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7 Wonders of the golfing world

RORY McILROY and Darren Clarke dominated a phenomenal year in world golf with their own sensational version of the Generation Game last summer.

McIlroy's recovery from his Sunday meltdown at the US Masters to win the US Open at Congressional 70 days later was an uncanny achievement for a 22-year-old.

We barely had time to catch our breath before Clarke's lifelong dream of winning the British Open came true at Royal St George's, just weeks before his 43rd birthday.

Then Keegan Bradley made history and stirred a ripple of alarm among purists at the PGA Championship by becoming the first man to win a Major with a belly putter in the bag.

One history maker who didn't make it into our 'magnificent seven' is Luke Donald, the English golfing metronome who became the first man to win the official money list in America and Europe in the same season.

Donald, of course, is famous for his astonishing consistency, not sporadic acts of brilliance.

Mind you, holing a 50-foot putt on the 15th green to complete a string of six consecutive birdies in the final-round 64 that clinched victory at the Disney Classic and won Donald the US Money List was a real contender.

Naturally, there were many other unforgettable shots to savour over the year.

McIlroy's thrilling hole-out from a greenside bunker at the last to seal his win at the Hong Kong Open and keep the Race to Dubai alive down the stretch is readily recalled.

One suspects the European Tour might have found it more difficult to wring a two-year extension to the sponsorship of the Dubai World Championship from the sheikhs had the climax to the season been a damp squib.

Another Ulsterman, Michael Hoey, played two career-best shots with his seven-iron within 15 minutes of eachother on the Old Course at St Andrews in October, as he swept to the biggest win of his career at the Dunhill Links.

Hoey actually landed three birdies in the final four holes to overhaul McIlroy and McDowell at the top of the leaderboard as this gifted trio turned the 'Old Grey Toon' green that Sunday afternoon.

1 Rory McIlroy

(Tee shot, 10th hole, at Congressional, Sunday, US Open)

IT was the most significant golf shot of Rory McIlroy's young life. Coincidentally, it was played from the 10th tee at Congressional on US Open Sunday, precisely 69 days, 23 hours and 42 minutes after his hooked drive at Augusta National's 10th hole had sparked the young Ulsterman's final-round meltdown at the US Masters.

Eight strokes ahead, McIlroy knew if he made it safely across the water and onto the green at this daunting 204-yard par-three, then sweet redemption, a first Major title and a place in history as the youngest US Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923, would be assured.

And so did the tens of thousands of fans crammed into the vast amphitheatre around this spectacular hole. As they held their breath, McIlroy swung his six-iron as smoothly as he might in a friendly Sunday morning fourball at Holywood, Co Down.

His ball arced high and straight, homing in on the flag like a laser-guided missile. It pitched gently on the downslope directly behind the hole and trickled back, tiptoeing past the edge of the cup before coming to a stop two feet later.

McIlroy holed the birdie putt and marched on to glory. His two there was five strokes better and a world apart from the triple-bogey seven on 10 that had set his head spinning at Augusta National.

2 Darren Clarke

(Second Shot, 18th hole, Sandwich, Friday, british Open)

THERE were 36 holes to go at the British Open. They would be challenging, of course, but still represented just two more days on the long, winding life path which brought Darren Clarke to the top of the leaderboard on Friday at Sandwich.

Clarke had enjoyed heady triumph and endured deep tragedy along the way, but, through it all, his innate skills as a links specialist remained constant.

It was this that gave many of the volcanic Irishman's fellow countrymen confidence in his ability to fulfil his lifetime ambition on what promised to be a blustery, windswept weekend on the Kent coast.

Weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, Clarke rediscovered his old swagger on the links at Royal St George's. A pre-tournament session with Dr Bob Rotella had helped him find rare serenity, while the Ulsterman's game had been honed to perfection during a winter's work in howling gales at Portrush.

Nobody was going to live with him in this mood and on this terrain.

There would be many moments that weekend. Yet, when Clarke completed back-to-back rounds of 68 on Friday with the sweetest little cut seven-iron into 18 for a soaring birdie, even the seagulls seemed to scream "bring it on lads, bring it on."

3 Azara Munoz

(Second shot, 17th hole, Killeen Castle, Sunday, Solheim Cup)

EUROPE emerged from the mother of all sporting battles for the Solheim Cup after a storm-tossed September Sunday at Killeen Castle produced a climax as breathtaking as Dublin's All-Ireland title snatch seven days earlier.

Captain Alison Nicholas had three trump cards in her hand when the weather window opened wide enough in late afternoon to allow completion of this gripping contest.

Europe's final push for victory actually started during the buggy ride back onto the golf course, when Norway's world No 2 Suzann Pettersen made a solemn pact with rookie team-mates Caroline Hedwall (22) of Sweden and Spain's Azara Munoz (23).

Though trailing Michelle Wie by one with three to play, Pettersen swore she would beat the talismanic American.

Inspired by her confidence and determination, Hedwall and Munoz vowed they, too, would not allow themselves be beaten.

True to her word, Pettersen blitzed Wie with three brilliant birdies. Then Hedwall came from two down with two to play to wring the match-clinching half from Ryann O'Toole after Munoz, in the final game, had hit the shot of the tournament into 17 to set up a famous victory over Angela Stanford.

Her heart was pounding as she stood over her 129-yard shot into 17, but Munoz took her eight-iron and punched in a classic Spanish stinger, -- one that Seve himself would have been proud -- before polishing off the three-footer for an immense birdie. Brilliant.

Europe won 15-13 and thousands of bedraggled spectators went home convinced sport can't be any better than this.

