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The Changing Game - 2010 in Review

By: Tony Dear


How appropriate, ironic and ultimately sad that the 2010 professional season, the part that matters anyway, should come to a close with a rules incident that overshadowed an otherwise compelling tournament. Ian Poulter's unscripted gaffe on the green of the second playoff hole at the Dubai World Championship, where he accidentally dropped his ball on his coin which flipped over - a wretched sequence of micro-events, over in a second, that resulted in a one-shot penalty and cost the Englishman "about 20 world rankings points, a lovely trophy, and about 350,000" - was no way to decide the outcome of an event in which no fewer than nine of the world's top-30 players were in the running on the final day.

Of course, it was only one of several apparently minor, but not inconsequential, rules infractions that occurred at numerous big-time events and which led to catastrophic penalties diverting viewers' attention away from the actual golf.

Dustin Johnson's error of judgment on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship when he grounded his club in a patch of sand he assumed wasn't an actual hazard, and got penalized two strokes, was perhaps the most significant case and left an indelible scar on the final major of the year. Brian Davis contacting a blade of grass in a hazard just after commencing his backswing during a playoff at Harbour Town, and his two-stroke penalty, had much the same effect on the Verizon Heritage. And Robert Rock's scorecard mix-up and subsequent disqualification at the Irish Open, Juli Inkster's DQ from the LPGA Tour's Safeway Classic for swinging a weighted club during a suspension of play, Michelle Wie's two-stroke penalty in the final-round of the LPGA's Kia Classic when officials didn't buy her claim that she was trying to retain her balance when resting on a club in a hazard, and the very unsavory allegations made against Il Mi Chung and Shi Hyun Ahn at the CN Canadian Open after each played the other's ball on the final hole of the first round but apparently tried to cover it up, all contributed to the rules attracting far more attention than was healthy during 2010.

And let's not forget the whole sorry debate concerning the use of Ping Eye 2 wedges that violated the PGA Tour's new grooves rule, but which could still be used because of an agreement the manufacturer had signed with the Tour in 1993. This farcical loophole, exploited by several players, most notably Phil Mickelson, lasted until March when Ping CEO John Solheim agreed to waive Ping's rights in the settlement, thus allowing the Tour to finally ban Eye 2s.

With stories of harsh penalties imposed on players for seemingly innocuous rules infringements, and the near-hysteria surrounding the width and spacing of grooves, the game exposed itself to considerable ridicule in 2010 from non-golfers who asked, with some justification, how on Earth golfers could tolerate such an archaic, not to say arcane, set of regulations.

Robert Karlsson, the beneficiary of Poulter's misfortune in Dubai, said the fact that players "actually follow" the rules - obvious, curious, spurious and nefarious - showed the "purity of the game." And because what he said holds water and because of the way the players - Poulter, Johnson and Davis, specifically - reacted to their costly misadventures, golf actually won as many admirers as it did hecklers.

And speaking of hecklers, 2010 was supposed to be the year the boo-boys came out in force to show their dissatisfaction with the way the outwardly virtuous Tiger Woods had spent much of his non-golf time over the previous two, three (four?) years. The anticipated barrage of barracking never did materialize (maybe because spectators realized Woods was just a pro golfer after all) but, of course, that didn't mean he had an entirely trouble-free year.

Divorced in August, linked for months to performance-enhancing drugs supposedly administered by Dr. Anthony Galea and winless for the first time since turning professional in 1996, the 14-time major champion had a year he'd rather forget. He did manage a tie for fourth at the Masters after returning from his self-imposed exile, and another T4 at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open, but he looked strangely out of sorts on the course most of the time. Clearly at odds with Hank Haney, his swing coach of six years, the two inevitably severed their professional ties in May. Woods tried going it alone for a few largely unsuccessful weeks, but eventually joined Sean Foley's impressive stable of Tour stars in September. The two appeared to make some progress relatively quickly, but it came too late to prevent Woods's incredible 281-week reign at the top of the world rankings from coming to an end.

Mickelson, who won his third Masters in April, was the man expected to supplant Woods. But he failed in 12 attempts, allowing England's Lee Westwood to wrest the top spot at the start of November even though he had spent the preceding month at home recovering from a calf injury. Just as the rules governing play repeatedly came under fire, so too did the method by which the world rankings are calculated. How, the critics asked, could someone with only one win in 2010, no career majors, and who spent six weeks at home resting become the best player in the world? Again, the question was not unreasonable, but even a quick glance at Westwood's record over the last two years should have been enough to persuade anyone that, indeed, no one had played better.

His rise to the top was obviously a source of great pride for Westwood who, in May 2003, had fallen to No. 253 in the world. But the joy was felt throughout Europe, especially on the European Tour which reveled in one of its members reaching the pinnacle of the sport by leaping ahead of the two Americans - Woods and Mickelson - who had been regarded as the world's top-two players for so long.

But Westwood wasn't the only European, or European Tour player, making noise in a year that ranks alongside, perhaps surpasses, any of those in the 1980s and '90s when Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Jose-Maria Olazabal were winning majors and Ryder Cups, and doing for golf on the right side of the Pond what hadn't been done since Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor were playing Hot Potato with the Claret Jug.

Germany's Martin Kaymer won the first of what promises to be a tidy haul of majors when he beat Bubba Watson in a playoff at the PGA Championship, and could have beaten Westwood to the No. 1 spot had he played better at the Andalucia Masters at the end of October. Surely it's only a matter of time before the 25-year-old becomes the second German to head the world rankings - Langer was the first-ever world No. 1, holding the position for three weeks in 1986.

