Adios 2011; Hello '12

As the final sighs of 2011 filter into the ionosphere, golfers have the chance to reflect on this past 365-day stretch. Here's a look at last year's professional game and a couple of other observations.

This was the year of the international player on the PGA Tour. Golfers from the Continent, coming off their Ryder Cup victory in 2010 - their sixth in the past eight of the biennial competition, have clearly leveled the playing field with the Americans.

Appropriately, England's Luke Donald got the ball rolling with a win in February's WGC Match Play Championship in Arizona, beating Germany's Martin Kaymer 3 and 2. That victory heralded the 34-year-old Brit's ascension in May to the No. 1 ranking in the world. By year's end Donald became the only player in history to win the money titles on both the PGA and European tours, raking in a cool $13,806,984, proving that steady - Donald had 14 top-10 finishes in 19 PGA Tour starts - beats spectacular over the long haul.

Non-Americans also took three of the four major titles (South Africa's Charl Schwartzel - Masters; Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy - an eight-shot triumph in the U.S. Open at Congressional; and Darren Clarke, who took home the Claret Jug in sentimental and typically celebratory fashion. Vermont rookie, Keegan Bradley, regained some Yankee pride with a playoff victory over Ohio native and Auburn Tiger, Jason Dufner, at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Other winners born outside the good old U.S. of A. included Venezuelan rookie Jhonattan Vegas (Bob Hope Classic); South African Rory Sabbatini (Honda Classic); Scotland's Martin Laird (Arnold Palmer Invitational); Korean K.J. Choi (The Players Championship); Sweden's Fredrik Jacobsen (Travelers Championship); Aussie Adam Scott (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational); England's Justin Rose (BMW Championship); Donald again (Children's Miracle Network Hospital Classic, which gave him the PGA Tour money title); and Kaymer (WGC-HSBC Champions in China - yes, the Middle Kingdom hosts a PGA Tour event).

As for American victories on the European Tour? None. Zippo. Nada. Though Europeans often play on the PGA Tour, the same level of cross-the-Pond-pollination simply hasn't been done by the Americans. However, that might change as 2010 U.S. Amateur champion and Oklahoma State All-American Peter Uihlein will make a go of it overseas next year.

Whither Tiger? Well, after a two-year absence following his marital infidelities and leg injuries, Eldrick Tont Woods - who turned 36 on December 30 - fired his caddie and hired Fred Couples' longtime looper - low-key family man Joe LaCava; came to grips with his third complete swing overhaul - this time by Sean Foley; and managed to end the year on a high note, getting the Americans' winning point against the Internationals in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne and then capturing his fifth title in the Chevron World Challenge, a non-tour event that he hosts at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Perhaps the most indelible memory of Tiger at year's end was his smile. The man with the steely, direct-ahead gaze actually seemed to be enjoying himself on the golf course this autumn, a remarkable turnaround for an inscrutable superstar previously shielded from the adoring masses by phalanxes of security and former caddie, the bellicose Steve Williams (now employed by Adam Scott). It'll be interesting to see how Woods, who despite his off-course woes remains sports' largest income producer at over $62 million annually, behaves when the chips are down - as they invariably will be - in 2012.

Yani Tseng simply had one of golf's best-ever years. The antithesis of the insolent athletic hero, the likable Taiwan native who makes her home in Florida dominated the women's game, winning 12 times worldwide, including seven titles on the LPGA Tour.

Tseng, who turns 23 on January 23rd, has already racked up five major titles; the only big hardware missing from her bursting-at-the-seams trophy case is the U.S. Women's Open. With her 10-stroke victory in June at the LPGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., Tseng became the youngest player to win four majors since a 23-year-old Patty Berg before the formation of the LPGA.

Tseng was so overwhelming in 2011 that she locked up the LPGA's Player of the Year in October five weeks early with a resounding 301 points, more than the combined total of Nos. 2 and 3 Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr. It was Yani's second straight POY award. On the season Tseng accrued a whopping $2,921,713; Kerr was a distant second at $1,470,979.

Arnold Palmer is as competitive as ever. The 82-year-old legend still tees it up with his Bay Hill buddies in Florida. On November 8th, using a new Callaway 5-iron from 163 yards, "The King" knocked it in the cup on the par-3 seventh at Bay Hill's Charger Course for the 20th ace of his life, and finished with a 79.

