As 2011 has ended and the 2012 season officially starts tomorrow, we’re (still) taking an obligatory look at the winners and losers of 2011. First, we reviewed the best shots. Then, we cringed through the greatest meltdowns. We also checked out some players who were considered overachievers. Next, we took a gander at those who had the most disappointing seasons, along with the most notable Tiger moments.
To cap off a look back at an incredible 2011, we’ll go through some of the best feel-good stories — which is my personal favorite because believe it or not, I’m a huge sucker for sap (I just don’t like to admit to it usually). Here we go in no particular order…
*Rory McIlroy embracing his dad on the 18th green after clinching the U.S. Open title. I’m not sure if there’s a better tribute/gift than watching your son win a major (his first, no less) on Father’s Day (and winning a major while your dad is watching). Admit it — you felt all warm and fuzzy when Rory gave his dad Gerry McIlroy a big hug after he putted out at Congressional. After his massive meltdown on the back nine of the Masters, Rory bounced back in his dominating victory just two months later — in my opinion it was the best story of the year (and just for the record, I picked him to win pre-tourney, and yes I’d like a gold star). Also worth nothing: Good friend, fellow Northern Ireland native and 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell showed up to cheer on his pal. As Rory walked up to the 18th green, he shared a smile with G-Mac, who raised his fist.
*Tiger Woods and Fred Couples celebrating at the Presidents Cup. Freddie received a lot of flak for using one of his two captain’s picks on the struggling Tiger (and leaving PGA champion Keegan Bradley off the team). Despite a tough loss in the opening match, Tiger struck the ball well and improved with each “rep.” He clinched the winning point for the U.S. in Sunday singles (even though this was more of a coincidence) after playing the best golf we’ve probably seen from him in nearly two years. Tiger looked genuinely elated and gave Fred the biggest hug ever — after all, Freddie believed in Tiger when very few did. Best part is Tiger is happy and in a good mental state (no longer playing video games by himself alone every night).
*Erik Compton winning on the Nationwide Tour’s Mexico Open. The two-time heart transplant recipient captured his first victory on the NWT in June to rid of being just *that* guy who gets sponsors exemptions because he’s on his third heart (in my opinion he should get as many invites as he’d like — the fact that he’s even playing pro golf is incredible). With the win, Compton felt the monkey was finally off his back, saying “I’m a player now.” He finished 13th on the NWT money list to earn a 2012 PGA Tour card.
*Brandt Jobe’s inspiring comeback year. I couldn’t pick Jobe out of a lineup until the Memorial in June, but ever since then, I’ve become a huge fan. He cut off two fingers in a freak accident in 2006 and overcame challenging obstacles on his way back to the PGA Tour. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote:
He cut off two fingers when a metal broom broke in his hands while cleaning his garage. The sharp edge of the handle cut through the broom’s outer layer and chopped off chunks of his left thumb and left index finger. He put them in a plastic bag and was rushed to the ER, where a plastic surgeon reattached them. While Jobe has all ten fingers, the nerve damage in those fingers was permanent, which has been the most challenging obstacle to overcome.
“I don’t have feeling in my index finger at all,” Jobe told the Star-Telegram during the Colonial several weeks ago. “It zings me when I’m putting. My thumb is dead and I don’t have any feeling in it at all.”
When Jobe returned to the game in 2008, he hit a low point and nearly quit the game.
“There were many nights, many sleepless nights with going through all the injuries,” said Jobe in his post-round presser on Sunday at Memorial. “But at the same point in time I think it’s even more rewarding to be able to come back and play well, contend. You know, when I left off that’s what I was doing, and the last three and a half years have been pretty slow. But the process for me has been working.
