The British Open Championship is the biggest and most coveted tournament on the golfing schedule, and will remain as such. However, with a seemingly unstructured and discretionary process of course selection in place, coupled with the success of the Irish Open, fresh calls have been made for change. Last year, the R&A’s Chief Executive, Peter Dawson, said he would consider calls to turn Royal Portrush into an Open Venue, and the success of last week’s tournament – which saw over 130,000 visitors travel to Antrim – has significantly increased dialogue on the subject. So, should Portrush be re-instated?
As it stands, there are nine courses on the Open Rota, five in Scotland and four in England – St Andrews, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Turnberry, Royal Troon, Royal Lytham, Royal St George’s, Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool. The only thing set in stone is thatSt Andrewshosts the Open every five years, with the R&A deciding roughly five years in advance where the other tournaments will be held. Generally, the R&A tries to alternate betweenEnglandandScotland.
No one can dispute the significance of St Andrews- the ‘Home of Golf’ – as a golfing destination, or raise any major objections to its regular staging of the Open. But is it right that it has hosted the tournament 28 times, whilst Northern Irelandand Walesboast a total of one? Given recent developments, the case is perhaps stronger for Northern Ireland, but I find it hard to accept the British Open hasn’t been held outside England or Scotland since 1951; that there are no venues in either of those British nations that are viable Open destinations. The case is perhaps stronger forNorthern Ireland, but something labelled as ‘British’ surely has to be represented outside ofEngland andScotland?
The case for Northern Irish inclusion has picked up considerably over the past couple of years, significantly aided by Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke winning major titles at the Open and US Open. After Clarke’s triumph, pressure increased on Dawson, who said, in July 2011:
“I think we’re all very aware of the fact that three winners fromNorthern Ireland increases the interest level in this.”
He said Portrush was good enough to stage an open, but remained concerned about logistical and commercial factors.
“The usual mixture of a great course and plenty of infrastructure, combined with a prospect of commercial success, is what’s needed.
“No doubt about the golf course at Portrush, although there might be one or two things one would do, but the other two are what we have to look at.”
The success of the Irish Open, no doubt, will add more pressure, but has it done enough to warrant a place of the rota? As Dawson said, the course is good enough, and the response of the players after the tournament would suggests it is as good a venue as any on the current rotation. All the players also paid huge testament to the wonderful galleries present at Portrush. In stark contrast to some American crowds – who feel the need to shout ludicrous things like ‘mashed potato’ – the spectators were well behaved, respectful and knowledgeable.
The tournament was also played in tremendous spirit, with players interacting with fans, touring professionals Thorbjorn Oleson and Joel Sjoholm giving tickets away, and even police offering to give lifts to the course. That is the beauty of the Irish people and the Irish way, and it really would be a shame if a compromise couldn’t be reached and a venue re-instated to the roster. The fact the Northern Irish Tourist Board sponsored the event also shows the level of passion, commitment and dedication to the cause.
Logistics could be the make or break, however, and you do understand the R&S’s concern. Having said that, more than 130,000 graced Portrush at the Irish Open, with very few complaints about transport. Whilst another 100,000 would be expected at the Open, last week’s event showed it is possible, and more importantly, there is a whole army of people willing to do everything in their power to make it work. The truth of the matter is that we won’t know until we try it, and the prospective success clearly outweighs the slight gamble. The Irish Open received so much publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and was such a success, it really would be a huge shame if Portrush or a Northern Irish course wasn’t re-instated. The same also applies for Wales after the success of the 2010 Ryder Cup and the Wales Open. There are numerous courses, such as Royal Porthcrawl, that are easily accessible and good enough to stage an Open.
Let’s hope the matter of Open eligibility is thoroughly investigated and the right conclusions are reached.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are the two biggest draws in golf without a shadow of a doubt. But until two weeks ago, it was looking as though they would be nothing more than bystanders at this week’s US Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Until last week, Woods hadn’t finished better than a tie for 40th since his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, looking decidedly out of sorts. Similarly, McIlroy has missed three consecutive cuts for the first time in his professional career, declaring after missing the cut at the BMW PGA Championship he hadn’t been practicing as hard as he should have been.
But the mark of a champion is to rally when there is something at stake; whether it be a defence of your reputation or the desire to defend a major championship. Woods stormed to victory at the Memorial Tournament last week, hitting the second best chip shot of his life at the 16th hole at Muirfield Village (the parallels between that chip and his chip on the 16th in the 2005 Masters are uncanny) for a birdie before another at the closing hole. McIlroy added the FedEx St Jude Classic to his schedule after missing the cut at the Memorial, narrowly missing out on victory in Memphis. With both players coming into form at just the right time, it seems as if a duel between the pair is inevitable in San Francisco. The question is, however, should such a scenario arise, who would come out on top?
Three sloppy weeks aside, McIlroy is still one of the form players in world golf. His three missed cuts probably have more to do with a lack of dedication than any discernible dip in form. Encouragingly, McIlroy spoke with a maturity after the BMW Championship and, given his change in schedule, it seems as if he has re-dedicated himself to the cause. Many have read far too deeply into McIlroy’s three missed cuts, and his performance at the Fed-Ex suggests he is ready to stage a defence of the title he won so memorably 12 months ago.
