Ben Coley reflects on Tiger Woods' victory in the Zozo Championship and its wider implications as he looks back on the latest golfing weekend.
It took until Monday, but Tiger Woods has his 82nd PGA Tour title after a dominant, three-shot victory in the Zozo Championship. He is now the equal of Sam Snead in the history books, one away from setting a new benchmark which will surely never be reached.
For some, transgenerational pissing contests are neither necessary nor particularly dignified, but in this instance it feels important. Snead – a colossus, no doubt – compiled his extraordinary numbers in a more ordinary time, some with the aid of a partner, and Woods deserves to be the most decorated player in the history of the game.
It would have been a shame if he had ended his career on 81 wins, just as it would have been a shame had he ended his career on 14 major championships. In 2019, somehow, Lazarus with a limp dealt with both.
Fitting, too, that Woods’ latest milestone should be reached in Japan, where the PGA Tour broke new ground in the Zozo Championship.
Despite Friday’s play being washed out altogether and Saturday’s delayed second round being closed to spectators, this tournament was a success made sweeter by the game’s greatest answering questions posed chiefly by Hideki Matsuyama, for a while now Japan’s major champion in waiting.
Hordes of spectators turned out when they were allowed to, most of them keeping their phones in their pockets and choosing to witness rather than to record history. Japan it seems is a nation in love with golf, and five days on the outskirts of Tokyo left one wondering why it’s taken so long for the very best golfers to get here.
This year, the world’s premiere circuits have both entered new territory. One (richer, yes, and in a position of relative luxury) went to Japan. The other (poorer, yes, and in a position of relative weakness) went to Saudi Arabia, renting some of the best players to help deliver what had been expected.
One event had soul, the other was utterly soulless, and while some might argue that comparing the two is no more necessary than to compare Woods and Snead, there is a lesson to be learned here. Perhaps the European Tour ought to seek out an existing audience for its next venture, rather than take the money under the nonsense pretence of wishing to develop a new one.
Two years ago, Hideki Matsuyama was left trailing in the final round of the Dunlop Phoenix, which until last week was the most significant event in Japan when it comes to attracting international attention.
Matsuyama had made a hole-in-one at the third hole of the final round to close the gap on Brooks Koepka, only to then splutter as the American defended his title in what was ultimately a nine-shot romp.
Bar the margin of victory, this wasn’t especially remarkable. All the right names were there or thereabouts – Xander Schauffele second, Matsuyama fifth – and, on the golf course at least, we learned very little. Koepka began the week ranked seventh in the world, and that’s precisely where he remained come the start of the next one.
Off it, though, came a glimpse into the mind of Matsuyama, who had won seven titles over the preceding 18 or so months, latterly a World Golf Championship which he took by five, and who had been inside the world’s top five since January.
Despite all that, Matsuyama was noticeably downcast after an event which ought not to have left a lasting impression on him, especially as he'd won it before. Asked to reflect on the week, and specifically Koepka’s performance, he replied: "I feel there’s a huge gap between us." Even allowing for the rawness of the moment, it was a shockingly honest thing to say.
Two years on, a period in which he's failed to win anything, and I wonder whether the nature of Matsuyama’s performance in the Zozo Championship might mark the turning of the tide.
In finishing runner-up he was outstanding, doing all he could to pressure a golfer who responds better to it than anyone else in history. It was the best performance Matsuyama has produced since that demolition job at Firestone and it might just set him right back on track.
Mind over matter
Whenever I write about the myriad factors which might influence a golfer's performance, I can hear the counter argument. What about all the things we don’t hear about? How do you quantify it? These are valid questions and present a weekly dilemma: it's impossible to know everything, never mind measure it, but does that mean we should ignore parts of the information we do have?
Just lately, though, there’s been evidence to take care of replies for a couple of years at least. On the PGA Tour, the first two events were won by definite contenders for the Presidents Cup, doubtless spurred on to act now, and then Cameron Champ found the strength to triumph in California between visits to the bedside of his ailing grandfather, who passed away just last week.
Even Woods himself may have felt the need to go and win to justify self-selection for the Presidents Cup – more on that later – and at the end of another busy year, which began for most in the second week in January, small, motivating factors can make all the difference.
On the European Tour, we’ve had a Frenchman win in Scotland before revealing he’s relocated to Dundee – not a motivational factor as such, but certainly one which worked in his favour – and then came Nicolas Colsaerts, who ended a seven-year winless run precisely at the point of peril, with his European Tour card firmly on the line.
