The rollback debate, year two of "Tiger's back," Paul Azinger's replacing Johnny Miller and so much more.

By Daniel Rapaport
December 21, 2018

2018 was one of the more eventful golf years in recent memory. We had Tiger's comeback, Brooks' emergence, a Ryder Cup debacle and so much more. Here are some of the storylines we think will dominate headlines in 2019. 

Rollback debate rolls on

If you frequent golf Twitter, you’ve been exposed to diatribes on how players are hitting the golf ball too far, rendering classic courses obsolete and turning the PGA Tour into a driver-wedge contest. There’s significant momentum calling for a rollback of the golf ball, both from within the game—Tiger Woods is among a number Tour pros that have voiced support for it—and from fans who feel things have gotten out of hand. Earlier this year, the rollback talk had gained so much momentum that the USGA felt the need to deny it was impending. As powerful young players like Cameron Champ continue to break onto the Tour, calls for the rollback are only going to grow louder. How the governing bodies react to those calls is worth watching in 2019.

Tiger’s back…Year 2

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Last season, watching Tiger Woods was nothing short of surreal. The man everyone wrote off was back on the course, healthy, contending in some of the biggest events in the sport. Adding to the intrigue was his newfound easygoing nature; Woods seemed to have a greater appreciation for simply being able to compete, often bantering with his playing partners and interacting with fans. Toward the end of the season, and particularly during his win at the Tour Championship, Woods seemed to return to his no-nonsense, hyper-focus on the course. Which Tiger will we see in ’19? The happy-to-be-out-there 43-year-old, or the win-at-all-costs, ruthless competitor of years past?

GREENE: The Resurgence of TigerWoods in 2018 Brouht Excitement Back to Golf

Another Tiger item worth keeping an eye on: last year, the novelty of having Woods back in the mix saw multiple tournaments set multi-year highs in viewership. If Woods can remain a factor on Tour in ‘19, will ratings remain sky-high? Or will the “Tiger’s back” bump prove to be a one-year phenomenon?

Staggered scoring at the Tour Championship

In an effort to avoid September golf like it’s the Boogeyman, the PGA Tour revamped its schedule for 2018-19. There are some significant changes: the PGA Championship is moving from August to May (more on that shortly), and the Players Championship switches from May to March. Both moves make sense on a number of different levels. Less explainable is the new format for the Tour Championship, which will feature a staggered scoring system—the FedEx Cup leader heading into the season finale will start the tournament at 10 under. Second place will begin at eight under…so on and so forth. The player with the lowest “score” at the end of the week will win the Cup and the $15 million first-place prize, which is up from the $10 million Justin Rose took home for winning the points race last season. The first-year success (or lack thereof) of this endeavor will go a long way in determining its long-term viability—if there’s no drama at all, and the tournament is a foregone conclusion, don’t be surprised if the Tour makes another change for 2020. But if it does go well, perhaps it’ll convince the Tour to adopt more outside-the-box formats to implement at some of its 30-plus events. Golf and innovation are hardly synonymous. This could be a step in the right direction.

Ariya Jutanugarn’s time to shine

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How’s this for a resume: 10 LPGA Tour wins, two-time LPGA Tour Player of the Year, two-time LPGA Tour moneylist leader, two-time major winner, No. 1 player in the world. That’s the haul of Ariya Jutanugarn, who is still just 23-years-old, and it’s why ESPN recently (and controversially) listed her as the fourth most dominant athlete in 2019, regardless of gender or sport.  The long-hitting Thai has the makings of an absolute star, and she enters 2019 with a sizable lead over No. 2 in the world rankings. She’s also remarkably consistent, posting seven top-10 finishes in her last 10 starts. There’s no reason she can’t win multiple majors in 2019. 

New PGA Tour schedule

The PGA Championship will make its debut in May after switching from August, and the move makes sense on a couple levels. First, it creates a nice rhythm to the majors. Now it's the Masters in April, the PGA in May, the U.S. Open in June and the British Open in July. Golf always has its most momentum after the Masters, but in the past it has squandered it by making fans wait a full two months for the next major. No longer. More practically speaking, the move means the PGA won't have to shift once every four years to accompany the Olympic Games, which now has golf back in the fold. It also opens up a bunch of potential venues—virtually the entire Southeast—that couldn't host an even in August because it's just too damn hot. But there are two sides to that coin: the first week of May is quite early in the golf season for the Northeast, and what do you know?! The first PGA in May is at Bethpage Black in New York. It's not unheard of to have 40-degree days in New York in May, and that scenario would lead to a whole mess of complaints from famously fickle pros. 

