Tiger’s fall from No. 1 caps brutal year in U.S. golf

We’ve known for a month that the calendar was going to be the only one to knock Tiger Woods from his perch atop the World Golf Rankings.

So when Lee Westwood rose to number one four days ago, it summed up golf in 2010: a foreign golfer steps in as an American falters. The was the year that American golf took one right on the chin from the rest of the world.

Tiger and Phil
Start at the top, and you’ll see America’s top two had their worst combined year in at least a decade. Tiger Woods began 2010 in hiding, and barely emerged once he hit the course. Zero wins in 12 starts, but even worse than the lack of trophies was Woods’ lack of impact. Of his dozen starts, he registered two top-ten finishes. The Tiger of old would consider just two top tens in a month a disappointment. Add a missed cut and a withdrawal and Woods set the pace for American golf’s debacle of 2010.

On top of Woods’ brutal season was Phil Mickelson, who entered the year as the guy I (and many others) hoped would step to the forefront to shine and carry the Tour in Tiger’s absence. Instead, Mickelson decided he was going to make headlines as Mr. Groove, deciding to start the year by provoking the Tour rather than becoming it’s torchbearer. While I hoped Phil would step into the vacuum left by Tiger and flash his brilliance, instead Mickelson ’10 did his best Todd Hamilton impersonation – aka, How’d This Guy Win a Major?

Entering the Masters, he had a single top-ten finish in seven starts, setting the tone for his awful campaign. Thanks to an injury to Westwood and Woods’ even more dreadful year, “how Phil becomes number one” math became a weekly game, and it seemed the easier the task, the worse his chances. It started as a long shot, and by the end got to the point of “if Phil doesn’t get plucked off the course by two massive birds of prey, and everyone else in the field grounds his club in the sand, then Phil takes over Tiger’s spot.” And of course you’d start looking to the sky for the world’s biggest hawks to begin circling.

European Surge
As America’s best were struggling, the strength of the Europeans was on display. Maybe more telling than the strength of the Euro Ryder Cup teams was those who were snubbed. Justin Rose was a darling during the summer as he posted two impressive U.S. wins. Always steady top-ten mainstay Paul Casey racked up seven top tens during the year. Yet they were left watching the action from Celtic Manor like the rest of us, from home.

The Euros had that good of a year.

In Graeme McDowell you had my choice for Global Player of the Year, not only winning his first major but staking his claim to the title of golf’s most fearless player. In both the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup, the man from Northern Ireland stood tall as those around him were folding.

Add McDowell’s countryman, Rory McIlroy who is atop almost every list of the game’s future (and at this point, current) superstars. Firing a final-round 62 to trounce one of the strongest non-major fields of the year in the Wells Fargo will do that. And don’t forget two top threes in the majors this year.

Contrast the performances of those two rising stars with America’s, newest “next great thing” Dustin Johnson. The masher of the ball, Johnson managed to offer a clinic in melting down in big spots this year. Standing on the first tee Sunday of the U.S. Open, the long hitter held a three-shot lead. No one can forget his duffed chip, on the way to an 82, leaving McDowell standing tall in spite of an over-par final round himself. The score itself didn’t matter as much as the guts McDowell showed down the stretch as everyone else – notably Woods, Mickelson and Els and all their major titles – and especially Johnson, limped home.

Johnson would have a quick chance at redemption, only to make the most bone-headed play of the past 40 years, replacing Roberto De Vincenzo as golf’s greatest “stupid.” It’s one thing to melt down physically the way he did at Pebble Beach, but to make such a mental blunder at the PGA Championship, Johnson proved his versatility. He’s capable of blowing his chances more than one way. Then, at the Ryder Cup Johnson proved his reliability for playing his worst on the biggest stage, putting up what nearly every observer called the week’s most abysmal performance. Oh, and that same week, Graeme McDowell stamped his guts ticket.

Tack on the effort by Martin Kaymer to emerge from the zany PGA Championship with a major title that most expect is far from his last. With eight career wins at the age of 25, it makes you scratch your head when names like Anthony Kim, Nick Watney, and Hunter Mahan are mentioned in the same breath as Kaymer as the game’s best player under 30.

Not Just Europe
The dominance from abroad wasn’t restricted to the guys from Europe. South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen was praised for his sweet swing during a dominant seven-shot British Open win at St. Andrew’s, the sort of runaway victory usually reserved for Tiger Woods. And, for the record, the rest of the top five that week: Westwood, McIlroy, Stenson, Casey … all European.

This year even Asia got in on the fun. While America has crowned Rickie Fowler as its star in the making, the real sensation this year was Ryo Ishikawa, whose 58 in Japan made headlines around the globe.

The real capper American golf having its rear end handed to it this year is the fact that 2010 looks like the start of a new reality, rather than some fluke. The truth is that America’s stalwarts are rapidly sliding backward while the Europeans and the rest of the world are on the rise. I see it less about whether Tiger and Phil can regain their stranglehold atop the rankings, and more about America finding young counterparts to take on this surge of overseas talent. If this was a year-long audition, it sure wasn’t pretty. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining to watch.

Ron Varrial is Metro’s Managing Editor, Print and Digital, and writes a regular column for the popular golf website The Sand Trap.

 


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