Not since Woods has one player stood out so clearly from the rest in men’s golf, which is not to suggest that Donald stole all the headlines. In fact, perhaps no player was under more scrutiny this year than McIlroy. There were growing suggestions that his number of trophies (two) was not commensurate with his amazing talent. He won the Dubai Desert Classic in his second full year on the European Tour, and in his first year as a PGA Tour member, McIlroy closed with a 62 to win at tough Quail Hollow. There was nothing to suggest that was going to change. In his first time in contention, he was poised to become the Boy Wonder of golf by leading wire-to-wire at the Masters and building a four-shot lead going into the final round. And then came a collapse that put McIlroy in the record book for the wrong reasons. He shot an 80 to tie for 15th, yet his popularity soared from the gracious way he handled such a devastating outcome. McIlroy boarded a private jet, which included Charl Schwartzel and his new green jacket, and recovered well enough the following week to finish third in the Maybank Malaysian Open. But when he returned to strong competition as the defending champion at Quail Hollow, he missed the cut in the Wells Fargo Championship amid concerns that the Masters meltdown left some deep scars.
His road back let through Haiti, of all places. McIlroy signed on as one of Ireland’s ambassadors to UNICEF earlier in the year, and he chose a tiny country ravaged by an earthquake for his first field visit that was geared toward helping children. He later said it put his golf in perspective, and suddenly that sting of the Masters was not nearly as severe. McIlroy made his way from Haiti to Washington, and fell in love with Congressional the first time he played it to get ready for the U.S. Open. The feeling, quite clearly, was mutual. For those wondering how long that hangover would last from Augusta, the kid gave a swift and decisive answer with his eight-shot win at the U.S. Open. More than just a major, and beyond the fact that McIlroy went lower under par than anyone in U.S. Open history, was the way the crowd responded to him. There was a buzz about this kid, as there was around 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in the 1999 PGA Championship when he was runner-up to Woods. Winning, though, takes that to another level. McIlroy is polished enough, humble enough, to handle the spotlight. He learned that he could make news for just about anything. “I didn’t realize how much of a fuss it would create or how much of a buzz,” he said. “The support that I’ve had from people back home, from everyone all over the world, has been pretty overwhelming.”
Equally overwhelming was the attention thrown his way at The Open Championship, where he was betting favorite for the first time. And for good reason. McIlroy had been atop the leaderboard in seven of the last eight rounds at majors. Going back a little further, he tied the major championship record with a 63 at St. Andrews the year before, and was within a shot of the lead in the final hour of the PGA Championship the previous August. His week at Royal St. George’s didn’t go according to plan, however, and it sounded even worse when he closed with a 73 to tie for 25th, and then announced he only likes playing golf in good weather. “My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don’t enjoy playing in, really,” he said. “I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.” Strange words out of the mouth from a babe of Northern Ireland. Two weeks later, McIlroy snapped again, this time directed at BBC commentator Jay Townsend, who questioned the skill of caddie J.P. Fitzgerald and McIlroy’s course management at the end of the second round. McIlroy used Twitter to fire back at Townsend, “Shut up. You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing!” Off the course, he ended his relationship with girlfriend Holly Sweeney and began seeing Caroline Wozniacki, the world No. 1 in women’s tennis. They were a regular item during the summer, and she was walking inside the ropes with him in the final World Golf Championship of the year. McIlroy also announced he would be rejoining the PGA Tour, after declined in 2011. That in itself was a lot of change for a 22-year-old who seemingly had the world at his feet. But there was more to come.
After the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda, McIlroy told agent Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management that they were through, and he would be managed by Horizon Sports out of Dublin, the management company of good friend and fellow U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. “All I want to do is concentrate on golf and win golf tournaments,” McIlroy said. “I feel up to this point, I haven’t won enough. I feel I needed to make a few decisions to change that.” He won the Shanghai Masters and the UBS Hong Kong Open, reaching No. 2 in the world until Westwood edged past him at the end of the year. No matter. McIlroy was feted for his star power, which was in ample supply all year. Even with Woods returning from injury to the PGA Championship _ and then opening with a 77 that would cause him to miss the cut _ McIlroy stole the show. With his stubborn side in full display, he tried to blasted through a large tree root in the opening round at Atlanta Athletic Club and injured his right arm. He gamely played on, even as everyone expected him to withdraw and not cause further damage. It was a snapshot into how McIlroy answers to no one but himself. Chandler found that out the hard way.
