Best fantasy golfer of 2012 – The presumptive choice is Rory McIlroy. He duplicated Luke Donald’s amazing 2011 feat of winning the money titles in both the US and European Tours. McIlroy won a major in dominating fashion for the second year in a row, something that Donald has yet to do by any margin. And he led the PGA Tour in scoring average with a figure of 68.873, just a hair ahead of Tiger Woods. And yet, it’s possible to make a case for Woods, who recorded three wins to McIlroy’s four, if only because Woods played more often. After all, fantasy value in most formats comes from how often you card a score better than the field; not how many big events you win, and not how many European events you win (unless you play in a Euro league, of course). Woods played in 19 PGA events, missing just two cuts. McIlroy entered 16 events, missing three cuts. Tiger thus contributed to your fantasy team’s fortunes on the weekend 17 times, to Rory’s 13. (The wart on this stat is that Woods’s weekend scoring average was a stroke higher than in the first two rounds.) Also by that measure, Jason Dufner deserves serious consideration; while his scoring average was half a stroke higher than McIlroy’s or Woods’s, he made 21 straight cuts and carded 83 rounds in 2012, giving him many more opportunities to help your team than McIlroy (60) or Woods (69). McIlroy still gets the vote here, but it’s not the runaway that a surface view would indicate.
Shot of the year – It’s telling when a Tour pro hits the shot of his life, and not only is it not the Shot of the Year, it isn’t even the Shot of the Day. On Sunday at The Masters, Louis Oosthuizen, playing the par-5 second hole, played his second shot from 260 yards with a 4-iron. Channeling Gene Sarazen, the South African with the enviable swing played it perfectly; the ball landed in the front fringe, then rolled lazily across the green and into the cup for an albatross, the rarest gem in golf. But that wasn’t good enough. By the end of the round, he was tied with Bubba Watson for the championship. Bubba unwisely hit his drive on the second sudden-death playoff hole well right, into a forest that could well have hidden trolls and elves. His second shot was miraculous: a hard hook with a gap wedge from 154 yards that seemed to signal for a right turn while in mid-flight. The ball bounded up onto the green and into position for Watson to make a two-putt par to take the championship.
Collapse of the year – So many contenders here. Jim Furyk gagged his way through the late season, including his late fumble at the Bridgestone and an awful Ryder Cup performance. Adam Scott’s name was already half-engraved on the claret jug before he posted a bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey finish on Sunday to give Ernie Els the Open Championship. Kyle Stanley had a seven-stroke lead on Sunday at the Farmers, and still led by three as he stood safely in the 18th fairway. His “safe” wedge shot landed in the middle of the green, but then zinged all the way back into a water hazard. He ended up with a triple-bogey that put him in a playoff that – naturally – he lost by three-putting. Stanley at least came back to win the next week, unlike Furyk and Scott, but the magnitude of his fold gives him the edge in this ignoble category.
Best single moment of the 2012 season – The story goes that once someone asked Peggy Lee who the greatest jazz singer was; she answered, “You mean other than Ella?” In that sense, it isn’t fair to include the Ryder Cup with the other contenders in this category; most of the best golf moments of the year came in a single weekend at Medinah. So we’ll choose from among the mere-mortal events, and from that group, the second-best moment was Brandt Snedeker’s chip-in birdie on the 71st hole of the Tour Championship, basically assuring him of an $11 million payday. The top of the list is Tiger’s preposterous flop shot, hitting from dense rough toward a water hazard behind the 16th green on Sunday at The Memorial, for the enormous explosion it inspired from the gallery – not to mention the courage that it took to hit that shot from that place. His victory two holes later tied him with host Jack Nicklaus with 73 career wins.
Step-up players of 2013 – Plenty of players have the game to turn it on in the upcoming year, but the money here is on Oosthuizen, whose game blossomed throughout 2012. He led the European Tour in stroke average and scrambling and finished second in greens-in-regulation. A few other candidates: Charl Schwartzel finished 2012 on a strong note after losing time early due to an injury, and Nicolas Colsaerts indicated that he’d play a full season on the PGA Tour for the first time. If Colsaerts can be purloined in salary-based leagues for his 2012 earnings of $677K, then there is no excuse for not taking him. (Ditto Martin Kaymer.) Keep an eye on Nick Watney, whose results just haven’t kept up with his game over the past year and a half, and Harris English, who looks overwhelmingly likely to produce better results than 2012; just don’t expect a Rory-like year from him.
