IT'S ONLYWeek 4 in the NFL, but the golf season is now officially kaput. The best part of the PGA Tour's new wraparound schedule is that we get to play Santa Claus in September, bestowing the early gift of our season-ending awards. So let's get to it....
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
THIS is a lifetime achievement award of sorts for the Stense, one of golf's most enigmatic characters. With his stoic visage, buffed physique and dark sunglasses, "He's like the Terminator," says Luke Donald, but this intimidating exterior hides a very fragile soul.
In 2001, at age 25, Stenson won in his 11th start on the European tour, but he promptly started jacking around with his swing. He lost his way so suddenly that, three months later at the European Open, he needed three tee shots on the 1st hole before he could get one in play. It got worse from there, and Stenson walked in after nine holes. It took him years to put the pieces back together, but by '07 he had risen to fifth in the World Ranking, thanks to a string of victories that included the '07 WGC--Match Play Championship. He added the Players in '09 ... and then promptly fell into the abyss again, which he attributes to problems that were more mental than physical.
Stenson ended his winless funk last December in South Africa, and this comeback keeps coming. He finished second at the British Open and third at the PGA Championship, and then blew everyone away Schwarzenegger-style during the FedEx Cup playoffs, winning twice to take the $10 million bonus. Stenson's victory at last week's Tour Championship was one of the most dominant performances of his career, as he led by nine strokes at the turn on Saturday before he was forced to play through a nasty rainstorm and his lead shrank to four. He closed things out on Sunday with a ruthlessly efficient 68.
Long and straight, with a buttery touch, Stenson has a game built for the majors, if he can just learn to get out of his own way. But no matter where he goes from here, the newly minted No. 4 player in the world has earned widespread respect for twice fighting his way back from the brink.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
HE had the round of the year, the rousing Sunday 66 that carried him to victory at the British Open, a career highlight. He had the best four-round total of the year, a 256 in Phoenix that tied for the second lowest in Tour history. He had one of the shots of the year, a killer flop off a hardpan lie to take the Scottish Open in sudden death. (Yeah, that's the Euro tour, but don't stop me now, I'm on a roll.) He even had the most memorable defeat of the year, his agonizing near-miss at the U.S. Open. Throw in four other top six finishes and a take-that-Tiger 63 at the Deutsche Bank, and Mickelson, an arthritic 43 year-old, owned 2013.
PATRICK REED in sudden death at the Wyndham Championship. With Jordan Spieth already on the green, Reed was in the trees, 156 yards from the hole, with the ball well above his feet, on a scrubby lie of dirt and pine needles. Somehow he played a low fade that stopped six feet from the hole, and the ensuing birdie gave him the first victory of his career. "Definitely the shot of my life," says Reed.
STEVE STRICKER'S shank out-of-bounds from the 2nd fairway during the final round at Merion. His drive had gone O.B. too. Stricker's reload found the middle of the fairway and then came the dreaded shank. He had started the day one stroke off the lead but blew himself out of the tournament with this triple bogey, yet another major stumble for the 46-year-old part-time golfer.
ADAM SCOTT'S breaking 20-footer to win the Masters. Not only did it stamp him as a superstar, it also saved the Masters from a train wreck, as there probably was not enough daylight left for another playoff hole. The green jacket came with the ultimate accessory: the self-belief that had always been missing for a guy with the game's most stylish swing. But Scott's putt for the ages is made piquant by one of the year's big news stories, which was the USGA and R&A's banning the anchoring method that has rejuvenated Scott's career. Will he (and Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson and others) be able to make the big putt beginning in 2016, when the anchoring ban goes into effect? That's the million dollar question.
BRANDT SNEDEKER'S three-footer for bogey on the 15th hole of the second round of the British Open. Sneds blasted it eight feet by and then missed the comebacker too, taking a brutal four-putt triple bogey. He had started the day tied for third place but never recovered. The irony, of course, is that Sneds has emerged as the game's best putter, and his magic wand carried him to two victories that validated last year's FedEx Cup victory. But Snedeker has been snakebit at the majors, and his misses at Muirfield continued the pattern.
WORST JACK NICKLAUS IMPRESSION
YEAH, he won five times at the places where he always wins, but that's not what lingers from Woods's schizophrenic season. No, it will be remembered for his inexplicably bad weekend play at the majors and a handful of rules dust-ups. When Masters officials proffered a dubious loophole after Woods had signed an incorrect scorecard, he was within his rights to play on, but he missed a golden opportunity to do the right thing—withdraw—and forever join Nicklaus in the pantheon of good sportsmanship. More revealing was how Woods handled an imbroglio at the BMW Championship. Even after being confronted with video that showed the ball changed positions while he tried to remove debris around it, Woods stubbornly insisted the ball had merely oscillated and returned to its exact same spot. Among his peers oscillate immediately became an all-purpose punch line. The one place Woods's character has always been beyond reproach is between the ropes. But throw in another penalty in Abu Dhabi and a much-debated drop at the Players, and that, sadly, is starting to change.
BEST PRACTICAL JOKE
JONAS BLIXT wearing all-orange when paired with Rickie Fowler in the final round of the Barclays. These matching Creamsicles looked so ridiculous you couldn't help but laugh.
WORST PRACTICAL JOKE
VIJAY SINGH suing the PGA Tour after he wasn't suspended for admitting to SI he had used a banned PED. This is a joke, right?
BEST RORY MCILROY IMPRESSION
THIS fresh-faced kid from Texas made the most audacious debut on Tour since Woods's fall flourish in 1996, but with his good cheer and instinctive, freewheeling play he really calls to mind the young McIlroy. (O.K., the younger McIlroy.) Spieth, 20, started the year with no status on Tour, but he became the youngest winner since 1931. He racked up eight other top 10s—including a tie for second at the Tour Championship—to bank $3.88 million, good for 10th on the money list. Spieth is startlingly mature, but now comes the hard part: dealing with fame, fortune, media demands and all the turbulence that success brings. Which leads us to....
WORST RORY MCILROY IMPRESSION
WE knew it would take some time for him to adjust to 14 new Nike clubs, but more disturbing than his seasonlong bad play was how quickly he came unstrung—walking off the course mid-round at the Honda and bending a club beyond repair at Merion were just two ugly examples. Long-term it's impossible not to believe in his talent, but McIlroy now has to reinvent himself at age 24.
BEST STORY LINES FOR 2014
NO tournament will be more freighted than the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. It was there that Mickelson suffered his first real heartbreak, in 1999, standing on the final green as Payne Stewart stole the Open with his iconic par putt. Now Mickelson returns to the sand hills with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam on an Open track that will have no rough and with turtleback greens that put a premium on chipping. If he's ever going to win an Open, this is the one.... A Ryder Cup in Scotland will be epic, even if it is played in the snow.... By the time the Tour gets to Kapalua in January, six tournaments will already have been played under the new schedule, meaning some top players will be way down the list in money and FedEx Cup points. Will this inspire them to play more, as the Tour hopes? Or will they not even notice, as is the guess here?
TOP 100 TEACHERS POLL
Who would get your vote for PGA Tour Player of the Year?
What a Quarter
Nobody paid it much attention when Henrik Stenson tied for second at the Houston Open and tied for fifth at the Players, but his strong play was a precursor to a remarkable stretch. After he finished 21st at the U.S. Open, Stenson went on a tear, with two wins and four other top three finishes in nine starts. Throw in the $10 million he earned for winning the FedEx Cup, and in three months he pocketed a cool $15.3 million.