Chandler, a former player from England, managed to be part of the picture without hitting a shot. His stable at International Sports Management for years had been built around Clarke and Westwood. He later added Ernie Els, and the big addition was McIlroy. But it seemed like every major was captured by one of his clients _ Schwartzel at the Masters, McIlroy at the U.S. Open, Clarke’s big surprise at Royal St. George’s. There was talk of a “Chubby Slam” at the PGA Championship, though it never materialized.
Of course, it wasn’t just Chandler’s crew. It seemed as though golf evolved around all of Europe, either the tour itself or its members when they traveled abroad. Westwood, who spent the final two months of 2010 at No. 1 in the world, got off to a sluggish start when he finished at the bottom of the back in Abu Dhabi and missed the cut in Qatar. He lost in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship and never featured in the other three U.S.-based tournaments he played. At the Masters, where a year ago he was runner-up to Mickelson, he was never a factor. Westwood lost his No. 1 ranking to Kaymer at the end of February, and he grabbed it right back after leaving America. Westwood caused some angst among proud Americans when he chose not to compete at The Players Championship, where he had the 54-hole lead only a year earlier. He referred to it as the eighth or ninth best tournament, a blow to a tournament and a tour that tries to promote it as the “fifth major.” But his reasoning made sense. Westwood was not a PGA Tour, and thus had no stake in the flagship event of that tour. To the Englishman, he rated the four majors and the World Golf Championships _ which are the property of every tour _ ahead of The Players Championship. Instead, he played twice overseas after the Masters and won them both. One was the Indonesian Masters, and he returned to No. 1 the following week by winning the Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea. Donald at this point was charging hard up the ranking, through it looked as though Westwood would continue to hold him off until his approach spun back into the water at Wentworth and Donald took the trophy and the No. 1 ranking. For all the talk about the damage to McIlroy’s psyche at the Masters, there had to be questions about what Wentworth did to Westwood. He never was a serious threat to win the rest of the summer. Sure, he tied for third at the U.S. Open, but that was 10 shots behind McIlroy. He missed the cut at The Open Championship and had to rally on the final day for a top 10 at the PGA Championship. Westwood, however, managed to get back to No. 2 in the world ranking by year’s end by successfully defending at the Nedbank Challenge and winning the inaugural Thailand Golf Championship.
The year was somewhat of a disappointment for Kaymer, even though the “Germanator” reached No. 1 in the world and showed his potential in his season debut at Abu Dhabi. Beating one of the strongest fields in golf is one thing. Winning by eight shots is the kind of win that showed how capable Kaymer can be of destroying the competition. No one could have imagined, though, that Kaymer would go nine months before his next win. He also showed early signs of being spooked by Augusta National. Kaymer spent most of the spring trying to develop a draw that he could rely on, and this was done specifically for the Masters. It didn’t work out, and he missed the cut. Kaymer finished out of the top 10 in the next two majors, then missed the cut at Atlanta Athletic Club in his title defense of the PGA Championship. There were enough strong finishes to at least keep in the conversation, and keep him near the top of the world ranking. And he closed out his year with another performance that spoke to his potential. He was five shots behind on the final day at Sheshan International when he holed out for birdie from a deep bunker at No. 7. That was the start of nine birdies over the last 12 holes that gave Kaymer a 63 and a three-shot victory in the HSBC Champions, making him the 10th player to win a major and a World Golf Championship. “It was an OK year, but now it’s a good year,” Kaymer said.
It also was a good year for Garcia, even though he had come to expect so much more. The 31-year-old Spaniard had slipped into such a miserable slump that he was on the verge of being ineligible for a major for the first time in more than a decade. He had to withdraw from British Open qualifying with an injured thumb and had no plans to qualify for the U.S. Open. He changed his mind, and it changed his outlook on the year. Garcia survived a playoff to earn his way into the U.S. Open in a 36-hole qualifier, then tied for seventh at Congressional. That finish, along with his runner-up a week later at the BMW International Open in Germany, allowed Garcia to earn a spot in The Open Championship through a special money list on the European Tour. He tied for ninth at Royal St. George’s, and while Garcia once was mildly disappointed in such results, that no longer was the case. This was a sign of life, and he finally got back on track late in the year with consecutive wins at the Castello Masters on his home course and the Andalucia Masters. Garcia ended the year at No. 17 in the world.