Woods has been so heavily scrutinised purely because of his past, rather than on merit. He has had five top 25s, three top 10s, a second place finish and two victories this season. Only one player in world golf (Branden Grace) has won more times than Woods in 2012. His form is good; it just seems average when compared to what he used to be. It is fairly level pegging between the two in the form stakes, but I think the decisive factor could be attitude, temperament and desire.
Attitude and Temprament
It is hard to see past Woods should things come down to a head-to-head battle. McIlroy is serene on the golf course, and relies on immense skill rather than the ability to grind out a score. Last year, when everything clicked into place, McIlroy was unstoppable, strolling to victory. This year, however, things will be much tighter. McIlroy showed at the 2011 Masters he struggles with the major championship pressure that wasn’t really exuded at Congressional 12 months ago, whereas Woods thrives in such circumstances.
Woods is a real fighter, with a hunger and desire that is surpassed by no one. When he has a sniff of victory, everyone in the field knows, and everyone in the field is wary. I suspect if it comes down to a head to head battle between the two, or if Woods was two back of McIlroy with 18 holes to play, the former would prevail. Woods has a real stomach for a fight and winning ingrained in his psyche; he just seems to care that little bit more than everyone else. There hasn’t really been a head to head battle between the two, and should such a situation rise, it is hard to see past Woods. Granted, McIlroy could prove me wrong, but you suspect a determined Woods, with a desire to prove to the world that he is still the best golfer on the planet, would simply not be beaten.
Long Game and Putting
As previously mentioned, I think mental factors will be more important this week than technical ability, but on a course where driving will be crucial, Woods holds the advantage. He is currently 30th on the PGA Tour in driving distance and 24th in driving accuracy, combining to give him the number one ranking in total driving. By contrast, McIlroy is 25th in total driving and – on a course where playing approach shots from the fairway will be extremely important – 113th in driving accuracy. No one wins a major championship without having a good week on the greens, and Woods is again favourite in this category. Despite having a relatively poor season (by his standards) with the putter, he is 23rd in strokes gained: putting, whereas McIlroy is 53rd.
It almost every sphere, it is hard to see past Tiger Woods being beaten by Rory McIlroy (whether it be for the title or general position). Both players have come into form of late, but Woods dominates the statistics and, more significantly, really seems to have the bit between his teeth after his Memorial victory. Should the tournament turn into a battle between the two biggest names in the game, expect the biggest to triumph.
You can’t win a major without being able to putt
How frustrating it must be for Lee Westwood. He is easily the best in the world from tee to green but, as we all know, that pales into insignificance without being accompanied with the ability to putt. Time and time again we see Westwood hit a perfect drive and follow it with a glorious approach to no more than eight feet from the hole. Time and time again, however, we see his birdie putt slide past the hole and render redundant all that has preceded it.
The trend continued at Augusta. Westwood finished on eight under par – quite remarkable, given his inability to cash in on a multitude of birdie and eagle chances – to miss out again. No one is questioning Westwood’s work ethic, but something is going wrong. Whether it be seeking the help of Dave Stockton or turning to the belly putter, he needs to make changes, and fast. If things carry on as they are Westwood will never win a major, which would be a genuine travesty.
Watson up to 4th in the world
Bubba Watson has been one of the most consistent golfers on the plant over the last couple of seasons, but has always struggled somewhat under pressure. During the final round at Doral (where he held the 54 hole lead), for example, he hit some shots that amateurs would have been ashamed of. There are countless other instances of Watson struggling under Sunday pressure.
At the Masters, however, he looked an entirely different man, sporting a look of steely determination that told everyone watching this was his time. He played some glorious golf to plropel himself into the play-off, where the odds were seemingly against him. Louis Oosthuzien, his rival for the green jacket, had already won a major championship. What’s more, Watson had lost out to Martin Kaymer in his only other major play-off.
When he found the trees on the second play-off hole, it looked like it was all over. It should have been, but he played a truly remarkable rescue shot to within ten feet of the flag, and two putts were good enough for his maiden major championship. The shackles are now fully off, and the big hitting American may well go on to challenge for the title of best in the world. He has an outstanding short game and wonderful putting stoke to accompany his gargantuan hitting. Now he has triumphed in the most pressure-filled of situations, there is genuinely nothing holding him back.
Garcia troubled and disillusioned
It was distressing to hear Sergio Garcia say he doesn’t feel he is good enough to win a major championship, and it is hard to account for such comments. There is obviously more to the situation that meets the eye, but one must suspect that it comes down to his putting. When you hit the ball as well as anyone and don’t reap the rewards, it must be extremely frustrating. The strange thing is, however, that Garcia’s putting has improved of late, and you don’t win twice in two weeks, as he did at the end of last season, if you aren’t putting better than the majority of the field.
Perhaps his frustrations simply boiled over at Augusta, but it may be that more sinister forces are at work. Mental strength and attitude and so important in golf, and telling yourself you aren’t good enough is something you simply can’t do. Garcia is clearly good enough to win a major, and we can only hope that he looks back on his comments with regret. His remarks were deeply worrying, though, especially coming from a player that has come dangerously close in the past to giving up the game for good. On that occasion, friends and family were able to talk him out of it. Let’s hope they can do the same again, because golf needs Sergio Garcia.
