As the year ends (only a few hours left!), we’re taking a look at the winners and losers of 2011. First, we reviewed the best shots. Then, we cringed through the greatest meltdowns. Now, we — with most of the credit going to Intern Shoshana — check out some players that exceeded the expectations set for them at the start of the season. Before you dig in, consider some of the guys you think distinguished themselves in 2011.
5. Newcomers — Every year a few fresh faces break through, but this year was a phenomenal one for players in their first full year on tour. Seven guys recorded wins, two of whom won majors (Charl Schwartzel technically counts because he was considered a PGA Tour rookie). More than that, though, 2011′s breakout players gave us the potential for several future stars — Charl, Keegan Bradley, Brendan Steele and Gary Woodland (his actual rookie year was cut short by injury in 2008), among others. This year’s crop of newcomers stole the stage and set a bar the guys in 2012 will be hard-pressed to match.
4. Mark Wilson — At the beginning of 2011 the unassuming Green Bay Packers fan was the hottest golfer on the planet, notching wins at the Sony Open and Waste Management Open (on the same weekend his Packers won the Super Bowl, no less!). While he cooled off, he earned his first Masters invite, and was tied for the lead in PGA Tour victories. Not bad for a guy who by today’s standards can barely hit it out of his own shadow.
[Ed. note: He's evidently so exciting that I didn't want to miss a moment during his playoff against Jason Dufner in Phoenix. Before Wilson locked up his second win, I was carried off the course and taken to the hospital with a badly sprained ankle, which led to two months in a massive walking cast -- or "the boot" as we referred it. --Steph]
3. Luke Donald – 2011 was the year when everyone started hoping “Luke Donald Disease” was contagious. Though he had an illustrious amateur career (he broke some of Tiger Woods’ college records), he was solid yet unspectacular when he reached the pro ranks.
Then, in 2011 his long game started to catch up with his short game, which was already the best in the world. The results were spectacular. He was a top 10 machine, winning four times worldwide to tie for most victories on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, and placing a stranglehold on the top spot in the official world rankings.
Along the way, he also made a little history, becoming the first player to officially finish atop the money list on both tours (though Tiger would’ve done it several times if he’d been a Euro Tour member).
“It was incredibly impressive that with nine holes to play, Luke did exactly what he knew he had to do to win and capture his first PGA Tour money title with $6.68 million, not to mention the seven-figure bonus check from sponsor Ralph Lauren. He also became the first player in history to officially win the honor on both the PGA Tour and European Tour.
“With Luke’s victory Sunday, he also probably locked up Player of the Year honors — and deservingly so. Donald won for the second time this year on tour, as many as any other player. He also won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average. He notched 14 top tens in 19 starts (74%) on the PGA Tour.”
“A dominant year for the man who was once considered by some a chronic underachiever; he will enter 2012 as the best male player in the game.
2. Webb Simpson – Last year he didn’t secure his card until the Fall Series, but a caddie switch to the highly esteemed Paul Tesori had his game on the upswing all year. However, before August it appeared his season would be defined by an “almost” — rewind to the Zurich Classic in April when his ball was moved by wind, it cost him a shot at his maiden victory (but on the bright side it was the smoking gun to causing a rules change). He then proceeded to win the Wyndham Championship, followed it up with a dramatic win at the Deutsche Bank Championship and helped ignite the belly putter craze.
“The two hottest things in golf at the moment: Webb Simpson and the belly putter. Simpson has won two of the last three events, while long putters (including Adam Scott’s broomstick) have triumphed in four of the last five. (Be honest — how many of you at home have thought about trying one out?)
“Simpson has consistently played well this season with nine top-tens, including two wins and two runner-up finishes. He joins Mark Wilson, Bubba Watson, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney and Keegan Bradley as guys with multiple victories in 2011.”
Webb also received serious consideration for the Player of the Year award. If it weren’t for an incredible finish by Luuuuke!, he would have won the money title. All in all, a remarkable leap forward for the 26-year-old (now if only he’d do it at a little faster pace next year).
1. Keegan Bradley — There was a heralded rookie coming onto the PGA Tour in 2011. It wasn’t the unassuming Keegan Bradley, it was his good friend Jamie Lovemark, who finished atop the Nationwide Tour money list (you may recall at the ’09 Frys.com Open, he was in the three-way playoff with Rickie Fowler and the eventual champ Troy Matteson).
Keegan had also graduated to the bigs by virtue of the NWT money list, but he’d never won as a professional and was better known as LPGA great Pat Bradley’s nephew. However, when Jamie went down for the year with a back injury, he passed along a valuable gift to Keegan — his caddie Steve “Pepsi” Hale.
The rest is history. Keegan went on to win the Byron Nelson Championship in May, earning him a spot at the PGA Championship, where he recovered from a triple-bogey on 15 to win the Wanamaker in a playoff at his first major.
“Bradley aimed right for the flag on the 16th and knocked an 8-iron to about seven feet. He rolled in the birdie putt and with Dufner’s bogey on 15, the two-shot swing cut the lead back down to three.
“And then came the par-3 17th. The Woodstock, VT, native, who moved to Hopkinton, MA, for his senior year of high school, hit a safe shot to the right side of the tucked pin on the left, near the pond guarding the green. From roughly 40 feet, Bradley rolled in a curling right-to-left putt dead center in the cup, reacting with an emphatic fist-pump.
“[Heck, I was so stunned that I didn't even realize my phone had fallen out of my pocket while I was walking toward the 18th tee. It wasn't until I heard someone say, "Hey Steph, you dropped your phone," said Keegan. Huh, really? "Yeah, it's back there," gesturing a few yards behind. Turns out the eventual champion was calmer and more composed than I expected (and me). And that was pretty much when I knew he had the win in the bag.]”
An easy choice for Rookie of the Year honors, he probably had the best rookie season since some guy who also wears a red shirt on Sunday. The question now is, will we see an encore in 2012?
Agree? Disagree? Who are your top five overachievers in 2011?
[Ed. note: The rest of the end of the year awards -- top five Tiger moments, top five underachievers, best hug-me-now moments -- will be published in the next few days, which yes, I realize is dumb since it will no longer be 2011. I apologize, but I'm sure none of us will lose any sleep over it. Well, except for me perhaps! --Steph]