A Thrilling Year Across the Pond

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European TourPHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- The boys across the pond had a thrilling season of golf that saw the arrival of a new class on the European Tour, including an unheralded American lifting the claret jug, and the phenomenal play of a certain South African.
 

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.
 
Fredrik JacobsonSweden'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?
 
Lee WestwoodWestwood 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.
 
GOOD YEARS
 
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.
 
BAD YEARS
 
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.