Sport

Golf review of the year: Landscape shaken up again by LIV’s Rahm raid

Jon Rahm (left) and Rory McIlroy have won two Ryder Cups together (Adam Davy/PA)
Jon Rahm (left) and Rory McIlroy have won two Ryder Cups together (Adam Davy/PA) Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy captured a lot of headlines in 2023

AFTER a tempestuous 2022 when all hell broke loose in the world of professional golf, there could have been no more idyllic place than Hawaii to bring the curtain up on the 2023 campaign.

The emergence of LIV Golf created an unprecedented split in the game, with former friends and Ryder Cup team-mates exchanging barbs on social media and in press conferences.

And yet all of that seemed a world away as the Christmas cobwebs were blown off at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first week of January as many of the best the PGA Tour has to offer battled it out for the first silverware of 2023.

Jon Rahm hoists the silverware aloft after winning The Masters at Augusta in April. The Spaniard was the star of the first part of 2023, while his decision to leave the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf meant he was still in the headlines in the latter part of the year (David J. Phillip/AP)

It was Jon Rahm who wrote the headlines with a stunning success, the first of four that led to Masters glory in April, and come the end of the year the Spanish superstar was still dominating the golf news agenda, putting an end to months of speculation by making the switch to the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV series for 2024.

It’s another huge coup for the fledgling tour, with the profile a reigning Major champion can provide sure to boost viewing figures that continued to disappoint in 2023, despite a host of big names having made the leap from the established platforms.

Rahm ended the season as world number three, but in the early part of the year he was undoubtedly the best around, winning three times by the middle of February on the PGA Tour, backing up that Hawaiian success with two more at the American Express and Genesis Invitational, both in California.

Not that the other two members of what had become a ‘big three’ were resting on their laurels in the early throes of the season, with Scottie Scheffler successfully defending his Phoenix Open title, and Rory McIlroy getting off to a flier on the DP World Tour, winning the Hero Dubai Desert Classic for the third time in mid-January, a success made all the sweeter by pipping LIV mouthpiece Patrick Reed thanks to a birdie on the final green, the pair having had a less than friendly crossing of paths on the practice ground before the tournament.

Scheffler made it two victories for the season in March by strolling to a five-shot Players Championship success to take on the mantle of favourite – as well as defending champion – as the first Major of the season arrived at Augusta in April.

McIlroy also went in with his tail up, a runner-up finish in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a run to the semis at the World Matchplay in Houston boosting hopes that he could go one better than his 2022 second place and finally complete the career Grand Slam on Magnolia Lane.

It was not to be, however, a rollercoaster 72 on the opening day and a wild 77 on Friday seeing his hopes going up in smoke.

As McIlroy left Georgia distraught and without speaking to reporters, the main contenders were battling with each other, and terrible weather, as they sought a foothold on a stacked leaderboard.

In the end it was Rahm who outlasted Brooks Koepka on an extended Sunday to clinch his first Green Jacket and second Major in all, with Phil Mickelson rolling back the years to join LIV colleague Koepka in second place to suggest playing 54-hole tournaments away from big galleries might not be as detrimental to Major prospects as had been thought.

Shane Lowry proved best of the Irish in a tie for 12th, while Belfast amateur Matthew McClean performed well but missed the cut on his Major bow.

The fact the big events kept coming meant McIlroy couldn’t afford to lick his wounds for too long, although his last-minute absence from the ‘designated’ RBC Heritage the week after Augusta drew plenty of criticism from his peers.

England’s Matt Fitzpatrick won that one in an epic play-off with Jordan Spieth to suggest two more big names were in fine form going into 2023′s second Major, the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill in upstate New York.

Koepka had won this event in both 2018 and ‘19 – the latter in New York – and he underlined his reputation as a man for the big occasion by claiming his fifth Major, seeing off closest challenger Viktor Hovland by two shots, while Scheffler’s fast finish was enough to claim a share of second and McIlroy put in a decent showing to tie for seventh.

By the time the US Open rolled around a month later, the game had been stunned by the announcement of a ‘Framework Agreement’ between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the bankers behind LIV.

It was news that caught everyone on the hop, not least McIlroy, who had spent much of the previous 12 months going into battle on the PGA Tour’s behalf, only to be left out of the loop like seemingly everyone else.

Wyndham Clark won the US Open in Los Angeles in June, denying Rory McIlroy a fifth Major by a single shot (George Walker IV/AP)

Over six months on, nobody appears to know quite what this merger may look like, but the initial announcement seemed to have a positive impact on McIlroy, who was in contention for Major glory all week at Los Angeles Country Club, a quirky first-time US Open venue that was not to everyone’s liking.

The Holywood man was just a shot adrift of joint-leaders Wyndham Clark and Rickie Fowler going into the final round, and a birdie at the first brought him level.

However, that proved to be as good as it got, with a putter as cold as it had been on the final day at St Andrews 11 months previously undoing plenty of fine long play. Fight as he might, McIlroy could never quite get level with Clark, who despite two late dropped shots became an unheralded Major champion, but not an entirely unexpected one, having captured the prestigious Wells Fargo title in May.

It was another tough pill for runner-up McIlroy to swallow, but he chose to accentuate the positives after yet another Major near miss.

“I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another Major championship,” he said.

“When I do finally win this next Major, it’s going to be really, really sweet.”

That positivity can only have been helped by the fact the Open Championship was just around the corner, particularly as it was to be held at Royal Liverpool, where he lifted the Claret Jug in 2014.

That upbeat frame of mind received a further boost just days before the Open when the Genesis Scottish Open was won in spectacular fashion, with birdies at the final two holes pipping home hope Robert MacIntyre by a shot.

A two-iron approach into a strong wind at the 72nd hole set up a closing birdie and will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it, as well as the man who struck the blow.

