A year ago it seemed like homegrown golf had never been in ruder health. In the corresponding issue of 2011, the headline on Bill Elliott’s end-of-season review piece was ‘As good as it gets’. Five words that said it all, or so it appeared at the time.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell had triumphed at the US Open; we had an English world number one in Lee Westwood; a European team packed full of British and Irish golfers had wrestled back the Ryder Cup; and players from the Home Nations had won a total of 17 European or PGA Tour tournaments during the 2010 season.
Impressive stuff, but unbelievably, 12 months on the bar has been raised still further. We now boast two more Major champions in Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke – each winning in thrilling style; we have a new world number one in Luke Donald, who has achieved the incredible feat of topping the money list on both the European and PGA Tours in the same season – the first, and I’d wager, last time this will ever happen; McIlroy and Westwood occupy the world number two and three spots; and our 2011 tournament win tally across both tours was 24.
The 2011 season – ‘As good as it gets (the sequel)’ – has been a truly fantastic one for homegrown golf. But, for the eight golf writers and broadcasters (of which I am honoured to be one) who will meet in central London tomorrow to judge the coveted European Tour Golfer of the Year award, it has made things very difficult indeed. Just who do we pick from a long list of contenders that will include all of those listed above plus Masters champion Charl Schwartzel? At the moment my vote goes to McIlroy. Donald has shown phenomenal consistency and the ability to win everywhere from the deserts of Arizona to the Highlands of Scotland. But to my mind, a Major Championship is the pinnacle of golfing achievement. The Open Championship might be the grandest of all the Majors and the US Masters the most glamorous, but few would argue that the US Open is the hardest to win. Rory won it by a record margin and did so just 10 weeks after suffering that career-threatening collapse at Augusta. Add in another tour win in a top-quality field and six other top-five finishes and Rory edges it for me.
However, I know from previous Golfer of the Year judging sessions that minds can be changed at the last minute. The panel is full of redoubtable journalists with well-honed skills of persuasion and the debate gets heated before the final votes are cast. What if, for instance, I’m sat next to the legendary Renton Laidlaw or the BBC’s Andrew Cotter and they put in a strong case for Donald? Will I be swayed when it comes to my final choice?
The vagaries of magazine deadlines mean that this page will be on the printing presses 18 hours before we have had that debate and the result is known. But what is beyond a shadow of doubt is that whoever wins it has had a year that only a handful of professional golfers will ever experience in their careers.
It might be too much to ask, but I’m hoping to witness more of the same in 2012. Who knows we might even see a resurgent Tiger in the mix too. Now that would be special.