A lot of soap operas played out in the golf world in 2014.
Tiger Woods, still the game's most transcendent figure, hurt his back and had surgery in March. He came back in June. He hurt his back again in August. He came back the next week. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship and then said he actually was still hurt and took off almost four months.
He came back again in early December looking healthy – and like a 20-handicapper around the greens.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Ryder Cup team imploded, first on the golf course, then off the golf course.
Tom Watson, one of the game's most revered figures, was thrown under the tires of an 18-wheeler by Phil Mickelson, one of the game's best-liked and most respected figures.
Then, just in case anyone thought the one-sided loss to Europe and the embarrassing aftermath wasn't enough, Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America, got himself fired for a reckless tweet defending – of all people – Nick Faldo.
Wait, there's more.
Dustin Johnson, who would have been on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and might have played a key role, suspended himself from the Tour in August just prior to the PGA Championship, saying he needed to take a break to deal with "personal issues." The PGA Tour denied a report that he had been suspended because of drug infractions. Johnson is expected to play again at Torrey Pines, teeing it up – purely by coincidence no doubt – six months and four days after he last played.
All of which reminds us that the No. 1 soap opera of the year could have been – perhaps should have been – Rory McIlroy's decision to break off his engagement from Caroline Wozniacki a few days after the wedding invitations went out.
On the day he made the announcement, McIlroy showed up at a scheduled pre-tournament news conference in London and did not play the "I don't want to talk about my personal life" card. He answered questions, took the blame for the break-up and then went out and won the golf tournament five days later.
Coincidence or not, that week was the beginning of one of the most torrid streaks golf has seen since Woods stopped being Woods. McIlroy went on to win the British Open and the PGA. Sandwiched between those two majors, he won the WGC event in Akron and reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking.
Then he helped Europe win the Ryder Cup and said his No. 1 goal for 2015 was to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the Masters – which will end three weeks before he turns 26.
In short the McIlroy soap opera was cancelled by his brilliant golf. While Woods, the Ryder Cup and Johnson were left with cliff-hangers: Can Tiger ever be Tiger again?; Can the U.S. ever win the Ryder Cup again?; Will Johnson ever live up to his vast potential and find happiness with Paulina Gretzky?
The answers may – or may not – come in 2015. There will be no Ryder Cup answer next year; although, there should be a U.S. captain for 2016 at some point in the near future.
McIlroy's story is also far from over, but clearly he had several happy endings in 2014. More important, he emerged as the first serious, potentially long-term No. 1 player since Woods came off the pedestal he sat on for most of a dozen years.
Since the early morning when Woods' Escalade collided with the fire hydrant in late 2009, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Adam Scott have all held the No. 1 ranking. All are fine players, and only McIlroy had a better year in 2014 than Kaymer. But McIlroy is a star in ways that none of those four can or will be.
Westwood and Donald have never won a major and are now deep into their careers and may never win one. Kaymer has won two, but is so quiet and un-assuming he is unlikely to ever be a huge star – especially in the U.S.
Scott has won a major and has the movie-star looks, but he is 34 and may never putt well enough – regardless of what putter he is using – to win multiple majors.
McIlroy has already won more majors – four – than those four players combined. He's 25 and understands that along with the perks of stardom come responsibilities. He's had one truly bad moment on the golf course, his walk-off at the Honda Classic in 2013, and he instantly apologized for his behavior and admitted that his agent's excuse – a bad tooth – was a bunch of hooey.
"I lost my cool," he said. "It won't happen again."
In all likelihood, it won't happen again because McIlroy learns from his mistakes – on and off the golf course. It is easy to forget how young he is because of all he has already accomplished and because he is so mature. He's probably going to make more mistakes – blow some tournaments, say something he shouldn't – because everyone who lives in the public eye and competes at the highest level of any sport has those moments.
But he isn't likely to blame any of those moments on others. He's likely to keep getting better. Regardless of what any numbers say, it is not fair to compare him to Woods. What Woods accomplished between 1997 and 2008 was mind-boggling, the kind of dominance that isn't likely to be seen again. As remarkable as McIlroy's 2014 was, he won four times worldwide. Woods has won at least five times in a year 10 times in his career.
The Woods soap opera of 2014 was minor compared with what has happened in his past in that it was entirely centered on his golf. That's the good news. What will happen with the Johnson soap opera is anybody's guess.
And the Ryder Cup? Who knows what brilliant decisions the 11-man PGA of America task force will reach. One thing's for sure, though – that's a story that isn't going away for a long time.
Then again, neither is McIlroy. And that may be the best news there was in golf in 2014.