2011 in review: Top 9 PGA Tour storylines

Seve Ballesteros during the 1988 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Course.

Seve Ballesteros during the 1988 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Course.

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With Molokai, Lanai, and a brilliant, blue Pacific serving as a backdrop, the opening tee shot for 2011 came on January 6. Nearly 11 months later, Tiger Woods holed a putt that didn’t mean anything officially, but everything mentally.

In between, there were storylines on top of subplots, minor dramas, and silly soap opera-like tales. Indeed, the 2011 PGA Tour season introduced us to new faces, while keeping us in touch with old stories.

Here is one man’s pick for the nine that left the greatest impact:

1. Death of an icon

May 7, 2011 was not a day for provincial standing. If you embrace golf and cherish this present-day landscape that is both competitive and global, then this was a day to give thanks to legend who helped make it that way.

Seve Ballesteros died at 54, but his legacy is still very much with us.

It has been said that he was to the European PGA Tour what Arnold Palmer was to the American PGA Tour, but you could argue that Ballesteros may have been more important. That is not a slight to a king, but rather a bow to a man who was described by David Feherty as having “a lot of villain in him – but in a Robin Hood sort of way.”

Ballesteros almost single-handedly made the Ryder Cup a big deal and he deserves much of the credit for the European PGA Tour’s massive growth. While leaders of the world tours today are so quick to join forces and cash in on global golf, as if they invented it, more than 25 years ago the Spaniard offered a stinging criticism to those who didn’t see what he saw.

About then PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, Ballesteros said: “He only cares about the U.S. tour. A man who loves this game should care about an international tour.”

Surely, few loved the game as Ballesteros did. He was a true artist, a genius with stick and ball, and while we never learned how it is he did what he did, we appreciated how he showed us you couldn’t expect to hit perfect shots all the time, but you could demand of yourself to never give up.

• • •

2. Money man times two

Ah, talk about your perfect segue into a season to be toasted, Luke Donald’s double-header conquest. Money titles on both sides of the pond – No. 1 in the U.S. thanks to a dash to the finish line by winning at Disney World; No. 1 in Europe by virtue of three of his four worldwide triumphs.

Dignified and appreciative that he is, we’ll assume Donald somewhere along the line has given a moment’s thought to what Ballesteros and his European contemporaries (Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam) did to open doors for future generations.

You could make a case to offer a disclaimer to Donald being the first to lead both money lists in the same season (Greg Norman in 1986 and Tiger Woods on three occasions would have done so, had they had dual memberships and played the minimum). But put that aside and offer congratulations to Donald for season-long brilliance and remarkable consistency – four wins and 18 top 10s in 25 starts on the American and European PGA Tours.

(For the record, he played twice as many pure American PGA Tour stops as pure European PGA Tour tournaments, 12-6. He sprinkled in four majors and three World Golf Championships, which count against both minimums – 15 in America, 13 in Europe.)

There is a twist of fun to be had with the way Donald is being feted by European loyalists because those same European loyalists used to roast the Englishman for being too soft and too content to haul in money, even if he didn’t win. Ah, but all is forgiven and the bottom line to Donald’s accomplishment is this: It bodes well for marquee names in years to come to try and juggle both tours, which is good for both America and Europe.

• • •

3. The long putter

Webb Simpson won twice and so, too, did Keegan Bradley, whose dramatic triumph in the PGA Championship came in his major championship debut.

Wonderful talents, bright futures, but oh, how, the excitement snowballed thanks to what these young men did. Oh, and you can blame Adam Scott, and Brendan Steele, for that matter, because all of them wielded long putters, had success, and got people to thinking that Ben Hogan really would have uncovered the “secret” had he anchored a putter to his belly.

The best putting performance of the year? How about Charl Schwartzel’s birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie finish to win the Masters? No one had ever done that before. Or perhaps Donald, who merely holed key putts every week for about 11 months. Or maybe Rory McIlroy, who probably made more birdies in the 2011 U.S. Open than some guys will make in a dozen of those tournaments.

Each of them used a regulation putter and it would be nice if that side of the story was examined to offset the hysteria attached to something that is a solution for some, but not the answer for everyone.

• • •

4. An unlikely stopper

Tiger Woods spent too much time in water and sand. Phil Mickelson birdied just two of his first 27 holes and never got any sort of rhythm going. Jim Furyk? Missing for most of the 2011 campaign. Steve Stricker? Gutted it out, but shoulder woes left him without enough power.

