LONDON - A year that witnessed the passing of one European golfing legend may have heralded the arrival of another.
The death of Spanish great Seve Ballesteros in May following a three-year battle with a brain tumour hit the golfing fraternity hard, although the outpouring of grief for the popular winner of five majors extended far beyond sport.
It was fitting, then, that the player who did so much to revive a flagging European game in the 1980s thanks to his flamboyant style and good looks should die in a year in which the continent's leading players maintained their hold over the Americans.
By becoming the first player to officially top the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year, England's Luke Donald comfortably ended a breakthrough 2011 as the world's top-ranked player.
However, it was one of Donald's Ryder Cup teammates who really arrived on the world stage.
Rory McIlroy, a mop-haired Northern Irishman, triggered frenzied talk of becoming a genuine successor to Tiger Woods by powering to an eight-shot win at the U.S. Open at Congressional. At 22, he was the second-youngest player to win a major since 1934.
What made McIlroy's first Grand Slam success all the more remarkable was that it came two months after he blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters, shooting a closing 80 in one of golf's more memorable meltdowns.
“He's a breath of fresh air for the game,” said Graeme McDowell, McIlroy's close friend who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010. “Perhaps we're ready for golf's next superstar and maybe Rory is it.”
One of the sport's cleanest hitters, McIlroy has every shot in his bag and the clinic he produced at Congressional brought back memories of Woods' 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in 2000.
The American's haul of 14 majors — four short of Jack Nicklaus — is now in the sights of McIlroy, who finished the year as the world's second-ranked player.
“I was trying to go out there today and emulate him in some way,” McIlroy said of Woods after his final round at the U.S. Open.
So what of the former No. 1? By his very high standards, it was another year to forget.
No major wins, more injuries (leg, knee, Achilles tendon) and even a fine for spitting on the green during the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic in February, further tarnishing his name almost a year after vowing to improve his behaviour following the sex scandal that ended his marriage.
What's more, he fired longtime caddie Steve Williams — much to the New Zealander's dismay — and replaced him with Joe LaCava, who used to carry the bag of Fred Couples and Dustin Johnson.
It was also a year to forget for Canadian golfer Mike Weir. The veteran from Bright's Grove, Ont., entered 15 PGA Tour events, but made just two cuts and earned US$23,312 before pulling out of the Canadian Open with a season-ending arm injury.
The 41-year-old had surgery on his right elbow in August, but says he expects to play tournaments in 2012.
The highlight of the Canadian Open in Vancouver turned out to be local product Adam Hadwin. The 24-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., became the highest ranked Canadian on the PGA at 211 after his performances at the Canadian Open, where he finished tied for fourth, and Greenbrier Classic.
Woods, meanwhile, did at least break a winless streak of 107 weeks by capturing the Chevron World Challenge in December, lifting him to No. 22 in the rankings and displaying some of his old magic, but there appears little chance of him dominating the game as he did for so long.
Instead, it is Donald who is leading the way.
Shrugging off his “underachiever” tag, the 34-year-old Englishman won four titles, demonstrated amazing consistency by compiling 20 top-10 finishes from 26 tournaments played and topped both money lists.
Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer held the No. 1 spot early in the year but were soon topped by Donald, whose imperious short game often made up for lack of distance off the tee.
A failure to land that elusive major will still dog Donald, however, especially in an age when players are capitalizing on Woods' troubles.
All four major winners in 2011 were first-timers — and no champion was more popular than 42-year-old Darren Clarke at a wet and windy British Open.
Puffing away on a cigarette as he ambled along the undulating fairways of Royal St. George's in often stormy conditions on the southeast coast, Clarke was a picture of contentment as he sealed a three-shot win, adding another name to the roll call of recent major champions from tiny Northern Ireland.
Charl Schwartzel of South Africa profited from McIlroy's misfortune to win at Augusta by two strokes over Adam Scott and the emerging Jason Day, who also finished runner-up at Congressional.
In the final major of the year, rookie Keegan Bradley finally gave the United States something to shout about by winning the PGA Championship to end the longest American drought in the majors.
While the lack of a major opens up the debate as to whether or not Donald is the top player in men's golf, there is no debate when it comes to the LPGA. The 2011 campaign was the Year of Yani as Taiwanese golfer Yani Tseng dominated like only few have in the past.
The number one ranked women's player added two more majors and missed a third by just three strokes. That gave her five career majors at the age of 22, making her the youngest golfer - male or female - to do so. She recorded 12 world wide wins including seven on the LPGA Tour alone and she led in nearly every statistical category while topping the money list for the first time in her career, almost doubling her nearest challenger.
While Tseng has given no indication that her dominance will not continue into next year, she may be sharing the spotlight with Lexi Thompson. The 16 year old became the youngest winner in LPGA history with her win at the Navistar Classic, prompting her to petition the Tour for early membership which was ultimately granted. Recalling past teen prodigies who failed to live up to the hype, Thompson served notice she is ready for the challenge by making history again as the youngest player to win on the Ladies European Tour earlier this month.
"I think she kind of has that mentality, just grip it and rip it," said Michelle Wie, the last player to join the LPGA Tour at age 16. "She's a really talented player and I'm really impressed."
Europe's women regained the Solheim Cup, upsetting the United States 15-13 in County Meath, Ireland, with a dramatic late surge, and the Americans also surrendered the Walker Cup, losing 14-12 to the amateurs from Britain & Ireland in Aberdeen, Scotland.
There will be some new Canadian faces on the LPGA Tour next year. Toronto's Rebecca Lee-Bentham and Maude-Aimee Leblanc of Sherbrooke, Que., earned their 2012 tour memberships after finishing in the top-20 of the Q-school in December.
The United States ended the year by retaining the Presidents Cup with a 19-15 victory over the International team — Woods clinching the winning point — but they should find things much tougher in the Ryder Cup in Medinah, near Chicago, next year.
That will provide another chance for golf to honour the memory of Ballesteros, a Ryder Cup stalwart. It won't need a second invitation to do that.
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