Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tiger Woods Marches--and Limps--Toward Golf Immortality

Tiger Woods certainly looked mortal at times during his marathon 91 hole U.S. Open victory, particularly when his balky knee made him wince as he shuffled around Torrey Pines with a gait more like Fred Sanford's than that of one of the greatest athletes in the world. Woods joked that during his 18 hole playoff with Rocco Mediate he played "military" golf because his shots veered "left, right" but Woods made no excuses, refusing to discuss in detail how much he was hurting or how much his pain/limited mobility affected his game. However, you don't have to be a golf expert to realize that Woods was experiencing a serious problem and that impression is confirmed by Woods' statement that he is going to rest his knee for an indeterminate period.

Hall of Fame forward Kevin McHale played with a broken foot in the 1987 NBA playoffs as he tried to help the Boston Celtics win back to back championships. The Celtics fell short and he was never again the same player. Woods' gritty effort this weekend brought him his third U.S. Open title and moved him to within four Grand Slams of tying Jack Nicklaus' career record but it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks, months and years if Woods pays a long term price for his stubbornness and toughness; his doctors advised him not to play and it is very possible that Woods caused further damage to his knee by disregarding their recommendations.

For now, though, all we can do is marvel at what Woods accomplished and how he added to his already rich legacy. Focus and preparation are the two keys to success for elite athletes. Pain and injury sap most people's ability to focus but Woods overcame that obstacle well enough to best a strong field of players at a very tough golf course. Just as impressive is the fact that Woods did this with very little preparation due to his physical limitations in the wake of his April 15th knee surgery. Woods' swing coach Hank Haney says, "He bent over to read a putt for the first time on Thursday"--in other words, during the first round of the U.S. Open. It is amazing to be able to win a major championship with such little preparation.

Nicklaus set the standard for golf excellence but Woods is well on his way to surpassing Nicklaus' records. Woods won his 14th Grand Slam in his 46th appearance in a major as a professional, while Nicklaus won 11 Grand Slam titles in his first 46 majors as a pro. Nicklaus scored 26 over par in those 46 majors, while Woods has posted a mind boggling 126 below par score. Nicklaus had more second place finishes (10-5) and more top three finishes (26-22) in those events but, frankly, I don't think Woods is very interested in those marks. Woods' only goal is victory and what is remarkable about him is that when he is on form--or even close to being on form--he has an extraordinarily high winning percentage; that is why the fact that he has never lost in a Grand Slam after having a lead at the 54 hole mark is much more significant than the fact that he has never won a major after trailing at that point. Woods has an 11-1 career record in PGA Tour playoffs, the best winning percentage in the past 50 years for players who have participated in at least four playoffs. Nicklaus (13-10) and Arnold Palmer (12-8) are the only players in the past half century to win more PGA Tour playoffs than Woods but their winning percentages are far worse than his. When Woods is playing well enough to be in contention to win a tournament he almost always wins the tournament.

Woods has now joined Nicklaus as the only players to ever win each of the Grand Slams at least three times. This was also Woods' 65th PGA Tour win, moving him past Ben Hogan into third place on the all-time list behind Sam Sneed (82) and Nicklaus (73). Woods has won a major in four straight years for the second time (1999-2002, 2005-2008), something that only three other players (Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Walter Hagen) accomplished even once.

Woods birdied the 18th hole on Sunday to tie Mediate and force a playoff and Woods again birdied at 18 on Monday to force a sudden death playoff match, which Woods won on the first hole by scoring a par at number seven while Mediate bogeyed. This will most likely turn out to be the best--and last--chance for the 45 year old Mediate to win his first Grand Slam title. Mediate said, "It was just a pleasure--an honor--being out there. I'm sure I scared him. I did good today...I almost--I just about got him." Those are nice sentiments and Mediate certainly won over many fans with the engaging personality that he displayed throughout the weekend but I can say with 100% certainty that never in Woods' life has he gone out on the golf course satisfied to "scare" his opponent. After a runner up finish in the Indy 500, Mario Andretti once said, "Second place is first loser." That may sound harsh and unremitting to the average person--but that is why average people don't win Indy 500s or Grand Slam golf tournaments. One characteristic of people and teams that score big upsets--Joe Namath's Jets, Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, the 2007 New York Giants--is that they have no fear of their opponents. If Woods ever loses in a major after having a 54 hole lead it will be to a player whose goal is to defeat Woods, not cause him momentary anxiety.

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