The golf world is much bigger and more vibrant than the petty grudge match between Tiger Woods and Stevie Williams.
Their break was contentious, to say the least. There's been cruel name-calling, unsubstantiated claims and a constantly growing tension between the two men who were once golf's most intimidating duo. But as Woods proclaimed in a press conference from the Australian Open Tuesday, "Life goes forward."
Martin Kaymer’s fierce final round last Sunday in Shanghai was a dose of reality: a forceful reminder to media and golf fans alike that in a sport assumed to be “less-than” and unremarkable without Tiger Woods perched atop his throne, golf has become as dynamic, as thrilling and as competitive as ever.
Golf in 2010 was branded dull and pedestrian because the public associated the Tour's unmistakable parity with Woods' absence. In reality, though, we just weren’t used to there not being a clear favorite in every golf tournament, considering Woods cast a shadow over his competition for more than a decade.
This season, however, saw momentum swing a variety of ways for players all around the world who showcased the abundance of talent that still exists, and is exploding, even in a “Tiger-less” world.
When Tiger Woods reenters the competitive world of golf on a consistent basis, his mental and physical approach to the game will be different, but the most drastic change he’ll face is the revamped, brutal level of competition. It’s no longer just a short list of enemies like Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson. Instead, his challengers span the gamut in age, race, background and experience.
It seemed like Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA Champion, just couldn't find his rhythm in 2011. A quick win early in the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was followed by a season of scattered finishes and all-around inconsistency.
That is, until last Sunday.
Five shots off the leader and seven holes into his final round at the WGC-HSBC Championship, Kaymer dialed in.
The “Germanator,” as Kaymer is known in the golf world, started hitting sky-high iron-shots so accurately that it looked like he was throwing darts at pins and stroking putts with such precision that you couldn’t help but wonder if there was a magnet between his ball and the cup.
He mounted a resilient comeback with nine birdies in his next 12 holes. It was golf’s equivalent of Tracy McGrady scoring 13 points in 35 seconds.
He was playing out of his mind; it was unfathomable golf.
His nine-under par, 63, was the low round of the day and propelled him past one of the strongest international fields of the entire season for his first World Golf Championship victory (his 11th win worldwide).
The Rise of Rory
It began in rather shocking fashion, with a four-stroke collapse on Sunday at the Masters, one that brought to the surface the same persistent doubts that had plagued the young phenom, Rory McIlroy. However, as devastating as that day at Augusta was for McIlroy, it’s easy to forget how well he’d played to that point and how close he’d come to donning that coveted green jacket.
The looming question remained: it was not if he would break through, but when.
The 2011 season would prove to be McIlroy’s portal into golf’s record books.
Like a seasoned vet, McIlroy swept his agony under the rug when he entered the next major championship, the US Open, and made the unthinkable a reality. Had he simply won the major, he would’ve been received with widespread acclaim for having met the championship expectations laid before him.
Instead, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman with the boyish smile and flawless swing ripped through benchmarks—emphasis on the plural—previously set by giants of the game like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He trounced the field with the nearest competitor, Jason Day, eight strokes behind him. His 72-hole aggregate score of 268 (16-under) was a new U.S. Open record, eclipsing Tiger Woods' 12-under bout with Pebble Beach in 2000.
From then on, McIlroy was an automatic contender every time he tee'd it up. To think, until just last year McIlroy couldn’t even order an alcoholic beverage in the States. But, he could whip the butts of just about any golfer who crossed him, on either side of the pond.
He was stellar throughout 2011, compiling multiple top-10 finishes on both the PGA (4) and European (7) Tours, highlighted most recently by his second victory of the season at the Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters just two weeks ago.
Perhaps if Tiger Woods is, or was, the Michael Jordan of golf, Rory McIlroy could become Kobe Bryant. Woods currently owns the records, trophies and "rings" like Jordan, but McIlroy, because of his age and terrific skill, has an opportunity to win dozens of tournaments and major championships, not necessarily outshining Woods, but reaching similar heights.
He will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Jason Rules the Day
Jason Day, the no-nonsense, 23-year-old Aussie, sent shockwaves through the golf world in 2011, something his stats bear out noticeably.
He made 18 of 21 cuts in 2011 with a remarkable 10 top-10 finishes. Although Day was never a winner in 2011, he earned back-to-back 2nd place finishes at the Masters and US Open—two of the most pressure-filled stages in golf. Now also consider these stats: 14th in driving distance (302 yards), 7th in putting, 9th in scoring average (69.71), and he is currently ranked No. 7 in the Official World Golf Rankings (He is one of the five 20-somethings ranked in the top 10 of the OWGR—McIlroy, Kaymer, Day, Johnson, Simpson).