Rookies made a mark on the PGA Tour. A combined six victories went to neophytes this year. Two - Schwartzel and Bradley (who also won the HP Byron Nelson) - won major titles. Others breaking their maidens were Vegas, Brendan Steele (Valero Texas Open), Chris Kirk (Viking Classic) and Scott Stallings (Greenbrier Classic), making 2011 the first time so many rookies won on the PGA Tour.

The long putter may irk traditionalists, but these implements proved valuable in getting a spot in the winner's circle. Bradley became the first major winner with a broomstick when he snatched up the Wanamaker Trophy in August. Other sweeper-winners included Scott, Webb Simpson - who held the money list lead until Donald passed him by in the Disney, Ben Crane, Steele and Laird. Old pros Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson also toyed with belly putters, but "Lefty" returned to a regular blade to shine during the Presidents Cup.

Lexi Thompson validated her claims that she was ready to go against the big girls. After the Coral Springs teenager's petition in late 2010 was nixed by the LPGA due to tour's 18-year-old requirement, the 16-year-old rolled to a five-shot win in the Navistar LPGA Classic in Alabama to become the youngest player ever to win on the LPGA Tour in a multiple-round tournament.

Not surprisingly, her petition in September for LPGA membership was approved, and she will be a regular member in 2012. Thompson further confirmed that decision by capturing the Dubai Ladies Masters by four strokes in December, wiping out the previous youngest-ever-professional-winner record on the Ladies European Tour.

Passages included the dashing, five-time major champion Seve Ballesteros, who succumbed to brain cancer in May; CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian, the brilliant and brusque "Ayatolla"; Paul Harney, a six-time Tour victor who became a family man and club pro after his oldest child started school; Dave Hill, the irascible but deft 13-time PGA Tour winner; Billy Joe Patton, the amateur who just missed making it a three-way playoff - with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead no less - in the 1954 Masters; five-time PGA Tour winner Mason Rudolph, who has a nine-hole course in Clarksville, Tenn., named after him; and Bettye Danoff, one of the 13 founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association who became the first player to bring along her children to tournaments.

The induction ceremony for the World Golf Hall of Fame 2011 class promises to be one for the ages. Along with the late Chirkinian, of whom some rousing tales will be told by the person who gives his speech, also entering the hall will be Phil Mickelson, Hollis Stacy, Sandy Lyle, the loquacious Peter Alliss and golf writer Dan Jenkins. Jenkins's acceptance speech alone will be worth the price of admission.

Special Golf Shot(s) of the Year

Sure, there was Bill Haas's miraculous up-and-down from the greenside pond for par that helped him earn $1.4 million in the Tour Championship and a $10 million bonus for the FedEx Cup. And there was Kevin Na's crazy 12-over 16 in the Texas Open that set an all-time PGA Tour record on a par-4. And don't forget John Daly's splash-filled escapade at the Australian Open in Sydney when he deposited the remaining contents of his ball pocket - six - in a water hazard and walked to the parking lot.

But none of these great/dubious shot/score flirtations can match that of my friend Scott Spiwak (son of Cybergolf's Bob) on the second hole during a spring round at Kayak Point Golf Course north of Seattle.

After hooking a mediocre drive on the trouble-strewn, dogleg-right par-5, Scott, a solid 20-handicapper, found his Titleist behind a massive rock that's at least 40 feet high. Instead of playing it safe and punching back into the fairway, Scott decided to go heroic, taking out his rescue club and giving it a solid swipe.

The ball made direct contact with the gigantic impediment before him and - I kid you not - zoomed backward over his quickly ducking head well over 150 yards into wetlands. After thousands of rounds, I can seriously (sort of) say that I've never seen a golf ball experience such a rapid reversal of fortunes - or directions - as that of Scott Spiwak's on that overcast day in the Pacific Northwest.

This just goes to show that golf balls, regardless of the brand, will go where the sender delivers them.

From Cybergolf and its talented staff of writers, here's hoping your destinations will be much more pleasant in 2012. Happy New Year everyone!

New Year's Quotes

"Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve. Middle age is when you're forced to." Bill Vaughn

"New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions." Mark Twain

"Many people look forward to the New Year for a new start on old habits." Author Unknown

"A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other." Author Unknown

"The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to." P.J. O'Rourke

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

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