October 22, 2007

Tour Insider: The Year In Review

Tim Rosaforte, Golf World's Tour Insider, goes over the 2007 season and selects the year's best performances on the PGA Tour

On the clubhouse steps at East Lake GC in Atlanta on a late Sunday afternoon in September, Tim Finchem was one happy commissioner. The Coca-Cola CEO had just walked away smiling and Tiger Woods was in the media center after winning the daily double of both the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. For Finchem, who endured a season of criticism and second-guessing as though he were wearing a Kevlar body suit, the season ended just the way he hoped: With his franchise player buying in to the playoff concept and using it to cement another Player of the Year Award.

Seven wins, one major, and over $10 million (not including the FedEx bonus) was enough for Woods to say I told you so more than once in his news conference at East Lake, but through the British Open, this did not look like a Tiger Woods year. He shot 43 over his final nine holes at Bay Hill, won the CA Championship at Doral with a Sunday 73, lost the Masters to Zach Johnson, the U.S. Open to Angel Cabrera and never looked comfortable at Carnoustie. Rory Sabbatini may have been out of line for saying Tiger was never more beatable, but the truth was, for the first seven months of 2007, Tiger was not as sharp, not as focused and not nearly the player who ripped off five straight wins at the end of 2006.

Something crystallized at one of Woods' old stomping grounds, Firestone CC in Akron, Ohio, during the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. From that point forward, over the last two months of the season, the "new Tiger" donned his cape and was nearly unbeatable, finishing in a run that included four victories in his last five appearances, going 1, 1, 2, 1, 1 in big-money, high-profile events that included victories a major (the PGA Championship), a World Golf Championship gathering (the Bridgestone), a FedEx Cup tournament (BMW Championship) and the season-ending Tour Championship.

Woods wouldn't kiss the trophy when the commissioner asked, but he literally carried the FedEx Cup on his back, branding it and validating it as something more than a convoluted, confusing and controversial marketing gimmick cooked up by Finchem and his staff as a way to reinvent the schedule and up the TV ante. Thanks to Woods, with cameo roles from Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, the playoffs came together and the embattled commissioner was vindicated. Pro golf had its big-bang finish and Tiger was still king.

For Moment of the Year, it had to be Woody Austin turning the Presidents Cup into his starring role as Aqua Man. After nearly submerging himself in the cold waters of the 14th hole at Royal Montreal, then coming back to birdie the last three holes -- and taking all the ribbing in style -- Austin identified himself as more than a quirky, overly nervous, self-abusive character who could never catch a break. By donning a snorkel mask Sunday, even though he was losing to Cabrera, Austin was such a good sport and so good for team spirit that the Payne Stewart Award and reserved spots in future Ryder and Presidents Cups were mentioned in the same breath as his name.

While Woods repeated as POY, the__Tournament of the Year__ was the one major where he did not play well, the British Open at Carnoustie. "That last hour was the best hour of golf on television this year," said Geoff Ogilvy, "even if it wasn't well played." Padraig Harrington went from nearly pulling a Jan Van de Velde to making the best double bogey of the year. Sergio Garcia provided the reaction picture of the year when he bent over his belly putter in agony after missing the putt on the 18th green to win the Claret Jug. And the 18th hole, made famous by Van de Velde in '99, was clearly the Hole of the Year as well, with all its calamity and controversy.

The Wow of the Year was Phil Mickelson leaving Rick Smith for Butch Harmon (Tiger's former instructor) and winning the Players Championship -- then coming back from a wrist injury to beat Tiger at one of his own tournaments, the Deutsche Bank Championship. And if finally closing out Tiger wasn't enough in Duel of the Year, Mickelson solidified himself as perennial candidate for__Newsmaker of the Year__ by using his win as a platform to take a shot at Finchem and announce he was skipping the BMW Championship in Chicago.

