2011 in Golf: Winds of change

The year that was in golf for 2011 had so many intriguing storylines it’s hard to put your finger on which golfer had the standout season.

Golf News: Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald

If we were to honour someone with a ‘golfer of the year' tag who would it be?

Singling out an individual for special praise becomes a thankless task as there are plenty of golfers around who deserve column inches on ESPNSTAR.com. 

There's Rory McIlroy, whose metamorphosis from wonder kid to Major winner was impressive to watch but then he didn't really win enough tournaments through the season to be considered a shoo-in for any ‘golfer of the year' type awards. 

Then there's Luke Donald - currently ranked number one in the world - who was immensely consistent all year but did not win a Major.

We suppose the best thing to do when trying to figure out such things is to start from the beginning and work your way through the season's four Majors.

The Masters

Augusta National GC, Augusta, Georgia - April 7-10

Purse: $7,500,000   

South African Charl Schwartzel became Masters champion after an amazing start and then a stunning four-birdie finish at Augusta.

It was the 26-year-old's first major title and it came on a day of high drama which saw Tiger Woods charge into a share of the lead and Rory McIlroy, four clear overnight, collapse to an 80.

By winning the prestigious tournament, Schwartzel joined the ranks of South African golfers who have earned the right to wear the famed green jacket including Trevor Immelman and of course the legendary Gary Player.

Schwartzel did it like a how a Major champion should as well. He chipped in at the first, pitched in for an eagle at the third and then, behind once again after playing the next 11 in one over, closed with a staggering four successive birdies.

He ended up shooting a best-of-the-day 66 to beat Adam Scott and Jason Day by two and fellow Australian Geoff Ogilvy, Woods and England's Luke Donald by four.

"It was such an exciting day," said Schwartzel, reflecting on a final round that saw the lead change hands no fewer than 15 times.

"There were so many roars and the atmosphere was just incredible. It was just a phenomenal day - I was getting tight coming down the 15th and I needed to do something."

However, Schwartzel's win was not the biggest talking point of the tournament. The 2011 edition of the Masters will be remembered for Rory McIlroy's spectacular ‘choke'. The Northern Irishman was four shots clear heading into Sunday's final round but shot an 80 to end the tournament an incredible 10 shots behind the winning mark set by Schwartzel.

It was the biggest last-day collapse in a Major since Jean Van de Velde blew it from five clear at Carnoustie in 1999.

Three years before that, Greg Norman was six in front at Augusta and with a nightmare 78 lost by five to Nick Faldo.

How would young McIlroy respond?

U.S. Open

Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Maryland - June 16-19

Purse: $7,500,000

By completing an amazing 70-day transformation from Masters meltdown to Major marvel that's how. The 22-year-old won the U.S. Open by a dream-like eight shots from Jason Day.

He set record after record at Congressional to banish the demons of an Augusta nightmare where he saw his four-stroke lead turn into a 10-shot defeat with a closing round of 80.

McIlroy began the 2011 U.S. Open in the same fashion he started at the 2011 Masters - with an opening round of 65 - and went into the final round holding a large lead. With an eight-stroke cushion, the 22-year-old was yet to prove he had the mettle to close out a Major on Sunday.

Lee Westwood, joint third overnight, started with a birdie, but in the group behind McIlroy matched it from nine feet and an approach to four feet at the 470-yard fourth made the gap double figures.

Y.E. Yang got it back to eight on the two outward par fives and McIlroy had a narrow escape when his pitch to the long sixth only just made it over the water, actually bouncing off the wall of the water onto the green.
Asia's only major winner then struck his tee shot to around three feet on the dangerous short 10th, but McIlroy not only got inside him, but almost holed-in-one. Both men made their birdie putts.

When Yang hit his second into water on the 11th and bogeyed victory was in the bag.

McIlroy's closing 69 ensured there would be no Major disappointment and as he walked off the green on the 18th, the sport of golf knew its future had just arrived.

"I think this kid's going to have a great career - I don't think there's any question about it," Jack Nicklaus said in an interview where he was reminded that the new U.S. Open champion McIlroy was a few months younger than him when he landed the first of his record 18 majors in 1962.

"He's humble when he needs to be humble and confident when he needs to be confident. I like his moxie - he's cocksure and I like that. You've got to have that," Nicklaus said.

McIlroy set a new U.S. Open record with his 16 under par total of 268 but that wasn't the only mark on history he left that weekend.

Biggest U.S. Open Wins

Tiger Woods (2000) 15 shots

Willie Smith (1899) 11 shots

Jim Barnes (1921) 9 shots

Rory McIlroy (2011) 8 shots

"I felt like I got over The Masters pretty quickly - I kept telling you guys that and I don't know if you believed me or not," McIlroy said.

"But here you go (he glanced at the trophy on the table in front of him). Nice to prove some people wrong.

"I was very honest with myself and I knew what I needed to do differently. I had a clear picture in my mind.
"And to be able to finish it off the way I did (nobody got within eight on the final day) just tells me that I learned from it and I've moved on.

