With only a few days left in 2011, we’ll take a look at the highlights and lowlights of the year. Let’s start with Best Shots (or Most Memorable), a category that needs no introduction. Before digging in, please consider the shots that jump out to you this past season. If I missed one of your favorites, my bad — drop your thoughts in the comments section. Now, let’s review and reflect on some of the most mindblowing moments in 2011 before we move on to 2012.
5. Tiger Woods, The Masters, final round, No. 8. After bombing a drive down the middle of the fairway, Tiger was left with 278 yards into the par-5 8th when he hit a pre-hydrant era, final-round Tiger shot, flushing a 3-wood to about eight feet for eagle. He drained the putt and I’ll never forget the classic fist-pump and booming cheers that only Tiger could generate. The eagle got him to 10-under for the tournament (five-under for the day) and just one off the lead. Unfortunately, post-hydrant-era Tiger returned on the back nine and he missed several short putts to cost him a chance at the title.
[A related aside...About an hour earlier, I had been standing by the first tee, waiting for the final twosome of Rory McIlroy and Angel Cabrera to kick off their rounds on Sunday. We were already hearing roars echo through the trees across the front nine. With the strict no-cell phone policy at the Masters, we couldn't follow the almost-instant scoring updates from our PDAs, so we fixated our attention at old-school leaderboard adjacent to the first tee as we anxiously waited for the officials to post the scores -- well, mostly Tiger's because of his blistering start, birdieing Nos. 2 and 3.
As Mcilroy and Cabrera were hitting their opening drives, Tiger had posted another birdie on No. 6. He followed it with another on No. 7. While I was walking the first few holes with the final group, I caught some of the exciting action on the adjacent holes (since Augusta's layout is conveniently designed, so everything is kind of close together). After watching Rory scramble for the first four, I started heading back in, but stumbled on the 8th and almost kept walking but backtracked to watch Tiger hit his approach and make the eagle. Catching that moment basically completed my first-ever trip to Augusta. Thanks, Tiger.]
4. Charl Schwartzel, The Masters, final round, No. 1. The eventual champ got off to an auspicious start. After pushing his opening drive way right, Schwartzel couldn’t hold his approach and it ran through the green. From the back right in the rough, he was faced with an extremely difficult shot to the tucked back left pin on another section of the green. But the South African made it look like a routine pitch-and-run, rolling it straight in the hole for birdie. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of the shot online.) And that was just the first hole — the manic back nine created a sensory overload that produced the best 60-80 minutes of golf I’ve ever seen in my life. With incredible shots flying from the club of one player to another four in the closing holes, Schwartzel was just a little more incredible, birdieing his last four to win the green jacket.
3. Steve Stricker, John Deere Classic, final round, No. 18. Needing a par to force a playoff and a birdie to win, Stricker found himself in a tough position on the final hole. He pulled his drive into the fairway bunker, where he had just about the most awkward stance possible with the ball below his feet, not to mention he needed to clear a menacing pond that guarded the green. Oh yeah, and a ton of pressure (no matter how much “experience” you have, the nerves never go away — it’s just how you handle them). No big deal for Stricker, though. He hit a perfect shot to about 10 feet and then finished it off by making the putt to beat Kyle Stanley and successfully defend his title.
2. Rory McIlroy, U.S. Open, final round, No. 10. This was probably my favorite shot of the year (Bill Haas’ water shot was really cool, but a major > any amount of money in my book). Here’s an excerpt from my WSJ.com write-up:
This time when Rory McIlroy stood on the 10th tee, he nearly hit a hole-in-one. It’s not an easy shot, either – in fact, at Congressional it’s one of the most daunting, especially since the pin was in the front section, dangerously close to the water guarding the green.
From 214 yards, he knocked a six-iron to about 10 feet past the pin. As his ball slowly trickled back toward the cup, the crowd started cheering, becoming progressively louder as it rolled closer.
I was kneeling next to the green and lucky enough to have a front-row seat. When I saw the shot head straight for the flag and then start to roll back, I thought for sure it was going in the hole, but it trailed to the left a little before stopping six inches from falling in.
Perhaps an ace would have been asking for just too much. It was already a moment that sent chills down my back.
As McIlroy strolled down to the green, a crowd of roughly 15,000 people were on their feet, chanting his first name. He lifted his putter in the air to acknowledge them and gave a slight smile as he prepared for his kick-in birdie.
The two he posted on No. 10 Sunday was five strokes better than the score he made at Augusta National two months ago where he held a one-shot lead going into the final nine. Of course, on Sunday at the U.S. Open, he had a comfortable eight-shot cushion.
Here’s another awesome shot from the second round when he holed out for eagle…
I think it’s safe to say Rory hit a lot of really great shots that week at Congressional. Even his misses were good.
1. Bill Haas, Tour Championship, second playoff hole, No. 17. It’s just about impossible to argue that Haas’ water shot wasn’t the sickest shot of the year. Tough to beat a submerged ball in a hazard, one foot in the water, and $11 million on the line — and I had arguably the best seat in the house from the patio from the other side of the pond, not to mention the entertainment of Aaron Baddeley and Bubba Watson providing the commentary and play-by-play.
On the second playoff hole against Hunter Mahan to win the Tour Championship and the FedExCup (though comically, Bill didn’t know he was playing for both) Haas’ drive found the fairway bunker on the right side. He didn’t hit an awful approach, but he pulled it slightly and his ball trickled into the half-water, half-bunker hazard. No need to fret, it was just a little water and you could still see the ball, after all. Haas played it like a sand shot and nearly knocked it in. He saved par to force another extra hole, which he ended up winning to beat Mahan and take home both the event, the FEC and a wheelbarrow of money — $11 million, to be exact.
*D.A. Points, AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, final round, No. 14. (This was a super sick shot, but it couldn’t have been that memorable (or maybe just because it was the beginning of the year) if I didn’t recall the details and picture it off the top of my head.)
*Jarrod Lyle, Waste Management Open, third round, No. 16. Don’t know if the shot was better or Lyle’s reaction. Random note: a fair number of players would rather ace the 16th at the Phoenix Open than No. 16 at the Masters. Seriously. And if you’ve ever experienced hanging out at the former during tournament week, then you’d understand why. At least I do.
You know the drill — what were the most memorable shots for you in 2011?