SEASON REVIEW

Golf Digest.ie Awards: Who shone and who stunk in an action-packed year for Irish golf

by Ronan MacNamara

Golf, like the rest of the world, made big strides to returning to normal in 2021, even if the situation surrounding the pandemic in Ireland seems bleak once more this winter. The PGA Tour saw crowds return, as did the DP World Tour (eventually).

There was plenty to look out for from an Irish golf point of view with the trials and tribulations of Rory McIlroy taking most of the headlines. Leona Maguire announced herself as a world class player with her exploits this season while Seamus Power and Jonathan Caldwell picked up career changing wins in 2021. Shane Lowry knocked on the door of the winners enclosure a couple of times and briefly silenced the Wisconsin crowd in the Ryder Cup with an inspirational Saturday performance.

We had great amateur success with Peter O’Keeffe, Mark Power, John Murphy, Beth Coulter and Rebekah Gardner taking the spotlight at various points of the year. Ireland also won the R&A Home Internationals for the first time since 2017.

We have had our own World Number One once again as Brendan Lawlor topped the EDGA world rankings this year and is expected to return to the top following his win in Dubai a fortnight ago.

The Dundalk man continues to be the poster boy for making the game of golf more accessible and breaking down barriers.

Still, there was plenty to laugh and scoff at this year as golf (as usual) showed its nonsensical side, while some non-Irish players brought a tear to a glass eye with emotional comeback stories.

Golfer of the Year: Leona Maguire.

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Leona and Lisa Maguire by Golffile

Could it be anyone else? The 27-year-old broke the record for most Solheim Cup points won as a rookie with 4.5/5 as she inspired Europe to a second ever win on US soil.

Maguire also broke into the top-50 in the Rolex World Rankings rising to a career high 43rd. Five top-10 finishes and a further six top-15 finishes she was a model of consistency all year.

The Slieve Russell ambassador also ran Nelly Korda to the pin of her collar in the final round of the Meijer LPGA Classic before downing her twice in the Solheim Cup.

Honourable mentions: Seamus Power, Shane Lowry, Brendan Lawlor.

Amateur of the Year: Peter O’Keeffe.

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Peter O'Keeffe by Golffile

Became just the seventh player in Irish golf history and first since Pádraig Harrington in 1995 to complete the Irish Amateur Close and Open double this year. The Douglas native topped the Bridgestone Order of Merit at season’s end.

The 40-year-old is eyeing a place on the next GB&I Walker Cup team after playing an integral role on Ireland’s Home Internationals side as they picked up their first Raymond trophy since 2017.

O’Keeffe also picked up wins at the Munster Strokeplay Championship and the Douglas Scratch Cup.

Honourable mentions: Alex Maguire, TJ Ford, Hugh Foley, Lauren Walsh, Annabel Wilson

Irish Abroad Award: Lauren Walsh

The Castlewarden native has had a fantastic year, becoming a stalwart on the Irish international side while also playing in the Arnold Palmer Cup.

The Wake Forest student made her debut in the Curtis Cup representing GB&I where she won a point in the Thursday afternoon fourballs.

Walsh also made the cut in the AIG Women's Open Championship at Carnoustie where she finished in 42nd place.

Young Golfer of the Year: John Murphy.

What a summer the Kinsale native had. Having played a starring role alongside Mark Power in the Walker Cup in Seminole earlier this year, he earned full status on the Challenge Tour and was in contention in the final round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship where he finished 9th.

Honourable mentions: Beth Coulter, Rebekah Gardner, Jack Murphy, Mark Power, Tom McKibbin

Senior Amateur of the Year: Caroline Wickham

2021 proved to be a brilliant year for the Laytown and Bettystown golfer. Wickham scooped both the Irish Senior Women’s Close and Irish Senior Women’s Amateur Open as she romped to the Senior Women’s Order of Merit.

Honourable mention: Pat Lyons (Cork)

Most Improved Golfer: Seamus Power

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Seamus Power by Golffile

Normally this award goes out to the inferior player who wasn’t as inferior this season on a football team. But this year there’s arguably no more improved player than Seamus Power. His form in 2021 has been electrifying with five top-10s, and four top-20s outside of his breakthrough win.

