Sergio Garcia wins back-to-back in Spain after a drought of almost three years, while the rest of the golfing world stopped in Asia to play in Malaysia and Shanghai. In the U.S., players on the Nationwide Tour fought it out in Charleston, SC, at their Tour Championship for the right to play on the big stage next year. There are no sure things in golf, but at least the 25 Nationwide Tour grads have a chance to show their stuff in the big show next year.
1. Rory returns to winning ways
In 2008, when Rory McIlroy was still just an energetic teenager trying to get his pro career off the ground, Anthony Kim won twice on the PGA Tour. Kim was 22 -- the same age that McIlroy is now -- a fresh-faced second-year player out of Oklahoma by way of Los Angeles, who had the whole golf world in his hands and he wanted everybody to know it. But then along the way came a nagging hand injury and a lot of partying and a big entourage and finally some humbling.
As Kim slumbered, many other good young players entered into the "young guns" conversations. With a final-round 62 to win the Wells Fargo Championship in 2010 for his first PGA Tour win, McIlroy left no doubt that he was the top contender from the under-30 crowd to challenge the dominance of Tiger Woods. Then he confirmed that place with an 8-shot win this June at the U.S. Open.
On Sunday at the inaugural Shanghai Masters, McIlroy got his first win since that historic triumph at Congressional by beating Kim on the first playoff hole. The cocksure lad from Holywood, North Ireland, who shot a final-round even-par 72 on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Masters course at the Lake Malaren Golf Club, missed an 8-footer in regulation to avert the playoff with Kim, who had started the day 3 shots back in second place. Both finished regulation at 18 under par.
In the playoff, McIlroy made a 2-footer to win after Kim had missed a 3-footer. For his effort in the 30-man no-cut event, which was not sanctioned by any of the major tours, McIlroy earned $2 million, the largest first-prize check in golf.
"It's something that I feel like I can still get better at is winning and putting yourself in the position to win when you're not playing your best," McIlroy said after the tournament.
McIlroy's win in Shanghai comes on the heels of his break last week with his agent, Chubby Chandler, who manages Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, and Louis Oosthuizen, among other players, as a part of his International Sports Management. McIlroy, who had been with Chandler since turning pro in 2007, left to join the Dublin-based Horizon Sports, which also represents his good friend and countryman, Graeme McDowell.
It's unclear why McIlroy left the Chandler camp. Perhaps he felt ISM was becoming too crowded and too focused around the larger-than-life Chandler, who with victories from his clients in 2011's first three majors seemed like the Don King of golf.
Chandler can take the defection in stride because he'll likely continue to get paid for any sponsorship deals that he made for McIlroy over the past four years. Still, not everyone out of the ISM group was as gracious as its boss.
Westwood, who played with McIlroy in the opening round in Shanghai and finished 6 shots out of the playoff at 12 under, called the move a "bizarre decision" on his Twitter account.
Still, the minor rift couldn't overshadow McIlroy's reprisal of the excellent play that we saw from him in the first half of the year. In April, after he shot an 80 in the final round to throw away the Masters, many wondered how he would recover from such an embarrassing defeat. But he came back at the U.S. Open at Congressional and dissected the course in a manner that we hadn't seen since the heyday of Tiger's run in the early 2000s. Then he showed rust at the British Open after taking off nearly a month after winning at Congressional, finishing 25th at Royal St. George's. At the PGA Championship, he finished 64th after suffering an injury early in the tournament.
He's lived what seems like three lives this year on and off the golf course. There is the fame, notoriety and expectations that come with being a major winner. He started a high-profile relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
These accoutrements of success suit his confident but gracious style, but will he live up to his billing as the heir apparent to Tiger Woods? It's difficult to say. He has repeatedly said that he loves U.S. golf courses and would love to play in the states more often. But is the allure of playing in Europe, where he got his start, too tempting to ignore in favor of a fuller PGA Tour schedule that would make him a more rested player at critical points of his U.S. playing schedule?
After his tough win Sunday, McIlroy seemed to eschew any notions that all of his future wins would be as pretty and graceful as the one he had at Congressional. The months since then have shown him how difficult it can be to get back into the winner's circle.
"Even if it's scrappy golf where you grind it out, you're going to win a lot more tournaments by doing that rather than playing your best golf the whole week," McIlroy said. "I was very happy I was able to pull this one out."
