Career breakthroughs highlighted a drama-filled 2021 on the PGA Tour

Should you go in search of flavour on the PGA Tour, here is a hint: you needn’t do a lot of digging. In fact, stay at the surface. No shovel required. Specifically, names in the top 20 on the final-season FedEx Cup points list for 2020-2021 provide a great sense of the uniqueness that is an integral part of the PGA Tour – there’s youth and experience, 13 American stars and eight international talents, familiar names and breakthrough artists.

Peruse the list, savour the storylines, digest the accomplishments and you’ll know why an esteemed observer such as Graeme McDowell at 42 is as passionate as ever to be a part of the show.

“It’s just becoming harder to do, though, because the level of play is so strong, so good, so long, so aggressive,” said the gentleman from Northern Ireland. “The scoring continues to get better and better and better all the time.”

But McDowell refuses to turn away. In fact, 20 years after playing his first PGA Tour tournament, the 2010 US Open champ is as enamoured as ever with the circuit. When he studies the landscape and especially the way 2020-2021 unfolded with so many success stories, McDowell suggests that dozens of players maintain an attitude that is ingrained in today’s professional golfers.

We “re-set, re-focus, re-motivate”, McDowell said.

The top two names on the season-ending FedEx Cup points list, Patrick Cantlay and Jon Rahm, owe their 2020-2021 successes to the ability to move on from setbacks. Cantlay, for instance, nursed a back issue and missed some prime time in 2014-2015. And when he hit more turbulence early in 2021 – three missed cuts in a four-tournament stretch – he didn’t panic.

A few weeks later, Cantlay won the Memorial Tournament, then he kicked it into another gear a few months later, winning two FedEx Cup Playoff events – the BMW Championship and Tour Championship – to earn the coveted FedEx Cup.

“It was a long year. I could barely remember when it started,” said Cantlay, who, like his colleagues, navigated an array of COVID-mandated hurdles to travel and compete.

“I’m very tired after just a ton of golf and a ton of pressure golf. But I’m very grateful and happy to be here.”

It’s ironic that Cantlay had to hold off Rahm to win the FedEx Cup, because it was the Spaniard’s low point in 2021 that in some ways kick-started the American’s season.

A whopping 18-under and in possession of a six-stroke lead after 54 holes, Rahm was forced to withdraw from the Memorial when he tested positive for COVID. Cantlay went on to win the tournament at 13-under, but Rahm refused to let the disappointment define him.

Instead, Rahm “re-set” and “re-focused”. He won his next start a few weeks later with a stirring effort at the US Open.

You could argue that – with 15 top-10 finishes in 22 starts highlighted by T-3, T-5 and T-8 performances in the year’s other three Majors – Rahm was the PGA Tour’s most impressive player of 2020-2021.

But what speaks volumes for the overall health of the PGA Tour picture is this: beyond the fierce Cantlay-Rahm competition that punctuated the close of the season, there were several themes and storylines that generated plenty of interest and deserve applause. There were, for instance, 43 different winners with Cantlay (four) leading the way. Three players won twice each: Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Kokrak and Harris English. Then came a parade of single winners.

The DeChambeau phenomenon was a story unto itself, given his obsession with length, but Kokrak, 36, and English, 32, were posterboys if you love your professional golfers to be resilient and committed to their craft.

Kokrak played nine full seasons without winning before he broke through twice in 2020-2021. English, meanwhile, had two wins early in his career, then experienced a drought of 192 starts during six-plus years before the magic rekindled itself.

If Kokrak qualifies as a “breakthrough” story, he has company, because young Sam Burns flashed his youthful power and precision and won once, finished second twice, and had five other top-10s. When he concluded the Tour Championship T-18 in the FedEx Cup standings, Burns was one of four players 25 or younger inside the top 20 (Rahm, 25; Viktor Hovland, 23; and Sungjae Im, 23 being the others).

Meanwhile, five of those inside the top 20 were 35 or older, including Kevin Na, 37, who had his best year ever, and the enigmatic Sergio Garcia, who at 40 won a PGA Tour tournament for the first time in four seasons and showed great life in his game.

Garcia was hardly alone if you like stories of rejuvenation. Jordan Spieth, after all, awoke from a slumber of nearly four winless years and captured a tournament in his native land, the Valero Texas Open.

Clearly, winning is as difficult as players tell us, because two of the most remarkably consistent players on the PGA Tour – Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen – did everything but win. Both of them piled up eight top-10 finishes and a combined $US11.5 million, but no wins.

Then again, it will be pointed out and should not be forgotten that Schauffele did win something that will be with him forever – a gold medal in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Now there will be those who remember the golf in those Games for who did not win the bronze medal – Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy both fell short in an epic seven-man playoff won by C.T. Pan – but many people will overlook that
and instead circle something else those players did.

Matsuyama, of course, won a Masters Tournament for the ages, the first Japanese golfer to capture the vaunted green jacket. You’d be in good company if you called it golf’s highlight moment in 2021.

Then there was McIlroy, who showed a finishing polish to win the CJ Cup @ Summit in October, his 20th PGA Tour triumph. But more memorably, he choked back tears and raw emotions when talking about his poor Ryder Cup performance. You’d be in good company if you embraced this as a gripping moment because it demonstrated how the splendour of the PGA Tour is tied directly to the passion its players have.

Images –  Getty images: Keyur Khamar