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The 2003 Players of the Year

The 2003 golf season is winding down to a close, and what a season it was.

There were wins (including 15 by forty-somethings), losses (Phil Mickelson went 0-for-the-majors yet again) and ties (The Presidents Cup).

It was a season in which the Player of the Year on the PGA Tour was, for once, still a question mark after the final major of the season. Tiger Woods failed to win a major for the first time since 1998 and thus left the door open for a cadre of contenders -- most notably Vijay Singh, Mike Weir and Davis Love III -- to wrest the Jack Nicklaus Award away from the World No. 1 for the first time since 1998.

So who deserves the award? The Player of the Year question is a tricky one, and with so many players having career years in the same season, it seemed a bit harsh to pick just one golfer to collect the trophy.

Instead, it makes sense to divvy up the prize -- after all, if the Presidents Cup can be shared, why not the Player of the Year?

So, here's one way to split up the Player of the Year.

Player of the Year, Sponsor's Exemption: Annika Sorenstam

When the world's undisputed No. 1 female golfer decided to accept a sponsor's exemption into the Bank of America Colonial and become the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour, she set off a firestorm of controversy and curiosity that brought golf to the front pages everywhere.

She played well under the spotlight, despite missing the cut after shooting 71-74. In the months since, she has been elevated to single-name status -- Annika will suffice, thank you very much -- won two LPGA majors to complete her career Grand Slam, collected six more LPGA victories, led her European team to a rout of the U.S. in the Solheim Cup in her native Sweden, led the LPGA in scoring average by more than a stroke, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and holed one of the more memorable shots in Skins Game history. She also paved the way for a number of women to take on the men, including 13-year-old Michelle Wie at the 2004 Sony Open.

Sorenstam's goal for 2004 -- win all four LPGA majors. No one's betting against her.

Player of the Year, Clutch Shot Division: Shaun Micheel

As Micheel watched his 7-iron shot fly at the flag on the final hole of the PGA Championship clinging to a one-shot lead, he pleaded "Be right."

It was right all right. His 175-yard shot bounced three times and came to rest two inches from the hole, sealing his first victory in 163 PGA Tour starts, and making him the fourth first-time winner of a major title this year. Micheel's tap-in birdie came on the 485-yard par-4 18th at an Oak Hill course that had beat up the golf world's best for four grueling days in August. "I was just trying to get it on the green," Micheel said. Yeah, right.

Player of the Year, Unknown Division: Ben Curtis

British golf fans quickly warmed up to the young guy from Kent in the Open Championship field. Curtis was, however, from Kent, Ohio, not Kent, England, and had began the 2003 season ranked 396th in the world. Not exactly the guy one would expect to come out on top of a final-day leaderboard that included Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn.

But the whipping winds and quirky bounces of the Royal St. George's course favored the PGA Tour rookie. He came to the 18th three shots back of Bjorn, but by the time Curtis holed his 6-footer for par he was tied for the lead. Minutes later, he was the first player since Francis Ouimet in 1913 to win his first start at a major. This from a player who had one previous top-25 finish on the PGA Tour, a tie for 13th at the Western Open two weeks prior. A finish that got him into the British Open field.

Player of the Year, Lefty Division: Mike Weir

If 2003 was the year for a left-handed player to break a 40-year drought at majors, most would have selected Phil Mickelson as the lefty for the task. Canadian Mike Weir came into 2003 with little momentum. He had a sub- par 2002 campaign by his standards, never finishing inside the top-10 in 25 starts. But he quickly ended that skid and had collected two come-from-behind victories at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and Nissan Open before joining the field at Augusta.

The lefty shot a bogey-free 4-under 68 in the final round of The Masters to force a playoff with Len Mattiace. With Mattiace in the clubhouse at 7-under, Weir sweated over a five-foot par putt at No. 17 and a 6-footer at No. 18 to get into the playoff. Weir the claimed the green jacket despite his first bogey of the day after Mattiace hit his second shot into the trees on the 10th.

Weir didn't win again in 2003, but he did collect top-10 finishes in two other majors (T3 at the U.S. Open, T7 at the PGA) and finished fifth on the PGA Tour money list.

Player of the Year, Funky Swing Division: Jim Furyk

His swing has been called one only a father could love. But on Father's Day, Furyk's swing withstood the pressure to claim his first major championship at the U.S. Open. While Furyk methodically made pars at Olympia Fields, the contenders faded on a sunny Chicago Sunday. He finished tied with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Janzen for the lowest score in U.S. Open history (272). Furyk would go on to claim his ninth career Tour victory later in the season at the Buick Open.

