McDowell started the final round four shots behind Woods, who clearly had found his game. Only twice in his career had Woods lost a tournament when leading by two shots through 54 holes _ against Westwood in Germany in 2000, and to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship in 2009 at Hazeltine. He had never lost when leading by more than two, so his four-shot margin looked safe. McDowell came out swinging, as always. He built a two-shot lead through 13 holes, then made an amazing escape on the 17th hole when he got up-and-down for bogey while playing from an adjacent tee box through the trees. Then came his dramatic conclusion, the 20-foot birdie to match Woods’ tap-in birdie on the closing hole, followed by another birdie putt from about the same distance in the playoff. It was his fourth victory of the year, matching Kaymer for most by any player on any tour. The fact it was Woods whom he beat, and the fashion in which McDowell won, made it seem even bigger. McDowell headed to Florida for the Shark Shootout before getting home _ finally _ to Northern Ireland for the holidays. He did not want the year to end, and who could blame him? He led the world money list with $7,371,586. He won the Golf Writers Trophy from the Association of Golf Writers and was voted player of the year by the Golf Writers Association of America. McDowell and Kaymer shared the European Tour player of the year award.
“I feel like I earned my stripes a little bit, and I felt like a year like this one has been coming,” McDowell said. “Obviously, the script this year has been pretty amazing. I didn’t quite foresee it being this amazing. But I really I felt like I had some big golf in me this year, and it’s been amazing to be able to do it.”
The only other player with four wins was Kaymer, and to be sure, the media had a difficult time picking between Kaymer and McDowell as to who had the best year. They had the same number of wins, each won a major for the first time, and while Kaymer won the Race to Dubai, McDowell countered with Ryder Cup heroics and being No. 1 on the world money list. There is a cool precision about the German that led many to consider his enormous possibilities.
When he failed to make it through Q-school on the European Tour after he turned pro, he won six of 13 events on a mini-tour, including one tournament where he failed to birdie the par-5 17th and still shot 59. He won a Challenge Tour event on a sponsor exemption, and finished fourth on the Challenge Tour money list in only eight tournaments. So when he won the Abu Dhabi Championship at age 23 by four shots over Westwood and Henrik Stenson, it was little wonder when Padraig Harrington said, “This is one worth watching.” It took awhile, but not all that long. His mother died of cancer in 2008. A year later, not long after winning consecutive starts in Europe, he injured his foot in a go-cart accident and missed 10 weeks. When the 2010 season rolled around, he was ready to go. “My goal for every year is pretty much to win at least two tournaments on the European Tour,” he said. “I did this 2008, I did this 2009. It would be nice to do the same this year.” Turns out it was double the pleasure.
Kaymer, who doesn’t seem to have many flaws in his game, opened with a victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship by holding off Poulter and McIlroy. Tied for the lead on the final hole, he hit 3-wood from 277 yards onto the green for a two-putt birdie and a closing 66. Results were mixed over the next several months, but the German seemed to play his best golf against the strongest competition. He tied for eighth in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. At St. Andrews a month later in The Open Championship, he was among the few to tried to stay in shouting distance of Oosthuizen until closing with a 74 to tie for seventh. It was his third top 10 in the last four majors, a sure sign he was making progress. And then came the PGA Championship, with a champion’s putt on the 18th that got him into the playoff, a birdie putt even bigger on the 17th in the playoff and his first major. Any other player might have been a footnote considering how the PGA Championship ended, with Dustin Johnson penalized two shots on the final hole. But not Kaymer. He had won six times at age 25, and was quickly becoming a force in European and world golf. More was still to come.
In his first tournaments as a major champion, Kaymer tuned up for the Ryder Cup by winning the KLM Open by four shots and stretching his lead in the Race to Dubai to about $635,000. His Ryder Cup debut was not without a few flaws, also he won both fourballs matches and contributed 2½ points. Back to playing his own ball, he won the Dunhill Links Championship. Dating to his playoff victory in the PGA Championship, Kaymer had won three successive tournaments and was on the verge of claiming his first money title. He had only one top 10 the rest of the way, in the Barclays Singapore Open, but he was so far ahead that no one could catch him. Kaymer won the Race to Dubai, the first German to lead Europe on the money list since Bernhard Langer. Kaymer wound up 11th on the world money list.
“All of the goals that I set for myself for my career, everything happened this year,” said Kaymer, ticking off the Race to Dubai, his first Ryder Cup and winning a major. “I would feel that I have the potential to become one of the best players in the world, yes. But I think no one would have thought that I could make it this quick, that fast. So, yes, I knew that I can do all of those things, that I can win majors and that I can become the No. 1 in Europe. And we will see. Maybe one day I believe that I can become the No. 1 in the world, too.”
