My year in golf: Alex Miceli

Nick Watney celebrates his birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 2011 WGC-Cadillac Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa.

Nick Watney celebrates his birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 2011 WGC-Cadillac Championship at the TPC Blue Monster at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa.

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I traveled a lot in 2011. According to my main air carrier, United, it was more than 75,000 miles in a year when I saw some fresh – maybe even baby – faces win on the PGA Tour and wondered where the big guns of yesteryear were.

Covering 20-plus golf tournaments in five countries, I saw a lot in 2011, but as I look back, the year seems more like a prelude than a defining moment.

My usual schedule starts in Kapalua, and after a week in Honolulu, I make trips to Pebble Beach, Los Angeles and then the four Tour stops in Florida.

The best part of that early stretch was seeing Jhonattan Vegas doing everything possible to lose the Hope and then improbably winning one of the oldest events on the PGA Tour after hitting his ball into a hazard, plus Nick Watney posting an impressive victory in the year's biggest event pre-Masters, at Doral.

Watney, newly married, was excited like a schoolkid winning a big match in high school. He also was the gracious winner on that Sunday in Miami, doing what was necessary and not trying to rush to catch a plane for home, as so many pros do. His coach, Butch Harmon, also was excited by the result. Seeing Harmon with Watney was like watching a father gloat over his son who had just won a big tournament.

Few relationships on a professional level seem to be as close as Watney-Harmon, maybe because it's such a big business. On that Sunday evening in March, in one of the Doral ballrooms that served as the interview room, I was genuinely happy for both "father" and "son."

• • •

The Masters is always a highlight of the season, and this year's didn’t disappoint.

I had met Rory McIlroy when he was playing Walker Cup at Royal County Down in 2007, and though he didn’t have a great tournament, the pressure of 25,000 fans was on the Northern Irish lad from the beginning, so if you add that into the equation, he played pretty well.

Since then, I have spent more time with him and his parents, and you will not find a nicer couple than Gerry and Rosie.

Their son in just 22 years was turning heads. After three rounds at Augusta National, it seemed like the McIlroys would have their first green jacket.

I didn’t cover Greg Norman’s collapse to Nick Faldo in the final round in 1996, but I had a good feeling of what it must have been like.

I didn’t follow much of McIlroy’s final round, but spent most of the day down by the 18th green talking with players as they came off the course. Most of the questions were not about their play that Sunday but about their reaction to a 22-year-old's expectant victory in a major. Then, the questions concerned Tiger Woods' fast start to move into contention before coming full circle to McIlroy, who by then was faltering.

Of course, while talking with players who had finished, others who completed the front nine are walking to the 10th tee, past the scoring hut as players are being interviewed. McIlroy, walking from the ninth green to the 10th tee, looked like he had gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. A triple-bogey 7 on that 10th hole ultimately would spell his doom and eventually loosen his grip on the green jacket.

Unfortunately for Charl Schwartzel, his four consecutive birdies to finish the Masters never got their due, even though the South African walked away with the his first major championship and the green jacket.

McIlroy would do his obligatory post-round news conference and then went to the locker room to pack up. It’s that scene that I will remember forever, when the young Ulsterman, gutted after his final-round 80, stood there and took every question from the 20 or so journalists before packing up and flying home.

• • •

photo

Lucas Glover and his mother Hershey Glover after the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, where Glover defeated former Clemson teammate Jonathan Byrd in a playoff.

Since Lucas Glover's victory in the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage, the South Carolinian has dropped from the public eye, some of it because of his sluggish game and some of it due to marital problems that led to his divorce.

Glover had never talked about his marital problems, so I waited for the right opportunity to ask about how the breakup affected his game.

Glover is always friendly, regardless of his play. After finding his game through three rounds at Quail Hollow, he sat three shots back of another Clemson product, Jonathan Byrd. Glover had his first real chance to win in 2011.

Glover eventually would catch Byrd and beat his friend in a playoff.

At the post-round news conference, Glover talked about his first victory since Bethpage and then deflected a carefully crafted question about how his personal problems might have affected his recent play.

The Quail Hollow victory would be Glover's only top-10 finish in 2011.

• • •

Attending a U.S. Open qualifier is an experience unlike any other in golf, including this enticement for fans: it’s free.

After Steve Stricker’s victory at Muirfield Village the day before, most pros either caught flights to Memphis on Sunday night or stayed in Columbus for Monday's 36-hole Open qualifier.

Brandt Jobe, my darkhorse pick coming into the Memorial, finished second at Muirfield Village for one of the biggest checks in his career. Come Monday morning, he was among 116 starters trying to qualify for 16 spots into the U.S. Open.

Jobe shot an opening-round 62 and cruised to co-medalist with Chez Reavie to extend the hot run out of Memorial.

Other notables – major winners Steve Jones, Mike Weir and David Duval among them, plus future major champion Keegan Bradley – would not be as fortunate that day.

As players walk in after the long day, they tend to sit or stand around the scoring board, depending on their position, grabbing a cold drink and waiting.

In the end, three spots were up for grabs via a six-man playoff. Oddly, there were no birdies – hence, no blood – on the first playoff hole, the drivable par-4 10th at Brookside Country Club, despite the approaches being played from within 100 yards.

