classic in southern California.  The LPGA’s 2012 season was less than three months old, but the victory was the third of the year for the world’s number one ranked woman, who appeared well on her way to another dominant campaign.  Yet that victory was Tseng’s last, or technically her most recent, since she remains active on the Tour.  Now ranked 1,025th in the world, at this week’s LPGA event in Hawaii, Tseng shot 79-81 to miss the cut by 19 shots.

Because both had risen to such peaks, the falls of Duval and Tseng are among the most dramatic, but they are by no means unique stories.  As every weekend duffer knows, golf offers sublime moments when a well-struck shot or a perfectly placed putt makes the sport seem almost easy.  But just as quickly the old game can turn on its acolytes and become impossibly hard and unimaginably cruel.  Small wonder that from shanks to skulls to chili-dips to yips, golf has its own lengthy vocabulary for failure.

All of which makes Spieth’s win in San Antonio even more welcome, especially since it seems to have started an unlikely trend.  When Hideki Matsuyama ensured himself of sporting immortality in Japan by winning the Masters last week, it was his sixth PGA Tour victory, but his first since the 2017 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, which was just two weeks after Spieth’s win at Royal Birkdale.

Then this week, both the LPGA and PGA Tours produced comeback stories.  On Oahu, a golfer who broke age records on the LPGA Tour the way Yani Tseng once did emerged triumphant after almost three years in golf purgatory.  Lydia Ko still holds the marks as the LPGA’s youngest-ever winner, major champion, Rookie of the Year, and Player of the Year.  She set all those marks while capturing fourteen titles in just under four years.  Ko was just four months past her 15th birthday and still an amateur when she began that run at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open.  The fourteen victories came in just eighty-one starts, and propelled Ko to the top of the world rankings.  But it was almost two years from the last of that string, a victory at the 2016 Marathon Classic, to Ko’s fifteenth win, at the 2018 Mediheal Championship. 

Since then, nothing but swing changes, coaches coming and going, and disappointment.  Until this week when Ko, now all of 23, blitzed the field at the Lotte Championship.  Her opening 5-under par 67 was her highest round, and by the weekend she was on cruise control, coasting to a seven-shot margin over four players.

One day later and six time zones away, Stewart Cink was similarly dominant at the RBC Heritage, the PGA Tour’s traditional post-Masters stop on Hilton Head Island, just down the road from Augusta National.  Cink’s story is not that of a former number one returning to form.  He was a solid though not great player from his first PGA Tour victory in 1997 through the 2009 Open Championship, when he cemented his golfing legacy with a major title that was also his sixth Tour win.  But Cink’s misfortune was that his victory at Turnberry came at the expense of Tom Watson, who at the age of 59 came within one bad stab at a putt on the final hole from becoming the oldest golfer to ever win a major. 

Whether it was the lack of credit he got for winning that Open, or just the vagaries of the game, Cink was unable to find his way back to victory until last fall, when he ended a far longer drought than that experienced by Spieth, Matsuyama, or Ko, with a win at the Safeway Open.  Then at Harbour Town, Cink opened with back-to-back 63s to lap the field.  By Sunday he led by five, making his final perambulation around the tight little Pete Dye layout the closest thing to a walk in the park that the pursuit of a $1.28 million winner’s check can be.  With the victory Cink became just the second, and certainly the unlikeliest, two-time winner in the current PGA Tour season.

Will Spieth or Matsuyama capture their next major when the PGA Championship is played at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course next month?  Will Ko now dominate the LPGA once again?  Will Cink add a third or even fourth PGA Tour victory this season?  Well maybe, and if the answer to any of those questions is yes, it will be a great story.  But the only certainty is that while plenty of pundits will predict each of those outcomes, it is the ancient game of golf, so remarkably generous one moment and so incredibly taxing the next, that will have the final say.

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