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Monday 22 September 2014

The good, the bad and the ugly of 2013

From Mickelson's masterclass to McIlroy's early-season misery and Dufner's class clowning, Karl MacGinty revisits the year's most sublime and ridiculous moments

Karl MacGinty

Published 31/12/2013 | 02:30

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Rory McIlroy looks dejected
Adam Scott finally made the Major GETTY
Phil Mickelson celebrates with the claret jug on the 18th green at Muirfield GETTY

PHIL MICKELSON was exalted, Rory McIlroy chastened and, for Tiger Woods, there was victory and vilification. Peerless Phil's win at the British Open was the standout performance in a year which occasionally was amazing, often acrimonious and sometimes absurd.

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Rory's story was the most compelling as he dangled and kicked in a harrowing form slump, split with his management company, checked into the Four Courts, and bristled as his relationship with Caroline Wozniacki made headlines.

Yet for a couple of days in Abu Dhabi last January, McIlroy still was cock of the walk as his $20m-per-annum deal with Nike was launched amid billowing plumes of dry ice and pyrotechnics.

Admirably, the youngster threw his full weight as world No 1 behind Paul McGinley's bid for the Ryder Cup captaincy, even taking time out during that Nike launch to make a forceful case for the Dubliner.

McIlroy's intervention, on the eve of the decisive committee meeting, helped ensure the right man got the job. Ireland waited so outrageously long for an Irish Ryder Cup captain, McGinley's appointment was the highlight of the golfing year here.

Sadly, McIlroy endured frustration on the course in Abu Dhabi. Clearly at odds with his new clubs, he missed the cut, setting the tone for an embattled season. The siege only lifted on December 1, when he brilliantly pinched the Australian Open from under Adam Scott's nose.

Scott was a star turn throughout 2013, his thrilling Masters victory over garrulous gaucho Angel Cabrera ending years of Australian heartache at Augusta.

Gentleman Justin Rose won the US Open at Merion, where Mickelson endured a record sixth runner-up finish on his 43rd birthday.

Yet Lefty's heartbreak was salved at Muirfield by the most thrilling and least expected of his five Major victories. Formerly cast as fall guy to Tiger, Mickelson is the new, untainted icon of golf, a people's champion who signs as many autographs as he hits practice balls.

Having endured the first of his runner-up finishes at the US Open behind Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999, how neat would it be if Mickelson completes a career Grand Slam there next June?

Tiger won five times in 2013 but endured four controversial rules disputes in a year which gave us 'Dufnering' and deer antler spray. We had it all in 2013 -- the good, the bad and the ugly!

THE GOOD

1 MICKELSON THE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

IT was love at first sight when Mickelson, visiting with the 1991 US Walker Cup team, was introduced to genuine links golf at Lahinch, days before performing a prominent role in America's victory at Portmarnock.

Yet Mickelson, who rates Alister Mackenzie's Irish gem as his favourite links, long believed his love for seaside golf would go unrequited.

"The biggest challenge of my career is hitting the shots required on links courses," he explains, "controlling the ball flight in severe cross-winds, getting good touch around the greens and putting on those fescue grasses."

This illustrates the enormity of his British Open victory. Seven days after achieving his first 'true' links win at the Scottish Open, Mickelson supped from the Claret Jug after one of the greatest final rounds in Major history.

His unrivalled 66 at Muirfield featured an astonishing 32 on the way home, arguably the finest back nine ever shot on Sunday at the British Open. "I always wondered if I'd develop the skills needed to win this championship. Now I have, it feels just amazing."

The stuff of legend.

2 MERION WIN HEAVEN-SENT FOR ROSE

THE dignity of winner Rose was in perfect keeping with the US Open's return after 32 years to sacred ground at Merion. He was the ideal champion for a wonderful event.

Rose fully appreciated the significance of playing his approach shot into 18 on Sunday just yards from the plaque marking Ben Hogan's iconic one-iron at the 1950 US Open.

And after holing out, Rose looked up, pointed to heaven and smiled in a fitting Father's Day tribute to his late dad Ken. "A lot of us come from great men and have a responsibility to our children to show what great men can be," he explained.

It took courage to stage a modern Major at this historic but cramped venue. If the US Open can be played at Merion, then Portrush certainly can accommodate the British Open.

Where there's a will, there's a way...

3 SCOTT STRIKES TWICE FOR REDEMPTION

NINE months after choking up the Claret Jug at Lytham, Scott needed to sink two 'winning' birdie putts as April's Masters came to another heart-stopping climax.

