Monday, July 20, 2009

Tom and Jack and Tiger and golf

I know most of you are expecting a weekend report. That will come in a later post.

I woke up on Sunday morning in time to watch the final couple of holes of the British Open. To watch perhaps one of the greatest sports stories that never came to pass. But first, a little bit about golf in general...

I was raised in a golfing family. Without going into detail, there have been two professional golfers in the family, and three former state amateur champions (multiple times). There is not a member of my family that doesn't/didn't play, including my grandparents, down through to the nieces/nephew (well, one grandmother didn't, but her brother was one of the state amateur champions). At an early age, we were all taught about the etiquette of golf. That it was an honorable game. That, even though there are ample ways to cheat, it's basically a sport that's scored on the honor system. There are no referees. No one to "catch" you, other than yourself. There have been a number of professional tournaments lost because a competitor penalized himself a stroke for somehow breaking a rule--a rule that no one else saw him break other than his own conscience. We were taught to be quiet when someone was about to strike the ball. Nowhere more evident than when we would watch golf on TV as a family. "Shhh..., be quiet! He's about to putt!" And we bought it. When someone is putting on TV, we still keep quiet! We learned that, except in rare instances, our poor golf shots can only be blamed on ourselves, and that throwing clubs or slamming a club head into the ground was not acceptable, and showed disrespect for the course, the equipment, and the game of golf in general.

So I missed the Open all weekend, except for the final two holes of the playoff. I have never really liked Tiger Woods. Of course he's a phenomenon, but he tends to get 80% of the coverage for any tournament he plays in. The media hype is far overextended here. Though, things are different than when I was growing up. Tiger Woods is playing the same role that Jack Nicklaus did 30-40 years earlier. Young upstart taking the sport to a whole new level. But the players are much different. Tiger Woods is an athlete, as are most of today's golfers. Back then, they were just golfers. Not a whole lot of weight training going on then. But lots of skills.

Back to the Open. Last couple of holes. And Tiger wasn't involved. Thank God. But who would have ever expected Tom Watson??? Apparently, only one person--Tom Watson himself. Even in his post-round interview, he said that he came to play, expecting that he could win. He won't play the Masters anymore, because he knows he doesn't have the game to be perfect there (as you have to be). But the British courses, and the way one has to play them, fits his game. And two months shy of 60 years old, he's in a playoff to win his 6th British Open title at an age that no one else could possibly suggest as being possible. By the time I caught the playoff, it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn't win. The man looked dejected. He looked tired. He looked beaten. And he was. All he had to do was par the last hole of regulation, and the Championship would have been his. And would be one of the greatest sports stories of all time. But he misjudged an approach shot, and missed a 10-foot putt, backing him into the playoff. We will never know if that stuck in his mind as he wilted in the four playoff holes, but it had to be at the back of his mind. Or maybe he'd just run out of gas. But he sealed his fate with poor play on the second to last hole, even stating himself that he "wasn't competitive in the playoff." He still had to make the walk up the last hole listening to the applause for the eventual champion, Stewart Cink. Much of it was for him too, respecting the legend for reminding them of the old days.

So where am I going with this? I may ramble, but I usually close the circle... While they were preparing for the trophy presentation, they showed clips from the four days of competition. Lots of shots of Tiger, as expected, but they showed a frustrated boy, not a professional golfer. I understand showing one's emotion, but on the golf course, as a's just not the place. Clubs being tossed, swearing, slamming the ground--they caught all of it. Then they showed Watson's miscues at the end. Did he pout? Did he abuse his equipment? No. What we saw was a man who showed the game the grace and respect it deserved at the oldest championship in the sport. And as he started his interview in the press tent, the first thing he said was, "it's not a funeral here!" Did it hurt? Of course it did. He missed a putt that he'd make 95 out of a 100 times if he went out to do it again. He missed a putt that would undoubtedly be the crown on a great career.

I never was a big Watson fan during his heyday, primarily because he was the one beating MY favorite, Nicklaus. But he jumped a few rungs up the ladder this weekend. Tiger continues to fall. And when I bounce my terminally non-existent grandchildren on my knee and they ask what golf was like in the old days, I'll gladly tell them about Jack and Tom and Arnie and Bobby and Sammy. And when they ask who is the greatest golfer of all time, it's going to be Jack. Regardless of how many more tournaments Tiger wins. Because golf is about much more than winning...

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