Woods still has a way to go
After winning at Bay Hill, the general consensus was that Woods was back for good, and that he had a great chance of claiming his fifth green jacket. Woods is back in one sense of the word, but he still has a long way to go to get back to where he was five years ago. The golfing talent pool has deepened significantly since his fall from grace, and Woods is still coming to terms with his new swing. He admits that he is very close to being back to his best, but he needs to find consistency on a weekly basis, as he did in his prime. The Woods of old would almost certainly have been in contention this week. The Woods of old would have also converted far more putts. He is close, but unless he finds the sort of consistency and putting form that had his peers trembling in his wake, he won’t win another major. What’s more, his peers won’t fear him as they once did. His driving may be as good as ever, but until Woods putts like he used to, he won’t command the same respect as days gone by.
Harrington back to form
It was fantastic to see such a good performances from Padraig Harrington at the Masters. Harrington showed signs that he is coming back to his best with a dazzling final six holes on Saturday and a fine performance on Sunday. The Irishman seemed to be having the time of his life in Georgia, playing 13-18 in six under par and taking that form into Sunday. In truth he could have won the championship, had it not been for a series of missed opportunities on the back nine on Sunday. Nevertheless, Harrington will be extremely confident heading forward, and a first victory for more than two years looks to be on the horizon.
Henrik Stenson is also clawing his way back from the abyss. Aside from a closing 81, he put in a tremendous performance at the Masters. The Swede hasn’t missed a cut on the PGA Tour this season, and finished third in Puerto Rico. The signs indicate that Stenson is working his way back to the form that saw him win a World Golf Championship in 2007.
When you walk out onto the golf course on the midst of a particularly soggy and sodden winter, the first thing that comes to mind is the disadvantage afforded in terms of additional length of course. The temptation is to nullify some of this disadvantage by shortening the course and playing off forward tees. ‘I know’, you think to yourself, ‘I’ll play off the yellows today. It isn’t really an advantage, given that the course is playing far longer than it usually does.’ Most golfers out there will admit to considering such an option, as it is a natural reaction to conditions that are perceived to be more difficult. The issue, however, is that it has to work both ways. How often do we consider playing off the back tees because the course is firm and, by corollary, playing shorter than its yardage? Golf is about testing yourself in all conditions. It simply isn’t a fair test of golfing aptitude when the traditional routine is broken to account for seasonal disparity.
When a handicap is awarded, it is proof that you are good enough to play to a certain standard, period. There is absolutely no mention of seasonal variation. Simply put, if your handicap is 18 in summer, your handicap is 18 in winter. If you play off white tees in the summer but yellow tees in the winter, you are giving yourself and advantage. It must be dispelled from the outset that shorter courses guarantee better scoring, but it certainly of benefit. If your handicap has been awarded based on scores off the white tees, it is unacceptable to play from the yellow tees. Regardless of the fact that the Standard Scratch Score may differ between the two sets of tees, you are attempting to make it easier for yourself to get a better score.
It isn’t just a case of cheating the system, but also comes down to cheating yourself. Granted, rounds in winter may not be played with handicap modification in mind. You might argue that it is a nice bonus to have the opportunity to play golf in the winter and, as such, scoring and tees utilised are irrelevant. I would disagree with such a stance, and would hazard a guess that the vast majority of golfers would also. If score is irrelevant, then why would any thought pertaining to changing tees be entertained? It is an indirect and arguably subconscious consideration that demonstrates the impossibility of completely neglecting score. If score remains relevant in winter, as it does for most, then the same applies.
The round of your life?
Golf is a competitive game, both against others and against ourselves, and is seen as such by almost all that partake in the sport. The overriding feeling when you step onto the first tee is hope; hope that today will be the round of your life. Any round started off forward tees renders redundant the eventual outcome. Say you are a proficient golfer who plays from the whites. Your best round to date is 80. One winter’s day, you play from the yellows, and play as well as you have ever played, shooting 78. How many people out there would consider this a legitimate record? Whilst not directly responsible for the 78, playing off forward tees has been a contributing factor. It can’t be considered as a best ever round, because, in your heart of hearts, you know you moved to the forward tees to give yourself an advantage. You wouldn’t have done that in the spring or summer, so why have you done it in winter? Playing off forward tees to make up for bad conditions isn’t justifiable, because bad conditions are one of the variables that make the sport such a challenge.
Many of those golfers that chose to play off forward tees in the winter may completely disagree with the notion of cheating, and perhaps it is too strong a word. Regardless of how it is labelled, however, rounds played off forward tees in winter shouldn’t stand as valid and be submitted for handicap review. Part of the draw of any sport played outside is that conditions are changeable and present different challenges at different times of year. Conditions may be different, but that doesn’t mean our routine should be. Playing off forward tees also increases the angle between tee box and fairway, thus adding an extra dimension to the argument that it presents an advantage. Next time you consider playing from forward tees in winter, ask yourself how you would feel if you were to shoot the round of your life. If you could accept it as legitimate with no reservations, then play off forward tees, but you would form part of an overwhelming golfing minority.
