A Not-So-Silly Week in December

Graeme McDowell made a good 2010 even better with a win over Tiger Woods. Copyright USGA/Stave Gibbons

It was quite an interesting week in the world of golf, considering that we’re in the month of December. It wasn’t exactly Silly Season, because the tournaments were pretty serious. Then again, the biggest tournaments weren’t official on any Tour, though they offered world ranking points. Call it the Semi-Silly season.

Or call it a money grab. The two marquee events were the Chevron World Challenge, hosted by Tiger Woods in California, and the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa, both events with $5 million purses for limited fields of 18 (Chevron) and 12 (Nedbank). Last place at the Nedbank was worth $250,000 and at the Chevron it was $140,000, with first prize around $1.2 million in both.

The loser in this was the Australian Open, an event that once carried such international prestige that it was won by such greats as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. With the huge-money events drawing the game’s top players, the Australian Open was left to find its marquee value in a couple of over-50 players who will be captaining the Presidents Cup in Australia next year—Greg Norman and Fred Couples—and the curiosity factor of John Daly.

For good measure, the Japan Tour held its season-ending tournament. This confluence of tournaments meant that 29 of the top 34 players on the world ranking were in action in the first week of December. The clear winner was Woods’ Chevron tournament. World No. 1 Lee Westwood played the Nedbank and No. 2 Woods the Chevron. Nos. 3 and 4 Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson were idle (the only members of the top 14 who didn’t play anywhere). The world ranking’s 5th through 12th players all teed it up with Woods in California, including not only three Americans but also Europeans Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Graeme McDowell.

The only player in the top 40 in the world ranking at the Australian Open was Adam Scott (20th). The winner was Geoff Ogilvy, who had slipped to 43rd after a lackluster year.

The Chevron came down to a duel between Woods and McDowell. Last year, McDowell won the tournament as a last-minute replacement for Woods, who…well, we don’t need to get into that anymore. This year, Woods led by four strokes entering the final round but opened the door by closing with a 73. McDowell earlier this year showed his mettle with his U.S. Open victory and late heroics at the Ryder Cup, and he provided further evidence when he matched Woods’ birdie at the 18th to force a playoff and then birdied the hole again in overtime to win it.

It sounds strange for a tournament where Woods coughed up a four-stroke lead to be called encouraging for him, but on balance I think that’s what it was. Granted, there is concern about the loss of his invincibility down the stretch—this is a man who has made a career out of turning 54-hole leads into victories. But on the plus side, I’m reminded of the times in his “slump” year of 2004 that Woods kept saying he was “close”. After a dismal, winless year, and with ongoing work on his swing, it looks like Woods is close to being a force again.

Woods’ loss does erase one potential dilemma. If he had won the Chevron, would it have been considered a winless year? He would have lacked an official victory on any Tour, yet he would have won an event that, while it had a limited field, featured nine of the world’s top 12 players. We don’t have to worry about the semantics now.

Westwood, even with his No. 1 status in the world, hasn’t exactly been racking up the victories, either. For all of his consistent play and high finishes in majors, he won only once in 2010, that on the PGA Tour in Memphis. He was blanked on the European Tour. So, he’ll be glad to claim the Nedbank Challenge as a victory, even as an unofficial one. He did it by a convincing eight-stroke margin and solidified his hold on No. 1 in the world.

Turning to the conclusion of the 2010 Japan Tour, the main news of international interest is that 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa finished third on the money list and has locked up a Masters spot with a world ranking of 36th. Korea’s Kyung-Tae Kim led the Japanese money list (and has moved to 32nd in the world), followed by Hiroyuki Fujita. Yuta Ikeda, fourth in earnings, led in victories with four.

Also wrapping up its 2010 season was that under-the-radar tour, the LPGA. Its season-ending Tour Championship offered a lot of possibilities, with the money title, Player of the Year, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, and the No. 1 world ranking all up for grabs. Unfortunately, none of the contenders for those honors made any noise in the tournament, won by Maria Hjorth. The leaders in the various categories entering the week all stayed that way: Na Yeon Choi (money title and Vare Trophy), Yani Tseng (Player of the Year), and Jiyai Shin (No. 1 in the world).

Not silly at all was the PGA Tour’s Q-School, where veteran Billy Mayfair was the medalist to secure continuation of full playing privileges. Earning their way back to the Tour were such players Paul Stankowski and Brandt Jobe, while Joseph Bramlett became the first African-American to make it through in 25 years.

Still, the big winner of the week was Graeme McDowell. Call the Chevron Challenge a glorified exhibition if you must, but staring down Tiger Woods—even the diminished 2010 version—still counts for something.

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