2. Ryder Cup on Sergio's mind?
A week after winning his first tournament in almost three years at his home course, Spaniard Sergio Garcia beat countryman Miguel Angel Jimenez by a shot on Sunday to win the Andalucia Masters. The victory at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, came at the course where a Seve Ballesteros-captained team beat the U.S., 14.5-13.5, to win the 1997 Ryder Cup.
Garcia's victory in the Andalusia region of southern Spain marked the first stroke-play win by a native on the tough par-71 Robert Trent Jones design. This week, the 31-year-old had a much sterner test of golf and a better field than he had last week in Castellon, where he shot 27 under par for the week. Garcia's 6-under-par finish at Valderrama equaled the highest winning 72-hole total for a regular European Tour event in 2011. Only Darren Clarke's 5 under at the British Open at Royal St. George's was higher.
The win also marks Garcia's fifth career pro win on Spanish soil.
"I'm out of words," said Garcia, who will likely move into the top 20 in the world with the win. "It's been two amazing weeks. Miguel fought so hard and had some good chances coming in, 17 for eagle and 18 for birdie.
"I wasn't as good as probably the last 13 days, but we hung on and managed to pull through."
The last two weeks leave little doubt that Garcia will make the 2012 European Ryder Cup team after not qualifying last year for the matches at Celtic Manor. It seems fitting that he would find his game in time to make a return to the biennial matches at Medinah Country Club, where he first captured our attention at the 1999 PGA Championship with that epic duel with Tiger Woods.
The variety that he's shown in his game over the last two weeks is a clear sign that his mental game might finally have matured enough to match his wonderful physical gifts. His even-par 71 on Sunday wasn't spectacular -- two birdies and two bogeys -- but where in the past he would have tried to force the issue, he played within himself and made clutch par saves down the stretch.
I wonder though, is this the new Sergio -- a happier, less pensive player -- or just a case of a man basking in the comforts that come with competing on his home turf? Good fortune and good play tends to bring about a good attitude. But if all the signs are true and he's back to the front of the pack, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and all the rest will have to play their best golf to beat him next year.
3. Is an Asian swing far away?
Bo Van Pelt is the everyman millionaire on the PGA Tour. On his off weeks back home in Tulsa, his friends don't bother him about life on the road or treat him like a superstar. He's made a nice living on the PGA Tour -- $14.8 million in 10 full seasons -- but like many American players, he hasn't been historically interested in taking his game much around the world, except for the obligatory trip over to the British Open in July. Depending on your view, the PGA Tour is golf's mecca of competition, and the rest of the world is a place to explore for appearance fees and easy money in no-cut events.
When the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic -- a co-sanctioned event by the Asian Tour and the PGA Tour -- started last year in Malaysia, Van Pelt didn't bother to make the trip. His plan this year was to store the clubs in the garage after the Tour Championship, but his wife and his caddie convinced him to make the nearly 10,000-mile trip for the tournament.
And now he's very happy that he went after winning the tournament by 6 shots on Sunday over Jeff Overton. In his final-round 64 at the Mines Resort and Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur, Van Pelt birdied five of the last eight holes. His 23-under-par total secured the $1.3 million winner's check, the biggest payday of his career.
"It's always nice to win," said Van Pelt, whose only previous win on a major tour was the 2009 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. "Because you don't get to do it often. There are a lot of very good golfers around the world, all trying to do the same thing."
Like most of the players on the U.S.-centered PGA Tour, Van Pelt is coming to understand the ways in which the growth of the game in Asia over the past 20 years will reshape the parameters of pro golf around the world. In the near future, the PGA Tour will almost certainly begin to hold official events in Asia. Lucrative small-field tournaments like the CIMB could become commonplace over the next decade.
The Asian market craves for more tournament golf and the West wants a share of the pie. With Asia awarding as much as 20 percent of golf's total annual prize money, according to the accounting firm KPMG, no matter how much players like Van Pelt crave to stay near home, it's hard to look past $6-7 million purses.
Still, a number of the top American players won't be at the WGC-HSBC Champions, which starts on Thursday in Shanghai. Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Gary Woodland and Sean O'Hair have all opted not to make the trip.
It's true that China is a long plane ride for American players, some of whom have been on the road since January, but the PGA Tour could entice its members to go if it made the event an official tour event.
Van Pelt won against a field full of PGA Tour players, in a co-sanctioned event between the PGA Tour and the Asian Tour, but the stage isn't quite good enough to be an official tournament. This doesn't take anything away from Van Pelt's achievement, but it does say something about the PGA Tour's slow move to embrace a full partnership with the rest of the golf world, beyond the World Golf Championship events.
