Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Archive for the ‘Golf’ Category

The Tiger Woods That Saved Golf

In Golf, Loyalty on July 13, 2011 at 10:00 AM

The 1997 Masters is my earliest golf memory, which probably doesn’t make me unique among mid-20’s Americans. What does make me unique is why I remember that tournament. When asked about anyone in the field catching Tiger Woods after Saturday’s third round, Colin Montgomerie said:

“There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.”

I remember being confused. I had played a bit of golf at that point and just began casually paying attention to the PGA Tour. The tour seemed random in a way that nearly turned me off. Every event, from what I could tell, was just a whole lot of waiting around until Sunday afternoon when someone would hit a lucky or unlucky streak, and the tournament would be decided. So, with 18 holes to play, how could there be no chance for Tiger to lose? I wouldn’t really understand for another three years.

The 2000 U.S. Open was the 1973 Belmont Stakes and Tiger was our Secretariat. It was a spectacle masquerading as a golf tournament, featuring Woods, after a rain-delayed second round, building a 1 shot lead into 10 nearly in a single day. He won by 15 in a rout that crystallized the notion of the greatest performance I’ve ever seen. It made sense of Colin Montgomerie’s quote from three years earlier and became the lens that I’d evaluate golf through for the rest of my life. It’s commonly said that golf is a game that can never be perfected, but it’s hard to imagine anything more perfect than Tiger’s assault on the 2000 Open.

Tiger Woods is and will always be a hero of mine. I don’t care about the harem of women he kept at various Tour stops. I don’t care about the rumors of drugs or kinky sex. It’s absolutely irrelevant to me.

I’ve thought a lot about why I feel that way, and the honest truth is that the “scandal” never surprised me. Baseball players take steroids. Football players gouge each other’s eyes out at the bottoms of pile-ups. Famous, rich, good-looking athletes cheat on their spouses. I’d love to design a world where that weren’t the case, but I’m only a spectator in this one and never got that chance. I consider myself a pragmatist and wear that term with honor, so it never made sense to me that anyone would be surprised—to say nothing of outraged, shocked and upset—to learn that the wealthiest athlete in the history of the world, in the prime of his career, would be anything less than faithful. This isn’t a value judgment about Tiger’s decisions. It’s much closer to a question of statistics, of how likely it was that he wasn’t doing these things in the first place. Fantastically unlikely. American sports heroes are false idols, and they always will be. That simple realization makes any salacious reveal the expectation, not exception. Sports heroes are not real people. None of our heroes are, and it’s irresponsible to treat them that way—it’s never been why we’ve loved them, and it’s only peer pressure that turns our love into hatred.

However, after the last three years of trials and tribulations, of tabloids and injuries, I’ve admitted that I’m upset and almost angry at Tiger. It’s illogical to be sure, purely emotional. But that’s little solace in the face of a failing hero.

I’m upset because a source of stability—Tiger’s dominance—was suddenly taken from me. It made for evergreen sports broadcasting fodder to debate whether Tiger was bad for golf. Wasn’t it boring to take the variety out of the winner’s circle? Didn’t all the “Tiger proofed” courses take the beauty out of golf? Of course not. Tiger’s decade on the PGA throne gave golf a story. It gave kids, and really all golfers, a story that lasted more than 72 holes. It questioned the idea of what’s possible in the same way that airplanes and space shuttles must have in their time. It was as close to perfect as an athlete can be in a game that chews up perfection and spits it out.

I’m upset because it’s yet another piece of evidence that my childhood is over. Graduating from school, moving across the country, getting a job and paying bills are easily rationalized by not feeling like a grown up, no matter what the pieces of paper in your mailbox suggest. But watching greatness collapse is undeniable. It’s the most tangible biological clock I have.

But most of all, I’m upset because I can’t tell when it’s time to give up. When Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg and then went straight into surgery, a lot of people called a coming decline. In hindsight it’s hard not to say that they were right, but sadly it’s not that simple. The flashes of greatness that have come since are almost the worse possible form of temptation, they make it too easy to still hope against hope.

