BY TOM LaMARRE
Legendary football coach George Allen liked to say, “The future is now,” which is a phrase that also describes the 2012 golf season.
Not only did 23-year-old Rory McIlroy establish himself as the best player in the world and heir to the throne of Tiger Woods, others in the next generation began to assert themselves, including major winners Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. McIlroy has claimed a major in each of the past two seasons, and Keegan Bradley and Charl Schwartzel won majors for the younger generation in 2011.
While this group has promise, there is much work to be done to come close to the generation that includes Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.
The older guys aren’t done yet but the kids keep pushing, so with an eye toward 2013, here’s our look at the highs and lows of the season that was:
Player of the Year: It has to be Rory McIlroy, who won four times on the PGA Tour, including a dominating eight-stroke victory at the PGA Championship. McIlroy pulled away from Tiger Woods, who won three times, by winning three times in a span of four tournaments in August and September, including the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship during the PGA Tour playoffs. He led the PGA Tour money list and was ahead in the Race to Dubai heading toward the European Tour finale at the DP Dubai World Championship at the end of November, and he finished second to Brandt Snedeker in the FedEx Cup standings.
Comeback Player of the Year: Winless since 2009 on the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods made himself relevant again with three victories and nine top-10 finishes on the U.S. circuit, but he left fans with a feeling that there could have been more. He played well in the first two rounds of the last three majors but struggled on the weekend each time with a chance to claim a 15th major title. Despite some outstanding results, inconsistency held him back from what could have been an even better season, but most importantly Woods showed that he has plenty left in the tank as he approaches his 37th birthday in December.
Rookie of the Year: John Huh wins by an eyelash over fast-closing Jonas Blixt. Huh, a 22-year-old from Cal State Northridge, won the Mayakoba Classic early in the year and finished second at the Valero Texas Open. He had four top-10 finishes and 12 in the top 25, enough to carry him to the Tour Championship and a 25th-place finish in the FedEx Cup standings. Blixt posted three consecutive top-10 finishes in May but didn’t get it going again until the Fall Series, when he finished third in Las Vegas before winning the Frys.com Open a week later. The 28-year-old Swede led the PGA Tour with an average of 27.75 putts per round.
Best Shot of the Year: It was a hook shot for the ages, hit by Bubba Watson out of the trees on the second playoff hole at Augusta National, which led to a par that took the green jacket from Louis Oosthuizen. “Just a 40-yard hook with a 52-degree wedge,” Watson explained with a shrug. He couldn’t even see the green but hit the ball under a tree branch and to within 10 feet of the hole. Amazingly, Watson’s shot came just a few hours after what probably was the second-best shot of the year, which was hit by Oosthuizen. On the par-5 second hole, he hit a brilliant shot with a 4-iron from 253 yards for the fourth double eagle in Masters history.
Worst Shot of the Year: The duck hook Jim Furyk hit into the trees off the tee on the 16th hole in the final round of the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco probably cost him his second career major title. The errant drive led to a bogey, and he made another bogey at No. 18 to tie for fourth, two shots behind Webb Simpson. It was that kind of year for Furyk, who squandered several other chances to win, most notably when he carded a double bogey on the last hole to tie for second, one shot behind Keegan Bradley in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. However, the 42-year-old said the low point of his year came when he made bogeys on his last two holes to lose his singles match to Sergio Garcia in the Ryder Cup.
Putt of the Year: The 15-footer Ernie Els holed on the 18th hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to win the Open Championship for his fourth major title was bittersweet for the Big Easy. The high of the victory came at the expense of Adam Scott, Els’s buddy who had to collapse down the stretch for him to win. However, while the Aussie was spitting the bit, the big South African closed with a 2-under 68, making big putts all day long with his belly putter, which he went to in desperation after saying for most of his career that the club should be illegal.
Biggest Collapse: The United States in the Ryder Cup, where the Americans held a 10-6 lead heading into Sunday singles. Needing only 4-and-a-half points to regain the trophy, the U.S. could manage only victories from Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, plus a halve from Tiger Woods. Captain Davis Love III backloaded his singles lineup and the handwriting was on the wall when the Europeans won the first six matches of the day. When Phil Mickelson lipped out a chip at No. 17 that might have given him a victory, Justin Rose took advantage to win that critical match by finishing with two consecutive birdies. When veterans Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker completed dismal Ryder Cup performances by fading late in the day, it was over.