Much like Lee Westwood the year before, the world No. 1 at the start of the season began slowly. Donald tied for 48th and tied for 56th in his opening two tournaments in the Middle East. And as the defending champion and top seed at the Accenture Match Play Championship, he had to play Els in the opening round. Donald lost in 14 holes. So when McIlroy went from reaching the championship match in Arizona to beating a strong field at the Honda Classic a week later to replace him at No. 1, that seemed to spell the end of Donald. Not so fast. Two weeks later, playing like someone who felt slighted, he closed with a 66 on the strong Copperhead course at Innisbrook to get into a four-man playoff at The Transitions Championship. On the first extra hole, Donald hit 7-iron out of the rough on the 18th hole to 6 feet and holed the birdie putt to win. Just like that, he was back on top. And he made it clear that while McIlroy was an immense talent, Donald wasn’t about to give up the ranking without a battle. “I think people thought that my last year was maybe … not a fluke, but I don’t think many people thought I could do that all over again this year. Hopefully, Donald said, “I can prove them wrong.”
And so began what looked to be a game of musical chairs between Donald and McIlroy, which carried on for the next five months. McIlroy went back to No. 1 a few weeks later without playing, Donald regained it with a third-place finish in New Orleans, back to McIlroy after his playoff loss at Quail Hollow, and then Donald reclaimed No. 1 by winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth for his second win of the year. Donald stayed there the rest of the summer until the PGA Championship, and that’s when McIlroy found another gear and left everyone in his wake. Donald went into 2012 with a lead of nearly two points in the world ranking. He was 4.6 points behind at the end. But he at least made one point. “There’s always going to be people who look at my game and say, `He’s No. 1?’ That’s just the way is. Whether they do or not, I don’t really focus on that. I focus on what I can control, and that’s just working hard. But I think I’m forcing people to respect me now.”
He failed to earn their respect in the majors, though. Despite a solid year _ Donald also won the prestigious Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour _ his performance renewed attention on the best to have never won a major. Except for those who either don’t understand or choose not to understand what the ranking is all about, there is little question that Donald earned his way to the top, must like Westwood before him. A major championship would serve as validation, for those two are the only players to be No. 1 without every winning a major. Duval won his major two years after getting to No. 1, while Couples and Woosnam reached the top in the weeks leading up to their Masters win. Donald wound up playing seven majors as No. 1 in the world, and the pressure was mounting. That’s one area is season was a disappointment. He opened with a 75 in the Masters and didn’t break par until the final round, finishing in a tie for 32. He didn’t make a single birdie in the opening round at Olympic Club and missed the cut in the U.S. Open. He was 10 shots behind at The Open Championship going into the final round and only a terrific Sunday gave him a tie for fifth. And he closed out the year at Kiawah Island by not breaking par until Sunday, never in the picture. “I knew it was always going to be tough to follow what I did last year, but still been a very successful year, won three times on three different tours and three different continents. There’s a lot of my accomplishments I’m very proud of. Slightly disappointing would be again, with the majors. That wasn’t what I was looking for.”
Westwood slipped even farther. He ended the 2011 season at No. 2 in the world and didn’t look like he was going away after a runner-up finish in Dubai, reaching the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship before losing to McIlroy, and closing with a 63 at the Honda Classic to finish fourth. He also won the Masters, just not the one he would have wanted. Two weeks after he tied for third at Augusta National, Westwood captured the CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters and then won the Nordea Masters the week before the U.S. Open. Not only was he still within range of getting back to No. 1 in the world, he was in form to finally get that first major. One hole changed everything. Westwood was three shots out of the lead going into the final round of the U.S. Open when his ball clipped a towering cypress on the fifth hole and never came down. He had to go back to the tee, made double bogey and tied for 10th. That was followed by an indifferent performance at The Open Championship and a missed cut at Kiawah Island.
