• Review of the Year

McIlroy dominates as Europe delights

ESPN staff
December 23, 2012
Europe's Ryder Cup victory was the highlight of the golfing year © Getty Images

In a year once again dominated - and deservedly so - by a dramatic Ryder Cup, golf saw another sizeable change in its landscape.

Events at Medinah took precedence, however, as Europe came from 10-6 down heading into the final day to claim a dramatic 14½-13½ win thanks to Martin Kaymer's nerveless final putt. However, it was a measure of Ian Poulter's talismanic impact prior to that - giving Europe a glimmer of hope with a birdie rampage during Saturday's late afternoon fourballs - that it ended up being the Englishman who received most of the plaudits and the majority of the attention in the aftermath.

Rory McIlroy received attention too at the Chicago event - although primarily for nearly missing his singles tee time - but, unlike Poulter, the Northern Irishman made a significant impact in individual events in 2012. McIlroy won five times in total during the year, including the US PGA Championship - an eight-shot triumph that, while overshadowed by the Olympics that was just concluding as he putted out on the 18th - is the major that will likely take on most historic importance from the year's crop.

The other three majors saw different types of winner. In April at Augusta, the idiosyncratic Bubba Watson upstaged the methodical Louis Oosthuizen - conjuring up a remarkable shot from the trees to win in a playoff.

Months later at Olympic Club it was the turn of another American, Webb Simpson, to win his first major. After Jim Furyk and, to a lesser extent, Graeme McDowell melted down, Simpson showed a cool head under pressure to finish strongly and clinch the title.

The Open, hosted at Royal Lytham & St Annes, produced undoubtedly the most heartbreaking of any of the year's majors - as Adam Scott, untouchable all week, bogeyed the final four holes in succession to lose to Ernie Els in painful circumstances. Hopefully the Australian can bounce back.

There were other moments of note - Tiger Woods winning three times, Brandt Snedeker claiming the FedEx Cup, Tom Watson being called upon to reignite the United States in the Ryder Cup - but the end of the season was dominated by the ban on 'anchoring' the putter. With more pressing concerns to the game's long-term health - most notably, the distance the ball travels - was that rule change really the one that needed making?

Rory McIlroy was dominant all year © Getty Images

Player of the Year

Winner: Rory McIlroy

Runner-up: Justin Rose

It couldn't be anyone else, really, could it? The Northern Irishman walked away with the player of the year awards on both the European and PGA Tours, a shoo-in after a five-win season that also included the US PGA Championship (by eight shots, no less).

McIlroy was the class of the field almost all year, rendering second place arguably more interesting as a race. Among a host of nominees we are tempted to go for Justin Rose - who won twice (a World Golf Championship event among them, no less) and rose to No. 4 in the world. Now for a major though, eh Justin?

Honourable mention: Bubba Watson, Ernie Els, Branden Grace.

Ian Poulter seemed to singlehandedly change the course of the Ryder Cup © Getty Images

Performance of the Year

Winner: Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup

Runner-up: Rory McIlroy at the US PGA

Another shoo-in, really, as Poulter turned the tide of the year's most dramatic event through his own sheer force of will. 10-5 down with one point still to play for going into the Sunday singles, Poulter reeled off five successive birdies over the closing holes - as partner McIlroy, the world No. 1, watched on in amazement - to seal a much-needed win that gave hope of a dramatic Sunday turnaround.

The rest, as they say, is history. "Incredible. Incredible," was McIlroy's verdict on what he saw. "I birdied 13 and then this man took over. Incredible to be a part of, and you know, when Poults gets that look in his eyes, especially the week of The Ryder Cup, it's really impressive."

We couldn't agree more.

Ernie Els won his fourth major title in difficult circumstances at Royal Lytham © Getty Images

Comeback of the Year

Winner: Ernie Els

Runner-up: Roger Chapman

Congratulations to the 'Big Easy' who, at 42, moved into the rarefied atmosphere of four-time major winners - and the even rarer air of men to have won majors 18 years apart. He had a bit of help from Adam Scott - the master of implosion - but that doesn't tell the full story, considering the South African was also in the hunt at the US Open as well.

The long putter may have helped revitalised his career (and so may see it fall apart in four years' time), but Ernie's swing also helped him roll back the years and deliver another impressive campaign - a few years removed from his last.

Honourable mention: Paul Lawrie.

Bubba Watson produced a quite stunning shot © Getty Images

Shot of the Year

Winner: Bubba Watson at The Masters

Runner-up: Martin Kaymer's Ryder Cup putt

Its difficulty and majesty was overstated in the aftermath (something that, all things considered, hardly seemed necessary), but Bubba Watson's wedge from the trees at the 10th at Augusta National was undoubtedly the most impressive shot of the year.

Faced with trees blocking his view of the green, the unpredictable Watson conjured up a hooking escape befitting of his natural talent to find the green - stopping barely 10 feet short of the pin and spinning back a few yards to turn the tide in a fraught play-off with Louis Oosthuizen. A few minutes later, the lefty was Masters champion.

Honourable mention: Justin Rose's putt at 17th, Sunday at Medinah; Tiger Woods flop shot at Memorial.

Branden Grace poses on Swilken Bridge © PA Photos

Surprise package

Winner: Branden Grace

Runner-up: David Lynn

Few people - well, we are going to go out on a limb and predict exactly no people - had Branden Grace down as the last player left standing in the bid to deny Rory McIlroy winning the 2012 Race to Dubai. But that's exactly what happened. The South African had a stellar year, winning four times in total.

Okay, not all of them were of the highest quality (the Joburg Open, anybody?) but a couple were - any player would be happy to have the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on their mantelpiece. At 24, Grace has shown a huge amount of talent this season (he began the year 271st in the world rankings, now he is 34th). South Africa's next major champion? It wouldn't be a surprise.

Thorbjorn Olesen could be set for an even bigger 2013 © Getty Images

One to watch in 2013

Winner: Thorbjorn Olesen

Runner-up: Kristoffer Broberg

From the outside, the biggest moment in Thorbjorn Olesen's 2012 campaign would seem to be his maiden victory at the Sicilian Open. But, while that was an important step in the Dane's development, in reality it was the third round at the Open Championship that could prove the most important.

At Royal Lytham, after two impressive rounds Olesen found himself paired with Tiger Woods near the end of the field for Saturday. Most expected the virtual unknown to crack under the pressure of playing alongside the 14-major champion (and his idol), but instead Olesen constructed a respectable round of 71 - beaten by Woods by just a single shot.

The round proved that the 23-year-old can handle the big occasion (he eventually finished inside the top ten, in what was just his second major appearance). Next year, with more confidence and greater playing privileges, he could make an even bigger impact.

Broberg, meanwhile, nearly won on one of his first starts on the European Tour towards the end of the year. 2012 could see him take a Martin Kaymer-esque accelerated step into the upper echelons of the golfing hierarchy.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
ESPN staff Close