Grading Golf's Top 25 for the 2012 PGA Tour Season

Ron Juckett@ronjuckettContributor IIIOctober 3, 2012

Grading Golf's Top 25 for the 2012 PGA Tour Season

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    While the European PGA Tour has a few weeks left to go before the “Race to Dubai” concludes their season, the PGA Tour has pretty much finished on this side of the Atlantic and the off-season is finally here.

    After 36 weeks of regular tournaments, followed by the Ryder Cup, it is time for the World’s Top 25 to receive their final grade for the season they just finished. If your favorite golfer is in the Top 25, then that in and of itself is a substantial accomplishment. You really cannot give them a real letter grade because those golfers have shown us they are the best of the best.

    So, we will grade them on the old check system. If the golfer performed to their expectation levels, then they get a straight check. If they had some big fumbles in their game, the dreaded check-minus gets assigned. If you are Rory McIlroy and have a career-defining year, then that draws the check-plus.

    All players are ranked on the Official Golf World Ranking list as of play on Sunday, September 30th, 2012.

    World No. 26 is Ian Poulter. Ryder Cup success does not change the rankings, but he gets an honorary check-plus for his play at Medinah and his putting display at the PGA Championship. 

25. Peter Hanson

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Peter Hanson won enough money on the European Tour the last couple years to earn an automatic spot on Europe’s Ryder Cup team. His success was highlighted by a win in The Netherlands and a Top 10 finish at Augusta National. That earns the plus for a player of his ranking.

    We would love to see more of Hanson next year here in the United States, but he—along with Paul Lawrie and Nicolas Colsaerts—is part of a group of golfers who are really talented, but mainly play in Europe. Winning on that tour is an accomplishment and is something that cannot be said for everyone on this list.

24. Bo Van Pelt

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    Grade: Check

    Bo Van Pelt contended a number of times late in the year including the TOUR and PGA Championships, but could not break through the barn door.

    Still, he is starting to show enough comfort with his game to contend at some of these bigger events and is old enough to handle the pressure that comes with winning these top-teir events.

    He played well enough to finish the season ranked 24th, but needed a notable win to earn that plus.

    Expect a good 2013 for Van Pelt. He is a player on the rise despite being above 35-years-old.

23. Jim Furyk

3 of 25

    Grade: Check-minus

    Coming to the last hole at the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone needing just to make a par to win and a bogey to get in a playoff with Keegan Bradley, Jim Furyk hit one of the worst green-side bunker shots you will ever see and made a double-bogey to lose.

    Combined with his slipping out of the lead during the final round of the U.S. Open at Olympic Club and his bad performance at the Ryder Cup, this was a bad year for Furyk.

    Yes, it takes talent to get into those positions, but Furyk was an Open Champion in 2003 at Olympia Fields. He has the game and the know-how to finish the deal. While he was not expected to win the Open, he knew his game was in pretty good shape by the time Firestone rolled around and he flat-out choked.

    Sorry, Furyk is a good guy and a good golfer, but he will want to forget 2012.

22. Ernie Els

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    Grade: Check-plus-plus

    Only two of these grades are going to be given out as they should be rare to achieve.

    At No. 22 in the world, Ernie Els was in such poor shape coming into the season that he tried his hardest to boost his ranking to automatically qualify for the Masters. All Els had to do was crack the Top 50 in these ratings or win on Tour to get in.

    He felt short and it really, really ticked him off.

    Flash forward to the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and Els was the only one of the last few groups to shoot under par that last day. And when Adam Scott coughed up that hairball coming home, it was Els who put himself in a place to win.

    Els earned his name being engraved on the Claret Jug a second time and turned that kick in the pants of missing the Masters into perhaps the sweetest moment of his career.

21. Nick Watney

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Nick Watney had a blah season until he broke through with a win at The Barclays to open up the PGA Tour Playoffs.

    Watney got himself into a position to win the FedEx Cup outright by winning the TOUR Championship. While he had a bad last week of the year, he made it that far giving him the best season of his career.

