Ewen Murray reviews a memorable year in golf, with Rory McIlroy at the forefront

Ewen Murray reflects on a memorable 2014 for European golf, spearheaded by Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Paul McGinley’s victorious Ryder Cup team.

When we look back at the year of 2014 on the European and PGA Tour, we will have images of so many wonderful moments in what was a season to remember.

In January, while the PGA Tour got underway in Hawaii, the European Tour opened up with its impressive Desert Swing. A star-studded field gathered in Abu Dhabi, where Rory McIlroy came so close to starting his year with a victory. But in the end, he was denied by a two-shot penalty for a rules infringement after he failed to take full relief with a free drop.

The champion was the charismatic Spaniard from Barcelona, Pablo Larrazabal. At the end of the year, Pablo had laser eye surgery and I look forward to seeing him in the Gulf next month, although it’s fair to say he will probably see me first! During that week, Phil Mickelson shot 63 and the season enjoyed a good beginning.

Pablo Larrazabal: Denied Rory in the first event of the calendar year in Abu Dhabi

The following week in Qatar, Sergio Garcia took the spoils and then Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher became the first man to successfully defend the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Club. For Stephen, that was only the start of several dramatic months.

The first of the World Golf Championships produced one of the great match play finals. Victor Dubuisson announced his arrival on the world stage at the Accenture Match Play in Tucson.

Refusing to lie down, he kept viewers up until the early hours at home with some escapology work Houdini would have been proud of, although Australian Jason Day eventually prevailed in the Arizona desert.

Two weeks later, it was America’s turn to deliver as Patrick Reed took the WGC-Cadillac at the revamped Trump Doral near Miami. In second place was Welshman Jamie Donaldson, and – like Gallacher – what a year it would turn out to be for him.

Double Bubba

The year’s first major was, as always, at Augusta National in Georgia. Among the Azaleas and tall whispering Pines, Bubba Watson claimed his second Green Jacket. His chasers were Jonas Blixt from Sweden and one of the game’s most talented youngsters, Jordan Spieth. They were not quite ready to win, but in the years ahead, they will be better for their experiences.

Bubba Watson celebrated his second Masters title in April

Whereas America had taken the first of the big titles, Europe moved into top gear in May. Germany’s Martin Kaymer holed one of the putts of the year on the 17th green at famed Sawgrass and claimed the much-coveted Players Championship. For Martin, it was only the beginning of a wonderful journey through summer.

Miguel Angel Jimenez defied his age as he broke his own record as the oldest winner on the European Tour, claiming his home Spanish Open title less than a month after winning on his Champions Tour debut in Atlanta.

The flagship event of the European Tour heralded the spring in Europe and the week started with the news that Rory McIlroy had ended his engagement to tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki.

The troubled star look lost in his pre-tournament press conference. You felt like you wanted to put your arm around his shoulders and offer words that perhaps would help. I felt awful for both as they are two outstanding people.

But he found solace on the ancient and heralded Surrey turf and Rory was born again. Coming from seven shots back overnight, his final-day 66 was good enough to win by one. Many thought this was just the breakthrough Rory needed, many were correct.

The next major was at the majestic Pinehurst in North Carolina and only one player made the headlines over four days. Martin Kaymer spread-eagled the field and was quite simply in a class of his own.

Brooks Koepka finished fourth and in doing that, gained his full playing privileges on the PGA Tour, as did double-heart transplant patient Erik Compton, who finished runner-up. The Pinehurst No 2 course had been revamped by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Core, and it was a resounding success.

The European Tour returned to home shores and the Irish open was once again played at the scenic Fota Island. Former British Amateur champion Mikko Ilonen won his fourth Tour title and, the following week, Graeme McDowell staged a superb fightback to retain his French Open title in a tight finish against Kevin Stadler.

Then it was onto Scotland in July. Royal Aberdeen is one of the country’s iconic links courses and it produced a fabulous Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open which was won by Justin Rose, who was fresh off a PGA Tour victory in Tiger Woods’ comeback event at Congressional.

Hoylake hero

With Kaymer, McIlroy and Rose in top form, all eyes were on Royal Liverpool and The Open. Rory produced golf of the highest quality at Hoylake and, despite a resurgent Garcia and continuing excellence from Rickie Fowler, McIlroy held the Claret Jug after a warm hug from his mum. It was one of the pictures of 2014.

Rory gets a hug from his mum after winning The Open – one of the images of the year

Bernhard Langer then defied age with a timeless performance over the enchanting links of Royal Porthcawl in Wales, which made a welcome return to professional tournament golf. July was a celebration of links golf and Great Britain duly delivered.

But just when we thought we had seen the best from our stars, Rory travelled to Ohio and Kentucky where another thrilling chapter in his book was written.

The Bridgestone Invitational offered an excuse for Rory to rest on his laurels. Not a bit of it. Another swashbuckling performance gave him his first World Golf Championship and a week later at Valhalla, he took the PGA Championship in what was the most dramatic of the modern majors.

In the dying embers of a long day disrupted by the weather, he proved he could even play in the dark. Fowler and Mickelson chased him home but, under the clubhouse lights, their challenge faded and from three behind at one stage, Rory made it major No 4.

Next year, Phil and Rory have a chance to win the Grand Slam and join the elite club which has just five members – Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods. Phil will be 45 years old, Rory just 26. I’m not alone in hoping they both achieve golf’s Holy Grail.

September is FedExCup Play-off month and the PGA Tour enjoyed its best conclusion since the season finale was introduced in 2007. Hunter Mahan won The Barclays in New Jersey, his first win since the Bridgestone in 2012.

