Rory McIlroy’s dominance on both sides of the Atlantic was among the biggest storylines in what may prove to be a truly transformational golfing year in 2012.
The coronation of McIlroy as the game’s leading player was confirmed in sensational fashion when the exciting Northern Irishman cruised to his second major title by a record eight shots in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in August.
McIlroy fully justified his other nickname of ’the Celtic Tiger’ recording four wins on the PGA Tour among 10 top-10s in just 16 starts before ending the season being named the PGA of America Player of the Year, the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year and winner of the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average.
McIlroy clinched the Arnold Palmer Award as the PGA Tour’s leading money winner, with earnings of $8,047,952, and was delighted to follow that up with the European Tour order of merit with two events remaining.
“Winning a second major already made it a fabulous season, but then to follow Luke in becoming number one in both Europe and the States is the icing on the cake after a fabulous season,” he said.
Hardly surprisingly, McIlroy finished his 2012 campaign on a triumphant note when he won the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship by two shots in Dubai last month.
Long regarded as heir-apparent to Tiger Woods as the game’s greatest player, McIlroy has smoothly taken over that role while Woods, despite triumphing three times on the PGA Tour in a welcome return to winning ways, has had to take a back seat.
THE SHOT: Bubba Watson producing arguably the shot of the year with a miraculous escape from pine straw to win the Masters in a playoff with South African Louis Oosthuizen in April.
On the second extra hole, the long-hitting left-hander ended up well right and deep in the tree line off the tee from where he had a narrow avenue to the green.
Undaunted, Watson struck a stunning hook off the pine straw with a gap wedge, his ball bending 40 yards in the air to settle 10 feet from the pin before he claimed his first major victory with a two-putt par.
“I don’t even know what happened on the back nine,” recalled Watson. “Nervous on every shot, every putt. Went into a playoff. I got in these trees and hit a crazy shot that I saw in my head and somehow I’m here talking to you with a green jacket on.
“I got there. I saw it was a perfect draw; a perfect hook. We were walking down the fairway going, we’ve been here before. You’re good out of the trees. And [my caddie] said, “If you’ve got a swing, you’ve got a shot.”
“I get down there, saw it was a perfect draw. Even though the tower was in my way, I didn’t want to ask if I get relief or anything, because it just set up for a perfect draw – well, hook. That’s what we did.
“I hit 52-degree, my gap wedge, hooked it about 40 yards, hit about 15 feet off the ground until it got under the tree and then started rising. Pretty easy.”
Lost in all the commotion was Louis Oosthuizen making what is commonly called the rarest shot in golf – a double-eagle – when his 4-iron from 253 yards on the par-5 second hole landed on the front of the green, took the slope and rolled some 90 feet into the cup for a 2.
It was only the fourth double-eagle in the 76-year history of the Masters.
Oosthuizen, who had never made a double-eagle in his life, was trying to become only the sixth player to have won majors at Augusta National and St. Andrews – two of the most revered courses in golf.
OH CANADA: Graham DeLaet started the 2012 season with a medical exemption following back surgery the previous year. Needing to make just over $657,000 in 26 starts in order to retain his Tour status, the Saskatchewan golfer put whatever doubts and fears he had aside, shooting 63 to lead the first round of the first event of the season in Hawaii. A tie for ninth at the Puerto Rico Open and a tie for fourth at the Zurich Classic helped him satisfy the terms of his exemption with eight tournaments to spare. He qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs and equalled his biggest payday of the season in the opening event, The Barclays, with a tie for fifth. That left him high enough in the standings that a missed cut at the second event did not eliminate him but a tie for 37th at the BMW Championship spelled the end of his post-season run. DeLaet managed to eclipse the million dollar mark in earnings for the first time in his career, finishing with $1,051,951.
DeLaet finished as the top Canadian earner on the PGA Tour, narrowly ahead of Brantford, Ont., resident David Hearn, who also had the most lucrative season of his career. He finished with a pair of top-10s and also made the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time, also eclipsing the million dollar mark in earnings.
THE WONGSTER: Eugene Wong made quite professional debut, winning in just his fourth professional start, highlighted by holing a 133-yard approach shot on the 72nd hole of the Canadian Tour Championship in August. The eagle gave him a one-stroke, walk-off win over Joe Panzeri while the video of the shot went viral on the internet. Wong of North Vancouver, B.C., topped the field in his next two starts – the Canadian Tour season finale as well as more final-hole heroics at the Vancouver Open – to complete a 2012 hat trick.
BRAD FRITSCH: The veteran of 95 Web.com Tour events, he had his best season in 2012 with a share of second at the Mylan Classic being the highlight. With six other top-10s, he managed to finish 18th on the money list to earn one of 25 PGA Tour cards for 2013. The Ottawa-area golfer took it one step forward by enlisting for the gruelling six-day tournament known as Q-School in a bid to improve his priority standing and finished tied for seventh, putting him in position to have a solid start to the season as he bids to be more than just a one-year wonder on the PGA Tour.
