Not since 2001 has there been a year in which the golf world was so profoundly impacted by something “outside the ropes” as 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. From the moment late in the evening of Thursday, March 12, when a stunned Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, announced the cancellation of the Players Championship after just one round—the first of several similarly profound (and surreal) declarations from executives throughout the golf community in the days that followed—our sport has been shaken at every level. The saving grace of the coronavirus is that golf has been able to serve as a salve in so many ways for a general public longing for order and comfort and the familiar. Participation in the recreational game skyrocketed, golf becoming an outlet for those in need of distraction as it proved to be among the safer sports to play. And consumption of the competitive game increased as well, Monahan bringing back the PGA Tour in June, the LPGA and European Tours returning shortly after, the majority of the men’s and women’s majors played successfully at later dates, without fans but not without fanfare.
While the days run together during a pandemic, the calendar professes 2020 is coming to a close (finally!). Which means it’s time to embark on our annual review of the last 12 months. As always, our “Newsmakers” package aims to revisit the year in golf and retell the stories that helped define the sport. In counting down the top 25 during the next several days, many entries have been directly touched by the specter of COVID-19. But you also might be surprised at how many of our favorite people, events and moments rose above the pandemic and stood out for what they said about the individual or the group. As always there were a few clear choices—spoiler alert, Bryson DeChambeau is pretty high on our list—but also some characters who are less obvious yet, we think, no less worthy, once again, of our collective appreciation. —Ryan Herrington
It’s hard to believe now, but in a pre-COVID world the most-heated debate—at least, in the golf world—stemmed from Zinger’s zinger at Tommy Fleetwood during the final round of the Honda Classic in March. For a moment, the NBC commentator sounded more like an American Ryder Cup captain trying to fire up his squad when he said, “These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour or in the international game and all that,” Azinger said, “but you have to win on the PGA Tour.” More than what Azinger said, though, was how he said it. Many European players from Ian Poulter to Lee Westwood rightfully found the words condescending, particularly the line, “that European Tour.” To be fair to Azinger, though, even Fleetwood acknowledged the importance of winning in America. And whether it was the pressure of doing so or not, his chances of doing so disappeared when his second shot found the water on the par-5 18th at PGA National. In any event, Fleetwood enters 2021 still in search of a win on U.S. soil, and Azinger remains in the 18th tower for NBC. At the very least, like his predecessor Johnny Miller, Azinger seems to get golf fans—and golfers—talking. —Alex Myers
Like seemingly every controversy in golf, the heated debate that centered around the acceptability of wearing hooded sweatshirts—aka Hoodies—during a golf tournament was manufactured on social media. While well-known players like Tony Finau, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy had worn them in competition before, HoodieGate didn’t really “explode” until Tyrrell Hatton won the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship in September wearing one. And by “explode,” we mean a handful of folks with 26 Twitter followers were upset with Hatton’s Bill Belichick-ian look at Wentworth. Nevertheless, the debate persisted, becoming less of a Hoodie-specific controversy and more of a diatribe on proper golf attire in general. One English golf club doubled down on its no-hoodie rule after Hatton’s victory. Ewan Porter, a former tour pro, told the story of being kicked out of an Australia golf club for wearing black socks. These two situations had many up in arms over golf’s outdated “dress code,” the argument being that if we want to grow the game, forcing people to abide by archaic rules ain’t the way to go. One thing is clear: There is still a divide regarding golf’s dress-code debates, be it on social media or behind the closed gates of an exclusive club. —Christopher Powers
Mike Davis soon will break new ground as he segues into a career in golf course architecture with partner Tom Fazio II. Of course, many would argue—some saying for the better and, yes, more than a few for the worse—that Davis, 55, has been doing that for years during his tenure at the USGA, which will come to a close at the end of 2021. Davis said in September that he’ll be stepping down as CEO of the organization where he’s worked since 1990 and been in charge since 2011, leaving to pursue his first love, because, he said, “I’m closer to 60 than I am 50, and there was almost a sense that if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it.” During his tenure, Davis oversaw, among many initiatives, the modernization of the Rules of Golf, the launch of the World Handicap System, the creation of the USGA Foundation, the debut of four new championships and plans for a second USGA headquarters in Pinehurst, N.C. He also, with mixed results, took the U.S. Open in a different direction with the selection of new courses like Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, and with the setup of old standbys like Winged Foot, Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills that featured graduated rough and multiple teeing grounds. Critics harped on tests that were either too easy (Erin Hills) or too tricked up (Shinnecock Hills) or simply not of true U.S. Open character (Chambers Bay). In the end, however, he put his stamp on the association, and though he said, “I hate the idea of leaving,” he nevertheless leaves as he served—on his own terms. —Dave Shedloski