A struggle back for Woods was in sharp contrast to what was a breakthrough for Bubba Watson that went beyond his second victory in the Masters. A decade ago, Watson was lucky to even get his PGA Tour card despite his awesome length off the tee and creative shot-making skills. He was 21st on the Nationwide Tour money list at a time when only the top 20 received PGA Tour cards. But because the leader that year was Jason Gore, who had won three times to earn an instant promotion, the tour decided to count the 21st player on the list. That was Watson, and there has been steady progress since then, including his Ryder Cup debut in 2010 and his Masters victory in 2012. But this year was different. He lost the Waste Management Phoenix Open with careless mistakes over the last few holes and then bounced back to win the Northern Trust Open at Riviera by going the final 39 holes without a bogey and closing with a 64 for a two-shot victory. It was his first win in 22 months dating to the Masters. More was to follow.
Watson won his second green jacket at Augusta National and was determined to finish the year strong, unlike his previous Masters victory. And while he didn’t win again until late in the year, he contended at the Memorial and finished third, and he had a chance in the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills until finishing runner-up. And then he showed that his game could travel when he won the WGC – HSBC Champions in Shanghai in a manner that fits his unpredictable nature. He blew a late lead by making a bogey on the reachable par-four 16th at Sheshan International, and then taking two shots to get out of a bunker and making double bogey on the par-three 17th. From a greenside bunker on the par-five closing hole, he knocked in his sand shot for an eagle to get into a playoff, and then made a birdie to win. It was his third win of the year, all against strong fields, and he wound up No. 2 on the World Money List behind McIlroy with $7,963,951. Not bad for a guy named Bubba from Bagdad (Florida). And he finally had a worldwide win on his résumé, which was important to him.
“It’s a global game. I was watching when I was growing up the greats of the game win outside the U.S. Being able to win outside the U.S., I just wanted to be able to travel and get through the jet lag, get through all the things and still perform at a high level,” Watson said. “So for me to win out here, this is very big. This is very special for me.”
For Kaymer, this wasn’t a breakthrough to a new level as much as it was a resurrection. The 29-year-old German reached No. 1 in the world back in February 2011 and stayed there for eight weeks. In nearly 30 years of the Official World Golf Ranking, the only players who have spent less time at the top were Bernhard Langer (three weeks when the OWGR began in 1986) and Tom Lehman (one week). This could be construed as a case of a player reaching the pinnacle — either the No. 1 ranking or winning a major — and believing he needed a game to match that status.
Kaymer had a long-term view. He was known mainly for his fade, and Kaymer felt like he needed a well-rounded game if he wanted to remain among the elite for the length of his career. He spent nearly two years try- ing to develop the right shot for every occasion, and the results showed the struggle. He won only one tournament in 52 worldwide starts over two years, and that was the Nedbank Challenge at the end of 2012 against a limited field. There were long hours on the practice range. There was frustration. There were drills, such as placing a tennis ball between his forearms to keep them in place, and then figuring out that if he ran a rope through the ball and wore it like a necklace he wouldn’t have to fetch the ball after each swing. But it paid off in a big way. Preceding his remarkable run through Pinehurst No. 2 in his wire-to-wire U.S. Open victory was a display equally impressive against the strongest and deepest field of the year at The Players Championship.
He tied the course record on The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass with a 63 in the opening round. He never lost the lead, though he faced a stern test from Jordan Spieth when they went into the final round tied for the lead. One of the best putts of the year came on one of golf’s most notorious holes. Kaymer found the island green on the par-three 17th, though the ball took a curious hop and spun down the slope and nearly into the water. His chip was weak, leaving him 30 feet for par on a putt that went up the ridge and then picked up speed as it broke sharply to the right. He had a one-shot lead. A two-putt bogey would have required a strong effort. Kaymer remarkably holed the par putt and went on to a one-shot victory. It was his biggest win since the 2010 PGA Championship in a playoff over Watson at Whistling Straits.