Many of us shy away from playing golf during the winter months, and, on the surface, it is easy to understand why. The fair weather golfer will tell you that colder, usually wetter conditions make for harder scoring; that most courses are left neglected by groundskeepers, and that it is only the naive, foolhardy and disillusioned golfer that dares set foot on a course from December to February.
The reality, however, is that the naysayers only have it partly right, and winter golf can be both enjoyable and rewarding. As with any round of golf, we may leave the course enraged, but conditions rarely account for this outcome. Granted, the ball doesn’t travel as far and there is less run on the fairway, but courses are often cheaper to play; pace of play, something plaguing the game, doesn’t infiltrate the consciousness, and more importantly, there is nothing more beautiful than a sunny, crisp winters day out on a golf course.
But what are the secrets to scoring well in winter? Anyone that has learnt golf from scratch will be familiar with the phrase ‘play the percentage’. It may not be the most glamorous way to play the game, but it will reduce costly errors, especially in winter. The beauty of winter golf is that it eliminates some of those risk/reward situations and encourages us to play within our means. For example, if you are left with 210 yards to the green, there is simply no need to take on the shot. If 180 is your limit from the fairway, then the same applies. Shots that we would often take on -and fail to execute – in summer must give way to percentage play in winter. What is better, after all: losing a ball chasing a two putt par, or securing a bogey with a chance of par? Yes, pulling off the difficult shot is possible, but sticking to the prudent, pragmatic approach will save more shots in the long run.
Conditions also mean that indecision is taken out of approaches and pitches from 50 yards and in: we know exactly how the ball is going to react when it hits the green. This knowledge, in conjunction with ‘lift, clean and place’, can be used to our advantage in a number of ways. The first step relates to the previous paragraph: make sure you are in the fairway short of the green. Playing from heavy, wet rough with mud on your ball equates to very little control. From the fairway, you can play with a clean, dry ball from a perfect lie. Take dead aim with your approach and pitch the ball hole high. Knowing how the ball will react on impact provides a massive advantage, neutralising some of the inconsistencies and variations in bounce that are so hard to account for during the warmer months.
In winter, the need for effective course management becomes ever more important. It is vital to have a plan of attack for every hole and pivotal that it is adhered to. The main prioritisations for managing a round in winter must centre around keeping the ball in play. Take a 380 yard par 4, for example. It is far better to play safe off the tee and leave an approach of 180 yards, than play a second shot of 150 yards from the rough. If you do end up in the rough, remember one key principal: taking on a shot that seems unlikely to succeed will almost certainly land you in more trouble. Playing from the rough in winter is so difficult and hard to control; lay up to a sensible area in the fairway, utilise ‘lift, clean and place’, and give yourself a viable chance for par. Above all, it should be employed as a strategy for a wide cross section of the golfing public; high handicap golfers will get nowhere attempting tough shots from the rough, and low handicappers have the skill to get up and down on a regular basis from short of the green.
Putting surfaces are notoriously bad in the winter – something that cannot be avoided – but something that can be combated with aggressive putting. Winter greens have more grass covering, meaning they are slower and they take less break. You don’t need to worry about attempting to read a green perfectly, as it is almost impossible to judge exactly how the ball will react. Of course, it is all relative, but as a general rule, downhill putts with a lot of break should be started no more than two cups outside the hole; putts with a small amount of break should be hit at the appropriate lip, and uphill, marginal putts should be hit straight at the middle of the hole. Aiming for every putt to finish three feet behind the hole is the best way to ensure a positive, aggressive stroke, and eliminate overemphasis put on gradient in the winter.
Taking some simple steps before you head onto the golf course can be of benefit. Keeping your ball warm can help add extra distance, and chose the appropriate attire. Nowadays, winter wear shouldn’t impede or restrict your golf swing, and will keep you very warm in the process. There is no excuse to avoid golf in the winter – and a bad day aside – no excuse for poor scoring. Bad days in the colder months are not implicitly linked to conditions; warm up, employ a positive mindset and execute your strategy. Most of all, consider yourself lucky to be playing in winter, and enjoy testing yourself in different conditions. Fair weather golfers don’t know what they are missing out on
A resurgent Anthony Kim
Anthony Kim burst onto the scene a few years ago, and was seen as one of the only golfers in the world with the aptitude to challenge Tiger Woods in his prime. Kim, however, has fallen into the doldrums of late; he is almost the forgotten man of golf, swept under the carpet by the plethora of rising stars that have emerged over the last three years. Kim, though, showed signs at the end of last season that he is on the way back to his best. Even Rory McIlroy, who defeated him in a playoff at the Shanghai Open, has tipped Kim to recapture some of the form that saw him labelled as one of the hottest prospects in golf. In Asia at the end of last season, he played very well, and had two top five finishes at the CJ Invitational and Barclays Singapore Open. He will be hoping to start 2012 on a positive note this week at the Humana Challenge. If he gets off to a good start, one of the most exciting players to watch when on form will have a prominent role to play this season, and could well record his first victory since the 2010 Shell Houston Open.
