Even though he didn’t play at Aronimink in the AT&T National, his season took shape on the course outside Philadelphia. It was there he met with Steve Williams, his caddie for 12 years and 13 of his majors, to work out the final details of Woods firing him. Williams was bothered that Woods did not tell him about his plan to skip the U.S. Open until after the caddie had flown from New Zealand to America. Williams decided to caddie for Adam Scott at Congressional, and he took up his bag at the AT&T National, too. Somewhere along the way, trust had been broken and one of the most successful player-caddie relationship was over _ though that wasn’t the final word of that split. It wasn’t announced until after The Open, when Williams again worked for Scott. By then, he was working for the Australian permanently.
Woods felt strong enough to make his return in time for the final major of the year. Without a permanent caddie, he brought longtime friend Bryon Bell to work the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and the PGA Championship. Bell had worked for Woods at the U.S. Amateur, and at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in 1999 after Woods had sacked Mike “Fluff” Cowan. Woods said he his left leg felt completely healed, though his game lacked polish. After opening with a 68 in his return at Firestone, he failed to break par the rest of the week and tied for 37th. That he was playing again was a start, though Woods was in danger of having his season end sooner than he would have wanted if he didn’t qualify among the top 125 for the FedEx Cup playoffs. Typical of his year, more drama followed even with a middle-of-the-pack finish on a Firestone course he once dominated. The winner was Scott, although there was some debate that Williams, the caddie, had actually won the tournament. The fans chanted his name as Williams walked up toward the 18th green, and when David Feherty of CBS Sports thrust a microphone at Williams on the 18th green, it became surreal. “I’ve caddied for 33 years … and that’s the best win I’ve ever had,” Williams said. That was hard to believe from a caddie who had been on the bag for 13 majors, 16 World Golf Championships and 72 wins worldwide with Woods. That includes the 2001 Masters, which Woods won for an unprecedented sweep of the majors. Scott didn’t seem to mind. As often as players were asked about Woods, he might light of the situation by saying in his press conference, “I can talk about Steve now and not Tiger,” Scott said.
Woods took the high road on the flap with his ex-caddie when he arrived at Atlanta Athletic Club for the final major. He felt ready to go and looked the part when he was 3 under through his opening five holes, his name atop the leaderboard. All it took was a 4-iron into the water on the par-3 15th for a double bogey for Woods to come undone. He made three double bogeys over the next 10 holes, hit into 12 bunkers and finished with a 77, his second-highest score ever in a major. Woods attributed his collapse to trying to play by feel instead of working through the mechanics of his swing change and “it just screwed up my whole round. I’m not at that point where I can do that yet.” He shot 73 the next day and missed the cut for the first time in the PGA Championship, a major he has won four times. It was the first time in his career that Woods finished out of the top 100 in a major. Worse yet, missing the cut assured that he would not qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. For the first time in his career, Woods couldn’t play on the PGA Tour for at least a month. The injuries, coupled with his poor play when he returned, meant that he would have another six weeks off. Meanwhile, his ranking kept sliding until he dropped out of the top 50 in the world for the first time since he was a 20-year-old trying to earn his PGA Tour card in late 1996.
Fred Couples agreed to be the U.S. captain for the Presidents Cup, and upon taking the job, he sent Woods a text message and jokingly wrote, “Don’t make me have to pick you.” Yet that’s what happened _ again. Woods was a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup in 2010, and because he wasn’t eligible to play, required a pick for the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. The question was whether Woods, the way he was playing, could contribute to the U.S. team. Does his current form outweigh his lifetime achievements, the very fact that he is Tiger Woods? And to pick Woods might mean having to leave PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who had won twice on the PGA Tour in his rookie season, off the American team. If it was a tough decision for fans, it wasn’t for Couples. Two weeks before qualifying ended, and a month before Couples had to decide his picks, he announced that Woods was going to be one of the picks. End of story. Couples referred to Woods, who had gone two years without a win, as the “best player in the world forever.” Ultimately, Woods justified the pick.