In his first full season on Tour since the accident, Jobe notched four top-ten finishes, including second place at the Memorial, which boasts one of the strongest “regular” tour events. He easily secured his 2012 PGA Tour card, earning $1,629,764 to finish 51st on the official money list. The day after the final round at Memorial, Jobe played in the U.S. Open Sectional Qualifier and shared co-medalist honors:
Less than twelve hours removed from his phenomenal final-round 65 on Sunday to tie for second at the Memorial, Brandt Jobe picked up right where he left off, firing a sizzling, bogey-free 10-under 62 at the Lakes Golf & Country Club during his first 18 at the 36-hole sectional qualifier for the US Open.
Not only did Jobe punch his ticket to Congressional, but he shared co-medalist honors at 12-under with Chez Reavie in the 120-man field in Columbus, Ohio (which easily could have been mistaken for a regular PGA Tour event).
“It was a survival,” said Jobe, referring to his second 18 at Brookside Golf & Country Club.
Near the 18th green as dusk was looming, he was recalling the thrilling yet draining experiences of the last 24 hours, when D.A. Points, who also secured one of the 16 available spots, briefly interjected before heading to the parking lot.
“Hey, yeah, it’s P-O-I-N-T-S,” cracked Points, with a big grin as he popped his head in, leaning toward my voice recorder. “No, I was very happy for you. That was great playing.”
Jobe, laughing, said, “Thanks, you too. Nice going.”
It’s ridiculous he didn’t receive 2011 Comeback Player of the Year honors (tour suits deemed there wasn’t anyone who deserved the award). Maybe he needs to lose a few more fingers?
*K.J. Choi winning the Players Championship with Choi’s Bois, his number-one fans, cheering him on. So, I noticed a group of guys wearing matching shirts that were living and dying by every shot K.J. hit at TPC Sawgrass. I eventually saw the shirts were emblazoned with “Choi’s Bois” on the front. I found out they were six guys from Tennessee that travel to The Players every year just to watch K.J. How in the world do six rednecks become such huge fans of the South Korean golfer?? In 2005 on their first trip to the event, they followed a bunch of players and found K.J. to the best fan-friendly (which he is..or least top three). Since the Choi’s Bois walked with him in every round (and were waiting for him on the tee at 7am), K.J. noticed them and appreciated the support. He told the guys to meet him after his round so they could take a picture. Choi eventually won the premier event (perhaps the biggest of his career?) in a playoff against David Toms. During the trophy ceremony, he gestured for the Choi’s Bois to come inside the ropes and take pictures with him. Class act.
*Harrison Frazar’s, almost retiring to winning.Less than a year ago, the 40-year-old Frazar penned a first-person SI story, divulging his trials and tribulations in recent years and the possibility of walking away from pro golf. In June he won his first PGA Tour victory at the St. Jude’s Classic, which also gave him a two-year exemption and changed his outlook on his career. I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear retirement isn’t in the cards anymore — at least not for another two years.
*David Toms’ career revival. The 45-year-old Toms admitted to not having much fun out on Tour not too long ago. I get it — it’s lonely out here and it’s tough living out of a suitcase, especially when you have a family. But since his son took up the game more seriously, he started enjoying it again. Toms, the 2001 PGA champ, was never in danger of losing his card (he’s had several seasons where he’s earned three million-plus. While he notched a fair number of runner-up finishes, DT hadn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2006. He lost in a playoff against K.J. Choi at The Players, missing a two-footer on the par-3 No. 17. It was a heartbreaker. Two weeks later, Toms teed it up again at the Colonial, shooting a pair of 62s in the first two rounds and eventually winning by one over Charlie Wi.
*PGA Tour Q-School. If you’re a regular WUP reader, then you know I look forward to covering Q-School every year. In fact, it ranks in my top-three favorite events. I love the feel-good stories (way more than the crappy, heartbreaking ones because, well, it sucks and many guys have to wait another year to try again). It’s probably one of the only sporting events where you expect to see grown men cry — and it’s understandable. Q-School in 2010 was pretty special to me because I got to watch one of my best friends growing up earn his card, but 2011 didn’t disappoint, either.
