Golf

Rory's ascension top 2012 storyline

GolfWeek Jim McCabe
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If you can almost see the whales breaching in the Pailolo Channel between Maui and Molokai, no doubt you’re ready for the 2013 PGA Tour season.

If not, perhaps you’re still in exhale mode, savoring a 2012 season that provided dozens of unforgettable highlights. Without time or space to detail all of them, here is one man’s choice of the top 10:

1. Welcome to the penthouse, Mr. McIlroy

It isn’t so much that the gift of Holywood, Northern Ireland, firmly snared his hold on the top spot in the world rankings, it’s the way in which he did it. His second consecutive season with an eight-stroke win in a major (in this case, the PGA), five wins worldwide, back-to-back triumphs in the PGA Tour playoffs, and money titles in the United States and Europe.

Whew! Take a bow, you 23-year-old tour de force.

Now it’s imperative that we put things in perspective. A great year, for sure, but certainly not majestic. Not when stacked up against Tiger Woods’ dominations of 2000 (nine wins, three of them majors), 2006 (eight wins, two majors), 2005 (six wins, two majors), or even 2008 for goodness sakes (six starts, four wins, one major), and not even comparable to what Vijay Singh did in 2004 (nine wins, one major, topped Woods for No. 1).

But give McIlroy credit for shaking off a midseason slump (missed the cut in three of four starts, including the US Open) to play brilliantly and firmly establish himself as the world’s best.

2. Trophy time for Tiger

Returning to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2009, Tiger Woods scored an impressive hat trick, of sorts. He won tournaments hosted by three iconic figures: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and himself.

His triumph at the AT&T National at Congressional on July 1 came courtesy of a few swings that Bo Van Pelt would surely like to have back, and didn’t quite measure up in the drama department to his victories at Bay Hill or Muirfield Village. But it was career win No. 74, surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ 73, and moving Woods within eight of Sam Snead’s career record of 82.

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But chances are, most observers probably felt the third win of the year would be followed by a few more. They were wrong.

Though he won three events or more for the 12th time in his 16 full seasons — Nicklaus did it 14 times — Woods himself would categorize the season as a bit of a disappointment. That’s because he didn’t threaten at the Masters, squandered 36-hold leads at the US Open and PGA, and went without a victory in the majors for a fourth consecutive year.

And yet, the return to winning form by Woods is something that certainly had to be of great value to the PGA Tour.

3. Drop the anchors

It rankled purists for decades. It agitated those within the hallways of the USGA and R&A for years. And when three players wielding long putters that were anchored to their bodies won majors, oh, how the blood boiled.

So after endless rhetoric, the joint decision was made Nov. 28 to propose that anchoring a club to one’s body be banned come Jan. 1, 2016.

While focus was shifted to the PGA Tour types who have found success with this technique — Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els, Adam Scott, Carl Pettersson, and Tim Clark, most notably — the rule affects golfers of all levels and that is why the storyline has been so volatile.

4. Who writes these Ryder Cup scripts?

Rarely in sports do competitions live up to the hype, but somehow, someway, the biennial Ryder Cup not only does, it often goes beyond the two-year buildup.

Ian Poulter thought this year would be the exception, given how the 2010 Ryder Cup had gone down to the final singles match. He was wrong.

“I thought Celtic Manor would have been very hard to touch, and I think most people would have agreed with that,” the Englishman said. “But what we witnessed (at Medinah CC) — as a player, as a sports fan, as a golf fan, whatever you want to call it — was just incredible. It was drama right from the get-go.”

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Down by 5-3 after a lackluster Friday, then outclassed in Saturday morning’s foursomes, the Euros were seemingly headed for an insurmountable deficit. Only Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the afternoon four-ball, then Poulter made five consecutive birdies to lift him and Rory McIlroy over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.

It was 10-6 and while it wasn’t pretty, neither was it out of the question. There was hope — if only the singles session was one for the ages.

Miraculously, it was, with Donald, Poulter and McIlroy each winning to get things rolling. Justin Rose then birdied 17 and 18 to come from 1 down to beat Phil Mickelson, and when Paul Lawrie spanked Brandt Snedeker there was panic and it was painted red, white and blue.

Only Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner won for the Americans, and after Garcia beat Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood brushed aside Matt Kuchar, it was left for Martin Kaymer to stun Stricker to provide the winning point.

The Euros took the singles play, 8-1/2 to 3-1/2, and earned their seventh win in the past nine editions of this spirited match.

5. Wide right? No problem. It’s “Bubba Golf”

That the Masters came down to two guys on different ends of the spectrum — Bubba Watson and his unorthodox, free-wheelin’ swing from the left side; Louis Oosthuizen and his classic, to-die-for mechanics — made the annual major even more delectable.

No surprise that it required a playoff, with Watson having reached 10 under with four consecutive birdies starting at the par-5 13th and Oosthuizen getting there with birdies at 13 and 15.

Neither player gave an inch at the par-4 18th, the hole halved with pars. But at the par-4 10th, Oosthuizen gained the advantage when Watson pulled his drive well right and into a spot where he was blocked by trees.

But trying to become the second consecutive South African to win the green jacket, Oosthuizen kicked away his advantage when he came up short of the green, then he watched in disbelief as Watson — he of the pink driver and creative ability to twist shots at will — hit a gap wedge off of pine needles, bending it some 40 yards left-to-right. He was left with a 10-foot birdie try and Oosthuizen was left in awe.

