The Year in Retrospect
The Mark H. McCormack Award was created in 1998 to honor the professional golfer who was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the most weeks in a calendar year. It was McCormack, of course, who originated the idea of a world ranking 30 years earlier for this very publication. And it was Tiger Woods who effectively made so many people forget about the award by winning it the first 13 times. Rory McIlroy won the award for 2014 in a race that only looked close in chronological terms. Woods was No. 1 for the first 19 weeks of the year. Adam Scott took over for 11 weeks. And then McIlroy was No. 1 for the last 22 weeks.
McIlroy winning the award didn’t generate headlines, though it should be remembered for the timeline and the characters — from Woods, the best of his generation, and then briefly to Scott, once looked upon as a suitable heir, and finally to McIlroy, whose back-to-back majors earned him the label as golf’s next big thing.
This should not be remembered as the year that McIlroy dominated the world of golf, because the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland had done this before. Only two years ago, he painted a masterpiece at the end of the season with a record-setting margin of victory (eight shots) in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, successive victories in the FedExCup Playoffs and then the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai on the European Tour.
McIlroy might have been even better this time in the face of so many distractions. He started the year by getting engaged and then sliding into one of his mini-slumps highlighted by a press-generated phenomenon known as either “Freaky Friday” or “Black Friday” — terrible rounds, or at least a terrible nine-hole stretch — on Friday that took him out of the tournament. He ceremoniously broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki with a telephone call and then won his first tournament of the year that same week with a magnificent comeback at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship. He won the Open Championship, the World Golf Championship – Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in consecutive starts. He became the face of golf. Only what makes 2014 stand out, even more, is that McIlroy became the face of change.
We might look back on 2014 as the definitive generational shift in golf. Out with the old, in with the new. The old in this case was Woods, who showed obvious signs of age, not to mention wear-and-tear. And while McIlroy led the charge, he had a supporting cast that pumped new blood into the royal and ancient game. Martin Kaymer, in his final year in his 20s, won The Players Championship and U.S. Open as the German asserted himself as a force with a greater variety of shots and that reliable discipline. Patrick Reed didn’t quite live up to his boast of being top five in the world, though his two victories and assertiveness in the Ryder Cup made people pay attention. Jordan Spieth, who celebrated his 21st birthday with a Las Vegas bash in July, ended the year with two wins that left the field wondering how good he could be. Rickie Fowler was mentioned as a potential rival for McIlroy after joining Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to finish in the top five in all the majors. And not to be overlooked, though it was easy to do because of the language barrier, Hideki Matsuyama won the Memorial for his first PGA Tour victory, and then went all four rounds with Spieth and finished one shot ahead in the Dunlop Phoenix and won in a playoff. In the final World Ranking of 2014, half of the top 20 players had yet to turn 30 until the season was over. Woods, who has carried professional golf like no other player in his generation, not only had another rival to beat. He had a slew of them.
Of course, it wasn’t a fair fight. That’s the phrase NBC Sports analyst Roger Maltbie used in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach not so much to describe Woods as to defend the poor souls trying to beat him. Now, it is more of an explanation why Woods wasn’t part of the conversation in 2014. His season was filled with more acronyms than trophies. There was the MDF (made the cut, did not finish 72 holes) at Torrey Pines, the WD (withdraw) from the Honda Classic and Bridgestone Invitational, the MC (missed cut) at the Quicken Loans National and the PGA Championship and the DNS (did not start) from missing four tournaments following March 31 back surgery, and four more tournaments when he failed to even qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs. He played only nine tournaments, his fewest since Woods managed only seven starts in 2008 because of reconstructive surgery on his left knee following his 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines, which remains the last major he won. Ultimately, his year was best summed up by another acronym — MIA.
This youth movement not only proved to be more than capable in 2014, the collection of players also had something else in their favor. None ever had to deal with Woods at the peak of his game. Sure, it was only a year ago that Woods won five times on the PGA Tour and made a lot of those wins look easy. But there remained some missing links. Woods still had not won a major, and every year since then the competition was getting stronger, younger, deeper. The kids that Woods now had to beat grew up watching the way he worked, the way he trained, the way he thought on the golf course, and they tried to emulate that. That’s a vast difference from when Woods first turned pro at the end of 1996, and his fellow competitors didn’t know what hit them.
Charles Howell was part of that early tidal wave that was Tiger Woods. He remembers seeing shots from Woods during their playtime at Isleworth that no one on the planet could hit. And he saw the change with the new wave of players. “They’ve studied the guy. They’ve learned from the guy,” Howell said. “Tiger ruined a lot of guys’ lives. He caused a lot of people some sleepless Sunday nights. But he also motivated an entire generation behind him.”
Graeme McDowell was asked about this going into the Masters, where Woods again was considered the favorite. (This was two weeks before Woods disclosed he had a surgery to alleviate a pinched nerve that would keep him away from Augusta National for the first time in his career.) Is the aura different? Do the kids in this generation fear Tiger? Is it easier to face him without having endured so many thrashings from Woods that the likes of Ernie Els and Davis Love and so many others experienced? Was the presence as strong? Go back to 2000 at St. Andrews for the Open. Els had opened with a 66 and the second question from the press is whether he noticed that Woods had a 67 in the morning. There was no escaping.
