Rory McIlroy sets the pace in 2012

Warren Little

Rory McIlroy was clearly the top story of 2012, but Tiger Woods made his share of noise, as did Bubba Watson’s approach shot unlike any other at the Masters, and the Ryder Cup generated its usual nearly infinite number of heart-warming and heart-breaking story lines.

1. The heir apparent -- Rory McIlroy, golf’s worldwide leader at the age of 23, grabbed his second major by the same lopsided eight shots that he posted on his way to the 2011 U.S. Open title. He won four more times worldwide, secured his spot as best in the world, and clinched the money titles on both the PGA and European Tours. For good measure, Tiger Woods’ presumptive successor capped a sensational season by hoisting the hardware in his final event of the year, the European Tour’s season finale in Dubai, after birdieing the last five holes and coasting to a two-stroke victory. Heading into 2013, the primary question for the undisputed player of the year on anyone’s ballot is whether exchanging Titleist sticks and balls for Nike gear will interrupt McIlroy’s world domination tour.

2. A flop shot for the ages -- Though his new best friend captured most of the headlines, Tiger Woods lurked not far behind as he earned his first official PGA Tour victory in more than two years, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five shots. Sure, the 14-time major champion went 0-for-the majors again in 2012, but he tacked on two more regular season wins, at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial and his own AT&T National. And don’t forget the 62 Woods carded in the Sunday finale of the Honda Classic -- a moment which, in days of yore, would have wilted young McIlroy, who heard the roars cascading down from the 18th green all the way back to the 13th. But it’s 2012 and Rory made his own 69 to tuck away the W. Tiger may still trail Nicklaus by four in the majors column but, as Jack looked on, Woods tied him for most career Ws and notched No. 74 a month later. And, of course, there was that sick flop shot that Woods canned from behind the green on the par-3 16th at the Memorial. Nicklaus called the exquisite stroke, which Woods employed to land the ball ever so daintily on a slope and watch it slip into the side of the hole, “the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I have ever seen.”

3. Bend it like Bubba -- Bubba Watson, the free-swinging, big-hitting southpaw won his first major championship playing “Bubba Golf” at Augusta. After pulling his drive on the par-4 10th into the trees on the second playoff hole, Watson did not even consider laying up. Are you kidding? He hit a 155-yard wedge shot that hooked some 40 yards to the right and came to rest within 10 feet of the pin. A two-putt par propelled Caleb’s daddy to a win over Louis Oosthuizen.

4. Augusta joins the 21st century -- Speaking of the iconic home of the Masters, the green jackets at Augusta National looked at the calendar and decided it was finally time to admit the first two women members in its 80-year history. Next up -- after former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore shrug into their green blazers -- an LPGA Tour event at Bobby Jones’ playground?

5. Ryder Cup -- Depending on your perspective, the Miracle at Medinah or Medinah Meltdown was either a spectacular comeback for the European team, down 10-6 headed into Sunday’s singles matches, or a collapse of monumental proportions by the U.S. on their home field. Ian Poulter collected MVP honors for his European squad, while captain’s picks Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk -- along with Woods -- were essentially MIA. Cup rookie Keegan Bradley was the bright spot for the Americans as his energy and competitiveness infused new life into his mentor and partner in the team competition, 42-year-old Phil Mickelson. The sizzling duo went 3-0 and then sat out Saturday afternoon’s match, which may have helped douse the fire, as Bradley lost to a late-arriving McIlroy in their Sunday’s singles match. Speaking of which, McIlroy’s confusion over time zones on Ryder Cup Sunday nearly led to the European’s top player missing his singles golf date with Bradley. Thanks to an Illinois state trooper, the reigning PGA champ made it to the tee with minutes to spare and then calmly dispatched the winner of last year’s PGA Championship, 2 and 1.

6. Anchors away -- Traditionalists cheered when the USGA and R&A proposed in November to put a stop to the way Bradley and a slew of professional and everyday players anchor long putters to their bodies. Belly and broomstick putters have been in the bags of professional golfers for years, but with Bradley, Webb Simpson, and Ernie Els winning three of the last five majors with belly bats, golf’s overseers determined they had to do something to protect the integrity of the game. As several anchoring practitioners have noted, if wielding long putters jammed into various body parts offered such a competitive advantage, why doesn’t everyone do it? Good question, and one that Bradley, et al, will be asking themselves as they prepare to alter their money-making strokes by Jan. 1, 2016 -- or sooner, if the PGA Tour decides to expedite the anchoring ban.

7. All-American -- Stacy Lewis’ steady play and four LPGA Tour wins earned the All-American from the University of Arkansas the 2012 tour Player of the Year award as she became the first American in 18 years to cadge the honor.

8. Teen phenom -- Lydia Ko rewrote the history books when she became, at 15, the youngest player to win an LPGA event -- the Canadian Women’s Open in August. Her impressive five birdies on the back nine in Sunday’s finale came on the heels of her U.S. Women’s Amateur triumph just two weeks earlier.

9. Still No. 1 -- Coming off a dominant 2011 season in which she could do no wrong, Yani Tseng seemed a lock to continue chalking up wins and leaving her opponents in her dust. Indeed, the still reigning No. 1 in women’s golf won three of her first five LPGA Tour starts but then fell into a mysterious funk for much of the remaining campaign. Three top-5 finishes in her final four events helped the Taiwanese rock star rebound from a slump in which she finished outside the top 10 in 11 tries and missed three cuts.

10. No gimmes in stroke play -- I.K. Kim became the poster child for the yips when her one-footer on the 72nd hole to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship did a 360 and spun back out of the hole. Stunned to be heading into overtime with Sun Young Yoo, Kim nearly pulled her drive into the water and lost on the first playoff hole. Kim was hardly the only player to suffer an epic crash. Typically one of the most consistent golfers on the PGA Tour, Furyk shared the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, only to watch his chances disappear along with his tee shot on the par-5 16th on Sunday. Two months later, the 16-time PGA winner coughed up a lead on the 72nd hole of the Bridgestone Invitational with a closing double bogey. Then there was Adam Scott, whose broomstick putter couldn’t salvage the Open Championship, which he handed to Els after carding bogeys on each of his last four holes. Mickelson proved he could still work his magic when he beat the bejesus out of Tiger in their head-to-head matchup at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February. But a brain cramp on the par-3 fourth tee in the final round at Augusta led to a misfire into the woods and the indelible impression of Phil chopping at the ball right-handed and ending up with his second triple bogey of the week and a share of third place.

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