RAPAPORT: Breaking Down the New PGA Tour Schedule

The PGA's shift isn't the only change in this season's schedule. The FedEx Cup playoffs are condensing from four events to three, and the golf season will be over before the month of September starts. That means the Tour won't have to compete with the NFL or college football for viewership, which is a prudent financial decision. The shortened season also gives player more of a true offseason, something they've been clamoring for. All in all, the initial reactions to the new schedule were positive. But you never really know how something will go over until it actually happens. 

Brooks Koepka, three-time major winner

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Brooks Koepka won two PGA Tour events in the 2017-18 season, which doesn’t appear too spectacular on the surface. Then again, both were majors, so that changes the perception a bit. Koepka, who missed the last Masters with a wrist injury, became the first player since 1989 to successfully defend a U.S. Open when he won at Shinnecock. Two months later, he hardly flinched at Tiger’s Sunday fireworks and gutted out a two-shot win at the PGA Championship. Now the No. 1 player in the world, Koepka has firmly established himself as a cold-blooded alpha, a player who thrives when stakes are the highest. A three-major haul is likely good enough for the Hall of Fame already. But, still just 28 years old, Koepka is well positioned to become one of the all-time greats. All eyes will be on him come June, when he’ll try to become the first player since 1905 to win three straight U.S. Opens.

APSTEIN: Despite Two U.S. Opens, Brooks Koepka Still Feels Like an Underdog

Next Ryder Cup captain

The 2018 Ryder Cup was an unmitigated disaster for Team USA. The Europeans shellacked the favored Americans, 17.5-10.5, and had a jolly time doing so. The U.S. team, on the other hand, showed little fight and looked perplexed by the difficult Le Golf National layout. Making matters worse was the post-Cup comments of Patrick Reed, who accused Jordan Spieth of playing favorites and criticized captain Jim Furyk’s communication techniques. Just two years after the famous Ryder Cup Task Force implemented changes that led to a win at Hazeltine 2016, the Americans’ Ryder Cup process is once again under fire. At some point in 2019, a captain will be named to lead the team at Whistling Straits in 2020. Wisconsin native Steve Stricker figures to be the natural choice to captain in his home state, but whoever gets the call will be under immense pressure to win the Cup back. Team Europe has won six of the last nine Ryder Cups; a seventh win in 10 Cups, with another win on American soil, would result in full crisis.

Equipment free agents

What do Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari have in common, besides winning majors in 2018? Each player did so without an equipment contract, opting instead for the freedom to choose which clubs they want to play. This is a growing trend on Tour; more players are sacrificing the money that comes from a club deal, believing they will more than make up for that loss with on-course earnings. There are well-known horror stories of players losing form after an equipment switch (does Bubba Watson’s one-year Volvik era ring a bell?). Don’t be surprised if club free agency gradually becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Paul Azinger replaces Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller’s 29-year tenure as the lead golf analyst for NBC will end with February’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he’ll pair with Dan Hicks on the call for one last event. Miller’s unapologetic honesty—he was the first to call players out for “choking—rubbed some the wrong way, but he was a breath of fresh air on golf broadcasts that far too often deal in vanilla rhetoric. Miller will be replaced by Paul Azinger, a major winner himself and the victorious captain of the 2008 Ryder Cup team. Azinger was a natural choice, as he has significant experience calling big events with Fox and, like, Miller, he has a penchant for calling things like he sees them. But any time a legend moves on—and Miller is a golf broadcasting legend, make no mistake about it—all eyes shift toward his replacement, for better or worse. Azinger will get most of the Florida Swing (including the Players Championship) to get reps and develop chemistry with Hicks before calling his first major with NBC at the Open Championship.

RAPAPORT: Johnny Miller's Unapologetic Honesty Was a Breath of Fresh Air

Bounceback time for Spieth?

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Jordan Spieth has been a household name for so long that it’s hard to believe he’s still just 25 years old. Still, 2018 was arguably his worst year as a professional. Spieth hasn’t won since his 2017 Open Championship victory, his longest drought since his first win by far, and the former world No. 1 currently sits 17th in the world rankings. Spieth struggled mightily with his putter this year, and perhaps wasn’t mentally all there toward the end—he recently married his longtime girlfriend Annie Verrett. The three-time major winner isn’t anywhere close to being done winning majors, but he enters 2019 with more uncertainty than he’s accustomed to. Few doubt that Spieth will eventually return to past glory…perhaps in time for the PGA Championship, where he’ll have another crack at becoming just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.

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