Starting with Quail Hollow, Mickelson had a mathematical chance to go to No. 1 in every tournament he played for the next six months. He shot a 74 in the final round of The Players Championship. He missed the cut at Colonial. In the U.S. Open, the major that has tortured Mickelson over the years, he couldn’t cope with the bumpy greens at Pebble Beach in the final round. “I think everybody who plays golf as a professional is motivated to try to become No. 1,” Mickelson said. “It’s not an area that I focus on to do that. I feel if I play good golf that will happen. I don’t know the ranking system or world points or how that works, nor do I care, I just know that if I continue to play well, ultimately in the long run, it will happen.” But it never did. There was another missed cut at the Barclays Scottish Open, another pedestrian performance in The Open Championship. Mickelson needed only to finish fourth at the Bridgestone Invitational, and he was two shots out of that position going into the final round. He closed with a 78. Turns out there was a reason for that.
When he showed up at the PGA Championship the following week, Mickelson revealed that he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, which causes his immune system to attack his joints and tendons. He first noticed the symptoms a week before the U.S. Open, and pain became so severe that he couldn’t walk. Mickelson said the pain began to spread to his knees, hips and elbows. Why wait so long to disclose a serious ailment. “First of all, I don’t want excuses. And second, I don’t want to discuss something when I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Mickelson said. “For five or six weeks, I was a little unsure of how this was going to affect me long term, career, what have you. Now that I feel confident it’s not going to affect not only the rest of my career or the rest of my life, but even in the short term it shouldn’t have an effect, I feel a lot better about it.”
Even so, he was never the same after the U.S. Open. Mickelson had only one finish in the top 10 the rest of the year, when he played with Woods in the final round of the BMW Championship and shot 67 to tie for eighth. After such a promising start to the year, and so many chances to reach No. 1 in the world, he was back to where he started. And even though he was the defending champion in Shanghai, that was a week to fete Westwood as the new No. 1 _ a title that many thought would have belonged to Mickelson. “I haven’t played as well as I expect since the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “So I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. I’ve got to play well and win more tournaments, and then I feel like those results will take care of itself.” He said medication had made him feel healthy again, strong enough to work out and do all the activities he had been doing when he was diagnosed with the arthritis. He was ready to close out the year strong _ but he tied for 41st in the HSBC Champions, and limped to the finish line a week later at the Barclays Singapore Open. Mickelson started the year at No. 2 and finished it at No. 4 in the world. He failed to finish in the top 10 in the FedEx Cup for the first time, and he was sixth on the PGA Tour money list at just over $3.8 million, his lowest amount since he went without a win in 2003. His only win this year came with a green jacket, so the year wasn’t all bad.
Jim Furyk won three times, the most of any American, and captured the FedEx Cup. Matt Kuchar also had a breakthrough year on the U.S. tour, despite only one victory. He still won the money title, which comes with a five-year exemption. He also won the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest adjusted scoring average. But the American who captured most of the attention, and perhaps its brightest hope among players in their 20s, was Dustin Johnson.
When golf executives talk about having more talented athletes in the game, they are talking about players like Johnson. He is 6-foot-4, once dunking a basketball in bare feet and wearing a wet swimsuit after a day on the ocean. What makes Johnson stand out is that other players will watch him play, much as they do for Woods. At The Players Championship, with his ball nestled between two clumps of sawgrass on the side of the hill nearly 200 yards from the 14th green, Johnson hit an 8-iron onto the green. Els watched him from the fairway, shook his head and started laughing. Johnson plays practice rounds with Mickelson, and he doesn’t flinch when Mickelson announces the stakes for which they are playing. “He plays without fear, and that’s a cool thing to watch,” Mickelson said.
To be sure, Johnson will best be remembered for his gaffes. First came the meltdown in the U.S. Open, where he lost a three-shot lead in two holes at Pebble Beach and closed with an 82. Then came his mistake from the bunker on the final hole at Whistling Straits that cost him a two-shot penalty and a spot in the playoff with Kaymer and Watson. Lost in those blunders was another victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and his second victory of the year in the FedEx Cup playoffs when he won the BMW Championship. That gave him four victories in his first three years on tour. Not since Woods has anyone gone straight from college and won in each of his first three years. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was No. 5 on the world money list, the highest finish of any American.
Even as Johnson was on the rise, Furyk and Els were getting themselves back in the game. Furyk had gone some 30 months without winning anywhere in the world, and he finally ended that drought with a one-shot victory in the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook. Then came another win at The Heritage on Hilton Head, a week after the Masters. By the book, it was perhaps his finest season on golf. Despite being disqualified from the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs because his alarm didn’t go off and he missed his pro-am, Furyk won the $10 million bonus by saving par from a bunker on the final hole at East Lake to win the Tour Championship. Never had he won three times in one season. He earned more than $5 million around the world, the second-highest total of his career. The only thing lacking were the majors. Furyk failed to register a top 10 and missed the cut in the Masters and The Open Championship. “When I had an opportunity this year, I seemed to take advantage of it and close the door,” Furyk said. “Timing is everything, and I took advantage of it this year.”