And then there was television. McDowell pointed out that Woods appeared unbeatable when he was around the lead except against Europeans. Thomas Bjorn beat him in Dubai while playing all 72 holes with him. Lee Westwood overcame a 54-hole deficit to Woods in Germany. Darren Clarke beat him in the 36-hole final of the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa. Michael Campbell didn’t flinch when Woods was charging at Pinehurst No. 2 in the 2005 U.S. Open. “But the Americans didn’t do it,” McDowell said. “I felt they were being force-fed this stuff week in and week out. You turn on Golf Channel and it was ‘Tiger’s 10 greatest shots’ or ‘Tiger’s 10 greatest comebacks.’ So it was where they actually started to believe it when they were standing side-by-side with him on Sunday afternoon. That was my theory, whether right or wrong. We still have Tiger’s 10 greatest comebacks. But you have two sides of the media — one that builds him up, one that cuts him down. But that negativity now exists. Guys are not being force-fed the invincibility aura anymore.” Throw in a deeper talent pool of young players, and the aura loses another layer. “It’s not what Tiger did. It’s what everyone is capable of doing,” McDowell said.
If there was a tournament that summed that up, it might have been Sunday at the WGC – Cadillac Championship at Doral. Reed had a two-shot lead going into the final round, with Woods only three shots back after a 66 in the third round. Woods was in the penultimate pairing with Hunter Mahan, and that bright red shirt would be clearly visible to Reed. Except that Reed had on a red shirt of his own. He idolized Woods growing up and decided when he turned pro to wear the black trousers and red shirt ensemble. Anyone wearing a red shirt on Sunday once was said to be brave. Luke Donald had white pants and a red shirt — England colors — in the final round of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, which Woods won by five shots (Woods shot 68, Donald 74). A week later, Paul Casey had a red shirt picked out for Sunday when the tee times were changed because of rain in the forecast. The final round featured threesomes, putting Casey in the last group with Woods. He changed shirts to green. And now there was some kid in his second full year on the PGA Tour dressed up like Woods who embraced the occasion. Woods walked onto the practice range with much fanfare. Reed didn’t blink. A few hours later, Woods was wincing with back pain, and Reed was bulldozing his way to a World Golf Championship title.
Reed made news that week for proclaiming in a television interview, and later with the press, that he felt he was one of the top five players in the world. He had won three times in the last seven months, though the Cadil lac Championship was his first win against a world-class field. He had yet to even play in a major. Reed was scorned in some corners for his audacity, praised in other corners for his bravado.
Perhaps most telling was when Reed was asked in his press conference to name the “other four players” he considered to be among the top five in the world. He mentioned Woods and Phil Mickelson. And there was Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champion. He also mentioned McDowell, mainly because he was surprised how much McDowell got out of his game, which was a backhanded compliment. He was running out of space, and he smiled when he realized it. Even so, this little exercise ended without Reed mention- ing McIlroy, U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson or even a pair of recent winners — Jason Day (Accenture Match Play) and Bubba Watson, who won at the Northern Trust Open and was soon to be a two-time Masters champion. It was clear, in the most innocuous fashion, that golf was loaded with good players, perhaps deeper than ever. McIlroy wound up at the top, and on that, there was no argument. At that point, no one knew the severity of Woods’ injury and how little he would play during the year. But even then, the first full week in March, Woods was seen as part of the crowd.
There was a large crowd on the LPGA Tour, without any one player standing out. Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis shared time at No. 1 in the Women’s World Rolex Rankings, although Lewis took more of the honors at the end of what arguably was one of the best LPGA Tour seasons in more than a decade. Lewis won the LPGA Tour money title over Park, and she captured the points-based Rolex Player of the Year award for the second time in three years. Lewis also won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Park finished the year at No. 1, and she added to her major total by winning the Wegmans LPGA Championship, held for the final time at Locust Grove outside Rochester, New York.
Throw in 17-year-old Lydia Ko, and three became quite a crowd. The South Korean-born, New Zealand-bred teenager already had won twice on the LPGA Tour as an amateur. In her first year as a pro, she won the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic at Lake Merced in San Francisco with a dramatic finish that featured Lewis in the hunt, and then Ko won again at the Marathon Classic in Ohio. She capped off the year by claiming the richest payoff in the history of women’s golf — the CME Group Tour Championship worth $500,000 and the $1 million bonus for claiming the inaugural “Race to the CME Globe.”
Except there was more to this crowd. Michelle Wie produced the defining moment for herself and the tour when she won the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 for her first major, and it was the appropriate stage for her star power. Already the biggest event in women’s golf, the U.S. Women’s Open received even more attention because it was on the same course as the men, one week later. Lexi Thompson won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in a duel with Wie, and she challenged Wie at Pinehurst No. 2 before her season faded. Still, it was a banner year.
But there was no doubting the biggest star in 2014, and that was McIlroy. Go back to the end of 2013 to see the starting point for McIlroy’s resurgence. Coming off a year in which he had an acrimonious split with his Irish-based management company and was scrutinized for his wholesale switch to Nike golf clubs, McIlroy won the Australian Open when he was trailing by one shot and made birdie on the last hole as Adam Scott went long and made bogey. It wasn’t a world-class field, but it was a win. And after a year of not winning, it mattered.
And it appeared to carry over into the start of 2014 when he tied for second in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship — in which he received a two-shot penalty in the third round for an incorrect drop. His turnaround looked as though it would start much earlier when he showed off his world-class form in the first big event of the year at the Honda Classic, which featured seven of the top 10 players from the World Ranking. Playing alongside Scott, it was a mesmerizing display of driving at PGA National, and a brilliant display by McIlroy, who opened with rounds of 63 and 66 for his first 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour in 18 months. But he couldn’t finish, much as he tried. Staked to a two-shot lead, he fell apart on the back nine and was one shot behind until he hit a five wood to a peninsula green on the par-five closing hole and watched it settle 10 feet from the hole for a chance to win. He missed, and then chopped up the 18th in a four-man playoff as Russell Henley emerged the winner. Call it progress for McIlroy, but it was coming slowly. And for the next few months, he would not be someone inclined to say, “Thank God It’s Friday.”