Monday, December 28, 2009

2009: Golf's Greatest Year

2009 will go down in history as the game of golf's greatest year, no doubt about it.

The year began with typical early season wins by Phil Mickelson, but the real foreshadowing began when veteran Kenny Perry held off a number of up-and-comers to win the FBR Open at TPC Scottsdale.

Tiger Woods, of course, rounded his game into shape by winning his annual warm up tournament to the Masters - the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The oddsmakers liked Woods or Mickelson for the first major of the year, but an electric Sunday charge by the dream pairing came up just short when Kenny Perry made a routine par at the 18th, becoming the oldest player to ever win The Masters, as well as the oldest to win any of the game's four major championships.

Asked the key to victory, the 48-year-old green jacket wearing Perry beamed, "I really think it was when I put the driver back in my bag on 18 and went with my trusty 3-wood off the tee."

His ball landed in the middle of the fairway, comfortably short of the infamous bunker that might have prevented Perry from joining the illustrious group of former champions. Instead, he pured a 6-iron to the middle of the green for an easy two-putt and an historic victory.

The year's worst news came shortly thereafter when it was announced that Mickelson's popular wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mickelson, however, expressed optimism about his wife's cancer, saying that doctors believed they had diagnosed the condition early. "We have a wonderful team of doctors helping us and it is believed that we caught this early," the 38-year-old said. "We are anxiously waiting for a number of test results that will help guide us in the best possible direction."

With this encouraging news, Mickelson announced to fans that he would indeed be in the field for the U.S. Open at Bethpage, New York.

Fighting swelling emotions and galleries, Mickelson managed to hold it together for his first two rounds, comfortably making the cut. Tiger Woods, having once again won his warm up tournament to the US Open, opened with a disappointing 74 before bouncing back with a 2nd round 69. But both golfers found themselves well back of the leaders after Saturday's third round.

With Woods out of the picture, Mickelson looked to be going nowhere before he birdied the 9th hole on Sunday. Still, he began the final nine holes four strokes behind surprise leader, Lucas Glover.

After a birdie at 12 and an eagle at 13, suddenly Lefty had a share of the lead and destiny in his bag.

At 15, he dropped in a slippery downhill 3-footer as thousands of fans let out a collective sigh of relief.

After a poor chip to 8-feet on 17, Mickelson rammed the back of the cup with his putt and it dropped in for par.

On 18, Mickelson was figuring on two putts from 30 feet, but as fate would have it, the putt never left its perfect line and it disappeared into the hole one more time as the crowd went wild.

Some twenty minutes later, standing over his 3-foot putt for par on 18, Glover knew he'd done nothing to lose the tournament.

"I just looked at the scoreboard to make sure this was really happening," Glover said.

He sunk the putt to finish one back of Mickelson, tied for 2nd with David Duval, whose 5-foot putt on the 17th went 360 degrees around the cup before dropping in, giving him one last chance to catch Mickelson.

But this was Mickelson's day, and there was nothing anyone else could do about it.

Basking in the afterglow of his first US Open Championship, Mickelson announced, "The best news so far is that the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes, which improves our chances of beating this in the short and long term."

As if the golf year could get any more remarkable, The Open Championship was returning to the site of the epic 1977 battle between a young Tom Watson, and the golden bear he brought down, Jack Nicklaus. Turnberry held a special place in Watson's heart and he had a feeling a special week was in store.

Of course, 32 years having passed, everyone knew this was more a walk down memory lane than any real threat to the likes of Tiger Woods, who once again won his warm up tournament at the AT+T three weeks prior.

But golf is a funny game, and the gods couldn't have been surprised when Watson opened with the low round of 65, and Woods went 71-74 to miss the cut by a stroke.

Everyone must have been surprised, however, when Watson stood in the middle of the 18th fairway with a one stroke lead and an 8-iron in his hand. Standing over his ball for one final approach, Watson paused. As if the divine had intervened, he stepped away from his ball and asked his caddy for his 9-iron.

Watson readdressed and flushed it. The ball landed gently in front of the green and bounded toward the flag, stopping 10-feet short of the hole. The crowd roared as the 59-year-old holder of five Open Championships took the mystical walk toward his 6th. Two putts later he was handed the Claret Jug and the mantle of oldest man to ever win a major, knocking off 48-year-old Kenny Perry, who held the record for three months and a week!

Afterwards, Watson quipped, "Makes for a heck of a story, huh?"

Elementary, Watson. Soon after, a poll among sportswriters found it to be the greatest story in the history of sports.

As the year wound down to its final major, the one glaring omission from the previous three was Tiger Woods. Once again, Mr. Woods won his final warm up leading to the championship, thus giving him a Grand Slam of warm up tournaments - later coined "The Warm-Up Slam" - which is no small feat.

Woods came out firing on all cylinders this time, playing well for three rounds and taking a two stroke lead over Y.E. Yang into the final day. Woods, as it had widely been mentioned, had never lost a major tournament he'd led after 54-holes.

And this day would be no different. Yang gave it a noble effort, but Woods had an answer for every charge.

"I played well enough to win the championship," Woods said, adding "It feels good to get my 15th major out of the way, and I'm really looking forward to taking it to Kenny, Phil and Tom in Bermuda later this year."

Woods was referring to the year end match between major winners, but first he'd need to take care of some business at the President's Cup.

The President's Cup turned into a rout for the Americans, due in no small part to the play of Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink - the gracious runners-up in the U.S Open and The Open Championship. Paired together the entire week, they never lost a match. After clinching their singles matches on Sunday, they had a combined record of 10-0.

Tiger Woods would have joined in the perfection had it not been for the revenge Y.E. Yang took on him in a meaningless Sunday match, leaving Woods 4-1 for the week.

Woods did indeed go on to edge "Kenny, Phil and Tom" in Bermuda, but the biggest news of the year came shortly after a quiet Thanksgiving when Woods stated on his website that he would be taking an indefinite leave from golf. Having just been awarded with both the 2009 Player of the Year Award, as well as the Athlete Of The Decade, Woods surprised the golf world by declaring his intention to run for governor of Florida and California.

"I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow competitors, for their understanding. After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf," Woods wrote on his website.

It was a shock to everyone in golf, but one man it would have been no surprise to was his father. It was Earl Woods, after all, who infamously stated back in 1996 before Woods had won even one professional event, "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity."

Golf's loss will obviously be the world's gain.

2010 could have never lived up to 2009 anyway.'



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