More than a year removed from the Tiger Woods scandal, 2011 was supposed to be the season when we started seeing which golfers would step up in the post-Tiger era. And indeed, three golfers took turns at No. 1, and a fourth captivated the golf world with a legendary collapse-and-bounceback.
As for Woods himself? His victory just a couple weeks ago, and his continuing presence in headlines, reminds us that maybe we're not in the post-Tiger era just yet.
Here are the top five golf stories of 2011:
5. Being Tiger Woods
With the off-course drama gone from his life, Woods once again drew headlines for his golf game – or, for much of the season, the lack thereof. His Sunday charge at the Masters nearly resulted in another green jacket. His split with caddy Steve Williams turned ugly, and his performance at the PGA Championship was even uglier.
But Woods finally reached victory lane once again after more than two winless years. Yes, it was in a handpicked December tournament with only 18 players, but they were 18 of the world's best, and victory is victory. Woods' climb back toward golf's elite will make for one of 2012's most intriguing storylines.
4. Major drama: Schwartzel, Bradley seize big wins
Every major is like a novel, with intricate plots and fascinating characters unfolding over the course of several days. This year, the Masters and the PGA Championship featured head-snapping twist endings. Charl Schwartzel reeled off birdies on the final four holes of the Masters to leap a logjam of players and take his first green jacket. Keegan Bradley, five strokes back on the 15th hole at the PGA, used insanely clutch putting to force a playoff and eventual victory over Jason Dufner. Both tournaments made fans regret having to wait a full year for a sequel.
Donald may be the most anonymous player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world, but it's not because of his play; the Englishman simply owned virtually every tournament he entered. He's still tracking that first major, but the way he played this year – winning the money title on both the European and PGA Tours – suggests it can't be far away now.
The LPGA doesn't get nearly the exposure it deserves, which means Yani Tseng's 12-win season went almost unnoticed by the sporting world at large. Had a man won this many, he'd have more press than Tom Brady multiplied by Derek Jeter. Instead, the still-only-22-year-old Tseng plays in relative anonymity. Still, her game is already legendary, and she's unquestionably the best player in golf right now.
1. Rory McIlroy: Lowest of lows to highest of highs
Rory McIlroy crafted one of the most amazing majors runs in the space of about eight weeks. First, he was throttling Augusta National until the back nine on Sunday, when the wheels fell off and he suffered one of the most catastrophic meltdowns in Masters history.
How long would it take him to come back from such a humiliating defeat? Exactly one major, as it turned out.
At the U.S. Open at Congressional, McIlroy destroyed the field and this time, didn't let victory elude him. His performance ranks among the greatest in U.S. Open history, and McIlroy now stands as the contemporary player most likely to join golf's all-time elite.
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- Tiger Woods