John Huggan: Season’s end gives pause for thought

IT’S saddening to see the end of the all-too-brief majors season, but this year’s action has taught us lessons
A light in the darkness: Rory McIlroys epic last-round battle to win the US PGA illuminated the tournament but also demonstrated TV has too much power. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/APA light in the darkness: Rory McIlroys epic last-round battle to win the US PGA illuminated the tournament but also demonstrated TV has too much power. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP
A light in the darkness: Rory McIlroys epic last-round battle to win the US PGA illuminated the tournament but also demonstrated TV has too much power. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

AT THE end of every season of majors in golf, there is inevitably a feeling of melancholy. With as much as eight months between the USPGA Championship and another Masters at Augusta National, only the looming Ryder Cup will interrupt a lengthy stream of events history will not easily recall. If we could start over, all would be different and better. A new Grand Slam made up of the Open, the US Open, the Players Championship (the biggest event on the biggest tour) and a World Match Play Championship that travels the globe would surely be a better fit for a game that is increasingly international.

But that is a debate for another day. Until the time comes when the world of golf decides that annually holding three majors in one country makes no sense, we are stuck with an increasingly outdated status quo. Which is not to say that what we already have is not capable of provoking thought and creating discussion. To that end, here are – at least for this observer – ten of the most interesting aspects of what we saw in 2014.

Bubba is a big baby

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The now two-time Masters winner impressed everyone with the panache he displayed en route to his second green jacket. Certainly, the massive drive he wheeched over the trees at the par-5 13th in the final round – he hit a wedge for his second shot – lives long in the memory. Unfortunately, the man who is one of the most unpopular individuals on the PGA Tour has lived down to his reputation almost ever since. His petulant pre-championship insistence that he couldn’t play Pinehurst No.2 meant he missed the cut at the US Open. And just last week he was forced to apologise for his childish behaviour during the USPGA Championship. Some growing up is required.

Rory: old story or new era?

The only real question left for the world’s best golfer is whether or not this two-major summer is just the result of another of his hot runs of form, or the beginning of a prolonged period of dominance at the top of the game. Last week at Valhalla he was quick to acknowledge how impressive Tiger Woods was en route to his 14 major titles. If the 25-year-old Irishman is to emulate his fellow Nike endorsee, 2014 has to become the norm rather than the exception. Time will tell.

Tiger’s absences less and less noticeable

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Tiger’s injury-interrupted season was that he was missed so little. Yes, his belated appearance at Valhalla provoked huge interest on the eve of the US PGA. But that could partly be attributed to the fact that not much else was happening on Wednesday afternoon. And yes, a veritable ocean of words preceded his return to Hoylake last month. But the recent epic duel between McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson for the Wanamaker Trophy surely had no one pining for any absentees, Woods included. Changed days indeed.

Consistency? Pah!

One of the great mysteries of golf at the top level is the constant search of the leading players for something called “consistency”. This must be the most overrated quality in the game, as all it does is guarantee, well, not much of anything. Take young Fowler, who comfortably led the aggregate scoring of the 13 men who completed all four rounds in all four majors. Courtesy of four top-five finishes, the Californian was actually five shots better than McIlroy. But guess who will be the more satisfied of the two? Golf at the highest level is about hitting home runs, not quick singles to mid-off.

The best courses allowed the best to prosper

In the last week, much has been made of Valhalla’s propensity for exciting finishes. And yes, the 2000 and 2014 US PGAs and the 2008 Ryder Cup had their moments of drama and excitement. But think of it this way: in the four majors this year, only Valhalla produced anything like a close finish. In other words, in comparison with three strategically blessed venues like Augusta National, Pinehurst and Hoylake – all of which allowed the best player to separate himself from the rest – the relatively pedestrian Jack Nicklaus-design too often dictated to the field how they must negotiate each hole. Narrow fairways, long rough and inappropriately-placed hazards make for the sort of dull play even a dramatic conclusion cannot fully disguise.

Television money has too much influence

By universal acclaim, the last hole last Sunday evening was a bit of a nonsense. When Mickelson and Fowler were asked to let McIlroy “play up”, it placed both in an invidious position. It is a safe bet each would have preferred that the leader be left to wait on the tee and, hopefully, watch one or both hit their approach shots close. Had that happened, the pressure on McIlroy would have increased greatly. Equally, of course, McIlroy would have been well within his rights to call a halt and have everyone come back the next morning. But none of that took place. Instead, the integrity of the competition was compromised in order to satisfy the programme scheduling needs of, in this case, the CBS television network. All in all, a farce.

Marc Warren will soon be Scotland’s best golfer

For the second year in succession, the 33-year-old from East Kilbride (no word on which roundabout) recorded a top-15 finish in the year’s final major. Blessed with a beautiful technique, Warren, right, is clearly coming to terms with both his talent and his ability to compete at the highest level. Pencil him in for a Ryder Cup spot in 2018.

America’s Ryder Cup prospects do not look good

On paper, the upcoming match would appear to be a home banker. And what is even more certain is the fact that the visiting side will arrive at Gleneagles as the biggest American underdogs since a teenage amateur by the name of Francis Ouimet took on Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a play-off for the 1913 US Open. History, however, tells us Ouimet emerged victorious on that now far-off occasion, something Paul McGinley and his men would do well to remember.

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Sadly, Stephen Gallacher may be watching Ryder Cup with the rest of us

This column is a huge fan of Scotland’s highest-ranked male golfer. Few are those who can best the Bathgate man tee-to-green. But it seems as if Gallacher’s noble effort to make it to Gleneagles as a player is destined to come up agonisingly short (a fact that will please only those on the Sky Sports commentary team for whom “Gallacher” is a correct pronunciation too far). You never know though. Let’s hope that gloomy assessment turns out to be hopelessly inaccurate.

Celtic caddies clearly superior

Three out of four ain’t bad in any game. Step forward Clydebank’s own Craig Connelly and Dubliner JP Fitzgerald. Connelly “carried” Martin Kaymer to a dominating victory in the US Open. And Fitzgerald was McIlroy’s companion at both Hoylake and Valhalla. Proof indeed – if any is required – that Scots/Irish caddies are the best in the game.