He showed signs of improving when he played the Frys.com Open in northern California. Then after another long break, he took the 36-hole lead at the Australian Open in Sydney with the kind of shot that had been missing for so long. This was a 3-wood into the wind, struck so pure that it traveled nearly 300 yards and onto the green. Woods didn’t hold the lead, however, posting a 75 in the wind and missing putts that he used to make to fall too far behind. He at least made a run in the final round before finishing two shots behind Greg Chalmers. A week later at Royal Melbourne, Woods looked as good as he has in two years while partnering with an injured Steve Stricker and a lost Dustin Johnson. Woods beat Aaron Baddeley in singles to deliver the clinching point in another American victory. And then came his final tournament of the year, the Chevron World Challenge, where he had blown that big lead to McDowell the year before. This time, Woods was one shot behind former Masters champion Zach Johnson. Johnson still had a one-shot lead with two holes to play when Woods finished the way he once did _ a clutch birdie on the par-3 17th to tie for the lead, then hit 9-iron to 6 feet on the final hole and made the birdie putt for a one-shot win. It was his first victory in 26 tournaments that spanned 749 days, and it put Woods back into the top 25 in the world. He finished the year at No. 23 and had every reason to look forward to 2012. “If the man is healthy, that’s paramount,” Johnson said. “He’s the most experienced and the best player I’ve ever played with. In every situation, he knows how to execute and win.” Woods beat an 18-man field. It was a meaningful win, nevertheless, because it was meaningful to Woods. And it gave him a real measure of hope going into the next season.
For years, Woods’ chief rival had been Mickelson, and the four-time major champion looked as though he was hitting his stride when he made 18 birdies on the weekend to win the Shell Houston Open, his tuneup for the Masters. Another win at Augusta National would give Mickelson the same number of green jackets (four) as Woods. But he failed to break 70 and was never a threat, not at the Masters, and really not at any tournament the rest of the year. It was inevitable that Woods was going to slide out of the top 10 and even the top 50 for three months. The surprise was to see Mickelson drop out of the top 10. Mickelson had set a goal at the start of the year to reach 50 wins, yet he hardly made up any ground. At age 41, his window just might be closing.
Instead, the American challenge came from Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson, though it wasn’t easy sailing for them throughout the year. Stricker finally hit his stride at the Memorial, his first win of the season that moved him to No. 4 in the world. Even though he had reached as high as No. 2, this was the first time he had been the highest-ranked American. Then, he produced a multiple-win season on the PGA Tour for the third straight year with one of the best finishes. It didn’t get much attention because it was the John Deere Classic, which Stricker won for the third straight year, and because it was a week before The Open Championship and the top players either were preparing for links golf for in the Barclays Scottish Open. It was no less stellar, however. Tied for the lead thanks to a late run of birdies, Stricker faced a tough bunker shot from 182 yards over the water. With his left foot planted in the sand and his right foot on the lip of the bunker, he hit 6-iron just over the back of the green. It appeared he had at least secured a spot in a playoff, only Stricker used his putter and holed it from 25 feet for the win. He let out an emotionally charged fist pump that was rare for the quiet Midwesterner. With 11 wins _ eight of those since turning his game around back in 2007 _ he could join the group of best players without a major. But those remained elusive, for Stricker didn’t give himself a good chance at the final two majors of the year. As it turned out, there was a reason for his late-season slide. The previous winter, Stricker had his sights on a deer when he drew back his bow and his left arm collapsed, the bow hitting him in the head. He went through a conditioning program, but weakness in his left arm showed up again late in the season, and he withdrew from the BMW Championship when he could barely keep two hands on the club. Stricker took a cortisone shot, which enabled him to get through the Presidents Cup and the rest of the season, and he opted against surgery going into 2012.