“Where I stood, when the ball came out, it looked like a curve ball,” Oosthuizen said. “Unbelievable shot.”

More unbelievable than what Oosthuizen had done earlier, his 4-iron from 253 yards at the downhill par-5 second landing in the hole for an improbable albatross? Hard to believe, but yes, it was. After all, it was all on the line when Watson somehow did something that he had a hard time explaining.

“I got in these trees and hit a crazy shot that I saw in my head,” he told reporters later, “and somehow I'm here talking to you with a green jacket on."

6. Can no one close the deal anymore?

Since we’re still in the Tiger Woods era, it’s worth reminding ourselves that what comprised a huge part of the icon’s aura was his ability to take a 54-hole lead and protect it like the nuclear football.

Apparently, he didn’t share the blueprint with colleagues, however, because in 2012 no one seemed to have a clue as to how to provide a finishing touch.

Kyle Stanley led by three with just the 72nd hole to play at Torrey Pines . . . and lost.

Spencer Levin led the Waste Management Open by six with 18 to play . . . and lost.

Jim Furyk shared the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open . . . and lost, thanks to bogeys on three of his last six holes.

Two months later, Furyk led by one on the 72nd hole of the WGC Bridgesone Invitational, made double-bogey, and finished second.

In between those heartaches, Adam Scott bogeyed each of his final four holes at the British Open and lost by one to Ernie Els.

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There were others, of course, but you get the drift.

7. Keegan here, Keegan there, Keegan everywhere

Having burst onto the scene with a PGA Championship in his rookie season, it didn’t seem possible for the New Englander to match 2011’s excitement. Somehow, though, he did.

It seems as if the 26-year-old was always in the thick of things. He made a birdie at the 72nd hole to get into a playoff at the Northern Trust Open, but was swept up in a controversy because cameras caught him spitting so often.

Less-than-inspiring efforts in the season’s first three majors were a reason he was outside looking in for the Ryder Cup team, then he made a gutsy par at the 72nd hole and was handed a spot on the team when Jim Furyk double-bogeyed to gift-wrap for Bradley the Bridgestone Invitational.

At the Ryder Cup, he was a one-man dynamo, hitting moonshots to give Phil Mickelson a series of wedge shots, which is like telling Bonnie and Clyde the combination to the safe. Easy pickin’, and Mickelson consistently converted so that the pair won three times convincingly in team matches.

But Bradley lost in singles to Rory McIlroy, a pain that only increased when the American team also fell. Not given a chance to swing his emotions upward, Bradley some two months later found himself on the short end again, this time victimized by a rules proposal to ban the anchoring technique that he favors.

With fans wasting no time in letting the anchors know they are being watched, Bradley understands the landscape as it now exists.

Disappointed? Yes. Upset? No question. But is Bradley determined to toss the bad news onto his shoulder like a 15,000-pound reminder that he’s the underdog, as always, and has to overcome even more obstacles? His wide smile let’s you know how true that is, a source of motivation having been discovered.

8. Europe? No thanks, I’ll take Ponte Vedra Beach’s team

It might own this Ryder Cup business, but the European Tour barely has a grip on its best players. Oh, it maintains a healthy membership, thanks mostly to a set of rules that are as soft as flag football. But when it comes to establishing a home base, Euros see things through red, white, and blue glasses.

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Having rejected PGA Tour membership in 2011 — tossing barbs at Camp Ponte Vedra Beach’s coveted Players Championship — Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood joined the fun in 2012 and what’s more, they both decided that Florida would be their home base. Martin Kaymer said he would take up PGA Tour membership for 2013, something he had previously rejected.

9. The FedEx Cup continues to thrive

Since being introduced in 2007, the PGA Tour’s series of playoff tournaments has consistently produced two things: a healthy list of critics and world-class winners.

No surprise, but the critics are slowly disappearing as the quality of champions increases.

The sixth edition of the FedEx Cup may have been the best yet, what with the newest No. 1 in the world, Rory McIlroy, winning twice, then getting caught at the finish line by a putting machine named Brandt Snedeker. Factor in a win by Nick Watney and the reality is this: Of the 24 FEC playoff tournaments since 2007, a top-25 player has won 18 times and the six overall champions have been named Tiger Woods (twice), Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Bill Haas, and Snedeker.

Intended to bring quality fields to the end of the year, it’s time to say that PGA Tour delivered a home run with the FedEx Cup.

10. Take a final bow, Q-School

No aspect to the PGA Tour has generated more romanticism than the fabled Q-School, that place where dreamers go to prove they belong. For decades, the system has been in place for Everyday Joe to pay his entry fee and tee it up in a chance to prove he has what it takes.

Occasionally, the long shot has made it, too, but more often than not, the stories that have resonated are tied to heartache, the dream dying an agonizing death with a final-hole bogey.

But now, it has all changed. Starting in 2013 there will still be a Q-School, only graduates will no longer earn PGA Tour cards. Instead, they will be placed on the Web.com Tour, from where they can make it to the big leagues by finishing high on the money list. Makes for a more polished PGA Tour player, or so goes the argument from PGA Tour officials, who came up with the plan and worked it through the policy board and the membership.

The dreamers never got to vote.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Tim Clark, Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott, Bo Van Pelt, Nick Watney, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Jack Nicklaus

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