It started at the Masters, where McIlroy was among the favorite only as the reigning U.S. Open champion, but by his unseemly collapse a year earlier when he blew a four-shot lead in the final round with an 80. He opened this Masters with a double bogey, but he was only one shot behind going into the weekend. Some thought the tournament was over, and that it was. He closed with a 77-76 weekend and tied for 40th. A year after he lost the Masters on the back nine Sunday, he lost this one on the front nine Saturday. That was only a blip, though, for he came roaring back at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow and looked like he would win _ and again go back to No. 1 in his see-saw battle with Donald _ when he got into a three-way playoff with Rickie Fowler and unheralded D.A. Points. Fowler won on the first extra hole, though McIlroy was right there with a chance. It was starting to look like the glory days of Woods, who once seemed to threaten to win even if someone else left with the trophy.
All that began to change at The Players Championship. McIlroy is not a big fan of the Stadium Course on the TPC Sawgrass, and it showed. He ruined a decent start by missing the island green at No. 17 to make double bogey, and then shot 76 the next day to miss the cut for the first time in more than a year. He shrugged. He thought he hit the ball as well as he did the previous week in a playoff loss at Quail Hollow. Move on. But two weeks later, he missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, and frustrations began to show when he tossed a club in disgust. He blamed that weekend off on not being properly prepared. A week later, he began the Memorial by taking a quadruple-bogey 7 on the third hole of the tournament, and while he recovered for a 71, he was not so fortunate the next day with two double bogeys en route to a 79, and yet another missed cut. He added the St. Jude Classic to his schedule and tied for seventh, but in his title defense at the U.S. Open, he bogeyed three of the last four holes for a 77 and wound up missing yet another cut. The best player in golf? He sure didn’t look like one. It had been nearly four years since McIlroy missed three successive cuts. At the U.S. Open, he was 19 shots worse after 36 holes than he was the previous year at Congressional. He played decently at Royal Portrush in the Irish Open, and then tied for 60th in the British Open and was going nowhere headed for the last major of the year.
That’s when it all changed. McIlroy found something in his game at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for fifth, and then just like that, everything was back to normal at the PGA Championship. He not only won a major, it was his second straight eight-shot win in a major. And to think only a month ago all anyone wanted to talk about was his slump. McIlroy said some people simply pushed the panic button too early, or were quick to attribute his poor play to his romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, or even that he wasn’t working as hard as he once did. That second major changed everything. Not since Seve Ballesteros in the 1980 Masters had a player so young already have two majors in the bag. The question was where he would go from there. A year ago after his U.S. Open title, McIlroy didn’t handle the trappings of stardom very well, and it showed. He went some six months before his next official win. Would he learn this time around? “I think I heard Tiger say, `You can have a good season, but to make a good season a great season, you need a major championship.’ Now I’ve had two great seasons in a row no matter what happens from here in now. Hopefully, I can play some great golf from now until the end of the year and get myself ready for another great season next year, too,” McIlroy said.
The answer was emphatic. McIlroy returned to No. 1, and this time he stayed there. Locked in a compelling Labor Day battle with Louis Oosthuizen at the Deutsche Bank Championship, McIlroy closed with a 67 to beat the former Open champion by one shot. A week later at Crooked Stick, against one of the best leaderboards of the season, McIlroy outlasted Mickelson, Westwood, Woods, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk with a 67 on the final day to win the BMW Championship. That made him the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup going into the finale at the Tour Championship. He was only three shots behind going into the last day at East Lake, but he closed with a 74 and watched Brandt Snedeker win the tournament and claim the $10 million bonus. At this point, there was no disputing the best in golf, even without his name on the FedEx Cup trophy. McIlroy finished the year in style in Europe, finishing second and third, and responding to yet another missed cut by winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Not only did he win for the fifth time in the year, he won the Race to Dubai in convincing fashion.