In doing so, Colsaerts also spoke warmly about the difference it made to hear familiar voices in the crowd. A French-speaking Belgian, Colsaerts had played in the event a dozen times before and it had not seemingly helped. That underlines the complexity of trying to weight such factors, but it also underlines that they can and do exist.
Last week, Justin Walters produced his second best European Tour finish, one in which he came closer than ever before to winning at this level. His very best finish came in 2013 when, soon after the death of his mother, the South African courageously finished second in the Portugal Masters to keep his playing rights. Six years on, his father having passed away earlier this summer, he did the very same thing.
The winner, meanwhile, needed a top-two finish to keep his card and went one place better to win. Steven Brown was outstanding as he produced the shot of his life to set up eagle at the 12th, and held his nerve thereafter. Primarily, this was the display of a golfer who said in September that he'd started to find answers towards the end of a season of struggle, and knew that if things didn't work out in Portugal, he had nothing to fear from Q School.
Still, for all the hard work on the range, there's surely no doubt that it was Brown's circumstances which helped extract a performance which was buried deep within. Had things gone badly last week, he would have been without a European Tour card. Now, he's a European Tour winner.
At the risk of burying the lede, I'm not sure Tiger Woods should select himself for the Presidents Cup.
What follows is borderline gratuitous, because Tiger Woods was 99% likely to select himself a week ago, and he's since won again. It was his third victory in his last 14 starts, each of them in elite company. Except for the fact he did not qualify for the biennial event, it's now inarguable that he deserves to play in it. It's also easy to conclude he'll strengthen the US team and that he could weaken the Internationals at the knees; easier still to argue they could pick just about any professional American golfer as the 12th man and still expect to win.
I'm just not sure Tiger Woods should select himself for the Presidents Cup.
For starters, the four players who split Woods and the final qualifying place are all hard to leave out. Gary Woodland is the in-form US Open champion; Tony Finau was a star at the Ryder Cup; Patrick Reed still boasts an outstanding team record for all the issues of Paris last September; Rickie Fowler is popular, easy to pair, and ideal for Australia.
OK, in typing that I'm tempted to break off and make the cases against Reed and Fowler. Certainly, there's an argument that the former has brought toxicity as well as points and that he represents a sort of Micro Woods, whose first 20 years as a professional were dotted with disappointing team displays in which he either played poorly or proved too big a presence for his inferior playing partners to handle.
Where Reed is concerned it's more that he is not particularly popular in that team room, but I suspect it won't make a difference. He'll be in the team. Fowler, in and out of form on a light schedule since the US Open, must be more of a doubt as he (quite rightly) puts marriage and going on honeymoon ahead of his professional life for a few weeks.
But back to Woods, and I just wonder whether he'd be better off captaining the team properly, gaining experience which could prove hugely beneficial when he inevitably graduates to the equivalent Ryder Cup role, and in the process ensures that another US player can pick up more team golf experience, whether it's any of the four mentioned or someone like Kevin Na or, better yet, Billy Horschel.
Won't happen though. Waste of time.
For the notebook
To make up for the above, a couple of players caught the eye in Portugal so let's finish with them.
Firstly, Andy Sullivan and Matt Wallace were among the first to congratulate Brown, seemingly an extremely popular member of the English contingent on the European Tour.
Sullivan has struggled since finishing second in the Irish Open, and it's now more than four years since he last won. However, a step forward in Paris was followed by another in Portugal, where he led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green, and for all that he likes both courses, there's still plenty of cause for optimism.
The problem for Sullivan, as is true for all mid-tier European Tour players, is that we now move into a run of very strong events. It's difficult to see him winning in elite company after so long, but his form in Turkey and Dubai at least offers encouragement that he might be up to contending before dropping back down in grade either shortly before or soon after Christmas.
Wallace, meanwhile, continues to appear close to adding to his tally. He's going to be of particular interest in Dubai if remaining in this sort of form but, more so than Sullivan, is capable of popping up sooner than that if things click.
Finally and no less obviously, George Coetzee in many ways built on a runner-up finish in France, despite dropping to 14th on a frustrating final day in Vilamoura.
Coetzee again flushed it, not always the case for a player considered one of the deadliest putters around, and he's clearly turned a corner. He'll crop up on leaderboards over the next few weeks and threaten to win either the Nedbank or the Alfred Dunhill when he returns home.