Golf's global stars shine bright
This week saw Sergio Garcia find his way back to the winner's circle on his home course in Spain. Yani Tseng won her seventh event of the year in Taiwan. And Luke Donald headlined a list of veterans who stole the show at the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
1. Sergio's scars unlikely to be fully healed
With an 11-shot win Sunday at the Castello Masters in Spain, Sergio Garcia demonstrated the graceful and effortless power that first got the golf world's attention when, as a 19-year-old kid, he finished second behind Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship.
Who can forget Garcia's searing glance at Woods after making a long birdie putt at the par-3 13th at the Medinah Country Club in Chicago or the brave recovery shot that he made from behind a tree at the 16th hole? Those were supposed to be moments that would foretell the main rivalry in the game for the next decade.
But it didn't turn out that way. Tiger would go on to dominate golf in a way that no one had ever seen, winning 12 majors since that Sunday evening at Medinah. Garcia would surely make his presence known. He has won seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 2008 Players Championship and now nine times on the European Tour.
But looming in Tiger's rearview mirror for his entire career has been a kind of burden for Garcia, who has never been afraid to let us in on his sometimes fragile state of mind and feelings of inadequacy at not quite living up to his potential. After losing to Padraig Harrington in a playoff at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie, he displayed hints of paranoia.
"It's funny how some guys hit the pin and go to a foot," Garcia said. "Mine hits the pin and goes 20 feet away.
"You know what's the saddest thing about it?" he said. "It's not the first time. It's not the first time, unfortunately. So, I don't know, I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field."
A year later, after a breakthrough win at the Players on a tough TPC Sawgrass layout, he playfully thanked Woods, who was out with an injury, for not being in the field.
Some of that doubt has been lifted over recent years as he has stopped placing so much pressure on himself. After two years of really mediocre play, he humbled himself last year by taking the once unthinkable role of vice captain at the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor after playing in five straight cups.
It's probably too soon to tell if the scars have fully healed. But his win this week should go a long way in dispelling doubts that he still has a world-class game. There had already been signs this year that he was back in top form. He had a tie for seventh at the U.S. Open and a T-9 at the British Open. In June, he lost in an epic five-hole playoff to countryman Pablo Larrazabal at the BMW International Open in Munich.
Playing in front of his home crowd at the par-71 Club de Campo del Mediterraneo in Castellon, the 31-year-old Spaniard had rounds of 67-63-64-63 for a four-day total of 27-under par. His final-round 63 included nine birdies. Gonzalo Fernandez of Spain had a 64 in the final round to finish second. This was Garcia's first win anywhere in the world since the 2008 HSBC Championship and his second win at Castello, his home course.
"There are things that I can still improve on," said Garcia, who last played on the PGA Tour at the BMW Championship in September. "The good thing is that the short game is working good and my ball striking is fairly good."
Castello Masters Leaderboard
1. Garcia (-27)
2. Fdez-Castano (-16)
T-3. Ramsay (-15)
T-3. Noren (-15)
5. Aiken (-14)
• Complete scores
After his closing birdie at the 72nd hole, Garcia said that the win was for Seve Ballesteros, who succumbed to a brain tumor in May. It was a fitting tribute. Ballesteros had been the shepherd who had been the impetus for Garcia and many other Spaniards to seek glory on golf's highest stages. Now Seve would be the one to symbolize a new path for one of his dearest disciples.
2. What's next for Luke Donald?
Luke Donald's final-round 64 to win the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic by two shots over a resurgent Justin Leonard was one of the masterful rounds all year on the PGA Tour. The 33-year-old Brit played the outward half in a modest 2 under par, but on the inward nine went crazy with six straight birdies to start that side. He cooled off some with three closing pars, but it was enough to win his fourth PGA Tour title.
With the win he also took the 2011 money title with $6.68 million, besting Webb Simpson, who finished in a tie for seventh place, by $335,861.