20. Hunter Mahan

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    Grade: Check/Check-minus

    Hunter Mahan won the WGC-Accenture Match Play this year. He even beat Rory McIlroy to do so, then proceeded to play himself out of even a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup.

    Mahan is a talented golfer, one of the best on the tour from tee-to-green and rarely beats himself, but he played himself out of the Ryder Cup.

    He has the talent to win majors on courses that demand precision as well as power and was a non-factor on two set-ups that were ideal for his game.

    The win earned him the check, but the poor play after and his talent drew the minus.

19. Sergio Garcia

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    Grade: Check

    Sergio Garcia broke through on the win column at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro and played himself into the TOUR Championship with a very good performance the next week at The Barclays.

    The reason that he did not get the plus is that we have been waiting for years for Garcia to realize just how good he is and finally win that major he has seemed so capable of doing for the last 14 years.

    Garcia has never had the gift of being a good putter, but most of his wounds are self-inflicted due to a complete lack of belief in his game.

    Hopefully Garcia sees that he can relax and play well under pressure like he did again at the Ryder Cup and make that next step.

18. Graeme McDowell

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    Grade: Check-minus

    We saw glimpses of the guy that won the Open two years ago at Pebble Beach when he had a good run at Olympic Club this year, but that was really the last time we saw Graham McDowell play all that well.

    His pairing at the Ryder Cup with good friend Rory McIlroy was surprisingly flat, considering we know McDowell can play very good golf.

    We saw flashes of it again this year, but not enough.

17. Zach Johnson

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    Grade: Check

    Welcome back!

    We saw a very steady season from Zach Johnson that saw him take the John Deere Classic and re-emerge as a consistent force on leaderboards again this summer.

    Johnson is an incredibly smart player and still perhaps the only one to win a Masters by laying up on both the 13th and 15th holes because he realized that a sure birdie was a better play than a gamble for eagle.

    Zach does not possess great length, but he has built a precision game that should get him another crack at a major again soon. He easily has the game to be a regular winner on tour and needs to do just that.

16. Phil Mickelson

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    Grade: Check/Check-minus

    Phil Mickelson won at Pebble Beach, played himself into contention at both the BMW and TOUR Championships, along with making a great partner-mentor with Keegan Bradley at the Ryder Cup, but disappeared off the face of the earth in between.

    Mickelson went two months without breaking 70 at a tournament, highlighted by missing the cut at the Greenbriar in West Virginia.

    Whether it was fatigue, injuries, boredom or perhaps a combination of all three, Mickelson’s insistence of trying just to overpower courses has come back to hurt him.

    Like a power pitcher in baseball who has a hard time realizing why his no-movement 92-m.p.h. fastball ends up in the right field bleachers after years of throwing that same pitch at 94 with it breaking for strike outs, Phil cannot keep putting it in the rough all the time and scramble for amazing par saves on every hole.

    Perhaps one of the most creative players the game has ever seen, he clearly has to conserve some of that energy by not making his game so difficult. 

15. Keegan Bradley

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    Grade: Check-plus

    A year after winning his first major playing his first ever major at the PGA, Keegan Bradley not only made the cuts in his first trips through the other three majors, but he won a WGC event at Firestone.

    Add his amazing energy that clearly raised the level of Phil Mickelson’s game to a perfect 3-0-0 record as a pair at the Ryder Cup, and you will find a player that did not coast on his early shot at glory, but is ready to take his game to the next level.

    With the intensity he plays at—looking like he wants to punch out the ball on his putts by the way he uses his eyes to line them up—Bradley shows each week that his PGA Championship was not a fluke.

14. Matt Kuchar

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    Grade: Check

    While Kuchar captured the signature win of his career this year at the PLAYERS at Sawgrass, somehow we expected a bit more in the majors and Kuchar was solid, but not spectacular, there.

    Kuchar does everything well. His mental game is good and he will not beat himself, but you can see that there is more to his game than what he presented this year.

    He was on such a good roll a couple years ago that it was going to be impossible to maintain that pace, but we still have not seen the best golf Matt Kuchar has to offer.