Monty on the charge
Colin Montgomerie is making his season debut this week at the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he made a mark. He was in a jovial mood at his first press conference of 2012, displaying some youthful exuberance and a wide smile that suggested he still believes he has an impact to make at the top level. Let’s hope that his relaxed demeanour will translate into some good golf this season. Montgomerie has embraced technology, switching back to Callaway, the brand he used to win five European Tour Order of Merit titles in a row. He claims to be hitting the ball as well as ever, and if he can find an exceptional week with the putter, a victory is within grasp. He had a disappointing first week in 2012, but it was his first competative event with his new equipment. We have seen countless examples of players thriving in their late 40s. Monty may not be the most poplar man in golf, but the vast majority would love to see him return to the winners circle.
Quirós reigning in the desert
After the season ending Dubai World Championship at the Jumeira Estates, the European Tour returns to the desert for a three week spell, starting next week at the Abu Dhabi Championship. All eyes will be on Tiger Woods, who will play his first event of 2012 next week, but he will again be overshadowed by the undisputed king of the desert. Spaniard Álvaro Quirós won twice in the Middle East last season, and I fully expect him to add to his victory tally over the next month. Quirós has the perfect game for desert golf, and will be supremely confident heading into 2012. He will be reinvigorated after a relatively long off season and determined to clinch a Ryder Cup berth. If he has used the off season to work on improving his wedge game, then he will be a threat in any tournament; not least in the desert, where he recorded the two biggest victories of his professional career last season.
Mickelson showing why he is so popular
Phil Mickelson returned to action last week at the Humana Challenge, and will again prove why he is one of, if not, the most popular golfer to have ever walked the earth. The beauty of Phil Mickelson is that he plays the game for himself, and refuses to play the percentage. Perhaps that is why he is so revered by peers and fans alike. Regardless of context, he will take on a shot that most would only dream of being able to play. And pull it off. He is a man that loves the challenge of finding innovative ways to get round a golf course. Innovation leads to experimentation, excitement, and a vast following – you simply never know what you are going to get with the best shot-maker in the world game. He is often erratic but endlessly entertaining, and one of the most genuine golfers on tour. With all the talk of a resurgent Tiger, the ‘new generation’ and European domination, Mickelson will come out in 2012 and prove that he is, and will continue to be, one of the best draws in the world game.
The belly putter debate raging on
Unfortunately, the debate over the belly putter looks set to continue long into the future. Unless governing bodies outlaw the belly putter, those short-sighted individuals championing its eradication from the game will continue to put pressure on the authorities. It is an issue that has been blown massively out of proportion. It is almost as if people believe that if you adopt the belly putter, you are guaranteed success: simply ludicrous. An improved stroke comes at the sacrifice of feel; many people complaining about the belly putter have no qualms about using an adjustable driver; it is an option available to anyone, and, most importantly, no current legislation deems it an illegal implement. If you had your mortgage riding on someone to make a 10 foot putt, who would your money be on: Robert Allenby with a belly putter, or Steve Stricker? Only a severely deluded individual would select the former.
The short off season has passed, and the 2012 golf season gets underway tomorrow at the Africa Open. No one can dispute the potential of a golfing season that has all the ingredients to match the best in its history. Entry lists, on both sides of the Atlantic, will be as strong as they have ever been, and the youthful exuberance that accompanies some of the new generation of golfing superstars will be set against older hands desperate to preserve their standing and prowess. Predicting the outcome of the 2012 season is nigh on impossible, an indication in itself that the game of golf is as strong as it has been for some time, and that it is poised to captivate and enthral a wider cross section of the sporting public than ever before.
The professed return of Tiger Woods has dominated the headlines, along with the fact that Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood will take up PGA Tour membership this season. It will be fascinating to see how Luke Donald fares in his quest for a maiden major championship, and how the race for respective money list titles develops between the aforementioned superstars and the multitude of young, exceptionally gifted golfers storming towards the top of the official world golf rankings. But, aside from those mentioned, whose prospects for the new season scarcely need to be analysed, who will make a big impression this term, and on which side of the Atlantic?
Below is a list of ten golfers that I think will take 2012 by storm:
The Spaniard is widely regarded as one of the best ball strikers in the modern game. His troubles, both on and off the course, have subsided somewhat of late. He is more settled in his personal life, which could arguably have translated to greater consistency with his former enemy, the putter. He has started holing his fair share of putts, his long game is as imperious as it has ever been, and he is playing the game with a smile on his face. He won twice in consecutive events at the Castello and Andalucía Masters on the European Tour in October, and is poised to have the best season of his career. Expect to see him win in America and push for at least one major championship.
Quirós is a sensational prospect, and the biggest victory of his career at the season-ending Dubai World Championship should give him the confidence and self-belief required to reach to the top tier. He is the most powerful driver of a golf ball on any tour and has the putting stroke to match. If he can harness his new found confidence and improve his wedge game, there is no limit to what he can achieve. He will be one of the standout performers on the European Tour this season and will challenge for the Race to Dubai crown. A major championship title, perhaps the Masters, is certainly not outside the realms of possibility.
Rickie Fowler has the faculty to become a class act, and we all know it. He has stormed onto the PGA tour, the epitome of the young, wonderfully talented former college golfer with almost limitless potential. Granted, he has not won on the PGA Tour, but recorded his first professional victory in Korea in October, something that should act as a catalyst and spur him on to greatness. He is a fantastic putter and a great ball striker, and once he learns to deal with the pressure exerted at the weekend and improve his Sunday scoring average, his victory tally will snowball. His performance at the Open Championship last year opened the eyes of many, and is a tournament in which he may well contend next season.