Westwood was at No. 7 when the year ended, facing a year of big changes. He decided to part ways with injured caddie, Billy Foster. He moved his family to Florida as he takes up PGA Tour membership again for 2013 and he turns 40 in April. Only six players have captured their first major after turning 40 in the 160 years of championship golf. “I know my game is good enough to win when I play well enough. So that’s what I try to do,” Westwood said about the majors. “After that, it’s out of your hands.”
Two players are worthy of mention for taking steps forward, starting with Justin Rose. Even after what arguably had been his best year in golf, when he won twice on the PGA Tour in 2010, those wins came in a span of just over a month. What stood out this year was the consistency, along with winning against top-rated fields. Rose finished in the top 10 in half of the 28 tournaments he played around the world, and he was in the top five at nine tournaments, including the PGA Championship. He finished the year at No. 4 in the world ranking, the highest of his career. And after all that, it was his 45-foot birdie putt from the back of the 17th green at Medinah that became the signature moment of Europe’s stunning comeback to win the Ryder Cup. For Rose, perhaps the most significant trophy came in Miami. He had been left out of the last Ryder Cup team and was determined to get this year off on the right foot. Knowing his form was close, he dedicated himself to playing all four tournaments on the Florida Swing of the PGA Tour and treat them as a body of work to see where he was. He was a winner in the Cadillac Championship, the biggest win of his career. Rose’s other win was unofficial, though, it didn’t hurt his status as being among the elite in golf. He won the Turkish Airways World Golf Final, an eight-man exhibition of medal matches that featured the world’s best, a lineup that included McIlroy, Woods and Westwood. Rose mowed them down, beating Westwood on the final day for the $1.5 million prize. Along with the World Golf Championship title at Doral, that helped to elevate Rose to No. 2 on the world money list with just under $8 million, second only to McIlroy. Rose, who once missed 21 successive cuts right after he turned pro at age 19, found a different version of consistency that he hopes will take him even further. “My golf is just so consistent at the moment, and the main this is that I just don’t have any skeletons in the closet, and I don’t have that loose shot that is plaguing me all the time,” he said in Turkey.
The other was Brandt Snedeker, who had only two wins in his previous five years on the PGA Tour and was known best for his roller-coaster final round in the 2008 Masters that left him so emotional he could barely speak through tears after tying for third. And it could be argued that his first win of the year was only because of an unimaginable failure. He closed with a 67 on the South Course at Torrey Pines and figured that might be good enough for second place in the Farmers Insurance Open, with Kyle Stanley appearing to be unflappable down the stretch. But on the par-5 18th, Stanley spun a wedge back into the water, went to the back of the green with his fifth shot and then took three putts for a triple bogey that sent him into a playoff. Snedeker won with a par on the second extra hole and made no apologies. He beat Stanley again a few weeks later in the Accenture Match Play Championship, but then injured a rib and wound up missing a full month in the summer, including the U.S. Open. He returned in style at Royal Lytham & St. Annes by tying the Open Championship record for 36 holes at 130 with a course record-tying 64. He went 40 holes without a bogey, faltering ever so slightly on the weekend and tying for third. By then, however, he was quickly building a reputation as one of the best putters in golf, and he charmed the British galleries with his fast play and fast talk. He came up short of qualifying for the Ryder Cup, and when U.S. captain Davis Love III made him a captain’s pick, Snedeker made the captain look smart. He was runner-up at The Barclays, sixth at the Deutsche Bank Championship and finished off a wild FedEx Cup playoffs by winning the Tour Championship to collect the $10 million bonus. “I think it solidifies what I already know,” he said. “I think when I play my best golf, my best golf is some of the best in the world. I’ve never had more confidence in myself than I have the last five weeks, and I made sure that I kept telling myself that all day,” Snedeker said after his win at East Lake. “I am one of the best players in the world. This is supposed to happen.” He moved into the top 10 in the world for the first time in his career and was starting to walk _ quickly, as usual _ with a swagger.