Ulsterman Graeme McDowell became the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open when he held off final-round challenges from Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els and, somewhat unexpectedly, France's Gregory Havret. Louis Oosthuizen, a South African but European Tour member since 2005, captured the Claret Jug at St. Andrews by an extraordinary seven shots with a supreme display of driving and controlled shot-making.

Poulter won the WGC Matchplay event in Arizona, and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy gave further notice he is ready to dominate the game by shooting a closing 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship, and by getting as high as No. 7 in the world at the tender age of 21. England's Justin Rose won twice on the PGA Tour, and fellow Brits Luke Donald and Paul Casey became firmly embedded in the world's top-10. Italy's Francesco Molinari won the WGC HSBC Champions in China, and countryman Matteo Manassero confirmed he is a player of rare talent by becoming the youngest winner in European Tour history when he claimed the Castello Masters title in October, aged 17 years and 188 days.

Preceding the flurry of spectacular end-of-season performances was Europe's eighth outright victory in the last 13 Ryder Cups. Played in Wales for the first time, the competition culminated in a Monday finish because of almost perpetual rain that fell on the TwentyTen Course at Celtic Manor during the first three days. But, just as the 18-hole Monday playoff between Woods and Rocco Mediate to decide the winner of the 2008 U.S. Open turned into one of the most memorable finishes at a major in living memory, the Ryder Cup's weekday conclusion did not affect the level of drama and excitement one bit.

Woods, one of Captain Corey Pavin's four picks for the U.S. team, played well, winning three points in four matches. But there were just too many duds in the side (Mickelson one point in four matches, Jim Furyk half a point from three, etc.) for it to defend the title it had won at Valhalla in 2008, especially against a European team so strong it could operate without either Rose or Casey, who weren't selected by captain Colin Montgomerie.

This European supremacy was a little surprising as it wasn't all that long ago (try four or five years) that America's biggest threat was expected to come from Australasia, South Africa, the Far East and other parts of the world that had produced a good number of individual champions but weren't really considered major golfing hotbeds. Further evidence the balance of power had shifted across the Atlantic came when McIlroy, Westwood, and Kaymer decided to decline PGA Tour membership and remain on the European Tour for 2011.

But while the PGA Tour and golf in America in general definitely lost some of its luster in 2010, it would be wrong to suggest the American tour was completely devoid of interest or that commissioner Tim Finchem has nothing to work with going forward.

In Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton, Hunter Mahan, Ryan Moore, Anthony Kim and Sean O'Hair, the U.S. has its share of exciting 20-something talents already challenging for major championships.

The economic downturn that has cast a long, dark shadow over the golf industry for the last two or three years can't last forever (can it?), and when the country's purse strings do begin to loosen, Finchem will be in a better position to maintain the amazing prosperity the PGA Tour has enjoyed under his watch.

And Woods, largely responsible for the Tour's success over the last 10 years, is no doubt readying himself for a big return in 2011 with his Foley-inspired swing changes.

Finchem is desperate for his star attraction to commit to a few more tournaments in 2011 as the Tour's TV contracts are up for renewal in 2012. And the man himself will, of course, be eager to get back on the major trail in an effort to inch closer to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional major titles.

The FedEx Cup got a boost after Jim Furyk's genuinely animated celebration at the Tour Championship and his statement during the champion's press conference that, in 40 years' time, the trophy will have a lot of history behind it - the intimation being that by then the FedEx Cup (or whatever it's called) will be regarded in an altogether more favorable light than it is now and be seen as a significant feather in the winner's cap. Amendments still need to be made to the format in order for the standings to reflect a more realistic order of the year's best players (was Charley Hoffman really the fourth-best player on the PGA Tour this year?), but signs the trophy will finally become as sought-after as Finchem dreamed it would seem promising.

In Japan, teenager Ryo Ishikawa won his seventh, eighth and ninth JGT titles, the first of those coming after a final-round 58, the lowest ever round on a major professional tour and one better than the 59s Stuart Appleby (Greenbrier Classic ) and Paul Goydos (John Deere Classic) recorded this year on the PGA Tour.

It's still too early to tell what ramifications Lorena Ochoa's early retirement will have on the ladies' game, but if Michelle Wie builds on the progress she made over the last two years and fulfills the promise she has shown since playing in the men's Sony Open for the first time in 2004, one suspects the Mexican's departure will soon be, if not forgotten exactly, then certainly less of an issue. Wie is currently ranked 11th in the world, 2.91 points behind Japan's Ai Miyazato - one of six players vying for the world No. 1spot. This intense battle for the top ranking, traded nine times since Ochoa retired in April, is generating a good bit of interest, but many commentators believe it is actually in the Tour's best interests for one of the top half-dozen to break away and become as recognizable a figure as Ochoa or, before her, Annika Sorenstam.

The player most likely to do that perhaps is South Korea's Jiyai Shin, who has 14 top-10 finishes in 17 events this year (one still to go), including two wins, although it's not unreasonable to suggest that LPGA commissioner Michael Whan secretly hopes an American - Wie, Paula Creamer or third-ranked Cristie Kerr - can lead the Tour in the post-Sorenstam & Ochoa age.

As is to be expected with 50-event-a-year professional tours and intense, almost-24/7 media scrutiny, the year in professional golf did not pass without incident. Rules issues, Woods's continuing problems, Westwood's rise to the top of the world rankings, the achievements of numerous other European Tour players and that Tour's growing stature, a gripping Ryder Cup, Ochoa's retirement, sub-60 scores etc., all combined for another entertaining year. It wasn't a classic by any means - no 1945 when Byron Nelson won 18 professional tournaments and no 2000 when Woods won three major championships, including a 15-shot victory at the U.S. Open. Nope, not a classic . . . diverting at times certainly, but no classic.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.