The ten top newsmakers for 2023

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Each moved the needle – now what lies ahead?
Posted on
December 28, 2023
by
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

The 2023 golf year is rapidly drawing to a close but the year brought to the forefront a number of newsmakers who took center stage making a key impact as we now head into 2024.

Here are the ten most noteworthy newsmakers – in no particular order of emphasis – and how each shaped the golf landscape with a broad range of outcomes.

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Yasir Al-Rumayyan

While Greg Norman may be the public face of LIV – the real power player is Yasir Al-Rumayyan. Norman has often provided ongoing verbal fuel with a range of public comments but like an iceberg that hides much of its mass below water, it is Al-Rumayyan who plays the critical role as actual maestro in deciding what golf music LIV chooses to play via the Public Investment Fund (PIF) he controls.

The 53-year-old Saudi prefers to remain in the shadows but make no mistake it is he carrying out the various moves that keep LIV front and center in shaping professional golf.

Al-Rumayyan wisely opted in to a "framework agreement" with the PGA TOUR on June 6 and to ensure LIV remains a formidable foe he lured Spaniard Jon Rahm just weeks ago to the roster of professional golfers now calling LIV home. The signing of Rahm clearly sent a powerful message to the PGA TOUR as they dialogue with other potential investors on any new partnership. In short, LIV is not going away by any stretch of the  imagination.

Like any smart poker player, Al-Rumayyan keeps his cards close to the vest and declines interviews save for the one he jointly gave with Monahan to CNBC when the framework agreement was announced.

Al-Rumayyan has expressed a clear desire to have a prime seat at the table when professional golf is discussed. The PGA TOUR may have the brand at this moment but the capital firmly rests in Yasir's hands. As circumstances unfold the focus of LIV may certainly evolve beyond the 54-hole no-cut shotgun start events taking place now.

If anything is clear – do not underestimate Al-Rumayyan – those doing that, do so at their peril.

 

Jay Monahan

The impact of June 6 – when PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan sat across from Al-Rumayyan and announced via CNBC a "framework agreement" between the two parties – was startling for the reverse course that had been preached incessantly by Monahan prior to that event.

Monahan's ascension to the lead officer position with the PGA TOUR after taking the reins from Tim Finchem had gone smoothly and his handling of the TOUR's restart following the global pandemic won praise for his keen handling of the various key issues involved.

However, Monahan's standing with professional golfers who remained with the PGA TOUR took a considerable public hit as players denounced the hypocrisy of the man who had been steadfast in leading the organization's denouncement of the rival effort from LIV.

The pressures of the situation forced Monahan for a period of weeks to deal with unspecified health issues and even with his return there has been ongoing critiques that his capacity to act in a unilateral way again will never happen without tour player approval – most notably via new Policy Board member Tiger Woods.

Trust in all aspects of life is a fragile matter. Once broken it can prove to be a nearly insurmountable mountain to climb back to the very top.

Monahan's position, prior to the major flip-flopping on LIV, appeared centered on stable concrete. However, the Commissioner's job position heading into 2024 is more or less resting on shifting Saudi sands - no pun intended.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan (Seth Wenig/AP)

Rose Zhang

After a dominant amateur career, the 20-year-old served quick notice after turning professional and in less than two week's time won her inaugural event on the LPGA Tour – the first time that had been done since 1951.

Zhang had an outstanding collegiate career at Stanford and on April 1, 2023, she captured the Augusta National Women's Amateur. In that same month, she was ranked number one in the World Amateur Golf Rankings for the 141st week, the most of any player in history.

In May 2023, Zhang won the individual NCAA championship for the second consecutive year, becoming the first woman in the event's history to win twice. Her 68.80 scoring average over 31 rounds in the 2022-23 season is the lowest in NCAA women's golf history, bettering the record her Stanford teammate Rachel Heck had set the previous year.

Rose demonstrated immediate impact as a professional and placed in the top ten in four of the five women major events she competed in.

2023 proved to be a noticeable liftoff for the talented 20-year-old who ends the year as the 26th ranked player globally. Can she climb even higher heights in 2024?

The potential to do so is clearly present – so is the related pressure in doing so.

