How did Tiger surprise us this year?
Each new year in professional golf is like the beginning of a grand holiday providing us with a bunch of neatly wrapped presents that are sure to surprise us as the year unfolds.
Will some newbie come out of nowhere to win a major? Will a notable player crash and burn in the heat of the pressure to succeed? Will others just not live up to their heralded potential?
2013 has been no different, as a number of unexpected occurrences have transpired. Some don’t seem to fit our expectations, while others make perfect sense.
At some point over the past year, we were left with our mouths agape, our hair standing on end or with big smiles on our faces.
Here are the biggest surprises so far, but rest assured more will follow.
Perhaps the most surprising score in the first round of the Masters came from 14-year-old Tianlang Guan, the youngest player ever to compete at Augusta.
Guan stunned the field by shooting a calm and cool three-over 73, placing him squarely in the hunt. That score put him above Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahan and even the defending champion, Bubba Watson.
Perhaps even more impressive was Guan’s second-day 75, which allowed him to make the cut and put some more grey hairs on the heads of his elders.
Each year, there are a few unexpected winners on the PGA Tour. But surprise winners this year read like a Who’s Who of Who?
Russell Henley, Sony Open
For his debut on the PGA Tour, the 23-year-old Henley didn’t just win; he destroyed the tournament record by four shots with a 24-under-par 256 that included birdies on the last four holes.
Now ranked a respectable No. 17 in the FedEx standings, the two-year PGA member has had a solid season, making the cut 14 of 19 times with three top-10 finishes. He even made the cut at the British Open.
John Merrick, Northern Trust Open
You can pretty much say Merrick came out of nowhere for his first-ever win.
A look back at Merrick’s season to date shows a pretty uneventful year that includes only 10 made cuts of 17 events.
In fact, his only top-10 finish was his win at Riviera in February, or one fewer than last year. Merrick, who attended nearby UCLA, had to beat Charlie Beljan for his first title after 169 starts.
Michael Thompson, Honda Classic
With his inaugural win at the Honda Classic, Thompson reminded us of the kind of play that made him a celebrity at last’s year’s U.S. Open, where he shocked the golfing public by finishing in a tie for second place.
Thompson seems to punctuate otherwise mediocre play with the kind that wins tournaments. He has already been cut 10 times in 25 tourneys this year.
Kevin Streelman, Tampa Bay Championship
Perhaps the big surprise here is that Streelman hasn’t won sooner.
You may have noticed his name rising up the leaderboard on Sundays, as he is ranked sixth on the tour in final-day scoring. He is 10th in top-10 finishes with five, and it may be even more surprising that he is listed eighth in FedEx points. He is also 13th in total putting on the tour, a telltale sign of future success.
But this was his first win in 153 starts. Not surprisingly, he had three straight top-six finishes just a month later.
Derek Ernst, Wells Fargo Championship
If you have heard of Derek Ernst, you are definitely a golf nerd.
Ranked No. 1,207 in the world—and that is not a typo—the former UNLV star entered the Wells Fargo Championship as a fourth alternate.
Couple that with the fact that it was only his seventh event as a pro, and you can see why he is on this list.
Jonathan Blixt, Greenbrier Championship
Blixt blitzed the field at the Greenbrier with four highly consistent rounds of 67.
It has been a feast-or-famine career for the Swede, who won at the 2012 Frys.com Open.
We’ll be watching to see when he can complete the hat trick.
The 19-year-old Spieth turned teen angst into teen wonder when he became the first of his age group to win a PGA tournament in 82 years.
Spieth turned pro last year, but this has been his breakout season. He not only notched his first pro win, but he has also made 13 of 17 cuts with six top-10 finishes. He is also ranked 16th in scoring average.
It just goes to show you that the squeaky wheel actually does get a PGA win, or something like that.
You see, the 44-year-old Duke turned pro in 1994. He lost and regained his tour card, played around the world and entered 187 events before winning the Travelers Championship.
Ranked fourth in driving accuracy, Duke can point to his success off the tee for keeping him in the running for his first tour victory.
Duke deserves a plaque for persistence in addition to the purse and title he received on that pleasantly surprising day.
Aren't you surprised Matt Kuchar hasn't won a major this year?
Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker all have one unworthy thing in common: Each has yet to win a major title. And this was the year one of them would do it, right?
Each of these highly ranked pros has been favored to win at various times. Each has had his chances. Each has faltered when it counted most.
But this year, it really seemed like these four Americans were the ones to beat.
Mahan gave himself a very good chance to win both the U.S. Open and the British Open, but all he could muster was a tie for fourth and a tie for ninth, respectively.
Kuchar, currently ranked third in FedEx points, had posted a second- and first-place finish going into this year’s U.S. Open but never got untracked and finished tied for 28th. His performance at the Masters, where he seems to play his best, netted him only a tie for eighth.
Snedeker was everyone’s dark horse for a major title this year, although the 2012 FedEx Cup champion should have been more of a front-runner. Known as one of the game’s best putters, Snedeker had a bouncy ride at Muirfield that ultimately led to a nice-but-sorry finish in a tie for 11th. At the Masters, he looked solid going into the last day but succumbed to a 75 that left him in a tie for sixth.
Johnson may be the longest hitter of the bunch and the one who has come closest to winning a major title.
He imploded at the 2010 U.S. Open on the final day when he shot an 82 and then followed that with a two-shot club-grounding penalty that cost him the title at the PGA that same year. This year, he looked great on the first day at the British Open, when he shot a 68, but he followed that with three rounds in the 70s.
This year looked like the year one of these pros, all now seasoned vets, would win a major. They have one to go as the PGA Championship approaches. Let’s see if they can surprise us in a different way.
It may not be much of a surprise Tiger Woods has reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, but wouldn’t you think he would have won at least one major while dominating his peers in stats and total wins?
While being the top dog is a wonderful accomplishment by the once and future king, isn’t it all about majors for Tiger right now?
Woods entered 2012 ranked 25th in the world. He then shot up the rankings with three wins and nine top-10 finishes. By the end of last year, he was in third place, and by April of this year, he overtook a sagging Rory McIlroy to regain the premier position.
Poised to contend for the Masters, he finished tied for fourth. Favored to win the U.S. Open, he tumbled to a tie for 32. Desperate to win the British Open, he ended in a tie for sixth.
By now, we know the story of how poorly Tiger has played on the weekend, a barrier that has assuredly played into his five-year drought in majors.
What remains a mystery is how the fiercest competitor in golf cannot seem to separate himself from the field when it counts most.
So many things have conspired to force Rory’s downfall that maybe we should have expected it.
His new clubs, new girlfriend and newfound fame have all contributed to his sudden and rapid drop in the world rankings, his lack of a victory this year and his obvious frustration on the course.
The 24-year-old Rory doesn’t seem to be having much fun out there. He is letting the pressure of his prominence get to him.
After winning five tournaments, including two majors, in two years, Rory was expected to continue that pace going forward. He was considered Tiger’s main rival.
But that has just not been the case.
In his last three tournaments, he has missed the cut at the British Open, tied for 41st at the U.S. Open and tied for 57th at The Memorial. Unless he pulls it together fast, he will surely drop from his present third in the world rankings. He has already sunk to 55th in FedEx points.
Who could have expected such a quick demise?
We have learned to expect the unexpected from Phil, but his marvelous comeback win at the British Open ranks up there as one of golf’s greatest and most surprising accomplishments.
Phil was supposed to win the U.S. Open, not the British, where he had never in his lengthy career won and had only two top-10 finishes in 19 tries.
Phil hates links courses, right?
Well, maybe not when they are playing like a desert course and certainly not when Phil finally learned the driver may not be his best weapon to conquer such a course. Prior to Muirfield, he actually said his hate had turned to love. He had learned to hit fairways by dispensing of his wayward driver and subsequently played to his short game, which is the best in the world.
Not only was he the first pro to win the Scottish Open followed by the British Open, but he did so in a manner that fully established him in golf lore, as if that were ever in question.
Like the thoroughbred he is, Lefty passed the field on the final day by racing around the course with a Sunday-best 66. His stellar back nine, which included four birdies in the last six holes, was one for the ages.
The win and Phil’s resurgence as one of the best players in the game right now is a very welcome surprise.