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The Year in Retrospect

Rarely have so many players had so much to celebrate in one year of golf. That’s what made 2013 so special.

Go back to 1996, about the time Greg Norman was beginning to fade from his best golf and Tiger Woods was just arriving, to find a season that was all about sharing the wealth. It seems only the names changed. There was Nick Faldo winning a sixth major and third green jacket (at the expense of Norman, naturally). Phil Mickelson won four times to signal his emergence. Tom Lehman, a regular in the final group at a major, finally won the big one with his victory at the Open Championship. He also captured the money title in the final week by winning the Tour Championship. Woods turned pro at 20 with hopes of not having to go to qualifying school. He wound up at the Tour Championship, instead, a winner in two of his first seven tournaments. Norman was No. 1 in the world for the entire season. And it might have been an even longer list of players except that one of the game’s rising stars, Ernie Els, had a pedestrian year by his standards.

Is that much different from what we saw in 2013?

Phil Mickelson won his fifth major at the Open Championship, the one major hardly anyone thought he could win. Woods had five official victories, the most of any male player in the world. Henrik Stenson played the best golf of anyone in the second half of the year when he won twice during the FedExCup to claim the $10 million prize, and the DP World Tour Championship to claim the Race to Dubai. If that wasn’t enough, Stenson finished in the top three at the last two majors. Youth was served by Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. Spieth, a 20-year-old Texan, started the year with no status and finished it in the Presidents Cup. Matsuyama turned pro in April, not long after he turned 21, and won four times on the Japan Golf Tour, becoming the first rookie to win the money title. And strangely missing from the conversation was Rory McIlroy, the rising star, who began 2013 at No. 1 in the world and didn’t win a tournament until December.

To the victors went the spoils, and there was a lot to go around. So if there were comparisons between 1996 and 2013, the same kind of questions surely were raised. After years of dominance by one player (with an occasional party crasher), had golf reached an age of parity? Was the game at a point where the dominant player showed some flaws in his game, just as a new crop of stars were starting to emerge?

Thomas Bjorn was talking about some of the young Americans who had decided to start their careers on the European Tour when he unwittingly gave a defining statement about golf. “The PGA Tour is very hard. It’s a hard tour,” Bjorn said. Going into 2013, the top 28 players in the World Ranking had PGA Tour membership. There had been talk of a world tour for the last couple of years, and while the PGA Tour is not the model of a world tour that anyone had in mind, it turned into a stage for a heavyweight battle. Yes, it’s hard. It’s hard to win. And with so much talent, it’s hard even to get to the final two hours of a tournament with even a chance to win. Perhaps more than any other time, the game felt very much like a job. Each tournament was a tough day in the office.

“I think it’s deeper now than it ever has been,” Woods said at the end of the year. “There is more young talent. There are more guys winning golf tournaments for the first time. If you look at the major championships, how long did we go from basically Phil winning and Phil winning?” He was referring to the 13 majors between Mickelson winning the 2010 Masters and the 2013 Open Championship. Eleven of those champions had never won a major. The exceptions were Els and McIlroy. And of those 11 first-time major champions, 10 of them remain in the top 40 of the World Ranking. It’s hard out there.

That explains why Woods had so much explaining to do. He won five times, including a pair of World Golf Championships and The Players Championship. No one else in men’s golf won more official events (Adam Scott had five wins including the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, a 36-hole exhibition in Bermuda), yet Woods spent the final few months having to justify how he could call it a great year without winning a major. He said it was a “pretty good” year, though he said this with the kind of sarcastic chuckle that suggested it was a little bit better than that.

Woods should be used to playing by a different set of rules. He spent much of the previous decade being compared to his 2000 season. Even now, he is compared mainly to his past, and to quote Roger Maltbie from Woods’ 15-shot U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach, it’s not a fair fight. Even more unfair is to ask Woods if he would trade his year with anyone else. Sure, he would love to add to his tally of 14 majors, which has been unchanged since that U.S. Open win in 2008 at Torrey Pines. But to swap his season for one major — the U.S. Open by Justin Rose, the PGA Championship won by Jason Dufner — would mean Woods had to give away another PGA Tour money title, another Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average, another vote as PGA Tour Player of the Year. Suffice to say it was a very good year.