Snedeker’s first win turned out to be a sign of things to come on the PGA Tour, and it wasn’t a pretty picture for players who went into the final round with a big lead, particularly if that player was going after his first win. Stanley had a three-shot lead playing the 18th hole at Torrey Pines, which is why it was so memorable and evoked a few comparisons to Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999. But when he rallied from a seven-shot deficit on the final day to win, it was the first of many. A week later, Spencer Levin had a six-shot lead over his closest competitor in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and stumbled badly on the back nine, allowing Stanley to make a remarkable turnaround. He rallied from eight shots behind on the final day to win. A week later in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Mickelson came from six shots behind on the final day to win. Charlie Wi was the 54-hole leader by three shots over Ken Duke and four-putted for double bogey on the opening hole. And to cap off a wild West Coast Swing, tour rookie John Huh started the final round of the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico seven shots behind Daniel Summerhays and wound up the winner in a playoff over Robert Allenby. In all four cases, the 54-hole lead was going for his first PGA Tour victory. Of course, that wasn’t the only explanation. The most notorious case in the Year of the Comeback was Ernie Els, who started the last round at The Open Championship six shots behind Adam Scott. Els never looked like the winner until the Australian limped to the finish line with four straight bogeys. And the year ended with Jim Furyk and Davis Love IIII tied for the lead going into Sunday at the McGladrey Classic. Neither of those veterans, with a combined 36 tour wins, held on. Instead, Tommy Gained picked up his first PGA Tour win with a 60 to come from seven shots back. The PGA Tour slogan long has been, “These guys are good.” Perhaps a new slogan should be, “No lead is safe.” Not counting the events held opposite a major or World Golf Championship, there were 11 straight tournaments _ from Jason Dufner at the HP Byron Nelson Championship to McIlroy at the PGA Championship _ where the 54-hole leader failed to hang on.
There were other comebacks in a broader sense. Sergio Garcia had gone more than two full years without winning until he began to show some form toward the end of 2011 with two wins in Spain. And while there was nothing particularly glowing about his start to the season, it wasn’t awful. But when he arrived at the Masters, the Spaniard made it sound as though it were the end of the world. He went into the weekend just one shot out of the lead, shot a 75 in the third round and then unloaded on Spanish reporters by saying he wasn’t good enough to win a major that had eluded him throughout his career. “That’s the reality,” he told the Spanish press. “I’m not good enough and today I know it. I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning. I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological. After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the majors. That’s it.” There were shocking words in any language, particularly for a player of Garcia’s immense talent, one who first challenge Tiger Woods as a 19-year-old in the PGA Championship at Medinah, and who had played in the final group in three majors, losing one in a playoff. The low point came at the PGA Championship, where he missed the cut in his second straight major. He sulked, and playing partner Adam Scott had seen enough. They were born the same year (1980), are good friends, and until McIlroy came along, they had shown to be the best two players younger than Woods. “I said, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to stop doing this. There’s nothing wrong with your game. Don’t embarrass yourself and carry on like that.’ As much as I didn’t want to watch that, as much as I don’t want to play with a guy who’s like that, I’ve known the guy a long time,” Scott told Golfweek magazine. “‘You’re too good,’ I told him. ‘Just try and make it fun. Don’t beat yourself up.'”
Among many talents, Garcia showed to be a good listener. One week later, he ended four years without winning on the PGA Tour when he captured the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., and then he had a two-shot lead at Bethpage Black in The Barclays until he was overtaken by Nick Watney on the last day. No matter. Garcia made it to the Tour Championship for the first time since 2008, and he returned to Ryder Cup competition for the first time in four years. He and Luke Donald beat Woods and Steve Stricker, and Garcia won a crucial match against Furyk in singles. The year ended with three straight top 10s, including a win at the Iskandar Johor Open that returned Garcia closer to the elite at No. 16 in the world.