PGA TOUR CANADA: After years of financial struggles and ever increasing uncertainty, the PGA Tour came to the rescue of the Canadian Tour, rebranding the circuit PGA Tour Canada for 2013. The newly renamed Canadian circuit will essentially become a third tier, with the top performers advancing to the developmental Web.com Tour. PGA Tour Canada will stage a minimum of eight tournaments in 2013 with the goal of growing the schedule up to 13 events with a minimum purse of $150,000. All of the events will be staged in Canada and during the summer months. Under the new structure, the leading money winner on the PGA Tour Canada will have full status on the Web.com Tour while the next four players on the Order of Merit will have conditional status. The next five players will gain exemption into the newly reformed Q-School, which will be used to graduate players to the Web.com Tour.Earlier this year, the PGA Tour came to the financial aid of the 42-year old Canadian circuit, providing it with an operating loan after it lost a reported $700,000 in 2011.
LYDIA KO WINS CN CANADIAN WOMEN’S OPEN: In what is one of the great golf stories of the year – and one of the great sporting victories in recent memory – the 15-year-old betrayed no nerves at all as she booked a fantastic, historic and resoundingly decisive victory in Canada’s national championship. Coming into the final round of the CN Canadian Women’s Open tied for the lead at eight-under, Ko led the final group on Sunday at the Vancouver Golf Club, fought off all comers and pulled away when she reeled off four straight birdies to start the back nine to leave the world’s best women on the LGPA Tour behind. She became the youngest woman in history to win a LPGA Tour event, and the first amateur to win a LPGA tournament since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Suzann Pettersen, the Norwegian who is No. 6 in the world, tweeted: “Wow, 15 years old, Lydia Ko made the rest of us look like amateurs!!”
BRITTANY HENDERSON: The Team Canada National squad member had a standout 2012 campaign and were it not for Ko’s heroics in Vancouver, was arguably the top golf story in Canada among amateurs. The Smiths Fall, Ont., teen won at both the Royale Cup Canadian Junior Girls Championship and the Ontario Junior Girls Championship and the CN Canadian Women’s Tour event in Beloeil, Que., which made her the youngest player ever – male or female – to win a professional golf tournament at the age of 14. The victory also earned her an exemption into the CN Canadian Women’s Open where she became the youngest player ever to compete for Canada’s National Women’s Open Championship. She also qualified for match play at the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship, U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. She also finished atop the CN Future Links Junior Girls Order of Merit which led to her being named Canada’s top junior golfer of the year.
JENNIFER KIRBY: Somewhat overshadowed by Henderson, the 21-year-old senior at the University of Alabama showed the future of women’s golf in Canada is healthy with a solid 2012 campaign. After picking up her first career collegiate victory and adding four more top-five finishes, ,the junior helped the Crimson Tide capture the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship. The former Team Canada member also tied for second at the Ontario Women’s Amateur Championship, qualified for match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and had two top-10 finishes at CN Canadian Women’s Tour events. She capped off the year by being named the top female amateur in Canada.
EMERGENCE OF CHINA: With the addition of golf to the Olympic programe, China is among several countries who have have stepped up their development. Fourteen-year-old Guan Tianlang gave a strong indication of the vast golfing potential in the Chinese market by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. That ensured him an invitation to the Masters in 2013 where he will become the youngest player ever to compete at the golf major. Guan’s victory came just five months after Shanshan Feng became the first person from mainland China to win a women’s major when she captured the LPGA Championship by two shots in Rochester, New York. Remarkably, Feng was born just five years after the first golf course was opened in China.
LPGA ASIAN SWEEP: Feng’s victory was part of an Asian sweep of the LPGA majors in 2012. South Korean Jiyai Shin romped to a nine-stroke victory at the Women’s British Open at Royal Liverpool in England while Shin’s compatriot Sun-young Yoo won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in a playoff at Rancho Mirage in April and Na-Yeon Choi, also of South Korea, claimed her first major title by four shots at the U.S. Women’s Open.
RYDER CUP COMEBACK: Unquestionably the greatest comeback of the year, and perhaps of all time in golf, came at the Ryder Cup in September when Europe overhauled a deficit of 10-6 going into the final day to beat the United States, 14-1/2 to 13-1/2. Inspired by the spirit of the late Seve Ballesteros, Europe sent out their best players early and rode a wave of blue numbers to retain the trophy when Germany’s Martin Kaymer sank a six foot par putt to defeat Steve Stricker one up. “Seve will always be present with this team,” a teary-eyed European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said of his fellow Spaniard, friend and mentor. “He was a big factor for this event, for the European side.”
BELLY PUTTER BAN: The belly putter discussion was thrust into the limelight when Webb Simpson captured the U.S. Open – the second player in as many years to win a major using the anchored stroke. Ernie Els‘ victory at the Open Championshp at Royal Lytham, coupled with the growing number of younger golfers opting to anchor putters to their chin, chest or belly, finally prompted golf’s rulemakers to propose a ban on the technique which could come into effect by 2016.
Files from the Associated Press and Reuters were used in this report; David Ebner and Jeff Brooke also contributed to this report