The Year in Retrospect
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Tiger Woods is being sincere or simply bluffing. Even since he blazed through his sport by winning all four majors in a span of 294 days, the golfing world has been desperate to find someone who would come along and present a serious challenge, or even show signs of _ gasp _ being better. Sergio Garcia looked to be the heir apparent, and a few months before they clashed on the back nine at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship, Woods said, “I know I wasn’t as talented as him. I wasn’t as good as he was at 19.” Garcia turned out to be a world-class player, though 13 years later, he still hasn’t won a major. Aaron Baddeley won the Australian Open as an amateur, and he defended the title as a pro. Woods played a practice round with the 19-year-old Australian at Bay Hill one year and proclaimed there was “no way I ever hit it that good at 19. I was spraying it all over the lot, just trying to get up and down. I think Aaron has a very bright future ahead of him.” It was another six years before Baddeley won his first PGA Tour event. So there was a small dose of skepticism in 2009 when another 19-year-old, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, made his professional debut in America at the Accenture Match Play Championship and defeated Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahan and Tim Clark before losing in the quarterfinals to Geoff Ogilvy, the eventual champion. A few weeks later, Woods again was asked to look into the crystal ball. “He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there’s no doubt. It’s just a matter of time and experience, and then basically gaining that experience in big events. Just give him some time, and I’m sure he’ll be there,” Woods said.
McIlroy made him look like a prophet in 2012. Rarely could anything be mentioned about McIlroy without the phrase “since Woods.” He became the first player since Woods to win consecutive majors by at least eight shots when he captured the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. He became the first player since Woods to win back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events. And at age 23, he became the youngest player since Woods to reach No. 1 in the world. And as the season ended, the questions going into the next year were of the variety that for so many years belonged exclusively to Woods. There was a growing gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, so how much more could the kid separate himself from the rest of golf? It’s not whether McIlroy will win a major, but how many? There was little doubt who would be the favorite at the Masters. McIlroy wound up winning the Mark H McCormack Award for being at No. 1 in the world ranking for more weeks than any other player after trading spots for much of the summer with Luke Donald. But even Donald could see what the future held when he said of McIlroy, “I think he’ll be around for a long time.”
If nothing else, McIlroy ended the argument about who was the best in golf. Even since Woods abandoned his roost atop the ranking in November 2010, the ranking became a topic of discussion because not everyone was comfortable with who No. 1 was or even how they got there. Not since a 1997-98, a period marked by Woods going through his first extensive swing overhaul under Butch Harmon, had the No. 1 looked like a game of musical chairs. At least in that era, when Woods, Greg Norman, Tom Lehman (for one week) and Ernie Els traded spots at the top, all of them had won major championships. This latest crop featured Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and McIlroy. Westwood and Donald, both of whom earned the position with a combination of consistency and winning tournaments, never won a major. Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship, but he went to No. 1 by losing in the final of the 2011 Accenture Match Play Championship. McIlroy first went to No. 1 by winning the Honda Classic against a strong field at PGA National, and a thrilling finish when Woods nearly caught him by closing birdie-eagle for a 62. McIlroy last only two weeks at No. 1. He returned a short time later and stayed there for another two weeks. Then came a three-week stay at No. 1. Finally, he seized control by winning his second major at the PGA Championship, and he started to move away with consecutive FedEx Cup wins in the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship, where he was a combined 40-under par. And it was McIlroy at the PGA Championship who ended the streak of 16 players having won the previous 16 majors.
As a player, McIlroy’s skill is undeniable, and it’s clear now that Woods wasn’t bluffing when he heaped praise on the kid a few years ago. He can swing as hard as he wants without ever losing his balance. He has cleaned up his ability to make short putts under pressure, one area that made some skeptical about him when he first turned pro. Despite all the attention and fame, he remained well-grounded. And as Woods said on more than one occasion when a friendship began to blossom in late summer, “He’s such a nice kid.” McIlroy was the whole package. He had youth, game, style and two majors. Even so, there was no clarity to the year in golf until McIlroy began his run late in the summer. Going into the weekend of the final major, Woods led the PGA Tour with three wins. It was Woods who appeared to be closing in on a major, as the 36-hole leader in the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, playing in the penultimate group in The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and sharing the 36-hole lead going into the weekend at Kiawah Island. A few months later, that seemed like old news. McIlroy was voted player of the year on the European Tour, the PGA Tour, by the British-based Association of Golf Writers and the Golf Writers Association of America, and the points-based award by the PGA of America. He won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average on the PGA Tour, the honor which Woods once said was the best measure of great golf. He won the PGA Tour money title by nearly $2 million over Woods, and he matched Donald’s feat of the previous year by capturing the money title on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, easily winning the Race to Dubai.