I remember walking down the fairway of the next hole, marveling at the pressure, before Kyle Stanley missed a putt for par and dropped out. The fivesome returned to the drivable par-4, where Webb Simpson, Tim Petrovic and Scott Hend made birdie putts to secure spots at Congressional, with J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich alternates.

Wetterich was an uninterested participant in the playoff for the alternate spot and hit his drive into the trees and was done. Not a good move, because Henry eventually would get in as first alternate.

For Hend, he walked from the green to the clubhouse complaining about how much money it was going to cost him to play in the U.S. Open. He was on his way to Milan, Italy, to play in the Italian Open that week and then would have to fly back to the U.S., rent a house for his family and find a babysitter, all costing about $5,000.

As I listened, I wondered why he tried to begin with.

• • •

The Open Championship is my favorite event. I had never covered an event at Royal St. George’s, but had played the course; it was not my favorite links venue.

The best part of covering the Open Championship is that you can play golf in the morning at some really nice courses, usually qualifying courses and basically not miss any of the championship.

Coming in, many names were bandied about as contenders, but Darren Clarke’s was not one of them.

I was asked to sit in on the BBC broadcast that last hour on Saturday, more to provide insight into the Americans on the leaderboard.

Eventually, the question was raised regarding Clarke's ability to hold the lead, with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson in his sights.

Of course, I didn’t think so and said as much, to the ire of the other commentators.

As it turned out, they were right and I was wrong.

Later Sunday night, I was invited over to one of the houses that the ISM agency, Clarke’s business representatives, rented for the week. It was the second consecutive year that I was invited to the champion’s celebration, and I thought about my comments Saturday as I walked into the house.

Clarke was in the kitchen, with the Claret Jug and a beer never far away, enjoying being a major winner.

Considering what many would read days and weeks later, the party was very calm and, though not subdued, it was not out of hand.

Either way, to be in the same room with the Claret Jug and the 2011 Champion Golfer with a beer in hand is pretty special.

• • •

I would be remiss in not talking about some of the best experiences I had not covering golf in 2011, but playing the game.

As you may have guessed, playing golf is a big perk for those of us who cover the game. We get to play some of the best places in the world. My year included many of the top 20 on any list available, but the experiences and whom you play with is really what it's about.

Before going to the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen, I made the trip to St. Andrews, one of my favorite places in the world.

My first round was at Kingsbarns, but a friend and fellow journalist who was to have played with me could not make it. So when I arrived, I told the starter that I was in fact a single and he suggested putting me with a threesome 30 minutes after my time.

So after a bacon-and-egg bap and a few relaxing minutes in the comfortable clubhouse, I met my threesome. It turns out that one of the players was the chief executive officer of Jersey Mike’s Subs, Pete Cancro, with his brother and a childhood friend.

It was a great time, and the discussion during the round was all over the place, including how Pete bought the first Jersey Mike’s and expanded the company into 500 locations.

The next day, I was getting ready to play the Old Course. When I came down to the lobby, I saw Pete, who invited me to dinner that night with the group.

Because I have come to St. Andrews many times, I use the same caddie, Heather, who was a former Curtis Cupper, and we usually grab lunch or dinner. I had invited Heather, her boyfriend, who also is a caddie, my friend Dave and another Peter, this one a retired executive from the Links Trust and friend.

So I asked Pete if he wanted instead to join us.

The setting was a small restaurant in Cupar, about 15 miles from St. Andrews. It was one of the best times of the year as we all sat around and talked about everything over a three-hour dinner.

You don’t get those experiences with other sports.

• • •

One last thing: I played 49 holes one day, walking. I would love to tell you that I was feeling fine afterwards, but that would be a pretty big fabrication.

Before the Presidents Cup, I flew from Shanghai after covering the HSBC Champions to Tasmania. I had heard about the two courses, Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm, both off the northern coast of island.

When I was in China, I had mentioned to caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan that I was going to Tasmania. Fluff was off the next week because his player, Jim Furyk, got into Shanghai and was going to skip Singapore the following week and return home.

Lost Farm is 20 holes, with the front side nine holes and the back side 11 holes. We started on the front nine, and after playing in a quick pace we would have had to wait to play the back, so Fluff suggested playing the front again. So after 18 holes, we played the back side for 29 holes.

Now let me just say at this point if the course wasn’t one of the better golf courses in the world, I would not have gone any further, but after a lunch out of the refrig, a drink and a candy bar, Fluff wanted to keep going. So we were back on the first tee played 20 more holes, for a total of 49.

I think Fluff was willing to keep going if I had been up to it, but I waved the white flag.

I did beat Fluff on the first 20 holes, but he got me not only on the remaining 29, but the 36 holes we played the next day at Barnbougle Dunes.

As I said at the beginning, 2011 seems like a prelude for 2012. The reason? Woods was a non-factor, but after his win in a limited-field event, everyone thinks his 2012 will be dynamite.

McIlroy’s implosion at the Masters and his win at the U.S. Open sets up for a interesting 2012.

Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Webb Simpson, to name a few, had interesting 2011 seasons. Will Donald continue to stay World No. 1? Will he win a major? Is Simpson a flash in the pan or will he be the next hot American? And will Westwood, who won his last event of 2011 and jumped back to World No. 2, finally win a major using his new putting stroke?

That’s what I have to look forward to in 2012, but I have to say 2011 was an exciting and interesting year.

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