The German recently gave an enormous boost to European golf by pledging his allegiance to the European Tour, and he is set to excel next season. Kaymer started the season strongly, winning in Abu Dhabi and finishing runner up to Luke Donald in February at the WCG World Matchplay Championship. However, after reaching world number one, he stumbled, and missed several cuts to fall out of the world’s top five. His victory at the WGC Champions Tournament in November showed he had turned a corner, overcoming a five shot deficit and shooting a final round 63 to become only the tenth man to win a major and a World Golf Championship. He will be full of confidence going into 2012, and if he retains the form that saw him make 9 birdies in 12 holes in China, he will improve on his current standing as world number four.
Johnson is the most athletic, powerful golfer on the PGA Tour, and no one else in their twenties has recorded more victories in America than the man from South Carolina (5). He is the only man, except for Tiger Woods, to have won in every season since he graduated from college. Johnson’s driving is exemplary, and at the Deutsche Bank Championship he was first in both driving distance and accuracy. If he can improve his iron play, he has all the tools needed to win a major championship this term. His desire will be second to none: he has been in the final pairing on Sunday in three of the last six majors, but has failed to win, most notably at the 2010 PGA Championship when he inadvertently grounded his club in a bunker after failing to familiarize himself with a local ruling.
Woodland is widely considered as one of the greatest talents in the world game. He is another young, former college golfer in possession of almost unparalleled power, and another with no apparent weakness in his game. He was in the top 10 in driving distance and greens in regulation last season, and will win countless tournaments in the future if he can improve upon his putting statistics. He won his maiden PGA Tour title early last season, maintained a level of consistency that saw him finish seventeenth on the money list, and put in a fine performance alongside Matt Kuchar to win the WCG World Cup for the United States. He won’t win a major next season, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was a multiple winner on tour in 2012.
The young Swede had a scintillating start to the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic club, and he will start to feature more and more prominently in majors and World Golf Championships, starting this season. He is in possession of one of the most fluid swings in the game, and will be chomping at the bit to start his 2012 campaign after two high profile victories on the European Tour last season. His first victory in 2011 came in the Wales Open at the Celtic Manner resort in June, and he thrilled his home crowd by winning the Nordea Masters in Sweden by seven strokes. Look out for Noren to make quite the impression this term.
The young Englishman burst onto the scene at the 2011 Open Championship at Sandwich, matching the lowest ever score by an amateur when he shot 65 to take a share of the lead after the first round. The fact that he performed as he did alongside Tom Watson, one of the greats of the game, reveals so much about his temperament and mental strength. He would go on to claim the title of European Tour Rookie of the year despite making only six starts, winning on just his third professional outing at the Portugal Masters. If he can keep his feet on the ground and learn to deal with media hiatus, he will challenge on a regular basis and finish in the top ten in the Race to Dubai standings.
The extrovert Spaniard is a fine prospect, and may be an outside bet to secure a Ryder Cup berth for September’s tournament in Chicago. His recorded the best result of his career in 2011, beating compatriot Sergio Garcia in a play-off at one of the biggest events on the European Tour calendar, the BMW International Open. He is a player that is supremely confident in his own ability, and such a prestigious victory may well kick start his push for a place in the top 20 in the world rankings. If he works hard and keeps his head down, he will be one of the surprise packages of 2012.
Noh, at 20 years of age, was the youngest player in the PGA Tour Q-School field. He has already won on the European Tour, and, in my view, there is no one on the PGA or European Tour that has a better golf swing. He finished in the top 10 of the Asian Tour money list last season, and looks to possess a temperament and maturity well beyond his tender years. It all depends on how he adapts to life in America, but I expect him to be a contender for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year come the end of the season. A victory in his maiden season is well within his grasp.
“What a season. Winning both money lists might never be done again. Amazing effort, number 1!” A touching sentiment from the second best player in the world, Rory McIlroy, sent via twitter after confirmation that Luke Donald had done the miraculous and won both the PGA and European Tour money lists. Even with his first major championship under his belt, the 2011 season undoubtedly belonged to Donald, and will indisputably be recognised as such. But with 2011 now officially over, and the new season just around the corner, will the duo trade places atop the Official World Golf Ranking, or will Donald further extend his lead on the chasing pack? With the Ulsterman joining the PGA Tour next season, the predominant rivalry might well occur between the two former Ryder Cup team mates, and not between McIlroy and Tiger Woods; the latter would require two major Championship victories, one World Golf Championship victory and one regular PGA Tour victory to displace Donald from his position as world number one.
In truth, it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of a rivalry that will surely captivate everyone associated with the game, as well as the broader sports fan. Based on evidence from this year, it could go either way, and the psychological side of the game will be of unquestionable significance. Rewind to the start of June, and one would have to admit that both Donald and McIlroy lacked the mental strength and resilience of players such as Woods. Both have since taken enormous steps to rectify this all important facet. McIlroy, in one of the most scintillating performances in major championship history, put aside his disastrous final round at the Masters to claim the US Open – the toughest Major to win – by eight shots. Donald – who often struggled coming from behind in tournaments – recorded a momentous six birdies in a row from the 10th at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Florida to ultimately win by two shots. In both instances, mental strength was the key factor behind success. Next season, I fully expect both Donald and McIlroy to have a similar amount of victories at regular PGA and European Tour events, but the major championships will be the real test, and I worry about Luke Donald.
