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A Vintage Year in Europe

European TourLike a fine wine, the 2003 European Tour season will go down as a vintage year.
Beginning the year with a wee bit hangover following a fantastic win in the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, the party continued on in 2003. There, some of the 'poster boys for a good time' enjoyed wonderful comeback seasons as well as breakout seasons.
And then there's Ernie Els, who seemingly is just getting better with age as he celebrated his first-ever ascent to the top of the tour's Order of Merit (money list). Though shut out of the majors in 2003, the easy-going, broad-shouldered South African had his game - and maybe more importantly - his mind at it's peak.
He posted four victories on the European Tour, including the unofficial World Match Play title, along with three runner-up finishes. The Big Easy also picked up a couple of impressive wins on the PGA Tour and finished his year with a staggering seven wins worldwide.
Though it's easy to see why Els is the top story in 2003, several other individual story lines that are worth noting are that of Darren Clarke, his good buddy Lee Westwood and a couple of twenty-somethings in Fredrik Jacobson and Paul Casey.
Clarke, who has won a title in six consecutive seasons dating back to 1998, has finally righted the ship that had drifted a little off course. He fell from third on the Order of Merit in 2001 all the way down to the 22nd position in the 2002 season.
But with the help of world-renowned golf instructor Butch Harmon, Clarke has rebounded and enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career. An impressive win at the WGC-NEC Invitational in August over the likes of Tiger Woods, Davis Love and Vijay Singh moved Clarke to second in the final Order of Merit standings, the highest finish of his career.
Clarke's pal Westwood, however, is a slightly different story, though much more dramatic. Not only did the 26-year-old Englishman get off course, but his ship nearly sank before an amazing comeback late in the year that now has him back among the game's elite.
Recall in 2000, Westwood knocked the irrepressible Colin Montgomerie off his perch atop the European Tour's Order of Merit after the Scotsmans incredible seven-year run. Westwood racked up six victories on the year, including seven other top-5 finishes and was poised to take a seat next to today's golfing greats.
But an almost eerie slide soon took hold following the 2000 season that eventually plummeted Westwood's world ranking from fourth all the way down to 215th in August.
After missing the cut in six of his first nine events of the year, Westwood finally notched one of only three top-10s in three years at the Smurfit European Open, where he tied for ninth. Following a couple more respectable finishes in the ensuing weeks, Westwood then shocked the world with an astonishing back-nine 30 at the BMW International to win the title going away.
Im fairly emotional, said a tearful Westwood moments after completing his round. Its been more than two years since I won. This is a big moment.
There were times when I thought about putting the clubs away and not ever getting them out again and calling it a day, but that would have been the easy thing to do. I battled it out, and hopefully this is one of many rewards.'
Westwood, though, was not yet finished with his turnaround. Another title followed at the Dunhill Links Championship in September, which eventually landed him in seventh on the final Order of Merit list.
Jacobson, 29, capped off a remarkable year with a thrilling win at the season-ending Volvo Masters Andalucia. His four-hole sudden-death victory over Carlos Rodiles was his third win of 2003 and he became the first Swede to ever accomplish the feat. For Jacobson, 2003 was his coming-out party.
Casey, the European Tour's Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year in 2001, notched a pair of early victories and added 12 top-10s for the year. The biggest final-round comeback of season, by Argentinas Ricardo Gonzalez at the Telefonica Open de Madrid, kept Casey from joining Els and Jacobson as the only winners of three events in 2003.
With 2004 bringing another Ryder Cup, a quick look at the point standings for the European side finds a very young and very talented group of players. Jacobson and Casey are among them - as well as fan favorite Ian Poulter. In fact, seven of the top 10 on the list are still in their twenties.
And although it might not necessarily be a totally new face for the European Tour, it most definitely signals a changing face. Either way, it was a very good year.
A vintage year.