MARTIN Dempster and Stuart Bathgate look back on the year in golf, rugby and tennis in the first of a two part special from The Scotsman.
Magnificent staging of Ryder Cup in Perthshire
It had been planned to perfection. With 13 years to get ready, that was perhaps to be expected. That Scotland’s first Ryder Cup in more than 40 years proved such an outstanding success, however, was helped by a welcome bonus. In short, Mother Nature smiled on the home of golf.
We had feared rain; we had fretted about morning mist. Yet neither proved a problem. Instead, we got a week that showed Gleneagles off in its stunning best. Minutes before the opening blow was due to be struck, the sun peeped over the Ochils. The setting was simply glorious, unmatched perhaps in the event’s history.
The match itself wasn’t Medinah-esque. Then again, it was perhaps asking too much for a repeat of that dramatic encounter. As had been predicted, the Europeans were marshalled brilliantly by Paul McGinley. To the extent, in fact, that the Irishman perhaps became the best Ryder Cup captain – on either team – to date. And one that will hard to eclipse, too, given his incredible attention to detail.
In contrast, the decision by the Americans to bring Tom Watson out of “retirement” to become the event’s oldest captain at 65 backfired. The five-times Open champion hadn’t been at a Ryder Cup in 20 years. It’s become a bigger beast in the interim. While Watson’s way had delivered an American victory at The Belfry in 1993, it was now out of date.
After Europe had recorded a 16.5-11.5 victory – the two foursomes sessions ending 7-1 in their favour was decisive – all hell essentially broke loose in the American camp. Perhaps unwisely, Phil Mickelson chose the post-event press conference – the one where the captain and all the players are in the media spotlight together – to take a pretty strong pop at Watson.
Ted Bishop, the man who appointed Watson, subsequently lost his job as the PGA of America President over a jibe aimed at Ian Poulter and now, on the back of eight defeats in the last ten matches, the Americans have set up a Ryder Cup “task force”.
All in all, the event’s staging in Perthshire created quite a stir on the other side of the Atlantic. To the wider audience, though, it was a week when Scotland delivered across the board by the way it hosted the third biggest event in sport.
Individually, the year belonged to Rory McIlroy, one of McGinley’s mainstays at Gleneagles. He’d let a few golden opportunities slip from his grasp early on before finding himself being outscored by an amateur, his marker, after only just surviving the cut in The Masters. From the moment he broke off his engagement to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, however, he was virtually unstoppable.
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Two majors – the Open Championship and the USPGA Championship – the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event, all fell to the 25-year-old in the space of just over two months. In also reclaiming the world No 1 spot, McIlroy was magical at times, his driving in particular being imperious.
He now needs a Green Jacket to complete the grand slam, though first up for McIlroy in 2015 is a stint in the witness box in a Dublin court over a dispute with his former management company. For golf’s sake, it’s to be hoped that the head of steam he’s built up this year is not doused, as you get the feeling that an exciting chapter for the game is only just beginning.
In another major-less year for Tiger Woods – the season was virtually a write-off for the American due to back trouble that required surgery and subsequent rest – Bubba Watson underlined his liking for Augusta National by winning The Masters for a second time in three years, while Martin Kaymer returned to form to turn the US Open at Pinehurst into a procession. The German also won the Players’ Championship, the game’s so-called fifth major.
The Race to Dubai, won by McIlroy, produced two Scottish champions. Stephen Gallacher became the first player in the event’s 25-year history to successfully defend the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title, beating both McIlroy and Woods in the process.
Helped by that victory – not to mention two 65s in the Italian Open – Gallacher earned one of McGinley’s wildcards for Gleneagles. Marc Warren, meanwhile, chalked up his third European Tour title in the Made in Denmark event.
There were also two tartan triumphs on the Ladies European Tour – both recorded by Kylie Walker and both in play-offs – where Sally Watson underlined her potential as well by just missing out on the Rookie of the Year title. Already a star, 17-year-old Lydia Ko enjoyed a $1.5 million pay-day by winning both the LPGA Tour’s finale and points list, while Michelle Wie, a past teenage prodigy, enjoyed a welcome return to the spotlight by claiming the US Open, her first major.
