McCabe: Five hits and misses on Tour

Gary Woodland and Ian Poulter

Gary Woodland and Ian Poulter

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For good reason, it’s a struggle to get fired up about PGA Tour Player of the Year talk. Come on, the MVP awards in baseball and the NFL don’t even generate a buzz anymore, and they used to be certain points of interest to keep those sports relevant weeks after the games had concluded.

Truth is, there’s so much money thrown at athletes in every sport, even to second- and third-tier performers, that it’s hard to think of them as anything but enormous winners already, to heck with adding even additional layers of honor, attention and hardware.

What resonates in pro golf is winning a major championship, so to that extent, Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Rory McIlroy (U.S. Open), Darren Clarke (Open Championship) and Keegan Bradley (PGA Championship) deserve to take 2011 bows. Yet did any of them play better week in and week out, from start to finish, than Luke Donald? No way, which is why Donald should be “Player of the Year,” though it’s likely the Englishman would hardly let the honor dent his disappointment at his failure to win a major.

Being such an individual quest, golf at the PGA Tour level allows players to establish goals based on where they are in their careers. Donald, most likely, wanted to become No. 1 in 2011 and win a major. Consider it a mixed bag, then, though what shines through with the Englishman is a remarkable consistency that is the envy of his peers.

Given that line of thought – that players can achieve a successful season based on what challenges they present to themselves – here’s one man’s list of five 2011 seasons that hit and five that missed.

BIG HITS

1.) Gary Woodland – A year ago he was prepping for Q-School, rumored to be a guy who hit it a mile. But one win, a second, four other top 10s and $3.3M later, Woodland has arrived with a serious coat of polish on his game. As for hitting it a mile, well, that’s a fact, not a rumor, but the beauty of Woodland’s season has been to watch him blossom as a golfer. He finished T-30 or better in all four majors – impressive when you consider that he had played in just two majors before 2011 – and presently he’s 10th in ballstriking. Remember when you heard people suggest a few years ago what would happen when great athletes turned to golf? Woodland is what they had in mind.

2.) Charles Howell III – Don’t look now, but it’s been 10 years since he was Rookie of the Year, and while you may have lost sight of him the past few seasons, Howell did plenty to remind you that he’s a wonderful talent. It’s not so much that he has piled up his most top 10s since 2002 (seven), as it is notable how they were of fine quality – two T-3s, two T-4s. He has missed just four cuts, his fewest since 2003, and his scoring average is eighth-best right now. Positive stuff, all of that, but what makes 2011 a successful season is this: Howell earned his way back into that little gathering in April in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., after having missed each of the last three Masters.

3.) Webb Simpson – Spare us the pace-of-play rap, because it shouldn’t overshadow an utterly brilliant season for the third-year pro from Wake Forest. Two victories (and if not for an unlikely rules snafu at New Orleans, it may have been three), two seconds, 10 top 10s, only three missed cuts and a crisp playoff run of T-10, first and fifth before tiring at the Tour Championship. What’s not to like about his current all-around ranking (first) and scoring average (second), especially since it speaks to something admirable – a commitment to improvement? Simpson was 75th in the all-around department in 2009, 55th a year later; in scoring average, he was 105th in ’09, then 66th in 2010. If you appreciate young and well-mannered athletes who practice and do things the right way, you can’t help but appreciate this season.

4.) Keegan Bradley – What is lost in the glare of his wins at the Byron Nelson and PGA Championship is the way this unheralded rookie started the season – with a virtual sprint. Tied for 68th in his PGA Tour debut in Honolulu, Bradley then finished T-7, T-25 and T-15, a confident and bold rush that served as a precursor of better things to come. Perhaps he missed too many cuts (10 in 28 starts) for some people’s taste, and winning the first major in which he participated will give critics cause to cry fluke, but there is a competitive attitude that burns deep within Bradley that is to be admired. Overlooked as junior, then as a collegian, then as a PGA Tour rookie, he’s been proving people wrong for so long he sort of has enjoyed making that part of his makeup. He’s 12th in total driving, and that is a valuable commodity that figures to keep him in the spotlight for years to come.

5.) Chez Reavie – Having ranked 204th and 146th on each of the past two money lists, surely Reavie’s name didn’t cross your mind when before the season began you tried to predict which 30 players would make it into the Tour Championship. Fact is, his name wouldn’t have crossed your mind in early June, either, when he had played in 13 tournaments and failed to meet the requisite amount of money to maintain fully-exempt status. He was just another major medical exemption guy who had come up short, at least until he did things the hard way, that is. Playing in relative anonymity, Reavie put up a T-5, then three more top 20 finishes in a row, added a T-9 at Wyndham to improve his FedEx Cup standing, and capped off a wild rush to the finish line by losing in a playoff at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Piling up more money and more top 10s than he had achieved in his career, Reavie made his first Tour Championship and may have authored the wildest story of the season: He lost his card, yet made over $2M. Figure that one out.

BIG MISSES

1.) Ian Poulter – The world ranking (23rd) is quite acceptable but let’s not forget that he began the season at No. 11 and given such a lofty standing he had to think he was in store for stellar major performances. Yet Poulter missed the cut in both Opens, U.S. and British, was T-27 at Augusta and T-39 at the PGA. What’s more, he went the entire PGA Tour schedule without a top 10 in a full-field event. Pretty clothes, not-so-pretty season.

2.) Stewart Cink – Seems like just yesterday when he was No. 9 in the world, no? Actually, it was more than two years ago, that unforgettable Sunday at Turnberry in 2009 when Cink spoiled the Tom Watson dream. But his slide to No. 102 – that’s right, he’s outside the top 100 – was hastened by a 2011 campaign in which Cink missed the cut in three majors and had but one top 10 in 21 starts. There’s far too much quality within Cink to see years like 2011.

3.) Jeff Overton – If 2010 was a breakthrough season (runner-up three times, third twice, 12th on the money list, Ryder Cup appearance) consider this past year a bit of a breakdown. No, it hasn’t been awful, but he appeared to leave 2010 as the guy you most expected to come through with his first win. Yet Overton has contended just once and more telling than slipping to 75th on the money list is a scoring average (71.20) that is nearly a stroke higher than 2010. Confusing, but the guess is, 2010 is closer to what Overton can produce.

4.) Anthony Kim – Given his efforts at the 2009 Presidents Cup and 2008 Ryder Cup, it was logical to see Kim as part of the Team USA nucleus for many autumns to come. But whether the thumb surgery or the mind-set is to blame, Kim has tumbled to 82nd in the world order and nothing explains how abysmal 2011 has been more than this: 11 missed cuts. (Heck, he had missed just 12 in the previous three seasons combined.)

5.) D.J. Trahan – He’s in the field for this week’s Frys.com Open, though you couldn’t be blamed for not knowing he was still on Tour. The season has been that rough – just one top 10 in 27 starts, only one start in the majors (missed cut at the PGA) and a fall to 185th in the world ranking. Whereas Trahan has earned in excess of $1M in each of the past five years, he presently is at $567,596, 126th on the money list. In other words, he’s struggling to maintain his card.

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