A Thrilling Year Across the Pond
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ernie Els clinched this award back in February when he was labeled as the challenger who could go shot for shot with Tiger, but even though Els never materialized as such he was still miles ahead of the competition on the European Tour. Els was fresh off his 2002 title at the British Open and had more in store for 2003.
Els' 2003 campaign began in the U.S., where he won the first two events on the PGA Tour's schedule in dominating fashion. He embarked to play on the European Tour soon after but was derailed by Lian-Wei Zhang, who defeated Els at the Caltex Masters to become the first Chinese player to win on the European Tour.
Not a problem.
Els came back at the very next event on schedule and won the Heineken Classic in Australia. The Big Easy continued to roll down under with a record-breaking performance at the Johnnie Walker Classic. Els took off with a 10-shot win and a new European Tour record for lowest score in relation to par with his 29- under total.
Just like that, Els had four wins worldwide and was the top contender to overtake Woods as the No. 1 player in the world. Keep in mind that this role had been awaiting a player like Els for years, and a gimpy Woods who was coming off knee surgery (what fools we were for thinking it would make a difference) was actually a target for once.
Els looked to add another win to his total a few weeks later at the Dubai Desert Classic but a Dutchman by the name of Robert-Jan Derksen got in the way. Like Zhang had managed to do in Singapore, Derksen knocked off Els for his first career victory on the European Tour. Els held the lead down the stretch at this event but was seemingly unable to secure the victory.
The attention Els had garnered through his early triumphs in 2003 was slowly fading as the South African appeared mortal against inferior opponents. While Woods was shaking off the rust from that knee surgery and winning tournaments in the U.S., it was evident Els had no choice but to accept the role of second best.
Els kept on keeping on, however, with top-10 finishes in both the Masters and the U.S. Open and a victory at the Scottish Open before steam rolling into Royal St. George's.
The venue for the 132nd British Open was unforgiving and Els finished tied for 18th in his title defense. Els came back to form at the next major on the schedule with a top-10 finish at the PGA Championship that helped build his lead in the race for the Order of Merit.
Els tacked on another win at the European Masters before finishing second to Lee Westwood at the dunhill links championship. He then joined Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros as the only five-time winners of the World Match Play Championship.
Retief Goosen had paved the way for Els by becoming the first non-European to win the Order of Merit in 2001. Goosen defended his title in 2002 but Els was more than convincing in taking over the reigns in 2003.
Most recently, Els was placed on the world's stage against Woods in a playoff to decide the Presidents Cup. They were unable to defeat each other before darkness settled in, a brief synopsis of Els' challenge to Woods for the top spot in golf in 2003.
132nd OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Els was the heavy favorite for the British Open title and Woods was also up there in search of his first major of the year after squandering both the Masters and the U.S. Open. Either could have walked away with the win, or maybe it would be one of the European Tour's other stars seeking major glory, Thomas Bjorn perhaps. Whoever it was, no one saw it coming when an unknown from Ohio stepped in and took home the claret jug.
Ben Curtis was making only his 16th start and his trip to England marked his first appearance in a major tournament. He walked away from the opening round at Royal St. George's with a respectable one-over 72 and stayed in the leaders' sights with a 72 on Friday.
Curtis crept closer to the lead with a 70 on Saturday and while golf's biggest names looked to capture the most celebrated championship, it was the young American who prevailed.
It is impossible to speculate the emotions running through Curtis when he sank that clutch par on the 18th. Who knew Bjorn would collapse the way he did?
Curtis was aware of the possibility of, at best, competing in a playoff for the British Open title but as he prepared himself for the extra session, Curtis was notified of his victory.
It was night and day for Curtis, who became the first person since Francis Quimet in 1913 to win a major championship in his first major start.
Curtis' accomplishment came on the most brutal of venues that had the best players in the world on their knees. Royal St. George's first hosted the British Open in 1894 and through the years it was obvious that the course did not have to conform to anyone.
It was a downright difficult task to keep the ball on a fairway that featured hills and craters among pot bunkers. A swift wind that altered shots didn't help either.
In the end Royal St. George's did what it was supposed to do. Was it pretty? No. But none of that mattered when Curtis, with tears in his eyes, put his name alongside golf's greats as the most unexpected of champions.
THE NEW CLASS
While Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo are in the twilight of their remarkable careers on the European Tour, a new class of players have made a claim that golf in Europe will be in good hands for years to come.
Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson won three times in 2003 and worked his way into the mainstream of the European Tour. Jacobson added top-10 finishes at both the U.S. Open and the British Open en route to a top-five finish in the Order of Merit.
Ian Poulter continued to prove why he is one of the European Tour's rising stars in 2003. The Englishman captured the Wales Open and the Nordic Open for the first multiple-win season of his young career.
Paul Casey earned his two victories early in the year at the Benson and Hedges International Open and the ANZ Championship and should be a mainstay for the Europeans in the Ryder Cup for the next several years.
Coincidentally or not, these three golfers finished No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 in the Order of Merit race behind European Tour stalwarts Els, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington.
DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK
Back in 2000, Lee Westwood unseated Montgomerie for the Order of Merit title. Quite an accomplishment considering Montgomerie had earned the honor for the better part of a decade. The Englishman won six times that year, equaling the feat set by Seve Ballesteros. So what happened?
Westwood plummeted in the World Golf Rankings after several poor showings. He had a few top-10 finishes in 2001 along with several missed cuts. Things got worse for Westwood in 2002. His best finish was a tie for 14th at the Open de Madrid and the number of missed cuts continued to rise.
Westwood was written off further as the start of 2003 was no different. He continued to miss cuts and finished out of contention in several tournaments in which he played the weekend. That was until the BMW International Open.
An emotional Westwood captured the event and he solidified the win shortly thereafter at the dunhill links championship.
Westwood surged into the lead with a course-record 62 that included an albatross on Saturday at Kingsbarns.
He held on for the win on Sunday and seems ready to reclaim his spot amongst golf's elite in 2004.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The European Tour, along with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the Association of Golf Writers, chose Peter Lawrie as the Rookie of the Year in 2003 and they were more than justified.
Lawrie was one of the most accomplished of the class of 2003 and made noise early on in a three-way playoff at the Open de Espana.
Although Lawrie lost to eventual champion Kenneth Ferrie, the result was good enough to propel the Irishman to the 56th spot on the Order of Merit and an appearance at the season-ending Volvo Masters Andalucia.
Lee Westwood - the comeback.
Darren Clarke also had a stellar campaign in 2003, finished second to Els in the Order of Merit.
The Ulsterman captured one of golf's most lucrative events when he won the WGC-NEC Invitational. The victory put Clarke alongside Woods as the only players to win multiple WGC events.
Although Thomas Bjorn didn't win in 2003 and he will be remembered most for his late collapse at Royal St. George's where he lost the lead and the British Open after getting stuck in the sand, the Dane put together a very good season.
Bjorn was the runner-up three times, including the British Open.
Costantino Rocca, the guy who beat Tiger Woods 4 & 2 at the 1997 Ryder Cup, had a dreadful campaign in 2003.
The Italian missed 20 of 25 cuts to finish 199th in the Order of Merit.
Rahm (62) takes early lead at CareerBuilder
The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:
Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)
What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.
Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.
Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.
Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.
Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.
Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.
Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.
Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta
Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.
The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.
It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.
"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."
Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.
Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.
"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."