In the amateur ranks, pride of place undoubtedly belonged to Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neil, who, at the age of 18, became Scotland’s first Amateur champion in a decade. Some tasty treats, notably a Masters debut, now await in 2015, when Neil, along with Craigielaw’s Grant Forrest, will also be hoping to play in the Walker Cup at Royal Lytham.
This, of course, will also be remembered as the year when the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews voted in favour of allowing women members for the first time in its 260-year history. Decisively – 85 per cent of those that voted were in favour – it will be a fitting legacy of outgoing chief executive Peter Dawson, with George O’Grady, his counterpart at the European Tour, also announcing he is to step down during a year of change in the sport.
Mixed fortunes but Scots going in right direction
The timing of the RBS Six Nations Championship ensures that every New Year begins with a degree of hope for long-suffering followers of Scottish rugby, but the 2014 tournament was not too old before any such optimism was dashed.
The tournament began on the first weekend of February, with a 28-6 defeat in Dublin for Scott Johnson’s team, and worse followed six days later when England came to Murrayfield and left with a 20-0 victory to celebrate. Two penalty attempts by Greig Laidlaw were as close as the home team came to scoring – their first failure to record any points in the Calcutta Cup since 1978.
Viewed in isolation, the 22-21 win in Rome which followed was nothing to be too pleased about, but at least it was a win – one, moreover, in which the visitors scored two tries. In the next match against France, Scotland scored another two, in the first half no less, which ended with them 14-9 in front. They were still in the lead with a couple of minutes to go, before a penalty gave the French a 19-17 win.
If that result was a hint that Scotland, while inconsistent, were at least heading in the right direction, the last match of the championship told quite a different story. The 51-3 defeat in Wales was a bitter blow, a humiliation and an embarrassment mitigated only slightly by the fact that, after
Stuart Hogg’s sending-off, the team had to play for an hour with 14 men.
The record defeat in the fixture was not the way in which Johnson had hoped to end his tenure as national coach, but there was little doubt that the time was right to make a change. By contrast, there was scepticism about the SRU’s decision to give the Australian the title of director of rugby.
Vern Cotter, whom the SRU had hoped to lure from France a year earlier only to be told he would serve his contract, finally arrived in May. Although given little time to prepare for a demanding summer tour which took in three continents, he made an immediate impact. Scotland beat the USA 24-6 in Houston in the New Zealander’s first match at the helm, and followed that up with a 19-17 win over Canada in Toronto. After that inspiring start, it caused little surprise – but considerable pleasure – when Scotland then got the better of a tight fight with Argentina, claiming a 21-19 victory that was their fourth consecutive win away to the Pumas.
South Africa, their final visiting place, has been a tough venue at the best of time for Scotland, but the circumstances of this visit were particularly difficult. As the match was outside the recognised international window in which clubs had to release their players, the new head coach could select only from the two teams controlled by Murrayfield – Edinburgh and Glasgow. In that context, the 55-6 defeat was no disgrace.
Cotter’s knack of ensuring a team was well organised and also inspiring it to play some enterprising rugby was on display on home soil for the first time when Argentina arrived in Edinburgh for the first of the Autumn Tests. The team scored five tries in an outstanding 41-31 win which would have been a lot more but for a slack closing spell.
That raised hopes that Scotland would at least be competitive against New Zealand, a team they have never beaten, and those hopes were heightened further when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen selected a virtual second string. In the event, the visitors did just enough to win 24-16, although what would have happened had Laidlaw put the home team 19-17 ahead with a very kickable penalty ten minutes or so to play will remain a matter of speculation for decades to come.
The national team ended their fixtures for the year at Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, beating Tonga 37-12. Again, five tries were scored and, again, Scotland supporters went home convinced that their favourites are definitely heading in the right direction.
