You could say that golf made quite a comeback even in 2021 when things (more) normalized on a professional level after COVID devastated the 2020 schedule. But there have been many inspiring – and unexpected – individual efforts by those who resisted break-ins, overcame injuries, or were able to break free from Father Time’s grip.
Of course, Tiger Woods made the most of the headlines just because he sustained serious leg injuries and was able to swing a golf club again after a car accident in February. His range sessions during the Hero World Challenge last week were fantastic to see, a prelude to his return to golf at the upcoming PNC Championship where he will play with his son Charlie. But for the purposes of this leaderboard, we’re sticking with players who have returned to the winners’ circle after a lengthy difficult period – or just a lengthy period, as you will see in the person claiming the top spot.
10. Ariya Jutanu yarn
After winning two majors and twice winning the LPGA Player of the Year award before her 23rd birthday, Jutanugarn appeared to be the dominant force in women’s football for the foreseeable future. But the Thai golfer did not win in 2019 or 2020 after recording 10 wins in the previous three seasons and falling to 32nd place on the LPGA money list in 2020. She said she was considering taking a break from playing, but instead the former world number 1 broke a nearly three-year winless drought at the Honda LPGA in her home country in May and then won the Dow Great Lakes Invitational with her sister Moriya in July – so she’s back.
9. Lydia Ko
Of all the comebacks on this list, Ko’s has possibly the greatest potential to be held. After all, she has dominated the LPGA since she was able to legally drive a car. But she falls into our rankings because her resurgence really began in 2020. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t great to see her back in the winners’ circle for the first time in three years, again on the Olympic podium and with the houndstooth pattern (see above). Ko also won the Vare Trophy for leading the LPGAs with a low average score (69.3) among golfers with at least 70 rounds played.
8. Stewart Cink
Much like Ko, Cink’s comeback actually began in 2020 when his Napa win ended an 11-year winless drought. But it has an advantage because it does this at a time when most golfers are thinking of the senior tour. A near wire-to-wire win at Hilton Head in April turned out to be no accident last fall. Cink also won 10.9 yards from the tee and qualified for his first Tour Championship since 2009. Quite astonishing for a 48-year-old. Oh, and doing it on the bag with his son was a nice touch too.
7th day riding
Another family affair! OK, you probably don’t remember Ridings winning the TPC Colorado Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour with his wife, Brenda, in July. And you definitely don’t remember winning the 2002 Permian Basin Open unless you are Tag yourself (he met Brenda six months later). Regardless of that, there are an unbelievable 19 years between bookends victories on the development path. And it’s not surprising that after such a long wait, the 46-year-old was ready to hoist something:
6. Richard Bland
Another 48-year-old makes the list, but unlike Stewart Cink, Bland’s British Masters win in May was actually his first major tour win. Bland made his breakthrough in his 478th (!) Career start on the European Tour. And just a few starts later he was tied in the lead at halftime of the US Open. Unfortunately the picture book run came to an end in Torrey Pines at the weekend, but what a fantastic season for a guy who had to go back on the Challenge Tour three years ago. “I went back to the Challenge Tour because for the four years until I turned 50 I had nothing else to do, “said Bland.” I just bowed my head and did the job. “And now he’s got a much better paying one Job a little longer for it.
5. Ryan O’Toole
Like Bland, O’Toole finally took the long-awaited first win in 2021 when she won the Scottish Open on her 228th LPGA start. One small advantage she has over the Englishman is that she is seriously considering retiring at the end of the year. “I still feel like I’m in shock and the tears will come later when things wear off,” said the 34-year-old O’Toole afterwards. Hopefully there were a few more celebratory cocktails later.
4. Jordan Spieth
The three-time major winner was nowhere near as far behind in the official golf world rankings, although it may have felt that way during a lengthy crisis. Spieth rose to 82nd place in 2021, but recently moved back into the top 10 for the first time in more than three years. Spieth also flew our ranking up based on fan interest in his improved game sparked by a Saturday 61 at the Waste Management Open. He would finish T-4, part of a run of eight top 10s in 11 starts, including a Valero Texas Open win that broke a winless drought of nearly four years. And after falling out of the last two Team USAs, he helped the Americans win the Ryder Cup in Whistling Straits. Spieth could be higher on that list, but was there anyone who didn’t really believe this 20-year-old would get his form back? Didn’t think so.
3. Joseph Bramlett
It’s been a tough decade for this Stanford product since it first received its PGA Tour card in 2010, especially from 2013 to 2018 when it couldn’t play full-time due to a back injury. Bramlett fell to the 1,743 in 2016. Place back in the world rankings and began climbing back into the PGA Tour Ferry Tour Championship in 2019, by far the biggest win of his professional career. “There were so many days that rehab was going to be tough and I wasn’t making the progress I wanted to and you just never know if it’ll really all work out,” he said. Side note: Stanford golfers with back injuries are great for making comebacks.
2. Phil Mickelson
Well past his 50th birthday and falling out of the top 100 in the world for the first time in nearly three decades, Mickelson shocked everyone – but perhaps himself – when he won the PGA championship on the Ocean Course in Kiawah in May. Mickelson became the oldest major champion in golf history and one of the greatest underdogs to be won in recent history. His win was made even more impressive by the fact that it was his only top-10 for the entire season. Well, except of course to dominate the old boys on the senior tour.
1. Annika Sorenstam
And then there was Annika. While some of the players on this list were contemplating retirement, that legend had actually withdrawn. In 2008. And yet, more than a dozen years later, she decided to try again with a competition, first a T-60 at the LPGA in January and then a missed cut at the LET in July. The following month, however, the 10-time major champion flashed the field at the US Senior Women’s Open with eight shots. “I’ve always seen these highlights of hers being really good,” said Sorenstam’s 11-year-old son Will as he watched the finals. “But now I wanted to see that in person.” Congratulations, boy. You also saw the best comeback history of the year.