My Year in Golf: Jeff Babineau

Europe's Ian Poulter reacts after making a birdie putt to win the 12th hole during a foursomes match at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill.

Europe's Ian Poulter reacts after making a birdie putt to win the 12th hole during a foursomes match at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill.

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'Twas the morning of Christmas, and after another year spent traversing the globe to cover this great game, there are more than sugar plums dancing in my head. A few golf orbs are flying, too. Here are a few parting thoughts as we close the final chapter of 2012:

For all its hype – and even though we get one only once every other year – the Ryder Cup, thankfully, sure lives up to its tall billing. When I look back at the season that was 2012, which began in January at Kapalua and ended in December closer to home at the PNC Father-Son Challenge, it’s the Ryder Cup at Medinah outside Chicago that emerges front and center.

This autumn’s edition seemed destined to be a U.S. rout mid-Saturday afternoon, that is until Englishman Ian Poulter slipped into a phone booth, donned a cape and birdied the final five holes to pull out a huge point in four-balls that at least gave the Euros a tiny glimmer of hope. The visitors entered Sunday's singles session trailing their hosts by four points.

“You just never know when digging deep like that can make a difference,” Luke Donald said standing by the 18th green that Saturday evening, nodding toward his countryman.

He was right. In this game, you never know. And on Sunday, the Europeans mightily rose to the occasion. That to me is the biggest fundamental difference that determines that ultra-thin line between winning and losing in the Ryder Cup, and the biggest single reason why Europe currently has all the momentum (winners in seven of the last nine meetings). It’s obviously not a talent separation, but a gap in comfort level. Standing next to the 17th green inside Medinah’s great amphitheater for more than an hour on Sunday, it was clear that the Euro players relished and seized the moment, performing with nothing to lose; the U.S. players simply tried to survive, holding on as if the weight of the world rested on their collective shoulders.

At the end of the most action-packed Sunday of the year, Justin Rose putted like Bobby Locke to take down Phil Mickelson, Poulter proved to be Europe’s modern-day SuperMonty and the very best player of this era, anchorman Tiger Woods, stood in the 18th fairway alongside Francesco Molinari playing a match that meant absolutely nothing. Go figure.

Oh, the biggest surprise of all? The hero of the match turned out to be a guy named Pat Rollins, a police officer from Lombard, Ill., who somehow whisked Rory McIlroy through traffic from the team hotel to the golf course just 11 minutes in front of his singles tee time. It was the best clutch performance in a speedster since Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.”

The lasting scene at Medinah I cannot shake from my brain? As a few thousand very satisfied and quite lubricated European fans gathered at the closing ceremonies to rejoice in the historic triumph, the hometown Ryder Cup committee filled the cool Chicago air by blaring Prince’s famed lyrics, “So tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”

Well, um, not exactly …

• • •

photo

Thorbjorn Olesen

As we get ready to greet a new calendar, I’m always intrigued with what’s around the corner in golf. Each year there’s a new force emerging from some corner of the globe, and at Golfweek, part of the assignment is trying to find and identify those future-impact players.

We’ll certainly learn a lot more about Guan Tianlang this spring. He’s the eighth-grader from China who will be going to the Masters in April – not to watch, but to compete. He earned the opportunity by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand.

In 2012, we also got a better glimpse of Lexi Thompson on the big stage, met the promising Jutanugarn sisters, got to see Haskins Award winner Justin Thomas blossom and watched another incredible teen, Lydia Ko, win the LPGA’s Canadian Women’s Open at 15.

To me, though, the most eye-opening talent to step into a bigger spotlight was Thorbjorn Olesen, who soared onto the leaderboard at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham in July. Translated, the name of this young Dane (he turned 23 just this week) translates to “Thunderbear.” He’s not very big (all of 5 feet 9 and about 155 pounds), but he hits it plenty long and has a playful personality that American fans will enjoy once he starts playing here a little more. The kid got a big kick out of his pairing with Tiger at Lytham, and it won’t be the last time the two run into each other. Remember the name.

• • •

photo

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer

Cool showdowns and pairings in 2012? Well, we had Phil and Tiger on Sunday at Pebble, Texas-Alabama down to the final hole in NCAA match play, a Rory-Rickie (and D.A. Points) playoff at Quail Hollow (with Fowler capturing his first Tour title), and an electric Tour finish at Riviera that gave us thrilling closing birdies by Phil and Keegan Bradley but culminated with another man, Bill Haas, walking off with the trophy. To me, one of the most memorable pairings of the season didn’t happen until December, when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played together at the Father-Son (Jack with his son Gary, and Arnold joining his grandson Will Wears).

Jack and Arnold. Arnold and Jack. They are true American sports treasures, and we should value every minute when they step onto the public light. Each man has been generous to share a thousand or more golf stories through the years, but given the opportunity, they’ll always unearth a new one.

At this summer’s U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where it was announced the champion of our national open will herein be bestowed with the Jack Nicklaus Medal, the Golden Bear shared a shaping remembrance of his very first USGA championship, the 1953 U.S. Junior at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. Young Jack made his way to his first tee for his opening match with only 30 seconds to spare, and was given stern advice by the starter that day, Lee Read, that Nicklaus never forgot: “Young man, 30 seconds later, and you’d be starting on the second tee, 1 down.”

Said Nicklaus, recalling that day some six decades ago, “That was my introduction to USGA golf. I promise you, I was never late for a starting time.”

• • •

photo

Tiger Woods

First thing this morning I’ll board a plane headed west for Hawaii to get an early start on the 2013 PGA Tour season. (OK, full disclosure. There won’t be a whole lot of golf while recharging the batteries with the family for a few days on Waikiki Beach before we head to Maui for what I consider to be one of the game’s true media majors: pristine Kapalua.)

A new year brings with it endless possibilities and bountiful wishes. Let’s see … a major championship for veteran Steve Stricker, one of the real good guys who is scaling back his schedule to spend more time with family. The Hall of Fame for Laura Davies. Tiger Woods getting back in the major game, resuming his march to catch Nicklaus. For Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, a well-deserved Open Championship nod. I’d love to see our best U.S. and GB&I amateurs sticking around to compete in the Walker Cup at National Golf Links. I’m hopeful for a great Solheim Cup for Denver. Hey, and maybe the R&A and USGA will use a 90-day review period, declare a mulligan and reconsider a ban on anchoring that may chase folks from our game, something we can ill afford. (Hey, the disclaimer said this was a wish list, right?)

Here’s wishing all you loyal Golfweek readers out there a healthy, happy and safe holiday season, and nothing but fairways, greens – and lots more rounds played – in 2013.

I hope our paths cross on a golf course somewhere in 2013. Merry Christmas!

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