Best is yet to come for Irish Euro stars
Published 21/12/2010 | 08:31
EUROPE is celebrating its greatest ever year in golf, but for Ireland the best has yet to come.
Graeme McDowell sparked the European revolution last summer, storming that latterday 'Bastille' of American golf, Pebble Beach, during the US Open.
He followed up in the autumn by securing the match-clinching point in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.
G-Mac then illuminated the grimmest winter of Irish discontent by turning over tournament host Tiger Woods on the final day of the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club.
Woods played nicely at Thousand Oaks, building a four-stroke lead going into the final round, but he simply came up against the wrong man at the wrong time.
McDowell is no Tiger (there is only one of those). Yet given the faintest whiff of victory on Sunday afternoon, the Portrush man is as tough and mean as any of golf's matinee idols, including the Woods of yore.
Yes, Lee Westwood is the world No 1; US PGA champion Martin Kaymer beat McDowell fair and square in the Race to Dubai and it was splendid to see gentleman Jim Furyk hit the $11.35m jackpot in the US.
However, McDowell's was the outstanding personality on the world's fairways in 2010, his five victories, including the Wales Open, the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama and, of course, the Ryder Cup, establishing him as golf's man for all seasons.
While Europe can take much pleasure in looking back, for Irish golf the greatest adventures lie ahead -- McDowell's closest pal in professional golf, Rory McIlroy, is set to become his most potent rival and a campaign befitting a three-time Major champion is long overdue from Padraig Harrington
Let's take Harrington first. Since winning the 2008 US PGA at Oakland Hills, this guy's form has been a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.
Just one victory in that time, at the Asian Tour's Johor Open in October, is an appalling return for one of the game's hardest workers and greatest achievers.
Of several theories doing the rounds, the most popular suggests that Harrington has lost the rhythm of his swing and surrendered control of his golf ball in a desperate effort to find more length off the tee.
Proponents of this theory point to the number of fairways he has missed and how few greens he's hit in regulation, yet the Dubliner hit the ball further and found even fewer greens in 2008, a year of stellar achievement in which he won historic back-to-back titles at the Majors.
Harrington's greatest problem at the Majors in 2010 was his abject failure to bring phenomenal form in practice on to the golf course. The most painful example came on the first hole in the Open at St Andrews when he made double-bogey from the middle of the first fairway with a wedge in his hand.
This was not a failure of technique or physique -- even if his new slimmed-down frame must surely have required Harrington to make adjustments in his swing.
Instead, he needs to switch off that confounding contraption between his ears, which whirls and whirls alarmingly as he stands over the simplest shots.
As Harrington looks forward to his 40th birthday next July, he's fitter, stronger and more aware of what it takes to win Major titles than at any other point in his life.
The naysayers are writing him off. Great -- because that's when he's at his most dangerous. Watch out for Harrington in 2011. After the past two seasons, the only way is up for the Dubliner, especially at the Majors.
McIlroy, meanwhile, can build on impressive third places at the Open and US PGA in the New Year.
His short game creaked and then cracked as Tiger turned the screw when they played together on Friday in the Chevron. As with any youngster, McIlroy's resolve can be brittle.
As we saw on that famous weekend at Quail Hollow, however, once the adrenalin is pumping and those aggressive putts start hitting the hole, McIlroy is unstoppable.
He was crushed at Augusta this year by a mix of overblown expectation and the effects of a troubling bout of back trouble in early season, but McIlroy was born for the US Masters and I can't wait for April to come round again.
Make no mistake, Tiger will be back. He certainly cocked up his private life and shredded his reputation but once Woods found some closure with August's divorce settlement he began to pick up the threads of his career on the golf course.
Woods is unlikely ever again to intimidate opponents in the way he did before and his confidence in his putter plainly has been undermined, but he'll still be enough of a force to regain the world No 1 slot and resume his lifelong pursuit of a record 19 Majors.
As he does so, Tiger will have Kaymer in his face -- and Irish golf's blessed trinity of Harrington, McIlroy and, of course, the indomitable spirit, McDowell, at his shoulder.
1 DUSTIN JOHNSON lent new meaning to the term 'sweet and sour' in 2010.
After retaining his AT&T National Pro-Am title at Pebble Beach in February, the lanky American would be savaged by the famous links on US Open Sunday.
Johnson's problems started on two when he tangled with the long, wispy rough which adorned the top of the bunkers at Pebble Beach; imagine trying to play a golf shot off the top of Don King's head and you'll get the picture.
A triple-bogey seven at the second wiped out Johnson's overnight lead and he'd leak shots like a colander during a humiliating final-round 82 which wins golf's 'There but for the Grace of God Award'.
2 If he was unfortunate at Pebble, Johnson was downright careless at Whistling Straits, missing out on the play-off at the US PGA after incurring a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole for grounding his club in a 'bunker' way to the right of the 18th fairway.
Johnson's mistake was not to read the bulletin advising competitors that all sand on the course, whether trampled by spectators or raked flat, was to be treated as a hazard.
