Jacksonville, Florida: Anyone gazing into a crystal ball at the start of the 2006 golf season would not have been surprised to see the names and faces of the biggest winners, for no other reason than their greatest victories were merely encores. Tiger Woods won two majors. Europe won the Ryder Cup. So what else is new? Woods was equal parts ruthless and relentless at golf's oldest championship, becoming the first player in 23 years to successfully defend his title at the British Open. He relied more on his brains than his brawn, using his driver only one time in 72 holes on the crispy, brown links of Royal Liverpool for a two-shot victory. His 12th major title followed a month later at the US PGA Championship. Then came Darren Clarke and his band of European stalwarts, winning the Ryder Cup for the third consecutive time. Europe made history with its longest winning streak, and matched history with its biggest romp. It was such an encore that even the score stayed the same - Europe 18 1/2, United States 9 1/2. But to say this was simply a rerun of previous years in golf would be to ignore the raw emotion that spilled out of the silver claret jug in Hoylake and out of the shiny gold cup in Ireland. The tears were as memorable as the triumphs. WoodsaÂÂ magic Woods continued to build the chasm between the No. 1 player and the rest of golf in a year that brought him nine more titles, from a playoff victory over Ernie Els in Dubai to eight victories on the US PGA Tour. Winning the British Open and US PGA Championship made him the first player in golf history to win multiple majors in consecutive years. But when asked outside London at the American Express Championship - he won that by eight shots - how he would remember this season, Woods soberly and succinctly replied, "A loss". He referred to his father, Earl - a confidante, role model, teacher and friend - who died on May 3 after a long, debilitating battle with cancer. So devastated was Woods that he vanished from golf for nine weeks, returning at the US Open only to miss the cut for the first time at a major in his 10 years as a pro. "It was certainly the most difficult year I've ever had because you think you're prepared for it, you think you've gone down this road, you think you can handle it, and all of a sudden it happens. And you find out that it affects you a lot deeper than you thought," he said. Questions whether he could regain his motivation were answered defiantly at the British Open. And for those wondering how his father's death affected him, he showed with a flow of tears never before seen from the world's No. 1 player. After tapping in for par, a scream of "Yes!" tore through his lips, and Woods began sobbing on the shoulder of his caddie. Walking off the green and into the arms of his wife, Elin, he continued to shed tears for the longest minute. It struck him that moment that it was the first victory he could not share with the man he called, "Pops". "I'm kind of the one who bottles things up a little bit and moves on," Woods said. "But at that moment, it just came pouring out. And of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, I just wish he would have seen it one more time." Emotional Clarke There was no hiding the emotions of Clarke, either. His wife, Heather, had been battling cancer for the better part of four years, and it spread so viciously that it became hopeless. Clarke stopped playing after the British Open, and she died the Sunday before the US PGA Championship. Only in the last hour did he decide to play in the Ryder Cup, and Ian Woosnam made him a captain's pick. "It will be gut-wrenching at times," Nick Faldo predicted before the matches. "But he will be strong and want to be part of it." Faldo was right on both counts. Clarke was the inspiration of this Ryder Cup, from his opening tee shot before a teary-eyed gallery, to the handshake on his final hole when he completed a 3-0 week that carried Europe to another easy victory. He had support from his team, emotionally and inside the ropes. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, Europe won all five sessions of the matches, and every European contributed at least one point. The lasting image was Clarke atop the clubhouse at The K Club, chugging a pint of Guinness and raising the empty glass like a trophy. "It's done a lot for me for people to show me how much they care," Clarke said. "And it's done a lot to show how much they cared about Heather, and that means a lot to me." They were not the only winners. Phil Mickelson won the Masters for the second time, although that became forgotten by his colossal undoing at the US Open and his disappearing act at the Ryder Cup. Geoff Ogilvy finally delivered a major championship to Australia and its rising stars by winning the US Open, although he needed some help from Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Jim Furyk, all of whom left Winged Foot haunted by their failures. Padraig Harrington captured his first Order of Merit on the European Tour, and that required some help, too. Paul Casey was poised to win the coveted prize until Sergio Garcia bogeyed the last hole of the Volvo Masters, which affected the earnings just enough for the Irishman to finish at the top of the list. It was a dramatic conclusion to a year in Europe, which asserted itself again as a world power. Along with winning the Ryder Cup, the future appears to be found in the likes of Casey, Garcia, Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson and David Howell - all of them under the age of 32, all of them among the top 15 in the world.
Topics : Golf