The long-term hopes for the United States would appear to rest with Johnson, although one of golf’s best athletes seems to attract more drama than his laid-back personality would seem to allow. It started in Kapalua for the season-opening Tournament of Champions, when Johnson had a familiar face following him in the gallery. It was Natalie Gulbis, the calendar girl from the LPGA Tour, who went asked if they were an item said she would leave it up to Johnson to handle their public comment. His comment a week later was that they were no longer an item. Johnson narrowly avoided disqualification from the Northern Trust Open when his caddie, Bobby Brown, was looking at their pro-am time instead of their first-round tee time. He was on the range at the bottom of the hill at Riviera when it was time for him to tee off, and he was docked two shots. This was the caddie criticized by some _ but not Johnson _ for not pointing out that Johnson was in a bunker on the final hole at Whistling Straits in the PGA Championship last year, which led to a two-shot penalty that kept the American out of a playoff. Late in the spring, Johnson decided to part ways with his caddie and hired Joe LaCava, who had spent 20 years with Fred Couples. Johnson again featured in a major, and again had an unseemly collapse. It speaks to his sheer talent that when he teed off in the last group with Clarke at Royal St. George’s, it marked the third time in the last six majors that Johnson was in the final group. There was that 82 in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the bunker woes at Whistling Straits. In The Open, he was one shot behind Clarke when he went to lay up on the par-5 14th and blocked his fairway metal out-of-bounds to the right, making triple bogey. Even so, he won The Barclays in a tournament shortened to 54 holes because of an approaching hurricane in New Jersey. That made it four straight years with at least one PGA Tour victory, the longest such streak since Woods among players who went straight from college to the PGA Tour. Just his luck, he learned after the final round of the Tour Championship that LaCava was leaving him to caddie for Woods. Johnson finished out his season inauspiciously, and had minor knee surgery to clean out some cartilage.
Bill Haas won only one tournament, and if it couldn’t be a major, he picked the right one. Haas was devastated upon leaving the BMW Championship at Cog Hill. He was tied for third going into the final round, poised to earn one of the 10 spots on the U.S. team for the Presidents Cup, when he shot a 42 on the back nine for a 78, and wound up 12th in the standings. He narrowly made it to the Tour Championship for the FedEx Cup finale, as the 25th seed in a 30-man field. Another collapse loomed at East Lake, more than once. Haas rallied to take the lead, only to make bogey on the 16th hole and another bogey on the 18th when he hit into the grandstands. He at least got into a playoff with Hunter Mahan, but on the second extra hole, Haas pulled his approach to the left, and the ball went own the hill and into the water. Just his luck, there had not been much rain in Atlanta and the water level was down. Haas could see the top half of his ball, so he decided to play it out. He really had no choice, as Mahan had some 20 feet for birdie. In what became the most memorable shot of the year on the PGA Tour, Haas clipped it perfectly. The ball not only came out of the water and onto the green, it had enough spin to stop 3 feet from the hole, and Haas made par to extend the playoff. Mahan failed to save par from a bunker on the 18th, and Haas chipped to short range and made the par to win the Tour Championship. But it was bigger than that. The win also gave him the $10 million bonus for capturing the FedEx Cup. And U.S. captain Fred Couples added Haas to the Presidents Cup team as a captain’s pick. The Americans had another easy time in the Presidents Cup, winning for the fourth straight time and avenging their only loss in the one-sided competition by winning at Royal Melbourne.
The Americans also ended their longest drought in the majors _ six without winning one _ behind a player who’s not even the most accomplished in his own family. Keegan Bradley, the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley, rallied from a five-shot deficit over his last three holes and won the PGA Championship in a playoff over Jason Dufner. The 25-year-old Bradley became only the third player in the last 100 years to win the first major he ever played, though he got attention for the longest club in his bag: the putter. The long putter was all the rage in the summer, either the broom style that is held about chest-high or the belly putter with the end stuck into the stomach. Such putters were used by winners in four out of five weeks _ starting with Scott at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, concluding with Simpson at the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC Boston. The biggest winner was Bradley, of course, for no one had ever won a major using anything but a conventional putter. Players who once said such putters should be banned decided to try them, such as Ernie Els and even Mickelson. That renewed debate that such putters that are anchored to the body should be banned, although the Royal & Ancient and the U.S. Golf Association did not appear to be making any movement toward such a change in the rules.
Tradition also gave way to the notion that players at the highest level of men’s golf were not supposed to win until they paid their dues. Yet there was Matteo Manassero of Italy winning for the second time on the European Tour before he celebrated his 18th birthday. Tom Lewis, a 20-year-old amateur from England, served notice at Royal St. George’s when he opened with a 65 for the lowest score ever by an amateur in The Open Championship. He turned pro in the fall and won in only his third start at the Portugal Masters. Overlooked in the continued youth movement was Bud Cauley, a 21-year-old who left the University of Alabama after his junior season and turned pro. He became only the sixth player to go from college to getting a full PGA Tour card without ever having to go to qualifying school. Cauley joined Woods and Mickelson as the only players to accomplish that feat in eight tournaments or fewer. Of course, it’s easy to see why he would be overlooked. For one thing, he didn’t win a tournament. Plus, another college kid _ UCLA freshman Patrick Cantlay _ shot 60 on the PGA Tour in the second round of the Travelers Championship and was the 36-hole leader. He fell back on the weekend.
