This golf year will be remembered mainly for Rory McIlroy, and deservedly so, but he’s only one part of a broader trend: the sport has, at long last, found the stars to carry it forward. For all the hand-wringing through the years about what golf would look like post-Tiger, that era is suddenly upon us, and it appears to be just fine, with a bunch of likeable, telegenic stars ready to challenge McIlroy. The LPGA is thriving, too, who a host of leading ladies filling the star-power vacuum that has existed ever since the double-whammy retirements of Annika and Lorena. Golf has its problems, to be sure, but as we start preparing to pop the bubbly, I think 2014 will be remembered as a very fine vintage. Here’s a look back at the year that was.
1. Rory. Bear with me here: the kid is definitely going to win the Masters. He had a mini-breakthrough on Sunday this year, and no course sets up as well for his smashmouth high draw. Then he goes to Chambers Bay — a big, rollicking track — with a chance to match the Tiger Slam. The kid will rise to the occasion. Now for the Open we go to a place where he has a habit of going low, the Old Course. That’s five major championship victories in a row. It’s gonna be epic.
2. Jordan Spieth. The perfect Watson to McIlroy’s Nicklaus.
3. Wiesy. Her Open triumph was the biggest moment in women’s golf since Annika pegged it at Colonial, and maybe the most exciting thing to happen on the LPGA Tour since Nancy Lopez made the scene. It’s almost a good thing that she didn’t do much in the wake of the victory — now she’s even more motivated to have a big ’15.
4. Herr Kaymer. The perfect Trevino to McIlroy’s Nicklaus.
5. Lydia Ko. It’s mind-boggling what she’s doing at such a young age. If she can keep going, we’re going to be naming trophies after her some day.
6. Pinehurst No. 2. This once-stately, now state-of-the-art track hosted a fine Open double-dip and, more to the point, offered a compelling portrait of where the game’s playing fields are going. Sign me up.
7. Kevin Streelman. If a player birdies the last seven holes to win a tournament, I don’t care who they are or where it happens — Hartford, in this case — that’s gangsta.
8. Paul McGinley. The wee Irishman towered over the Ryder Cup with his obsessive preparation and palpable bond with his players. To use the man’s favorite word, there is now a template for successful captaining.
9. Mo Martin. Her 3-wood into the 72nd hole for the eagle that won the Women’s British was the shot of the year. And mini-Mo couldn’t be more adorable.
10. Matt Jones. At Houston, he holed a 40-footer on the 72nd hole to force a playoff then broke Matt Kuchar’s heart on the first extra hole by jarring a bunker shot. This doesn’t happen in Golden Tee, let alone actual Tour events.
1. Tiger Woods. Injuries, missed putts, more swing changes and now the chip yips…It’s been a train wreck of a year when he could least afford it.
2. Ted Bishop. This agent of change at the PGA did some very good things but was ultimately swept out of office by a terminal case of hubris. Note to Ted: golf does not smile upon a self-styled maverick.
3. Phil Mickelson. He gets major bonus points for having the courage to tell hard truths about the United States’ broken Ryder Cup system, but on the course he has never looked more disinterested. And yet Phil the Thrill could have salvaged the whole year at the PGA, but a brutal bogey on the 70th hole torpedoed him once again.
4. Tom Watson. Bishop called him “the right man at the right time.” Wrong on both accounts.
5. Jason Dufner. When the only time you make news is for vacation photos, it’s been a pretty disastrous year.
6. Sergio Garcia. This preeminent physical talent has blown countless tournament since his last PGA Tour win, 28 months ago. Yes, there’s still time for him to figure it out, but I’ve been saying that for at least 5 years.
7. Jim Furyk. He solidified his place in the Nearly Man hall of fame.
8. The R&A. A bunch of those old boys nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back for joining the 1970s and admitting female members. But what about the three courses on the Open rota that remain defiantly all-male?