And it was confirmation that he was on the right track. The technical-minded German was swinging freely. “I stopped thinking,” he said. Further confirmation of his game was at the U.S. Open on one shot that hardly anyone would have noticed in his 65-65 start at Pinehurst. He was between clubs on the par-four fourth hole, and he felt as though the shot called for a draw. So he took one less club and tried to hit a hard draw to gain a little extra yardage. It wound up 10 feet short of the hole, and Kaymer never smiled so wide as when he looked at caddie Craig Connelly. “I pulled off the shot and said to Craig, ‘How good was that golf shot?’ The rhythm was good. It was a crisp hit. The flight was good. For me, it was the best shot I hit all week.” And he was back among the elite.
Watson and Kaymer shared one thing in common beyond a major title. They denied signature victories to Spieth, the fast-rising Texan who was still only 20 when he nearly won the Masters and The Players Championship. Spieth had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play at Augusta National when Watson seized control with two birdies and just enough mistakes from Spieth. A month later, Spieth went 58 holes at Sawgrass without making a bogey until it slipped away from him and he closed with a 74. “It’s not fun being that close and having opportunities and being in the lead on Sunday and not pulling it off,” Spieth said. He would find a way by the end of the year.
As much as the year was defined by the greatness of McIlroy and the incomplete grade assigned to Woods, Spieth was among several youngsters who at least showed they are on the cusp of challenging for big titles. Spieth worked his way into the conversation late in the year. He played what he considered the finest golf of his young career with a 63 in the final round at the Emirates Australian Open for a six-shot victory. Four days later and on the other side of the world, he finished his year at the Hero World Challenge in Florida. And while much of the attention was on the return of Woods, Spieth stole the show with the kind of runaway victory that Woods once produced with regularity. He had rounds of 66-67-63-66 to finish at 26-under 262 and win by 10 shots.
Adding to that impressive display was his itinerary. In this global game, Spieth played in Japan, Australia and the United States in successive weeks. He finished one shot out of a playoff at the Dunlop Phoenix and won the next two tournaments by a combined 16 shots. This was three months after Spieth was asked who would be a natural rival for McIlroy in the years to come. He mentioned the need to win majors, and then he paused to state the obvious. “We need to win another tournament,” he said, placing emphasis on the final word. The end of the year doesn’t get as much attention, but he got the job done.
That wasn’t the case for the 25-year-old Fowler, though he sure got every- one’s attention during the four biggest weeks of the year. Fowler started the final round of the Masters two shots out of the lead and stumbled early, never making up ground. Still, he tied for fifth to match his best finish in a major. He was leading the “B Flight” at Pinehurst No. 2 and at least got into the final group at a major for the first time, although he trailed Kaymer by five shots and never seriously challenged him. At least he shared the silver medal with Erik Compton. Fowler was in the final group for the second straight major at Royal Liverpool, this time facing a six-shot deficit to McIlroy. He never put any pressure on McIlroy — Garcia was the one who did that — but Fowler settled for another runner-up finish in a major. The final major was Fowler’s best chance. He was among four players who had a share of the lead on the back nine at Valhalla, but a loose tee shot that led to bogey on the par-three 14th hole was a mistake he never got back. Fowler had a long eagle putt in the darkness on the final hole to force a playoff. He three-putted for par and finished third.
Instead of winning a major, Fowler settled for a footnote in history by joining Nicklaus and Woods as the only players to finish among the top five in all four majors in a year. That was good company, except that Nicklaus and Woods at least won majors in those years. Fowler didn’t win anywhere, and while his work with Butch Harmon showed great strides, there was a growing chorus of skeptics that felt like Fowler needed to start winning. His only victories in five years as a professional were at the Wells Fargo Championship and the Korea Open. McIlroy was runner-up both times.