“I had a few goals starting off this year,” McIlroy said at the end of his season. “Obviously, I wanted to win a major. I think I wanted to win four times around the world _ five. The Race to Dubai _ I won. I guess getting to world No. 1, which I achieved earlier in the year. But I guess every goal that I set for myself at the start of 2012, I’ve achieved this year. So it doesn’t really get much better than that.” Next up? More majors. He went into the 2013 season trying to join Woods, Mickelson, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only players to win a major in three successive years. McIlroy still had much to prove to be the next Tiger Woods, starting with those weekends off. McIlroy missed five cuts this year. Woods went seven years without ever missing cuts. “It’s tough to say that Rory is a Tiger Woods type player,” said Graeme McDowell, McIlroy’s closest friend on tour. “Tiger Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and Rory is at least a once-in-a-decade type player. He’s that good.”
Woods used to say it couldn’t be a great year without winning a major. He was willing to make a moderate exception for 2012. A great year? Maybe not. But it was nothing to complain compared with the last two years.
He had gone two years without winning any tournament until he captured his Chevron World Challenge at the end of 2011. Sure, it was against only an 18-man field. But if anything, it was a harbinger that perhaps his game had finally turned the corner, that the swing changes with Sean Foley were becoming habit, and that he was ready to start his return to the top of golf. Instead, the early part of the season brought back the wrong kind of comparisons. “That never used to happen with the old Tiger.” For only the ninth time in his career, he failed to win when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, this time Rock beating him in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps even more unsettling was his next event, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, when he was paired with Phil Mickelson on the final day. The tournament was wide open after 54-hole leader Charlie Wi four-putted for double bogey on the opening hole, but Woods could only watch hopelessly as Mickelson shot 64 to win going away. And in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship, Woods needed to birdie the 18th hole to extend the match against Nick Watney when he stuffed it into 5 feet. The birdie putt never even touched the hole. It raised questions whether Woods, who it seemed never missed, still had the magic to make putts that mattered. And just as fans began to wonder about his mental state, attention quickly shifted to his physical well-being when he quit after 11 holes in the final round of the Cadillac Championship at Doral because of soreness in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that caused him to miss two majors and three months in 2011.
Would he ever be the same? And as silly as it sounded, would he ever win again? Considering his health issues, it was worth asking. But not for long. In the next tournament he played after withdrawing with injury, Woods built an early lead against McDowell and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. It was his first PGA Tour win in 923 days, dating to the 2009 BMW Championship at Cog Hill and ending _ by far _ the longest drought of his career. He looked like the Woods of old, especially on a Bay Hill course that was fiery and firm and exposed even the slightest miss. Woods refused to acknowledge the drought, pointing to his win three months earlier at the Chevron World Challenge. But the way he slapped hands with caddie Joe LaCava after his final approach found the green, and the manner in which they hugged when it was over showed otherwise. It was a surreal moment. One week, Woods had a helicopter follow him out of Doral as the golf world wondered how badly he was hurt. Two weeks later, he was driving down the highway to his home in south Florida with his 72nd career PGA Tour victory and plenty of chatter that he was back. Next up? Augusta National. And just like that, Woods was considered one of the favorites to win his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and his first green jacket since 2005. If only it were that easy.
Almost in sync with McIlroy, Woods went into a swoon. He went seven straight rounds without breaking 70. The Master was particularly ugly, not so much because he tied for 40th for his worst finish ever at Augusta, but the way he kicked a club after missing a tee shot on the 16th hole in the second round. He followed that up by missing the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship, despite bizarre circumstances. Late in the second round, he pulled his approach to the par-5 fifth hole into the pine trees, and a small crowd immediately swarmed the area. The ball was never found. After a raucous discussion that resembled a town hall meeting run amok, tour officials determined that a fan ran off with the ball and Woods was afforded a free drop. No matter. He still missed the cut, making it the first time he had missed a cut on the same golf course in his career. It also was the third straight year Woods failed to make a cut, including his WD from The Players Championship a year earlier. The next stop was the TPC Sawgrass, not one of his favorite venues, and he tied for 40th. For the first time in his career, Woods play played three straight tournaments without finishing better than 40th. Was he back? If anything, he was back to where he started. And then, another rebirth.
It’s one thing to win the Memorial, which he did for a record fifth time. What made this draw so much attention was that the U.S. Open was right around the corner, and Woods won at Muirfield Village with a shot that will be replayed for years. He birdied three of his last four holes in the final round, but it was the 16th hole that made tournament host Jack Nicklaus just about come out of his seat in the broadcast booth. Woods went long and faced what appeared to be an impossible chip to a pin some 50 feet away along a ridge. Woods took a full swing for a flop shot, hopeful of a reasonable shot at par. Too soft and it would turn away down the ridge. Too strong and it could run through the green and into the water. He holed it for a birdie 2. “I don’t think under the circumstances I’ve seen a better shot,” Nicklaus gushed. It was the 73rd win of his PGA Tour career, tying Woods with Nicklaus for second on the all-time list, just nine away from Sam Snead.
