The last two months changed everything.
McIlroy was announced Tuesday as player of the year, and while the tour does not disclose the vote of its players, this was the equivalent of a tap-in. McIlroy wound up with four wins, including his eight-shot victory in the PGA Championship, and made a clean sweep of the biggest awards by winning the money title and having the lowest adjusted scoring average.
“It’s just a great way to end what has been a great year, my best season so far,” McIlroy said.
The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland became the youngest player to win PGA Tour player of the year since Tiger Woods at age 21 in 1997. He also was the third European to win in the last five years, joining Padraig Harrington on Ireland in 2008 and Luke Donald of England last year.
John Huh, who earned his card through Q-school, was voted PGA Tour rookie of the year in another race that was easy to predict. Huh won an opposite-field event in Mexico, but perhaps his greater achievement was becoming the only rookie to make it to the Tour Championship, a measure of good play all year. That gets Huh into the Masters next year for the first time.
He beat out Jonas Blixt and Charlie Beljan, who won in the Fall Series, Greenbrier winner Ted Potter Jr. and Bud Cauley, the only rookie who didn’t win this year.
Also on the ballot for player of the year were Tiger Woods with three wins, Jason Dufner and his two wins in the spring, Masters champion Bubba Watson and Brandt Snedeker, whose second win this year at the Tour Championship allowed him to capture the FedEx Cup.
None compared with McIlroy, who pulled away from every over the final two months of the season.
After his eight-shot win at Kiawah, he won the Deutsche Bank Championship after a duel with Louis Oosthuizen, and then won the next playoff event in the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick against a leaderboard that included Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson and Woods.
McIlroy’s other win came earlier in the year, when he held off Woods to win the Honda Classic and go to No. 1 in the world for the first time. McIlroy went to No. 1 three more times during an inconsistent summer until he established himself as the best in golf at the PGA Championship.
“I think everyone knows that my game wasn’t where I wanted it to be through the start of the summer and leading up to the PGA,” McIlroy said on a conference call.
He tied for fifth at Firestone the week before the final major to gain a little more confidence, though he said his expectations were lower than usual for a major considering his summer doldrums. He turned a two-shot deficit into an eight-shot win with a 67-66 weekend at Kiawah, and off he went.
“I didn’t want to let this opportunity pass me because it was a great opportunity to win my second major,” McIlroy said. “And from that I gained a lot of confidence, knowing that I could win my second major. And I went on from there.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who introduced McIlroy, was as impressed with his behavior off the course as his skill level inside the ropes.
“He has handled himself in terrific fashion,” Finchem said. “He has been very direct with the media and entertaining to the fans inside and outside the ropes. He is at a very young age already making a very solid contribution to what is the most important asset of the PGA Tour, and that is the image of its players. For that, I thank him.”
The one question McIlroy has fielded since closing out his year with a win in Dubai – giving him money titles on the PGA Tour and European Tour – is what he will do for an encore. He is about to change equipment from Titleist to Nike. McIlroy starts his season Jan. 17 in Abu Dhabi against a strong field.
“What would be a success next season compared to this one? I guess it’s just trying to become a better golfer, maybe add more variety to my game,” he said. “But you know, we’re judged on wins, ultimately. ... I won my first major in ‘11, I backed it up this season with another one, and I’d love to go into ‘13 with that same goal of trying to win another major.
“I think really what was disappointing this year for me – if there was a disappointment – that I was only in contention once in the majors, and luckily I was able to win it,” he said. “But next year I’d love to be in contention in all four of them.”
McIlroy has never played at three of the four majors in the rotation next year – Merion, Muirfield or Oak Hill.
ALL FOR NAUGHT: The final Q-school that granted direct access to the PGA Tour could turn out to be a waste of a remarkable effort by Si Woo Kim.
The 17-year-old from South Korea made it through all four stages of qualifying – that includes a pre-qualifying stage in September – and was among 25 players who earned their cards Monday at PGA West. Trouble is, he can’t become a PGA Tour member until he turns 18 on June 28.
Kim might play as few as three tournaments and go right back to Q-school – only then, he would have to spend a year on the Web.com Tour.
The PGA Tour has no provision for Kim to appeal to be a member before he is 18, so his options are limited until his next birthday.
He can accept as many seven sponsor exemptions before June 28, but those exemptions might be hard to come by for a kid hardly anyone knows, especially with the likes of Camilo Villegas needing a spot next year. Kim also can try to qualify on Mondays in open tournaments. Whatever points he earns would not count in the regular FedEx Cup standings, though he could transfer those points when he becomes a member.
Kim turns 18 the week of the AT&T National, and will be the lowest-ranked member (zero points) among this Q-school class. He can only hope he gets in The Greenbrier Classic and John Deere Classic. There are two events he can count on (Mississippi opposite the British Open, Reno-Tahoe opposite the Bridgestone Invitational). He also might have a chance at getting in the Canadian Open.
And then the FedEx Cup playoffs begin for the top 125.