Two other players in their 20s were part of that group — Reed and Jason Day of Australia. Even though Reed said he felt like he was among the top five in the world when he won the Cadillac Championship at Doral, he never got higher than No. 20 all year. But he showed plenty of game when he started 63-63-63 at the Humana Challenge and held on to win, and then beat back a world-class field at Doral. He showed even more moxie at the Ryder Cup when Reed partnered with Spieth to go 2-0-1 in their matches, and then Reed rallied to beat Henrik Stenson in singles to cap off a 3-0-1 week, highlighted by a Sunday match when he pressed his finger to his lips to silence the Scottish gallery. It showed his bravado, and he is not lacking in that department.
Day might be the most explosive in that group, though also the most injury-prone. He has been slowed by nagging injuries ever since he reached the PGA Tour, and this year was no different. After blitzing his way to victory in the WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship, Day revealed that his thumb was injured over the weekend. He didn’t play again for two months until the Masters. He didn’t play for nearly two months after that until the Memorial. And then he tied for fourth in the U.S. Open. He finished in the top 10 at three FedExCup Playoff events. The exception was the BMW Championship, where he withdrew with a sore back. Day was in dire need of good health, and more wins. The Match Play was only the second win of his PGA Tour career.
Mickelson and Jim Furyk would have settled for any win at all. Mickelson is the most prolific winner next to Woods in his generation. Furyk has been rock solid his entire career. A swing only a mother could love has produced over $60 million in worldwide earnings. All of them came up empty this year.
Mickelson will get the most attention because of his stature and skill in the game, though the year wasn’t a total loss. It wasn’t as bad as 2003, when he failed to win or even record a runner-up finish during a year marked by the near-death of his wife and newborn son during childbirth. He started the year with a runner-up finish in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, and with so much attention on the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 and Mickelson’s first shot at the career Grand Slam, he appeared to be off on the right foot. It changed quickly. He narrowly made the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, only to withdraw with a bad back. He withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with another injury. And the real sign of trouble was two weeks later when he missed the cut at the Masters for the first time since 1997. He was never a factor at Pinehurst or Royal Liverpool. Unpredictable as ever, Mickelson showed up at Valhalla for the final major and nearly won it. He was in the four-man chase for the PGA Championship. Needing an eagle to force a playoff, he nearly chipped in from short of the green. Always a thrill for Phil. The consolation prize for his strong play at Valhalla should not be taken lightly. Mickelson qualified for the Ryder Cup team for the 10th straight time — two decades of never needing to be a captain’s pick and an American record for most teams. He qualified for his first-team when Greg Norman was No. 1 in the world and Woods was still an amateur. That figures to be a standard that will be tough to match.
Furyk qualified for the Ryder Cup team at No. 3, which in a way speaks to the aggravation of his year. Amid whispers that the game was passing him by because of his lack of modern power, he turned in one of his finest seasons at age 44 except that he didn’t have a trophy to show for it. He was runner-up at the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players Championship in successive weeks. He had the lead in the RBC Canadian Open until Tim Clark closed with a 65 to beat him by one at Royal Montreal. He was tied for the lead with Jason Day at The Barclays and closed with a 70 to finish eighth. During his four-year drought on the PGA Tour, it was the eighth time that Furyk had at least a share of the 54-hole lead and failed to convert. He could accept failure, though the questions nagged at him.
“I feel like every time I go to the press room, I understand the questions coming and I feel like we’re in a morgue. Everyone is looking at me with this blank stare and they ask me depressing questions. And they bring up the Ryder Cup the last time (a singles loss to Sergio Garcia), and we go through Akron (a double bogey on the 18th hole) … and I leave there like I lost my dog,” Furyk said. “It’s golf. I didn’t die out there today. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me.”
His lone victory might have been setting an example in today’s game on how to face losing with honesty and dignity. He ended his year in September at the Tour Championship, closing with two straight bogeys for another runner-up finish. Feel sorry for Furyk? He finished the year at No. 3 in the World Money List at $6,187,395, making him the first $6 million man in golf without a victory. He ended 2014 at No. 7 in the World Ranking, and until Watson won in Shanghai, Furyk was the highest-ranked American. All in all, it was an impressive performance for a 44-year-old.
