Hawk's Nest: Golf's 2014 report cards

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My younger daughter will finally bring home a real report card this week – one with A’s and B’s instead of E’s, M’s and N’s. The first five years of school are basically preseason. You don’t want to wreck a kid’s self-esteem before age 11, so they came up with terms such as “exceeds,” “meets” or “needs improvement” to rate a child’s performance.

Pro golfers, however, are big boys and for the most part exempt from the scrutiny directed at other athletes. Luke Donald can go years without factoring at a major championship, but he’ll never experience the public wrath that comes with being the New York Jets' quarterback.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the two obvious exceptions, which leads us to a humorous belt of reality: the more you achieve in this game, the more likely you are to be criticized. The fact that neither icon won a tournament this year might be a bigger story than Rory McIlroy’s back-to-back major titles, at least in a mainstream context.

Serious golf fans know better, but it’s hard to argue with the premise that ’14 was a year defined more by what didn’t happen than what did. Tom Watson didn't deliver. Adam Scott failed to pounce on superstardom. Jordan Spieth didn't win, period.

No doubt, the PGA Championship was lights-out awesome, but the other three majors were notably devoid of Sunday drama. Meanwhile, the dual declines of Woods and Mickelson could signify a common trait between pro golf and the NBA, which has seen its three signature franchises become also-rans.

The Lakers stink, the Celtics are years away and the Knicks have been a joke. Commercially, our game is dealing with a similar void. Competitively, the product is operating at a deficit, as its two biggest needle-movers search for answers amid a landscape increasingly controlled by international players.

If I were a fifth-grade teacher, I’d give the game an ‘N’ in 2014 - but I’ve got a kid in high school, too. In other words, all those numbers add up to one letter. My year-end report card doles out marks to a dozen of golf’s best. 

(Listed in reverse alphabetical order.)


TIGER WOODS

Nutshell: A bad back conveniently disguised the worst season of his career, which began with a T-80 at Torrey Pines and ended seven starts later with a missed cut at the PGA. Paired with McIlroy in Dubai in early February, Tiger’s move looked old and slow compared to the Irish Lad’s. And that was two months before the surgery.
Money quote: “Most of the people I’ve talked to who have had this [medical] procedure have no idea how I’m even back here playing,” Woods quipped July 30.
Grade: D. It really doesn’t matter why a man failed to perform, only that he didn’t.
Reason to believe: He finally got rid of swing coach Sean Foley.
Reason to doubt: Too many doctors, too many birthday candles.


BUBBA WATSON

Nutshell: Won his second Masters in three years, eight weeks after winning at Riviera. Climbed from 30th to third in the world ranking by late spring, then tailed off throughout the summer, when even the smallest stuff seemed to annoy him. Bubba obviously loves the attention. He just doesn’t handle it so great.
Money quote: “It took me a year or so to [realize] that I’m really not that good. I’ve got to keep practicing. Finally, I got adjusted to it, and here we are with another green jacket.”
Grade: A. When you look at how poorly Watson played in 2013, his ’14 becomes even more impressive. In the here and now, he is without question America’s best golfer.
Reason to believe: He finished 110th on the PGA Tour in putting but still won twice - and had three runner-ups.
Reason to doubt: His on-course composure needs to be addressed.


JORDAN SPIETH

Nutshell: It’s astonishing how many very good players failed to win in 2014; here is yet another one. Spieth averaged a whopping $160,843 per start, which can buy you a lot of things - just not a second career triumph. Final-pairing Sundays at the Masters and The Players were obviously impressive, but it was just as apparent that the kid has some work ahead of him.
Money quote: “It’s just tough right now. You guys catch me five minutes after the round and it’s hard - I’m not mature enough to be extremely positive,” said Spieth after a closing 74 at TPC Sawgrass.
Grade: B-. He’s in a different place than everyone else on this list, the youngest of the bunch and, as he said, still figuring things out.
Reason to believe: So young, so damn solid, so hungry.
Reason to doubt: It’s hard to rank 89th in driving distance and become king of the jungle.


ADAM SCOTT

Nutshell: Didn’t miss a cut in 17 starts and, amazingly, finished outside the top 20 just twice. Still, Scott blew a gigantic lead at Bay Hill and picked up just one victory (Colonial). Coming off his huge 2013, it was logical to expect more.
Money quote: “Everything’s a balance, and in the last couple of years, I’ve done a better job of balancing how to perform at a high level more often, even though I would still like to perform even better. It’s a constantly evolving process.”
Grade: B-. Scott led the Tour in the all-around ranking and jumped from 103rd to 55th in putting. He even made dramatic improvements in his scrambling (119th to 37th), but one W is one W.
Reason to believe: Still drives the ball better than anyone on earth.
Reason to doubt: Balance, schmalance. A man needs to gulp down raw eggs and break a chalkboard every once in a while.


JUSTIN ROSE

Nutshell: Another quality season by one of the game’s more dependable performers. Won at weak-field Congressional and finished in the top 5 at four premium-field events. It’s easy now to forget his early struggles as a pro and inability to finish tournaments once he got on track.
Money quote: “I have won on some nice golf courses and I feel very privileged to do that. Who knows? Maybe I should just talk myself into that now.”
Grade: B. A nice year. Rose has added about 10 yards to his driving distance in the last three seasons and it has made him tougher to beat.
Reason to believe: He hits the ball close from almost every measured distance with his irons.
Reason to doubt: His mid-range putting was well below average (147th) in 2013.