**Colt Knost’s emotional rollercoaster. He double-bogeyed the difficult 18th hole, pushing his tee shot into the water and missing a 10 footer for bogey, which he thought he had to make to finish within the number. As he walked to the scoring trailer, his eyes were red and he looked ready to start bawling. (I wanted to give him a hug.) Turns out he had a stroke to work with and he was going to re-earn his card. Even after being informed he was safe, he had just endured a rollercoaster of emotions in an already taxing week. As he spoke with us (reporters), tears streamed down his face. It’s not “fun” to watch anyone cry, but it’s those kind of moments that make me love Q-School so much.
“I thought I lost it,” said Knost, who finished 174th on the 2011 PGA Tour money list. “I thought I had no chance of keeping it, and I got lucky.”
Turned out he finished right on the number he needed to keep his card.
“I really thought I was fine all day, and then I thought I had a shot or two to play with on 18,” said Knost, who was still flustered. “I hit a tee shot I didn’t really expect to hit, and that’s kind of the pressure, I guess. I didn’t really know where I stood. I kind of had an idea, but had I known I had a couple to play with, I probably would have just blown it way left. I don’t know, I had been hitting it pretty good all day, and that shot just came out of nowhere. Tough finish, but it looks like I’m going to make it through.”
Knost, who isn’t known as an emotional guy, had tears streaming down his face. Asked if he could remember the last time he cried, he replied, “A long time.” It’s a tough moment to recount and put on paper (or the computer screen)…
**Tommy Biershenk. The 38-year-old journeyman earned his PGA Tour card after playing every Q-School since turning pro in 1997. He missed finishing within the number by a shot in 2010, but this time around, he placed fifth.
“It was a long week, and I’m worn out, and I’m sure the rest of the guys are. I’m excited that I played good, and it’s a great feeling. It’s a burden off my shoulders right now because it’s something I’ve been after all my life.”
“The longer it goes, it seems like the harder you try, and I try to go out there and relax and just let it happen,” he said, referring to how difficult it is for others to understand the experience of trying to pass Q-school finals year after year. “I feel like my game is as good as most of the guys ‑‑ some of the best players in the world. Just my time hasn’t come, and I knew if I stayed patient, wait and keep my head held high that things would come around. Fortunately, this year I reached my goal.”
His journey is only beginning — at least the one where he starts the 2012 season as a PGA Tour member — but it’s impossible not to be happy and root for the guy. After all, it did take a lot of patience, guts and determination.
Biershenk was still processing the reality, but his elation was contagious. He even looked like he was tearing up a bit, which then almost makes you do the same. Many say when you finally earn your card, it’s validation that you are indeed good enough to be playing at the highest level. Until then, there’s always a hint of uncertainty — even if it’s the tiniest bit — whether or not you’re good enough and belong.
**Richard H. Lee’s incredible, clutch finish. Lee was the only player on the “more difficult” Stadium Course (meaning after four rounds he wasn’t in the top half of the field) to come from behind and play well enough to earn his PGA Tour card. Lee, who played his college golf at University of Washington and missed his 2011 card by one stroke, went on a tear in the last five holes, going eagle, birdie, par, birdie, birdie, to finish on the number. /slowclap
Alright, the PGA Tour season-opener officially kicks off tomorrow (Friday). I bet you all have your Tivo’s set! No, but really, you should. Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo in the booth together? I mean, come on! It’s going to be epic (or a train wreck, but either way, I bet it’s worth tuning in).
A parting shot: On a personal note, I didn’t think 2011 could surpass 2010, but I was proven wrong — though both were incredible). Like 2010, last year was filled with almost non-stop hug-me-now moments for WUP. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for the support, generosity, kindness and mentorship that people have shown me. I’ve been fortunate to come across wonderful opportunities, cover 26+ PGA Tour events in the 2011 season, and meet many amazing individuals and wonderful friends along the way. I will always be infinitely thankful to you all. HUGS!