Tiger’s triumphs, tragedy
If 2000 was the year of Tiger Woods’ ascendancy into the rarified stratosphere of this country’s most revered sporting figures (Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali), then 2006 was his affirmation as one of the greatest active athletes in the world. Adding to his already legendary status, Woods captured the British Open and the PGA Championship, increasing his career majors victories total to 12 (trailing only Jack Nicklaus’ 18) while also winning six other PGA Tour events, to increase his total to 54 in that department — all by the tender age of 30 (he turns 31 Saturday).
Statistical achievements aside, Woods’ biggest accomplishment was simply being able to focus on golf this year after the death of his beloved father, Earl, on May 3 due to a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. Tiger took nine weeks off to mourn his father and it showed in his first appearance back at the U.S. Open, where he failed to make the cut (breaking his record streak of 39 consecutive majors of playing into the third and fourth day).However, Woods refocused like only he could, storming to the British Open crown with a status-affirming 18-under 270, beating countryman Chris DiMarco by two strokes. Well aware of the dangerous roughs of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Woods displayed his virtuoso golf awareness in the tournament, eschewing drivers almost exclusively, instead opting to employ only long irons off the tee. As a result of the move, Woods missed just four fairways all tournament, helping him capture a title clearly dedicated to his father’s memory.
“All of the things that my father meant to me and the game of golf,” a teary-eyed Woods said after his win. “I just wish he could have seen it one more time.”Woods rode the emotion of his second-straight British Open triumph into another devastating winning streak, finishing the PGA Tour season with six straight wins, capturing more than $9 million in the process and winning his eighth Jack Nicklaus Trophy as the PGA’s player of the year, to cement his status as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Ahhh, the New Lefty, we hardly knew ya. After finally silencing critics who said he would never win a big one by taking the Masters in 2004 and the PGA Championship in 2005, Phil Mickelson appeared to reach altogether new heights in 2006 by holding off Tiger Woods at Augusta to capture his second green jacket and third career major. However, visions of the Ol’ Lefty crept back into the public consciousness after Mickelson pulled a Jean Van de Velde in U.S. Open. Heading into the 18th hole ahead of Geoff Ogilvy by one shot, Mickelson misplayed a series of shots, including dinging one shot off a tree for a merciless double-bogey that allowed Ogilvy to capture the title with a 5-over 285.
No European vacation
Although the rhetoric keeps getting amped up by the U.S. about its desire to reclaim the Ryder Cup from its European counterparts, the American performances in this marquee event keep getting uglier and uglier. In 2006, the plucky Europeans once again throttled the heavily favored U.S.
18½-9½, matching the largest margin of defeat ever in the series (set in 2004 by the European squad featuring many of the same members). The Ryder Cup rout was the third straight for the Europeans, who always seem to generate the highest quality of play from stalwarts such as Sergio Garcia. Fed up with another disappointing loss, the U.S. parted ways with captain Tom Lehman and opened the door for Paul Azinger, with the hopes that he can steer them out of their doldrums.
Byron Nelson dies
Golf lost one of its largest figures when the legendary Byron Nelson passed away on Sept. 26. Playing alongside contemporaries Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, Nelson was one of the sport’s first true superstars, setting the golf world ablaze in 1945 with the most statistically dominant season ever. During one stretch in 1945, Nelson won an eyepopping 11 straight tournaments, a record that still stands today, en route to capturing 18 wins that year. Despite being in the prime of his career, Nelson walked away from golf at the age of 34, opting to become a rancher. Nonetheless, he remained involved in the sport and lent his name to the Byron Nelson Championship — the first competition ever named after a former PGA performer.
She keeps trying
Michelle Wie suffered through another series of failed cuts at PGA Tour events, prompting increased speculation that the
17-year-old wunderkind ought to focus more on winning her first LPGA event before eyeing the men’s competition. Wie entered three more PGA events in 2006, missing the cut in all three, including an ugly 158 at the Lumber Classic in September. Still, Wie remained a bright spot on the LPGA Tour, playing at the sustained level of greats such as Annika Sorenstam. Despite still not being an official member of the LPGA (since she is not yet 18), Wie reached a No. 3 ranking, behind Sorenstam and Paula Creamer. Wie has shown frequent flashes of her unlimited potential, as evidenced by her three top-five finishes in majors this year.
FedEx Cup set
Trying to discourage big-name players from snubbing late-season events, the PGA unveiled its new championship system — the FedEx Cup — which takes effect next season. The entire season builds up to the final four events of the season, which will be conducted in a playoff-like format, taking a page from NASCAR’s Chase for the championship. The field will be trimmed in each of the final four events, with the final 30 competing in the Tour Championship. The winner will walk away with a cool $10 million.
His tenure forever linked to his staunch refusal to allow women into Augusta National Golf Club, Hootie Johnson stepped down as president of the club and was replaced by Billy Payne. Johnson will be remembered best for his highly publicized feud with Martha Burke, the president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, over the admittance of women into the all-male Augusta National. Responding to one query about letting women in, Johnson responded by saying women will not be forced into the club “at the point of bayonet.”
New commish has issues
New LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens certainly didn’t win over many fans this year, courtesy of her frosty relationship with the media, and her bumbling progress toward reaching a legitimate television partner for the women’s circuit. With the awareness of the LPGA nearing an all-time high (thanks to Wie, among others), Bivens made it nearly impossible to capitalize on the newfound popularity by issuing archaic accessibility rules to members of the media covering events and failing to secure any sort of television deal. Add to those mishaps the additional grumbling about the Rolex Women’s World Ranking system, which has been embroiled in controversy since its inception.
Where’s the Big 5?
This year was supposed to be the season that Tiger finally got some legitimate competition, with perennial contenders Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson all allegedly primed to bridge the gap between Woods and the rest of the PGA. Perhaps those forecasts were a bit premature. Els blew out his knee, Singh appeared oddly disinterested, Goosen failed to capture a single event after his breakout year of 2005 and Mickelson, well, the 18th hole in the U.S. Open will forever define why Lefty is good, but not quite good enough.
While the focus on the LPGA continues to revolve around the charismatic Wie and her titanic drives off the tee and the continuing excellence of Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa quietly strung together a brilliant year, winning six events during 2006 on the way to being named LPGA Player of the Year. The 25-year-old Mexican took home almost $3 million over 25 tour events in 2006, garnering 20 top-10 finishes in that span, a glowing testament to her consistently high level of play. Ochoa finished No. 1 in the LPGA in birdies (395) and eagles (15), while staking her claim as the top female golfer in the world.