Drop-off players of 2013 – Steve Stricker has announced that he’ll play a significantly reduced schedule in the coming year. He plans to enter no more than 10 events, down from his 19-event calendar last season. He still has a masterful wedge game, and he made 18 cuts in 2012. But he’ll be 46 in February, and he’s decided to ease into semi-retirement. If you follow the Euros, remember that the ageless Miguel Angel Jimenez is on the shelf until late spring due to a fractured tibia, sustained in a late-December skiing accident. Jonathan Byrd is recovering from wrist surgery in October; he expects to be back in March, but you should be skeptical of the recovery from something as delicate as a wrist. Finally, Jim Furyk is showing signs that the fat lady is warming up. He can still put the ball in the short grass (#4 in fairways hit); he just can’t put it out there very far (#170 in driving distance). His monumental collapse at the Bridgestone, where he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish second by a stroke, is just one prominent example of his recent woes. He still scored well last year, but he shows signs of eroding skills.
Money in the bank – Of the players you can buy for their 2012 earnings, take a hard look at Ian Poulter (if he indeed plays a full season on this side of the pond) and Kaymer (ditto), who should easily out-earn last year’s purses ($1.7M and $566K, respectively). You should even pick up Dustin Johnson at $3.4 million; I foresee multiple wins for him this season. Also, get players on the rise, but who didn’t have monster years in 2012 like Rory’s. The names on this list include Adam Scott (under $3M), Oosthuizen ($3.5M), and Jason Day ($1.1M). Keegan Bradley is a close call here at $3.9M, but given his youth, I’d pick him up and have fun watching him when the chips are down. (Of course, if salary is no object, and you can just pick any six golfers you like, then none of these considerations will matter much; you just load your lineup with Rory and Tiger and Dustin and Keegan, etc. Unfortunately, so will everyone else in your league.)
Too expensive – This category comes with a caveat, inspired by the classic fantasy-baseball advice of John Benson: You must get your fair share of talent with your budget. If you have a spending limit and buy a bunch of low-priced players who are overwhelmingly likely to out-earn last year, that’s great; but if you only spend half your money doing so, you’re going to lose. Benson was right; you need to wrap up some of the higher-priced talent, as outlined in the immediately preceding note. That being said, I think McIlroy will have a tough time out-pacing his phenomenal 2012 earnings (over $8M). Same for Woods at $6.1M, Snedeker at $5M, and Dufner at almost $4.9M; even Carl Pettersson at $3.5M.
Low-priced sleepers and late-round thefts – You can get Frederik Jacobson, Gary Woodland, and K. J. Choi for under $1M in salary-based leagues. Seung-Yul Noh made a plausible case for Rookie of the Year, making an amazing 24 cuts in 28 starts, and may go undrafted. Keep English in mind, as noted above.
I decided to take a look back at last year’s predictions, to see how I did the last time I posted this essay:
Bounce-back player of 2012: I picked Woods, and he came through after a dismal 2011. I give myself only an A-, though, because that one was too easy to forecast.
Out-of-nowhere player: I stuck my neck out with Patrick Cantlay, who played so steadily in the 2011 U.S. Open as an amateur. He entered four events as an amateur in early 2012, then six more after turning pro in June, making the cut each time. But he never cashed a big paycheck or made a major splash. After finishing well down the field at Q-School, he’ll start 2013 in the Web.com Tour and hope for an early promotion to the big show. I should cheat and give myself an incomplete here, especially since I warned you that he was a long-term project; I still like his prospects once he arrives on Tour.
Out-of-somewhere player: Designed to be a little more conservative than Cantlay, I went with John Senden, who then posted a middle-of-the-road season. His top finish was a fourth at the John Deere. He continued to shine in GIR, but fell back to earth in strokes gained-putting, where he had shown such promise in 2011. My GPA is slipping here . . .
Blue-chippers: I listed Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, and Jason Day. Kuchar won The Players and Mahan won the WGC Match Play, so I feel a bit vindicated there; Day had a pedestrian year that was largely engendered by wildness off the tee (#183 in driving accuracy) that led to poor approaches (#167 in GIR).
Most likely to plummet: Furyk got the nod, and despite some good numbers and a healthy bank balance, his late-season collapses foreshadow a dim future.
Finally, I advised sticking a fork in John Daly. He played in 15 events on this side of the pond and 12 more in Europe. His PGA Tour winnings amounted to less than half a million dollars. Even for the desperate, there are far better paces to stake your fantasy golf fortunes.