The problem is that his remarkable consistency hasn’t translated to major championship success which, after this season, will be the only thing that constitutes improvement. His record for the year on both sides of the Atlantic is almost as good as it is possible to get: 20 top ten finishes in his last 25 events and four victories along the way. Simply put, every season from here on in will be a disappointment unless he wins a major or wins both money lists again. Given that the latter has only occurred once in the history of golf, it seems extremely unlikely to happen again. The pressure on his shoulders to triumph at a major will be huge, as it was with Montgomery and still is with Lee Westwood: continually asked if a win is imminent, continually saying yes, continually failing to record victory. It would be foolish to write Donald off, however. He confessed after Dubai that every win and every positive result gives him more and more faith in his own ability, something that he needs to believe in staunchly amid inevitable media speculation and assessment of his mental fortitude. As it stands, he is unsurprisingly in a positive frame of mind: “I’m excited to bring my experiences of 2011 to the majors and hopefully that will help me.”
Donald deserves a major, but being deserving of something doesn’t always lead to its realisation. With the return of Tiger and increased rivalry on the PGA Tour, where he will play the majority of his events, I suspect he will need to win a major to stay at world number one. Winning your first event on tour is paramount, but not as important as the mental significance of winning a major and allaying any fears about your own aptitude and capability. McIlroy has achieved that, and I’m convinced he will win at least one major next year, starting with victory at Augusta National in April.
If Donald can harness the positivity and confidence achieved through his achievements this year, then a major is on the cards in 2012, but there is simply no way of predicting whether this will come to fruition, and by extension, no way of predicting who will fare better between Donald and McIlroy next year. They will have extremely similar schedules and challenges; both will play several events in Europe, both will have to deal with Tiger’s professed return to greatness and players such as Lee Westwood rejoining the PGA Tour, and both will have to deal with the severe pressure that comes with being number one and number two in the world. The difference between the two? McIlroy has won a major. The success or failure of Donald’s 2012 will be based entirely on whether he can disregard immense pressure and win one of the biggest four events in golf, as his talent dictates he must. As McIlroy said, “there will always be that question of ‘Is he the real No.1 because he’s not got a major?” Of all the prospective sub-plots for next season, Donald’s quest for a major will be the most stringently followed. If he claims a victory, there will be nothing to choose between him and McIlroy. If he doesn’t, expect McIlroy to become world number one. They will both win tour events, but their duel will be defined by major championship glory. Either way, barring the extremely unlikely yet not implausible return of Tiger Woods to world number one, a Brit will occupy that position at the end of 2012.
Just to let you know, I am now chief golf writer for www.thesportreview.com, where you can see my review of today’s action, along with reports from the first three days. Expect to see another feature by the end of the week.
For the avid golf fan, it doesn’t get much better than what we were treated to last weekend. World number three Lee Westwood was in imperious form as he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa, setting a new course record along the way. World number two Rory McIlroy took another huge step in his personal and professional development by winning when he absolutely had to, making sure that the European Tour season finale and culmination of the Race to Dubai, the Dubai World Championship, is not rendered redundant. And yet, these events pale into insignificance when we consider the prospective implications of one of the most significant events in world golf since the turn of the decade: Tiger Woods’ return to the winners circle after more than two years in the proverbial abyss.
The trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods over the past couple of years have been so well documented that is unnecessary to revisit them, but that is no longer important. His victory on Sunday night at the Chevron World Challenge was exponentially more important to the game of golf than any other eventuality. He is by far the biggest draw in the modern game, and the fact of the matter is that the casual, part time golf viewer, along with the broader sports fan, will actively tune in to golf to see a resurgent Woods do things that the vast majority can only marvel at. But is this talk of a resurgent Woods premature? The main arguments put forth by those from this school of thought relate to tournament status and size of field. The Chevron World Challenge is an unofficial tournament with the same amount of players as holes on a course, they say. On the surface, these seem like valid arguments, but those that witnessed the nature of his birdie-birdie finish will surely find it hard to agree with such a stance; the manner of his victory rather than the size of the field is what needs to be focused on. He struggled with the putter; his body language was shaky; his swing lacked the fluidity of the Tiger of old, but when he absolutely had to, he stepped up: the mark of a great champion, regardless of discipline. The word clutch was synonymous with Woods in his prime, and on Sunday, he showed that he is not ready to relinquish that association. The premature resignation of Zach Johnson after missing his birdie putt on 18 said so much: there was simply no doubt in his mind that Tiger would make his putt, the sort of peer-mindset that helped to place Woods atop the invincible pedestal when he was at his most powerful. The hypothetical headline ‘Tiger wins by one shot after miraculous birdie-birdie finish’ would be associated with the Woods of old. The worrying thing for other professional golfers is that it happened last week.
