Ten biggest golf stories from 2010
1. The fall of Tiger
Golf never had a story as sensational as the Tiger Woods affair, which began with a report of infidelity in the National Enquirer and led to a Thanksgiving night traffic accident that unraveled Tiger's secret life of girlfriends and sexting. It was a salacious brew that kept Woods on page one of the tabloids for three straight months and made him a steady punchline for late-night talk-show hosts. Tiger's most amazing feat, besides dodging a half-hearted local police investigation into his accident, may have been disappearing from public view after the crash for more than two months rumors placed him at a Kenyan safari camp, in a congressman's Long Island basement, in a room at the Bay Hill Lodge (where he hit balls at night on the range!) and hiding aboard his yacht, Privacy.
For the world's most famous athlete, it was an impressive vanishing act that officially ended when he gave a 13-and-a-half minute televised apology in February before a select gathering of friends and family at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Woods said he was "deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior," that he'd obviously lost track of his Buddhist roots, that he'd play golf again one day "but I don't know when that day will be," and "it's up to me to start living a life of integrity." Reaction was mixed, from ABC's George Stephanopoulos calling it "one of the most remarkable apologies ever by a public figure" to former New York Yankees PR guy Rick Cerrone derisively concluding, "It was basically an infomercial."
Tiger's talk was golf's TV moment of the year, but he provided more highlights when he made his highly anticipated return to golf at the Masters. ESPN's first-round Masters coverage averaged 4.9 million viewers, the biggest cable audience ever for a golf telecast. Woods played with Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi and shot a stunning 68, the best first-round Masters score of his career. Woods stayed on the fringe of contention all week, thanks to a tournament-record-tying four eagles, until a careless three-putt on the 14th green on Sunday killed his chances. He finished a remarkable fourth.
2. And Lefty makes three
Phil Mickelson reminded everyone that nothing is bigger than the Masters, not even Tiger Woods, who dominated all the pre-tournament talk. Mickelson's victory went down as the feel-good moment of the year as he dedicated his third Masters championship to his wife, Amy, who had been battling breast cancer since the previous year. After his win, they shared a tearful hug. Mickelson provided his usual drama, closing with a stellar 67 that included the shot of the year, a risky 6-iron off pine needles between the trees to five feet of the pin at the par-5 13th. He missed the eagle putt, but that was just about the only disappointment of this memorable Masters. Mickelson didn't win again in 2010 and later revealed that he's suffering from a form of arthritis.
3. Dire Straits
The most talked-about shot of the year belonged to Dustin Johnson, who grounded his club in a fairway bunker on the 18th hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. The fact that the bunker was full of spectators, making it hard to tell it was a bunker at all, didn't matter, and he was assessed an after-the-fact penalty that kept him from joining a playoff with Martin Kaymer, who eventually won, and Bubba Watson. Johnson said he didn't realize he was in a bunker and admitted that he hadn't read a pre-tournament rules sheet indicating that all of the nearly 1,000 Straits bunkers were considered bunkers and not waste areas, where grounding is allowed. Johnson's mistake was the golfing gaffe of the year, overshadowing an otherwise fine performance.
4. Mr. 59, meet Mr. 59
This summer, 2010 turned into the Year of Going Low. Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby became the fourth and fifth players to post scores of 59 on the PGA Tour, joining Al Geiberger, Chip Beck and David Duval. Strangely, they came barely two weeks apart. Goydos, ranked 137th in the world, fired a 59 in the opening round of the John Deere Classic in mid July. "That proves anyone can do it," joked Goydos. That gave him only a one-shot edge over Steve Stricker, who shot 60 and went on to win. Appleby, who had dropped to 159th in the world rankings and hadn't broken 65 in a tour event in six years, finished birdie-birdie for his Sunday 59 and a dramatic one-stroke victory in the inaugural Greenbrier Classic. Asked to explain the sudden low-scoring surge, Ernie Els said, "I don't know, there's even been 60s and 61s. It's starting to look like the Nationwide Tour."
5. One is the loneliest number
Every good thing comes to an end. The run of Tiger Woods as the world's No. 1 player finally ended after 281 weeks when England's Lee Westwood replaced him atop the world rankings. While it was obvious that the slumping Woods would drop from the top spot, the rise of Westwood sparked a re-examination of the world rankings since he was just the fourth player in 25 years to reach No. 1 without winning a major. (The others Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples and David Duval won majors within two years of reaching No. 1.) In his first appearance as No. 1, at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, Westwood posed with Woods, PGA champion Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson for a photo op in which they wielded tai chi swords. Westwood, who has gained a Nearly Man reputation for his many close finishes in majors, was edged by Francesco Molinari for the HSBC title.
