Semblance of normality returned to golf in 2021
AFTER a strange and sometimes eerie 2020 that saw The Masters played in November and crowds kept away from events due to Covid-19, some semblance of normality returned to golf over the past 12 months.
As has become the norm for Rory McIlroy, the 2021 season was a bit of a rollercoaster, with highs mixed in with emotional lows as the big prizes in the game ended up in the grateful hands of some of his biggest competitors.
By most standards, two lucrative victories on the PGA Tour would represent a successful return for a year’s work, but when you are a world class talent such as McIlroy, the bar is set that little bit higher.
Therefore, a failure to add to his Major tally for the seventh successive year will rankle, and the early part of next year will be geared towards The Masters in April and finally ending that long wait for the elusive Grand Slam.
His 2021 season started in Abu Dhabi in January, when McIlroy led after three days before finishing third to Tyrrell Hatton.
It was a similar story 10 months later, just an hour down the road in Dubai, as McIlroy looked all over the winner of the DP World Tour Championship before bad luck and a couple of late mistakes let Collin Morikawa in for the victory that sealed his Race To Dubai success.
In between times, in the run-up to Augusta in the spring, McIlroy had turned to swing guru Pete Cowen to help get his game in top condition.
However, a missed Masters cut followed as Hideki Matsuyama memorably won the Green Jacket, becoming the first Japanese male to claim a Major, thereby sealing a lifetime of hero worship in his homeland.
With the condensed Major calendar meaning it is hard to catch a breath these days, events in between the big ones can sometimes be lost a little, but by the time McIlroy teed it up at the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island six weeks after his Masters pain, he did so as favourite.
That was down to the fact he clinched victory for the third time in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, sending him back to the scene of his runaway 2012 PGA triumph in fine fettle.
It was not to be this time, as Phil Mickelson ripped up the record books on the way to a sixth Major at the age of 50.
‘Lefty’ was at his swashbuckling best as he held off Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka, with the scenes of huge galleries following him up the 18th hole on Sunday set to live long in the memory.
Away from that furore, Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry enjoyed a Sunday stroll together, with the pair sharing fourth, an outcome that went a long way to making sure they’d be spending more time together in September.
Come June, the focus was on Torrey Pines in San Diego, as the US Open visited one of America’s iconic venues.
McIlroy was right in the mix as he turned for home on Sunday, a packed leaderboard battling it out.
However, it was Jon Rahm who emerged from the pack, with beautiful birdie putts on the last two greens sealing his maiden Major success by a shot from Oosthuizen, with McIlroy back in seventh.
That win for the Spaniard came on his first outing after a positive Covid-19 test robbed him of victory at The Memorial in Ohio, when he opened up a six-shot lead after 54 holes before being forced to withdraw.
The kind of mental fortitude displayed by Rahm to bounce back for a Major win a couple of weeks later goes a long way to explaining why he is sitting pretty at the top of the world rankings ahead of the new season.
His closest challenger in that regard is Morikawa, who took to links golf like a duck to water at Royal St George’s in July, coasting to an Open Championship victory at his first attempt, with his two-shot success over a resurgent Jordan Spieth more comfortable than it sounds.
Oosthuizen was third, with defending champion Lowry 12th after one of series of good performances for the Offaly man on the biggest weeks of the year.
He was also eighth in the Players Championship at Sawgrass in March and sixth at The Memorial, and while a first win since Royal Portrush in 2019 will be high on the priority list for 2022, Lowry achieved his main aim for 2021 by being part of the European Ryder Cup team for Whistling Straits in September.
As it turned out, the delayed match was a chastening experience for Harrington’s side, who went down to a 19-9 defeat to probably the best American team ever assembled.
Steve Stricker had 12 of the world’s top 21 players at his disposal, and the fact that Dustin Johnson was the senior man at 37 is worrying for Europe going forward.
‘DJ’ led from the front, delivering five points as the Americans coasted to success on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Lowry was one of the few Europeans to land a blow, carrying Hatton all the way to a Saturday fourball point against Harris English and Tony Finau, before FedEx Cup winner Patrick Cantlay proved too strong in the singles.
McIlroy sat out that Saturday session after losing his first three games, and not even a win over Xander Schauffele on Sunday could prevent the tears flowing afterwards.
Within a month, however, he was back in the winner’s circle, claiming the CJ Cup in Las Vegas with a display of precision and poise to suggest his return to long-time coach Michael Bannon will reap rewards in 2022.
While the Ryder Cup ended emotionally, the only tears for Europeans at the Solheim Cup were of joy as Catriona Matthew’s ladies sealed victory on US soil for only the second time.
Cavan’s Leona Maguire proved their heartbeat, the first Irish player to make a Solheim team underlining her star quality by claiming four-and-half points, hammering Jennifer Kupcho in the singles as Europe won 15-13.
Maguire will want a first LPGA Tour title in 2022 after two seconds this year.
That win will surely come, but there must have been times when Jonathan Caldwell doubted whether he would ever raise a trophy on the big stage.
However, 14 years after partnering McIlroy in the Walker Cup at Royal County Down, and 12 years on from first dipping his toe in European Tour waters, the Bangor man won the Scandinavian Mixed in Sweden in June, a closing round of 64 making all of the toil worthwhile.
“It’s been a dream of mine for an awful long time,” said Caldwell.
“In 2009 I played my first year, lost my card, played mini tours and Challenge Tour over the years, worked as well in a local golf store. It’s been a long road but finally I’m here.”
A month after that, while almost all eyes were on Morikawa hoisting the Claret Jug, Seamus Power also made his breakthrough at the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship in Kentucky.
The Waterford man has kicked on since then too, a number of good performances propelling him to 70th in the world and in the mix for Major spots next term.
There were no victories for Graeme McDowell or Harrington in 2021, but the latter showed signs there is life in the old dog yet, and if he chooses to go down the Champions Tour route it won’t be long before he emulates Darren Clarke, who has already pocketed two titles.
The Irish Open was held at Mount Juliet in July with Australia’s Lucas Herbert taking the trophy, while England’s Daniel Gavins was the men’s victor when the European Tour visited Galgorm Castle a few weeks later for the ISPS Handa World Invitational.
Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn was the women’s champion, while Brendan Lawlor won the Disability Invitational.
That was one of three titles for the Louth man in 2021, as he also pocketed the Cazoo Open before signing off the European Disability Golf Association season in the best possible fashion by winning the Dubai Finale at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Lawlor is now proudly at the top of the world rankings and looking ahead to a equally successful 2022, while McIlroy will want to carry some late-season momentum into his quest to bring his long Major wait to an end.