PHIL MICKELSON

Nutshell: His first winless season since 2003 is an obvious cause for concern. Philip’s valiant solo second at the PGA was his only top-10 in 2014. His short putting has killed him at various times over the years, but never has it been as bad as it was in ’14.
Money quote: “I have some regrouping to do in the next few months, some glaring areas in my game that I need to work on. My driving and short irons were terrible this year. Those are usually a strength and I’ve got to get that back.”
Grade: D. Knowing Mickelson as long as I have, he might tell me it should be lower.
Reason to believe: He’s made a career out of bouncing back like a lacrosse ball against a brick wall.
Reason to doubt: He turns 45 next June. Someday, that brick wall ain’t gonna be so receptive.


RORY McILROY

Nutshell: When Tiger has hit the skids at various points in his career, nobody has grabbed the crown and bolted it to his head quite like McIlroyalty. His double-major manifesto sandwiched a victory at Firestone; he also won the European Tour’s PGA Championship in late May. Rory’s second-half dominance was so pronounced, he basically rendered the FedEx Cup playoffs meaningless.
Money quote: “My summer’s going all right, thanks.”
Grade: A+. McIlroy is outrageously long for a kid who weighs 160 pounds after lunch - he ranked third on the Tour in driving distance - and gained almost two strokes per round on the field from tee to green, which is simply ridiculous. He can get a little sloppy with a wedge in his hands, but otherwise? Airtight.
Reason to believe: The minute he dumped the girlfriend, he began impersonating Ben Hogan.
Reason to doubt: There are a ton of women out there.


MATT KUCHAR

Nutshell: Pushed his victory total to seven with a win at Harbour Town and piled up the usual truckload of top-10s - a career-best 11 in 24 starts. Kooch is a 6-foot-4 money machine who can play well anywhere because he drives it very straight (28th in accuracy) and makes a lot more 14-footers than the average bear. This year looked very much like the five that preceded it.
Money quote: “I’ve always believed in the golfing gods. I believe that if I keep plugging away, things are going to go my way. You get good breaks, you get some bad breaks, but as long as you accept it and look forward to whatever is next, things tend to go your way.”
Grade: B. He knocked his second shot into the water on the 72nd hole in Houston, then watched Matt Jones hole an improbable chip to beat him in a playoff. Otherwise, Kuchar did absolutely nothing to dispel the notion that he’s one of America’s best players. And certainly its most consistent.
Reason to believe: Kooch has become an expert at how to replicate the one-victory, $4.5 million season.
Reason to doubt: I’m not sure there is one.


MARTIN KAYMER

Nutshell: Came out of nowhere to win The Players and U.S. Open, the first in gutsy fashion after a Sunday afternoon stumble, the second in an unabashed rout. Kaymer then basically went back to sleep after reviving his career. Hey, school teachers take the summer off, too.
Money quote: “I was never thinking I needed to win another major within the next four years to prove [the 2010 PGA] wasn’t an accident. I never doubted that I would make it happen.”
Grade: A. Kaymer can appear unbeatable for lengthy stretches and utterly uninterested for others, but in a world where performance is all that matters, he reinvented himself in 2014
Reason to believe: This is a guy who is clearly more confident about himself than he was when he climbed to the top of the world ranking four years ago.
Reason to doubt: He has disappeared before on a moment’s notice, even if it took most of us months to note his absence.


SERGIO GARCIA

Nutshell: Another dude who hasn’t added to the trophy case in a while, Garcia has risen to third in the world because he rarely has a bad week. Three consecutive runner-ups in the mid-summer were the centerpiece to his best year since 2008. Shot higher than 72 just twice in 28 rounds after the U.S. Open.
Money quote: “It looks like I’m finally growing up,” Sergio announced after falling to McIlroy at Hoylake.
Grade: C+. Again, no Ws = no A. Garcia looked uncomfortable from the outset in the final round at Firestone, where his three-shot lead over McIlroy vanished almost instantly. His career has been marred by poor Sundays when squarely in the hunt. This year was no different.
Reason to believe: Sergio is indeed growing up. Well, kind of.
Reason to doubt: Enough scar tissue to fill a psychiatric ward.


RICKIE FOWLER

Nutshell: Moved comfortably into the game’s top tier (and to 10th in the world ranking) with top-5s at all four majors, but he remains stuck on one career victory nonetheless. Struggled early while revamping his swing with coach Butch Harmon, but a vastly improved putter is what ignited Rickie’s hot summer—seven top-10s in his final eight starts.
Money quote: “This one hurts the most of the majors this year,” Fowler said of his T-3 at the PGA. “The first three were a lot of fun. This one I felt like I could go out and win it.”
Grade: B. Love the kid, and I’m immensely impressed by the strides he made in 2014, but I can’t go any higher on a guy who didn’t win a golf tournament.
Reason to believe: Less fat at the top of his swing, plus Harmon’s wisdom, almost immediately made Fowler more productive.
Reason to doubt: Just win, baby. Detach that pesky ape from your shoulders.


JASON DAY

Nutshell: Picked up a much-needed second career victory at the WGC-Match Play, then lost six weeks to a thumb injury, then withdrew from two late-season events with back issues. Still, this was very a productive year for the strapping Aussie. Day wound up 10th in the FedEx Cup derby, going T-2, T-7 and T-4 in the three postseason events he finished, and had two other top-5s, including the U.S. Open.
Money quote: “A little frustrated with the body, obviously. You’ve heard that many times out of my mouth. I just want a healthy year, when I can practice hard and get ready for tournaments without worrying.”
Grade: A-. Perhaps I’m getting a bit soft, but you won’t find too many guys who accomplish what Day did while dealing with two unrelated medical problems in the heart of the season.
Reason to believe: You can almost feel the kid growing into his skill level. The mental component is catching up to his physical ability.
Reason to doubt: You never like to hear about 26-year-old studs with bad backs.