Every golf watcher can call up a defining moment, top achievement, or crazy scenario that marks the season just past. Whether it was Rory McIlroy’s decisive comeback from the heartbreak of his Masters debacle to lap the field at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods finally notching his first victory in more than two years at the Chevron World Challenge, or Yani Tseng becoming the youngest golfer ever to capture five major championships, 2011 was full of highlights — and a couple distinctive low-lights — that made the past golf year uniquely its own.
Each top occasion raised a corresponding question for the coming 12 months. Here are a few of the best- and worst-ofs in 2011 that caused this observer to scratch her head and wonder about the coming season.
Rodney Dangerfield award for most underrated best golfer: Yani Tseng
Tseng’s world domination tour began with four straight wins on the 22-year-old’s way to an off-the-charts 12 global titles. The young woman from Taiwan with a ready smile, a song in her heart, and the longest drive on the LPGA Tour, went on an historic run that blew away the competition. A season in which she accomplished what no other golfer — not Annika, Tiger, Jack, Arnie, Hogan or Snead — ever had, included an Eldrick-like reception when hometown fans flocked to the inaugural LPGA Taiwan Championship to share space with the best golfer on the planet.
And still, the woman who sings to herself as she affably conquers her opponents somehow flew under the radar when it came to Golf Magazine and Associated Press “Player/Athlete of the Year” honors. Which brings up two queries: what dramatics can the world’s No. 1 accomplish as an encore to her brilliant season for the ages? And if not now, when will she garner the respect she deserves?
Jury’s out award: Tiger Woods’ Chevron W
Win, lose, or sitting it out with injuries, Woods remains golf’s biggest draw. With his well-worn left knee apparently recovered, Woods posted a decidedly journeyman-like season that included a missed cut from the PGA Championship, a withdrawal from The Players, and a bunch of trash talk from his former caddie. With a new looper on the bag, Woods strung together some impressive rounds Down Under, grabbed the deciding point for his U.S. Presidents Cup team, and grabbed that elusive “first win in two years” in the unofficial season-ending event at Sherwood Country Club. His come-from-behinder with back-to-back birdies to leave runner-up Zach Johnson shaking his head was vintage Tiger
Or was it? The undecideds will wait to cast their votes for what has become the perennial question for Elin’s ex-husband: is he back, or was Woods’ win in a limited-field contest merely a tease from the guy at 14 major championships and counting?
Rocking the Wannamaker Trophy: Keegan Bradley
The 2011 PGA champ had a freshman season to remember, capturing the first major he ever played just three months after winning his first contest in the big leagues. He also made history when he became the first golfer to win a major while wielding a belly putter.
And did anyone ever have so much fun enjoying his success as Pat Bradley’s nephew, who festooned the cup with a Boston Red Sox cap and spies it first thing upon waking up in the morning? Thanks to his major win, the Hopkinton (Mass.) High and St. John’s University grad got to throw the first pitch at Fenway, toss the coin to start a Patriots game, and drop the puck to kick off a Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins shoot-out.
Such off-the-course honors seemed to drain some of the spark from Bradley’s game, as he missed the cut on home turf at the Deutsche Bank Championship, which led us to wonder: can the 25-year-old pride of Woodstock, Vt., rebound from a so-so finish to his stellar Rookie of the Year season, or will he face the traditional sophomore slump?
The latest “next Tiger Woods“: Rory McIlroy
Caroline Wozniacki’s main squeeze had only one PGA Tour win in 2011, but oh, what a win. Putting his final-round collapse at the Masters in the rear view, the young lad from Northern Ireland went on a record-braking romp as he routed the star-studded Open field at Congressional Country Club.
As he returns to the PGA fold next year, golf whisperers ponder: will Rory Mac live up to the prognostications of “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy” and prove to be the golfer who surpasses Jack Nicklaus’ majors record?
Short off the tee but clutch when it counts: Luke Donald
The 34-year-old Englishman may not wield the longest bat on tour, but a consistent short game and supreme confidence in himself helped Donald make history when he became the first golfer to win the money titles on both the U.S. and European Tours. His dramatic comeback at Disney set the stage for Donald to pick up the cash crowns and PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. Donald’s mental game was in top form as well, as he played some of his best golf at his season-ending Dubai World Championship while mourning the sudden loss of his father
With two U.S. titles on his resume, Donald will face similar scrutiny to that of former No. 1 Lee Westwood during his tenure at the top: will the much-hailed Brit win his first major in 2012?
It’s-all-about-me booby prize: Steve Williams
Tiger’s ex-bagman just can’t seem to shut up. The Mouth that Roared certainly became the story after his new boss, Adam Scott, won the Bridgestone Invitational and Woods finished a lowly T37. The New Zealander once again stole the headlines in China with racially charged comments about his former boss.
With pro-forma online mea culpas just part of the baggage that comes with the loutish Kiwi, will Stevie finally fade into the background where the legend-in-his-own-mind belongs?
Most anticipated newcomer: Lexi Thompson
When the 16-year-old golf wunderkind earned her first LPGA Tour title in September — becoming the youngest golfer to win a multiple-round tour event — the Lexi Thompson era officially began. Shortly thereafter, Thompson convinced tour commissioner Michael Whan to waive his organization’s age restriction and welcome the big-hitting teen to the club. Another victory at the Dubai Ladies Masters set the stage for a Lexi-Yani rivalry that should become must-see TV in 2012, and potentially for years to come.
While Whan vowed there was no pressure on the youngster to perform and that his organization was doing fine, some inquiring minds still want to know: can Lexi Mania save the LPGA Tour?
Length-does-matter honors: Long putters
Bradley may have been the first golfer to win a major with a long putter, but the oversized mallets gained favor among many of his colleagues. Webb Simpson and his Ping Craz-E Long won the Deutsche Bank Championship. Bill Haas’ shot from the lake was incredible but his Scotty Cameron Kombi Belly certainly helped him lift the FedEx Cup trophy. Traditionalists may fume each time they see Scott thrust a Titleist by Scotty Cameron prototype Kombi-S into his sternum, but even the maestro of the short game, Phil Mickelson, tinkered with the same Odyssey White Hot XG Sabertooth that Bradley employed with such success.
Will purists finally accept that the big bats are here to stay in ever-increasing numbers of PGA Tour golf bags, or will golf’s governing bodies ban the favored club of so many big-time 2011 champions?