 

Luke Donald

After Team Europe was demolished by a juggernaut USA team in the 2021 Ryder Cup matches at Whistling Straits the need to galvanize and regroup for the 2023 event in Rome was essential.

Prior to the beginnings of LIV, the ensemble of potential captains for Europe contained a roster of several notable names. Eventually Henrik Stenson was selected but the Swede was forced out because of his LIV connection, joining a parade of other key stars such as Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter an Graeme McDowell. All bolted for the upstart tour and what appeared to be a treasure chest of prospective captain's names was whittled down to uncertainty going forward.

Into the breach, Luke Donald was selected. The Englishman, a former world-ranked number one player, demonstrated a quiet resolve and mended key fences needing attention.

Donald reached out to all the key prospects being considered for selection and let it be known those who left for LIV were not going to be included.

The 46-year-old put together a European team that seized an opening day 4-0 lead in the foursomes and never looked back. Luke's captaincy was warmly received by all his players. Reclaiming the famed bi-annual trophy named for Samuel Ryder also dispelled the notion that the best days of European golf were in the past.

Donald's success was reinforced with him being re-named captain for the '25 matches scheduled at Bethpage's Black Course in New York. He becomes the first back-to-back captain since Bernard Gallacher did so from 1991-95.

Many had predicted the first American victory on European soil dating back to 1991. That forecast was quickly dismantled and decisively turned away at Marco Simone. Donald's leadership at the helm via his astute and adroit meshing of his players paved the way for a dominant and convincing win.

Cool hand Luke proved to be the right man at the right time.

 

USGA and R&A

In March the USGA and R&A - the two primary rules organizations within golf – announced a model local rule in which golf ball usage would be split between those at the elite level and those playing the game recreationally.

The joint announcement had been planned for some time to deal with the belief modern golf balls were flying excessive distances and therefore causing harm on a few fronts.

Prior to the announcement both rules making organizations had stated a desire to keep all levels of play under one rules umbrella. Bifurcation was seen – without stating it as such – as a needed way to deal with major increases in overall distance being attained by high-speed players at the elite levels.

Hitting distances at the elite level of the game have consistently increased over the past 20, 40, and 60 years. It’s been two decades since we last revisited our testing standards for ball distances,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA. “Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon.

The model local rule (MLR) we are proposing is simple to implement, forward-looking and does so without any impact on the recreational game. We are taking the next steps in this process, guided first and foremost by doing what’s right by the entire game.”

Ten top newsmakers for 2023
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers (PA Media)

Martin Slumbers, CEO of The R&A, said, “We have worked closely with the golf industry throughout this process and taken time to listen carefully to their perspectives and reflect on the helpful and constructive feedback they have provided. At the core of our proposal is a desire to minimize the impact on a flourishing recreational game.

“We believe the proposed Model Local Rule will help us move forward in a way that protects the inherent qualities of the sport and reduces the pressure to lengthen courses. This is an important issue for golf and one which needs to be addressed if the sport is to retain its unique challenge and appeal.”

Fast forward to December 6 and the USGA and R&A backtracked from their stated position several months earlier and announced all levels of players would be under one specific golf ball standard.

In sum – the "rollback" would go into effect January 1, 2028 for elite level competitions and on January 1, 2030 for all other players.

Needless to say, other key groups within the broader family have not exactly been jumping for joy. The PGA of America, PGA TOUR and different equipment companies all stated some sort of varying concerns.

David Maher, CEO of Acushnet, the leading manufacturer of golf balls globally stated matters succinctly – "Many important stakeholders do not see distance as a problem the way the governing bodies do and therefore come to differing conclusion about how to proceed to ensure the best possible outcome for the sport."

USGA & R&A

Given the volatile nature of the topic one can be assured more comments – pro and con – will be provided in the years ahead.

This would mean distances previously attained would be reined in according to skill level. At the highest of levels, the loss would be 9-11 yards while those at the recreational level roughly five or less yards.

The USGA and R&A only have direct control of golf ball usage for the events they run. The central dimension rests with each persuading others to follow in lockstep the direction they wish to go.