"It was tough after the eighth hole. It wasn't looking good," Donald said after the final round. "I timed it pretty good to go on a run on the back nine on Sunday when it mattered. It feels pretty good."
With his strong finish to the PGA Tour season, Donald's also likely to win the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, where he has more than a million euros lead over Rory McIlroy. This is Donald's best worldwide season since he turned pro in 2001. He has solidified his place as the No. 1 player in the world, after some critics called into question earlier this year his legitimacy at the top of the world ranking.
The former Northwestern University All-American, who lives in Chicago, has established himself this year as the best international player in the world. But how much longer can he continue traversing the globe with a growing family (his wife is expecting their second child any day) and the demands of international travel?
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Charl Schwartzel told me at the Deutsche Bank in Boston that he was torn between a commitment to the European Tour, where he got his start, and the necessity to play more in the States. Donald might not carry that burden, but playing both tours will eventually wear him down.
There is no doubt that a major championship win is in his near future. In fact, they could come in bunches over the next three or four years. But if they don't, he might still stay on top of the world ranking. The points system rewards a player like him who chases the golf ball all over the planet.
Still, I'm sure after this season with two likely money titles, four international wins and probable Player of the Year honors on the PGA Tour, he has his sights set on the Masters next April, where he will be a strong favorite after his tie for fourth there earlier this year.
3. A rivalry we didn't see coming
Webb Simpson accomplished everything this year, except he didn't win a major or the FedEx Cup playoffs or the money title or the Vardon Trophy for best scoring average or the most top-10 finishes. If Donald weren't in the running, the 26-year-old Wake Forest grad would have taken honors for scoring average, the money list and most top-10 finishes.
Theirs was a rivalry that we didn't see coming. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that these two players would have been the best two players in the game come the end of the season?
They are both special players. They aren't power players or the straightest hitters or the best putters, although Donald did finish first in strokes gained putting, supposedly the best putting stat in the game. All they did this year as a tandem is fill the cup with birdies.
Could their little rivalry, which culminated in a race to the finish for the money title at Disney, continue into next year?
Simpson is only going to get better. With more experience he would have won at least four times this year. He couldn't have played worse at the Tour Championship, practically handing the FedEx Cup playoffs title to Bill Haas.
It seems like Donald has been on the PGA Tour forever, but it's just now that he's really settled on the consciousness of the game. He got to No. 1 in the world earlier this year almost by accident. He kept playing solid golf without much fanfare, while no one else high on the rankings made much of a charge. I wouldn't call Donald a late bloomer, but his arrival this year feels late for a guy with such a silky smooth swing and polished demeanor.
Though Donald is almost eight years older than Simpson, there is a good chance that they might face each other in future Ryder Cups. Next year at Medinah would be a great place for them to further enliven the young rivalry in a Sunday singles match. But before that, we'll probably get a chance to see them paired together in April in the final group on Sunday at the Masters.
4. Yani Tseng needs a rival
Yani Tseng won her seventh tournament of the year on Sunday in front of family and friends at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship in Yang Mei, Taiwan. The 22-year-old Taiwan native finished five shots clear of Amy Yang for a 16-under par total at the par-72 Sunrise Golf and Country Club. She has now earned her second straight LPGA Player of the Year award and in four years on tour she has 12 wins, including five majors.
What does her dominance say about the women's game? Tseng follows Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa as players to dominate the LPGA Tour. In 2005, Sorenstam won 10 times and Ochoa won eight times in '07 and seven in '08. Since their retirements to start families, Tseng assumed the mantle as the best player on the LPGA Tour.
It's very important to the women's game to have a top player. In '79 when Nancy Lopez stormed on the scene with nine wins, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and earning the AP's Female Athlete of the Year, it was a boon for the LPGA Tour. Though she brought attention mostly to herself when she played with the men at the Colonial in '03, Sorenstam proved that the best women's players could dare enter a PGA Tour field.
All sports need great rivalries, and right now the LPGA is sorely lacking anything like a deep, competitive reservoir of talent that would consistently produce captivating Sunday afternoon duels.
