Friday, June 12, 2009

Slumping Tiger

Tiger Woods stormed through the final round at The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio posting a seven under 65 and watching anybody who had a chance to beat him choke. He played brilliantly finishing with two birdies on two of the more difficult holes on the course. A course that plays more like a major than one of the fun events leading up to one. Some people take that as a sign that Tiger has emerged from a post-injury slump, others think that Tiger just got himself into the zone.

It’s interesting how people are responding to Tiger’s struggles. He’s the top-ranked golfer in the world in spite of missing two majors and the FedEx cup playoffs after limping his way to a win at the US Open last summer in Torrey Pines. He underwent reconstructive surgery on his knee and started hitting the links a few weeks before the Masters where he struggled to a sixth place finish.

In seven starts Woods has two wins and six top 10 finishes. He’s also fourth in the FedEx cup standings. Still people are looking to the US Open to see if Tiger’s back. If he wins people will say that he is fully recovered and credit him for shaking off the rust. If he loses they’ll shake their heads and wonder if he’ll get back into form this year. There are even those who think that he’s done. His body has broken down and Tiger is destined for a life of mediocrity on bad knees.

What’s funny is the fact that Tiger’s slump would be a career year for 80% of the golfers on tour. Jim Furyk has played in 12 events, won none and posted 6 top 10 finishes. He is 13th in the FedEx cup standings. Furyk didn’t win an event last year and since 2005 he has only posted 4 wins. Tiger won 4 last year alone, in just six events. Phil Mickelson is the second ranked player in the world and has two wins in 10 events this year. He’s sixth in the FedEx standings and has posted five top 10 finishes. Good, but Phil’s not on the mend. He doesn’t have an upside.

The point is that this slump Tiger is in would be a welcome streak of good fortune for even some of the most respected names in golf. Tiger’s not even a year removed from his surgery and most experts agree that it takes at least a year to fully recover. Even though his knee is stable enough to handle tournament play, it’s still going to be a few months before Tiger’s knee is restored to its full strength and range of motion.

It’s amazing how spoiled we are. The standard to which we hold Tiger Woods is by far and away much higher than the standard we hold the rest of the gold world to. After his second place finish to Tiger at The Memorial, Furyk was informed that he was the “low mortal” that day. It was a sentiment that Furyk didn’t take issue with.

But Tiger’s not a god. It’s easy to think that he is. It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and give him his due for having so much talent but talent isn’t what separates Tiger from the field. Tiger’s not better because his dad stuck a club in his hands when he was three. A lot of guys on tour have been golfing since they could walk. Phil Mickelson swings left-handed because when he was a country club brat who used to mirror his dad’s swing. He was a prodigy too, we don’t hear as much about it because Phil’s not as good. Phil didn’t storm into the PGA by blowing away the field at the Masters. Phil hasn’t won 14 majors. Nobody, except for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods has done that. Only three golfers have posted double digit wins in majors and Tiger’s the only one still active. No other active player is close.

The difference is how Tiger handled his win last weekend. He had his coach there to critique his performance and instead of staying up all night celebrating his triumph, Tiger hopped an early flight to Long Island and had Haney coach him up for the US Open. The guy just outworks everybody. His personal trainer (how many other PGA golfers have one?) believes that Tiger’s fitness level is on par with the best athletes in the world.

He’s probably flattered that people are concerned about his game. He clearly sets the bar pretty high for himself so it’s logical to assume that he doesn’t mind when others hold him to his own standards, but why let the rest of the PGA off the hook? Why pat Jim Furyk on the back when he bogies away a chance to beat Tiger at The Memorial and tell him it was a good effort? Jim’s a big boy. He’s a professional golfer. Dammit, Jim, beat that guy or hang it up 0 wins in two years in unacceptable. The same goes for Phil, Vijay, Garcia, Els and anybody else who wants to make a living on the PGA Tour. If you aren’t willing to do what it takes to give Tiger a run for his money, stop wasting everybody’s time.

When Tiger confirmed he was a go for The Memorial, the phones rang off the hook. People in Columbus support their local PGA event but when Tiger shows up, as is the case with any event, everybody wants to go. It’s not because he’s prettier than other golfers, nor is it because of his sunny disposition. People watch Tiger because they know he’s the best. 30 years from now people will still talk about him.

When Tiger finally does retire, the PGA is in big trouble. Tournament purses have increased over the past 10 years thanks in large part to Tiger Woods. His popularity has inspired greater interest in the game and that has triggered more revenue. If other golfers don’t start attacking the game with the same tenacity people will quickly lose interest.

And maybe that’s the problem. Top 10 finishes pay too damned much. Golfers are too content to settle for second best because there’s often a five or six figure check attached to it. Plus you have the sympathy factor: there’s no shame in being beaten by Tiger, he’s just too good. Other athletes don’t accept those condolences. Dwight Howard isn’t going to take solace in the fact that the Lakers are a more talented team. When the Magic eventually lose he is going to fume over a blown opportunity all summer long.

For most professional athletes second place is worse than finishing dead last. If you finish last you can’t be haunted by one or two mistakes. All you can do is go back to the drawing board and get better. When you come in second you lay awake in bed replaying those free throws you missed that would have put you up by 5, or the pass you dropped for a first down, or that hanging curveball you could have blooped into right field for the go-ahead RBI. For some reason, professional golfers don’t seem to view second place as the turd sandwich everybody else in the sports world sees it as.

The rest of the PGA missed a golden opportunity when Tiger was hobbled. Somebody could have emerged from the pack to take ownership of the Tour. Instead of wondering if Tiger’s going to emerge from his slump we should probably be asking why he’s still the best golfer in the world. How can a guy just seven events into coming back from major knee surgery be leading the pack rather than chasing after it? People shouldn’t be concerned about Tiger, it’s the rest of the PGA that’s hurting.

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