While Woods predicted greatness for McIlroy long before he got there, the surprises in 2013 came from so many other corners. Stacy Lewis won the LPGA Tour player of the year, notable only because an American had not been the star of that tour since 1993. There was a pair of first-time major champions from unlikely sources. Bubba Watson made a remarkable escape from the trees right of the 10th fairway to win the Masters and introduce the world who is unique brand of what he calls “Bubba Golf.” Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open on the strength of others’ mistakes. Ernie Els failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time in 20 years, and right when it looked as though he was headed to the twilight of his career, he was on the receiving end of a stunning collapse by Adam Scott at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to capture his fourth major. One of the indelible images from 2012 was Els sitting quietly in the locker room, gazing at the claret jug as if it were a newborn baby. Els became the third player in the last five majors to use a belly putter, and Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson dropped strong suggestions the day after Els won the Open that change was coming. It arrived in the final month when the R&A and USGA agreed that anchored clubs _ an edict directed at belly putters and broom-handle putters _ would be banned starting in 2016. Scott wasn’t the only player to cough up a late lead. This was the year of the comeback, or the collapse, depending on the view. Kyle Stanley went from horror to heaven in one week, making a triple bogey on the last hole and losing in a playoff at Torrey Pines, only to make up an eight-shot deficit on the final day in the Phoenix Open the following week. And the biggest comeback of all? That would be Europe, which appeared left for dead at Medinah on Saturday afternoon when it looked like the Americans would take an 11-5 lead into Sunday singles. Ian Poulter then made five straight birdies to pick up a late point, and Europe rode that momentum the next day to match the greatest rally in Ryder Cup history. Lost in that amazing day was that McIlroy became confused by the time zone while watching television in his hotel room. He didn’t realize that most times listed in America are Eastern. Chicago is in the Central time zone, and McIlroy might have missed his tee time if not for getting a ride in the back of a police car to the golf course. Perhaps that was only fitting. No matter the circumstances, golf seemed to evolve around McIlroy this year.
McIlroy and Woods started the year by playing a practice round in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, and then they were in the same group for three of the four rounds. The edge would have seemed to have belonged to Woods when he went into the final round tied with Robert Rock of England, known more for his hair than anything he had done on the golf course. Rock went on to win, McIlroy was the runner-up, and thus began a roller coaster of a year. That ride began with an awesome climb that actually began late in the previous season when it appeared the kid was in trouble. Remember, he tried to hit a 7-iron through a large root, and the tree won at the 2011 PGA Championship, with McIlroy injuring his left arm. The seriousness was laid to rest quickly, however, when he tied for third in the Omega European Masters three weeks later. That began a stretch that carried into 2012 in which McIlroy finished no worse than fifth in 12 out of 13 tournaments. So when he arrived at the Accenture Match Play Championship, he was on the cusp of reaching No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career.
First came a showdown with Lee Westwood, a semifinal match that the British press filled with subplots over the testy exchange of tweet between the two players the previous summer, McIlroy leaving International Sports Management led by Chubby Chandler (Westwood’s longtime agent). McIlroy overcame an early deficit with seven birdies in 10 holes to easily advance to the championship match. All he had to do was beat Hunter Mahan to rise to No. 1. Mahan delayed the inevitable with a 2-and-1 win. Much like Woods had said three years later, Mahan knew that McIlroy would be the top player. He just didn’t want to be part of the coronation. Fittingly, that fell to Woods.
The stars moved across the country for the Florida Swing at the Honda Classic, and McIlroy dazzled. One shot in particular showed his panache. From a mangled lie in the rough, he sized up his shot, pulled a 7-iron and cleared the water by a yard, followed by a 50-foot birdie putt across the green. He had a two-shot lead going into the final round and looked like he had this one in the bag until hearing one explosive cheer after another ahead of him. That was Woods, making a 25-foot birdie on the tough par-3 17th, followed by a 5-iron to a tight pin that settled 8 feet away for eagle. That gave Woods a 62, the lowest final round of his career. And yes, McIlroy heard. He responded with a birdie on the 13th, two clutch par saves from the bunker and held on for a two-shot win. At 22, he was the youngest to become No. 1 in the world since Woods first got there in 1997 at age 21. Westwood, meanwhile, closed with a 63 to tie for fourth. And it was Graeme McDowell who summed it up best when he said, “This golf season just got a lot more spicy.” Rarely had there been so much anticipation heading to the first major of the year. By the end of the Florida swing, McIlroy, Donald, Woods, Phil Mickelson, Mahan and Justin Rose all had won on the PGA Tour. The stars were aligned. Without warning, McIlroy was more like a shooting star. Blazing one minute, gone the next.