Our favorite comeback story of 2021

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This has been a season of comebacks. The sport got an assist from the pandemic as new and old golfers doubled down on their play—it started in 2020 and continues this year. The industry has benefited in every metric of participation and consumption. I give you two examples: If you invested $1,000 in Callaway stock last March, you could have sold it for about $5,000 this spring. TaylorMade was purchased from Adidas for $425 million in 2017 and sold for more than $1.7 billion this year.

On course, the most dramatic comeback was in the 36-hole final of the Amateur Championship at Nairn, Scotland, when Laird Shepherd found himself 8 down after 17 holes. He was still 4 down with four to play, won them all, and then triumphed on the second extra hole. A year ago, Laird and his girlfriend, Chloe Goadby, were working in a call center for Tesco, the British supermarket. She went on to win the 2021 Women’s Amateur Championship, too. How’s that for a power couple turnabout?

Another type of comeback could be credited to Jon Rahm, who WD’d with a six-stroke lead after three rounds of the Memorial Tournament, testing positive for COVID. Two weeks later, after testing negative, he won the U.S. Open. (A month later, he had to withdraw from the Olympics after another positive test.)

Not to pick on anyone, but golfers should be first in line to get vaccinated and boostered if necessary. Let’s keep the game’s momentum going.

Phil Mickelson’s PGA Championship could be termed a comeback of sorts, but Phil would say he never left. It’s a scientific fact that male left-handers have a life expectancy 10 years shorter than righties (five years shorter for females), but Mickelson seems to defy all the odds. And golf is the only thing he does left-handed.

Maybe the most significant comebacks occurred at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Connecticut. Annika Sorenstam, 50, who had stepped away from competitive golf in 2008 after 90 international pro wins, regained her dominance with a wire-to-wire, eight-stroke victory. What Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are to men’s golf, Mickey Wright and Annika are to the women’s game—all-time bests, the edge depending on your age.

My favorite comeback of the year belonged to JoAnne Carner, who missed the cut at Brooklawn with rounds of 82-79, matching and beating her age. She had hip-replacement surgery at the end of 2019. That and the pandemic kept her out of golf for 14 months. I talked to JoAnne, who was at her condo in Florida, double-vaccinated and healthy, but still working on her game.

She plays out of Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, which holds, she says, more pro titles than any other club—easy when membership has included JoAnne, Sam Snead, Mickey Wright, Louise Suggs, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Gary Woodland. As a teenager, then JoAnne Gunderson had learned her grip from mimicking pictures of Snead, and later Sam brought her to Pine Tree for lessons. She’d stand behind him as he worked his way through the bag and let his effortless tempo wash over her. “I was always more of a slugger,” she tells me, “so his tempo was my medicine.

“Then he’d say about four words and that was all I needed. Sam didn’t get credit for it, but he had a great eye. He was the first to notice my tendency to hang on the right foot and not fold my left arm coming through. Getting to my left side is still what I work on.”

Watching Annika and JoAnne at the Women’s Senior Open reminds us again how much more we could learn from the LPGA, even 82-year-olds. “All the women pros have great timing and hit it a long way now,” Carner says. “You don’t need the brute strength of [Bryson] DeChambeau.”

“How can we learn that timing?” I ask.

The question brings her back to those days with Sam. “My best tip,” she says, “was to swing to the top of the backswing and hold it for two or three seconds before releasing down and through the ball. You do that in practice, not when you play: Pause before changing direction. It’s especially important in competition, when everybody speeds up. It even works in putting. Most poor putters rush the change of direction. That’s the key: Finish the backswing first.”

I thanked her for the lesson and for all the good memories Big Momma has given us. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed golf all my life,” she says. “I find it still amuses me, even when I play or practice alone.”

It’s one of the eternal joys of golf: No matter our age, we’re all working on a comeback.

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