Donald and McIlroy steal the show in 2011
For once, the golfing year was not all about Tiger Woods.
The game’s fallen superstar was by and large left in the shadows as he sought to find calmer waters after the physical and mental turmoil that brought his world crashing down about him.
The vacuum he left produced a ding-dong battle for the world number one spot with Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer assuming the mantle before Luke Donald took over by winning the PGA Championship at Wentworth in late May.
The Englishman, who turned 34 at the start of December, then set about tightening his grip on the top spot with a succession of top 10 finishes culminating in him becoming the first golfer to top the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
He ended the year the undisputed top golfer in the world, but, like compatriot Westwood before him, his inability to win a Major leaves him open to criticism so much so that one American writer has coined the phrase “Luke Donald Disease” in an article about under-achievers in golf.
Donald, whose success is built around his superb short game, says he is used to the jibes.
“The critics will always be there and they make me stronger to be honest,” he said. “Every time someone says I can’t do a thing it just makes me work harder.”
The other outstanding golfer of the year, Rory McIlroy, has no such major baggage.
The tousle-haired, 22-year-old from Holywood near Belfast, produced the single top display of the year when he won his first Major, the US Open, by eight strokes at the Congressional Club in Washington DC in June.
It was the most dominant display of golf since Tiger Woods won the US Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight strokes when at the height of his powers in 2000.
Such a stunning show of confident shot-making was all the more remarkable in that McIlroy had once again shown signs of weakness, just two months beforehand at The Masters.
On that occasion he led by four going into the final round but was left in despair as he slumped to a closing 80 that put him into a tie for 15th behind South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel who birdied the tough last four holes at Augusta National to win his first major.
McIlroy’s performance at Congressional started speculation of whether he could establish a Woods-like period of domination over the next few years, but he was quick to douse the flames of expectation.
“I don’t think you can think about it. It’s only people saying these things,” he said.
“It’s nice that people say that he could be this or he could be that or he could win 20 major championships, but at the end of the day I’ve won one.
“I obviously want to add to that tally. But you can’t let what other people think of you, influence what you have to do.”
As if to prove his own words, McIlroy put on a poor show a month later at the year’s third Major, the British Open played on the Kent links of Royal St George’s.
The Irishman failed to cope with the atrocious conditions and surprised many afterwards by saying that he didn’t like playing in bad weather and would aim to play more often in the United States where, in general, the sun shines.
Remarkably, it was another Northern Irishman who triumphed at Sandwich in the substantial shape of Darren Clarke.
Most believed that at 42, his best days were well behind him, but he tapped into his intimate knowledge of links golf and coastal weather patterns to win his first Major by two strokes from Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
The year’s final Major, the USPGA Championship finally produced a US winner after a winless streak of six, with unheralded Keegan Bradley defeating compatriot Jason Dufner in a play-off, rallying from five strokes behind with three holes to play.
But overall the year belonged to Europe with the top four places in the world rankings going to Europeans by the end of it.