Sure one could say that with 14 first-time winners this season on the PGA Tour that the men no longer have any great rivalries or truly dominant players. Webb Simpson and Luke Donald vying for the money title this week at Disney wasn't exactly the Thriller in Manila. But what the men do have is depth and a modicum of parity that makes every week on the PGA Tour a chance for a new, unsung player to emerge as a champion.
For years Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, among others, have challenged Tiger. Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have each other. Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert.
Who does Yani Tseng have to challenge her? Who is that person? Is she an LPGA player who hasn't fully matured?
For the last few weeks Tseng had been trading blows with Na Yeon Choi, who beat her last week at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia, after defeating her the week before at the HanaBank Championship in South Korea.
Paula Creamer seemed like she would be a top contender after winning her first major last year at the U.S. Women's Open. But injuries and a sometimes too mechanical approach to her game have kept her from being a consistent winner. Cristie Kerr is a top money earner, but at 34-years-old, she already may have had her best years on the tour.
A host of other players -- including Suzann Pettersen, Michelle Wie, Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato, Stacy Lewis and Brittany Lincicome -- have all shown flashes of brilliance, but they haven't been able to play at Tseng's level.
The LPGA Tour's long offseason should give most of its players time to figure out what kept them from besting Tseng in 2011, who is going to be a fierce presence for a long time. It would do the women's game some good if she got some real rivals before she passed the torch to the next super dominate player.
5. The veterans find a way
The end of the year brings out the nerves of players more than at any point of the golf season. Most of the nerves are jarred by the flimsy security of keeping a job on the ultra-competitive PGA Tour, where a bad year could mean the end of a career, or a forced exile to the Nationwide Tour, or to some mini tour in Florida. Despite their diminished skills, the wily veterans always know how to get it done under the intense pressure of finding their place within that coveted top 125.
At the start of the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, the last official tournament on the 2011 schedule, Justin Leonard was 144th on the money list. The 39-year-old former U.S. Amateur champion hadn't won on tour since the 2008 St. Jude Classic in Memphis. This year was shaping up to be the worst of his 18-year career. So a couple of months ago he reached out to the tour to see if he might have to sign up for Q-school or take one of his two one-time exemptions for being on the top 25 or top 50 on the all-time money list.
In the end, Leonard would not have to bother with either because it was eventually determined by the tour that he was exempt through 2012. But the '98 British Open champion didn't rest on his laurels.
He took the lead at Disney on Friday with a second-round 63 and would have probably won were it not for a final-round 64 by Luke Donald, who beat him by two shots. The second-place finish vaulted Leonard into 91st place on the money list, saving him from the embarrassment of missing the top 125 for the first time in his career.
Another former U.S. Amateur champion was facing the same hurdle without the assurance from the PGA Tour that he had a job for next year. Billy Mayfair, who won the '87 U.S. Amateur, came into the week at 127th on the money list and needed a decent week to avoid going back to Q-school, where he was the medalist last year at Orange County National in Orlando. But like Leonard, the 45-year-old former Arizona State star showed some of the experience that carried him to five PGA Tour wins. He tied for sixth and easily retained his card for next year by ending up 109th on the money list.
Tom Pernice Jr. already had a job on the Champions Tour, but at 52-years-old, he still feels like he has enough game to play on the regular tour. He came into the week at 143rd. The two-time tour winner had only played 11 events on the PGA Tour coming into Disney, with his best finish a tie for second at the Viking Classic in July. All Pernice did this week was get a tie for third, locking up full privileges for next year on both the Champions Tour and the PGA Tour.
"The ball doesn't know how old you are," Pernice said. "I'm just trying to stay out here and compete. I just love the challenge. Certain courses out here I enjoy playing still."
A time might come when Leonard, Mayfair and Pernice might not be so fortunate, but for now they are headed back comfortably to the best golf show on Earth purely off their clutch play in their last chance to do it.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.