"C'mon, Aussie," screamed Scott after holing a monster on the 72nd hole in regulation to go one ahead ... moments later, 2009 champion Cabrera brought him back to earth with a phenomenal mid-iron approach to set up birdie and sudden death.

Then Scott did it all over again at 10 (on the second tie hole) to clinch his maiden Major title. What a finish.

4 FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTENT FOR TIGER

WOODS knocked McIlroy off the top of the world by March, leaping back to No 1 with his third win in 10 weeks at Arnie Palmer's Invitational.

Voted Player of the Year by his PGA Tour peers, Tiger's five wins (at Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill, Sawgrass and Firestone) showed he is as formidable as ever in regular Tour events on familiar turf.

Now he needs to break a mental barrier and rediscover his finishing touch on the weekend at Majors.

5 YO-YO STENSON REBOUNDS INTO HISTORY

HENRIK STENSON earned $19,881,896 in 2013 as he became the first player to win the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai. Uniquely, he also prevailed in the US and European Tour Championships.

"It's my double-double," quips Stenson (37), who had crash-dived to No 230 in the world two years ago but now is a career-high third behind Tiger and Scott.

Nobody begrudges the popular Swede one cent, especially after losing millions in a ponzi scheme for which fraudster Allen Stanford is serving 110 years in jail.

Like Graeme McDowell and Mickelson, European Player of the Year Stenson won three times in 2013. Only Scott (4) and Woods (5) did better.

THE BAD

1 RORY TAKES A WALK ON THE DARK SIDE

DAWN had just broken on Friday at the Abu Dhabi Championship and McIlroy was alone on the range. He was not scheduled to play until after lunch, so there was no caddie, no golf bag. Just a couple of clubs and a bucket of balls.

McIlroy's frustration was almost palpable as he blasted ball after ball after ball into cold desert air with his new Nike driver, tension rising with each unsatisfactory shot.

Every golfer has been there ... this grey January morning, it just happened to be the world No 1. Nobody imagined what a harbinger it was.

That evening, after another wayward 75 caused him to miss the cut, McIlroy expressed satisfaction with his new clubs, adding: "I probably just need to find a driver I'm comfortable with."

This process would be complicated by a glitch in his swing, placing McIlroy in the Twilight Zone. His nightmare had begun.

After scaling golf's Everest in 2012, McIlory needed to chill last winter. His new equipment wasn't fully bedded in when he arrived in Abu Dhabi. Crucially, he then eschewed a precious opportunity to hone his game at the Dubai Desert Classic.

Sent packing by Shane Lowry at the Accenture, McIlroy walked off the course and into full-blown crisis during round two at the Honda.

His head fried, his game shot, his confidence cracked, McIlroy imploded under the weight of expectation. The promise of a sparkling Sunday 65 at Doral and second place in Texas went unfulfilled as his misery extended through spring, into summer, then autumn.

There was trauma off the course as he left Horizon to form his own management company. Acrimony smouldered as McIlroy launched a Commercial Court action against the Dublin firm, eliciting a vigorous defence from Horizon, who then filed a counter-suit. The trial date is next October.

His relationship with Wozniacki came under media scrutiny.

"I don't care what people say about my golf. It's all the other stuff," McIlroy admitted. "When they start digging into your personal life, it gets to you.

"This was the first year I really had to put up with scrutiny and criticism and it got to me a couple of times. It was a challenge for sure."

McIlroy's victory over Scott at November's Australian Open suggested he has risen to that challenge, though few will be happier to ring out the old.

2 ONLY WAY IS UP FOR HARRINGTON

HARD times for Ireland's greatest sportsman ... Padraig Harrington missed more cuts, 10, than in any other season as a pro and lies at a 16-year low, 131st, in the world.

He hasn't won on the PGA or European Tour since August 2008, while the decision by this R&A ambassador to take up the controversial belly putter for a dozen tournaments this year gave measure to his problems on the green.

Yet after paying years of meticulous attention to physical conditioning, Harrington is probably the fittest 42-year-old in golf. So time is on his side as the putting and short game come round.

3 WESTWOOD'S MAJOR DAYS NUMBERED

LEE WESTWOOD has let too many Major-winning chances slip by. Leading by two on Sunday at the British Open, he slumped to a 75 and his eighth top-three in 22 Majors. Now 40, his body clock is ticking.

4 FAR FROM ELEMENTARY FOR WATSON

THE world swooned when Bubba Watson clinched the 2011 Masters with a stroke of genius. He has not won since but went close at June's Travelers. Two ahead on the 16th tee, Watson found water then loudly berated his caddie as he made triple-bogey six.

