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Oh What a lovely Year
The year that was is bound forever to be the year that European Golf ascended to supremacy. If not that, then it will be remembered as the year that the American Tour slipped to its lowest ebb in living memory. With an ever-lessening collective pot and consequent reduction in tournaments, the year may also signal the onset of big businesses' consumption of the professional golf game. Should the Masters fail to be played next spring, 2002 may also been seen as the year that golf fell on the spike of political correctness.

For the emotionally inclined of a certain age, however, the romance of Montgomerie and Langer, elder statesmen both, leading from the front and carrying their young charges to victory at the Belfry, the year will have special significance. That Montgomerie and Langer should subsequently have both been deemed to win the same tournament is likely to add to the romance although it makes an utter nonsense of the game.

The heady combinations of Scots and Irish romance stiffened with German resolve and flavoured with Spanish spice proved a lethal cocktail for the Americans at the Belfry. Bland and lacklustre to the extent of being dull, the best that the US Tour could muster was out-played and out-witted. Sam Torrence went from being a much-loved footnote in the history of the game to a major figure in the space of a week. Paul McGinley (pictured), who hitherto had not even made the footnotes, left an enduring image of European supremacy with his victorious leap on the Belfry's 18th green.

The Irish are in an altogether different class when it comes to a good story and Pod Harrington added to the folklore by starting and ending the year in story-book style. Forgetting to sign his card, which cost him an early season tournament, and managing to develop some bizarre psychic ills mid-season, Harrington appeared to have written off the year. His Ryder Cup appearance was even in doubt, yet he materialised a new man with a newfound swagger at the Belfry. A week later he won the Dunhill Links Championship and the biggest pot on the European Tour. If that was not enough he underlined how silly a season he could have by going off to California and beating not only Tiger Woods but also Woods' selection of the worlds best for an equally big pot. It was enough to propel him into the higher echelon of the Sony World Rankings and raise everyone's' expectations for next year.

But despite the fact that Ernie Els won the Open at Muirfield and took the pot at Sun City, it was still Tiger Woods' year.

Much of the American press started 2002 cagily suggesting that the Woods era was over and that he was a spent force, a mere mortal after all; his Masters win in the spring changed all of that. Column inches were devoted to the likelihood of a grand slam when they should have been discussing another grand slam for although the guy had held all of the major trophies at the same time he had not yet collected them all in one golfing season.

Beth Page Black, venue of the US Open, was made for him. Its length and severity intimidated most but seemed only to inspire him. He duly won and no one was surprised. Muirfield was the main course and Woods made it clear that he had the appetite for it. His start in the Open was, however, indifferent and the weather that set about the East Lothians during the progress of the third round was clearly not something that he enjoyed. So, just as it had Nicklaus three decades earlier, Muirfield was to deprive Woods of his grand slam and again, as with Nicklaus, present his closest rival on the world scene with his chance. Els took the chance and the Open, yet again, provided us with the greatest spectacle of the golfing year.

It was delightful how the American press ended the year as it had begun. Woods' charges to win tournaments were judged to be not what they once were. It seemed almost a relief to many when Harrington won in California for in the process his win confirmed what many had perceived at the Belfry to be a creeping indifference entering into Woods' game.

This is rubbish for Woods had made not only the greatest demonstration of his supremacy but also the greatest sporting show of the year at Muirfield in July.

Having accumulated 81 strokes to complete his third round in the Muirfield storm, Woods was clearly out of the Open reckoning and his grand slam hopes were dashed. Others, like Montgomerie, who had also seen their Open hopes washed and blown away with the weather, played out their final rounds on the Sunday with about the same enthusiasm as they would the post Sunday lunch washing-up. Tiger Woods went out to play as if his life depended upon the outcome and went round Muirfield in 65 shots. It was a magnificent round of golf, but it was the style and the smile with which he received the accolade on the 18th green that confirmed him the greatest player that the game has ever seen.

©    30 - DECEMBER 2002

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