Best of the best from a strange season

Originally Published: December 10, 2003
By David Lefort | ESPN.com

Top 10 stories of 2003
1. Tiger's shutout: Woods without a major for first time since '98 (More)
2. Annika at Colonial: First woman in PGA Tour event in 58 years (More)
3. Weird year in majors: Four first-timers, two long shots (More)
4. Singh in the money: Takes money title away from Tiger (More)
5. POY race gets interesting: Four-man dash for top award (More)
6. Watson's storybook season: The feel-good story of the year (More)
7. Over-40 crowd flexes: 15 events won by fortysomethings (More)
8. Els puts up big numbers: Seven wins worldwide in 2003 (More)
9. Technology takeover?: Big dogs stuff their faces (More)
10. Falling stars: Duval, Mickelson, Garcia, Monty struggle (More)
Honorable Mention -- Girl's got game: Wie bursts onto the scene (More)

1. Tiger's major shutout

A golf season without Tiger Woods winning a major is like a baseball season without Barry Bonds hitting a dinger. It just isn't supposed to happen. It doesn't feel right.

But 2003 was just that, as Tiger put up an oh-fer in the majors for the first time since 1998. And it was a bad oh-fer, at that. He was in contention on Sunday in just one of the four major championships, posted just one top-10, and had the worst aggregate total of his career by a big margin.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods had a frustrating season in the majors.

Woods was a combined 18-over for the four majors, including a worst-ever 12-over at the PGA Championship. Prior to 2003, his highest aggregate score in the majors was 7-over, and that was while he was rebuilding his swing in 1998.

"You're going to go years where you just don't win," Woods said at PGA Championship. "That's OK, as long as you keep trying to improve."

What went wrong? Here's the breakdown:

The Masters (T15): After making the cut by the skin of his teeth, Tiger appeared ready for a run at a third straight green jacket. But sitting just three strokes off the lead at the third hole Sunday, Woods made an aggressive decision that would land him out of contention. He chose to hit driver on Augusta's shortest par-4 (caddie Stevie Williams' suggestion, it turned out), ending up in an azalea bush after a wild tee shot and having to hit his second shot left-handed. Woods went on to make double-bogey, then bogeyed the next hole to put the green jacket out of reach.

U.S. Open (T20): Woods played the first three rounds at Olympia Fields conservatively, falling 11 strokes out of the lead with a Saturday 75 -- his worst-ever score at the U.S. Open. He decided to break out the driver and get aggressive Sunday, but it was too little, too late. Woods, who was also fooled by the greens, finished the week without a major championship to defend for the first time since 1998.

Major dropoff
Woods' aggregate totals from the four majors in each of his seven years as a professional:
Year Score Wins
2003 +18 0
2002 -24 2
2001 -15 1
2000 -53 3
1999 +1 1
1998 +7 0
1997 -6 1

British Open (T4): He lost his first tee shot of the week in the deep stuff (and there was plenty of it at Royal St. George's), and it would prove costly. He had a chance to win it on the back nine Sunday, but bogeyed two of the final four holes to finish tied for fourth. If he would have made par on those holes -- or found his opening tee shot -- he would have finished in a playoff with winner Ben Curtis.

PGA Championship (T39): Tiger was 1-under through his first four holes of the week, then bogeyed his next two and never sniffed red numbers again. He was at least 2-over in every round, and his 12-over total was his worst in a major as a professional. It was also the first time in his career he failed to shoot par or better in any round. He struggled massively off the tee at a narrow Oak Hill, hitting 26 of 56 fairways and just 33 of 72 greens in regulation.

Dating back to the 2002 British Open, Woods has now gone six majors without a victory, his longest drought since he went 10 majors without a win after taking his first one in 1997.

Woods prides himself on preparing his game for the majors, but you can't call his season a disappointment just because he's not holding any major hardware. A brief recap of the rest of Tiger's 2003:

He reached the five-win plateau for the fifth straight year after missing the first five tournaments of the season (knee surgery). He broke Byron Nelson's cut streak (114) at the Tour Championship, took home a fifth straight Player of the Year award and a fifth straight Vardon Trophy. Woods did, however, lose the money title for the first time since 1998.