But this could not be called the year of the Tiger. Too many other players claimed a rightful share of the glory.

About the only thing Stenson had achieved the first half of the year was a tie for second in the Shell Houston Open. That enabled him to get into the Masters, and ultimately the U.S. Open. The Swede took it from there. His long game was nothing short of spectacular, and he did enough right with the putter that his name seemed to be on the leaderboard every week he played. And not just any leaderboard. He was leading on the last day of the Scottish Open. He was second at the Open Championship. He was second at a World Golf Championship, third at the PGA Championship and won two FedExCup Playoff events. “Obviously, the work was done before. It’s not like I woke up in the middle of July and played fantastic,” Stenson said.

Woods earned 488.254 World Ranking points in 2013. Stenson had 484.598. The next closest player on that list was more than 100 points down the list. It was the third straight year of a sweep — Luke Donald (2011) and McIlroy (2012) won the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour. Stenson was the first to sweep the FedExCup and the Race to Dubai. Is there a better definition of “world player of the year” than to claim titles on the two biggest tours?

Scott surely would not trade his season with anyone. In fact, the Australian is not sure whatever he does the rest of his career will match what he achieved in 2013. Sure, he might win more majors. He might someday reach No. 1 in the world. But can any major feel as good as the first one, especially one that made him the first Australian to slip into a green jacket in Butler Cabin? The reactions said it all. After making a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Sunday, he planted his feet and thrust out his arms — one of them clinging to that long putter — as he screamed with all his might, “C’mon, Aussie!” Then, he won on the second playoff hole over Angel Cabrera with a 10-foot birdie putt in the gloaming. Scott leaned back with his feet firmly planted on the ground and his eyes looking toward heaven. More than that moment alone, Scott also won The Barclays against perhaps the strongest field of the year. And when he finally went home to let a nation see that elusive green jacket, a victory tour took on new meaning. He won the Australian PGA Championship, the Australian Masters, won the team title in the World Cup with Jason Day and nearly made it a clean sweep at the Australian Open until a two-shot swing on the last hole gave McIlroy his first win. A pretty good year? It was way better than that.

Mickelson also was living a dream, even though there were moments when it felt like a nightmare. Already a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, his place secure as one of the greats in golf, there’s always something missing for Lefty. He’s the best player to have never been No. 1 in the world since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986. He’s the best player to have never won a PGA Tour money title, the best to have never won a Vardon Trophy, the best to have never been voted PGA Tour Player of the Year. And while Sam Snead, based on his 82 wins, has to be considered the best to have never won a U.S. Open, Mickelson wins the award for close calls. He now has six silver medals from the U.S. Open after finishing runner-up at Merion. Too bad the USGA doesn’t award the Purple Heart as much as Mickelson has been wounded at his national championship. Despite that crushing blow, his season turned spectacular with two weeks in Scotland. First, he won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart. Then, he closed with a 66 at Muirfield, arguably the best final round of the year, to win the Open Championship. Even as he spoke during his press conference, he never took his hand off the base of that claret jug. It was a special moment. And while it left Mickelson one major shy of the career Grand Slam, winning the right three majors — Augusta National, an American major (PGA Championship) and links golf — showed he was a complete player.

The other majors went to Justin Rose in the U.S. Open at Merion and Jason Dufner in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill. Both were great moments — Rose with his classic swing under pressure with a four iron on the 18th hole, not far from the plaque honoring Ben Hogan’s historic one-iron shot in the 1950 U.S. Open; Dufner for his chance at becoming the first player with a 62 in the major. He had a 10-foot birdie putt on the last hole that he left short. Ultimately, he walked off the green with his first major title. Neither of them, however, won another tournament this year. Matsuyama won’t get as much attention as Spieth for what he did this year because his wins were all in Japan, though he outperformed the Texan in the majors. Matsuyama, who didn’t play in the Masters, was in the top 20 at the other three majors. He is not as outgoing as Ryo Ishikawa, the Japanese teen idol who preceded him, and he is not as comfortable in front of the camera as Spieth. The young Texan kept resetting his goals until he ended the year as the youngest player in the Presidents Cup at No.7 in the FedExCup standings.


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