Back to normal? Well, not exactly. Golf in the year 2021 never looked entirely like it had prior to the COVID pandemic. (Then again, did anything?) Thankfully, though, starting in the late spring, it began to sound something like its former self, at least at the professional level. The PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May was the “Roar by the Shore” we’d all been waiting for—who knew we might miss the “Mashed Potatoes” bros?—and subsequent tournaments continued to pump up the volume.
A calendar overflowing with tournaments around the world offered steady intrigue in both the men’s and women’s games. There were historic firsts, age-defying feats and comebacks all around. There were rivalries playing out on the course (Jin Young Ko vs. Nelly Korda) and off it (Bryson vs. Brooks). There were moments of joy (the U.S. Ryder Cup victory), surprise (the European Solheim Cup victory), shock (Jon Rahm behind the 18th green on Saturday at the Memorial) and horror (Tiger’s car accident). And at the recreational level, open tee times remained a rumor swirling in other towns and the arrival of new golf club order became a high holy days.
The return of our annual Newsmakers package, then, provides the best opportunity to assess where golf is, where we might be going and how exactly it gets there. In counting down the top 25 during the next several days, we’ll aim once more at acknowledge the individuals, teams and events that helped define the year. Some are obvious, others less so. All have their own stories. —Ryan Herrington
No. 23: Name, Image and Likeness
Golf’s Rules of Amateur Status have always been fairly definitive: Only professionals can profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) with regard to their golf skill or reputation (unless that amateur is Tony Romo promoting golf shoes, but that’s a different story). In recent years, however, officials with the USGA and R&A have come to appreciate that playing modern amateur golf is different than in previous eras. In many cases it’s a journey to an eventual career as a pro, yet the cost of that journey limits some with the talent but without the means to pursue it. And so, after much discussion, the powers that be decided a modernization of the Rules of Amateur Status was appropriate. Among the updates that go into effect Jan. 1, 2022: players are allowed to accept expenses to help with travel costs with no restrictions and, yes, even make a buck or two from advertisements and marketing promotions. That the changes come at the same time as the NCAA also suspending its rules prohibiting student-athletes from selling the NIL rights points to the evolution in mindset regarding amateurs and the ability to benefit—re: profit—from their success at any age and station in life. Short term, golf’s updates mean highly touted, nationally ranked players can be compensated for their play and celebrity (although no big-ticket contracts have been inked). On the horizon, however, the hope is that the new rules will no longer hinder fledgling golfers from development because of financial constraints. —Joel Beall
No. 24: J.R. Smith
Making the jump from high school to the NBA is a rare feat only a handful of players can say they’ve successfully accomplished. Making the jump from the NBA back to college to play a different sport is even more unheard of. J.R. Smith, a two-time NBA champion and former Sixth Man of the Year, can now say he’s done both, which made him one of the most fascinating stories of the year in golf. The 36-year-old enrolled at North Carolina A&T in August to pursue a degree in liberal studies—and also to potentially play on the Aggies golf team. In a shocking bout of common sense, the NCAA granted Smith a waiver to join the men’s golf team, and in October he made his college golf debut, which quickly became the most talked about college golf debut in recent memory. Smith rocked a hoodie and joggers, stuck an approach shot to a foot, made a couple of birdies and was even stung by a bee while searching for his ball (true story). The best part? Smith seems far more interested in the full college experience (he says he’s working on a 4.0 GPA) than just playing on the golf team. We all wish we could go back to college. Smith actually did it, though, in his case, he never got to go in the first place. He’s clearly making amends now, and we’re all extremely jealous. —Christopher Powers
No. 25: Annika Sorenstam
There was something both impressive and maddening about Annika Sorenstam’s retirement from professional golf in 2008. The then 38-year-old was still playing well enough to have the chance to chow down on every significant LPGA record there was, but she had the willpower to push away from the table when she knew she was full at 72 LPGA wins and 10 majors. Disappointed fans were left wondering what might have been while the Swede focused instead on what was to come—namely raising a family and growing the game through her Annika Foundation. Fast forward to 2021, and Sorenstam’s decision to return to competition after turning 50 the previous October by playing in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Fans now wondered why would Sorenstam potentially spoil her competitive legacy with a comeback, particularly after seeing so-so play from her in a handful of warm-up events ahead of her start at Connecticut’s Brooklawn Country Club in August. But Sorenstam saw it differently, the outcome not quite as important as the journey itself, her husband, Mike McGee, and children Ave and Will, joining her. And once she teed it up with her peers, it was as if time had frozen. Sorenstam didn’t hit it as far, but did hit is as straight and come the final round, she quickly remembered how to close out a victory. After starting the final round with a two-shot lead, she stretched it to an eight-shot rout for her fourth career USGA title. There were tears, smiles and hugs on the 18th green, Ava and Will—seeing for the first time themselves their mom walk off with a trophy rather than watch it on YouTube. “There’s no doubt I’m in a different time in my life,” Sorenstam said. “I’m very happy with my family, and that’s what means the most. I have a distance now from golf. Every shot doesn’t mean as much as it used to, even though I care, but I know by the end of the day I’ve got them, I’ve got the support and I’m living my life.” —R.H.