Along the way, Woods endured another midseason "slump" and had the media anoint him two new "rivals" -- Ernie Els (early season) and Vijay Singh (late season) -- after Phil Mickelson tanked in 2003.

Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam's emotions ran the gamut at the Colonial.
2. Annika at the Colonial

It started innocently enough, when Annika Sorenstam told a group of reporters at a sponsor's outing in January that she'd relish the chance to test her skills against the guys in a PGA Tour event. Soon, the sponsor's exemptions were pouring in, and a month later she made her decision: She'd become the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour at the Bank of America Colonial.

The most-anticipated PGA Tour event since Tiger Woods burst onto the scene was further hyped two weeks leading up to it, when Vijay Singh told the Associated Press he hoped she would miss the cut because she "doesn't belong out here." After being engulfed in a media firestorm over the comments, Singh decided to pull out of the Colonial.

Look what she started ...
Sorenstam was the first to tee it up against the guys, but certainly not the last in a trend that stretched throughout the season. Seven women played in men's tournaments around the world in 2003. Some of the most prominent crossovers:

Suzy Whaley at the GHO: The only woman to qualify for her spot against the guys, Whaley declared she was going to play before Annika announced her intentions. The Connecticut club pro shot a respectable 75-78 in her PGA Tour debut and missed the cut by 13 strokes.

Michelle Wie at Canadian, Nationwide Tour events: Two stops on the teen phenom's summer tour were at men's events. She missed the cut at both -- by five strokes at the Canadian tour event and by 11 shots at the Nationwide Tour's Boise Open.

Jan Stephenson at senior event: The sassy LPGA icon made news the week of the tournament by telling a magazine that Asians were "killing" the LPGA Tour. She tied for last at the event.

Se Ri Pak at Korean event: The only one to make the cut, Pak finished 10th at the SBS Super Tournament.

Annika at Skins Game: Made one of the best shots in the history of the event: draining a 39-yarder out of a bunker for $175,000. Finished runner-up to Fred Couples.

Sorenstam striped her opening tee shot down the fairway in front of an anxious and supportive crowd at Colonial Country Club, giving a noticeable sigh of relief in a snapshot that captured the gravity of the moment. She found the short grass all day long on Thursday, missing just one fairway in a round of 1-over 71 that proved she was up to the challenge.

Sorenstam followed that with a 4-over 74 in the second round and missed the cut by four shots. She finished with a 5-over 145 and tied for 96th out of 111 players who finished two rounds.

''I've climbed as high as I can,'' she said after an emotional Friday. ''And it was worth every step.''

While the Colonial was certainly the highlight of Sorenstam's season, it was also an incredible year otherwise. She won two majors among her six victories, completing the career Grand Slam with her Women's British Open title. She was also inducted into the Hall of Fame, and won her third straight money title and Player of the Year award.

3. Year of the weird in the majors

For the first time since 1969, all four winners were first-time major champions. Two of them were long shots, and one hadn't even played in Grand Slam event prior to his victory. Recapping a bizarre year in the majors:

The Masters: Possibly the strangest Masters on record. Martha Burk and Co. rolled into town early but didn't cause much of a fuss, it was Mother Nature who mucked up the works at Augusta. The first round was washed out, and the schedule didn't get back on track until Sunday morning. By Sunday afternoon, The Masters was down to lefty Mike Weir and Len Mattiace, who fired a final-round 65 to roar to the top of the leaderboard. Weir, steely with the putter all week, forced a playoff by draining a 6-footer on the 18th green. Mattiace melted down on the first playoff hole, and Weir took home the green jacket with a bogey -- his only one of the day.

U.S. Open: Olympia Fields (a forgettable Open venue) didn't really put a fight until Sunday, so the U.S. Open was without the usual grumpiness over tough conditions. It was also without much of a storyline until Tom Watson emerged as an unlikely contender late in the first round. He led after the first day, but faded on the weekend. The final round proved to be the most interesting: Nineteen players started the day in red numbers, but only four remained after a blah course finally showed some pizzazz. Jim Furyk fairway-and-greened his way to his first major championship, posting an Open-record-tying score to boot.