In truth, it is a shame that viewing figures and popularity are so intrinsically linked with one man, but it is understandable. The committed golf fan will recognise the tremendous strength and excitement of the game at the moment, but the part time viewer requires Woods to be in the thick of the coverage before turning over to the golf. Take the Tour Championship, for example. In 2009, when Mickleson and Woods were battling it out down the stretch, 4.544 million viewers were tuned it. This figure was 1.967m this year and a lowly 1.438m in 2010. Viewing figures, on average, are almost double when Woods is in contention. Whilst it can be viewed as problematic that the status and standing of golf rests so heavily on the shoulders of one man, optimists will rightly see golf’s immediate future as potentially exhilarating: the timing of Tigers’ victory could not have been better. The thought of inevitable duels between Woods and the ‘new generation’ of athletic, gargantuan hitters makes the mouth water; the battle for world number one will be as closely contested as ever, with Donald, Westwood and McIlroy in great form going into 2012; golf is expanding globally and producing some great players from regions such as Asia, and new golf tours like the PGA Tour Latinoamerica are catalysts for the expansion of the game in previously neglected areas. The amalgamation of the aforementioned factors equates to a sport that is extremely marketable and an attractive proposition for sponsors, with new and exciting players, a youthful and vibrant look, the resurgence of the best ever golfer and immense and unabridged potential moving further into the 21st century.
Rory McIlroy will be at the heart of the promotion of golf for decades to come, and his victory on Sunday at the UBS Hong Kong Open is perhaps the clearest indication thus far that he has what it takes to be the best golfer in the world. His raw ability has never been in question, but coming from behind to win and keep the Race to Dubai alive was a very significant achievement. In a parallel with Tiger’s victory, he performed when he had to perform; when the title of best golfer in Europe was on the line. Granted, he may not win this week, but he has given himself a chance, and such is the quality of the young Ulsterman that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he recorded back to back victories and won the European Tour money list. Golf needs aggressive players with flair like McIlroy, and two things have happened to him this season that will hold him in excellent stead going forward: his change of management, and his performance in the first two majors of the year. To have had such a calamitous final round at the Masters and follow it with such an astounding victory at the US Open was nothing short of sensational. To have had such a humbling experience and to come back stronger shows resilience, strength of character, determination and perseverance: qualities held in abundance by top sportsmen throughout the world. After his maiden major victory, a swagger, arrogance and recognition of his celebrity status pervaded his actions, but that is something that seems to have been recognised and rectified by his new management agency, Horizon Sports. He is a superstar in the making, and one of very few players capable of competing with Tiger Woods at his peak. With Woods still in his thirties, and McIlroy only 22, the foundations for one of the most exciting battles in the history of golf are in place. Westwood and Donald are others that can justifiably claim to be in that list, but there are countless other stars of the future – Watson, Woodland, Watney, Fowler, Kaymer, Ishikawa, Johnson, Lewis, Schwartzel, to name but a few – that could challenge the recognised order. What do all these players have in common? They are characters; they hit it miles; they are young, they are popular and they are adventurous. That, to me, is the recipe for an electrifying future.
So many names could be added to that list if the potential of the orient is properly harnessed, and we are starting to see a number of quality players filtering through from the East. In this year’s Presidents Cup, there were four Asian players in the field, and a quarter of the international team hailed from South Korea. The decision to host the 2015 Presidents Cup in Korea is a just recognition of “the sport’s continuing growth and popularity in Asia.” Ryo Ishikawa is one of the most talented golfers in the world game. K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang are household names and winners of some of the biggest tournaments in the sport. The latter, in a touching interview after the decision was announced, said; “I feel very proud that I picked up golf as a living…I have no doubt this will improve the golf culture and golf market in Korea.” Kim Tae-Kim, who was a rookie in this year’s Presidents Cup, has been earmarked by Sky Sports’ golf commentator Ewan Murray as a great prospect for the future. The fact that he was invited to play at the Nedbank Golf Challenge is an acknowledgement of his talent; an acknowledgement that Asia is becoming a prominent hotbed for the breeding of gifted golfers. On the European Tour’s recent Asian swing, a number of Filipino golfers excelled, including Juvic Pagunsan, who missed out in a play-off at the Barclays Singapore Open, and just yesterday, at the PGA Tour Qualifying School, Sang-moon Bae and Seung-yul Noh earned their playing privileges for the 2012. Noh (below) is another with almost limitless potential, who is in possession of one of the most sumptuous swings in the game of golf.
The set up for 2012 couldn’t be better, with the combination of new and old, but the most exciting thing is the prospective knock on effect of Tiger’s resurgence: it will give exposure to an increased cross section of professional golfers. Those that turn on the television to watch Woods might become captivated with a young, care free Rickie Fowler wearing his customary all-orange outfit on Sunday; they might watch in amazement as Bubba Watson hits a drive over 400 yards; they might decide to henceforth follow and support Rory McIlroy after realising that there is more to golf than Tiger Woods. Woods can draw in the crowds, and once this all important first step has been achieved, there is more than enough talent and excitement – week in, week out – to convince the casual viewer that golf is in a purple patch; to convince the casual viewer to become a permanent viewer. Perhaps purple-patch is the wrong expression, as it implies that the end is nigh. Enthrallingly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 2012 has the potential to be the best year in the history of golf. With the return of Tiger, along with countless other factors, expect to see viewing figures and popularity soar.