Hopefully for the everyman like Van Pelt, who came close to winning this year at the Masters and the Transitions Championship, a chance to win -- especially an opportunity to make $1.3 million -- will lead the rest of the rank and file regularly to new horizons in Asia and beyond throughout the year. If the sponsorships and fans continue to grow in Asia, the PGA Tour might one day have an Asian swing and Van Pelt and his colleagues will make it a routine part of their schedules.
4. Nationwide Tour graduates 25
On Sunday afternoon, 25 players graduated to the PGA Tour for the 2012 season off their season-long performance on the Nationwide Tour. It's a battle-tested bunch of players -- guys who have made it to the show by proving themselves over a long season. No Cinderella stories come out of this group. Yet they all have had unique journeys.
Billy Hurley III and Erik Compton are two of the best stories from these graduates. With a 13th-place finish in the Nationwide Tour Championship on Sunday at Daniel Island in Charleston, S.C., Hurley, a 29-year-old Naval Academy graduate, got the 25th spot on the money list. Two years ago, he was Lt. Hurley, serving on a Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf assigned to protect Iraqi oil platforms. Now he'll be playing on the PGA Tour.
Two years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, I was on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship in the Miami harbor when I ran into Compton in the dining room. We were both enjoying the holiday with our families. Compton's father and brother work for the cruise line. The former Georgia golfer and two-time heart transplant recipient had not planned to sail on a ship in November, but he hadn't advanced out of the second stage of Q-school. The final stage of Q-school was starting in a few days, but he was on a cruise ship with a thousand tour guides.
He told me that he was trying to write a book, but that publishers were balking at his courageous story.
Where was the arc to the story? Wouldn't it make a compelling story if the golfer with the heart problem got his PGA Tour card and had tremendous success?
That's the way book editors think.
"It's a pretty good story, I think," Compton said.
Since then, the 31-year-old Compton has scratched his way through the game -- embodying a resiliency and strength that belies his slight build and lifelong heart troubles. His 4-under 68 to finish 10 under at the Daniel Island Club's Ralston Creek course helped him lock up his 2012 PGA Tour card. He finishes the year 13th on the Nationwide Tour money list with $239,737. This day was all but assured after he won the Mexico Open in June.
Perhaps now Compton can complete the arc of that story for the book on his life with some success on the PGA Tour. It's a story worth telling.
5. Two ways to the tour
Over the years, the Nationwide Tour has proved to be a better testing ground for PGA Tour readiness than Q-school, which for all its horror stories and dramatic effects, is like getting lucky on the math section of the SAT and then not being able to pass calculus once you get to MIT.
Perhaps the only thing harder than getting on the PGA Tour is staying out there year after year. There are the players who don't worry about their cards. The Matt Kuchars and the Hunter Mahans of the world know that even if they don't win, they are going to make a few million bucks every year.
Then there are the guys who are great finishing between 75 and 100 on the money list every year -- the Joe Ogilvies and Kevin Stadlers of the world. Then there are the other 80 guys or so who are worried about making the cut every week.
The graduates off the Nationwide Tour and Q-school generally fill this last group. Nine of the 25 graduates from the 2010 Nationwide Tour kept their card for 2012. At the start of the year, Jamie Lovemark, who was the leading money winner on the Nationwide Tour in 2010, was hurt for most of the year and made less than $35,000. Keegan Bradley, who was 14th in the class, ended up as a legitimate star, winning twice, including the PGA Championship. Chris Kirk, Brendan Steele and Jhonattan Vegas were also in this group and got wins in their rookie year.
Of the 29 players who got their cards through the 2010 Q-school, only seven finished inside the top 125.
On Sunday at the Nationwide Tour Championship, 25 players earned their chance to play in the PGA Tour next year. J.J. Killeen, a 30-year-old from TCU who won twice on the tour this season, headlines the class. Ken Duke, a 42-year-old former PGA Tour regular, won the Nationwide Tour Championship with a 10-under-par total at the Daniel Island Club. With the win, he jumped from 36th to seventh on the money list. Duke beat Scott Brown, who also earned his card, by 2 shots.
The Nationwide class has some star power. Duke, Gavin Coles, Daniel Chopra, John Malinger, Matthew Goggin, Danny Lee, Matt Every and Steve Wheatcroft should all have good years in 2012 on the PGA Tour. But the PGA Tour is a different place. No one knows this better than the 54 graduates from 2010 off the Nationwide Tour and Q-school, most of whom are headed back to Q-school.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.