New World Order: The 10 most important developments of 2011

by | Senior Golf Columnist

After fading badly at Augusta, McIlroy turned in a dominant performance to win the U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  
After fading badly at Augusta, McIlroy turned in a dominant performance to win the U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When a season lasts 11½ occasionally stupefying months, as is the case with professional golf, details tend to blur.

With 150-odd players whacking it around most weeks on the PGA Tour alone, so much happens, it's hard to catalog it all, much less put it in any context, be it comedic or historic.

As to the former, perhaps the most hilarious episode witnessed all season occurred in the final round of the Open, when a tarantula was walking near the ball of Ernie Els, who tried to nudge it along by giving it a gentle shove in the backside with the face of his 3-wood. Playing partners Briny Baird and Paul Casey, standing nearby and awaiting their turn to hit, wandered over.

"You know, those things can jump, like, five feet," Baird deadpanned.

So can Els, who instinctively recoiled and all but levitated off the ground before realizing Baird was kidding. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Sure, that was one of the funniest anecdotes of the season, but it wasn't impactful in the least. So, with only two weeks before the 2012 season begins on the two major global tours in Hawaii and South Africa, we sorted through the sordid and sifted through the gifted to find the 10 most important developments of the 2011 season, including a few items that might have received their just desserts in the court of public acclaim.

There was plenty to evaluate and catalog, including seriously light and heavy fare. Sorry, but the Golf Boys video didn't quite make the cut, possibly because we're still having nightmares about Bubba Watson's chest hair. That dude is hairier than Ernie's tarantula.

Duality of Donald: During a season that began with three different players being ranked No. 1 in the world, England's Luke Donald proved by the end of the year that there was zero doubt as to who deserved to sit in pole position. He became the first dual member to top the PGA and European tour money lists, won four titles worldwide, and produced one of the most thrilling back nines of the season at Disney World, when he made six straight birdies to win the tournament and slide past Webb Simpson atop the U.S. earnings list.

Master blasters: OK, so to some of older guys, there's no way anybody will ever supplant the thrill ride that Jack Nicklaus authored in 1986 when he won the Masters for the sixth time. But in terms of an ensemble cast, this year's Super Sunday at Augusta National was second to none. As the leaders moved into the back nine, it was impossible to pick a winner, with Aussies, South Africans, Yanks and Englishmen all in the frenetic mix. Finally, Charl Schwartzel became the first player in major championship history to birdie his final four holes and win, claiming the green jacket. Fitting, since some of us were green from the wild ride.

It's all in the cards: The commitment deadline for U.S. tour membership this year included a surprise, when former world No. 1 Lee Westwood elected to take up his PGA Tour card for 2012, joining U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. Much has rightly been written about the massive international flavor of the world rankings at the moment -- there are no Yanks in the top five of the season's final ranking for the first time in 17 years, for instance. But next season, at least American fans will get to see most of the top guns in person. As it stands, from the players listed in the final world ranking of 2011, a total of 20 of the top 21 will have U.S. cards in '12.

The mission is transition: Even Tim Finchem could see that his tour was undergoing an abrupt changeover, which he characterized as "parity." Fair enough. No player won more than two PGA Tour events, and given the incredibly fast falloff of several longtime standard bearers, the U.S. tour had a whopping 14 first-time winners. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk combined for one official victory. Goosen and Els, in fact, fell out of the world top 50 and are iffy for the masters next April.

The big breakup: Who would have possibly envisioned that Tiger Woods' separation from caddie Steve Williams would cause him more public grief than his divorce from Elin Nordegren? Williams and Woods went back and forth in the late summer as to the details of how and when Williams was sacked after more than a decade with Woods, and the caddie certainly didn't take it well. After noting that he had stood stoically beside Woods during the scandal, only to ultimately be fired, he said, "Basically, I've wasted two years of my life." Two months ago, Williams made a comment with racial overtones regarding Woods' backside.

Thompson gunner: For a couple of weeks in the fall, the status of teen phenom Lexi Thompson was rightly one of the biggest issues in golf as the LPGA weighed whether to waive its age-18 minimum to allow the 16-year-old to play next season after she won the Navistar LPGA Classic in the fall. The youngest winner in LPGA history, she won the Dubai Ladies Masters last Sunday to set the age record on the Ladies European Tour, too. Ultimately, the LPGA elected to award Thompson a card for 2012 -- she turns 17 on Feb. 10 -- jointly giving the dwindling American prospects a huge shot in the arm. Amazingly, Thompson was one of only three American players to win an LPGA event this season.

McIlroy gets his mulligan: While the Masters mélange was playing out with a cast of roughly a dozen players having had a crack at the title, McIlroy blew up and faded badly, shooting 80 after starting the day with the 54-hole lead. He won over fans by making some self-deprecating remarks after the round, then completely made amends in his next major, the U.S. Open at Congressional, where he authored the most comprehensively dominant performance at a Grand Slam stop in years. Given his warm reception, it was hardly a surprise that McIlroy elected to rejoin the U.S. tour in 2012.

Behold the belly: It wasn't just that Keegan Bradley became the first player ever to win a major with a belly putter, it was the group hysteria that ensued soon thereafter as nothing short of a legion began to tinker with the longer stick. Bill Haas, the FedEx Cup champion, used a belly model. Phil Mickelson logged several rounds with a left-handed version. Whatever stigma there once was attached to those using the belly or broom models was blown up completely in 2011, forevermore. Bradley offered one of my favorite quotes of the year: "Unfortunately, those purists out there are going to have serious problems in about 10 years, when about 50 percent of the guys on tour are using them." It might not take that long.

Tseng's the thing: The LPGA in 2010 looked pretty similar to the PGA Tour in 2011. It was a group portrait of good players at the top, but nobody had emerged as dominant, much less particularly noteworthy. That changed in a matter of weeks in 2011, when Yani Tseng came out of the chute and obliterated everything in sight. She won 11 events across several tours in 2011 and assumed the role formerly held by retirees Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa as the top player in the female game. But why stop there? Throw gender out the window and Tseng was the global player of the year, a characterization that even Luke Donald agrees with.

Storybook tale continues: The Nationwide Tour doesn't get much coverage for obvious reasons. After all, Triple-A baseball doesn't, either. But one of the most heart-warming, fulfilling stories of the year continued to develop on the Nationwide this year when Erik Compton finished 13th in earnings to secure his PGA Tour card for 2012. Compton is, quite simply, a medical marvel and an inspiration in spikes. He's the only known sports figure in the world making a living in a professional game after having received a heart transplant, much less two of them. The obstacles that Compton has overcome defy description.


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