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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Champions Tour headed back to Hickory

   It looks like the popular Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn will return again next year.
   When the 2012 Champions Tour schedule was released, it included the tournament which has had to scrap for sponsorship at various times during its history. There are still some sponsorship issues to be resolved for next year's event but the fact the tour included the Rock Barn stop on its schedule suggests it's in good shape.
  An announcement about the tournament's future and sponsorship may come in January.

   It will fall at an ideal time -- Oct. 12-14 -- in Hickory and will follow the SAS Championship in Cary, giving the seniors a chance to spend two weeks in North Carolina.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Tiger, the way it used to be

I recognize that Tiger Woods.

And it's good to see him again.

When Woods won the Chevron World Championship Sunday with a closing birdie to beat Zach Johnson by a stroke, it ended a two-year winless drought and gave us the most definitive evidence that the guy we once marveled at as he rewrote history is on his way back.

He may never be all that he was -- nobody's ever been as good as Woods was for a time -- but if he can be Tiger again that's good enough.

When Johnson missed his birdie putt on the 72nd hole Sunday, Woods had an eight-footer to win. He may not have always made every one of those but it seemed like he did. That's part of what made him special -- the expectation that he was going to do whatever it took because he did it so often.

He did it again Sunday, making a birdie to win and giving us a fist pump that had been waiting to get out. It seems funny to say but it felt fresh.

There was a time when it was a regular occurrence, bordering on the routine. Not anymore. That's what made Sunday special.

Sure, it was a small field in what amounts to a made-for-television event but it still mattered. A year ago, Woods stood at the same place and lost to Graeme McDowell. This time, he won.

It wasn't perfect but it was good enough and that's perhaps the secret to winning tournaments -- being good enough.

I've heard the question several times recently about whether Tiger can still move the needle the way he once did. Maybe not.

But had Johnson or Rickie Fowler or Steve Stricker won the Chevron, it would have hardly been noticed. Because Tiger won, it's news. The needle moved.

Among the many things we haven't seen from Tiger in a long while is a full and healthy season. It seems as if we might get one in 2012, a season in which his knee and his Achilles are in good shape, his Sean Foley-sculpted golf swing is comfortable and his head is clear.

If he has all that, then all us, Tiger included, can find out if he can still chase down Jack Nicklaus.

That would be something to see.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Nationwide Tour event adds to Charlotte golf collection

   With the expected announcement later this month that Chiquita will sponsor a Nationwide Tour event at the Club at Longview beginning next fall, the professional golf calendar continues to improve around Charlotte.

   The Nationwide Tour is stuffed with outstanding players, many of whose names are familiar to golf fans. It's where good young players go to work their way onto the PGA Tour and where older players try to earn their way back.
   The Club at Longview is strong enough to host a Nationwide event and it should bring along some well-deserved attention to a very good golf course.

  In addition to the annual Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, the recent announcement that Raintree Country Club will host an event for the LPGA's developmental tour, the continued growth of the talent-rich eGolf Professional Tour based here and regular first-stage PGA Tour qualifying events at the Club at Irish Creek, it's a very good time for pro golf in the Charlotte area.