Tuesday, June 21, 2011

BDT -- NOT the Next Tiger! (June 21)

Congrats on your first major Rory! Only 13 more to go...
In the seven months Boris Diaw Time has been up and running, I have spent precious little time on golf. I’ve discussed endless amounts of basketball and football, and have even found the time to sprinkle in some hockey and baseball. Heck, I’ve spent more time on movies than I have on golf! This utter lack of attention may not seem like an odd thing to you, but believe me, it is far more ironic than you can imagine.  
You see, I played golf competitively in high school and college and currently sport a 5 handicap (amazing how that goes up once you have kids!). Now, please keep this in perspective; when I say I played golf in college, what I really mean is I received a small scholarship to play at Grace College, which, at the time, sported one of the worst golf programs in our conference. So please, don’t think I’m trying to sell you my PGA Tour credentials here…I’m only pointing out that, if there’s one sport I truly understand, it’s golf.

And so, it was with great excitement that I tuned into the U.S. Open last Thursday. I’m not a dedicated PGA Tour fan like others, but I watch a decent amount of golf in a given year. Typically, I’ll watch the Match Play Championships, The Players Championship, the four major championships, the Ryder Cup, and the President’s Cup. Among those, the Ryder Cup is easily my favorite, as I’m a complete sucker for any event where the USA is taking on another country (also, I love team golf…but that’s for an entirely different post).

Not far behind the Ryder Cup though, is the U.S. Open; our country’s championship, and the most difficult test in golf. Most people find golf boring to watch, and I can understand that sentiment to a degree. It’s a long, drawn out, patient game that clearly doesn’t appeal to everyone…and it’s for those very reasons I count those select golf tournaments as “must watch” TV. A golf tournament is like reading a good book; the plot plays out slowly in front of you, every one of the many twists and turns unfolding slowly throughout the course of the event. The players are out on the course alone, all eyes on them, nobody to rely on, other than themselves. You can see them thinking through the game, processing everything as they slowly make their way to their next shot. You can see the nerves take over; you can feel the pressure mount on them. It truly is a very real and authentic experience for both the golfer and the audience. I’ve spent many amazing afternoons taking in this experience and many of my most cherished sports related experiences have come from this tournament. The parking lot fast greens at Shinnecock in ‘04, Corey Pavin’s amazing 4-wood at Shinnecock in ’95, Colin Montgomerie’s missed 5-footer in ’97, Payne Stewart’s dramatic final hole victory over Phil Mickelson in ’99, and Mickelson’s double bogey 18th to lose in ’06. Heck, Tiger Woods’ unbelievable one-legged victory in ’08 still ranks as the 2nd most amazing thing I’ve seen in any sport.

And so, it was with this type of anticipation that I tuned in Sunday afternoon, hoping to see an amazing story unfold. No Tiger? No problem. As much as I love watching him play, I don’t need Tiger Woods to enjoy the U.S. Open. I can appreciate the game enough to not need one individual player to be present at all times in order to heighten my enjoyment. This U.S. Open would be different without Tiger, but it would be just fine. In particular, Sunday’s final round could be just as thrilling and dramatic as any other Tiger year. Yes, Rory McIlroy was waaaaaaay up. Yes, Rory McIlroy had the tournament well in hand. Still, anyone who has spent any appreciable time watching the U.S. Open in their life understands just how volatile this tournament really is. Anything can happen. Regardless, we’re only a few months removed from McIlroy carding a final round 80 at Augusta to blow what should have been an easy Green Jacket. Again, anything can happen.

What happened was nothing short of incredible. On one my most anticipated Sunday’s of the year, with my favorite golf tournament on television…I fell asleep.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Rory McIlroy. I’ve been following him since he broke onto the scene and I’m excited for his career. I can definitely say, without a single hint of exaggeration in my voice, he has one of the most beautiful golf swings I have ever seen and I would be shocked if he didn’t take home several major championships over the next decade or so.

And please, don’t tell me I can’t “appreciate” what Rory did this past week. At the risk of sounding pompous; I’ve probably played a lot more golf than you, and I’m probably better at golf than you. That’s not to say I’m the end all, be all expert in golf, but I definitely understand the game and I definitely understand the magnitude of what Rory accomplished this past weekend. No doubt, he played the game at a level that very few have every played at. To go -16 in a U.S. Open, to win by 8 strokes, and to do so only months after one of the most epic final round collapses in major championship history is nothing short of historic.

Still, I’m amazed at the gross overreaction to McIlroy’s performance. Perhaps in this day and age of 78 ESPN channels and thousands of sports blogs (like me!), I shouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t help but throw up my hands and scream when I hear people call Rory “The Next Tiger” or claim this was the “Greatest Performance in U.S. Open History.” Rory is a great player, and his performance was great, but we all need to take a step back, get in a couple deep breaths, and gather a little perspective before we place a crown on King Rory’s head.