The same could be said of Glasgow Warriors under their head coach, Gregor Townsend. Finishing runners-up to Leinster in the regular Pro 12 season, the Warriors enjoyed a rousing victory in their semi-final at Scotstoun, beating Munster 16-15. Alas, in the final at Dublin’s RDS Arena, they were not strong enough to prevent Leinster from retaining their title, going down 34-12.
As the year ends, Glasgow stand second in this season’s Pro 12 table, a point off the lead. Edinburgh, who came eighth out of the 12 teams last season, are currently occupying the same position again, with a respectable mid-table finish being the limit of their aspirations.
Murray in transition but on-court action is overshadowed by tragic death of battling Baltacha
After his heroics of the previous two years, Andy Murray was always going to find it tough to achieve similar success in 2014, particularly as he began the year still recuperating from back surgery.
And, while 2012 will be remembered for the Scot’s Olympic and US Open triumphs and 2013 for his Wimbledon victory, 2014 was a far more sombre year for British tennis as we mourned the death of Elena Baltacha.
At the Australian Open, the first major of the year, Murray failed for the first time in five years to reach the semi-finals, going out to Roger Federer in the preceding round. By contrast, he went further than before in the French Open, getting to the last four then going down to Rafael Nadal.
He then appointed Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, on an initially short-term agreement that was later made permanent. Going into Wimbledon as defending champion, he began his campaign in some style, cruising through the first four rounds without losing a set.
Alas, any hopes of a successful defence were comprehensively dashed in the quarter-finals when, in an uncharacteristically tame showing, he lost in straight sets to Grigor Dimitrov. It was the first time that Murray had failed to get at least as far as on his previous appearance at Wimbledon and the first time in six years that he had failed to reach the last four. Given the repercussions of that back surgery, reaching the quarter-finals was a respectable enough achievement, but the manner in which he failed to go further was a cause for concern.
In the US Open, he lost at the same stage to Novak Djokovic and briefly fell out of the top ten of the world rankings. But a determined end-of-season battle saw him qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals, and, although he suffered a humiliating loss there to Federer, as the year closes he is back up to No 6.
With a normal winter-training programme behind him, the 27-year-old should come back stronger next year, although whether that means more major titles to add to the two he already has remains to be seen. In an increasingly competitive field, improving your game year by year is no guarantee that your results will also get better, and the likes of Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Dimitrov could be just as big a threat to Murray as Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.
Those three, Murray’s traditional big rivals, remain at the top of the rankings as the year ends. But, having said that, their dominance is no longer what it was. Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open, Marin Cilic the US, while Nadal had to be content with the French title and Djokovic denied Federer what would have been an unprecedented eighth Wimbledon crown.
It was at the start of the year, as the tennis world was preparing for the Australian Open that Baltacha, who had married her coach Nino Severino just weeks earlier, was diagnosed with liver cancer. More than a decade earlier she had been diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating liver condition, which she knew could develop into cancer.
It was a condition which often left the Kiev-born player inordinately fatigued after tournaments, and unable to make the most of her considerable talent. Nonetheless, at her peak her serve came closer than anyone else in the women’s game to matching the power of Venus and Serena Williams, and, despite the frustrations caused by her illness, she kept improving her world ranking throughout most of her career: her highest, No 49, came towards the end of 2010.
Baltacha had diversified her sporting interests long before she finally retired in November 2013, and founded her own tennis academy with Severino in Ipswich. She was also a key member of Judy Murray’s Fed Cup squad, displaying a determination and commitment that was an inspiration to her younger team-mates.
As in the men’s game, women’s tennis is more competitive and less predictable than the years when the Williams sisters carried all before them. Li Na won in Australia, Maria Sharapova in France and Petra Kvitova claimed a second Wimbledon title, crushing Eugenie Bouchard in the final.
Only in the US Open was the old order maintained, with Serena securing an 18th Grand Slam of her career.
TOMORROW: part 2
Alan Pattullo takes you back to a summer carnival of football in Brazil, while Stephen Halliday looks at the domestic and international year.
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