The players who finish from 126 to 200 would qualifying for the four tournament series called “The Finals” that, in effect, replaces Q-school and awards 25 cards to the top finishers on that separate money list. With so few starts, Kim would have to play well to get into the top 200.
Claiming an injury so that he could start the season fresh in October would not do him any good because he would only get about four starts, the same as he realistically could have played starting in July.
His best hope would be to get a few exemptions earlier in the year and make the most of them. But those rules have changed, too. Because of the short season, tournaments no longer have four unrestricted exemptions to award. The number has been reduced to two, and tournaments have to award four spots to players from Q-school or the Web.com Tour based on their priority ranking. Kim is toward the bottom.
So the kid with the polished swing came a long way to get his PGA Tour card. And he still has a long way to go.
RYDER CUP REVIEW: Ian Poulter struggled with jet lag going from Dubai to California, and he was on his own last week, giving him plenty of time to kill. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to watch highlights of the Ryder Cup for the first time since Europe’s comeback at Medinah.
And he still couldn’t believe it.
“I knew the outcome and I’m still sitting there saying ... ‘look at the board.’ The board kept changing, changing, changing,” he said. “It was really solid blue, then it went empty with three matches all square, more red numbers, then it went blue again. Calculations were going all over the place.”
The two shots that stood out for Poulter were Steve Stricker’s chip behind the 17th green that went 7 feet past the hole and led to bogey that gave Martin Kaymer the lead, and Justin Rose making a 35-foot putt on the 17th to square his match with Phil Mickelson.
“If you’re trying to find something late in the field, those were it,” he said.
His only criticism of U.S. captain Davis Love III was the very thing Love already has said he regrets <0x2014> the hole locations for Sunday singles. The pin was far right on the 17th and front right on the 18th.
“If he goes left corner, left corner, they win the Ryder Cup,” Poulter said, noting that most of the Americans favor a right-to-left shot.
His overall observation of this Ryder Cup is one that few can dispute.
“I’m not sure we’ll see another one quite like it,” he said.
OBNOXIOUS FANS: Keegan Bradley’s comments about a fan who called him a cheater for using a belly putter gave Graeme McDowell a platform to speak out against another kind of noise from the gallery that has gone on too long.
“You da man!” has given way to “Get in the hole!” to “Mashed potatoes.”
“I’m kind of fed up with all this ‘mashed potatoes’ and all this rubbish that the crowd are kind of enjoying shouting right now,” McDowell said after his win at Sherwood.
“Keegan had a guy out there ... after every shot he was ‘Yabba dabba doing’ and it was just stupid. It’s something for the players. It’s not a lot of fun, and it’s kind of becoming a little bit of a cool thing to do for the spectators. It gives them their two or three seconds of fame. But it gets a little frustrating for everyone.”
COUNTDOWN TO RIO: Few things in golf get Suzann Pettersen more excited than the Olympics in 2016.
“Growing up in Norway, the Olympics was the biggest thing in sports,” she said. “I never thought that I would ever compete in an Olympic Games as a golfer. So when that chance came up a couple years ago, it was a very obvious goal for me. It would be nice to complete a career with a gold medal or a medal in the Olympics. That’s kind of where I see my road right now, and it’s quite exciting.”
Some players believe an Olympic gold medal would not be as valuable as a U.S. Open trophy, a green jacket, a claret jug or even a jump into the pond at the Kraft Nabisco. Pettersen believes that will change over time, assuming golf becomes a permanent part of the Olympic program.
“I think it will take a generation to build the kind of respect and the honor it is to actually have a gold medal in golf,” she said. “I think you will see the kids at 4, 5 years old now seeing Rory and Tiger compete for an Olympic medal. Once they see that, they want to be there, as well, and I think that’s when you start building the new generation where the Olympics would be a major part of the sport of golf.”
Her Olympic inspiration came from winter sports, and she lists Kjetil Andre Aamodt as Norway’s greatest Olympian (putting him ahead of Johann Olav Koss). As for the best Olympian in summer sports?
“Summer is not our strongest season,” she said.
DIVOTS: Counting only past champions who played in eight or more events last year, the PGA Tour membership for 2013 features 80 players from 21 countries outside the United States. Australia continues to lead the way with 22 players, followed by 10 each from South Korea, England and Sweden. ... Jason Dufner, coming off a breakthrough year of two wins and an impressive Ryder Cup debut, will be playing in Abu Dhabi and Qatar in January. That means missing three PGA Tour events he played this year – Sony Open, Humana Challenge and Northern Trust Open. Asked his first time to play overseas, Dufner mentioned Panama on the Nationwide Tour. “That’s probably not what you meant, is it?” he said. ... The HSBC Women’s Champions returns to Singapore next year with its $1.4 million purse, though it is changing courses to Serapong Course at Sentosa Golf Club. The tournament will be played Feb. 28 to March 3. ... Ricardo Santos won The Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award on the European Tour, making him the first player from Portugal to do so. Santos won the Madeira Islands Open.