Louis Oosthuizen also showed signs of life. His 2011 season was so bad that he failed to qualify for the 125-man FedEx Cup playoffs and even had to play twice in the Fall Series just to reach his minimum 15 tournaments. He might be the modern-day version of Byron Nelson, including the graceful swing, for the South African is equally content on his farm near Mossel Bay as he is on the golf course. He started the year by winning the Africa Open for the second straight time, only that was only the appetizer to his season. Oosthuizen hit his stride at the Masters with an albatross on the par-5 second hole in the final round _ the first ever on that hole _ and was poised to win a green jacket until Bubba Watson’s shot out of the trees on the first extra hole. A week earlier, Oosthuizen lost a two-shot lead in the final round of the Shell Houston Open and was the runner-up. A week after the Masters, he won the Maybank Malaysian Open. Much like McIlroy, he went into a summer swoon by missing four out of my five cuts, including the U.S. Open. He didn’t quite have the finish of McIlroy, though they played in the final group at the Deutsche Bank Championship, where McIlroy overcame a three-shot deficit and won by one shot. Oosthuizen had a stretch of six straight tournaments late in the year when he finished no worse than sixth. He can count two trophies from 2012, but perhaps the better measure is the world ranking. He went into the season at No. 40, and finished the year at No. 6.
The most prolific winner among South Africans was Branden Grace, who like Oosthuizen, came from humble roots and was a product of the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation. Grace earned his European Tour card through the qualifying tournament, and wasted no time showing off his skills. He won the Joburg Open for his first win, and then a week later he withstood the Sunday pressure in the Volvo Golf Champions on The Links at Fancourt and got into a playoff with Els and Retief Goosen, the best of the Springboks from this generation who now have six majors among them. Grace won with a birdie on the first extra hole. It still wasn’t enough to get him into Augusta National, though Grace wasn’t through. He won the Volvo China Open two weeks after the Masters. He was never much a factor in the three majors or three World Golf Championships he played. But the 24-year-old South African with a big game ended his season with two more wins, the Vodacom Origins of Golf Final on the Sunshine Tour and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, giving him five wins _ as many as McIlroy, though McIlroy’s were against some of the best fields. Grace finished at No. 6 in the Race to Dubai standings, and No. 34 in the world ranking. A pretty good start.
On the American side, the rookie who made the biggest splash was John Huh, born in New York of South Korean heritage. He tried to go to college in California but couldn’t secure a scholarship and turned pro. He made it through every stage of Q-school, started strong with a tie for sixth at Torrey Pines, and then won the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico by coming from seven shots behind on the last day and beating Robert Allenby in a playoff. The rest of his season was steady, but solid. That much was reflected in the fact that he received only half of the FedEx Cup points (Mexico was played opposite the Accenture Match Play Championship) and still made it all the way to the Tour Championship, securing a spot in at least the first three majors for 2013.
His year is significant in one other regard. There will never be another story like John Huh, someone who can put down $5,000 for his entry fee at Q-school and earn a spot on the PGA Tour player even if he has to go through every stage. In one of the biggest developments on the PGA Tour, officials decided to do away with the version of qualifying that had been around for a half-century. Starting in 2013, making it through Q-school will only earn a card to the PGA Tour’s secondary tour. And typical of most new programs involving the PGA Tour, it’s a bit complicated.