The 3-iron into the 18th for eagle on Saturday at the 2009 Presidents Cup, the Saturday 66 at the 2010 U.S. Open and the front nine blitz on Sunday at the 2011 Masters were all-too-powerful reminders of what once was. But with each passing week, with each Did not play that gets logged for Tiger in another major, they look more like mirages and less like sparks capable of reigniting the fire that I loved so much. There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance for me because each instance was, without a doubt, as good as Tiger has ever looked, right up to the 5-wood into the 8th green for eagle on last Masters Sunday. It was perfect. It was also fleeting, and that’s the most disappointing thing I’ve ever learned about sports.

For a long time I refused to accept what now seems like a reality, that the Tiger Woods I met at 12 years old is gone forever. In a Peter Pan “never want to grow up” sort of way I had come to believe—even to know—that it was just a matter of time until any bump in the road was smoothed and his spot at the top revisited. In letting go of that faith, I’m reminded of my first memories of golf, that it’s random and not fit for domination. I was lucky enough to grow up at the perfect time to witness one of the greatest aberrations in the game’s history. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t permanent, and I’ve grown to accept its consequences in the last 14 years. I’m no longer upset that golf isn’t a game fit to crown kings and certainly not to appoint dynasties. I miss the thrills they bring, but I look forward to the surprise when they come.

There is a fable that has many versions, but my favorite is one of a king that commissioned a single sentence to make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. It was meant as a taste of humility for the time’s greatest poet. The result is now famous: This too, shall pass. I certainly hope so.

For every time Tiger withdraws from a tournament, snap hooks one out of bounds or shows his age on a major championship Sunday, I’m reminded of the great shots. The 6-iron from a bunker, over water on the 18th at Glen Abbey to a pin tucked on a nothing patch of green; the 2-iron from 260 that flew the green on the 16th at Firestone; the 3-iron trick shot from a bunker over a tree at Hazeltine.

The kick in the chest, after all of this, is how I gave up the battle. It was when Steve Williams went to caddie for Adam Scott in the U.S. Open this year. I have no doubt that Tiger will flash his incredible talent for us again, but when you believe your guy still has it, you don’t moonlight with the competition. And when the insiders give up on the guy, I’m forced to do that same.

Perfecting the Top 10: Championship Upsets of the 21st Century

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Golf, Perfecting the Top 10, Soccer, Tennis on July 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

In discussing who we are here at Perfecting the Upset, we argue that, “Everyone believes in miracles whether they admit it or not.  And for a sports fan, miracles happen when someone pulls off the perfect upset: That team nobody saw coming against the team who we thought would take it all.” But there’s an additional curl in this fabric that can make some victories considerably more satisfying because of their rarity: Upsets in championships.  In order for this to happen, there has to be perfect harmony in the cosmos.  Not only does David have to first make his way through the rubble, but he also needs Goliath to be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  There are some quite unfortunate cases where, if Goliath was waiting, the story could have been sweeter.  After all, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008 sounds like a story to tell until you remember they defeated a team from a lower division (Cardiff City) in the finals.

So, what better way to continue our Perfecting the Top 10 series than to count down the ten most memorable championship upsets of the 21st century?  In coming up with the list, more popular leagues were given greater weight.  They had to be head-to-head matchups, not just against the field.  Attention was given to genuine upsets, not those simply perceived as such by the sensationalist media (such as a formidable Diamondbacks team defeating an equally-talented Yankees team).  And finally, additional credence was given to teams with legacy: It’s one thing defeating the flavour-of-the-year, but it’s another to defeat a Goliath packing a dynasty in his holster.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 – Oakland Raiders 21 (Super Bowl XXXVII) »  At age 37, Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards, won the league MVP and took the Raiders to their first Super Bowl since 1983.  The oddsmakers favored their top-rated offense by 4 against Jon Gruden’s top-rated defense, but by the time the third quarter ended, it was obvious that defense did, in fact, win championships.  Gruden had gotten revenge against his previous team, and the Al Davis affliction in sunny California continued to persist.

