A year in golf: Tales from the Tour

Steve Stricker made it clear that money was not important.

His plan was to defend his title at Kapalua and walk away from

the PGA Tour for the rest of the year. Over the holidays leading

into 2013, he reached a compromise and cut his schedule roughly in

half. He contacted his sponsors, and they supported him.

Stricker didn’t have great expectations starting his year of

semi-retirement.

”If I could just make enough money to pay yearly expenses, I’m

fine with that,” he said. ”If we don’t have to touch anything

I’ve put away … I don’t need to do what I’m doing just to make

money. I’d rather be staying at home, doing things at home with the

foundation and with my kids.”

No one else was around during this conversation, but Stricker

still leaned in and lowered his voice as he stated what everyone

already knew.

”You know, we’re pretty conservative with our money,” he

said.

Stricker was runner-up that week at Kapalua and made $665,000.

He didn’t play for six weeks, and then reached the quarterfinals of

the Accenture Match Play Championship to earn $275,000. Two weeks

later, he was runner-up at Doral and brought in $880,000.

That should pay the bills.

He finished the year with just over $4.4 million, the

third-highest total of his career. His world ranking improved 10

spots to No. 8. And by the end of the year, he had several players

contemplating a similar schedule.

Along the way, there were plenty of other moments that showed

more about players than just their birdies and bogeys, and the

checks they cash.

Rory McIlroy generated a buzz no matter where he went at the

start of the year. He had the hefty deal from Nike. He was No. 1 in

the world. And he was struggling early with a missed cut in Abu

Dhabi and a first-round departure in Match Play. Nothing caused a

stir like Friday at the Honda Classic, when he abruptly shook hands

with Ernie Els as they were making the turn and walked straight to

the parking lot.

Information was a trickle. He was vague during a brisk walk to

the car. Later, a statement from his management company said he had

a sore wisdom tooth.

There was a golf tournament still going on. Michael Thompson

shot 65 on that Friday to move to the top of the leaderboard. It

was early afternoon and no one seemed interested. The announcement

sounded more like a plea. ”We have Michael Thompson in the

interview room,” the official said.

One voice broke the awkward silence. ”Is he a dentist?” a

reported asked.

No. But he did win his first PGA Tour event that week.

Angel Cabrera is a man of few words and loud actions.

A month after losing the Masters in a playoff, he was walking

off the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass following a practice round. Fans

thrust programs and flags for him to sign. There was bumping and

pushing, and a marshal started to bark at everyone to back up.

Cabrera stepped back about 10 feet, and then instructed only the

children to come under the ropes and join him. He spent the next 15

minutes signing for them.

The Pure Silk LPGA Bahamas Classic was played on a 12-hole

course at The Ocean Club because of flooding. The first round

didn’t finish because of another storm system in the area. Players

gathered in darkness outside the rules trailer to find out the plan

for Friday. A computer error led players to believe – only for a

moment – that they would keep their same tee time for the second

round. Chaos ensued, filled with heated arguments among players and

rules officials.

And it was at this moment the LPGA showed its true international

flavor.

A group of Swedish players were off to the right, raising their

voices in their native language. The Americans were in the front of

the pack. The South Koreans were in the back. The Spaniards were in

the middle. The Germans were over by the hedges. It was the

ultimate melting pot.

And they ultimately got it all worked out.

Among the visitors at The Players Championship was Ulises

Mendez, who plays on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. The Argentine

earned his card last year when he tied for 15th in Latin America

Q-school. His player badge allowed him access to the tournament,

and he camped out just beneath the bleachers behind the 17th

green.

He stood there for an hour as the best players came through the

17th. It was an inspiring day.

”To know where you need to be,” Mendez said, ”you need to see

where you want to go.”

There is no love lost between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, as

both made clear at The Players Championship and in the weeks that

followed. The same could be said for Garcia and Padraig Harrington,

as the Irishman showed on a couple of occasions this year in his

subtle style.

Speaking to a small group of reporters at the TPC Sawgrass,

where the Woods-Garcia flap was starting to unfold, Harrington said

of all the times he has played with Woods he considered his

etiquette ”absolutely impeccable.”

”I’ve played with Tiger many times,” Harrington said. ”I give

him an A-plus on his etiquette on the course. I give him an A-plus

for his respect for fellow players on the course.”

A British reporter then asked Harrington what kind of grade he

would give Garcia.

”I’m not in a position to rank players,” he replied.

Later that summer, Harrington finished a practice round at

Muirfield and was signing autographs. One fan had the British Open

program turned to the page that showed Harrington winning his first

claret jug. That was in 2007 at Carnoustie, after a playoff with

Garcia.

Harrington signed the page and held onto the book for the

longest time, staring at the photo with a satisfied smile.

”You like that picture?” the man said.

”More than you know,” the Irishman replied.

The woman behind the counter at Starbucks in the Denver suburbs

was making small talk with a customer when she learned he was

headed to the Solheim Cup.

”Annika Sorenstam was just in here,” she said. ”Well, I think

that was her.”

Think?

Not only is the Swede the most famous LPGA Tour player of her

generation, one would suspect writing the word ”Annika” on the

cup would be a dead giveaway. Except that in this case, she can be

excused. Turns out Sorenstam doesn’t go by ”Annika” when she’s in

Starbucks.

Her code name is Maria.

”Maria is the one name that translates on every continent,”

Sorenstam said when she confessed to her alias. ”So I’m Maria

Swenson.”

The first day of the Solheim Cup nearly didn’t finish because of

a rules decision that took nearly a half-hour to determine – and as

it turned out, it was the wrong decision. It proved a pivotal part

of the fourballs match, which Europe went on to win.

It wasn’t the first time a rules official had made the wrong

call. Former USGA President Trey Holland, one of the most skilled

in the Rules of Golf, mistakenly gave Ernie Els relief in the U.S.

Open from a temporary immovable object that was movable. But when

an official makes a ruling, it stands.

Brad Alexander, a respected LPGA official, made the wrong call

at the Solheim Cup. When the day was over, confusion and anger

lingered. Alexander volunteered to accompany both captains to the

media center to handle any questions from the press. He explained

what happened. He made no excuses. He accepted all the blame. It

was classy.

That kind of accountability would have come in handy at Augusta

National this year.

The final week of December is the one week no meaningful

tournaments are played on any tour in the world.

The golf year is endless, and it can feel even longer.

Mark Fulcher, the caddie for Justin Rose, has been at this a

long time. The crowning moment was at Merion, where Rose won the

U.S. Open for his first major. This was in late October, halfway

around the world in Shanghai. Everyone was tired. Rose was just

starting the stretch run to the end of his year. The caddies were

talking about the drudgery of early rounds at a tournament.

Except for ”Fooch.”

”The day I stop caddying, I’ll either be dead or I won’t be

excited on a Thursday morning,” Fulcher said that day. ”Thursday

is the greatest day in golf. It’s the perfect reset, isn’t it?

You’re reminded, even if you won, that everyone starts all over the

next week. And if you’ve played absolute rubbish, there’s always

the belief that it’s about to turn around. I love Thursday. Just

love it.”

It’s a good reminder for everyone involved in this game. You

never know what’s going to happen next. Or when.