Thursday, December 29, 2011

Five memories from the 2011 golf season

   Before we turn out the lights on 2011, here are five things from the golf year that I will remember:

   1. Rory McIlroy's season
   Perhaps my most vivid memory of the year is seeing McIlroy walking from the scoring cabin behind the 18th green at Augusta National following his final-round meltdown, making his way through hundreds of fans who stood and cheered for him despite his overwhelming disappointment.

    As McIlroy walked under the big tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, the cheers grew louder with some patrons leaning over the veranda railing to acknowledge him. Inside the locker room, McIlroy patiently answered questions from media members, holding his shoes in a bag as he waited to leave.

   He was the essence of grace at a moment when he undoubtedly wanted to hide.

   Two months later, McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional with a performance that made Sunday at Augusta seem like a bad dream.

  2. Webb Simpson's emergence

    When Simpson was forced to penalize himself one stroke for his ball being moved by the wind late in the final round of the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, it was a bitter twist of fate, costing him an outright victory and sending him into a playoff he lost to Bubba Watson.

   But by the end of the season, it was just another chapter in a tremendous story that had Simpson elevating himself to the top 10 in the world rankings. Winless on the PGA Tour when 2011 began, Simpson ended the year with two trophies, a share of the Presidents Cup and a place at the table in the discussion about who is America's best golfer.

   With his belly putter and a relentless competitive streak, Simpson looks built for the long haul. What started in 2011 may not end for many years.

   3. Sunday at Augusta

   It's rare that Sunday at the Masters doesn't deliver drama but the 2011 version was a classic.

   It had Tiger Woods torching the front side and racing up the leader board, threatening to pull off a jaw-dropping comeback victory. It had Adam Scott and Jason Day battling for the lead. It had McIlroy playing out from beside a white cabin along the 10th fairway and four-putting the 12th green.

   Finally, it had Charl Schwartzel birdieing the last four holes to win, something no one had ever done before.

  4. Splash down

   With more than $11 million on the line, Bill Haas stepped into the edge of a mirror-smooth pond to the left the 17th green at East Lake Golf Club and hit what may have been the shot of the year, a watery blast that saved a par in the playoff against Hunter Mahan at the Tour Championship.

   One hole later, Haas won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup at the same time, a double dip he didn't realize he'd won until he was presented both trophies.

   5. The Clemson connection

   The Wells Fargo Championship came down to a pair of former Tiger All-Americans -- Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd -- going sudden death at Quail Hollow.

   Byrd, wearing pink pants, made a magnificent birdie at the treacherous 18th hole in the final round to force a playoff with Glover, whose thick beard had some fans wearing 'Fear the Beard' t-shirts.

   When Glover won the playoff, he hugged his mother during the trophy presentation and smiled a smile no beard could hide.