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PGA Tour’s biggest enigmas will start 2021 at career crossroads

For 6 of professional golf’s top stars of the past decade, 2021 will offer a chance to flip recent struggles into redemption

Unlike other pro sports, where sturdy running backs might last a decade and NBA teams flip half of their rosters every three years, golf has an inherent consistency to its constituency, you might say. A 25-year career on the PGA Tour isn’t all that uncommon. Although a fair number of veterans might lose their full-time playing privileges at least once during that stretch, there are still opportunities every season to tee it up for the big bucks. Once status is earned, it never will be revoked.

In that sense, such job security breeds familiarity, but the pro game always has been a star-driven enterprise, although the turnover rate among those in the top tier is also relatively low. There simply aren’t many people on this earth who can shoot a week’s worth of 65s on a 7,400-yard golf course with $9 million on the line, a trait that does a superb job of separating the Tour’s elite from its rank-and-file.

The following six players have been stars for a significant portion of their careers. All six have participated in multiple Ryder Cups. Five of them are major champions; the other has finished second or third at each of the Big Four. As 2020 yields to 2021, all six find themselves at the competitive crossroads, searching for answers after exceptionally poor seasons. Stardom offers a man lots of things, but a lifetime guarantee isn’t one of them.

At the game’s ultimate level, the better a player becomes, the harder it gets.

Justin Rose: He tumbled from eighth to 33rd in the Official World Golf Ranking after a rough 2020, when he missed nine cuts in 19 starts and failed to make it past the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Less than two years ago, Rose held the No. 1 spot in the world ranking. His ball-striking since has declined dramatically, as one of the game’s best iron players – the 40-year-old Englishman ranked 41st or better in greens in regulation from 2011 through 2018 – fell to 148th in 2019, then a ghastly 182nd last season. If you don’t hit greens, you don’t make birdies. If you don’t make birdies, you don’t make Ryder Cup teams.

Keegan Bradley: Talk about wacky careers. As one of very few players to win a major title (2011 PGA) during his first year in the big leagues, Bradley, 34, was a bona fide star until the end of 2013, the year in which the anchoring ban was announced. When the rule went into effect in 2016, Bradley fell apart, dropping outside the top 100 in the OWGR while enduring perhaps the worst putting season in Tour history. Two years later, he came out of nowhere to beat a premium field at the second playoff event. Over the past 27 months, however, that same guy once again has vanished into the competitive ether, collecting just two top-fives in a whopping 64 starts. Would the real Keegan Bradley please stand up? Perhaps he’s lying low for a reason. His current rank (129th) is his lowest in a decade, and if you thought his ’16 putting stats were bad, you should see the numbers over the last two seasons. A good player with a bad allergy to really short grass.

Henrik Stenson: At age 44, he’s not a kid anymore, but after Stenson won the Hero World Challenge last December, there was no reason to believe he’d make 14 starts worldwide without a single top-20 finish in 2020. His six missed cuts included all three majors, the same number of MCs Stenson accumulated in a 28-major stretch in 2013-19. The Swede’s best performance this year probably occurred two weeks ago at the DP World Tour Championship, when he swiped Ian Poulter’s car keys, then posted a video of the prank (including Poulter’s angry reaction) on his Twitter account. Good stuff, Henny. Can you find your game?

Francesco Molinari: By no means was this project designed as a hit list for slumping Europeans, but the numbers speak for themselves. Molinari, 38, has fallen from sixth to 107th in the OWGR since his title defense at the 2019 British Open. He spent almost eight months hiding from the coronavirus at his family’s new home in California, limiting him to seven tournaments, all on the PGA Tour. He missed three cuts in four starts before the pandemic halted play and two of three cuts upon returning. To take things a bit further, Molinari has managed but two top-10s since firing a Sunday 64 to win at Bay Hill 21 months ago. That came at the Masters. The last one played in April, not November.

Just a few years ago, Jordan Spieth (right) found himself far in front of fellow American 27-year-old Justin Thomas (left) in the world order, but those days are long gone.

Just a few years ago, Jordan Spieth (right) found himself far in front of fellow American 27-year-old Justin Thomas (left) in the world order, but those days are long gone.

Jordan Spieth: No one’s struggles have been more deeply chronicled or examined, but then, no player in golf’s modern era has fallen so far, so fast, without an injury contributing to the demise. David Duval never won three major titles, much less before his 24th birthday. Johnny Miller rallied a couple of times after challenging Jack Nicklaus’ superiority in the mid-1970s, and if there’s reason to believe Spieth eventually will, too, it hasn’t come close to happening. He had just two top-10s in 20 starts in 2020, the best a T-9, and slid from 49th to 77th in the OWGR. His driving accuracy (181st) and GIR (190th) ranks never have been worse, and this past season, Spieth, 27, plummeted from second on the Tour in strokes gained putting to 105th. It’s hard not to root for the guy. At times, he’s even harder to watch.

Rickie Fowler: How bad did it get for the Tour’s favorite mortgage salesman? Fowler began 2020 with a T-5 at Kapalua and a T-10 in Palm Springs, then went 18 consecutive starts without another top 10. There were eight missed cuts along the way, six of which contributed to his failure to advance past the first round of the postseason. L’il Rickie, who recently turned 32, will celebrate the holidays at No. 52 in the OWGR, his lowest year-end rank in 11 full seasons as a pro. If potential is life’s greatest curse, Fowler has become Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist,” and there’s not a priest in the house.

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