But when it comes to ageless wonders, no one can match Bernhard Langer. The 57-year-old German won the opening event in Hawaii on the Champions Tour and he kept right on going until he captured another Charles Schwab Cup as the best in the 50-and-older division. If that wasn’t enough, the two-time Masters champion was on the fringe of contention at Augusta National this year until he tied for eighth — with McIlroy, among others. Against players his own age, Langer had no peer. He won five times, adding a pair of Champions Tour majors at the Constellation Senior Players Championship and the Senior Open Championship.
No one in the world of professional golf won more than Langer’s six titles, which includes the PNC Father-Son Challenge to end the year. In official events, his five wins pushed his career total on the Champions Tour to 23 since he arrived in 2007. He also broke Hale Irwin’s single-season money record with $3,074,189, topping Irwin’s record of $3,028,304 set in 2002. Langer was the leading money winner for the sixth time in seven years. He is relentless. “It’s still mind-boggling to reflect on my year,” he said.
He wasn’t the only star among the seniors. Colin Montgomerie finally won a major, and then he won another. The Scot known for years as the best to never win a major on the regular tours won the Senior PGA Championship for his first major title on any tour, and then added the U.S. Senior Open. In a year in which no female distinguished herself over another, 2014 still goes down as one of the best years for women in general — on and off the golf course. On a chilly afternoon in September, Royal & Ancient Secretary Peter Dawson emerged from the stately clubhouse at St. Andrews and announced that the R&A had voted overwhelmingly to allow women to join the club for the first time in its 260-year history. “I can confirm that The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews is now a mixed membership club,” Dawson said before taking a few questions and stepping back inside without fanfare. He said that would not affect the decisions of single-gender clubs that host the Open Championship, such as Muirfield, Royal St. George’s or Royal Troon. But it was a big day for women, and a month later it was revealed that Augusta National had added to its female membership roll at the home of the Masters. Aside from those moments, there was plenty of action on the golf course.
One player who received plenty of attention ended her round with an ice cream cone. Go back to a Sunday at Augusta National for the inaugural “Drive, Chip and Putt Championship” meant to attract more kids. One of the winners from her age group was 11-year-old Lucy Li from California. Masters chairman Billy Payne gathered the winners together in the press center and announced, “We’re going to be hearing from some of these kids again.” It didn’t take long. A month later, Li made history as the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She won her sectional qualifier at Half Moon Bay. She finished her opening round of 78 at Pinehurst No. 2 by speaking to reporters with an ice cream cone in her hand. She followed with another 78 and then hung around for the weekend to watch the stars after she missed the cut.
Then, another teen prodigy stole the show. Michelle Wie was 10 when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, and she won the USGA title at 13. She was 14 when she shot a 68 at the Sony Open on the PGA Tour, and as a 16-year-old she had a chance to win three LPGA Tour majors in the final hour. But injuries and extreme scrutiny slowed her path, although the Hawaii native never lost her way. She stuck to her plan of going to college and earned a degree from Stanford while playing part-time on the LPGA Tour.
Victories came slowly until she developed her own putting stroke — her back bent perpendicular so that it was parallel to the ground, eyes over the ball. Given her six-foot figure, she at times resembled a giraffe stooped over to get a drink of water. But she was in the final group of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, won by 19-year-old Lexi Thompson, and then Wie won in Hawaii before the home crowd.
But the 24-year-old came into her own at Pinehurst. With a combination of power and putting, she held on to win the biggest title in women’s golf at the U.S. Women’s Open and her first major championship. Much like her journey, there were unexpected turns. Right when the tournament was in hand, Wie tried to hit a hybrid from a fairway bunker on the 16th and narrowly escaped with double bogey to keep a one-shot lead. Then, she holed a fast, bending birdie putt from 25 feet that sewed up the championship. She missed the cut at the Ricoh Women’s British Open and injured her hand, having to take time off at the end of the year.