While the train is planning to leave the station in a few years' time it will take considerable effort for the two rules making organizations to prove why following their lead is in the best interest for all connected to the sport.

The jury on that specific question is still out.

 

Tiger Woods

Whatever the 15-time major winner does is always news. Woods returned to competition in this year's Masters and made the cut for a record tying 24th time – sharing the mark with Fred Couples and Gary Player.

However, the only issue was weather for the third round deteriorated and his surgically repaired foot caused extreme pain forcing the four-time green jacket winner to withdraw. The first time he had not completed 72 holes at Augusta.

Woods returned to competition later in the year at his Hero Challenge event in the Bahamas but his play resulted in finishing near the bottom of the limited field event and a distant 20 shots behind winner Scottie Scheffler. Tiger also played with his son Charlie in the PNC Championship in Orlando in December.

The just turned 48-year-old is now turning his attention to being a recently installed member of the PGA TOUR advisory board. Woods was not happy with the unilateral decision by Commissioner Jay Monahan acting in concert with two board members in starting dialogue with LIV Tour without getting any feedback from the players prior to such an action being taken.

Tiger has stated he plans to return to competition – albeit with a scaled-down schedule and having him compete in only a few select events outside the major championships. As of now, the three-time winner of the U.S. Open is not eligible for that event for the first time since 1996.

The fundamental issue remains – can Woods summon the requisite skills to be a meaningful competitor? This year's Masters marks the fourth anniversary of his 15th major triumph and fourth green jacket. Woods believes he still has competitive rubber on his tires.

The question remains will Tiger  be able to prove his critics wrong or is he in denial that he can approach a level of play that can bring him back to the winner's circle. If Woods is unable to demonstrate that capacity one cannot rule out the possibility he may retire from active competition.

Ten top newsmakers for 2023
Tiger Woods and his son Charlie Woods during the first round of the PNC Championship (AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski, File)

 

Gil Hanse

Golf architecture takes a placement via the efforts of its most sought-after designer – Gil Hanse. The 60-year-old continues a stellar run of efforts – via updating of pre-existing championship courses as well as new efforts that have reaped critical acclaim.

Hanse catapulted his career by landing the plum assignment of designing the 18-hole course for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 games.

In short order he has been the point man in resurrecting illustrious championship courses such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Oakland Hills, Merion, Oakmont, Southern Hills, The Country Club, to name just a few.

The most recent success took place this past June when The Los Angeles CC hosted the U.S. Open on its North Course. For years the club vociferously eschewed any desire to host outside events even though the USGA had courted the club to stage the national championship of American golf.

Hanse brilliantly updated the famed George Thomas design with assistance from long-time associates Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford.

LACC took a test run in hosting the 2017 Walker Cup matches. For the U.S. Open the North Course featured an array of different holes – par-3s ranging from 124 to 290 yards.

Hanse's original designs have incorporated many of the design elements that came into existence during golf's golden age of architecture in the 1920s. His continued efforts have hastened many clubs to rethink what they provide and how to engage an array of other architects who have followed in the footsteps Hanse has put into motion.

Rory McIlroy

The four-time major winner went in different directions throughout 2023. Initially, the gifted golfer became the point person in advocating on behalf of the PGA TOUR.

Routinely McIlroy would prompt questions from media on the latest point / counterpoint on the happening of LIV.

Rory was steadfast in his advocacy of the PGA TOUR and many wondered whether such involvement only served to undercut his effort to end a major-less drought stretching back to 2014.

McIlroy started off the year by winning the Hero Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour. He birdied the final two holes to beat Patrick Reed by one shot. But he missed the cut at the Masters and after a short break rebounded and finished tied for seventh at the PGA Championship in May.

At the U.S. Open in June, McIlroy finished solo-second, one shot behind winner Wyndham Clark. In July, the week before The Open Championship, McIlroy won the Genesis Scottish Open. The following week at The Open Championship, he finished tied-sixth. In September 2023, McIlroy played on the European team in the 2023 Ryder cup at Marco Simone in Rome. The European team won 16.5–11.5 and McIlroy went 4–1–0 including a win in his Sunday singles match against Sam Burns.

