Sporting legends are often condemned to a middle age in which they’re judged against the macro numbers posted during the flush of youth. For Tiger Woods, those past accomplishments cast a lengthy shadow—15 major championship victories, 82 PGA Tour wins, 11 player of the year awards, to cite but a few. Micro numbers matter in as much as he still signs his name below one on a scorecard. Saturday’s micro-moment at the PGA Championship was disheartening if measured against the Woods who won the Tour’s Vardon Award for best scoring average nine times, yet still heartening in the context of Woods today.
A 79 left Woods in a tie for 76th place at Southern Hills, occupying the bottom rung of a leaderboard that he has been atop when it mattered four times. There are ample statistics that explain how he came to be there—dead last in strokes gained tee to green, dead last in strokes gained around the green, making five consecutive bogeys for the first time in his majors career—but there are no metrics for how he came to be here competing at all.
Too often lately golf has seemed less a sport than a business, with every precinct of the professional game consumed by news, gossip, threats and intrigue about rival leagues and red lines. Thursday at Southern Hills promised a welcome return to the good ol’ days, when the game’s reference dictionary entries for ‘B’ included birdies and bogeys, but not bonesaws: a major championship, a sublime venue, a blockbuster group, a wealth of storylines—in short, golf as it used to be. That promise was delivered upon, and even the brief intrusion of the aforementioned corporate chicanery was positive.
Thirteen years after he last competed in one, major championships are still proving a reliable source of disappointment for Greg Norman. At last month’s Masters, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley clearly signaled his support for golf’s existing world order, thereby tacitly rejecting Norman’s Saudi-funded effort to carve off the top of the professional game. On Tuesday at the PGA Championship, the Great White Pilot Fish was served even less nourishment.
There was a time when Tiger Woods would have been disdainful of a lowly finish at the Masters, when his demeanor between the 18th green and the scorer’s office would have betrayed only a flinty dourness, when keyboard jockeys would have bemoaned wall-to-wall coverage of a player so distant from the top of the leaderboard. Sunday was not one of those days, and it’s unlikely any of Woods’s tomorrows will be either.
Welcome to the only week of the year when the PGA Tour’s ardent free-marketeers develop a sudden appreciation for a safety net from the authorities. Specifically, the free passes issued for the first round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the day on which so many stars used to be dispatched early.
Now Wednesday’s losers live to fight another day. I blame Hunter Mahan and Victor Dubuisson.
It’s in the arbitrary nature of sport that even legends seldom exit the stage on a high note.
There are exceptions, sure.
Ted Williams homered in his last at-bat. Pete Sampras went home with the U.S. Open trophy. Lorena Ochoa quit as No. 1 in the world.
More often, great careers peter out with a ground ball like Babe Ruth’s, a series of increasingly disappointing results that finally force a reckoning with the passage of time. Those are the good endings. Others are involuntary, authored by injury or accident. Like that of Maureen Connolly, who won nine Grand Slams but saw her career end with a horse-riding accident at age 19, two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon singles title.
When news emerged about Tiger Woods’ car crash on Tuesday there was a clear and immediate delineation between Woods the man and Woods the golfer, with much of the focus rightly on the former and his physical well-being. An absence of detailed information about his condition, married to the visual of catastrophic damage to his vehicle, ensured that human concern was front and center.
As the day wore achingly on, that angle grew incrementally more positive with news that his injuries were not life-threatening. One could heave a sigh of relief for Woods the man.
In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior golf industry executive wondered aloud about the possibility that a member of the U.S. team might take a knee during the ceremonies to protest racial injustice. It was a laughable notion, since the only issues on which PGA Tour players have been apt to take a stand are slow play and high taxes.
It’s been 25 years since Medalist Golf Club last appeared on national television, when Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf pitted then-world No. 1 Nick Price against Greg Norman, the world No. 2 and founder of the newly opened club.
On May 24, the exclusive Florida enclave hosts another made-for-TV affair with Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning taking on Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.
It was after the 2014 Ryder Cup debacle in Scotland — a week during which Phil Mickelson’s most effective shots came during the losing team’s press conference when he targeted skipper Tom Watson — that the American team decided to crowdsource the captaincy.