All of which means it was up to Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner at the Atlanta Athletic Club to put a halt to the worst American drought in major championship play. None of the previous six majors had been colored red, white, and blue, but that hardly seemed to faze Bradley, 25.

In his major championship debut, Bradley triple-bogeyed the par 3 15th to fall five strokes behind Dufner with just three holes remaining. But Bradley birdies at 16 and 17, coupled with Dufner bogeys at 15, 16, and 17, set up a three-hole aggregate playoff. That it landed in Bradley’s column was a shock to the entire golf world, but here’s one man’s guess that we haven’t heard the last of Bradley.

He’s got plenty of game and even more gumption to back it up.

• • •

5. Can momentum hold over seven weeks?

Which is another way of looking at the Tiger Woods story in 2011. For most of the year it was miserable – save for a bit of life during the front nine of the fourth round of the Masters – and then some late-year magic. A strong Aussie Open, a dominating performance in Presidents Cup singles, then a birdie-birdie finish to win his Chevron World Challenge.

It was his first triumph in more than two years and after months of “it’s a process” and “being able to practice” and “understanding the swing,” there was something substantial to point to; it wasn’t conjecture or analysis, it was a spirited finish for which he formerly was known for.

The thing is, that was a tournament that featured just 17 other players, 13 of whom had packed it in by mid-day Saturday, and something like seven weeks will pass before Woods tees it up next – against a world-class, jam-packed field at Abu Dhabi. That’s not exactly ideal timing if you’re looking to ride a wave of emotion, but it will give the European Tour that much more time to hype that tournament to the max.

• • •

6. Major headache – again

There’s no telling whether Dustin Johnson would have won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s had he hit a better second shot into the par 5 14th. But going wide right and out-of-bounds certainly sealed his fate as he squandered a chance to win for the third time in the last six majors.

Such repeated heartache might lead some to suggest that Johnson is damaged goods, but don’t count me a member of that club. Immensely talented, Johnson is equally good at letting things go, and he showed that knack once again. Just as he won the 2010 BWM Championship a month after the debacle at the PGA Championship, Johnson in 2011 prevailed at The Barclays a month after the St. George’s mishap.

Give up on him at your own peril. Not me. He’ll win a major before Donald or Lee Westwood.

• • •

7. Good news, plaid is back

Actually, it never went away, despite all the rumors to the contrary, and the gloom and doom surrounding one of the PGA Tour’s finest tournaments was for naught.

Thank goodness, too, because the April week at Hilton Head Island is a precious one, a rare chance for a shot-maker to win on the PGA Tour, while at the same time dropping a heavy dose of ambiance over the landscape.

The RBC Heritage will be returned to the week after the Masters, which is like saying peanut butter has been reunited with jelly.

• • •

8. Storm bears down on Barclays

Slugger White spent more time in the media center than Dustin Johnson and not since Michelle Wie at the Sony Open had a woman dominated the news at a PGA Tour stop.

But Irene – as in Hurricane Irene – was the only thing anyone could talk about as Plainfield Country Club and the New Jersey/New York area sat smack in the middle of the storm’s track. Before the first tee shot, White, the PGA Tour’s official in charge of rules and competition, was being grilled about what would happen.

Fortunately, White keeps his calm better than most media folks.

“There’s a lot of decision still to be made,” White said. “It’s all up to Irene, and she’s not happy right now.”

By Thursday, a prediction of late-Saturday landfall in New Jersey prompted officials to announce that it would be a 54-hole tournament, ending early Saturday.

And for all the criticism generated by the media, in the end, the PGA Tour got it right. Unfortunately, poor Plainfield CC got it in buckets.

• • •

9. A moratorium on caddie stories, please

In what had to be some sort of record year for stories written about caddies, Steve Williams and Joe LaCava seemingly gave more interviews than half the world’s top 50 players. We’re not sure if that’s an indictment of today’s media world or today’s PGA Tour players, but we’re willing to bet that both Williams and LaCava would like to go back to carrying the bag and letting the players talk.

Williams splitting with Tiger Woods, joining up with Adam Scott, then getting embroiled in a firestorm of controversy for things he said about Woods – both on and off the record – sadly became a story with a lot of legs.

LaCava getting the OK to leave his longtime boss, Fred Couples, to work for Dustin Johnson, only to quit Johnson in favor of Woods had a different tone to it, but oh, how it generated plenty of interest.

Different personalities, terrific caddies both of them, but if they’re left to simply talk about dirt-track racing (Williams) and their beloved Yankees, Rangers, and New York Football Giants (LaCava), then they’ll consider 2012 a huge success.

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