4 Keegan Bradley

(Birdie putt, 17th hole, Atlanta Athletic Club, Sunday, US PGA)

HOW fitting that the first man to wield a long putter in victory at a Major should use that implement to play the key shot of the championship late on Sunday afternoon.

Proud Irish-American Keegan Bradley needed to show phenomenal strength of character over the final three holes in regulation at August's US PGA after a triple-bogey six at Atlanta Athletic Club's treacherous 15th had handed back the initiative to Jason Dufner.

Bradley (25), whose aunt Pat is a member of world golf's Hall of Fame, came up with the birdies he needed at 16 and 17 to force the tournament into extra-time. The monster putt he sank at the penultimate hole will stand out in history as the moment the belly putter found true legitimacy in elite professional golf.

The big difference between guys like Bradley and his young fellow Americans Bill Haas, Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar is that they have transformed the belly putter from the last resort of a desperate, yip-stricken minority into a popular weapon of choice.

Of course, this inevitably will strengthen calls to have them banned. Should the governing bodies decide to take this course of action, Padraig Harrington cleverly suggests a rule requiring the putter to be the shortest club in the bag.

The putt which effectively clinched Bradley's place in the three-hole play-off certainly was worthy of the occasion. After he had hit his eight-iron 35 feet right of the cup at the par-three 17th, Bradley read perfectly the eight feet of break and coolly dispatched the monster putt that allowed him make history.

5 Charl Schwartzel

(Chip-in, 1st hole, Augusta National, Sunday, US Masters)

SHOCK and awe! Rory McIlroy's meltdown entering Augusta National's back nine and winner Charl Schwartzel's unprecedented four-birdie finish inevitably made world headlines at the US Masters ... yet both men believe the template was set on the opening hole.

Already feeling uncharacteristically tense and unsettled going into that final round, McIlroy made bogey after a poor approach into the first, while Schwartzel drew precious momentum from his astonishing chip-in birdie from 60 feet at the same hole.

For the first time that week, the South African took three-wood off the first tee. Left with a six-iron approach, he nervously pushed the shot right of the green. Facing a poor lie in trampled grass, Schwartzel left his trusty lob-wedge in the bag and elected to run the ball up the slope with that six-iron.

He hit it as far right as he could, hoping the ball would feed back toward the hole. When it disappeared into the cup a moment or two later, Schwartzel, the modest son of a chicken farmer, was almost deafened. "I never heard a crowd roar like that before," he recalls.

Rated by Schwartzel himself as the most significant shot of his season, this masterful stroke was followed two holes later by a pitch-in eagle at the par four third ... suddenly, McIlroy's four-stroke overnight lead had evaporated and, after three glorious days, the young Ulsterman surrendered the initiative. The die had been cast.

6 Bill Haas

(Third shot, 2nd Tie Hole, East Lake, Sunday, The Tour Championship)

WHEN it came to making waves in 2011, Bill Haas was the man! His up-and-down from the water to the left of East Lake's 17th green to force a third extra hole at America's showpiece Tour Championship verged on the miraculous.

After a final-round 68, the 29-year-old American, son of US Ryder Cup star Jay Haas, tied with fellow countryman Hunter Mahan on eight-under.

Bizarrely, Haas did not discover until after the play-off was finished that he and Mahan actually were playing for the $10m FedEx Cup along with the $1.4m tournament first prize.

He mistakenly believed that Luke Donald had landed the season-long championship in third place and didn't realise his error until after he'd beaten Mahan on the third hole of sudden death.

Perhaps it's just as well, because Haas already appeared nervous enough as he and Mahan scrambled hard for par on the first play-off hole, the par-three 18th. Worse was to follow for Haas at 17, where he hit his tee shot into a right fairway bunker and then bounced his approach off the left slope of the green and into the lake.

The ball was only half submerged, so Haas took his 60-degree wedge and hit the 'Hail Mary' shot of the century. Mud and water flew skywards with his ball, but the contact was perfect and it skidded to a halt around two feet past the cup, giving Haas $11.4m reasons to thank heaven for an autumn drought in Atlanta.

7 Tiger Woods

(Winning putt, 18th hole, Sherwood, Sunday, Chevron World Challenge)

WITH a shake of the head and a wry smile, Zach Johnson said it all.

Standing close to the back of the green at Sherwood Country Club in November, Johnson had just watched Tiger Woods hole out for the second of two back-to-back birdies and his first victory in two years.

Woods was back from hell and Johnson, though disappointed at being pipped at the post in the Chevron World Challenge, clearly enjoyed every moment of this confrontation with the Tiger of old.

One behind after Johnson's birdie at the long 16th, Tiger punched the air with delight when he holed a 19- footer at 17 to draw level. Woods then played an exquisite eight-iron approach inside Johnson at the last, but, recalling his extra-time eclipse at the hands of Graeme McDowell in 2010, nobody was making assumptions.

Yet when that winning putt dropped, Tiger vented two years of frustration with a celebration arguably as noisy and intense as at any of his 14 Major successes. Victory, even in this 18-man end-of-season fundraiser for his own Foundation was that important to Woods.

As free as he is ever likely to be from the self-inflicted turmoil in his private life; fit after a crippling series of knee and Achilles injuries and now assured that he can win with the swing he's developed under coach Sean Foley, Tiger is back on the prowl.

Yet he is returned to a different, less deferential world. One waits with bated breath for the sparks to fly at Abu Dhabi next month and Augusta in April as he tries to get his teeth into Rory McIlroy.

Irish Independent