The Year In Retrospect
The seeds for a power shift in the increasingly global nature of golf were planted in the arid desert on opposite sides of the world, from the Middle East to Arizona. They began to blossom at the Abu Dhabi Championship, the first big event on the European Tour, when 25-year-old Martin Kaymer of Germany picked up his first win of the year by holding off the English duo of Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy. Two weeks later, Miguel Angel Jimenez matched shots with Lee Westwood on the weekend until beating him in a playoff at the Dubai Desert Classic. And so the stage was set for the first World Golf Championships of the year in the high desert north of Tucson, Ariz. And while the series are now held almost exclusively in America, there was a distinctive European flavor. For the first time in the 12-year history of the Accenture Match Play Championship, no Americans were to be found in the semifinals. On the final day, only a pair of Englishmen were left. Poulter worked his short-game magic for a 4-and-2 victory over Paul Casey, his first title in America. At the time, England alone occupied No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 in the world ranking _ Westwood, Poulter and Casey _ and it was only going to get better.
By year end, there was argument over which continent had the best players.
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland became the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open with his one-shot victory over Gregory Havret of France, a final day at Pebble Beach that at one point featured Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. For the first time since 1909, there were no Americans among the top three in their national championship. The majors ended with Kaymer winning the PGA Championship in a playoff over Bubba Watson, marking the first time since 1999 that two different Europeans had won majors in the same season. And there was still more to come. McDowell delivered his own shot heard ’round the world to help Europe win back the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. And as a remarkable season for Europe was winding down, Westwood replaced Woods atop the world ranking. It was the first time a European had been No. 1 since 1992. Was it the start of a new golden era for Europe, harking back to the days of Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam? “I think it’s been a golden era for a couple of years now,” Westwood said.
It was anything but that for the United States. The lone American to win a major was Phil Mickelson at the Masters. The only American to win a World Golf Championship was Hunter Mahan in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. The Players Championship, boasting the deepest and strongest field of the year, was won by Tim Clark of South Africa. For so long, Woods had been the American face of golf, and that was usually enough. He had ended the previous year as the indisputable world No. 1 with a victory in the Australian Masters, his 82nd win worldwide in tournaments that count toward the world ranking. But with turmoil in his personal life and a golf swing in disarray, Woods failed to win a tournament anywhere in the world for the first time since he turned professional. Mickelson didn’t win again after the Masters, his progress slowed in the summer by a frightening case of arthritis. Along the way, he squandered chances in 13 consecutive tournaments he played to reach No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. Even a few bright spots among young Americans were tempered by failure. Dustin Johnson, a powerful 25-year-old who won twice, is best remembered for squandering a three-shot lead in the U.S. Open with an 82 and failing to recognize he was in a bunker on the final hole of the PGA Championship. Mahan, who also won twice, found himself in the final and decisive match at the Ryder Cup. Needing to get up-and-down on the 17th hole to have any chance, he chunked a chip and was in tears.
Success in Europe didn’t happen overnight. A turning point for its tour that often gets overlooked took place at La Costa Resort north of San Diego in 2006 at the Accenture Match Play Championship. The U.S. tour had created a year-end bonus series called the FedEx Cup that was worth $10 million bonus money and was sure to attract top players from around the world. The Players Championship was moving to May, a time when the European tour was getting to the heart of its season. European tour chief executive George O’Grady summoned two dozen of his players at La Costa to hear their ideas. It was not a pep talk. O’Grady laid out the challenges, and when asked what came out of the meeting, he said, “That the European Tour is worth fighting for.” From that grew a strong sense of pride usually only seen every other year when the Ryder Cup is on the line. A year later, Padraig Harrington became the first European in eight years to win a major. Then came the rebirth of Westwood, who had plunged as low as No. 253 in the ranking earlier in the decade. Kaymer and McIlroy were on their way, both still amateurs. Slowly the tide was shifting until it gushed out in 2010. Europeans finished first or second in every major championship. “I think the last four or five years have been a good time for European golf,” Westwood said. He recalls a time a decade ago when he was the only Englishman in the top 100 of the world ranking. By the end of 2010, there were five from England in the top 30, and six Europeans were among the top 10. Leading the way was Westwood. At the start of the year, he was recognized as best without a major. By year’s end, he was simply the best.
Westwood opened his year by missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, certainly not the kind of harbinger of a season that awaited. He had captured the Race to Dubai on the European Tour the previous year, giving him Order of Merit titles on both sides of the decade, and much was expected of an Englishman who had started to show himself in the majors. At the 2008 U.S. Open, he stood over a 15-foot birdie putt to get into a playoff with Rocco Mediate, and left it inches short. A year later, Westwood came to the 18th hole at Turnberry one shot behind and felt he needed a birdie to have any chance. He three-putted from 70 feet for bogey and wound up one shot out of a playoff. Lost amid the close calls in a major was his consistency. Not so obvious to the casual observer was that he had finally figured out a schedule that would allow him to compete at optimal levels in the biggest tournaments. He also dedicated himself to fitness like never before, including power lifting. “Golf is an explosive sport,” he said, “so you need that explosive power.” The result was a more complete player than ever before, and it showed. After missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, he finished in the top 10 in eight of his next 10 stroke-play tournaments.