At the heart of this change were the “Fall Series” events that followed the FedEx Cup competition. The purses were smaller. The fields were weaker. The winner did not receive FedEx Cup points and did not receive an invitation to the Masters. For the PGA Tour to keep those sponsors, and an estimated $25 million in prize money, it had to make them official. The tour also was looking for a new umbrella sponsor for the smaller circuit to replace Nationwide. To make those events official, the PGA Tour decided to go to a wraparound season that starts in October and concludes with the Tour Championship in September. And once that was decided, it felt it was not prudent to offer PGA Tour cards through Q-school in December when the season would already have begun. So how to distribute tour cards? In one of the more original ideas, Q-school effectively is being replaced by four tournaments called “The Finals.” The field will be comprised of the top 75 players from the Web.com Tour (formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) and the next 75 players on the PGA Tour who failed to finish in the top 125 and qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. Those approximately 150 players will start from scratch and play four $1 million events, with the top 25 on that special money list earning PGA Tour cards. The top 25 on the Web.com Tour season money list will be guaranteed cards, but still compete in “The Finals” to determine their priority ranking for the 2013-14 season. Instead of player having to find his form for six days in the finals of Q-school, he now has four tournaments to find his game and earn his card. If nothing else, it might be enough for John Daly to give it a try. “You get four chances to get a card. I think it’s a great idea,” said Daly, who has refused to go to Q-school since losing his card after the 2006 season. “And they’re all $1 million purses, right? I’d have to give that a shot.”
That wasn’t the only big change that took place outside the ropes. Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship in 2011 using a belly putter _ a mid-length shaft that he anchored into his stomach _ making him the first major champion with a long putter. Bradley told stories that afternoon about more players in the minor tours using belly putters, though not many paid close attention. He was a PGA Tour rookie, still relatively unknown. Phil Mickelson tried the belly putter briefly a few months later. There wasn’t a wholesale shift, though it no longer was odd to see unconventional putters. And then Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open using a belly putter, making it two of the last three major champions. At Royal Lytham & St. Annes, it was Adam Scott bringing attention to anchoring. He had switched to a broom-handle version that he anchored against his chest, and he nearly won the Masters. He looked better than ever at The Open Championship and was on the verge of winning until four bogeys on his last four holes. That made a winner out of Ernie Els, who holed a 15-foot birdie putt with … a belly putter. That made it three of the last five major champions, and it suddenly became an issue. Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said as much in a press conference the day after Els won the claret jug, saying such putters were “firmly back on the radar.”
“We appreciate that there is much speculation about this and that we need to clarify the position as soon as possible. And I think you’re going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months, rather than years,” Dawson said. It took only four months. Instead of a decision on the putter itself, the R&A and U.S. Golf Association proposed a new rule that banned anchoring the club _ any club _ against the body. The new rule still had to go through a 90-day comment period, believed to be a formality, and it would not go into effect until the next Rules of Golf edition was issued in 2016. The anchored stroke had been around some 40 years, and it was Paul Azinger who first won with the belly putter in 2001. The decision was controversial, even though several top players supported it. The major champions _ Bradley, Simpson and Els _ became the faces of this decision. The concern was that banning the stroke used for long putters would force recreational players from the game, at a time when the golf industry was concerned about fewer players in the game. Dawson and USGA executive director Mike Davis felt it was the right thing to do for golf. “Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all their frailties are integral to the longstanding character of our sport,” Dawson said.
It was a bigger issue on the men’s tour than the LPGA Tour. Not many women use long putters, and besides, the LPGA Tour might have been too busy getting over the shock than an American _ yes, an American _ was the leading player for the first time since Beth Daniel in 1994. That players was Stacy Lewis, remarkable in her own right. She wore a back brace for seven years as a teenager to deal with scoliosis, and then required surgery. Her doctor was going to insert two rods into her back until he won a lottery at a charity event that earned him a golf lesson. Only then did he realize that Lewis was quite the golfer, and he opted instead for a single rod with five screws that would allow her more movement. Lewis took it from there, and she broke through by winning four times on the LPGA Tour to win player of the year. The No. 1 player remained Yani Tseng, who looked like she might dwarf her competition with three wins before April, only to go into a mysterious slump. The South Koreans remained a force when Na Yeon Choi won the U.S. Women’s Open, Inbee Park won the money list and Jiyai Shin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open. Shanshan Feng made history as the first Chinese player to win a major at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, and she led the world of golf with six wins _ one on the LPGA Tour, two on the Ladies European Tour and three times on the Japan LPGA Tour. It truly was a global performance, fitting in another year that showed how much the world of golf has become just that.