The 34-year-old picked up his maiden PGA Tour win at the 2021 Barbasol Championship as he overcame JT Poston in a six-hole playoff to become just the sixth Irishman to win on Tour. But that win doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2021 the Waterford native has risen from 434th to 70th in the Official World Golf Rankings and made it to the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Power who ranked 25th in strokes gained tee to green builds his game around his iron play and stellar short game. He ranked 38th in strokes gained approach to the green in 2021 while his wizardry around the greens saw him rank 5th in strokes gained around the green this year.

Team of the Year: Solheim Cup Team Europe

Catriona Matthew’s troops were simply inspired as they went to the Inverness Club in Ohio and took down Pat Hurst’s charges 15-13 as they won on away soil for the second time in Solheim Cup history.

Beanie’s blues went into the Monday singles with a two-point lead needing just five points from the 12 matches to retain the coveted trophy. Of course, it was Leona Maguire who set the wheels in motion with a thumping 5&4 win over Jennifer Kupcho.

Steve Stricker might feel hard done by that his record-breaking US troops aren’t scooping this accolade, but Pádraig Harrington’s European charges were simply woeful. Matthew’s Europe took down a world class US team with the Korda sisters, Lexi Thompson and Danielle Kang to name a few.

The Irish team that won their first Home Internationals crown since 2017 are also unlucky to miss out given the dramatic circumstances in which they brought the Raymond trophy home from Hankley Common.

Moment of the Year: Leona Maguire’s putt on 18 in the morning foursomes vs the Korda sisters in the Solheim Cup.

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Leona Maguire and Mel Reid by Golffile

The Cavan native made history as she registered the first point ever scored by an Irish player in the Solheim Cup and you could see what it meant as she ran into Mel Reid’s arms.

Honourable mentions: Shane Lowry on 18 in the Saturday fourballs in Wisconsin

Shot of the Year: Seamus Power’s approach to the 18th on Sunday at the Barbasol Championship to get into playoff vs JT Poston.

Needing a birdie, the Waterford native stitched his approach to three-feet over the water with everything on the line. It set him up for an eventual career-changing win which has granted him entry to the Players and PGA Championship in 2022.

Power has had a hot start to the 2022 season and has knocked on the door for a second PGA Tour win. Had he got it he might have pipped Maguire to golfer of the year.

Honourable mentions: Jonathan Caldwell approach to 18 in the Scandinavian Mixed.

Worst shot of the Year: Bryson DeChambeau tops his driver during final round at The Players.

The bombing phenomenon didn’t quite catch this one… He’s human after all.

Awkward moment of the Year: Rory McIlroy rips shirt off after Dubai disappointment.

An emotional side of Rory we aren’t used to seeing over the last few years. It has been an emotion filled few months for the Holywood native who has ranged from a blubbering mess at the Ryder Cup to red eyed fury at the DP World Tour finale. He did win the CJ Cup in between that so it’s not all bad!

Feelgood moment of the Year: Richard Bland winning the 2021 Betfred British Masters after 478 appearances.

There wasn’t a dry eye left in the house when Blandy tapped in for his maiden European Tour win. After losing his card in 2019, the Southampton fan fought tooth and nail, refusing to give up and he finally got his reward.

The Englishman went on a great run of form, leading the US Open after 36 holes and knocking on the door in some of the big DP World Tour events throughout the season.

Honourable mentions: Jonathan Caldwell

Comeback story of the Year: Marcel Siem. The German lost his European Tour card, won on the Challenge Tour, delighted the fans with his emotion and passion at the Open and is back on the DP World Tour this season.

After searching for extra length, the ponytailed cult hero lost his game completely and once his former winner exemption ran out he was relegated to the Challenge Tour. After some soul searching and accepting that he is on the second-tier, he won and was an entertaining sub plot behind Collin Morikawa’s Open victory.

Biggest Rules Controversy of the Year: Solheim Cup rules debacle

Was the ball going to drop? Was it going to stay out? We will never know. All we do know is that Europe’s Madelene Sagstrom scooped up a ball that was bizarrely deemed to be hanging over the hole which cost her side a hole.

Missy Jones saw her opportunity to get some publicity and she sauntered in believing a rules infraction had occurred.

Safe to say if that happened in Europe, the hole is halved. I mean, Nelly Korda wasn’t even walking towards the hole, her emotions on the green were in reaction to a missed putt, not a putt that was hanging on the edge.