There was a playoff loss to Jimenez in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He had a 54-hole lead in the Masters before finishing second to Mickelson, another 54-hole lead in The Players Championship until he stumbled to a 74 in the final round. One bright spot for Westwood was an uproar over not getting an exemption to the FedEx St. Jude Classic, which he had hoped to play before the U.S. Open. He wasn’t sure why he would be overlooked, but glanced on the “UPS” logo on his shirt and suggested competing sponsors might have something to do with it. Tournament officials in Memphis, Tenn., changed their mind, and Westwood wound up with his second U.S. tour victory, albeit with some help. Robert Garrigus, an unknown on any tour, had a three-shot lead on the final hole and took a triple bogey to fall into a three-way playoff with Westwood and Robert Karlsson, with Westwood winning on the fourth extra hole. It would be his only win against a full field all year.
Just as he was hitting his stride, however, Westwood was slowed by a nagging injury in his calf at the French Open that caused swelling in his right ankle. He sat out the Barclays Scottish Open to rest up for The Open Championship, and while he wasn’t at his best, Westwood still managed one last birdie to take second place, albeit seven shots behind Louis Oosthuizen. It was a gritty performance, and typical of the way Westwood was playing in the majors. In the previous five majors, he had finished no worse than a tie for third in all but one of them. But that would be his last major of the year. After two rounds of the Bridgestone Invitational, his ankle bothering him to the point that Westwood’s confidence was waning over shots, he withdrew from the WGC event at Firestone and the PGA Championship. He didn’t need surgery, only rest. And while he was closing in on No. 1, he didn’t feel as though he could properly compete. He played twice more, the Ryder Cup and Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and otherwise stayed home. That in itself was enough to go to No. 1 in the world.
Someone was going to replace Woods atop the ranking. It was a matter of time the way he was playing, the only question being who. The most logical candidate appeared to be Mickelson, especially after winning his third green jacket and finishing second at the Quail Hollow Championship. But he stalled, and Steve Stricker didn’t give himself enough chances. That it eventually fell to Westwood was a surprise in some quarters, but only to those who didn’t appreciate the world ranking for what it is. Westwood knows it well, so he was aware after the Ryder Cup that as Woods continued to lose points, he eventually would overtake him. It was only awkward that the formal change occurred when Westwood was resting at home at England. The moment came after the Andalucia Masters, when Kaymer missed a chance to catch him. Westwood celebrated at home with friends, family and toasts of champagne. “Growing up, when people ask what you want to achieve, you turn around say, ‘I want to be the best in the world.’ Right at this very moment,” he said, “I can show people the world ranking and say, ‘Look, I’m the best in the world. I’m the best on the planet for golf at the moment.'”
He became only the 13th player to be No. 1 since the world ranking began in 1986. And he made no apologies for having not won a major, or having won only two tournaments in the previous 12 months. It spoke to the steady play of Westwood, to the remarkable control he showed off the tee, the improved short game and the putting. “A lot of people get confused,” he said at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, his first tournament as the world No. 1. “I know that I haven’t won a major championship. I’m very well aware of that. But I do know I’ve probably played the most consistent golf in the world over the last two years, and that reflects in my world ranking. It’s not a complicated system. It’s a good system and it’s a fair system, and you don’t hear the players complaining about, so it must be right.”
If there any debate about No. 1, Westwood answered it quickly. In only his second stroke-play competition in three months, Westwood opened with a 66 to trail Ryder Cup teammate Francesco Molinari, and only one of the top performances of the year by the Italian kept Westwood from winning. Molinari won by a shot, but Westwood was nine shots clear of third place. His fourth runner-up finish of the year started to widen the gap between him and Woods. He followed that with a tie for third in the Dubai World Championship, then closed out his memorable year by winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. That is what a world No. 1 is capable of doing. Westwood looked very much like Vijay Singh when he rose to No. 1 in 2004. In just about every tournament, Westwood was near the lead. And if he wasn’t, he would be there soon. Despite finishing only 19 tournaments, and missing nearly three months of the season, Westwood wound up second on the world money list with $6,508,423. But the only number associated with him was No. 1.
“I’ve had good times where I’ve won a lot of tournaments, and I’ve had bad times, and I’ve come out of that bad time, which not a lot of players do,” Westwood said during his rise to the top. “So I’m obviously pleased with myself that I’ve come back and gotten back to being a world-class player again.”
Woods first rose to No. 1 in the world on June 15, 1997, and the first time he entrenched himself there was a year later. Since then, conventional wisdom is that he lends out the No. 1 ranking more than he loses it. When David Duval became No. 1, it came at a time when Woods was revamping his swing under Butch Harmon. Singh became No. 1 by winning nine times in 2004, but that was the year Woods switched coaches to Hank Haney and overhauled his swing again. Woods didn’t win very often during those spells, but at least he won, and he often contended. In his worst two seasons, 1998 and 2004, he won only two tournaments. That’s what made this a year like no other. Woods didn’t win at all.