The more mysterious drought belonged to Els, who had gone nearly two years to the day since his last victory, the longest stretch of his career. That finally ended at the CA Championship, his second World Golf Championship title. Perhaps the dry spell could be traced to Els going public with the autism afflicting his son, Ben. He started “Els for Autism,” to help raise money to find a cure, and announced an ambitious project of building a $30 million center for autism research and to be a learning center for the kids. Along the way, he relocated from London to Florida. There was a lot on his plate off the golf course, and his victory at Doral could not have come at a better time. In his next tournament, Els made it two in a row by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “It’s great to see Ernie playing well again,” said Retief Goosen, his longtime friend and fellow South African. “He’s really settled in after moving to America now. His game has seemed to really come around.” Alas, the majors were no less friendly. The only major where he was a factor was the U.S. Open, and Els let that get away from him with a 73 in the final round at Pebble Beach. He won back-to-back, but not again the rest of the year until he captured the South African Open in the last week of the year. He was third on the world money list with $6,374,762.
The LPGA Tour had the potential for dramatic story lines this year. When its season reached a conclusion at the LPGA Tour Championship, hardly anything had been decided. Five players were still in the running for some of its biggest honors, from the money title to player of the year to the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. With so much at stake at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla., it figures that Anna Nordqvist of Sweden would steal the thunder by winning. The five top players didn’t factor. Na Yeon Choi of South Korea won the money title with $1,871,165 and the Vare Trophy with an adjusted average of 69.87. .00 and the Vare Trophy. Yani Tseng of Taiwan won the points-based player of the year on the strength of her two majors.
The Americans kept one streak going. The last American to win a money title was Betsy King in 1993, while the last American to win LPGA player of the year was Beth Daniel in 1994. That hasn’t changed. Cristie Kerr at least was in the running for the money title until late in the season. Kerr had to settle for winning her second major, the LPGA Championship. Paula Creamer broke through with her first major when not many would have expected it. Battling a thumb injury that kept her out early in the season, she won the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont. Even so, the year belonged to Tseng, who won the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Women’s British Open. That made her the first woman to win two majors in one season since Annika Sorenstam in 2005.
For all the success, however, the LPGA Tour season is best remembered for someone who didn’t play. Desperate for star power since Sorenstam’s surprise retirement two years ago, women’s golf lost her replacement. Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, the No. 1 player in the women’s golf, dropped a bombshell in April that at age 28 and still at the peak of her game, she was stepping away. Ochoa had won 27 times, including two majors, and was the LPGA Tour player of the year four consecutive seasons. Newly married to the CEO of Aeromexico, suddenly a mother through his previous marriage and wanting children of her home, it was time to move on. “I have achieved all I needed to achieve in sports. Now is time to change, I’m going to keep working very hard, but at home,” she said. “Every career has a beginning and an end. Ours has come.” It was such an unselfish decision that while Ochoa had accrued the necessary points for the World Golf Hall of Fame, she lacked the 10 years as an LPGA Tour member for induction. That didn’t sway her. She wanted time at home as a mother and a wife, as long as running a foundation aimed at educating poor children in her hometown of Guadalajara. Her last tournament as the Tres Marias Championship in Morelia, Mexico, although she returned to play in her Lorena Ochoa Invitational toward the end of the year.
That left the door open for a new star, and Tseng did her best. She seized control early at the Kraft Nabisco Championship with an eagle on the par-5 second hole and closed with a 4-under 68 for a one-shot victory over Suzann Pettersen of Norway. In the final major of the year at Royal Birkdale, Tseng held it together long enough to shoot an even-par 73 and win the Ricoh Women’s British Open by one shot over Katherine Hull of Australia. Jiyai Shin of South Korea finished the year at No. 1 in the world, and Tseng still had work to get to the top and have a chance to become the game’s next dominant player. “In my heart, they are still the best women’s players in the world,” Tseng said of Sorenstam and Ochoa. “I hope in the future I can also be involved in more charity efforts, just like them.”
An old star keeps chugging right along. Laura Davies won the Women’s Indian Open on the Ladies European Tour for her 77th victory worldwide. Her last LPGA Tour victory was in 2001, which keeps her short of Hall of Fame qualifications. But at age 47, the big hitter from England remains competitive around the world. “I’ve always said, if you can walk, you can play golf,” she said. “It’s not like you have to be running the 100 meters in nine seconds. Just walk around the golf course and if you’re good enough, which obviously I still am, I don’t see it ending. I really don’t.”
Such is the nature of golf, and that Davies achieved her fame this year outside of America is nothing new. Even the PGA Tour has begun to expand beyond its North American shores, adding a tournament in Malaysia and counting the HSBC Champions in Shanghai as an official U.S. tour win provided the winner is PGA Tour member. At the end of the year, Woods was playing in Australia _ although he played around the world all his career _ and Phil Mickelson was in Asia. This is not lost on PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who said that he expects some form of a “world tour” in the future, although he’s not sure when. “I think that at some point in time, men’s professional golf will become integrated globally,” Finchem said. “I think it’s a matter of time. Golf generally is a splintered sport, multi-organizational at every level. But there’s movement.” Europeans were proud of their performance, and rightly so, picking up two majors and sporting the No. 1 player in the world, even as so many other of their players left their mark from Shanghai to Singapore, from Memphis to Muirfield Village.
The PGA Tour still boasts the deepest fields, the richest tours, just not all the best players except when a number of Europeans and even some from Asia decide to come over to America. There is not a world tour just yet. Each year, it’s starting to look like one.