Billy Horschel made his bank manager happy after he won the TOUR Championship and the FedEx Cup

In Boston, newcomer, Chris Kirk won after Billy Horschel duffed a six-iron into the hazard at the 72nd, a moment that would be hard to forget for most. Billy’s reply was outstanding. Not only did he win at historic Cherry Hills in Denver, he won again at East Lake, the home of Bobby Jones in Atlanta. In doing so, he collected $14m in the month and two weeks later, became a dad for the first time.

Gleneagles joy

And then came Gleneagles. There have been many good Ryder Cups since it all began in 1927. Since Europe joined forces in 1979, there have been some amazing editions, but Gleneagles topped them all and delivered a five-star show. The organisation was impeccable, the course had matured and even Mother Nature was on her best behaviour.

On day one, just before the opening game was announced, the sun rose by St Andrews Bay and climbed high enough over the Ochill Hills to light up the first tee of the Centenary course. It was a great omen.

The performance of Rose and Henrik Stenson will be talked about for many years, as will the leadership qualities of Ireland’s finest, McIlroy and McDowell. It would be wrong to single out any individual as all 12 players played their part.

Gallacher, playing in his homeland, was involved in one of the most memorable singles matches against Mickelson. The scoring in their match was admirable as they traded birdies for 17 holes before Mickelson won.

But Phil’s words on captain Tom Watson, he will regret. There is nothing wrong with opinion, but that should have remained in the American team room. Reed tried to silence the home gallery by putting his finger to his lips, maybe he should have done that to Phil. However, I admired his bravery and Reed is a star of the future.

Then the moment a player dreams about, the chance to win the Ryder Cup. Enter Jamie Donaldson, who was always on top in his singles match against Keegan Bradley. Jamie will never tire of seeing re-runs of his winning approach to the 15th, and nor should he. The scenes that followed were joyous, heart-warming and emotional.

Although Paul McGinley is a colleague of mine at Sky, I’m sure you will allow me to say these words about Europe’s inspirational captain. Throughout his tenure, Paul was magnificent. His preparation was meticulous. Had he not captained a victorious side, he would have departed knowing he gave his all. His players responded to his ideas and warmed to his human touch.

Paul McGinley inspired Europe to Ryder Cup success at glorious Gleneagles

His selection of five vice-captains also proved a master stroke. It allowed him to drift into the background, which gave him precious time to plan ahead. He always seemed a shot ahead of the game and so it proved. It comes as no surprise he will take his place at the helm of Ireland’s Olympic golfers in 2016.

Leaving Gleneagles on Sunday evening, I looked over the hills and down through Glendevon. After a momentous three days of top-class sport, I thought the heartlands of Scotland would never be the same again.

When I go back, I will no doubt still hear the cheers around the Glens and after a hard winter the outstanding natural beauty of this special place will blossom again as spring returns.

Wilson comeback

The following week, just a few miles to the east, produced one of the European Tour’s great comebacks. Oliver Wilson came to the Dunhill Links at the bottom of the golfing ladder. Ranked 102nd on the Challenge Tour, outside the top 200 in The Race To Dubai and nowhere to be seen in the world rankings. And all that after playing at Valhalla in the 2008 Ryder Cup. It was quite a fall from grace.

After four days played over Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and St Andrews, Oliver stood on the famous steps behind the 18th green of the Home of Golf with the trophy, a cheque for half a million pounds, his European Tour card and a place in the events he was previously used to starting. It was truly a story of courage, belief and patience.

The Tour’s Final Series got underway in faraway Shanghai. At the BMW Masters, Germany’s Marcel Siem chipped in to win his fourth event on tour and the following week, Bubba Watson ended the year as he started, holing a bunker shot at the HSBC to get into a play-off which he would win with a 25-foot putt for birdie.

In Turkey, the aforementioned Brooks Koepka confirmed his promise at The Montgomerie course, where the designer celebrated playing in 600 events on the European Tour. It was no surprise that Koepka won the Sir Henry Cotton rookie of the year award.

Stenson had to wait all season for a victory but it arrived on the Earth course at the Jumeriah Estate in Dubai, the Swede successfully defending the title he won the year before.

After a week’s break, the 2015 European Tour season began at Sun City, and Sheffield’s Danny Willett finished with rounds of 65 and 66 to scoop the $1.25m first prize at the Nedbank and, as we head into 2015, his name is at the top of the Race To Dubai. He’s an impressive individual and there is much more to come from him.

Danny Willett. Winner of the Nedbank Challenge will go into 2015 on top of the Race to Dubai standings

So that was this year. A year of drama, excitement, and from some, excellence. A year of wonderful moments and our own Rory McIlroy sits proudly at the summit of the game. With Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Chris Kirk and other young Americans stepping up to the plate, the year ahead looks fascinating.

Closer to home, Victor Dubuisson, Danny Willett, Alexander Levy and others came of age. Tiger Woods will be closer to full fitness when the year turns. When he looks at the talent on the two tours today, it might just inspire him to reach some the heights he has achieved in the past.

Here we have talked about two tours, but Charley Hull’s achievement in becoming the youngest player to win the Ladies European Tour Order of Merit is more than worth a mention. An outstanding performance from a remarkable young lady.

Also, Andrew Johnson, who having won the Challenge Tour, finished in third place at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and is already halfway to securing his card for 2016. They are the future.

In closing, my thanks to you for your comments and company throughout the season. All that’s left is to wish you a fine festive season and my best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Article source: http://www1.skysports.com/golf/news/12176/9608205/ewen-murray-reviews-a-memorable-year-in-golf-with-rory-mcilroy-at-the-forefront