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2013 a good year for the good guys

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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Or, with all due respect to Charles Dickens, it was a year that tested the patience of those who love golf and, ultimately, rewarded those who were most deserving.

The year produced four worthy major champions: Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Jason Dufner. Tiger Woods won five times but was again shut out in the majors. Rory McIlroy’s year was a complete washout for 11 months. Like the PGA Tour, he began 2014 early with a win on the first day of December that may prove to be a starting point for the new beginning he clearly needs. Jordan Spieth became the latest ‘it’ kid with a breath-taking rookie season – much of it taking place while he was still a teenager. Inbee Park won the first three women’s majors of the year and almost didn’t win Player of the Year under the LPGA’s points system.

There was endless talk about anchored putters, perhaps the all-time “inside-baseball” story in sports history, but one that seemed to consume people in golf for a large chunk of the year.

Vijay Singh sued the PGA Tour after it decided NOT to suspend him for taking what was once a banned substance. One can only imagine what he might have done if the Tour had suspended him.

The Tour unveiled its new wrap-around schedule, beginning the 2013-14 season about 15 minutes after the 2013 season ended. The new schedule has received mixed reviews. Then again, a lot of people still don’t know it exists. They are waiting to kick off the new season next month in Hawaii.

Hey, maybe commissioner Tim Finchem’s next goal should be to have two seasons going on at the same time.

As is the case in most years, the majors provided a large chunk of the drama and almost all the highlights. If Scott’s playoff victory over Angel Cabrera at Augusta National had been the only sublime moment of the year, it would have been a pretty good year. His victory was about as popular as any in recent memory, in part because he finally lived up to the huge potential he flashed years ago when he first came to the U.S. as a kid with a pretty swing and a smile that made women swoon.

But it was more than that. It was the putt on 18 in the rain and the putt in the gloaming on the 10th green to clinch the green jacket. It was also Cabrera’s classy thumbs-up gesture to Scott after he had stuck his second shot to within 12 feet to set up the winning putt.

If Cabrera’s thumbs-up was the classiest gesture of the year, then Rose pointing to the sky in honor of his father – on Father’s Day – after his last putt went in the hole on the 18th at Merion, was the sweetest. There was a lot of concern prior to Day 1 at the U.S. Open that Merion would play like PGA West and the cut would be 4 under par.

It didn’t turn out that way. Rose’s winning score was 1 over and for all the whining about the golf course set-up and the narrowness of the fairways, it was a wonderful Open and it did, without question, identify the best player that week. Mickelson almost wrote a fairytale ending when he began the championship a couple hours after returning from his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation in California, but two blown wedge shots late on Sunday did him in. Rose was magnificent down the stretch; Mickelson wasn’t.

In the movies, the guy who suffers that heartbreak somehow finds a way to come back before the closing credits to be a hero. It never happens that way in real life.

Except in 2013, when Mickelson did exactly that. Coming off what he readily admitted was the most heartbreaking loss of a career that’s seen its share of heartache, he played the most gratifying – and brilliant – round of his life on the last day at Muirfield to win the Open Championship.

Like a lot of American players, it took Mickelson a long time to develop an affinity for links golf. In fact, he dreaded the entire experience when he made the trip to the British Isles each summer. He didn’t like driving on the wrong side of the road; the endless rotas; the tiny showers or the food. For a long time, he would fly in at the last possible minute, grit his teeth all week and breathe a sigh of relief when he got back on the plane to go home.

That changed in 2004 when, in his 12th attempt, he finished third, the first time he was even close to being in contention. He began coming over early to play the Scottish Open and almost won at Royal St. George’s in 2011. With another chance this past July at age 43, he shot 66 on a cold, windy Sunday to blow by everyone and win by three shots.

Finally, there was Dufner at Oak Hill. Many believed his one chance at greatness had come and gone in Atlanta two years earlier when he let a five-shot lead melt away down the stretch and lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. But, going head-to-head the final day of the PGA Championship with Jim Furyk, he played an almost perfect ball-striking round and was in control on the back nine. While it was tough to see Furyk once again miss a golden chance at his second major, it was heartwarming to see Dufner bounce back after the kind of loss that often kills careers to become a major champion.

Bradley’s decision to turn back after leaving the golf course on that glistening August Sunday afternoon so he could be one of the first to give Dufner a hug coming off 18, made for a perfect ending to golf’s majors season.

McIlroy tied for eighth at Oak Hill, the first time all year he was even on the golf course late on Sunday at a major. The fact that a top 10 was considered a big deal for him was a clear sign of how difficult his year had been. From the minute he fired Chubby Chandler as his agent soon after winning the 2012 PGA, McIlroy couldn’t seem to put a foot right on or off the course.

He got very rich by signing with Nike – he wasn’t exactly poor pre-Swoosh – but struggled from the start with the new clubs, the newfound notoriety of being No. 1 and the added pressure of being Woods’ latest business partner. He played badly, and then acted badly when he stalked off the golf course at the Honda Classic in the second round when he was en route to missing the cut by a million.

Then he fired his new agents; got embroiled in various lawsuits; endured rumors about his relationship with Caroline Wozniaki and continued to look lost on the golf course most of the summer. If he hadn’t been on Tour since he was a teenager it would have been a sophomore slump.

Slowly, starting with the PGA, things began to get better. He had two top-10s overseas in November and then, on the first of December, he outdueled Scott in what was very much a road game, to win the Australian Open – shooting 66 that day and finishing with a walk-off birdie for the win. It was vintage McIlroy, circa 2011 and ‘12.

Regardless of when the official season, began, McIlroy’s win sent golf into the New Year on a high: four classy major champions to savor from last year and a 2014 that should bring a rejuvenated McIlroy; the drama of Mickelson going for a career Grand Slam at Pinehurst; Woods desperately seeking to break his majors drought; Spieth continuing to ascend and, to top it off, a Ryder Cup with Tom Watson captaining the U.S. in Scotland, the country where he is an adopted son.

A lot to look forward to. And a lot to look back on with a smile.

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