REUTERS: From Charl Schwartzel’s stunning four-birdie finish to win the Masters in April to Yani Tseng’s 12th victory of the year on her native Taiwan LPGA Tour in December, 2011 delivered a glut of electrifying performances.
Darren Clarke, aged 42, completed a runaway three-shot win at the British Open in July and rookie Keegan Bradley capped a stunning late fightback by clinching his first major title in a playoff for the PGA Championship in August.
World number one Luke Donald confirmed his status as the game’s most consistent player, and arguably its best short-game exponent, by winning four times worldwide and became the first player to claim the money titles on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, the year’s most captivating display came at the U.S. Open in June when Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy triumphed by eight shots in record style to confirm his rich promise as a potential golfing great.
The mop-haired McIlroy delivered a grandstand performance at Congressional Country Club, banishing memories of his stunning Masters meltdown two months earlier as he became the championship’s youngest winner since 1923.
Long regarded as a future world number one, McIlroy eclipsed the U.S. Open scoring record of 12-under set by Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open and fans now wait with interest to see what the gifted Briton will serve up next.
“If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” three-times major champion Padraig Harrington said at Congressional, referring to the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
“Winning a major at 22 with his talent, Rory would have 20 more years so probably 100 more majors in him where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance.”
McIlroy came close to winning his first major at the Masters in April when he held a four-shot lead going into the final round but he spectacularly tumbled out of contention with an ugly closing 80.
Pencil-slim South African Schwartzel took the greatest advantage on a wild afternoon of brilliant shot-making and birdied the last four holes in an unprecedented finish at Augusta National to triumph by two strokes.
The 26-year-old showed nerves of steel as he rolled in a 20-footer on the 18th green to complete a six-under-par 66, the lowest score of the day, and land his first major victory.
Perhaps the most emotional victory of 2011 came at Royal St. George’s in July when popular Northern Irishman Clarke finally won his first major after closing with a level-par 70 at the British Open.
The burly Briton had started the week amid very little fanfare and with his career in decline, having not even made the top 10 in any of the four majors for 10 years.
Bradley’s breakthrough at the PGA Championship, where he edged out fellow American Jason Dufner in a three-hole playoff, was just as unexpected but for very different reasons.
The 25-year-old was ranked 108th in the world coming into that week and he ended it as the first player to claim a grand slam crown in his maiden major start since compatriot Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open. Bradley also became the first male to win a major title using a long putter.
Former number one Woods ended a frustrating campaign this month by winning his first tournament since the 2009 Australian Masters at the Chevron World Challenge, which he hosts.
Woods, whose ranking had plummeted to 52nd while he struggled for fitness and form over the last two years with his private life in tatters, came from one shot behind with two holes to play to triumph by a stroke.
While some will argue his long-awaited return to the winner’s circle came in an 18-man event on a course he knows exceedingly well, his play that week proved he is close to his best and it augurs well for his 2012 prospects.
One month earlier, Woods had justified his widely criticised selection as a wildcard pick for the Presidents Cups in Australia, winning his last-day singles to clinch the trophy for the United States over the Internationals.
World number one Tseng dominated the women’s game in 2011, winning two majors and five other LPGA titles along with five more tournaments on other tours.
Aged just 22, she is perfectly poised to emulate the glittering achievements of her predecessors, golfing greats Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.
Unquestionably the year’s saddest moment came on May 7 when Spaniard Seve Ballesteros died at the age of 54 after a long battle with brain cancer. The five-times major champion was one of golf’s most charismatic players and renowned for his fist-pumping energy and magical shot-making.