He lost more than a tournament that day.

5 MANLEY GOES WILD AFTER WORLD CUP ACE

ON Saturday at the World Cup in Melbourne, Welshman Stuart Manley (34) opened with two birdies, aced the 176-yard third, then discovered that the luxury Mercedes parked behind the tee was on offer only on Sunday and shot a shocking septuple-bogey 11 at the next.

He signed for a one-over 72 ... now that's crazy golf!

THE UGLY

1 TELLING WOODS FROM THE TREES

WOODS became ensnared in four rules controversies this year, suggesting he is either unlucky or careless, or both.

Woods was penalised on three of those occasions, while a beautifully crafted victory at The Players was clouded by assertions of an improper penalty drop at 14 on Sunday. Officials later ruled he had no case to answer, but debate rumbled on.

Penalties incurred for illegal drops already had caused Tiger to miss the cut in Abu Dhabi in January and probably denied him an elusive 15th Major title at April's US Masters.

The latter arose when a lovely approach shot to Augusta's 15th hole on Friday bounced off the flagstick into water and Tiger unwittingly dropped his ball in the wrong spot.

Officials were alerted to his error before Tiger left the 15th green. An off-duty rules official noted it on TV and phoned a colleague on the course but, crucially, the matter wasn't raised with Woods before he signed his card.

After the breach was highlighted on CBS overnight, the Masters Tournament Committee went into session and Woods was accorded a two-shot penalty. Usually, he would be disqualified for signing for the wrong score on 15. However, the committee, accepting blame for not bringing the matter to Tiger's attention, granted him a reprieve.

Though perfectly entitled to tee it up on Saturday, Woods might have been canonised that morning if he had accepted the consequences of his error and withdrawn.

He would have been spared much of the media backlash, some of it vicious, stirred by that questionable drop at Sawgrass and the penalty he subsequently incurred at September's BMW Championship.

On that occasion, Woods refused to accept clear HD TV evidence that his ball moved as he cleared twigs away from it beneath trees near the first green, angrily insisting it merely oscillated. Though taken aback, the referee stood his ground.

Golf's ruling bodies, the R&A and USGA, in November introduced a "new decision" stating "a ball will not be deemed to have moved if that movement was not reasonably discernable to the naked eye at the time".

It's debatable if Tiger would have been excused by this decision, which creates a difficult grey area for referees and departs from the principle that in golf, rules are made to be kept -- without exception.

2 WITLESS SERGIO FRIED OVER CHICKEN JIBE

ONE of golf's long-running feuds erupted again at Sawgrass when Sergio Garcia ludicrously accused his nemesis, Tiger, of deliberately stirring up the crowd as he played a shot.

Winner Woods had the last laugh on Sunday when Garcia blew his chance of a second Players title with a quadruple-bogey seven at 17 and a closing six, in the process hitting three balls in the water.

The Spaniard landed in far deeper water 10 days later at the European Tour's annual banquet by saying on stage he would treat Woods to a dinner of fried chicken at the US Open ... a remark with ugly racist undertones.

"The comment made wasn't silly," Tiger tweeted. "It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate."

Garcia apologised but the damage was done -- to himself.

3 GOLF ON THE DEER HORNS OF A DILEMMA

VIJAY SINGH sparked a farcical train of events when he admitted using deer antler spray, banned by the US Tour because it supposedly contained the human growth factor IGF-1.

The Tour suspended Singh for 90 days but then cleared him when the World Anti-Doping Agency said traces of IGF-1 in the spray were too minuscule to ban it. Singh sued the Tour, while the sport's anti-doping procedures came into disrepute. For instance, how are human growth hormones 'banned' if the Tours don't do the blood testing necessary to detect their abuse?

4 MUTINY THREAT FROM THE BOUNTIFUL

MUTINY was in air as the mega-rich US Tour and their powerful cousins, the PGA of America, took exception to a proposal by the US Golf Association and the R&A to rule against long putters. A major rift was feared but the legislators bravely called the bluff and confirmed the dubious practice of 'anchoring' would be outlawed from January 1, 2016.

5 MORONIC DUFNER KING OF THE TWITS

DUFNER won the US PGA but it wasn't his golf that sparked a Twitter craze last spring. Instead it was American's zombie expression and uninterested demeanour during his visit to a Dallas classroom in March. If the kids behaved as moronically, they would be put in the corner or sent to the nurse.

Irish Independent

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