“One of the best shots I’ll hit in my career,” was how McIlroy summed it up.

Just four days later, the eyes of the world were on the Wirral as the 151st Open Championship got going, and despite a fine opening round from local lad Tommy Fleetwood, it was evident early on the second day that there was only going to be one winner, and not one the vast majority of the galleries would have wanted.

Unfashionable American left-hander Brian Harman just couldn’t miss, either off the tee or on the greens, and his halfway lead of five shots was the biggest in an Open since 1934.

He held on to that advantage on Saturday, and never looked flustered on the final day, despite winds, rain and a rather too vocal pro-Fleetwood crowd.

Harman picked the perfect time to have the week of his life, eventually rounding off a six-shot success, with Jason Day, Rahm, Sepp Straka and Tom Kim sharing second. McIlroy was a further stroke back in sixth, a decent effort to bring yet another commendable but ultimately fruitless Major season to a close.

With the biggest prizes out of the way, the focus turned to the biggest purses in terms of the FedEx Cup in America, and while McIlroy was the defending champion in that regard, it was another European in Hovland who caught fire at the ideal time to boost his bank balance to the tune of $18m.

The Norwegian hinted at things to come by winning Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament in the spring, and he backed up his potential in late summer, winning the BMW Championship and Tour Championship back-to-back take the big cheque.

The emergence of Hovland as a world class talent was music to the ears of European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald, who knew he now had a third pillar to lean on alongside Rory and Rahm for the contest in Rome at the end of September against a star-studded USA line-up.

Donald played a blinder in every way, and from the moment Hovland chipped in on the first green at Marco Simone early on Friday morning, the contest was only ever going one way.

Europe went through the opening day without losing a match to open up a 6 1/2 to 1 ½ advantage, and Zach Johnson’s rudderless and seemingly divided away side were as good as beaten.

Indeed, the only real fight shown by the Americans came during a flashpoint late on the Saturday as McIlroy and Joe LaCava, Patrick Cantlay’s caddie, exchanged heated words on the 18th green. The ‘disagreement’ carried into the car park, with Shane Lowry bundling his fellow Irishman into a car for his own good.

The disruption failed to derail the Europeans, with big guns Hovland and McIlroy winning their singles easily. Tyrrell Hatton also claimed his point, while Rahm rallied to earn a half against Scheffler.

That left a contest between Fleetwood and Lowry – a controversial wildcard pick in some eyes but a key man on and off the course – to score the winning point, with the Englishman getting the job done to start wild celebrations.

Asked to sum up his feelings, Lowry gave an emotional response.

“I just love it, it’s what I live for. It’s the only reason I get up in the mornings,” said the Offaly man.

‘I’m very fortunate to have done a lot in the game, but this week has meant so much to me and it’s a dream come true, it really is.”

Ryder Cup
Ryder Cup Shane Lowry leads the celebrations after Europe's Ryder Cup victory in Rome

While McIlroy and Lowry will have their sights firmly set on being part of Donald’s team at Bethpage Black in New York in 2025, another Holywood star in Tom McKibbin might also see himself as an outside bet to be there, having made a brilliant breakthrough in his rookie DP World Tour campaign.

The youngster showed promise in the early part of the season but really burst into the limelight at the Porsche European Open in Germany in June, hitting the front on the third day and holding off a stream of challengers over the closing 18 holes to clinch a maiden tour title.

And while the talent was there for all to see it was the way he held his nerve to hit a stunning 203-yard approach from behind a tree and over water to set up a birdie on the final green that really augurs well for the future.

McKibbin made it all the way to the DP World Tour Championship in November, but the season finale didn’t quite have the jeopardy the organisers would have wished, with McIlroy having claimed the Order of Merit for a fifth time before a ball was hit on the Earth Course in Dubai.

In the end, another Ryder Cup star in Nicolai Hojgaard won the event itself, but McIlroy was presented with the main silverware on the 18th green afterwards to bring the curtain down on another fine campaign that started with a trophy in the same city some 10 months before.

In between times, Sweden’s Vincent Norrman claimed an unlikely victory in the Irish Open at the K Club in September as he posted an early score and watched the competition fall away.

Galgorm and Castlerock hosted the ISPA Handa World Invitational a month earlier, with England’s Daniel Brown and America’s Alexa Pano taking the men’s and women’s titles respectively.

Away from the main tours, Padraig Harrington continued to pull up trees on the Champions Tour in America, winning twice – at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in New York and the TimberTech Championship in Florida in November – while he lost a play-off to Alex Cejka in the Senior Open at a wet and windy Royal Porthcawl.

There was an Open champion from this island crowned in 2023, however, with Co Louth man Brendan Lawlor reminding everyone of his class by winning the inaugural G4D Open at Woburn, and he remains right at the top of the disability game.

Meanwhile, Leona Maguire’s world class credentials are being backed up almost by the week, with the Cavan star playing a pivotal role in Europe retaining the Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesin in Spain.

Suzann Pettersen’s home side slumped to a 4-0 loss in the opening foursomes but fought back superbly, with nobody epitomising their battling qualities better than Maguire, who won three points including a singles victory over Rose Zhang as the sides played out a 14-14 tie.

On the individual front, Maguire won her second LPGA Tour title at the Meijer Classic in Michigan and 2024 will surely be about pushing hard for Majors and being a fulcrum in another Solheim side in Florida.

In terms of the men’s game, with the PGA tour still having McIlroy, Hovland and Scheffler at the peak of their powers, Rahm bound to add a level of intrigue and interest to LIV, and Tiger Woods making his first tentative steps in yet another comeback, there is much to look forward to in the new year.

However, quite what the golfing world looks like when 2024 is at an end is anyone’s guess.