The Month Ahead & Highlights from the Previous 11

By: Tony Dear


After a pulsating November that saw the year's final WGC event, the conclusion of the 2013 Race to Dubai, and Adam Scott's incredible quest for the triple crown in his native Australia, the world of professional golf finally allows itself a slight breather in December. It doesn't shut down entirely, of course, as there's still good money and world ranking points to be made at Tiger Woods' event - the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge at Thousand Oaks in California, where it will be staged for the final time.

And the European Tour continues its 2014 season, which got underway four days after Henrik Stenson shot a closing 64 at the DP World Tour Championship to complete his brilliant year. A strong field is assembled for this week's $6.5 million Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player CC at Sun City, and 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez will be defending the Hong Kong Open title he won by a shot last year. Next week, Scott Jamieson defends the Nelson Mandela Championship at Mount Edgecombe near Durban in KwaZulu Natal. Only then will the indefatigable European Tour cease operations for Christmas before whirring back into action in South Africa on January 9th. The PGA Tour rings in the New Year on Maui for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, starting January 3rd.

10 Most Noteworthy Moments/Weeks/Trends/Statistics/Issues of 2013

December is, of course, the month for lists. It's a time for publications to fill printed pages and server space with what they think were the most notable achievements and talking points from the year that's nearing completion. Everyone has a different perspective, meaning one pub's most compelling topic might barely have raised a collective eyebrow at another. The following list has a few entries that might be common to several others, but there'll probably be a couple of inclusions that make you wonder what on Earth I was watching . . . or wasn't watching perhaps.

Mickelson's Unlikeliest Win of All

The tendency is to elevate events that happened recently as they are still fresh in the mind. For me though, nothing could eclipse the shock of seeing Phil Mickelson play so brilliantly to win his first Claret Jug. Let me rephrase that. Seeing Mickelson play brilliantly isn't shocking; he does it quite frequently. That he did so on a links course at the Open Championship is what's so confounding. Lefty's record at the Open from 1991 through 2012 was remarkably inadequate for a four-time major champion. Woeful really.

In 19 starts, he managed just two top-10s and missed the cut four times. At an incredibly firm and fast Muirfield in July, however, Mickelson shot a superb closing 66 to come from five behind leader Lee Westwood and win by three over Henrik Stenson. Youngsters watching him for the first time could have had no clue he had failed so often on links courses. Mind you, had they been watching the week before, they'd have seen Mickelson win the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and then assert that, though he'd once hated links golf, he now loved it. One wonders how many more Jugs he can win.

Scott Breaks Aussie Duck at Augusta

With so many great players on the continent, an Aussie had to win the Masters sooner or later. That said, golfers from "Down Under" had finished runner-up seven times between 1950 and 2011 and the most famous of them all, Greg Norman, had wound up green jacketless despite being in the driving seat on three occasions. Scott himself had finished tied for second with fellow Aussie Jason Day in 2011, both two shots behind Charl Schwartzel.

Scott began this year's final round a shot behind 2009 champion Angel Cabrera and 2012 FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker. He began with a bogey at the first hole but got the shot back with a birdie at the third. He then birdied the 13th and 15th before holing a 25-footer on the last to shoot a 69 and go one clear of Cabrera, who was playing the last. The gritty Argentine then stuffed his approach to three feet and rolled in the putt to force a playoff. Both got up and down for par at the 18th and were safely on in two at the 10th, the second extra hole. The quality of play was staggering considering the pressure and the fact it was pouring rain.

Cabrera missed his birdie effort but Scott, after a great read from caddie Steve Williams, slid his home to win his first major and become Australia's 10th major champion.

Scott could very well have won the Open Championship at Muirfield too, but faltered down the stretch to finish tied for third. He won the Barclays in August and, on his return to Australia in November, gave his home crowd a thrill by winning the Australian PGA Championship, the Australian Masters, the World Cup (alongside individual winner Jason Day) and coming in second at the Australian Open. It was a fantastic end to a historical year for Scott.

Merion's Return, Rose's Overdue Win

The USGA's decision to take the U.S. Open back to Merion after a 32-year absence was greeted with cries of joy from historians and golf course architecture aficionados, but anxiety and trepidation from local homeowners and those responsible for the logistics of staging a major international event on so small a site. But not only would the USGA have a job squeezing in all the spectators, press, practice facilities, parking, concessions, etc., it had also long been assumed Hugh Wilson's 1912 classic could no longer handle golf's contemporary bombers. The winning score of 281 (1-over par) proved, however, you can still challenge anyone, no matter how long they are, if you grow six-inch-tall rough on the edge of 20-yard-wide fairways.