Like many others, Johnson had been codded by designer Pete Dye's sleight of hand in creating this faux links, assuming his ball had landed in an area of natural waste. Natural? You're having a laugh. Every grain of sand on the Straits Course was imported by truck -- leading to that US PGA rule!
However Johnson got up, dusted himself down and won the BMW Championship 28 days later, winning our 'Concrete Chin Award'.
3 The real turkeys in 2010 were world golf's controlling bodies, the R&A and USGA, for believing their decision to ban box grooves would make a blind bit of difference to the elite professional game.
"How many 59s have there been this year? You tell me how much harder is it?" Englishman Greg Owen said of a derisory measure which put club manufacturers and many elite players to pointless inconvenience and expense.
Tour scoring and performance statistics for 2010 clearly suggest the new grooves were as effective in the fight to row back on the distance players hit the ball as trying to bail out the Titanic with a teacup.
4 What's a female turkey called? On Ryder Cup Friday at Celtic Manor it probably would have been 'captainess' as the garish rain gear designed by Lisa Pavin, wife of US skipper Corey, turned out to be as good in the deluge as a string vest.
Apparently, stitching the name of each player onto the back of his jacket didn't help.
"I want this position to stand out," Mrs Pavin had said of her role as wife of the US captain. "And I want to help the PGA brand the Ryder Cup to another level -- people think my job only involves clothing (but) I'm thinking how to take the PGA of America to other people who wouldn't normally be interested."
Hard luck, hen, maybe you should have just stuck to the clothing!
5 The Ryder Cup itself easily could have been the biggest turkey in golfing history had the sun not come out on Monday at Celtic Manor.
The PGA Tour's FedEx Cup caused the scheduling log jam which forced the event into October -- never again should such a ridiculous gamble be taken with one of the true treasures of modern sport.
Shots of the year
1 Phil Mickelson's second shot to the par-five 13th on Sunday at the US Masters was magnificent. His wayward drive bounded into the trees, coming to rest on pine straw 207 yards from a daunting pin. As soon as Lefty saw the lie of his ball and the narrow gap between the trees in front of him, he said: "I'm going for it." He drew a six-iron and blasted the shot of the century to four feet.
2 Jonathan Byrd's ace on the 196-yard 17th at TPC Summerlin, Las Vegas, spectacularly broke the deadlock on the fourth tie hole at the Shiners Championship. Byrd struck a sweet six-iron which pitched short, bounced once and rolled in. In the gloom, Byrd didn't see it drop but, for the first time, a play-off had been decided by a hole-in-one.
3 Rory McIlroy's second shot to the par-five 15th hole on Sunday at Quail Hollow illustrated perfectly why the Holywood man is regarded the most exciting young player in golf as he struck a sensational 207-yard five-iron to four feet for an eagle three.
Putts of the year
1 Graeme McDowell (below) summed it up best. "Sixteen was massive," he said of the penultimate hole in his decisive Ryder Cup singles match with Hunter Mahan, going on to describe the 15-foot birdie putt he holed to go dormie two as: "The best putt I've hit in my life. It was a fast putt, I just had to get it going -- thankfully it caught an edge."
2Martin Kaymer showed the icy composure of an assassin as he stroked home the 12-foot nerve-jangler for par at the final hole at Whistling Straits to force a sudden-death shootout with Bubba Watson. On the evidence of this putt and subsequent play-off victory at the US PGA, there are more Majors in the offing for this classy 25-year-old.
3 Two for the price of one from G-Mac -- first to force a tie with Tiger Woods in the Chevron, then to beat him in sudden death. The heroic 20-footer, with a big left-to-right borrow, that McDowell holed for birdie at the final hole in regulation was a microcosm of his incredible season. The 23-footer he sank for birdie and victory from the same side of the same green minutes later was the cherry on top.
Rounds of the year
1 Rory McIlroy's 10-under-par 62 at Quail Hollow was majestic. He barely made the weekend on the cut mark, but he shot 66 on Saturday and then, four days after his 21st birthday, brilliantly dissected a classic course earmarked for the Majors to become the youngest winner since Tiger on the US tour. He made eight birdies and an eagle. Of his 12 threes, six were on the final six holes, as McIlroy finished four ahead of Phil Mickelson.
2 Ryo Ishikawa made history on the same Sunday as McIlroy's win in Charlotte, posting the first round of 58 on one of the world's major tours. The Japanese teenager stepped up with a sensational 12-under-par final round to win the Chunichi Crowns. Six behind Shigeki Maruyama overnight, Ishikawa birdied nine of the first 11 holes and added three more on 14, 15 and 16.
3 Stuart Appleby fired off the second 59 in just four weeks and the fifth in PGA Tour history, as he came from seven behind with his stunning 11-under-par effort to beat Jeff Overton at August's inaugural Greenbrier Classic. Ryder Cup vice-captain Paul Goydos was so surprised by his first-round 59 at July's John Deere Classic he called it "a nuclear bomb" -- yet he only finished second to Steve Stricker at Deere Run.