Tiger created a new category by naming Steve Stricker Comeback-to-Back Player of the Year, but the Comeback Player of the Year was probably Mark Calcavecchia -- although coming back from 120th on the money list, the onset of middle age, a case of putting demons and one too many cold lagers hardly qualifies as the kind of rebirth for which, say, Ben Hogan was famous. At least Calc was there at the end of the Tour Championship, grinding with Zach Johnson for the second-place check, ultimately earning the 27th runner-up finish of his career. The Comeback Player Within The Year went to Arron Oberholser, who recovered and rehabbed from a disc injury in his back at Kapalua to nearly qualify for the Tour Championship. The pain returned for Oberholser when he withdrew from the BMW with a broken bone in his hand. He'll have surgery on the hand Oct. 30, which is why he pulled out of the World Cup he'd committed to playing with Sean O'Hair in China next month.

Zach Johnson would have been the best choice for Surprise of the Year (for winning the Masters) if he hadn't validated the major championship title by winning the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta and finishing T-2 at the Tour Championship. Zach had a nice career going, rising up from the ranks of the Hooters Tour to make last year's Ryder Cup team. But Masters champion? This was not like Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan, but the short-hitting pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, caught Augusta National in freakish cold weather, played clinical golf with his wedges, and made the putts Sunday that Woods failed to convert. Non-exempt Jay Williamson would have been Surprise of the Year if he'd been able to finish off his shot-for-shot duel with Hunter Mahan in Hartford by triumphing in their sudden-death playoff. So that leaves Brian Bateman, who got one of the last cards at Q School, only played twice the first three months of the season and won the Buick Open in July with a final-hole birdie.

Breakout Player of the Year is the most competitive category. Mahan got his first win, had the hottest summer and was picked for the Presidents Cup team, where he was the leadoff hitter every day and a solid contributor in the blowout by Jack Nicklaus' team. Aaron Baddeley won the FBR Open, was the 54-hole leader at both the U.S. Open and BMW Championship and finished sixth on the final FedEx Cup points list. K.J. Choi won Jack's Tournament (The Memorial) and Tiger's Tournament (AT&T National). Sabbatini had a career year and also retained his title as Agitator of the Year. But when it comes to breaking out, Boo Weekley was more than just__Personality of the Year__. He won at Hilton Head, lost a playoff at the Honda Classic and lit up pressrooms from the Low Country of South Carolina to the Old Country of Scotland.

Shot of the Year was Angel Cabrera's 346-yard howitzer off the 72nd tee at the U.S. Open, and though Zach Johnson shot 60 at the Tour Championship and Woody Austin a 62 on Sunday to win in Memphis, Tiger's 63 in the second round at Southern Hills in the PGA was Round of the Year -- since it tied the 18-hole scoring record in a major. The best tee-to-green performance was Woods' third round at Oakmont, where he didn't miss a shot but couldn't make a putt and turned 65 into 69 -- probably costing himself the Open.

For degree of difficulty, Putt of the Year could have been Sabbatini's 75-footer for eagle on the eighth green on Sunday at Augusta National, although AP golf writer Doug Ferguson described it as probably going 100 feet because of the break and the path it took. Walking the ball to the hole, Sabbatini made the early call, saying that if his putt slowed down, it would go in -- and it did, for a brief piece of the lead. But Harrington made a six-footer for double bogey to get in the playoff at Carnoustie -- and unlike Sabbatini, he won the tournament. So that's Putt of the Year.

Stricker may have cried more after winning The Barclays, but 44-year-old Scott Verplank earns the Feel Good Story of the year for winning the EDS Byron Nelson and tearing up at the passing of the tournament's namesake, his mentor and friend. Verplank, who was undefeated at the Presidents Cup, edged Mike Weir, who justified his captain's pick with a 3-1-1 record that ended with a victory over Tiger at Royal Montreal, and then notched his first tour title in more than three years last week at the Fry's Electronics Open. That leaves no award for Stricker, other than Nice Guy of the Year. But he would win that every season.