British Open: Unpredictable course, unpredictable winner. Royal St. George's proved to be a handful, especially the back nine. Thomas Bjorn appeared to have the Claret Jug in hand Sunday afternoon, but took three shots to get out of a bunker on the 16th hole to drop out of the lead. That left the door open for Tiger Woods, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh, but they faded down the stretch as well. It was little-known Ohio-bred rookie Ben Curtis who emerged with the Jug, making a testing putt on the 18th to finish at 1-under, and then watching as no one in the final three groups matched it. He was playing in his first major championship, and was ranked 396th in the world coming in.

Shaun Micheel
Micheel

PGA Championship: Another tough-as-nails course, another long-shot winner. If you weren't hitting it straight on Oak Hill's slender fairways, you were in trouble. Usually wild Phil Mickelson topped the leaderboard after Day 1, but reverted back to his wayward ways and drove himself out of contention. Tiger never had a chance. Vijay, Ernie Els and Weir had a shot on the weekend, but couldn't make a move. It came down to up-and-comer Chad Campbell and Shaun Micheel on Sunday afternoon, trading blows down the stretch. Leading by a shot on the final fairway, Micheel hit a shot for the ages, a 175-yard 7-iron to within two inches of the cup to secure the Wanamaker Trophy. It was his first career win, and he was ranked 169th coming in.

4. Singh takes the money title away from Tiger

The Sorenstam controversy aside, 2003 was a career year for Vijay Singh.

Vijay Singh
Singh

All those hours on the range paid big dividends for the Fiji native, who knocked Tiger from his four-year perch atop the money list (he earned $7.5 million, the second-highest total in history) with a fantastic finishing kick: Two wins and eight top-10s in his last eight events. He didn't finish out of the top 6 on the PGA Tour after mid-August.

Singh was amazingly consistent, ending the year with four wins, five runner-up finishes and a tour-high 18 top-10s in 27 events. He trailed only Tiger in scoring average, and was first in birdies. He finished the year ranked second in the world, up from eighth in January.

The soft spot on Vijay's 2003 resume is that none of his wins came in top events, and just one came in a tournament Woods played. Also, he edged Woods on the money list by almost $900,000, but played in nine more events.

5. Career seasons spice up Player of the Year race

For the first time since 1998, there was actually some debate over who would win the Player of the Year. Tiger Woods has been a shoo-in for the award in recent years, but had his hands full in 2003.

Sure, some of that can be attributed to the fact he didn't win a major, but credit also should go to five players -- Singh, Davis Love III, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry -- who had career years. We've already recapped Singh's season, here's a rundown of the other four:

Davis Love III
Love

Davis Love III: Among the best on tour for years, Love kicked it up a notch in 2003. Among his four wins was the Players Championship, where he had what was probably the best final round of the year: an 8-under 64 in blustery conditions. He also won at Pebble Beach with a fantastic approach shot on the famous finishing hole, and chipped in from 66 feet on the 72nd hole to force a playoff at the Heritage, which he eventually won.

Mike Weir
Weir

Mike Weir: The Canadian lefty hit more clutch putts than anyone in 2003, winning three times before mid-April -- including The Masters. He posted top-10s at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and was a leading contender for Player of the Year before a late-season slump. His Masters win proved to be his last of the season.

Jim Furyk
Furyk

Jim Furyk: Mr. Consistent finally won a big one in 2003, capturing the U.S. Open in record fashion. He also won later in the summer, marking the first time he's posted multiple victories in the same year. His funky swing also netted him 15 top-10s in 27 events, and a fourth-place showing on the money list.

Kenny Perry: The hottest golfer on the planet this summer, Perry posted three wins and eight straight top-10s -- including three in majors -- from mid-May to mid-August. He cooled off in the fall, but the 43-year-old still managed a career-best sixth-place finish on the money list.

6. Watson's storybook season

Even a 54-year-old Hall of Famer who's played professionally for the last 32 years can still have a season of firsts. Tom Watson was first on the Champions Tour money list, first in the Charles Schwab Cup points race, first in senior scoring average and -- most significantly -- first in the hearts of golf fans around the world.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson and caddie Bruce Edwards walked down the Olympia Fields fairways with lumps in their throats.