Even so, it was a signature win for women’s golf. Lewis has emerged as the steadiest American. Park is the player accumulating the most majors. Lydia Ko could be the next big star in women’s golf. Wie, however, has been celebrated for her youth, for her power, for playing against the men, for her failures … for just about everything she does. And she finally had a win that matched the hype — at Pinehurst, one week after the men’s U.S. Open.
“I think that scene on 18, being on network TV, as many people as we had around there at Pinehurst No. 2 and Michelle Wie winning the golf tournament, I don’t think you can script it any better,” Lewis said. “I think it’s great for the game of golf. I think it’s even better for women’s golf. I’m so happy for Michelle Wie. I mean this has been such a long time coming for her.”
There were other big moments as LPGA commissioner Mike Whan continued to expand playing opportunities. During the first Asian swing, Paula Creamer produced a putt and a reaction that made the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore memorable. In a sudden-death playoff on the par-five 18th hole, Creamer had some 75 feet for eagle and a roller-coaster putt that most would be happy to get down in two. She sent it on its way and high-stepped across the green when it dropped for eagle and the victory, falling to her knees and buried her head in the ground in disbelief. Creamer has been slowed by injuries, but she still moves the needle.
Whan also introduced the International Crown, an eight-team event that felt like the Olympics had arrived to golf two years early. It was big news in the Far East when the United States faced South Korea in a semi-final, and the Koreans advanced. The winner was Spain, and the flag-waving enthusiasm of the players made the most global tour feel that way.
Lost in the battle of Park and Lewis for the season awards, and the emergence of Ko, was the most endearing of the major championships. Mo Martin, who had never won on the LPGA Tour, grinded her way across Royal Birkdale in the Ricoh Women’s British Open. This was a great chance for Park to capture the career Grand Slam, but that was until Martin stepped up and hit what could also be considered for the shot of the year. Her three wood rolled onto the green at the par-five 18th and struck the pin solidly, settling six feet away for an eagle in a one-shot victory. “When it was in the air, I said, ‘Sit.’ And then I said, ‘Stop.’ And then when it was going toward the hole, I said, ‘OK, I don’t have anything more to say to that ball.’ I actually heard it hit the pin. It’s definitely one to remember,” Martin said.
In a roundabout way, gender also was an issue in one of the few controversies of the year. Ted Bishop was finishing up his two-year term as president of the PGA of America and was still smarting over another American loss in the Ryder Cup. It was Bishop who decided to make Tom Watson, 65, the oldest Ryder Cup captain in history. The move backfired when Watson was criticized for benching Mickelson in both Saturday matches. Ian Poulter mentioned as much in the book he wrote, and Poulter also took issue with Nick Faldo criticizing the play of Sergio Garcia when Faldo was the European captain in 2008. Bishop was perturbed that Poulter would have the audacity to treat two Hall of Fame players like that, and referred to his complaining as a “lil girl” on Twitter and on Facebook. It was seen as disparaging to females, and the uproar was so great that the PGA of America ousted Bishop as president in his final month, and stripped him of all privileges and access typically afforded past presidents.
Another messy moment for golf was when Dustin Johnson decided to take a break from the game to seek professional help for what he described as “personal challenges.” Golf.com reported he had been suspended for six months for failing a drug test for the third time. Either way, one of the best Americans was out of action the rest of the year. He was No. 4 in the FedExCup standings and a lock to make the Ryder Cup team. With so much attention on the captains — questions over Watson’s decision, praise of Paul McGinley pushing all the right buttons for Europe — rarely discussed that week in Gleneagles is that the Americans did not have Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnson. Who would have guessed that at the start of 2014?
The names change but never the surprises. Go back to the start of the year. Woods was No. 1 in the world coming off a five-win season. He finished the year at No. 390 on the World Money List after only completing 72 holes in four tournaments. The major champions were all familiar, though it is worth noting that this was the first time since 2000 that there were no first-time winners in the Grand Slam events. That year, Vijay Singh won his second major at the Masters, and then Woods won the next three on his way to an unprecedented sweep of the majors.
Was McIlroy headed down the same path? The characters have changed. The competition was never stronger.