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Why Ryder rivalries, Spieth's Masters, rule flubs mattered in '16

Editor's note: As part of our end-of-2016 wrap-up, ESPN asked senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg to list the moments he will remember most from the golf season.

1. When Rory levitated

When I think about my five favorite golf moments of 2016, what I'll most remember is sitting greenside at the Ryder Cup, watching Team Europe's Rory McIlroy shake with exuberance and rage after making a 50-foot putt on the eighth hole in a Sunday singles match against Patrick Reed.

It lasted only a few seconds, then it was gone, but in that moment, it felt like Rory was floating.

He cupped his hands to his ears, his body pulsing with electricity, bravado and defiance, and in the midst of that maelstrom of sound, he appeared, however briefly, to hover across the green. I was too wired to even breathe. Rory was daring the Hazeltine crowd -- and, quite frankly, the world -- to shut him up. He was playing the villain, if only for the weekend, and loving it.

I've never experienced anything quite like it in all my years as a journalist. Here was an athlete at the peak of his powers, channeling all the negative energy of a hostile crowd into his game, and instead of wilting, he was excelling. "I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" he screamed, and all you could do was shake your head in awe. Even in that moment, I knew I was witnessing something that was not only special, it was historic. It was peak McIlroy, the game's Alpha Dog, openly trolling the fans who had spent two days trying to get under his skin.

And then Reed rolled in a 20-foot putt on top of him.

So many epic showdowns in sports fail to live up to the hype we assign to them. We hype everything these days to such an absurd degree, it's often difficult (if not impossible) for real-life moments to meet the expectations that germinate as part of our wildest fantasies. But somehow, McIlroy versus Reed at the Ryder Cup exceeded everything I hoped it would be. I put my notebook over my mouth and screamed into wave of sound, if only to keep from bursting. The scene on the eighth green, with Reed wagging his finger in McIlroy's face, and Rory chuckling, then offering up a playful fist bump to Reed as acknowledgement of a job well done, represents everything I love about golf at its best. We've spent so much time pining for Tiger Woods' return over the past few years, it often feels like we're shortchanging what is unfolding right now, and that includes showdowns like McIlroy and Reed.

Patrick Reed is not the transcendent talent that McIlroy is. Every rational person, including McIlroy, understands this. But Reed refuses to believe it, and that's what makes him such a compelling and lovable rogue at the Ryder Cup. He flexes and preens after birdies like The Ultimate Warrior, and plays such fearless, inspired golf, that you can't help but love it, even if you don't love him. Yet when McIlroy extended his fist in Reed's direction, defusing a potentially tense moment with gesture of genuine affection, it was the perfect embodiment of McIlroy's competitive character. Let's trade blows -- or birdies -- like heavyweight fighters, and then smile about it afterward.

Reed won the match, and the United States won the Ryder Cup, but McIlroy won the moment (if not the entire weekend), with that gesture, and I'll be forever grateful to have witnessed it.

2. Spieth's Masters

You'll probably remember the 2016 Masters for Jordan Spieth's meltdown at No. 12, when he was leading the tournament -- and seemed poised to become just the fourth person to win back-to-back green jackets -- but then hit two balls in the water. Certainly that's a big part of what's burned into my mind. I was one of the few journalists who witnessed it live, from the grassy hill at Amen Corner, smelling the cigar smoke as it wafted through the air.

What you might not remember, though, is what happened next. Instead of quitting, slogging his way through the back nine and going through the motions of defeat, Spieth summoned whatever fortitude he had left and staged a small rally.

He birdied the 13th hole, then the 15th. Spieth came to the 16th, Augusta National's iconic par-3, still trailing by two and needing something akin to a miracle to catch Danny Willett. For a few seconds, I thought he had conjured up one. Spieth hit a beautiful 7-iron right at the pin, the ball tracking toward the hole as it tumbled back to earth, and in that instant, I couldn't breathe. I was convinced he'd just made an ace. He was going to rally back from one of the great blunders in Masters history with one of greatest shots in the history of golf. The 16th at Augusta might be the most intimate setting in the sport, patrons standing politely shoulder to shoulder, but in that instant, I was certain it was going to erupt like a crowd in a college football stadium. I believed.

It wasn't meant to be, though. Spieth's Titleist just missed the flag, and it rolled eight feet past the cup, leaving him with an awkward side hill putt. When he missed, the spell of belief was finally broken. The deflation was real. There would be no rally, only the lingering sting and heartbreak from No. 12, a feeling that would haunt him the rest of the year.

