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That was the year that was
It is hard to strip away the euphoria of Detroit and look objectively at the year that is gone. The European win in the Ryder Cup was of such momentous magnitude that it obscures everything else that occurred in a year that we may well look back on as one of seismic significance. In retrospect, 2004 may come to be regarded as the year that the world axis of golf tilted. On the other hand, history may simply regard it a blip in the inexorable march of ongoing American dominance - but I doubt it.

The European team victory in Detroit was certainly emphatic. At 18.5 to 9.5 the differential matched the US winning margin at Walton heath in 1981 when the depth of US talent was such that many felt that the Ryder Cup had become a fatuous exercise. Europe won in Detroit without a Major winner in its ranks, yet, down the list to its 12th man it had players capable of matching anything that the US could muster for there was a spirit in the European team that was clearly absent from its US counterpart.

Europe's women enjoyed an equally massive victory in the Solheim Cup while making an equally indelible impression on the US women's tour. Of the 30 women's Tour events in the US, American women won only nine and Christie Kerr and Meg Mallon won three of these each. Annika Sorenstam won seven for Sweden with UK, Mexican, Philippine and Australian women all taking pieces of the cake.

There has always been a trickle of great players from the East although to date the impression made has been more of novelty than threat. Korean women won four times on the US Women's Tour and figured prominently in the Open at Sunningdale. But what is of greater significance is that 2004 saw the first serious money for men on offer on the Chinese mainland and four tournaments are scheduled for next year. If the last 100 years has seen the game transformed in the US, the next century may be about its further transformation in China.

2004 may come to be regarded as the year of American eclipse. It will certainly not be regarded as the year of the Tiger. Although salvaging some self respect from his own hosted tournament in California in November, Tiger Woods had little else to show for his year's efforts.

Having seen what the Tiger can do it is simply foolish to write him off as no more than another contender. He may not have won a single scheduled Tour event in 2004, far less a Major title, but he nevertheless pocketed nearly $6 million while slipping to third place on the world money lists and held on to second place in the world rankings. Insisting, quite correctly, that he was 'just a touch away' from his best game while falling to 182nd place in driving accuracy, he led by four shots in the Tour Championship before Retief Goosen returned a 64 in the last round to win by four shots. The Tiger still has his teeth and his marriage this year may serve to sharpen them.

2004 can only be ascribed to Vijay Singh (pictured). He overtook Tiger with some true grit in the world's rankings as the first golfer to pocket over $11 million from his play in a single year. His memorable win over Pete Dye's bizarre Whistling Straits course in the US PGA Championship followed a run of five wins out of six events and he was rightly recognised for his achievements by his peers in both Europe and America. He had to relinquish his green jacket to Mickelson at the Masters in the spring but he went on to win his third major title with the USPGA in the autumn of a year in which he won nine times on the US Tour.

The Open Championship proved consistent with recent times in throwing up another unlikely winner in Todd Hamilton. Ernie Els scraped into another play-off but made the cardinal sin of missing Troon's 17th green and thereby the Championship. The USGA conspired with Shinnecock's innate difficulty to render golf all but impossible to everyone but Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson. Both are cool dudes but Goosen emerged with the requisite composure to take his second and certainly most memorable US Open title.

2004 not only saw the American Tiger deposed from the top spot in the world rankings, but his countrymen reduced to only three representatives in the top-10 places. The year may well earn the epithet of 'American eclipse' but the label of the year of 'emergence' should be attached to it. Several great young players came into bloom. Adam Scott climbed to 10th place in the world rankings, winning the Players Championship at Ponte Verde in the process. Ian Poulter turned the clock back sartorially while making a playing impression in the Ryder Cup and in winning the Volvo Masters at Valderama. European pro golf was exposed to Luke Donald, who won twice in his persuasion of Barnard Langer for a Ryder Cup place. At long last, a young Scot, Steven Gallacher, emerged with a cool head to beat Graham Mc Dowell, a young Irishman, in a play-off for the Dunhill Links Championship and took the biggest pot in the European Tour year.

Things appear to be looking up in Europe with the young guns but the only thing that we can be sure of, as the excitement of 2004 passes, is that 2005 with a young lady called Michelle Wie, will not be far behind.

©    20 - DECEMBER 2004

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