British golfers end 2011 on a high
How appropriate it was that UK golfers could eke out one more weekend of glory before this astonishing golfing year came to a close.
Darren Clarke will settle down this Christmas to watch for the first time the DVD of his Open triumph but so many of our leading players can reflect on the season of their lives.
For some, like Clarke at the Open, it has been for a superb individual week. For world number one Luke Donald, it is the relentless year-long consistency.
UK golfers (left to right) Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald have all had a fantastic year and will be looking to add more silverware in 2012. Photo: Getty
No-one won more than the four tournaments Donald did – the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, the WGC Matchplay in February and the season-ender at Disney that gave the Englishman the PGA Tour money list title.
Donald then became the first man to win the earnings titles on both sides of the Atlantic – the toughest of feats because of the onerous task of fulfilling the playing obligations of both circuits.
As with Westwood, all that is missing for Donald is a major. The achievements of these two at every other level in the game should imbue them with confidence, but equally they play majors with increased expectation and pressure because they are the top two players in the world.
It must become harder for both with each major that passes. Ensuring they peak at Augusta for the Masters next April is their top priority heading into 2012.
Donald undoubtedly possesses the short game to win, while Westwood was second to Phil Mickelson in 2010. Last year, he only trailed eventual winner Charl Schwartzel by four strokes despite a woeful week on the greens.
This year’s Masters will be remembered as much for the South African champion birdieing the last four holes as it will for Rory McIlroy’s closing 80 after carrying a four-shot lead into the final round.
How on earth, we wondered, would this youngster from Northern Ireland recover from such a visible meltdown when one of the game’s biggest titles was on the line?
The answer was "just fine”. At the US Open in June, McIlroy compiled his extraordinary eight-stroke victory for his maiden major title. A superstar was born – one who seemed to command as much adulation in the United States as on this side of the Atlantic.
McIlroy, with his tale of Masters redemption and natural charisma, became the man to fill the void left by the absent and fallen Tiger Woods.
Naturally the build-up to the Open at Royal St George’s was all about golf’s newest hero – the boy from Holywood, Northern Ireland, not the seasoned pro located up the road in Portrush.
“After the way Rory destroyed the field at the US Open, he went there with huge expectations,” Clarke recalls in a BBC Radio 5 live programme looking back on both of this year's Northern Ireland major wins. “It was supposed to be his week but you know golf can throw up some surprises.”
In practice rounds with McIlroy and Westwood, Clarke shed negativity that had built up in a disappointing final round at the previous week’s Scottish Open. By the time the 42-year-old teed off on the Thursday at Sandwich, he had found a rare and unbreakable serenity.
“Whenever I’ve won big tournaments in the past, World Golf Championships, I’ve always been very calm, relaxed and accepting of what was going on.
"The way that I played on the Saturday I couldn’t have played any better,” Clarke told Ulster’s Major Year, which is aired on BBC Radio 5 live on 23 December at 2100.
Clarke produced a masterclass of ball-striking in the most hostile of weather conditions.
But he said: “I moved home back to Portrush a year and half ago and I’ve been playing there with my friends in conditions that would make Royal St George’s look pleasant.
“Because of my fondness for links golf, I know most of the time what is required. You’ve got to be able to figure out how to make a score and most of that week I was able to do it and control my ball flight.”
Ultimately Clarke held a four-stroke lead with two holes to play and that was the first time he was aware he would realise his ultimate golfing ambition.
He added: “The crowds and support I had all week were totally amazing. If I’d been playing in Ireland I couldn’t have got more support.
“I don’t know but maybe people identify with me a bit more because I’m not the highly tuned athlete who is in the gym every morning. I think they were genuinely pleased to see me lift the one trophy that I wanted.”
While Clarke began his long celebrations, McIlroy bemoaned the wind and rain that had blown away his meek challenge. His claim that he will have to wait for a calm Open before he can win was a surprising sign of immaturity.
So was McIlroy's attempt to hit his ball against a tree root on the third hole of the final major, the PGA in Atlanta. He ran the risk of serious injury and was lucky to complete all four rounds after suffering a mere sprain.
Rookie American Keegan Bradley uses a putter which he wedges into his stomach – and he became the first belly putter to win a major after overcoming Jason Dufner in a play-off.
We would not have to wait long for more home celebrations though. Nigel Edwards’s GB & Ireland amateurs upset the odds to win back the Walker Cup from America at Royal Aberdeen.
Then, at Killeen Castle, Europe’s women claimed victory in the Solheim Cup in one of the greatest golf matches ever played.
Captain Alison Nicholas’s tactics of resting all of her players paid full dividends as the home side edged the singles to win back the trophy for the first time since 2003.
Laura Davies, who has played in every Solheim Cup since its inception in 1990, said: “For me, being in golf for such a long time, that was the pinnacle for excitement. The way it swung in the last 30 minutes was incredible.”
Needing something from each of the last three matches, Europe’s number one Suzann Pettersen birdied the closing three holes to beat Michelle Wie, Caroline Hedwall claimed an unlikely looking half against Ryann O’Toole and Azahara Munoz secured a narrow win against Angela Stanford.
It was a sensational victory and fully deserved for the likes of Catriona Matthew and Sophie Gustafson who had laid the foundations.
The win gives European women’s golf the chance to prosper heading into 2012 but a new star from America, 16-year-old Alexis (Lexi) Thompson, the recent winner in Dubai, is sure to command many headlines.
So too in the men’s game might Tom Lewis. At the age of 20, he has already led the Open and won on the European Tour. The newly crowned European Tour rookie of the year is the latest addition to a group of players destined to compete in golf’s most-exciting era for generations.
The best of the UK constitutes the best in the world - Donald, Westwood and McIlroy head the rankings and there is a host of potential home major winners in 2012.
But there is also a certain Mr Woods also to be factored in. Tiger’s win at his home tournament may have been a limited-field event, but it showed his famed killer instinct is back.
Bring on 2012 – and we haven’t even mentioned next September’s Ryder Cup.