As good as Donald was, an argument could be made that he wasn’t even the best in golf. The most accomplished player was Yani Tseng, the 22-year-old from Taiwan, who became the dominant force in women’s golf with 12 wins, including two majors. The LPGA Tour, still reeling from the economic downturn, had only 23 official tournaments, 13 of them in the United States. And one of those tournaments, the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup, didn’t even have a real purse. Players agreed to play for mock money, with donations made toward the LPGA founders, and whatever money they would have earned applied only to a money list. Several players went overseas to fill out their schedule, and Yang won twice in non-LPGA Tour events to rise to No. 1 in the world. She not only stayed there, but she build such a margin that Tseng figures to be there for a while. She opened her year by winning the Honda LPGA Thailand event, then really pulled away in the middle of the season. Tseng won the LPGA Championship and then won the Ricoh Women’s British Open by four shots at Carnoustie to become the youngest player, male or female, with five career majors. Tseng also became only the third player to win the Women’s British Open in consecutive years. “I hope to keep winning,” Tseng said. “I wish to win more, but I am really happy.” There were more wins, and more smiles. She won seven times on the LPGA Tour, the most by any player since Annika Sorenstam, and she captured the LPGA money list with $2,921,713. That was more than the combined earnings of the next two players _ Cristie Kerr and Na Yeon Choi _ behind her on the money list. Stacy Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, while So Yeon Ryu of South Korea won the U.S. Women’s Open. For all the attention the LPGA Tour received for the influx of Koreans, they won only three tournaments this year.
The Korean influence was starting to show itself more in men’s golf, however. K.J. Choi, one of the most popular players in the game, got up-and-down from 80 feet for par on the 18th hole of the TPC at Sawgrass, then won The Players Championship in a playoff of the infamous island green 17th hole when David Toms missed a short par putt. It was the biggest win of Choi’s career, and it assured him a spot in the Presidents Cup. Little did he know that he would have company in Australia from his countrymen. Former PGA champion Y.E. Yang also earned a spot on the team, along with K.T. Kim, who played mostly the Japan Golf Tour and finished the year at No. 25 in the world. Bae Sang-moon finished the year at No. 30, and then went to PGA Tour qualifying school and earned his card. So did S.K. Noh, who was among four South Korean natives to get through Q-school. All four Asians among the top 50 were South Koreans.
By now, it has become abundantly clear that golf has become more of a global game than ever before. Dating to 2006, major champions have come from every continent where golf is played _ North America, South America (Angel Cabrera), Europe, Asia (Yang), Africa (Schwartzel) and Australia (Geoff Ogilvy). Northern Ireland might feel as though it has cornered the market by producing three major champions _ McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke _ in the last seven that were played. Some of the best golfers in the world are competing every month on just about every continent. Even some Americans who rarely traveled before are starting to branch out. Stricker went to Qatar. Bubba Watson journeyed to France, even if he didn’t know the name of the Eiffel Tower, and stayed in Australia late in the year. And there continued to be a changing of the guard. Go back to the world ranking at the end of 2007 to find Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Ernie Els. They combined for two wins in 2010. Then again, Woods might have something to do with that. For the second straight year, nobody won more than three times on the PGA Tour. The five previous years, Woods won at least six times in all but one year _ that was in 2008, when he won four times in six starts before season-ending knee surgery in June. Would there be so much emphasis on youth, and so much emphasis on a burgeoning group of talented starts, if Woods had not gone away. That’s a question Ogilvy posed. “The talk like there’s parity on tour is slightly flawed, because there’s always been parity,” Ogilvy said. “It’s just that there was one guy who made no one notice. The last 15 years you’ve had Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia. You had arguably more proven players, lots of them, over the last 15 years. Now you have new names, but we notice them. The media notices them. Fans notice them.”
There was one name that stood out above the rest this year, although unlike the years when Woods amassed more than 500 world ranking points in a year, there wasn’t a feeling that the keys to the royal and ancient game had been handed over to Donald. The explosive manner in which Kaymer rallied to win the final World Golf Championship, and with McIlroy winning twice in his final four starts, and with Woods finally winning again, it set the table for what could be a dynamic year in golf in 2012.