With the 2011 PGA season in the books, it's time to take a look back and a peek ahead. Some of these observations will be fantasy-oriented, while others will just reflect plain-old Tour golf.
Best fantasy golfer of 2011 – Not close. Luke Donald is the #1 player in the world, and won the money titles on both sides of the pond. Are you kidding me? Entering only 19 events on the PGA Tour, he nevertheless topped everyone else's earnings; only Webb Simpson and Nick Watney came within $2 million of Donald's $6.68 million over here, and that doesn't account for the weeks he spent in Europe, winning that tour's money title. He made 17 cuts and finished in the top 10 14 times in those 19 starts. Basically, if he entered an event that was on your fantasy league's schedule and you started him, you did well. The one knock on him is that he still hasn't won a major. Rather than speculating on whether This Is The Year, we'll tell you to keep starting him and keep reaping the spoils. Unless your league counts only major championship events, Donald was The Man in 2011.
Bandwagon driver – After Rory McIlroy ran away and hid from the field at Congressional in the US Open, everyone started anointing him as The Next Tiger. And then a strange thing happened: He didn't crush the competition as the calendar unfolded. He finished T25 at the British; he made the cut but was a non-factor at the PGA; his best finish the rest of the year was third place at the Grand Slam of Golf, and there were only four entrants in that event. No, Rory is not about to dominate golf the way Tiger Woods did for a solid decade, and both Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) and Sam Snead (82 wins) are safe from the charismatic young Irishman. There's nothing wrong with starting McIlroy when he appears in the US – as he says he'll do more often in 2012 – but be careful not to over-inflate your expectations.
Best clutch shot of 2011 – There are several good choices here, but given the situation, the best has to be Bill Haas's greenside wedge on the second extra hole in the Tour Championship. With $11 million on the line in sudden-death – go back and read that again, and consider that no other professional athlete faced that much single-moment pressure this year – he literally splashed the ball out of a water hazard onto the green, where it took one hop and checked up, two feet from the pin. He won the playoff, and the 11 mil, on the next playoff hole by sinking a four-foot putt that would have put the average golfer in the cardiac care unit. Steve Stricker's 6-iron from a ridiculous lie in a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole of the John Deere gets honorable mention. It's a shot that would scare the bejeebies out of your average club pro, not to mention the most flatbellied of amateurs, but Stricker pulled off a miracle birdie to win his third straight Deere.
Bounce-back player of 2012 – Would you believe Tiger Woods? Well, let's consider your league's format. If you're in a league that allows you to buy a player in 2012 for his 2011 money winnings, thou shalt grab Tiger and run like a scared bandit. He earned all of $660,000 in 2011, and he's a mortal lock to exceed that in 2012. Factor in that he should be healthy enough to play in all four majors (he made only The Masters and the PGA in 2011), and 2012 looks like an excellent opportunity to "buy low." That being said, you should again temper your expectations, as you do with McIlroy. It says here that Tiger is not likely to win two majors, or even one, in 2012; he's basically an average Tour pro, or perhaps slightly better. But his performance, especially tee-to-green, toward the end of the 2011 season gives us hope that he'll put in a solid, if not world-beating, 2012. And if his putting comes around, who knows?
Best moment of the 2011 season – For sheer spectacle, you can't beat this moment: It's Sunday at something called the Farmers Insurance Open, way back in January. Bubba Watson sits nervously in the scorer's tent with a two-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, who's on 18, needing an eagle to tie and force a playoff. Phil's caddie, Bones McKay, calmly strolls over to the hole and places his right hand on the flagstick and his left behind his back, and the gallery starts to go nuts. What's surprising about this? Why, Phil is 72 yards (not 72 feet) away, back in the fairway, and he wants Bones to tend the stick just in case he jars the approach shot. No, we are not making this up. And the remarkable thing is that most of the folks in the gallery are thinking, By God, Phil just might do it! Alas; the approach finished a good, solid four feet from the pin, and Watson escaped with a one-shot win. The last time someone got this much attention for finishing second was when Rocky Balboa lost a split decision to Apollo Creed back in 1976.
Golfer most likely to come out of nowhere in 2012 – As usual, this one's a bit of a crapshoot, but if you like to play the lottery, you could do worse than to lay your money on Patrick Cantlay. When's the last time you found a 19-year-old amateur finishing in the top 30 of the US Open? In 1960, some kid named Nicklaus finished second; but we can agree that he was an exception. Cantlay is a sophomore at UCLA, but keep an eye on his professional status; if he decides to turn pro after the collegiate season ends on June 3, and you can steal him for your fantasy team, he makes a solid end-of-roster addition. Cantlay has one of the best mindsets in the game, so whenever he does turn pro – and he will, eventually – he'll make a terrific pick. Just don't make him the centerpiece of your roster quite yet.
Slightly more conservative out-of-nowhere pick – Okay, we can't just leave you with a lottery-ticket pick like Cantlay. For 2012, if you're looking for someone to pick up his game, go with John Senden. He's one of the most consistent players on the Tour in the Holy Grail of golf statistics: greens in regulation. In 2011, for the first time he had a solidly positive year in strokes gained from putting, and he had his best-ever finish in Total Putting (34th). If he continues to build on that progress, he'll be a birdie-and-par machine this year. (For comparison, the Tour's other consistent master of the GIR is Joe Durant, but Durant just flat can't putt. Senden is the better bet, by far.)
Blue-chip stocks – If you like nice, safe investments, go with one of these established Tour pros: Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, or Jason Day. Each has the game to make a run at 2012 Player of the Year, and that's the guy you want on your roster. Pay particular attention to Day, who needs only to improve his driving accuracy (172nd on Tour in 2011) to round out a solid set of tools. He was out of the top 100 in greens in regulation, but if he improves his driving, that stat will turn around in a hurry. As with blue-chips on Wall Street, none of these guys will come cheap – all three finished in the Tour's Top 15 money winners in 2011 – but sometimes you get what you pay for. These players are the place to park your fantasy IRA.
Most likely to plummet in 2012 – Projecting this category just feels wrong, as though we're casting the evil eye on a deserving PGA pro. But despite his enormous success in the President's Cup, Jim Furyk looks most likely to disappoint over the course of the next 12 months. Number of events entered in 2011: 26. Number of Top-5 finishes: zero. Number of Top-10s: four. (Compare this to Luke Donald and cringe.) He still won $1.53 million, and that speaks well of his perseverance, but results like that won't win you a fantasy championship. His sparkling 5-0 performance in the President's Cup was fun to follow, but we don't think it will translate into 2012 success.
Stick a fork in him – Alas, it's John Daly. There are few players who command as much love among the fans. Unfortunately, there are few players who have more personal problems than Tiger has had over the past two years, and Daly's Exhibit A on that short list. Avoid, unless you're truly, truly desperate.
2017 Player of the Year – If you enjoy looking long-term – and it's always fun to do that – let's take a peek at some of today's kids who are likely to be doing particularly well down the road. Rory McIlroy would be an obvious choice, but he isn't #1 on this list; that would be K-T Kim, followed closely by Ryo Ishikawa, Patrick Cantlay, and Jason Day. All four of these wunderkinden have the swings and the mental makeups to succeed long-term. If you're in a league that allows really long-term keepers, draft one of these guys and reap the rewards down the road.