"I can always call myself a major champion, but now I've got this I can go ahead and concentrate on getting some more."

However, it was another Northern Irishman who would lift golf's next Major in 2011.

British Open Championship

Royal St. George's Golf Club, Sandwich, Kent - July 14-17

Purse: $7,300,000 

Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke became the oldest winner of the Open Championship since 1967 with a brilliant final round at Royal St George's.

Clarke took a one-shot lead into the last day and repelled the challenge of American pair Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson with a closing 70 in tough conditions.

The 42-year-old's five-under-par total of 275 left him three clear of Mickelson (68) and playing partner Johnson (72), and it also ended a run of more than a decade without a top ten-finish in a Major since American Justin Leonard denied him the Claret Jug back in 1997.

There is no question - Clarke's performance was a mixture of heroics and nervousness.

He had to fight to save par from 18ft at the first after leaving a tentative first putt well short, but birdied the next from five feet and recovered from a bogey at the fourth in style with an eagle from 20ft on the par-five seventh.

That took him back to two ahead of Mickelson, who had eagled the same hole earlier on his way to a brilliant front nine of 30, but the left-hander cut the gap to one with another birdie on the 10th.

Mickelson's challenge ended with four dropped shots in the next six holes and it was left to Johnson to take up the fight with birdies at 10 and 12.

However, the 27-year-old again put his second shot out of bounds on the par-five 14th to run up a double-bogey seven.

That left Clarke with plenty of breathing space and he could afford to bogey the last two holes to claim a victory which had more than a hint of a feel-good factor about it for everyone watching.

An emotional Clarke would dedicate his Open victory to his two sons, Tyrone and Conor, from his marriage to Heather, who died in 2006 after a long battle with cancer.

"It's for the kids," Clarke said. 

"They played golf at Royal Portrush this morning and were watching on TV.

"In terms of what's going through my heart, there's obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she'd be very proud of me.

"She'd probably be saying, 'I told you so'. But I think she'd be more proud of my two boys and them at home watching more than anything else. It's been a long journey to get here. I'm 42 and I'm not getting any younger.

"But I've got here in the end. It may be the only major that I win, it may not be the only major that I win, but at least I've gone out there today and did my best, and my best was good enough to win.

"If it hadn't come off and I hadn't won, I could still have said I did my best. I ask my two boys to do their best and that's what they do, so I think their dad should try and do the same."

Amazingly, Clarkes's Open win came on the back of a terrible run of form which the player's agent admitted had the golfer contemplating retirement.

Yet, that still wasn't the most remarkable Major story from 2011. In terms of beating the odds - the breakout story of 2011 was still to come; at the PGA Championships.

PGA Championship

Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Creek, Georgia - August 11-14

Purse: $8,000,000

When Keegan Bradley beat Jason Dufner after a play-off to win the USPGA Championship in Atlanta in August 2011 - a little bit of golfing history was made.

Not only is Bradley the first player to capture a Major with a long putter, but also seven Majors in a row have now been taken by first-time winners - and that has not happened before either.

However it could have so easily been Dufner and not Bradley in the winner's circle. Dufner was five shots ahead of his fellow American with only three holes left, but blew it.

Bradley did what he could to keep the fight alive with a birdie on the 16th and then made a near 40-footer for another at the 160-yard 17th; in contrast Dufner hit the self-destruct button.

In the group behind, Dufner went in the water at the 259-yard 15th and, after doing well to escape with a bogey there, he failed to get up and down from sand on the next and then three-putted the 17th.

The pair were now level on eight under par and after both parred the last to beat Denmark's Anders Hansen by one, they returned to the 16th for the three-hole play-off.

Dufner almost holed his second shot, but Bradley also hit in to within five feet of the flag and he was the one to make the birdie putt.

A par was good enough to make the gap two as Dufner three-putted the 17th once more and, although Dufner made a brilliant birdie on the last, Bradley's par secured the title.

The victory was made all the more surprising considering that Bradley achieved the feat as a PGA Tour rookie.

"It seems like a dream and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it's not going to be real," Bradley said.

The new USPGA champion joins 2003 Open winner Ben Curtis in being the only players since 1913 to have triumphed on their first appearances at a Major.

And our ‘golfer of the year' award goes to...

Ryo Ishikawa.

What?

Yes. We're sorry, but the Japanese superstar deserves some sort of recognition for his selfless act of deciding to give all his winnings in 2011 to the earthquake relief fund in his home country. With so many similar awards of this nature being handed out by golfing publications the world over - it seemed pointless to argue something we all know already i.e. Rory McIlroy is really good at golf and so is Luke Donald.

Besides we thought this would be a small but fitting tribute to Ishikawa, who is also donating money for every birdie he made during the year on top of his winnings from 2011.

"I know recovery in the quake-affected areas will take a long time - I'd like to strive together with the victims in recovery efforts," he said.

After all, Asia is our home as well.

 


 

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