Two things tend to blight sporting careers with a bleak predictability: unforeseen injury and untethered expectations. The psychological toxicity often comes not from the aspirations of the athlete – since those can be managed or adjusted – but from the expectations he cannot control: those of others, the insistent chorus that chirps today about his tremendous potential and tomorrow about his dismal underachieving.
That chorus must now be as familiar a feature of spring as the first birdsong for Rory McIlroy.
There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.
The PGA Tour has hewed to a familiar script over the last few years, as a succession of recent high schoolers hoist trophies that almost weigh more than they do.
It’s a generation of fine players – these Justin Thomases, Jordan Spieths and Jon Rahms – and many of them seem destined for the Hall of Fame. But there’s a uniformity to their cohort, well-adjusted kids who are more likely to spend tournament nights downing kale smoothies at the gym than shots of bourbon at a saloon.
Which is fair enough. That Tour is long dead, as are most of the guys who lived it.
When you’ve had a season like that of Justin Thomas, it can be difficult to determine the most important metric amid such heady success. Unless you’re his dad.
Mike Thomas can recite chapter and verse on the accomplishments that are expected to earn his son the PGA Tour Player of the Year award: the five wins, the first major victory at the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup title, record-setting rounds (59 at the Sony Open, 63 at the U.S. Open), the Arnold Palmer Award for topping the money list, the 3½-1½ record in his first U.S. team appearance at the Presidents Cup.
The 2017 season has brought an avalanche of accolades for the 24-year-old, but none of those tops his old man’s list of what matters.
I joined Andy Johnson from The Fried Egg, and SB Nation writers Brendan Porath and Richard Johnson for two fun shows after the first and second rounds of the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale. Very few Tour pros were hurt in the making of these shows!
There was a time when tournament appearances by Tiger Woods were theaters of high drama: the greatest golfer in history ruthlessly chasing down every record worthy of pursuit. But that was before chipping yips and back surgeries, before Achilles and ACL injuries, before personal scandal and swing woes, even before most folks had heard of Rory McIlroy. Or Barack Obama.
Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week 15 months after being sidelined by a pair of microdiscectomy procedures. His reappearance is cause for celebration but also for trepidation, since his more recent performances have veered between farce and tragedy.
The winner of 14 majors had been scheduled to return at the Safeway Open in October, but just three days after committing to play, Woods withdrew. “After a lot of soul searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play,” he said. “My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”
For fans weaned on Tiger’s cutthroat aggression and indomitable self-belief, the admission of frailty stood out, as though his clubs were suddenly carved from kryptonite. His withdrawal was no routine acknowledgment of competitive rustiness. Golf’s Gretzky was sitting out because he was scared of slipping on the ice.