Sports Review of 2016: Golf's tears, jeers and new winners

It was sprinkled with brilliance and had controversy thrown in, too. Sadness, though, is the over-riding memory from 2016 in golf due to the sport losing 'The King'. Arnold Palmer, the man who did more than anyone to glamorise and popularise professional golf, passed away at 87 in late September. His death came the day before the two teams flew into Minneapolis for the 41st Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, where the spirit of Palmer influenced events in much the same way as that of Seve Ballesteros at Medinah in 2012, the first match following the swashbuckling Spaniard's death.

Sweden's Henrik Stenson celebrates after winning The Open at Royal Troon. Picture: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

With a tribute wall to Palmer in the tented village and his 1975 Ryder Cup bag standing on the first tee, the Americans were inspired over the three days. The task force that had been set up in the wake of a heavy defeat at Gleneagles in 2014 got the instant reward it so desperately needed with a 4-0 whitewash in the opening session. Despite the efforts of Belgian Thomas Pieters and Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello – they both made dazzling debuts – Darren Clarke’s European side was fighting a losing battle by the time it came to the 
concluding singles.

The final day started with fans being warned that a “zero tolerance policy” was being implemented. Some people had stepped over the line the previous day, prompting Rory McIlroy to confront one offender over the abuse directed at him. If that was some of the worst behaviour witnessed at a Ryder Cup, the golf produced by McIlroy and Patrick Reed in the concluding session was up there with the best. They traded blows over the front nine like two heavyweight boxers, before Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia did likewise on the back nine.

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Losing 17-11 – their biggest defeat in 35 years – was certainly sore for Europe but not disastrous. After three successive losses, the event really needed an American win. It was a fitting tribute to Palmer. Now the attention has turned to the 2018 contest in Paris. Dane Thomas Bjorn has already been appointed as the European captain. Either Fred 
Couples or Steve Stricker is likely to lead the Americans into battle at Le Golf National. The countdown clock is already ticking.

The four men’s majors in 2016 all produced first-time winners in the game’s biggest events. Englishman Danny Willett sparked that trend when cashing in on Jordan Spieth’s Masters meltdown on the back nine at Augusta. Willett was the first British player to pull on a Green Jacket in 20 years. He almost ended up in a straitjacket due to his brother’s ill-considered and ill-timed views on American golf fans on the eve of the Ryder Cup. “Sh**,” was Willett’s description of how that particular week turned out for him.

After letting opportunities slip from his grasp previously, Dustin Johnson finally finished the job off when landing the US Open at Oakmont. What made that success all the more sweet for the big-hitting American was that he prevailed despite the USGA turning the last day into a fiasco. Johnson was initially told he would not be assessed for a penalty stroke after his golf ball moved as he addressed a putt on the fifth green only to be then informed a few holes later that an assessment would be made at the end of the round. Thankfully, that particular incident has led to a subsequent rule change.

Change had also been in the air at Royal Troon in the countdown to the Open Championship’s first visit there in 12 years. With impeccable timing, the Ayrshire club voted overwhelmingly in favour of admitting women members, the decision coming not long after the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers had seen a similar proposal turfed out by the Muirfield membership. With the R&A moving swiftly to declare that the East Lothian club would not be considered for the Open Championship again over a stance that was described by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as “simply indefensible”. A second vote is set to take place in 2017.

With the thorny issue out of the way on the Ayrshire coast, Royal Troon staged a memorable Open Championship. It produced Sweden’s first men’s major winner as Henrik Stenson came out on top over Phil Mickelson after a thrilling weekend battle. The quality of the duo’s play was highlighted by Stenson’s 20-under-par 264 total being the lowest 72-hole score ever in a major. It rivalled the “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1997. As had been the case then, the two golfing gladiators came off the 18th green with an arm around the other’s shoulders. With all due respect, Jimmy Walker’s win in the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol a fortnight later was easily forgettable in comparison.

Golf’s return to the Olympics after more than 100 years in Brazil in August stirred up plenty of controversy. Using concerns about the zika virus as the reason, McIlroy opted out, as did Johnson, Spieth and world No 1 Jason Day among others. As debates raged on about whether or not they’d let down their sport, 
Justin Rose pipped Stenson for the men’s gold medal, while Korea’s Inbee Park won the women’s event. It featured Catriona Matthew, who represented Team GB at the age of 46.

Just as Matthew is still comfortably the Scottish women’s No 1, Russell
Knox is ending 2016 in a similar position in the men’s game. Helped by a second PGA Tour win – the Travelers Championship in August – he has established himself in the world 
top 20. Elsewhere, alas, it was a first fruitless season since 2009 for Scots on the European Tour, while the Ladies European Tour also failed to yield a Caledonian winner.

The highlights of the year in the amateur ranks were Scotland making a successful defence of the European Men’s Team Championship in France and Elaine Farquharson-Black, an Aberdeen 
lawyer, leading Great Britain & 
Ireland’s women to a Curtis Cup victory over the Americans at 
Dun Laoghaire in Ireland.

Having recently made his long-awaited return following a 15-month lay-off after three back surgeries, Tiger Woods is sure to command a lot of focus in 2017, when Matthew will be one of Annika Sorenstam’s assistant captains for a Solheim Cup in Iowa while Craig Watson will be at the helm when GB&I try to retain the Walker Cup in 
Los Angeles.