By Sam McPherson
The final day of the 2015-16 PGA Tour season will be remembered for a long time, and much of that has little to do with the Tour Championship itself, won by Rory McIlroy in a four-hole playoff.
The golf world will mark the day more for the passing of golf legend Arnold Palmer, the man perhaps singly most responsible for turning the PGA Tour — and golf in general — into the global phenomenon it is today. Palmer died at age 87 on Sunday after a lifelong romance with golf, its fans and the PGA Tour.
McIlroy, who finished the regular season 36th in the points standings, won two events in the FedExCup playoffs. A strong win at the Deutsche Bank Championship boosted his points total, and an extra-holes triumph at the Tour Championship secured him the FedExCup. The Northern Irishman took home $11.53 million in prize money for the day. Favorite, Dustin Johnson, faded in the fourth round on Sunday at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
Johnson shared the third-round lead with Kevin Chappell at 8-under and seemed well positioned to cap off his already stellar season with the championship. But it wasn’t meant to be. McIlroy and Ryan Moore both shot rounds of 64 on Sunday to catch Chappell, setting up the three-way playoff.
But then 27-year-old McIlroy demonstrated why he is one of the natural successors to Palmer’s legacy around the world. He and Moore birdied the first playoff hole to eliminate Chappell. After pars on the next two playoff holes, McIlroy managed another birdie to win the Championship and the FedExCup.
Johnson shot 73 on Sunday to tie for sixth place at the TOUR Championship. And his overall season would have been good enough to win the FedExCup had Chappell or Moore triumphed in the playoff. But McIlroy just proved to be too much Sunday.
The afternoon’s excitement preceded Arnold Palmer’s passing, a monumental loss to golf. Words cannot do his legacy justice. Without Palmer’s smile and swing gracing television screens in the 1950s and 1960s, the sport may never have achieved the heights it has — including its presence at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Beyond his 62 Tour wins and the seven major championships — including four green jackets won at The Masters in nearby Augusta, Georgia — Palmer transcended the sport of golf much like Muhammad Ali did for boxing. He, as much as anyone, was the face of the sport. With no way to measure the loss, its best simply to treasure his accomplishments and enjoy the sport he helped popularize.
Next On The Tee: The 41st Ryder Cup
The time has come again to renew the best rivalry in golf. This year the Ryder Cup will be held at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. The United States has recorded 25 outright victories in prior Cup competitions. Europe is the reigning Cup champion and has not lost since 2008. In fact, the U.S. has won the Cup just twice since 1993, with Europe taking eight of the last 10.
However, the Americans, on home soil this time around, should be considered the slight favorite to defeat the Europeans and take the Cup back at Hazeltine. Davis Love III is the U.S. captain for the event. And the Americans have five of the top nine golfers in the world on their roster this time out: Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler. Throw in Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar, and it’s a formidable U.S. roster.
Darren Clarke will lead the European team, as the Europeans counter with five of the top 13 ranked players: McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. Rose won the gold medal in Rio, while Stenson and Willett each won majors in 2016. As usual, the Europeans certainly won’t go down easily, even on American soil.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1962, Hazeltine has been the site of two U.S. Opens (1970, 1991) and two PGA Championships (2002, 2009). It was also the site of Tiger Woods’ first loss in a major when holding the third-round lead, as Y.E. Yang out-dueled him down the stretch in 2009 to win that PGA Championship. Woods is a vice-captain this year for the U.S. team, as he hasn’t actively played for some time now due to injuries.
The Hazeltine National course plays 7,678 yards long and is a par 72.
Favorites: United States
Players to Watch: Zach Johnson (U.S.), Martin Kaymer (Europe), Lee Westwood (Europe)
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf and fantasy sports for CBS Local. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach. Follow him on Twitter @sxmcp, because he’s quite prolific despite also being a college English professor and a certified copy editor.