McIlroy wisely withdrew his participation with the PGA TOUR advisory board citing the need to more fully prepare for the events he enters. Now, at 34 years of age, Rory's story is ever more clear. Establish a legacy that can take his accomplishments to the next level.

Securing a 5th major did not happen in 2023 – but recent play and a desire to more fully zone in for the year ahead makes watching McIlroy front and center for 2024. Should that happen at Augusta, McIlroy would join the most elite of clubs - becoming only the 6th member of the career Grand Slam club.

The stakes are indeed that high.

 

Michael Block

Competitive golf provides the opportunity for elite players to show their consummate skills. Such events also provide a pathway for those further down the skills ladder in terms of overall recognition.

At this year's PGA Championship, a man by the name of Michael Block emerged onto the scene.

Block, like other little known aspiring players, earned the right to compete in the May event held on the East Course at Oak Hill in Rochester NY. He is not a Tour player but one of the select few local level professionals who played in the final field.

For many such players the intersection with a major championship often means playing 36 holes and failing to make the halfway cut. Returning home in near anonymity.

Block proved otherwise scoring matching rounds of 70. However, unlike others who successfully secure weekend rounds and then faded from view, Block maintained a presence throughout the event.

The highlight came during the final round when paired with Rory McIlroy. Block played first at the par-3 15th and promptly knocked his 7-iron shot directly into the hole. Upon doing so Block turned to his caddie and McIlroy to confirm his dazzling feat.

The crowd roared with the result and Block finished off the round in grand fashion after missing the 18th green he deftly played his pitch shot to seven feet and made the final putt. The four-round total of 281 provided him an exemption into the field for the 2024 PGA Championship to be played at Valhalla in Louisville, KY.

Rarely do players of lesser standing have an impact during major championship play. The stakes are incredibly high and the pressure can overwhelm even the most seasoned of players. For the 46-year-old the wherewithal to play in past major events had resulted in always missing the cut.

Michael Block may have made his 15 minutes of fame as Andy Warhol once famously stated. But his time at Oak Hill during the PGA Championship was nothing short of grand golf theater courtesy of a sensational slam dunk hole-in-one.

Oak Hill was a defining moment and showed a powerful Walter Mitty type story always provides a connection with a heavy underdog.

 

Bernhard Langer

While golf is a game of a lifetime the wherewithal to play it competitively at the high level reaches a peak for many people and then the descent becomes noticeable. While that preamble may be the norm for many it does not align itself with Bernhard Langer.

Like the 'Energizer Bunny' - Langer keeps going and going.

When Hale Irwin set the mark with 45 PGA TOUR Champions titles the pathway to surpass that record seemed improbable. The 50+ Tour is stacked with more top tier players than ever. There's also the reality that one's best years likely come early right after one becomes eligible to play.

Langer has never let others define him. This is a man who overcame chronic yips at different intervals in his career – a situation that would have driven others into permanent oblivion. When Bernhard missed a Ryder Cup clinching putt at Kiawah in the 1991 matches such a hiccup would have placed an anchor around the neck of many. No so for the focused German.

Bernhard tied the Irwin mark this past February with a win at the Chubb Classic. But the ceiling for many Champions Tour events is contested via 54-hole events.

Langer only added to his legacy in breaking the mark with a superlative win at the U.S. Senior Open. He accomplished that amazing feat by outlasting the tour's top player Steve Stricker who was competing in his home State of Wisconsin.

Langer won his second U.S. Senior Open and added his record 12th senior major title. In addition, the wins extended to 17 consecutive years in which he has won at least one such event. There are no words that can adequately encapsulate what Bernhard has achieved. His commitment to preparation is second to none. No less than Tiger Woods has commended the resolve Langer has shown for so many years.

He capped off the year in grand fashion claiming the PNC Championship in December with son Jason for a record tying 5th win in the event. Just to show a bit of elasticity – Langer won his first two PNC titles with son Stefan.

The Langers sprinted to the title with a final round score of 59 in the scramble format. Easily overcoming a three-shot deficit to start the round and win by two over the Duval team.

In a word --

Wunderbar.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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