The year began with PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman hitting the opening tee shot into the blue horizon at Kapalua. It ended 319 days later when PGA Tour rookie Mackenzie Hughes rolled in an 18-foot par putt from the fringe to win at Sea Island.
One way to look back on 2016 is through every club in the bag — not necessarily the best shots, but those that shaped the year.
DRIVER: Justin Thomas hit the longest drive at 414 yards on the 16th hole at Firestone. Dustin Johnson hit the most impressive drive on the 18th hole at Oakmont in the U.S. Open. But this club goes to Jim Herman, who arguably faced the most pressure.
Herman was among 12 players who won for the first time on the PGA Tour, and this wasn’t exactly handed to him. He had a one-shot lead over Henrik Stenson on the 18th hole of the Shell Houston Open, with water down the left side and a large bunker ready to catch any shot played away from the water. Herman smoked it right down the middle, made his par and headed to the Masters.
FAIRWAY METAL: Needing an eagle on the par-5 18th at the Sony Open to get into a playoff, Zac Blair hit a 3-wood so pure that moments after contact he smiled and said, “Oh my gosh, that is SO good .” And it was, settling 10 feet away. Alas, he missed the putt. But that’s not the only reason Blair gets the nod for this club.
On the previous hole, he was just off the green when he chose to putt with a fairway metal. Because of the length of the club, it looked as though it might have been anchored against his chest. The ban on anchored strokes had been effective only one week. Blair had to review it with PGA Tour officials and was cleared.
2-IRON: Jason Day is among the few who carry a 2-iron, and there’s a reason. He can rip it. The world’s No. 1 player had no choice. He was in the 18th fairway at Baltusrol in the PGA Championship, two shots behind Jimmy Walker, when he hit 2-iron to 15 feet. The cheer was so loud that Walker backed off his birdie putt on the 17th twice. Day made the eagle, but only after Walker had made his birdie. Walker went on to win by one.
3-IRON: Stenson was one shot behind Phil Mickelson in the third round of the British Open when he came to the par-3 17th and hit what he described a “flat-out 3-iron” into the wind to 20 feet for birdie. Mickelson made bogey for a two-shot swing that gave Stenson the lead going into the final round at Royal Troon, and set the tone for one of the great duels in major championship history.
4-IRON: Rory McIlroy took a bow to mock the boisterous fans at Hazeltine after sinking an eagle putt to end his first day of the Ryder Cup. The shot that set up the eagle was a 4-iron on the par-5 16th that never left its target and landed pin-high, allowing him and Thomas Pieters to close out Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
5-IRON: Day was one shot behind Kevin Chappell with no realistic birdie chances over the final two holes at Bay Hill, except that Day can hit some unreal shots. The best was a towering 5-iron that settled 10 feet behind the hole for a birdie. Chappell bogeyed the 18th, and Day had his first victory of the year.
6-IRON: Johnson thought he was leading the U.S. Open, but having not looked at a leaderboard because of a potential penalty at the end of his round, he didn’t know by how much. All he saw was the flag 190 yards away. He wanted to hit a cut 6-iron with the wind and pulled it off to near perfection. The ball plopped down next to the pin and settled 5 feet away for birdie. He got the penalty, and it didn’t matter. He won by three.
7-IRON: Canadian teen Brooke Henderson rallied on the back nine of Sahalee to get into a playoff at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship against Lydia Ko, the No. 1 player in the world who was going for her third straight major. Henderson stole the show with a 7-iron to 3 feet on the first playoff hole to win.
8-IRON: This wasn’t about the club as much as it was the decision. Ko was trailing at the ANA Inspiration, unaware that Ariya Jutanugarn was in trouble on the 17th. She wanted to take on the water at the par-5 18th at Rancho Mirage until her caddie persuaded her that a miss would end it, and Ko could still make birdie by laying up. She laid up with an 8-iron, made birdie and won the first major of the year.
9-IRON: Jordan Spieth had a five-shot lead going to the back nine at the Masters until bogeys on the 10th and 11th holes. But the shot that gets replayed the most was his 9-iron at the flag on the par-3 12th that hit the bank and tumbled back in to the water . That was the start of his triple bogey, and he never caught up.
PITCHING WEDGE: McIlroy was three shots behind with three holes to play when he holed out with a pitching wedge on the 16th hole at East Lake. That was the start of a rally that got him into a three-man playoff, and he won with a birdie on the third playoff hole to win the Tour Championship and capture the FedEx Cup.
SAND WEDGE: Jason Dufner had not won since the 2013 PGA Championship, and it looked as though he had squandered a chance at the CareerBuilder Challenge when his tee shot to the island-green 17th at PGA West called “Alcatraz” went over the back. But it hung up on the rocks, and Dufner took out a sand wedge and gave it a whack. It came out so perfectly that it rolled into the pin and led to a tap-in par. He wound up winning in a playoff.
PUTTER: Stenson said his 50-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole at Royal Troon felt like a slap shot. He scored. Every week, someone makes a big putt. Stenson’s stands out because it was biggest putt in the final round of the British Open, the best major of the year.