The PGA of America created an oft-mocked task force to reverse U.S. fortunes in the biennial event. Another undeclared objective was to ensure that future players wouldn’t be denied hugs or high fives from some grizzled legend who thought the only inspiration they needed was to see the Stars & Stripes run up the pole.
In a week when we couldn’t make our way down a padlocked Magnolia Lane, homebound golf fans had to settle instead for memory lane.
Our guides were familiar broadcast voices, many of them — Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi — long stilled. Golf Channel re-aired the 1986 Masters, the Rosetta Stone of major championships that revealed the Sunday strengths of Jack Nicklaus and the comparative frailties even among Hall of Famers in the generation that followed him. Jack was winning too over on CBS, which gave us the epic ’75 Masters, in which he helped Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller add to what would ultimately be a combined seven silver salvers. More recent Masters tournaments were also dusted off: ’04, when Phil Mickelson broke his duck and Ernie Els’ heart, and ’19, when an approaching storm moved up tee times and saw Tiger Woods secure his fifth green jacket by Sunday lunchtime (his first jacket was pretty much sealed by Sunday lunchtime too, but that’s another story).
The retro weekend broadcasts — in addition to the Masters YouTube channel, which contains every final round dating back to 1968 — were a welcome fix for quarantined golf junkies who are otherwise denied until November by the COVID-19 crisis. But for me, two streams diverged in a locked down New York City apartment, and I took the one less clicked upon, at least in April. I opted for the only major tournament we know for certain won’t be played this year.
The Open Championship website has every official film since 1970 — Jack won that year too, of course — and it’s a delightful reservoir of the quaint and the quirky. In my quarantine viewing I elected to skip more recent Opens that remain reasonably fresh in the mind, despite the ample wine intake necessary to stomach small town British food those weeks. It’s earlier Opens, those from the ’70s and ’80s, that offer beguiling glimpses of a time when even major golf was less corporate, and pleasant reminders of players long forgotten because they’re either dead or just not brand-building on InstaGrift.
The only item on a menu is always in high demand, so it’s a sign of our times that even a picky gourmand will greedily consume another manufactured McNuggets offering that sees Tiger and Phil impersonate actual rivals for those of us willing to trade nourishment for entertainment.
For everything that has been denied golf fans in this period of quarantine—access to courses for many, the Masters for all, freedom from Peloton updates for an unlucky few— one thing remains soothingly constant among the social media commentariat: begrudgery.
That much was evident with the news that former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will join Tiger Woods and Marion Hollins in the next class to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. The announcement was greeted with griping that was as predictable as it is tedious, an exercise in collective eye-rolling intended to suggest not only that Finchem is undeserving but that his inclusion dilutes the Hall’s credibility.
It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.
The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.
It’s been seven years since Hank Haney rendered himself a fringe voice on the PGA Tour by writing a tell-all book about working with Tiger Woods, and that diminished stature explains the enthusiasm with which so many critics rounded on him after his racially-charged and sexist comments about women’s golf and Asian players on his radio show.
Haney is not the first man, nor even the most prominent, to stain the game with imbecilic guff about race and gender. But the eagerness with which he was publicly denounced — even Woods offered an uncharacteristically terse rebuttal — served to highlight the timorous inconsistency with which our sport tackles third-rail topics, and proved how easy it is to stand on principle against someone with no power and no defenders.
Alpha dog athletes don’t rely solely upon the tools of their trade to stake out their territory. A well-timed gesture or pointed comment can be just as corrosive to the confidence of rivals as any excellence in the arena. Roger Federer was a master of it, sometimes congratulating a victorious opponent for having played the match of his life (translation: you had to play the match of your life to beat me!). Tiger Woods is golf’s greatest practitioner of psych ops, so he’s unlikely to have missed Brooks Koepka’s exquisite mastery of the dark art at Bethpage Black.
Not that pre-tournament press conference, during which he declared majors easier to win than regular PGA Tour events. No, Koepka’s alpha doggedness was on display in subtle drone strikes targeting Woods himself.