    You have to love his chances at the United States Open at Merion next year, that course just screams for finesse play to win and he can do that in spades.

13. Dustin Johnson

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    Grade: Incomplete

    Injuries sidelined the talented Dustin Johnson for a good chunk of the season. When he played though, he played very well and would have easily earned that check.

    One of those players that has yet to cash in on some immense raw talent, Johnson seemed to mature on the course after he came back and capped the year with a solid Ryder Cup.

    He certainly has seemed to learn from his blunders in majors from the past and is poised to have a very good 2013.

12. Louis Oosthuizen

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    Grade: Check

    Louis Oosthuizen authored the shot of the year and lost the same tournament to the second best shot of the year.

    His double-eagle on the second hole of the final round of the Masters will earn him the same fame as Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle enroute to his only Masters win in 1935.

    Sadly for Oosthuizen, he was on the wrong end of Bubba Watson’s amazing hook shot from the pine straw on the 10th hole in that sudden-death playoff.

    Still, Oosthuizen was a familiar face on television all-season and has proven that his 2010 Open Championship was the real deal.

11. Steve Stricker

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    Grade: Check

    The master of solid but not spectacular golf had another solid but not spectacular year.

    Steve Stricker had three top 25 finishes in the playoffs, won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, made the cut in all four majors including a tie for seventh at the PGA and had top 10s in all the WGC events this year.

    Fatigue might become a factor for the 45-year-old, as he just looked quite flat at the Ryder Cup. Despite this, he continues to post impressive results in the biggest tournaments making serious money.

10. Jason Dufner

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Jason Dufner turned his run in the 2011 PGA Championship into his first true top-flight season.

    A winner twice this year in New Orleans and Dallas, the seemingly stoic Dufner broke through for nearly $5 million in prize money and as steady of a personality as you can find in pro golf.

    Dufner just does not get rattled by anything. He even cracked a smile and a fist pump at the Ryder Cup.

    With a never-ending supply of intestinal fortitude, Dufner plays like a skilled poker player. He never reveals how he is feeling, which is bound to unnerve some nervous guys come Sunday.

9. Brandt Snedeker

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Brandt Snedeker has earned his breakthrough win by holding on to claim the TOUR Championship.

    In taking the FedEx Cup and the cool $11.44 million that came from winning both, Snedeker built on his good run at the Open Championship and moved from talented prospect to serious contender.

    Snedeker started his year finishing twice in the top-ten, including a win in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open in Los Angeles. After struggling through parts of the year, he built on his tie for third at Royal Lytham with two more top-ten finishes in the playoffs on his way to the FedEx Cup.

8. Webb Simpson

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Webb Simpson survived to win his first major.

    Really, that is a complement as the United States Golf Association sets up their Open as a survival-of-the-fittest contest on the golf course.

    Simpson used his precision game on a course that absolutely demanded it, and earned his first major championship.

    Simpson also missed a chunk of time this summer with the birth of his second child, which forced him to miss the Open Championship and return for the PGA.

    The temptation is there to award him an incomplete, but he won what is easily the toughest of the four majors and that alone gives him the plus. 

7. Bubba Watson

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    Grade: Check

    While Bubba Watson’s win at Augusta was life-altering, his amazing virtual no-show at the U.S. Open was almost equally as stunning.

    Watson possesses a tremendous amount of raw talent and carries a short game that is as artistic to watch as his power off the tee is impressive.

    His biggest problem is the lack of effort he displays when he's clearly uninterested or intimidated like he was the first two days at Olympic Club grouped with Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

    He did play well at the Open Championship, discovering that his creativity is a major-plus on links courses.

    If he could just be more consistent.

6. Adam Scott

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    Grade: Check

    Yes, Adam Scott blew the Open Championship, but he never openly sulked about it and played solid golf the rest of the season.

    The other side of that coin is he took apart Royal Lytham & St. Annes for three days, nearly carding a 62 to open the Championship. He had that 62, which would have set the record for all-time lowest score for a major championship round, and just had a 64. That would be like settling for a Mercedes instead of a Rolls-Royce.