Player of the Year, Inspirational Division: Tom Watson

Watson played in nine majors in 2003 between the PGA and Champions Tour, and even claimed trophies in two of them, but he has played few rounds as memorable as his first-round 65 at the U.S. Open. The 53-year-old Watson looked like a kid again, charging up the leaderboard with his caddie Bruce Edwards in tow.

Watson's memorable day was capped with a 40-foot birdie putt that stopped momentarily on the edge of the cup before falling in. He also holed a 6-iron from the fairway on the 12th on his way to a share of the first-round lead. The lead gave Watson the platform to talk about the plight his long-time caddie Edwards, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, and the need for donations to find a cure.

Watson faded from contention at Olympia Fields, but he captured two majors on the Champions Tour -- the Senior British Open and JELD-WEN Tradition -- as well as the ears and hearts of golfing fans everywhere.

Player of the Year, Forty-something Division: Kenny Perry

Before a memorable eight-week stretch in the middle of 2003, Perry was probably best known as a journeyman pro from Kentucky. But after a third-round 61 to take control of the Colonial in May, Perry became the PGA Tour's hottest golfer as well as the answer to a trivia question (Who won the PGA Tour event Annika Sorenstam played in?).

Perry won the Colonial and Memorial in back-to-back weeks, then collected the Greater Milwaukee Open title in early July in the midst of a eight-tournament stretch in which he never finished out of the top 10. In a year dominated by veterans, the 43-year-old Perry was the best of the forty-somethings.

Player of the Year, Comeback Division: Davis Love III

"Comeback" may be a bit of stretch, but after winning the 1997 PGA Championship, Love had collected just two wins. He entered the 2003 season without a win since the 2001 Pebble Beach. Love conquered the "close but not quite" stigma with four victories in 2003.

He fought off a hard-charging Tom Lehman with a 315-yard drive and second shot to 12 feet on scary, ocean-lined 18th at Pebble Beach to end his winless streak at 44 events. He shot a final-round 64 in blustery conditions to win The Players Championship in a round some called the round of the year. He chipped in on the final hole to force a playoff at the MCI Heritage and outlasted Woody Austin for his third title. In August, he lapped the field at The International for his 18th career Tour victory.

Along the way, Love had to deal with family tragedy and a balky back, but he battled through to finish third on the money list with more than $6 million in earnings.

Player of the Year, Frequent Flier Division: Ernie Els

When the 2003 season began, the Big Easy was the hottest player in golf. He started the season by blistering the field at the winners- only Mercedes Championship, setting a new Tour record with a 31-under- par total and wowing fans with huge drives. Els won the following week by holing a 55-footer for birdie to win a playoff with Aaron Baddeley. He collected two more victories in his first three starts on the European Tour, finishing second in the other event.

Despite injuring his wrist on a punching bag in late February, Els ended the season with seven victories -- in Hawaii, Australia, Scotland, Switzerland and England. He won the European Tour Order of Merit for the first time and capped his year by going 4-1 at the Presidents Cup in his native South Africa and matching Tiger Woods in a riveting three-hole playoff to preserve the tie.

Player of the Year, No Comment Division: Vijay Singh

During much of the 2003 season, Singh wasn't talking to the press due to the furor over his comments on Annika Sorenstam, but his golf game was speaking volumes. The two-time major champion amassed more than $7.5 million in earnings, breaking Tiger Woods' four-year stranglehold on the money title. He won four times and finished second five more times among his Tour-leading 18 top-10 finishes. He didn't finish lower than sixth in his final eight starts of the year, and climbed to No. 2 in the world rankings, emerging as a viable rival to Woods.

Player of the Year, Tiger Woods Division: Tiger Woods

He won five times, earned $6.6 million in just 18 starts, broke Byron Nelson's consecutive cuts-made streak at 114, had the second-best scoring average (68.41) in PGA Tour history, rebounded from knee surgery to win three of his first four starts, became the first player in Tour history to win five times in five consecutive seasons and helped the U.S. team come back from a huge deficit to tie the Presidents Cup. All this while dealing with constant questions about whether he was in a slump.

Yes, he was only in contention on the back nine at a major once in (British Open) and he was prone to some un-Tigerlike rounds (opening 76 at Augusta, third-round 76 at the Memorial, third-round 75 at U.S. Open). But chances are, most players on Tour would happily trade Tiger's 2003 for their best season -- and that was before he got engaged to striking Swedish beauty Elin Nordegren in late November.

A down year for Woods is a career year for any other player on the PGA Tour, but it's the standards he set in winning five previous Jack Nicklaus Awards that may prevent him from getting the 2003 honor.

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