It was a storybook season for Watson and longtime caddie Bruce Edwards, who early in the year was diagnosed with the incurable Lou Gehrig's disease (also known as ALS). Along with winning two senior majors and posting 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts on the Champions Tour, Watson earned the $1 million bonus for winning the Charles Schwab Cup -- and he donated the entire check to help fight ALS.

But the most touching moment in a year of warm and fuzzies came at the U.S. Open, where Watson put up a shocking 5-under 65 in the first round to jump to the top of the leaderboard. His magical trip around Olympia Fields included a holed 6-iron for eagle, a 40-foot birdie putt that sat on the lip of the hole before dropping and plenty of watery-eyed can-you-believe-this glances between he and Edwards. The duo turned Olympia Fields into Goosebump City, the delirious fans aware of the magnitude of what they were watching unfold on golf's biggest stage.

''You can only imagine,'' Watson said after the round. ''Put yourself in Bruce's situation and my situation, what it means to do well at this late stage in your life, playing in the tournament you want to win the most.

''If I shoot 90 tomorrow, I don't care.''

Watson went on to finish a respectable 28th at the U.S. Open, and followed that with an even more impressive showing at the British Open (T18). Nothing, though, could serve as a fitting encore to the performance he and Edwards gave at Olympia Fields.

7. Over-40 crowd puts up a fight

The PGA Tour's veteran corps found the fountain of youth, as 11 players 40 or older posted victories in 2003, combining to win 15 of the 48 events (31 percent). And that's not taking into account Jay Haas, who didn't win any titles but at age 49 had his best season in more than 20 years.

Singh, 40, is the second-oldest player in history to win the money title. Six of the top 20 on the money list are in their 40s (as opposed to three in their 20s), and two others are knocking on the door at age 39.

Craig Stadler was the perhaps the most unlikely of the 2003 champs, winning the lightly regarded B.C. Open at age 50 just a week after winning a major on the Champions Tour.

However, this silver lining isn't without its cloud. Woods and Ernie Els -- two of the top 3 players in the world -- played in just two of the 15 events won by the golden oldies. The fortysomethings swept all four tournaments in September, but did it against some of the weakest fields of the year. They also won three of the four tournaments played opposite majors or WGC events.

8. Big Easy puts up big numbers around the world

Ernie Els racked up more victories (seven) than anyone else in the world in 2003, winning the first two PGA Tour events and adding four European tour titles and the World Match Play later in the year. The globetrotting Els also racked up more frequent flier miles than anyone else, traveling more than 100,000 miles while playing a full schedule on both tours.

Ernie Els
Els

He came racing out of the blocks in January, winning four of his first five tournaments and finishing runner-up in the fifth. During the run, he matched or broke scoring records on both the PGA and European tours. A wrist injury slowed him down just as Woods was getting his season started, but Els managed three more victories -- and his first Order of Merit title -- before the end of the year. He jumped from third to second in the World Ranking after his hot start, dropping back to third when Singh went on a late-season run.

The Big Easy posted three top-10s in the majors, but managed only a T18 at Royal St. George's, where he was defending his British Open title.

Els said he's going to cut back his schedule next season from the 27 events he played in 2003, focusing more on performing well in the majors and lightening his European tour load.

"I have to start reducing my play," he said. "I still would like to play more in America, and I think from next year onwards it will probably start happening.''

9. Technology takeover? Big dogs stuff their faces in 2003

Players hit it farther than ever in 2003 thanks to new club and ball technology, and many called for constraints as scores plummeted to new lows early in the year.

Pounding away
A look at the number of players who averaged more than 300 yards and more than 290 off the tee the last six years.
Year Averaging 300+ Averaging 290+ Leader's avg.
2003 9 64 321.4
2002 1 18 306.8
2001 1 13 306.7
2000 1 2 301.4
1999 1 5 305.6
1998 0 2 299.4

John Daly was the first player in history to average more than 300 yards off the tee, and until this year was the only one to have done it over a full season. In 2003, though, that number ballooned to nine, with rookie Hank Kuehne and his massive 321.4 yards-per-drive average topping the list. Perhaps even more telling are the 64 players who averaged more than 290 yards off the tee in 2003, up from 18 a year ago and just two in 2000.

