Philadelphia, PA – It was another big year for the European Tour as one tour regular took over the top spot in the world rankings and three other members won their first major championship.
Luke Donald won three times and moved to the top of the world rankings for the first time in his career. He grabbed a stranglehold atop those rankings, thanks in part to five worldwide titles.
Three members won the first three majors, meaning European Tour regulars won six consecutive majors dating back to 2010. Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer were the three big winners last year.
Schwartzel broke through at Augusta, where McIlory had the third-round lead. As McIlroy was struggling mightily on the back nine, Schwartzel broke through a crowd of eight players. Schwartzel finished with four straight birdies to close out his round and take the green jacket.
Not to be undaunted, McIlroy fired four rounds in the 60s in a dominating win at the U.S. Open at Congressional. Clarke closed the British Open with an even-par 70, but it was enough for a three-shot win at Royal St. George's.
Eleven players combined for 24 wins in the season's 54 events, which started at the end of 2010.
No matter the year, 2010 or 2011, the European Tour is on a big upswing and with all of its young talent, more good things are on the horizon.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- The steady Englishman
Donald garners Player of the Year status courtesy of his three victories and his winning the Order of Merit.
Battling the final two days with a virus, McIlroy was unable to backup his opening-round 66 with another low round and wrapped up the event with three straight 71s to share 11th.
Donald, on the other hand, started with an even-par 72 and closed with back- to-back 66s to end alone in third.
That gave Donald an easy win in the Order of Merit, by over a million euros. It also meant the 34-year-old was the first player to ever top both the European Tour and PGA Tour money lists in the same season.
Donald had just 13 starts on the European Tour, actually six if you extract the four majors and three World Golf Championship events.
However you look at it, Donald was the model of consistency. He missed just one cut and finished outside the top 11 one other time.
The world's No. 1 player carded three titles, two seconds, a third and a fourth. His lone missed cut happened to be at the British Open. And that is the only knock on Donald to this point in his career -- he hasn't won a major.
Two majors gave us his two worst results of the year. The other two majors? Donald shared fourth at The Masters and tied for eighth at the PGA Championship.
For the season, Donald teed it up 25 times on the European and PGA Tours. He missed only three cuts and took over as the top player in the world.
Donald might not be the longest hitter, he might not even hit it the straightest, but he gets the ball in the hole as quick, if not quicker, than any other player in the game right now.
You can expect more of the same in the years to come as Donald is just reaching his peak.
Others in the conversation for Player of the Year were McIlroy, former PGA Champ Martin Kaymer, reigning Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and the resurgent, Thomas Bjorn.
TOURNAMENT OF THE YEAR -- Johnnie Walker playoff
There were plenty of good choices for the tournament of the year, but call me a sucker for big playoffs.
The Johnnie Walker Championship was the biggest playoff of the year, featuring five players -- Thomas Bjorn, George Coetzee, Mark Foster, Pablo Larrazabal and Bernd Wiesberger.
Okay, so these guys might not be household names, but a big playoff is a big playoff. Coetzee and Wiesberger were both going for their first title, Foster his second and first since 2003, Larrazabal his third and second of the year, and Bjorn was aiming for his 12th victory, and also his second of 2011.
The group would play the par-five 18th at Gleneagles until a winner was crowned. Wiesberger stumbled to a bogey the first time through and was out. Larrazabal made bogey the second time around and was done.
The remaining trio picked up their play as they all made birdie the third time. Bjorn and Coetzee made birdie again on the fourth playing of the hole, but Foster tripped to a bogey and was out.
It came down to the final two. On the fifth extra hole, Bjorn stuffed his third shot within three feet and had the clear advantage. After Coetzee missed his 40-foot birdie effort, Bjorn rolled in his putt for the victory.
It was the 12th victory of his career, and he followed with lucky No. 13 the following week. The titles may also help Bjorn play his way onto the European Ryder Cup team for the first time since 2002.
SHOT OF THE YEAR -- Clarke's eagle
It is rare for a front-nine eagle to mean so much to a single player, but in Darren Clarke's case it provided the breathing room he needed.
In the final round of the British Open, Phil Mickelson was trying to chase down Clarke as both players were looking to win the prestigious title for the first time.
Mickelson delivered an eagle effort on the par-five seventh to join Clarke in the lead.
Clarke responded as a true champion would. Three groups later, he also made eagle on No. 7 to regain a two-stroke cushion. It was that putt that gave Clarke the edge he needed.
He parred nine in a row after that and saw his lead grow to four shots. Bogeys on the final two holes did nothing but trim Clarke's winning margin in his first major championship conquest.
Sure, it wasn't as sexy as Miguel Angel Jimenez banking a shot off the wall at the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, but the putt gave Clarke the advantage he needed to grab the Claret Jug.
ROOKIE OF YEAR -- A Young Dane
Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen and Scotland's Scott Jamieson were two of the top rookies on the European Tour in 2011 after gaining their tour cards through the Challenge Tour.
Olesen gains the nod as Rookie of the Year after finishing 11 spots higher in the Order of Merit with about 114,000 more euros than Jamieson.
Jamieson did tally five top-10 finishes, but missed the cut in 10 of his last 14 starts, including six in a row at one point.
Olesen had one less top-five finish, but three of his top-fives were ties for second place. He also had a bad stretch late in the year, missing nine cuts in a 12-tournament span starting at the British Open.
The soon-to-be 22-year-old Olesen finished one shot back at the Italian and France Opens, and those big paychecks pushed him ahead of Jamieson for Rookie of the Year honors.
- McIlroy had more top-fives and more top-10s than Donald, but ended second in the Order of Merit, despite winning the U.S. Open and Hong Kong Open. Nevertheless, it was an outstanding season for the Ulsterman.
- Kaymer had wins in his first and next-to-last starts. In between, he posted six top-10 finishes. The German took second to Donald at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but struggled in the majors. He missed the cut in two of the four and his share of 12th at the British was his best finish in a major a year after he won his first. No denying his third-place finish in the Order of Merit though.
- Schwartzel broke out of a pack of eight golfers, including Tiger Woods, to win the Masters. He did so by making birdie on each of the last four holes. The South African was the first to birdie the last four holes to win the title at Augusta. He also won the Joburg Open and finished inside the top-16 in eight of his 10 starts on the European Tour after the Masters victory.
- Bjorn snapped a nearly four-year winless drought in 2010. He picked up three more titles this year, including back-to-back victories at the Johnnie Walker Championship and European Masters.
- Anders Hansen was the only player in the top-10 in the Order of Merit that didn't win this year. That doesn't mean it was a bad season though. Hansen posted three seconds and two thirds in 22 events. The Dane remains winless since the 2009 Joburg Open, but he is continuously knocking on the door for sure.
- Nick Dougherty teed it up 32 times this season, but earned just $10,600 as he made just one cut. The three-time winner on the European Tour last won in 2009 at the BMW International Open. Since that victory, he has made the cut in just 23 of 70 starts.
- Jeppe Huldahl led the tour in starts with 35, but that didn't mean it was a lucrative year for the Dane. He made 10 cuts and earned over 131,000 euros. However, he ended 158th in the Order of Merit and did not retain his tour card for next year.
- Markus Brier, a two-time winner on tour, missed the cut in two of his last three starts and failed to keep his tour card for 2012 by 426 euros.
- Ross Fisher earned his fourth tour win in 2010, but failed to post a top- five finish in 24 starts this season.
- Keith Horne made 16 cuts in 33 events, but didn't have a single top-10 finish.