Those who argued Merion was still worthy of hosting major championships, and those who said it had been horribly defaced to contain 350-yard drivers, were correct. Wilson would probably have balked at the way it had been set up, but it was great to see it back regardless.

And 100 years after Francis Ouimet's historic win at The Country Club, the U.S. Open got another worthy winner in Justin Rose, who struck two superlative shots to the back of the 72nd green, then chipped close with a hybrid to ensure his par and what would eventually be a two-shot margin over Day and Mickelson, who finished runner-up at the U.S. Open for the sixth time.

Henrik Stenson's Outstanding Year

When people think of Stenson's slump, they usually remember his dramatic loss of form following his win in the 2009 Players Championship. What gets lost, though, is the fact that following his breakout win on the European Tour in 2001 - when he won the Benson & Hedges International at the Belfry, he went three years, 91 tournaments and 46 missed cuts before winning again.

This time Stenson came back with an altogether louder bang, climbing from world No. 53 at the start of the year to No. 3 by way of two FedEx Cup playoff wins, a victory at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, two top-threes at the final two majors, and by winning both the FedEx Cup and the European Tour's Race to Dubai. He spent the second half of the year striking the ball in a fashion that bought to mind Tiger Woods at his imperial best. If Stenson hits it as powerfully and accurately next season he will surely become Sweden's long-awaited first major champion.

Walker Cup at NGLA

There were so many things to enjoy during this year's Walker Cup at National Golf Links of America on Long Island, N.Y., the U.S. Team's shirt-and-tie outfits for one, and seeing the venue for two, three, four, five and six. NGLA is a notoriously private refuge, the only place the golf masses likely to see the CB Macdonald's 1911 masterpiece being the golf media's "Best Courses" lists. As those who tuned in to watch the home team's convincing 17-9 victory discovered, NGLA is the epitome of great design, boasting numerous holes that justify the tag by being both eminently playable for club members but tantalizingly testing for elite players hoping to go low.

Two years ago, most golfers in the America got their first glimpse of the celebrated Royal Melbourne GC during the Presidents Cup matches. For golf-architecture nerds, watching the U.S. Open at Merion was equally exciting. The Walker Cup at National Golf Links put the cherry on top.

Streamsong Opens to Universal Acclaim

When Streamsong was first announced, most parties believed the decision to build 36 holes of golf in the middle of Florida - an area not known for its interesting landforms but a state known very well for its surplus of bland, mediocre courses - was demented. When we heard Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and Tom Doak, had been hired to design the courses and that they had several million cubic yards of sand to play with, the doubters went silent and fans of links-like, lay-of-the-land golf began salivating. When Streamsong finally opened in January, the Sunshine State had two more golf courses it probably didn't need, but two more courses possessing all the hallmarks of classic golf - interest, intrigue, beauty, challenge, fun - and which are definitely worth traveling a very long way to play. A 216-room lodge opens early next year, when Streamsong will evolve from a world-class public-access golf facility to a world-class golf resort.

Also encouraging was continued work on Cabot Cliffs in Canada; Mike Keiser's announcement he would be developing a 1,500-acre site in Wisconsin called Sand Valley; the soft opening of David McLay Kidd's Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash.; Keiser's announcement he has been granted a land swap by the Oregon Parks Department clearing the way potentially for the construction of Bandon Muni; the opening of Doak's Red Course at Dismal River; and the unveiling of Pacific Gales on the southern Oregon coast, construction of which could commence next spring, if all goes according to plan.

Jordan Spieth's Rapid Rise

It was significant that when Jordan Spieth turned professional in December 2012, halfway through his sophomore year at the University of Texas, few questioned the decision. After having been the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, earning first-team All-American status in his freshman year, playing in the 2011 Walker Cup, and making five cuts in eight PGA Tour starts as an amateur, no one really doubted the Dallas native was capable of earning a good living on the Tour. But only the truly optimistic could have foreseen the incredible success of his rookie year.

Spieth recorded five top-10 finishes in his first 15 tournaments, including a tie for second in Puerto Rico, then shot three successive 65s (the last after holing from a bunker at the 72nd hole), to wind up in a three-man playoff at the John Deere Classic in Illinois. At the fifth extra hole, Spieth's par was good enough to beat David Hearn's and Zach Johnson's bogeys, and the 19-year-old, two weeks short of his 20th birthday, became the youngest player to win on the PGA Tour in 85 years.

Spieth had three more top-four finishes in his last seven events, finishing the PGA Tour season eighth in the FedEx Cup standings, 10th on the PGA Tour money list with $3,879,820, and at No. 21 in the world (he's currently 22nd). Spieth then made his debut in the Presidents Cup, winning two points from a possible four. It was a dream start to what promises to be a Hall of Fame career.

