Golf's year for all ages isn't over yet. For fans who can never get enough -- and there are millions of you -- that's the good news as the end nears in a 2012 season that already has altered the game's global competitive landscape.
It began the first week of January, with season-opening winners separated by 15 years and 12 time zones. Steve Stricker started the PGA TOUR season at Maui by making the Hyundai Tournament of Champions his 12th career victory at age 44; Louis Oosthuizen, still 10 months shy of his 30th birthday, won the Africa Open on the European Tour for his third career win.
That set the tone for a season-long battle between youngsters and veterans on TOUR, a recurring storyline that carried over into the major championships -- where Ernie Els took the British Open at age 42 to win one of the four for the elder set.
But the season's first real glimpse of an emerging sea change at the very top of the competitive mountain came almost quietly, three weeks later, at Abu Dhabi. That's when Rory McIlroy, the soaring star from Northern Ireland, edged past Tiger Woods for a solo second that began his best season since turning pro in 2007.
Eleven months and four victories later, McIlroy is, at age 23, solidly atop the World Golf Rankings -- by a substantial margin over the resurgent Woods. More later on the tasty competitive possibilities for 2013 in that scenario.
At the moment, McIlroy is not yet ready to call it a year. And with what is left on the table for him, why would he be?
The PGA TOUR schedule officially closes out this week at the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World but McIlroy will be playing at the Barclays Singapore Open on the European Tour.
Having already wrapped up the PGA TOUR part of his schedule as the year's leading money winner with more than $8 million in earnings, McIlroy will be trying to add to his already wide lead atop the Race to Dubai points list before closing out his season at the $8 million DP World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of the month.
Should he finish among the top 10 at Singapore this week, McIlroy -- who has more than $4 million in official European Tour earnings and a lead of more than $1 million over Peter Hanson of Sweden -- would lock up the European Tour money title before the season finale.
That would make him the second European Tour player in a row to hold both major money titles simultaneously, following the lead set by Luke Donald of England last year.
Sort of makes that "stunning" European comeback for a 1-point victory in the Ryder Cup back in September a little easier to digest, doesn't it? There are five European Tour players currently among the top 15 in World Golf Rankings, one of whom -- Ian Poulter -- won in impressive fashion this past week.
In his victory at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, Poulter shot a closing 65 to come from four strokes back to win by two over a foursome that included Hall of Famers Phil Mickelson and Els, as well as two-time 2012 TOUR winner Jason Dufner and Scott Piercy, the RBC Canadian Open champion.
Poulter's victory was a continuing reminder about an oft-overlooked reality in golf -- no lead is safe. Oosthuizen had a 5-stroke lead after two rounds of the HSBC, and a golf TV analyst who should have known better wondered if the lead was "insurmountable." Hardly. Oosthuizen tied for sixth with 54-hole leader Lee Westwood.
As the former GOLF Magazine editor, David Barrett, pointed out earlier this year after Kyle Stanley (Farmers Insurance Open) and Spencer Levin (Waste Management Phoenix Open) lost 5- and 6-stroke leads, respectively, it happens more often than one might think. Barrett looked back to 2000 and found 71 occasions on which players had leads of four strokes or more going into the final round. On 14 of those occasions, the leader did not win.
Which brings us back around to Tiger Woods, the one player who was, once upon a time, a perfect 14-0 with the 54-hole lead in major championships. That ended at the PGA Championship in 2009. Since then, Woods has battled injuries and scandal to get back to the pinnacle. There are signs he is getting closer, and the fact McIlroy has emerged as the fresh, young star atop the game has only added to the dramatic tension.
Before anyone dismisses Woods's chances in 2013, they would do well to consider two points from 2012. The most obvious are his three victories. Not so obvious is the razor-thin margin by which McIlroy leads Woods in scoring average. The unadjusted margin separating the two golfers is 31/100ths of a stroke -- 68.873 for McIlroy; 68.904 for Woods. That is the thinnest margin between No. 1 and No. 2 since Woods came on TOUR in 1997.
Woods will turn 37 next month. His game trended up substantially in 2012. Will the oft-injured, battle-scarred Woods have enough left to put a scare into the 23-year-old phenom?
Sort of makes you wish the 2013 season were starting next week. But it's definitely worth waiting for.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.