6. The big meltdown
Dustin Johnson had already won two tour titles at Pebble Beach and looked likely to win a third, a U.S. Open, when he took a three-stroke lead into the final round at a course he has dominated. The rush to ordain Johnson as the Next Big Thing was put on hold when he came up short of the second green, had to chip out lefty just to advance the ball, fluffed his next pitch and made a disconcerting triple bogey. He compounded his problems by foolishly trying to drive the green at the third hole. That ball disappeared into the shrubbery near the 16th green (it was eventually found after the five-minute time limit had expired) and Johnson had to re-tee, making a double bogey. At the short par-4 fourth, he hit one over the cliff on the right and made a bogey. Three holes, six shots lost. It eventually added up to 82, the most memorable Open collapse since Gil Morgan, and Johnson finished five back of winner Graeme McDowell.
7. Europe reigns, steady rains
Nobody could remember a wetter Ryder Cup, not that rain in October is unusual for Wales. The American team was unhappy with its leaky raingear and bought all new outfits in the merchandise tent at Celtic Manor after the first session. The wet conditions pushed the event to a nonetheless exciting Monday finish. There were heroes (Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker and Luke Donald, to name a few) and goats for both sides. In the end, American rookie Rickie Fowler birdied the last four holes in his singles match to give the U.S. a chance to earn a halve and retain the cup. In the final singles match, Hunter Mahan was down to Graeme McDowell most of the match, and after Mahan duffed a chip on the par-3 17th hole and missed a lengthy must-make putt from off the green, the Ryder Cup belonged to Europe. "It was a proud, proud moment for all of us in European golf," said a glowing Colin Montgomerie, the European captain.
8. Luck of the Irish
Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell became a national hero after winning a tough U.S. Open at Pebble Beach even though he managed only one final-round birdie and played the last 10 holes in four over par. The man known as G-Mac, who played American college golf at Alabama-Birmingham, cemented his legend status by scoring the winning point in the Ryder Cup and then stunned Tiger Woods in a playoff at Tiger's own Chevron World Challenge event after coming back from four strokes behind. At Chevron, Woods stuffed his final approach shot to two feet but McDowell holed a 20-footer to force a playoff. They played 18 again as the first playoff hole, and McDowell holed a 30-footer for the win. Ironically, McDowell's breakthrough year was in part due to Tiger. McDowell was invited to last year's Chevron World Challenge to replace Woods, who pulled out because his personal scandal had already exploded in the media. McDowell finished second, earned enough ranking points to qualify for the Masters and later squeaked into the U.S. Open field at No. 50 in the rankings. So if not for Tiger's troubles, "Maybe I wouldn't have got into the Open and things like the Ryder Cup," McDowell said. "It was one of those very fateful moments." If the world had a Player of the Year, it had to be the gregarious McDowell.
9. Shrek 4: The Old Course Magician
It seemed likely that little-known Louis Oosthuizen, the son of a dairy farmer from South Africa, would go the way of obscure British Open contenders like Hennie Otto, Bill Longmuir and others even though Shrek, as Oosthuizen is affectionately known for his gap-toothed smile, led by five shots after two rounds at St. Andrews. Oosthuizen surprised the world, however, by rolling nearly unchallenged to a seven-stroke victory that came the same day South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 92nd birthday. The signature moment came in Sunday's final round when, after Paul Casey had just cut the lead to three shots, King Louis drove the green at the 352-yard par-4 ninth hole and sank a 30-foot eagle putt. At least the Open trophy engraver didn't have to put the champ's full name on the jug Lodewicus Theodorus Oosthuizen. Phew.
10. The young guns
History may come to regard 2010 as a changing-of-the-guard year in golf. As Woods and Mickelson, the longtime No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, slumped, new young stars seemed to come out of the woodwork and offer golf a glimmer of hope for the future. For starters, there was Germany's Martin Kaymer, who won the PGA Championship. Dustin Johnson made a big impression at the Open and the PGA despite coming up short both places. Francesco and Edoardo Molinari won on the European Tour and were impressive in the Ryder Cup. Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 in one of his wins in Japan. American Rickie Fowler didn't score a win but was named the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year over Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, whose final-round 62 to win the Wachovia Championship was as strong a finish as any during the summer. The youngest of all was Italy's 17-year-old Matteo Manassero, who became the European Tour's youngest champion when he won the Castello Masters by four shots and was admittedly at a loss about what to do with his $460,000 prize. "I am too young to have a drink, too young to drive so I will not be buying a car," he said, "and I do not have a girlfriend who would like a present. I never thought my first chance to win a tournament would come so quickly."