Despite the low scores early in the year, doomsday prophesies proved baseless as the tour compensated for the added beef by lengthening some courses and moving hole locations closer to the sides of greens. Overall, scoring average didn't waver much from 2002 levels: The 100th player on tour averaged just three-one-hundredths of a stroke less per round than the 100th player from 2002.

Still, the spike in distance did put some of the tour's courses on extinction watch, while others made plans to add yards to try and keep pace.

Tiger Woods -- who finished out of the top 10 on the driving list for the first time despite adding 6 yards to his average drive -- suspected some players were using drivers with a little too much pop, and lobbied the tour to test every player's driver before each round.

The PGA Tour didn't go that far, but did adopt a portable testing procedure that will allow players to voluntarily test their clubs to determine if they fall within the legal limits for spring-like effect. It will begin in 2004.

"This is a game of honor and integrity. It will continue to be that way,'' commissioner Tim Finchem said. "When you're dealing with your ability to stay eligible to play in a golf tournament, you're not going to fool around with whether your driver is above or below a COR (coefficient of restitution) limit. You're going to test your drive.

"There's no doubt in my mind that every player is going to get their driver tested,'' he said. "And in about four weeks after we start this procedure, it's going to be a non-issue.''

10. Falling stars

David Duval
Duval
The 2003 season was a forgettable one for four of golf's most recognizable names: David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie. A recap of their woes:

Duval: The last player to sit No. 1 in the world in the Tiger era, Duval saw his mysterious fall from grace continue in 2003. A year after sinking from third to 15th in the World Ranking, Duval crashed all the way to 238th after finishing 211th on the money list. He made just three cuts in an injury-riddled season, his best finish a tie for 28th in the FBR Open.

Phil Mickelson
Mickelson

Mickelson: Lefty missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career (he was 38th on the money list), and fell from second to 13th in the World Ranking. His driver was the biggest culprit, as he hit less than 50 percent of his fairways (189th on tour) while adding more than 17 yards to his average drive. The only winless player at the Presidents Cup (0-5), Mickelson said he'll take the offseason to evaluate his game before returning to the tour at the end of January.

Sergio Garcia
Garcia

Garcia: Coming off a season in which he won three times around the world and was the only player to post top-10s in all four majors, Garcia seemed ready to take the next step to stardom in 2003. Instead, he took a step backward. The 23-year-old struggled badly early, and finally made the decision to get rid of his shaky swing. The result was a season of struggles, during which he posted just four top-10 finishes in 25 events. He seems to have turned the corner recently, though, with a strong showing for three rounds in Japan and a victory at the unofficial Nedbank Challenge in South Africa.

Colin Montgomerie
Montgomerie

Montgomerie: Monty finished out of the top 6 on the Order of Merit (28th) for the first time since 1990, and failed to earn at least one European tour victory for the first time in 11 seasons. The low point was the British Open, where he withdrew seven holes into the first round after tripping in the rain and injuring his wrist at his hotel.

Honorable Mention: World, meet Michelle Wie

No recap of the 2003 season would be complete without a mention of teen phenom Michelle Wie. Wie, now 14, took the golf world by storm, playing in nine professional tournaments, including two against men.

Michelle Wie
It was a season of highs and lows for Michelle Wie and her father/caddie B.J.

Her highs and lows:

  • In March, she finished tied for ninth at the LPGA Tour's first major, the Kraft Nabisco. She was paired in the final group on Sunday with Annika Sorenstam and winner Patricia Meunier-Lebouc.

  • In June, she became the youngest player to win a USGA adult event, taking the U.S. Women's Public Links title.

  • The road got a little rocky for Wie at the U.S. Women's Open in July. After being berated by playing partner Danielle Ammaccapane for an etiquette breach, Wie and father/caddie B.J. were allegedly confronted by Ammaccapane's angry father the next day.

  • In September, Wie played in the Nationwide Tour's Boise Open, the second of two men's events on her summer schedule. She missed the cut by 11 strokes.

  • She'll tee it up against the boys again in January, when she'll become the youngest girl to play in a PGA Tour event at her hometown Sony Open in Hawaii.

    David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and he can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

  • ALSO SEE