By Steve Czaban Special to Published Jan 05, 2005 at 5:17 AM

{image1} While everybody's mind is on the NFL playoffs, I couldn't resist putting the golf bag back in the trunk this week, especially since we're going to have six straight days over 50 degrees around my part of the country.

And before I start launching the first range balls of 2005 at lunch hour this winter (weather permitting), I feel compelled to "sign my card" and put 2004's golf year to rest. So here goes.

Unless somebody else has a better slogan for 2004, I am just going to go ahead and call it The Year of the Paradox. How could Tiger Woods say he was "close" all season, but only win once? How could Vijay Singh be so dominant, yet get so little hype, airtime or column space? How can a teenage girl who did not win a single event in 2004, get a full feature on 60 Minutes as the next golf superstar? How could Phil Mickelson finally win a major, and then decide he needs new clubs? How could the USGA claim to be "guardians of the game" when it couldn't even guard 18 greens from dying under its nose?

This was a year that introduced new phrases to my golfing lexicon. One of them was "piled for removal." This was what Ernie Els insisted was the case, when he blew a drive deep left into the woods on No. 11, and found his ball in the middle of a pile of sticks. The PGA Tour official on the scene said: "Um, nice try, Ernie. No." Ernie then called for a second opinion from an Augusta Green Jacket. "Uh, why a yes suh, this dey-bree heah is most certainly not what we tolerate at Augusta, Mr. Els. Help yourself to a free drop, compliments of the club."

Wow, I thought, neat trick! So I tried it the next time I was in a match. ME: "Um, yeah, this tree here appears piled for removal." OPPONENT: "Whattya mean? It's standing 30 feet tall, has healthy leaves, and looks to be in spring bloom." ME: "Where's a rules official?"

It wasn't the only great escape Els made. Who can forget the "par from the tree" at the British Open where his ball hung from a waist high branch like a Christmas ornament? This has now added one more extremely rare piece of $1 trash to my regular game, dubbed an "Ernie" or a "Grinch."

Phil had a year that was very "Phil-like" for lack of a better description. After Augusta I was so much a member of Mick's Army that I was prepared to fistfight anybody in defense of his greatness. And then he switches sticks for big cash a week before the Ryder Cup and plays like a dog.

One minute, you want to bear hug him. The next, choke him.

Tiger Woods made all 19 of his cuts this year, had seven top-three finishes with one win. Great year? Hardly. He sprayed it off the tee more than a crop-duster. What went wrong for the "World's Former No. 1"? It wasn't just picking out china patterns and hiring a wedding photographer.

Tiger was 182nd in driving accuracy, second in putting average. Now I forgot, which one was "for show" and which one "for dough"?

The Ryder Cup was another Star Spangled Disaster. Hal Sutton threw the sink at winning: "dream pairings," cowboy hats and his own twangy tough love. Nothing worked. Next year we'll try a new point system to select the team. This won't work either. The only thing that will work is having 12 men who take the event seriously and themselves not so much.

Michelle Wie did everything this year -- except win. She tickled the cut line at the Sony in January, making like 948 feet of putts on Friday. She played a few LPGA events, played some women's amateur stuff, played the men's publinx, even played the Boise Open on the Nationwide Tour. She had her close-up and personal with "60 Minutes," saying cute things like how she thinks she would just "get bored" playing against other girls.

She also says she wants to play in the Masters by winning the men's publinx. Well, she tried that. Missed the cut to enter the 64-man match play bracket. Once there, she would have needed to win six matches against men.

This is like Coastal Carolina losing their conference's automatic bid, but insisting that if they were in the dance they could go to the Final Four.

My advice to Michelle would be simple. Play events that you can win. Have a teenage life, and worry more about beating the likes of Brittany Lincicome and Paula Creamer -- two 18-year-olds who have skipped college and earned their LPGA Tour cards this year.

Photogenic Natalie Gulbis had another banner year. FHM model shoots: One. LPGA wins: Zero. At what point does this embarrass her? It's never good when you have more Web site than game.

Golf moments can make you laugh or make you cry. Like when Todd Hamilton's wife and daughter were caught on microphone at the British Open. Hamilton's little girl uttered the phrase "18th hole is stupid" just as it looked like Daddy was about to Van De Velde himself. Or when Mickelson picked up his curly-locked little angel behind the 18th green and said with wide eyes: "Daddy won, can you believe it!"

Vijay's year was simply the second best year in the history of the Tour. Nobody in the media seems to like him, although I do. Give Vijay this much. He said two years ago he wanted to take the money title from Tiger, if for no other reason than because somebody had to do something. He did it.

This year, he wanted to become the world's No. 1. He did it.

Vijay had a late season run that went like this: First, first, 32nd, first, first, first, second and first. If Tiger does this, SportsCenter expands another half hour. Instead, the 41-year-old "Man From Fiji" could care less about the hype, as long as the range stays open late. Again, this all makes no sense. Former club pros from faraway islands should not be owning the PGA Tour at that age. Once again, it was The Year of the Paradox.

While clicking through trying to jog my brain for this column, I couldn't help but scroll down to the bottom of the Tour money list, just to see what poor souls had suffered in golf purgatory in 2004.

It is a way to remind yourself that the game is hardly as easy as guys like Singh make it look. David Gossett knows. The former young-gun prodigy was the 1999 U.S. Amateur champ. He became the first guy ever to shoot 59 in Q-School in 2000. He had been in the top 100 on the money list for three years. He won the 2001 John Deere Classic.

Gossett got sent back to Q-School this year.

That's what happens when you play 25 events and make only two cuts, and a little more than $24,000. Despite such calamity, I don't think Gossett is ready to quit and sell insurance just yet.

He'll be back. That's what we do, as golfers. We always come back. Here's to the struggle, and to the paradox. The game doesn't make sense, but we don't care.

Happy New Year everybody.

Steve Czaban Special to

Steve is a native Washingtonian and has worked in sports talk radio for the last 11 years. He worked at WTEM in 1993 anchoring Team Tickers before he took a full time job with national radio network One-on-One Sports.

A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Steve has worked for WFNZ in Charlotte where his afternoon show was named "Best Radio Show." Steve continues to serve as a sports personality for WLZR in Milwaukee and does fill-in hosting for Fox Sports Radio.