Just another day where golf lets itself down with these nitty gritty rules.

Shambles of the Year: The NCAA

The NCAA are never far away from drama but the governing body’s decision to cancel one of the four women’s D-I golf regionals for the course being ‘playable but not at championship level’ was inexplicable. After seven inches of rain pummels a golf course there is only so much you can do but to eventually do nothing and end 12 of the 18 teams’ seasons isn’t good. A shambles and Ireland’s own Sara Byrne was seething when she took to Twitter in the aftermath.

Grading the Irish in 2021

Leona Maguire: A+

Seamus Power: A+

Brendan Lawlor: A+

The Dundalk man won three times on the European Disabled Golfer's Association picking up the EDGA finale in Dubai after wins at the EDGA Cazoo Open and the ISPS Handa World Disability Invitational at Galgorm and Massereene.

Jonathan Caldwell: A

Picked up his maiden DP World Tour win at the 2021 Scandinavian Mixed with a stunning approach to the 18th for a kick in birdie to take the title in Sweden. Caldwell also played in Dubai for the first time in his career as he finished 97th in the Race to Dubai.

Darren Clarke B+

John Murphy: B

Shane Lowry: B

A model of consistency in 2021 with six top-10 finishes. The Clara native went 18 events without missing a cut since March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and brought Ireland to its feet with a sensational performance in the Saturday fourballs alongside Tyrrell Hatton.

Despite not notching his first win since the 2019 Open Championship, Lowry played well in the big events with some top-10s coming at the DP World Tour Championship, The Players and the PGA Championship.

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Shane Lowry by Golffile

Rory McIlroy: B-

Two wins in a season is nothing to be sniffed at. Any journeyman professional would kill for two wins in an entire career. What happened outside of those wins, was tough to watch at times. An inconsistent season that saw a seemingly ill-fated eight-month stint with Pete Cowen come to an end as Rory favoured a return to lifelong coach Michael Bannon.

There was the disastrous Ryder Cup where McIlroy won one of his four matches (on Sunday v Schauffele), missed his first session in his career and put the cherry on the cake with a tearful interview after his singles match.

After his win at the CJ Cup much was expected of the four-time major champion and after getting the better of Collin Morikawa in Las Vegas his season ended on a low when he was blitzed by the Open Champion and proceeded to channel his inner Hulk by ripping his shirt post round.

Still two wins, but yeah could still do better given his outrageous ability. Much to look forward to in 2022 from the always interesting Holywood native.

Stephanie Meadow: C

Another tough season for the Jordanstown native but it had a happy ending as she held her nerve in the final regular tour event of the season to keep her LPGA Tour card for 2022.

A gutsy level-par second round that included 18 pars proved to be the catalyst as she edged her way into the top-100 in the Race to CME rankings… In 100th.

After bouncing around coaches following her split from Terry Rowles, Meadow appears to have found some stability in the hands of Todd McKittrick who came into her stable towards the end of the season.

Tom McKibbin: C

Olivia Mehaffey: C

Niall Kearney: C

Unfortunate to miss out on a full European Tour card due to limited starts. The Dubliner had a very consistent season ranking 8th in the DP World Tour stroke average from his 15 starts.

Finishes of 4th, 8th, 12th and 12th were the highlights of the 33-year-old’s season and he will be hoping he can secure his full playing privileges this season and take advantage of his improved category on the DP World Tour.

Pádraig Harrington: C

His unsuccessful Ryder Cup captaincy shouldn't tarnish his legacy but it will see him drop from a B to a C unfortunately. In truth, it has been a solid year for the three-time major champion who made his Champions Tour bow towards the end of the year.

Harrington has risen from 304th in the Official World Golf Rankings to 163rd after a T8th finish at the AVIV Dubai Championship on the DP World Tour. The Dubliner also rolled back the years and got Irish golf fans dreaming at the PGA Championship as he ultimately finished in a share of 4th place at Kiawah Island. 

An interesting 2022 awaits for the 15-time DP World Tour winner as he weighs up his options with three tours to fit into his schedule. The 50-year-old is still more than able to compete at the top level and who knows maybe he has one more serious crack at a major championship in him. There's life in the old dog yet.

Gavin Moynihan: C-

Michael Hoey: C-

Graeme McDowell: D

Cormac Sharvin: D-

Paul Dunne: D-

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