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2006 a season of two halves

The 2006 golf season was a year of two halves. The first belonged to Phil Mickelson, the second to Tiger Woods.

Mickelson stood on the tee at the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open in June needing only a par to win his third consecutive major title. The golf world was all but ready to declare the Woods era over, at least for a while.

Twenty minutes later, Mickelson was finished, at least for 2006. In a shocking turn of events that will be judged as one of the worst meltdowns in golfing history, "Lefty" double-bogeyed the final hole to hand victory to Geoff Ogilvy, who watched the drama unfold in stunned disbelief on a TV in the locker room.

But Woods, not Ogilvy, was the biggest beneficiary of the collapse by Mickelson, who lost a lot more than the U.S. Open. His game and confidence also disappeared and he was barely sighted the rest of the year.

It opened the door for a resurgent Woods to reclaim the throne at the top of the pecking order, with nobody capable of even remotely challenging him.

"It is what it is. We all make a mistake, we all do," Woods said. "You have to apply it, learn it, and get back on the horse. That's one of the great things about our game is, is it a season; yes and no. It's not like a season where it's ultimate goal is the Super Bowl or NBA championship down the road where every tournament, every game means so much.

"Here, it's different. You finish the week, forget, it off you go to the next week. ... Plus you still had another major championship to play, two more majors to play. He dedicated himself to those. He just didn't play as well."

Woods was quiet in the first half of the season, and with good reason. With his father, Earl, dying of prostate cancer, Woods was understandably distracted. He tied for third at the Masters and didn't play again until the U.S. Open 10 weeks later.

In the meantime, his father died May 3. It wasn't a huge shock that a grieving and rusty Woods missed the cut at the U.S. Open, his first early exit in 38 majors as a professional.

But anyone who thought Woods was down for the count was in for a surprise. He roared back, playing some of the best golf of his career. He was a class apart at the final two majors, winning the British Open by two strokes and the PGA Championship by five.

In the process, he improved his major victory total to 12, two-thirds of the way to Jack Nicklaus' record.

And his two major victories in 2006 were part of a still-active six-tournament winning streak on the PGA Tour, although Woods was beaten elsewhere. He lost in the first round of the European Tour's Match Play Championship and finished second at both the HSBC Champions tournament in China and the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.

Woods and Mickelson were the biggest two golf stories of the year. Here are the rest of the top 10:

3. Europe wins the Ryder Cup After losing four of the previous five Cups, the U.S. was hungry for revenge as it journeyed to Ireland. Although the team was the betting underdog for perhaps the first time, captain Tom Lehman seemed to do everything right leading up to the event, and Woods was apparently motivated like never before.

Then the competition started, and it was deja vu as Europe thumped the U.S., 18 1/2-9 1/2. It probably would have been a record margin if Paul McGinley hadn't conceded a 20-footer to J.J. Henry on the final green of their singles match, halving the match. McGinley's generosity came after Henry was distracted by a streaker.

4. Annika Sorenstam wins U.S. Women's Open. While not exactly a spent force at the age of 35, Sorenstam arrived at Newport Country Club in late June with only one win on the season and a bunch of talented young players threatening her dominance.

By Monday afternoon, after an 18-hole playoff with Pat Hurst, order had been restored as Sorenstam clinched her third Open and 10th major title.

5. Greg Owen loses Bay Hill Invitational. In perhaps the second-most sensational finish of the year, Owen was on the verge of his first tour victory when he faced a putt of barely three feet at the 71st hole to go two strokes clear at Bay Hill.

The Englishman not only missed the par putt but was too casual with his next putt from two feet, attempting to tap it in without even a practice stroke. He could only watch in horror as it horseshoed out. Suddenly he was tied with Rod Pampling, who won when Owen's 13-foot par putt at 18 agonizingly lipped out.

6. Chris Couch explains bizarre incident, sort of. The journeyman's victory at New Orleans was one of the year's biggest surprises, but even more bizarre was his explanation of what happened in the famous French Quarter earlier in the week.

Couch said that after having a few drinks, he got lost on his way to his car.

"I saw some girls, they looked normal and I thought I could get a ride from them," he said. "I jumped in the car with them. I really didn't like the situation, and it kind of got weird."

He explained that he asked to get out of the car and eventually took off his sandals and ran as fast he could before calling police from a tattoo parlor.

7. International players make further inroads on PGA Tour. The tour used to be much like the NBA, largely an all-American affair with a handful of foreigners adding a little flavor. These days, both leagues are truly international.

Consider that as recently as 1988, only three of the top 30 money winners on tour were non-American. This year, there were 13.

The internationalization of the tour is no doubt good for multinational sponsors and for fans who want to see the best, but there is plenty of griping from some journeymen American players, who would prefer a closed shop.

8. Arnold Palmer retires, again. After hitting two balls into the water early in the opening round at a Champions Tour event in October, "The King" announced he had played his final competitive round. He cited a sore back that prevented his being competitive, although, at 77, age might have a bit to do with it.

Palmer simply loves golf too much to ever quit playing, but it seems he has finally decided recreational golf is his best option.

9. John Daly loses his PGA Tour card Barely a year after taking Woods to a playoff at the American Express Championship, an injury-plagued Daly surrendered his full exempt status by finishing 193rd on the money list.

He had only one top-25 finish in 21 starts and ended the year on a sour note off the course as well - filing for divorce from his fourth wife - before making a subsequent attempt to salvage the marriage.

10. Michelle Wie struggles against the men. Her name recognition is surpassed perhaps only by Woods, but after turning professional late in 2005, Wie quickly encountered some stiff headwinds.

She was more than competitive - although winless - against the women in 2006. But against the men, it was another matter. She was an absolute bust in all five starts, finishing last or near last each time, and seemingly getting worse with each start.

Wie's ill-fated experiment will continue when she takes on the men again next month at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

December 19, 2006

 




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