9. Florida Gators 41 – Ohio State Buckeyes 14 (2007 BCS National Championship Game) »  Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez made the Buckeyes look invincible throughout the season (which included a 24-7 dismantling of defending champions from the University of Texas).  Aside from a late game comeback by rival Michigan, Ohio State was never in danger of losing a game.  This was supposed to be one of the most lopsided deciding bowl games ever.  But Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and some fellow named Tim Tebow had other ideas.  After the Buckeyes returned the initial kickoff, Harvin matched—and it was a cakewalk for the remainder.  It was lopsided, alright, just on the other side.

8. Florida Marlins 4 – New York Yankees 2 (2003 World Series) »  Money doesn’t always make you happy, and money definitely can’t buy you championships.  The Marlins shocked the Yankees (and their $110 million difference in payroll) by riding Josh Beckett to the glory land for the second time in seven years.  Along the way, though, they had some extra help from a Cubs fan whose memorabilia-hogging instincts kept the grand prize away for his cursed team.

7. Greece 1 – Portugal 0 (Euro 2004) »  Greece’s improbable run at Euro 2004 was capped with a second defeat of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Portuguese squad, headlined by Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, who failed to avenge their opening day loss.  Along the way, they also beat France and England.  It’s possible to pad this further, but seriously, there shouldn’t be any other data necessary: Greece won Euro 2004 by defeating three powerhouses four times total.  That’s the math, and that’s pretty amazing.

6. Maria Sharapova (6-1, 6-4) over Serena Williams (2004 Wimbledon) »  Out of nowhere, 13th seeded, 17-year-old Sharapova beats two-time defending champion and #1 seed Williams in straight sets.  This was a passing of the torch, of sorts, not unlike Federer beating Sampras in 2001.  Of course, Serena continued her dominance for a while longer, but she’ll never forget the spark she provided to Sharapova’s career at Centre Court.

5. Y.E. Yang (-8) over Tiger Woods (-5) (2009 PGA Championship) »  Golf isn’t a head-to-head sport, but when you take into effect that Yang and Woods were paired up for the final round at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, you can imagine how intense it must have been throughout the day.  Tiger entered the day with a 2 shot lead before ending the day +3, in the process witnessing the first Asian-born player to win a major on the PGA tour.  This was all the more impressive as Yang didn’t start playing golf until age 19.  The maturing prodigy was defeated by the budding late-bloomer.

4. Texas 41 – USC 38 (2006 Rose Bowl/BCS National Championship Game) »  Matt Leinart this.  Reggie Bush that.  For all the hype the media loves to generate, there’s probably no doubt amongst college football fanatics that this Trojans team was one of the greatest to ever play.  But there was one man who, frankly, didn’t give a damn: Vince Young.  He had put in the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed by the time he crossed into the endzone on 4th and 2.  While the awe and magic of a game like this may never again be repeated, Young’s lesson in media-founded histrionics will always be remembered.

3. Patriots 20 – Rams 17 (Super Bowl XXXVI) »  September 11 made New York City a solemn place to live.  But for some reason, it felt as if supporting these mediocre “Patriots” would make us all happier.  So, we did.  Against “the Greatest Show on Turf.”  Little did we know that we’d witness the genesis of one of the most hated dynasties in sports history, and that of a man who would end up marrying the world’s highest-paid supermodel and have hair softer than Justin Bieber.

2. Giants 17 – Patriots 14 (Super Bowl XLII) »  18-1.

1. Detroit Pistons 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 1 (2004 NBA Finals) »  Many would contest that the Giants’ defeat of the previously undefeated Patriots should be #1.  But I can’t help but argue for these pesky, blue-collar boys from Detroit.  Not only did the Pistons embody everything the Motor City stood for, they outright dominated a stacked team filled with four future Hall-of-Famers.  Keeping the Lakers to 68 points in a game?  That’s a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Yet they never broke 100 points.  Winning one game is great.  But winning a championship in this commanding a fashion as an underdog?  Incredible. Keeping someone from perfect once has some luck involved.  But keeping a great team from reaching its ultimate goal over a seven-game series?  That’s the kind of perseverance and teamwork that makes us believe that miracles are possible.

Championship Upsets of the 21st Century