Rory McIlroy's Turbulent Year Ends on a High

While Spieth's star was rising fast, another potential Hall of Famer was going in the opposite direction. Thanks largely to winning the 2012 PGA Championship by eight shots, McIlroy began the 2013 season with a fairly robust 4.6-point lead in the world rankings over second-place Luke Donald. But nothing much clicked for the Ulsterman; a second-place finish in San Antonio was his best finish from 15 tournaments on the PGA Tour. It was worse in Europe, where he missed four big cuts before eventually finding some late-season form with a tie for sixth at the HSBC Champions in China and tie for fifth at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

Speculation over the status of his relationship with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, plus legal issues with former management company Horizon Sports and its managing director Conor Ridge, hounded McIlroy for most of the year, no doubt making it difficult for him to devote himself 100 percent to his game.

His impressive one-shot victory over Adam Scott at last week's Australian Open is an encouraging sign that McIlroy is working through all the off-course stuff. But his case against Horizon doesn't reach the big business division of Ireland's High Court until next October, so one wonders how his win in Sydney will affect his play in 2014.

Solheim Cup Shocker

You never know what to expect from a team of European golfers. Significantly inferior to their American opponents, on paper at least (39.6 average Rolex ranking compared to 30.9), the 12 European women arrived at Colorado GC in Parker, Colo., as 13/8 underdogs - fairly damning odds in a two-horse race. After three sessions, however, the Europeans held a one-point advantage and, by the end of the second day, had extended the lead to five after whitewashing their opponents in the afternoon four-balls.

Though not expecting to win perhaps, American supporters still maintained a glimmer of hope for the home team on the final day. But the visitors came out determined to win on U.S. soil for the first time, and took seven and a half of the 12 singles points, thus recording a highly unexpected and somewhat lopsided 18-10 victory.

The competition featured a number of standout performances from the Europeans. Sweden's Caroline Hedwall won all five of her matches, while Spain's Carlota Ciganda won all three of hers. The biggest story though was perhaps England's Charley Hull who, at just 17 years and five months, became the youngest golfer to ever play in the event. The former Curtis Cup player lost her opening four-ball, but won her second before capping an incredible debut with a 5 and 4 win over Paula Creamer in the singles.

Anchorers Away

The issue over whether or not golfers should be allowed to anchor their putter to their chin, chest or belly really shouldn't have been a top-10 talking point this year. It probably shouldn't have been a top-10 talking point in any year really, but if the governing bodies did want to adjudicate on its use they should have done so in the late 1960s shortly after Phil Rodgers became the first player to win on the PGA Tour using an anchored stroke. Because the USGA and R&A had ignored the "problem" for so long, and because people actually started winning majors, of all things, with long putters, the debate finally came to a head in May when the game's rulers finally banned anchoring the stroke (though not long putters, which can still be used).

The conversation has died down for now, and very little was made of Scott's recent success in Australia, where he continued to use the long putter he has wielded so deftly since early 2011. The next we do hear of it will likely be in late 2015, when players still relying on their anchored stroke will have little time left to make the switch before the January 1, 2016, deadline.

Near-Misses

Kids Rule

Tianlang Guan got the ball rolling on an incredible year for junior golf by making the cut at the Masters despite being given a one-stroke penalty for slow play. The 14-year-old finished the tournament at 12-over 300 in 58th place. He also played in four other PGA Tour events, making the cut at the Zurich Classic.

Twelve-year-old Ye Wocheng became the youngest player to compete on the European Tour when he teed off at the Volvo China Open in Tianjin. He missed the cut with two rounds of 79. The youngster got another chance in September at the Omega Masters in Switzerland, but missed the weekend again, shooting 78, 76.

In February, the amazing Lydia Ko won her first event on the Ladies European Tour - the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women's Open, then in August claimed her second on the LPGA Tour with her second straight win at the Canadian Women's Open. In October, the 16-year-old announced she was turning professional via a fantastic YouTube video she shot with New Zealand All Black star Israel Dagg. She made her pro debut at the CME Group Titleholders in Naples, Fla., where she tied for 21st.

Tiger Woods' Rules Fiasco

There's nothing to add to what has already been written and said about Tiger Woods' rules incidents this year; suffice to say I don't believe for a second he would knowingly break the rules. And, though I would have preferred to see him bow out of the Masters before the third round began, I can live with the fact he didn't. His spat with Sergio Garcia at the Players Championship was likewise blown out of proportion, making a potentially interesting story incredibly tedious.

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 extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor 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 website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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