For a young golfer to struggle to find their rhythm on the worldwide circuit is often met with understanding, if not sympathy. Day, however, is rewriting the traditional ascent of young golfers. Although there's been a palpable youth movement in golf over the last few years, Day continues to lead the charge with his outstanding performances and rapid leap in the golf rankings.
No one is comparing Day to fellow Aussie stars of the past or present, like Greg Norman, Adam Scott or Geoff Ogilvy, precisely because Day, at a younger age, is performing at a higher level than any of them did. Although Adam Scott was a fierce, young player and has clearly revamped his game alongside a new caddy and trusty belly-broom putter, Day has shown no signs of letting up.
The way you expect Albert Pujols to hit a home run each time he makes contact is reminiscent of how each time Day swings you think you he might dent the titanium in his club because of his sheer force.
Smiles are a rarity for the ferocious Aussie, who you can tell maintains an unwavering focus from the minute he tees it up on the first hole of his round. Once he establishes a rhythm, there’s no distracting Day.
He quieted the naysayers in 2011 and will enter next season with as much promise and momentum as any other player on Tour.
Spinning his Webb
It's when reason and expectation are blown out of the water, like the St. Louis Cardinals coming from 10 games back in August to win the World Series, that we are reminded of sport’s curious capacity to illuminate the unlikely and unforeseen hero.
Enter gangly, 6’2, Southern golfer with heavy accent named Webb Simpson.
Whether or not you knew Webb Simpson’s name before the 2011 season is irrelevant because his performance all year was one of seismic proportions.
His 23 cuts made in 26 events were made even more impressive by his 12 top-10s, three second-place finishes and, most importantly, his two victories—at the Wyndham Championship and at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
What distinguished Simpson from his competitors was that as he continued to gain steam he never looked back, never faltered, never took it for granted, and never stopped battling. To prove it, Simpson never went more than three events without a top 10 finish this season.
For a guy who turned pro just three years ago to come within a few strokes of winning both the Fed-Ex Cup and the PGA Tour Money Title was probably unimaginable at the start of the season. But, neck deep in the heat of the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs, there was Simpson, playing with poise and passion, turning in one of the most exceptional seasons among golfers worldwide.
Luke Donald bolstered his résumé in 2011. But it wasn’t just with a win at the WGC-Accenture over Martin Kaymer or his victory at the BMW PGA Championship over Lee Westwood, nor was it his win at the Barclay’s Scottish Open or even the late surge and triumph at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic (that's four wins if you weren't counting).
The Englishman who has been criticized for most of his career for not living up to his full potential became the first player in the history of golf to win the money titles on both the PGA Tour and European Tour (what the Europeans call “The Order of Merit”).
Donald followed a blueprint of consistency toward what turned out to be an unrivaled performance in 2011. He finished with a PGA Tour-best 14 top-10 finishes in 17 cuts made—enough to make Matt Kuchar cringe with envy.
Donald also captured the prestigious Byron Nelson Award and Vardon Trophy, the PGA and European Tour’s accolades for the lowest scoring average (68.86).
To say that he is a shoe-in for Player of the Year is an understatement. Donald’s performance at the Children’s Miracle Hospitals Classic was the nail in the coffin. He needed to win the event to secure the money title on both sides of the pond. Not only did he win, but he shot 30 on the back 9 on Sunday, posting six straight birdies to capture the title.
Donald survived the pressure of being No. 1 and thrived in its midst, exceeding expectations along the way. As Doug Ferguson at the AP said,
"Think of it this way. What if it had been Woods who, in the final tournament of the year that he had to win, shot 30 on the back nine? What if it had been Woods who had as many wins as anyone else, including a World Golf Championship? What if it had been Woods who won the money title and the Vardon Trophy and had 74 percent of his finishes in the top 10? Would there even be a discussion?"
The only criticism anyone can lob at Luke Donald would be his performance in major championships, which aside from his top-five finish at this year’s Masters has been mediocre at best throughout his career. Without a major to his name, there is a glaring void on Donald's career, but most of all it exposes the inherent flaw of a world rankings system that rewards a player with the No. 1 ranking without a major victory.
However, at 33-years-old, Donald appears to be at the peak of his career. His crafty short game and effortless golf swing make him one of the most dangerous competitors in the world of golf.
There’s no denying the apathy that ensues among the golfing public without Tiger Woods inside the ropes. Hopefully his re-entrance to the sport on a consistent basis will reawaken golf’s sleeping masses.
But, golf is not, and cannot be, about one man—a point made all too clear by the events of what was a thrilling 2011 season.