3. Another Mickelson Moment

With three feet to go, the putt looked good. Phil Mickelson was about to shoot 62 in a major championship, the lowest round in history.

With a foot to go, the putt seemed even more true. I started to smile. Mickelson had experienced plenty of low moments in his career, but at least he would always have this, a true testament to his brilliance.

With six inches to go, he started to raise his putter in celebration. It was a surreal feeling, watching Mickelson carve up Royal Troon with beautiful iron shots. Now, it was time for the final exclamation point. The putt was pure.

Then, inexplicably, it lipped out. His Callaway danced on the edge of the cup, thumbing its nose at gravity and history. There would be no 62. Mickelson put his hand over his mouth and groaned in disappointment. His caddie, Jim "Bones" MacKay, fell to the ground in disbelief. Both men wanted to cry, and for a moment, so did I.

The moment was also, somehow, true to Mickelson's remarkable career. Brilliant, by almost any standard, but also sprinkled with a dash of "What if?" What if that putt had dropped? What if Philip Alfred Mickelson owned the lowest round in the history of major championship golf? How would that have added to his legacy?

No matter how many times you watched the replay, it looked like the putt was headed right for the heart of the cup. Until it wasn't.

Another Mickelson Moment in a career filled with them.

4. Rules? Who needs (new) stinkin' rules?

We have too many antiquated rules in golf, and some of them simply don't work within the modern game, especially with the way we set up courses and point a half dozen HD cameras at the leaders (but not everyone else).

That's what struck me this year watching the men's and women's U.S. Opens.

The United States Golf Association was the focus of some much-deserved criticism for the way it handled rules violations committed by Dustin Johnson at Oakmont, and Anna Nordqvist at CordeValle. They kept both players in the dark during their final round while officials debated, internally, how and when to assess penalties that should never have been penalties in the first place.

What Walter Sobchak says about bowling in "The Big Lebowski" is also true of golf: This isn't Vietnam, there are rules. But the rules were not written at a time when the greens were set up to run at 13 on the Stimpmeter and walking in the vicinity of a golf ball could make it move as it did for Johnson. Nor were the rules written when we could zoom in close on replay and study HD video to see if the smallest grain of sand was brushed backward a fraction of an inch on a player's backswing, as it did in Nordqvist's case.

When Johnson laced a 7-iron to two feet on the 18th hole, locking up the trophy with a birdie and essentially rendering the USGA's eventual penalty irrelevant, it was such a satisfying end to a stupid controversy. McIlroy taunting the USGA on Twitter as it unfolded was a good indicator of how annoyed the players were with the governing body's inability to apply logic to the situation. Nordqvist, though, realistically didn't have a chance to overcome her penalty. The USGA didn't inform her in a timely manner, a decision that almost certainly affected her strategy on the final hole. It was amateur hour in every sense.

If you have one wish for golf in 2017, let it be this: It's time to have the golf equivalent of a Second Vatican Council to talk about what rules need to stay and what rules need to go. True, the rule Johnson was penalized for already has been changed, but it doesn't go far enough. We need to get the best and brightest in the game to gather somewhere -- maybe Tiger Woods' restaurant -- and have a frank discussion about the sport. We're not chasing feather-filled balls around a sheep pasture in Scotland anymore. It's time to reassess some things. Let's just get it done.

5. Farewell to The King

Jack Nicklaus was crying.

He had spent the past few days trying to coax Arnold Palmer into hitting one last ceremonial tee shot at the Masters, but Palmer just didn't feel up to it. He felt frail, and his balance wasn't great. He didn't want to embarrass himself, and couldn't be convinced otherwise. So Palmer stood by and watched Nicklaus and Gary Player perform the ritual without him, as a huge crowd gathered around them in the early-morning Georgia light.

It was as if Nicklaus sensed, correctly, this would be their last chance to do this with Palmer, the man who changed the sport of golf more than anyone. Nicklaus knew the end of his friend's life was near, and nothing could stop that inevitability. He put his arm around Palmer after he was introduced, patting him gently on the back, and stepped aside to let Palmer soak up the polite applause. Player smiled and joked for the cameras, trying to inject some joy into a potentially sad moment. He looked, even at 80, like he might live forever. But Nicklaus, the youngest of the three men, was somber and subdued.

When it was his turn to hit, Nicklaus looked back at Palmer and smiled, then he took several practice swings. The first tee was as quiet as an empty church. Nicklaus needed a second before continuing. He had to wipe a few tears from his eyes so he could see the fairway.