    Scott finished his PGA Tour season with two top-tens in the playoffs and a trip to Atlanta for the finals.

    One figures Scott will be ready for the next time he leads a major, but here just is no guarantee of a next time.

5. Justin Rose

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    Grade: Check-plus

    A win at the WGC-Cadillac at Doral and a second at the TOUR Championship is a pretty good year. Adding a great performance at the Ryder Cup, highlighted by taking his singles match over Phil Mickelson makes it a great year.

    One of the best from tee-to-green, Justin Rose sought help from a putting guru before the Open Championship, and that added confidence with the Texas Wedge certainly was a factor in Rose’s great end-of-the-season performance.

    With the European Tour still having quality events, Rose could still improve on his great year. 

4. Lee Westwood

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    Grade: Check

    2012 was a mixed bag for Lee Westwood. A win in Sweden and a tie for third at the Masters along with two top-tens in the playoffs were the highlights of the year for Westwood, but he finished the season out of form, finishing dead-last at the TOUR Championship, in addition to a flat performance at the Ryder Cup.

    With Westwood spending the better part of the year trying to chase down the top spot in the OWGR, he did tie for 10th at the U.S. Open but had a bad Open Championship and failed to make the cut at the PGA.

    Being ranked so high, more is expected from Lee, and he is reaching the stage in his career when he needs to deliver something big on this side of the Atlantic to justify his perch.

3. Luke Donald

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    Grade: Check-minus

    This should have been the year that Luke Donald became a household name in the United States.

    The top-ranked golfer on the computer for most of the year and with two major championship courses that strongly fit his game, Donald missed the cut at Olympic Club and was never a factor at the Open Championship, despite his top five finish as he started the last day 10 shots behind.

    On the other hand, Donald won on both sides of the Atlantic this year, defending his title at the European PGA and he won here during the Florida swing.

    While that would be considered a great year for most, there are times when Donald seems very uncomfortable under pressure. The best player in the world needs to have significant face time on Sundays at big events, and he spent most of the year not doing that.

    Maybe Donald has found something as he goes to finish the European season as he had a very good TOUR Championship, which saw him tie for third and a great Ryder Cup highlighted by his opening match singles win over Bubba Watson to start Europe’s rally.

2. Tiger Woods

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    Grade: Check-plus

    Alright, maybe not by Tiger Wood’s standards, but a three-win season and a pair of top fives in the playoffs is a very good year for any mortal golfer.

    The fact that Woods could not put McIlroy away in the playoffs and failed to capitalize on good early round performances in three of the four majors proves that, yes, Tiger Woods has become a mortal golfer.

    Tiger’s biggest concern going forward is his ability to keep the foot on the pedal all four rounds and find the magic relationship he had with his putter again, but wins at Bay Hill and a rare come from behind effort at the Memorial still shows that he is a force to be reckoned with when he is on.

    The question going forward is whether or not he still the best player in the field when he does put it together? Woods played spectacular golf in the playoffs in Boston and at the BMW Championship and finished third and a tie for fourth, respectively.

1. Rory McIlroy

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    Grade: Check-plus-plus

    Four wins. A second major. Top five’s in all three World Golf Championship events.

    Yeah, the 23-year-old kid had a season worthy of the best player in the world

    Yes, Rory Mcllroy has some issues going into next year, and he slumped a bit this summer, but something clicked for Mcllroy during the third round of the WGC-Bridgestone and he turned that into an eight-shot romp at the PGA Championship.

    His status is starting to grow to legend. He shrugged off losing a ball in a dead tree early Saturday at the PGA to give himself a chance to throttle the field. He needed a police escort to get to his singles match on time at the Ryder Cup because he claims not to have understood what time zone he was in while watching his tee time scroll on the screen on Golf Channel.

    Without warming up, he still won his match two-and-one.

    This is the kind of season we expect from anyone that has the best ranking in the World. We see it in mens tennis and we see it in college football.

    McIlroy accepted his challenge and delivered on it.