After he failed to win the U.S. Open despite having the 36-hole lead, a question surfaced at the AT&T National. Should not Snead’s record of 82 tour wins be just as significant as the 18 majors won by Nicklaus that gets so much attention? Woods always emphasized the majors, and said while he was aware of the Snead mark, everyone talked about Nicklaus when he was growing up. Even so, he found Snead’s consistency and longevity to be “truly amazing,” and then he took another step toward that during a wild week at Congressional. No one could have imagined Woods being in the hunt on the weekend at a golf tournament outside the nation’s capital with so few people watching. But a microburst of straight-line winds that hit the fabled Blue Course on Saturday morning toppled dozens of trees, some of them 50 feet that cracked across the fairways. The tournament chose to keep fans off the course for the third round, and it was a minor miracle they got the course ready. With a full house back on Sunday, Woods won for the third time of the season when Bo Van Pelt failed to hold him off. It was another sign that Woods was on his way back, but also another tease. He won his tournament before the Masters and had his worst score ever at Augusta. He won his last tournament before the U.S. Open and finished out of the top 20 despite the 36-hole lead. At least this time, he would play one more PGA Tour event, The Greenbrier Classic. Woods missed the cut, the first time since 2005 that he had missed two cuts in one year.
That turned out to be the last win of his season, which was somewhat surprising. There was talk in the summer that Woods might be voted player of the year AND comeback player of the year on the PGA Tour. He got neither. The tour decided against a comeback award except for significant, life-threatening injury. And while Woods’ had the best season going into August, McIlroy took it from there. It was not without another tease, though, as Woods was tied for the lead going into the weekend at the PGA Championship before he fell back. There was little to doubt about his game. The mystery was what was going on in his head, and Woods conceded to some frailty after the majors were over. Some thought he struggled at the U.S. Open, and to a lesser extent, the Open Championship, because he was trying too hard. Woods decided at the PGA Championship to not take himself so seriously, to relax and have some fun. He shot 74 in the third round to take himself out of the tournament. “I came out with probably the wrong attitude. And I was too relaxed and tried to enjoy it, and that’s not how I play. I play intense and full systems go. That cost me.”
He ended his PGA Tour season with three wins, second on the money list and second in the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average, which it happier times would have constituted a down year. Woods called it a good one because of his health. Throw out the minor setback at Doral, and he had his busiest season in five years. He played the Honda Classic and The Greenbrier Classic for the first time as a pro, returned to the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for the first time in 10 years and even added a few unofficial events to his schedule, the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and a medal-match exhibition in Turkey. He played 24 tournaments, practiced when he wanted and showed that he was on his way back to full health. As for his standing in golf? He still had a ways to go.
Donald, meanwhile, made a stubborn exit from the spotlight. The Englishman finished the year at No. 2 in the world. He was more disappointed than ever not to have won a major. And when he had put away his clubs for the year, there was a sense that he already had become a forgotten figure. To put that in a broader context, however, it was another example of how Donald elevated his game. He won three times, on three continents. He finished no worse than third in seven tournaments. And he was in the top 10 in half of the 24 tournaments he played around the world. That would have been a breakthrough season only two years ago. This was considered a minor letdown.
If this was the end of Donald’s reign at No. 1, it should be noted for the type of game that brought him to the top and the fight he showed to stayed there. Even before he left Northwestern University with an NCAA title, golf had entered the power era. The seven players before him who had ascended to No. 1 were Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, David Duval, Ernie Els and Greg Norman. There was a time, when Woods was at the peak of his powers, that another player could only dream of being No. 1 in the world, and those dreams belonged only to those who smash their drivers more than 300 yards. Donald gave hope to everyone with his work ethic, determination and a superb short game, which will always go a long way in golf. By year’s end, Donald had been No. 1 a total of 56 weeks. Of the 16 players who have been No. 1 since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986, only four players have stayed there longer _ Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.