By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
Two days after Tiger Woods strode across the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews for what might be the last time, Cameron Smith sat next to the claret jug and sidestepped questions about his inevitable departure to the Saudi-funded rival league.
There was no escaping. Players kept talking because the media kept asking.
And now the PGA Tour season is over and LIV fills the void, claiming six more players Tuesday, the biggest of them Smith, the “champion golfer of the year” and No. 2 in the world.
The next big event — at least on network TV — will be the Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow, where LIV Golf is sure to be front and center because of who’s not there. Five players from the last International team at Royal Melbourne now are with LIV Golf (so are three Americans from the 2019 matches).
As one former major champion said in early June when LIV Golf was about to launch, “The tour lost market shares.” That’s 32 shares — the number of PGA Tour players in the 48-man LIV field outside Boston.
What the tour also lost to LIV was a season of remarkable moments that were overshadowed, sometimes within hours, by the endless chatter about a rival league.
Scottie Scheffler went from no wins to No. 1 in the world in span of six weeks and then two weeks later was fitted for a Masters green jacket. Smith had one of the greatest closing nines in British Open history. Rory McIlroy tied a nice bow around the season with a record comeback in the Tour Championship for a third FedEx Cup title. It was a chance for him to finally talk about his golf instead of his opposition to LIV Golf. Of course, he managed to do both.
The biggest moment?
Leave that to the players, who had their own criteria.
“The first thing that comes to mind is Cam Smith’s back nine,” Adam Scott said. “That’s got to go down as one of the best nines in Open history. Given it was the 150th Open Championship and it was the pinnacle of the year and he shot 30 on the back nine, I say that.”
Jordan Spieth, who grew up with Scheffler in Dallas, pointed to the 18th green at Augusta National. Scheffler had a five-shot lead going to the last hole and finally allowed it to sink in that he was about to become a Masters champion. And then he four-putted.
“For me, having watched him grow up, from my perspective it was Scottie’s laugh on the 18th green in Augusta before his fourth putt,” Spieth said. “It showed the lightness of him and the heaviness of the whole situation.”
Jon Rahm was struck by the emotion of winless Will Zalatoris having twice lost in a playoff, twice been runner-up in a major and then making a 10-foot putt in regulation and screaming in his best Steph Curry impersonation, “What are they gonna say now?” He went on to win the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first FedEx Cup playoffs event.
“I know how hard it is to get your first win. I’m one of the lucky ones that was able to get it done early,” Rahm said. “For him to have heartbreaks this year, especially in the majors, to get to that situation … I know there are moments of a lot more magnitude, but I pick that just because of how I feel for him.”
Big moments in golf tend to be built around the majors, and there were indelible moments: Smith’s putt around the Road Hole bunker, Matt Fitzpatrick’s 9-iron from a bunker that secured his U.S. Open title at Brookline, the 3-wood Thomas hit onto the par-4 17th green in the playoff at Southern Hills.
For several players, the best moment of the year involved a guy who didn’t win a major and finished only one of them.
They pointed to a Friday afternoon at St. Andrews when Woods came up the 18th hole with faces peering through window panes in hotels, straining to see through a fence along the road and watching from balconies and rooftops.
“Probably Tiger coming down 18 at the Open I’d say has a lot of clicks and a lot of views in everyone’s hearts,” Xander Schauffele said.
Max Homa agreed, except for the location.
True, he had the privilege of playing with Woods that day at St. Andrews, so it was perplexing to hear him talk about watching the scene unfold from a distance as his idol limped toward the 18th green.
“Not the Open, the Masters,” Homa said. “He was in the group behind me.”
And while having the gray old town as a backdrop is historic and chilling, there was something special about seeing Woods in a Sunday red shirt at Augusta just 14 months after a car crash that nearly claimed his right leg.
“Just with what’s going on in golf, watching Tiger limp up 18 like a war hero just put what I love about competition into perspective,” Homa said. “Because he doesn’t need to do this. He just loves playing golf. It was an amazing spectacle just to see everybody love him.
“They’re arguing LIV and do you play golf for the money — whether that’s right or wrong — and I’m looking at a guy with all the money in the world who doesn’t need to play anymore. He’s limping with a big old smile very proud of himself. I thought that was cool.”