We have witnessed tournaments without fans – which gave us, if nothing else, a break from screams of, “Get in the hole!” Perhaps in an act of karmic grace, we have witnessed what can best be described as “The Year of the Comeback.” They are familiar names to all: Lydia Ko, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Mike Weir, Hideki Matsuyama, Ariya Jutanugarn.
All are Major champions. All have endured droughts, some bad enough to draw whispers – loud ones in a few cases – that they might not win again. Cink’s last victory had been the 2009 Open Championship (which is best remembered for Tom Watson not winning at 59), and Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, had not won in 13 years.
Ko and Spieth were the biggest mysteries to those who think they understand golf. Ko won on the LPGA Tour in 2012 at age 15. She won two Majors by age 17 and was No.1 in the world for 84 weeks. When she won the LPGA Mediheal Championship in April 2018, she had 15 LPGA Tour victories. Then her game, shockingly, went south.
She went through the usual changes that players often make when they struggle: she changed swing coaches and caddies. She bottomed in August of last year when her world ranking fell to 55. But then something started to click. She had nine top-10s in 15 starts. Finally, in April she shot 65 in the final round to win the Lotte Championship.
Ko, 24, was dazzlingly honest after her victory when she talked about not winning. “When it doesn’t happen, you do doubt yourself,” she said. “If I said I didn’t doubt myself at all, it would be a lie. I wondered if I’d ever be back in the winner’s circle.”
Spieth travelled a similar path. He won the 2015 Masters and US Open at 21 and the Open Championship two years later. Then, having won 11 times on the PGA Tour and ranked No.1 for 44 weeks, he stopped winning after 2017, hardly contending.
Spieth then found a spark this year with three top-fives before winning the Valero Texas Open in April. Like Ko, Spieth was candid about his struggles: “There were a lot of times I wondered if I’d be here,” he said. Then he hedged: “I never doubted in myself to get to where I wanted to go.” Then back to fully candid Jordan: “A lot of times it’s hard to see the positive going forward.”
Great players rarely doubt themselves publicly when they aren’t playing well. Privately is different, especially when you have won a lot and stop winning. Golf is unique in that a player can go years without winning and still be around to win again. Other sports don’t allow slumpers to linger. Cink, now 48, began the comebacks with a victory in September at the Safeway Open and again at the RBC Heritage in April. He’s at an age when most guys are thinking about playing with the 50-and-older set. No doubt his game was affected by wife Lisa’s battle with breast cancer, and her recovery is surely connected to his renaissance.
Garcia’s win at the Sanderson Farms event last October, at 40, was his first on the PGA Tour since his dramatic victory at the 2017 Masters. Jutanugarn ended her winless streak in May, the first victory in almost three years for the former world No.1. Weir, 50, won on the PGA Tour Champions in May for his first victory since 2007. Also in May, Mickelson dazzled all around him at the PGA Championship to become the first 50-something golfer to claim a Major.
There are many reasons why outstanding players lose their way. Ko and Spieth probably had too much thrown at them because they were so good so young. They might benefit from being reminded that, “There’s a reason why golf is a four-letter word,” as Greg Norman put it so eloquently years ago.
Koepka and McIlroy are both four-time Major champions who should be entering their peak years. Koepka won the PGA in 2019, meaning he had won four of eight Majors in two years. Then injuries intervened, and he stopped winning. Koepka ended his 18-month winless streak in February but is again dealing with knee problems.
McIlroy’s winless string dated only to 2019. But he hit a nadir unlike any in his career when he missed the cut at the 2021 Players and Masters. McIlroy admitted he had made a mistake by trying to hit the ball farther after watching Bryson DeChambeau overpower Winged Foot to win the US Open last year. The honesty wasn’t a surprise; the mental mistake was stunning.
Then there is Matsuyama. In 2017, at age 25, he had five PGA Tour titles and 13 victories worldwide. Then he stopped winning. But on Saturday at this year’s Masters, Matsuyama shot 65 to take control and hung on to become the first Japanese man to win a Major.
McIlroy distills what they’ve all been through in three simple words: “Winning is hard,” he said after winning in May for his 19th PGA Tour victory. Perhaps that’s the lesson. All golfers – from weekend hackers through Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Kathy Whitworth (who won 88 times) – go through periods when it’s hard to play their best. The reasons might be different, but the feeling when you find a way to win again is the same, as best explained by McIlroy.
“Relief,” he said after hanging on for his recent win. “And satisfaction.”
Feature image by Getty images: Lionel Ng