Graeme McDowell failed to win after his dream season, though he did enough to finish at No. 13. Poulter won the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Spain, then ended the year by winning the Australian Masters. Justin Rose won a FedEx Cup playoff event at the BMW Championship outside Chicago, while Paul Casey won the Volvo Champions in Bahrain and overcame a foot injury to win in South Korea late in the year. Alvaro Quiros of Spain won twice in Dubai, at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February and the Dubai World Championship in December to close out the European Tour season. Thomas Bjorn won three times on the European Tour for the first time in his career, showing that his best golf might not be behind him. Simon Dyson also won two times. All of this is significant as Europe gears up for the Ryder Cup at Medinah in September of 2012, and what figures to be one of the strongest European teams ever. “Our European team is going to be seriously strong,” McDowell said. “Sergio is back playing well again, you’ve all the young kids. It’s going to be a really hard team to get on.”
Donald, Westwood, McIlroy and Kaymer gave Europeans the top four spots on the world ranking, and with Adam Scott at No. 5, in marked the first time since 1992 that no Americans were among the top five in the world. Woods kept that from happening since his first full year as a pro in 1997, but he was practically forgotten in 2011. A year after he wasn’t winning, he wasn’t even playing.
High hopes accompanied Woods at the start of the year, for while he blew a four-shot lead against McDowell and lost in a playoff to close out 2010 at the Chevron World Challenge, there were enough signs to suggest he was on his way back. Woods made his debut at Torrey Pines, where he had won seven times as a pro, and was only five shots behind in a tie for 12th going into the weekend. But instead of making his way up the leaderboard, he had rounds of 74-75 on the weekend and tied for 44th. It was an ominous sign for many reasons. It was the first time since 2004 that Woods played Torrey Pines without winning. It was the first time he had finished out of the top 10 at Torrey Pines, and his first time to finish out of the top 10 in stroke play to start a new season. Was it an aberration or a trend? He was in the hunt a week later in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and shot 72-75 on a windy weekend to tie for 20th, then lost to Bjorn in the opening round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Going into the Masters, Woods played five times and the best he could muster was a tie for 10th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, and that only after closing with a 66.
Augusta National brought Woods to life on a Sunday like few others at the Masters. Starting the final round seven shots behind, Woods made an incredible charge on the front nine and was tied for the lead going to the 10th tee. Alas, that phrase about the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday certainly held true, and that’s where it ended for Woods. He played even par on the back nine, missing short putts and finishing in a tie for fourth. He appeared to walk with a limp toward the 18th green on Sunday, and as it turned out, more than just his pride was wounded. It was in the third round, from an awkward lie in the pine straw next to Eisenhower’s Tree on the 17th hole, that Woods tried to slash out toward the green and his left knee seemed to catch. Only after the Masters did Woods reveal that he had suffered a “minor injury” to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon. That kept him out of the Wells Fargo Championship, and there were doubts that the injury would keep him out of The Players Championship. Woods decided to play, which proved to be a mistake.
There was talk in his camp that if he had just waited until the Memorial Tournament at the end of May, the injuries would have fully healed and he would have been fine for the rest of the year. But he headed to the TPC at Sawgrass, and didn’t last very long. Woods looked fine in the practice round, but something felt wrong on his opening tee shot. He missed an easy birdie chance on the second hole, and looked like an amateur playing the fourth, when he duffed a pitch shot and went into the water for the second time on his way to a triple bogey. The limp showed up moments later, and Woods kept dropping shots in alarming fashion. When he walked off the ninth green, he already was at 6-over 42. Woods walked over to Kaymer and Matt Kuchar to tell them he was done. He withdrew after nine holes and hobbled off to an uncertain future. It would be his last shot for more than three months. He wound up missing the U.S. Open, and he made it clear that he would missed The Open Championship, too, when he met with reporters at the AT&T National. He pledged that day not to return to competition until he was 100 percent healthy. He just didn’t know when that would be. “That’s kind of the frustrating thing about it right now is I don’t know,” he said.