First, the idea that this performance was the greatest in history is completely preposterous. Yeah, he set the scoring record and all, but every knowledgeable golfer understands just how meaningless that can be. If I play a course where every par 4 is less than 300 yards and every par 5 is less than 430 yards, I’m probably going to shoot under par. That doesn’t mean I played any better than I normally do, it just means the course was ridiculously easy. Likewise, this was one of the easiest U.S. Open setups in history. A quick scoring comparison of the top five in recent years tells the story:

2011: -16 / -8 / -6 / -6 / -6 / -6
2010: E / +1 / +2 / +3 / +3
2009: -4 / -2 / -2 / -2 / -1
2008: -1 / -1 / E / +2 / +2
2007: +5 / +6 / +6 / +7 / +9 / +9
2006: +5 / +6 / +6 / +6 / +7
2005: E / +2 / +5 / +5 / +5
2004: -4 / -2 / +1 / +4 / +4
2003: -8 / -5 / -1 / -1 / E / E / E / E / E
2002: -3 / E - +2 / +3 / +5 / +5 / +5
2001: -4 / -4 / -3 / -2 / +1 / +1
2000: -12 / +3 / +3 / +4 / +5 / +5

The truth of the matter is, the USGA dropped the ball on this U.S. Open…big time. Many people, including former champions, were very critical of the course set-up. The U.S. Open is meant to be the most difficult test in golf; challenging a player both physically and mentally. The test of endurance is as big a factor in the U.S. Open as anything. Look at those scores again; where was this test? Many of the leading scores over the past decade have been OVER par, yet the entire leaderboard was well under par this year. Maybe that’s fun for some people, but I’d prefer the U.S. Open to play like the U.S. Open, not like The Colonial. Where was the thick rough? Where were the lightning fast greens? Where were the devilish pin placements? Why the heck were the tee boxes moved up on the par 5’s?! This was an overly simplistic set-up. So please, don’t tell me Rory had the greatest performance in U.S. Open history, because that’s just plain ignorant.

Take another quick look back at those scoring stats, however, and you WILL find the greatest performance in U.S. Open history. Got it? Good! The 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was won by 15 strokes. 15 STROKES! Tiger Woods shot a then record -12 in the tournament…and the next best score was +3! Somehow, people compare Rory’s performance this past week with Tiger’s golf evisceration performance in 2000, but that too is ignorant. Anybody who remembers watching the 2000 U.S. Open remembers how difficult Pebble Beach played. The rough looked like a jungle, the wind was whipping off the ocean, the greens were dried out and lightning fast…the entire course was a giant death trap for golfers! Yet, somehow, Tiger shot -12 and won by 15 strokes. Yeah, -16 is great and all, but I’ll take a 15 stroke win any day.

Of course, along with this tournament comparison comes the obvious “Next Tiger” comments. I feared this would happen to the golf world someday, and it has finally started. Let’s call it the Michael Jordan effect. For years, we’ve been looking for and “identifying” the “Next Jordan.” Harold Minor, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, etc. have all been labeled as “Next Jordan’s” at some point in their careers. Not surprisingly, none of them have become the “Next Jordan.” You know why? BECAUSE NO ONE WILL BE THE NEXT JORDAN!

This same phenomenon has already started to take hold in the golf world. Like Jordan, Tiger completely transformed the game from a public perception point of view. He brought enormous popularity to the game, he brought enormous excitement to the game, and he brought enormous wealth to the game. As sports fans, we so desperately crave these types of athletes in our lives, and losing them is a tough blow. Now, in the midst of what could potentially be the end of Tiger’s dominance, fans and media alike are clamoring to crown “The Next Tiger.”

Here’s the ironic thing; it wasn’t long after my “No Tiger, no problem” proclamation that I realized how much I missed Tiger. I missed seeing his trademark red shirt on Sunday. I missed seeing the massive gallery following him from hole to hole, hanging on his every shot. I miss hearing the unmistakable roar the crowd makes when Tiger is making his move on Sunday. I miss seeing Tiger Woods at the top of his game. Maybe I’ve become the clich├ęd fair weather golf fan, but Rory just didn’t do it for me. I can appreciate the beautiful swing and his amazing talents, but there was nothing compelling about his 72 hole beatdown.

It wasn’t just the dominant golf Tiger played that made me love him. It was the way he played golf that made me love him. Too often, golfers come across as robots. They walk stoically down the fairways, expressionless and grave. They give the typical courtesy wave to the applauding crowd and offer slight appreciative smiles. They keep their emotions stifled and in check for hours at a time, offering little insight into the grind they’re really going through. Rory fits right into that category, and I find nothing Tiger-like about it.

Everything about Tiger Woods, as a golfer, was exciting. He allowed himself to be emotional on the golf course. He gave dramatic fist pumps, and stalked the ball into the hole. He celebrated big moments and allowed his anger to come through when he struggled. Even though he was criticized for it, I loved the constant swearing he would unleash after a bad shot. At least you knew he cared!  

Beyond that, Tiger gave us something that golf had never really offered before; a golfer who looked like an athlete. Please, don’t misconstrue this as a racist type of comment, but our preconceived notions of race made Tiger Woods seem like an infinitely superior athlete to anyone else on the PGA Tour. Golfers, after all, aren’t notable for being world class athletes, but Tiger changed a lot of the perceptions about golf. All of a sudden, it was cool to play golf. Golfers were real athletes (and we are)! It’s not a stretch to assume none of this would have happened had Tiger been a skinny white kid from Connecticut named Steve.

All this to say, Rory McIlroy is NOT the next Tiger Woods. There will NEVER be another Tiger Woods. And really, we don’t even need to go this deep to make that statement. At this point, the scoreboard reads Rory: 1 Tiger: 14. So please, let’s calm down and slow the Rory train down. He seems like a great kid, and he’s definitely a fantastic player…but give me a call when Rory reaches 10 major championships and we’ll talk then.

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