August 17, 2009

What Happened Yesterday Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again

The very first line in Disney's Peter Pan is "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again." Life is filled with repetition and golf is no exception, and what happened yesterday at Hazeltine has happened before to great players and to journeymen, and indeed it has provided much of the lore of the game: Ouimet beating two of the Great Triumvirate in Vardon and Ray at the 1913 US Open. Jack Fleck defeating Ben Hogan at the 1955 US Open. And yes, it will happen again, sooner or later.

Yesterday, it was Y. E. Yang winning the 2007 PGA Championship over the supposedly invincible Tiger Woods. But if one takes a close look at the upstarts' victories, Yang's included, and they will find that the "favorite", that is, the players that history records as the truly great ones, all had miserable days with their putters in the final round. Vardon, Ray, Hogan and even Woods all missed putts they normally would have made and happening, underdog stories for ages were written in the history books. Yesterday, it was simply Tiger's turn, and this has been happening in golf ever since championship golf was first played in 1860 at Prestwick. In fact, in that first Open Championship, Old Tom Morris was upset by Willie Park -- and on a course that Morris designed, built and maintained at that. And the difference between the two that day? Morris wasn't holing his putts as he normally did.

(pictured: Willie Park Sr. wearing the Open Championship Belt in 1860.)

For Woods, yesterday's loss was inevitable. And inevitable is the only word one can accurately use to describe it. Eventually, the Gods that control golf will turn their backs at just the wrong time, and the rubs of the green will all go in the wrong direction. Some days, even when you seem to play well, it feels like you just choked on a mouthful of dry sawdust. And after watching shot after shot fly a yard too far, putts burning the edge of the cup and not dropping, the great Tiger Woods must have been asking himself "what in the hell's going on here?" The same thing that happened to Vardon, to Hogan, to Snead at so many US Opens, and to anyone else who has teed it up in tournament golf long enough.

Tiger has played enough golf to know about these days - even a man of his enormous talents will have them. Of course, they seem to be coming with more frequency for Tiger -- this year, he missed his first midway cut in years, and yesterday he finally failed to win a major tournament that he led going in to the final round. It was a bad day to have a bad day, and last night Tiger surely tossed and turned as he lay in bed asking himself repeatedly, "what if?"

A Holiday For Nattering Nabobs Of Negativity

Today, the questions are beginning about whether Tiger has "lost it" or if his having a wife and two children has made him lose focus or even worse, his killer instinct when all the chips are on the line. Yes, Tiger has gone four majors without winning any, and yes, he even (gasp!) missed the cut in one. That doesn't mean he's still not Tiger Woods, however, and implying differently is a cop-out in my view.

Consider for a moment Jack Nicklaus, the only golfer that Tiger truly compares to, with all due respect to Sam Snead's 83 win total. In 1967, Jack had "only" won six majors, and went through a dry spell of his own, leading to the same questions we are reading today. The questions were so pervasive at the time, that after Jack won the 1967 US Open at Baltusrol, after which he penned an article for the July 3rd edition of Sports Illustrated entitled "What's Wrong With Nicklaus?" that answered his critics line-by-line. In the opening lines, Nicklaus's words could be exactly what Tiger Woods is hearing and maybe even thinking today:

"I guess there are times in the life of any athlete when circumstances force him to ask himself, "Am I really any good?" Never mind all his old press clippings; forget the self-confidence that he has had to build within himself to have any chance of success. Just face up to that simple question. It is a question that I had to ask myself after I failed to make the cut at the Masters last April, and a lot of other people were asking it, too. "What's wrong with Nicklaus? Has he lost it already?"

"Suddenly I began to wonder if perhaps I had played badly the last five years. Maybe I had been lucky to win my six major championships. So I put it to myself: "What is wrong with Jack Nicklaus?"
You can almost hear the mocking tone leaping off of the pages. What's wrong with Nicklaus, indeed.

The rest of the story concerns how things came together for Nicklaus at the 1967 US Open, and how he won the tournament. The story, however, could not write what was to come: that Nicklaus would win another 11 professional majors and set the high water mark for all pro golfers that followed. Tiger is second on that particular all-time list, and at the incredibly old age of 33 years. Clearly, he is not past his prime, and clearly he has not lost his competitive fire. While he did lose yesterday, it was only on the 18th fairway that the tournament was decided, and beating Tiger Woods took a spectacular three-wood from Y.E. Yang and one more unlucky bounce for Tiger to decide matters.

Call it a choke if you like, it's a word that seems to be overly popular with sportswriters when they talk about golf. I think personally that many of them who use that word loosely simply don't understand the capricious nature of the game and how we are all subject to its whims from time to time...even players as good as Tiger Woods.

(pictured, left: Hogan, in the middle of "choking" to Jack Fleck in 1955)

And in closing, only a fool would think that Tiger has lost any of his competitive fire or superlative golf game. Tottering in old age as he surely will be in Augusta next spring, he won't have the game to win there any longer. Nor will he have the precision needed to win at Pebble Beach or in St. Andrews next summer. 34 is over the hill, that is if you read between the lines of some of the lazy hyperbole that's being written today. And if you do believe that, please email me regarding a tract of Florida swapland I have for sale.

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