The competition for No. 1 has not been this strong in a decade, and that’s just in Europe. Woods was the only American under the age of 40 who was in the top 10. Across the Atlantic, players appeared to be lining up for their shot at No. 1, if not within the year, then very soon. The most likely candidates were coming from Britain, for no other reason than sheer numbers. This first showed itself in the Accenture Match Play Championship and the all-England final, with Sergio Garcia of Spain a semifinalist. Poulter rose to No. 5 in the world with his first victory on American soil. Casey reached No. 3 a year earlier until he was slowed by a rib injury, and he remained in the top 10 despite not winning a single tournament. He was helped by his runner-up in the Match Play, a tie for third in The Open Championship and ending the year with five consecutive top 10s. Europe was so strong that Casey was No. 7 in the world and left off the Ryder Cup team. Luke Donald got as high as No. 6 in the world with only one victory, in the Madrid Masters, but consistent play. He had 14 top 10s around the world, which explains how he finished at No. 4 on the world money list with $6,057,601. “I just think that there’s been a lot of great talent in England for such a long time. And it’s nice to see guys actually deliver on the golf course,” Poulter said. “We’ve been waiting for a long time.”
McIlroy would count as part of that British invasion _ of the world ranking, not so much America. The mop-topped, freckled-face boy wonder showed himself early with strong finishes in the Middle East, then showed his potential more than ever at Quail Hollow. He was on the verge of missing the cut until right at the flag on his 16th hole and making eagle to narrowly make it. He still was four shots behind in the final round on one of the strongest courses on the PGA Tour, yet turned in what many players considered the best round of the year. He set the course record with a 10-under 62, playing the last five holes in 5-under par and turning a four-shot deficit into a four-shot victory over Mickelson, who was playing for the first time since winning the Masters. For strictly style points, the kid knocked in a 40-foot birdie putt on the last hole for his first U.S. victory. And while that 62 was his best score of the year, he got far more attention for a round that was shot higher. That it happened at the home of golf changes everything. McIlroy made the most out of the surprising calm at St. Andrews in the opening round of The Open Championship, and some thought he might have a shot at 62, a score no one had ever posted in a major championship. He settled for a 63, which only gave him a two-shot lead. He tied for third, and contended again in the next major, doing everything right at the PGA Championship in the final round except for making more putts.
By year end, five players from the United Kingdom has won six times on the PGA Tour _ Poulter, McIlroy, Westwood, McDowell and Justin Rose, who broke through at the Memorial and won again a few weeks later at the AT&T National. Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management was only joking _ although there was some truth to it _ when he said the season-opening Tournament of Champions at Kapalua to start the following year might look like a regular European Tour event.
McIlroy had a youthful counterpart in his explosive play. Ryo Ishikawa, the teen sensation from Japan, kept right on rolling. It’s one thing for the “Bashful Prince” to win three more times on the Japan Golf Tour, giving him 11 titles at age 19. It’s quite another to win one of them with a 58, the lowest score ever shot on a recognized tour. Six shots behind Shigeki Maruyama going into the final day at The Crowns, Ishikawa made nine birdies on the opening 11 holes and won by five shots. “I always dreamed of getting a score like this,” he said. Ishikawa again didn’t factor overseas, although he made the cut in two majors this year and was two shots out of the lead going into the weekend at the U.S. Open. Even so, he kept winning tournaments and carried the Japan tour with his popularity. “People have no idea how good this kid is,” said Woods, who played an exhibition with Ishikawa in October. His 58 was the lowest score on a major tour this year, but not by much. In a year of low magic numbers, Paul Goydos opened with a 59 in the John Deere Classic in soft conditions, but that was only good for a one-shot lead over Steve Stricker, who went on to win the tournament. A month later, Stuart Appleby holed a 10-foot putt on the final hole at The Greenbrier to shoot 59 and win the tournaments.
K.T. Kim also won three times in Japan to win the money title and crack the top 50 in the world as Asian men continued to join the world stage of golf. And if Ishikawa has a rival in Asia, it might be someone his own age. Noh Seung-yul of South Korea won the Maybank Malaysian Open for his second career victory, and at age 19, he became the youngest player to win the Asian Tour money title. On the European Tour, Matteo Manassero became the youngest winner ever when the 17-year-old Italian won the Castello Masters. He also had rounds of 63 and 62 to finish one shot behind Ian Poulter in the UBS Hong Kong Open. So it was a big year for teenagers, and it wasn’t bad for the Italians, either. Francesco and Edoardo Molinari were Ryder Cup teammates and both won tournaments, with Francesco Molinari beating Westwood at the HSBC Champions.
The only player who kept the Americans from getting shut out in the majors was Mickelson at the Masters, and it would have seemed to send him toward a big year, especially without Woods to worry about. For all that he has achieved in the game, Mickelson simply came around at the wrong time. The year before Woods turned pro, Mickelson won four times and lost the PGA Tour money title in the final week. Since then, Woods has made it tough on everyone, especially Mickelson. The popular left-hander had never won a U.S. money title. He had never been voted player of the year. And he had never been No. 1 in the world. The opportunity was never greater with Woods on the mend, and when Mickelson was runner-up at Quail Hollow in his first tournament after the Masters, it seemed inevitable that he would lead the American charge in 2010. It just didn’t turn out that way.