5. The Ryder Cup, Wales, Oct. 1-4.
Traditionally, the Ryder Cup is a three-day event that concludes on a Sunday. For the first time, it ended on a Monday because of the epic rain that turned Celtic Manor, an American-style course on the outskirts of Cardiff, into a mud bath. At the start of play on Monday, things were looking grim for the American team, led by Corey Pavin. The rainsuits had failed, Tiger Wood’s play had been wildly erratic, and the Euros had shown more depth, spirit and fun (they were allowed to Twitter) in building a commanding 9.5-6.5 lead.
Then came Monday’s singles, mano-a-mano, and Team USA came roaring back. Steve Stricker beat Lee Westwood of England in an upset. Dustin Johnson, who missed a playoff at the PGA Championship due to a penalty, smoked the man who won the PGA, Martin Kaymer of Germany. Tiger, playing the kind of solo golf he prefers, demolished his guy, Francesco Molinari of Italy. In the end it came down to the last twosome on the course, Hunter Mahan vs. Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland. McDowell, the U.S. Open winner, holed putts from odd places and played with a brio that brought to mind Seve Ballesteros, defeating Mahan on the 17th hole. The Euros secured an exciting, well-played, 14.5-13.5 victory. Smashing.
4. The Lorena Ochoa Invitational, Guadalajara, Mexico, Nov. 11-14.
The golf itself was thrilling, as In-Kyung Kim shot a final-round 64 to race past Suzann Pettersen, the third-round leader. It was Kim’s third win, on a beautiful course, at a tournament hosted by one of the most delightful people to ever play the game. All that would have made it memorable. But the reason it rises to top-5 status is because of what Kim did after her victory.
She donated her entire winnings, $220,000, to charity. Half to a Mexican foundation run by Ochoa, half to an American charity. It was a stirring act from a player, born in Korea and now a U.S. resident, who has no showboat in her. She explained her motivation beautifully in her adopted language: her parents sacrificed greatly so she could pursue golf in the United States, and her parents got help from someone else, who she didn’t name. Without those people and their generosity, Kim would not have learned to play golf in the United States, and she wanted to provide a chance for someone else in a similar situation. “Everyone needs help,” she said. “I think that’s what I’m all about.”
3. The Masters, Augusta, Ga., April 8-11.
This was the week Tiger Woods made his return to golf after his self-imposed exile. Even with all the noise in his life, and fighting his swing and putting poorly, he still managed to tie for 4th. Fred Couples, at 50, looked for a while like he might pull a Nicklaus, who won at Augusta at 46. Boom-Boom struck the ball as squarely as anyone playing the game today, including players half his age. Lee Westwood of England, with his transformed body and unpretentious manner, looked like he might finally win his first major.
But in the end, the winner was a figure who is nearly as beloved by the Masters galleries as Arnold Palmer was. Phil Mickelson does it all. The classic shots, like his 6-iron off the pine needles, going for the green on the par-5 13th on Sunday. The nods, smiles and autographs for fans. The witty quotes for writers. The big-time win: closing with a 67 to finish three clear of Westwood. And then came the moving part. The appearance, for the first time all year, of Mickelson’s wife, Amy, another beloved presence in the game who had been undergoing treatment for cancer.
2. The Mitsubishi Electric Championship, Ka’upulehu-Kona, Hawaii, Jan. 24-26.
You just never know where and when great golf will break out. Sometimes it’s at the U.S. Open. Sometimes it’s a 54-hole senior event named for a Japanese electronics company played on a short, easy course with the players in carts. The Mitsubishi Electric was the first Champions Tour event of the year. It marked the debut of Fred Couples on the senior circuit. It marked 60-year-old Tom Watson’s best chance to win a golf event since the 2009 British Open at Turnberry.
It doesn’t matter what the event is — when a professional golfer has a chance to win, all the senses go into overdrive. Watson and Couples have been playing golf against one another for 30 years. They’ve been close at times and distant at others. They could not be more different. Watson was giving up 10 years and 50 or more yards off the tee. The course looked beautiful. Both men were playing for keeps. Neither man, by and large, missed a shot. Watson shot a final-round 65 and his playing partner, Couples, shot 64, but it was not enough. The old man won by a shot. It was amazing golf.
1. Chevron World Challenge, Thousand Oaks, Calif., Dec. 2-5.
The year was an utter and complete disaster for Tiger Woods, who didn’t win all year, a first in his pro career. As host of the Chevron World Challenge, he was desperate to end the year on a positive note and gain some confidence with the new, more upright swing he’d worked on with instructor Sean Foley. He had a four-shot lead going into the final round, and he had never lost with that big a lead through 54 holes. The most dynamic and interesting golfer of the year, Graeme McDowell, was playing with him in the finale, at Sherwood Country Club.
Maybe his loss to McDowell in the Chevron playoff won’t mean a thing a half-year from now when Woods has won, say, another Masters and a U.S. Open, but the fact remains: McDowell did to Woods what Woods, for 14 years, has done to others. He made unlikely putts and watched Woods miss makeable ones. Woods’s caddie, Steve Williams, took off his Chevron bib on the 72nd hole, when McDowell had maybe 22 feet for birdie and Woods had stuffed it close. If McDowell missed, Woods was your winner. McDowell made it. The bib went back on. Bad looper karma, and a ridiculous silly season event turned into the best golf theater of the year.