Knock On Woods
No one has ever dominated Pebble like Tiger, but this time out, he has unique obstacles to approaching the same degree of excellence.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Tiger’s neck is wrecked. His driver and his wife have left him – and at least one absence looks lasting. He’s been on the receiving end of so many jokes both the International Association of Blondes and the ambassador to Poland sent thank you’s. His greatest rival just thundered to victory on a Masters track Tiger Woods, 34, long dominated. Some of his major sponsors hit eject; new ones are not exactly showing up in droves. His putting has been in the pot. He hasn’t claimed a major in 24 months, the biggest drought he’s experienced in years. His preordained march to immortality is now limping along.
Longtime Sports Illustrated senior writer and current ESPN Sportscenter contributor Rick Reilly has been following Tiger’s travails.
“He could be playing Old Del Monte [Golf Course in Monterey] – any course really – and this makes it very tough,” Reilly says. “Going through a divorce, which is just hell, Tiger’s lost his driver completely, and can’t make a putt lately. It’s gotta be hard not to see his kids, he must miss his wife, and he’s a laughingstock from Iceland to Buenos Aires. He’s got all that, plus physically he’s got the neck [injury]… His life is coming apart at the seams.”
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Only Tiger Woods isn’t taking on Old Del Monte. He’s taking on Pebble Beach course conditions meticulously toughened by United States Golf Association and Pebble superintendents to be fiercer than the last time the U.S. Open visited, when a punitive Pebble so tortured the pros that only one out of 156 golfers even managed to break par.
The course has been stretched another 200 yards, its carnivorous rough will differ in length and width hole to hole, a ribbon of rough will no longer prevent imprecise drives from snaking into bunkers – of which there are 24 more – and its greens, the USGA’s Ken Klavon reports, will be “the smallest green complexes of any post-World War II [U.S.] Open course.”
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Of course, that one pro to break par in 2000 was Eldrick Tiger Woods, when he conquered decisively enough to make Genghis envious. PGA pro Robert Damron made the cut and finished 41 strokes behind him.
“He achieved arguably the best in any sport by beating the best in world by 15 strokes,” Reilly says. “He’s our Secretariat. No one does that.”
Money Players | At one point a Vegas sporting book had a line on how much the Tiger - Elin divorce settlement would run. The over-under was $300,000. Here’s how Bodog.com handicaps the U.S. Open action (as of press time).
Tiger Woods 7/1
Phil Mickelson 7/1
Lee Westwood 10/1
Rory McIlroy 28/1
Padraig Harrington 28/1
Jim Furyk 28/1
Ernie Els 30/1
Steve Stricker 33/1
Luke Donald 33/1
Retief Goosen 33/1
Dustin Johnson 33/1
Matt Kuchar 40/1
Camilo Villegas 40/1
Paul Casey 40/1
Ben Crane 40/1
Zach Johnson 50/1
Hunter Mahan 50/1
Geoff Ogilvy 50/1
Adam Scott 50/1
K.J. Choi 50/1
Stewart Cink 50/1
Tim Clark 50/1
Graeme McDowell 50/1
But there was a fleeting but telling sequence during the maybe-greatest competitive victory that was anything but admirable. In his last round, Tiger found the thick rough on 3, a hole he should birdie, and hacked his way to a triple bogey. He seethed. He swore. He darkened.
“I saw something is different inside this guy,” Reilly says. “He’s insatiable. And as we found out, Tiger Woods is insatiable in terms of golf, in terms of money, and, as we never knew, sex.”
Given there is no doubt among experts that Tiger arrives a different player than he was then – “for once JAG,” Reilly says. “Just Another Guy” – the more pressing question now is whether he can find a distant facsimile of the Swing of Pebble Past. Commentator and former Open champ Johnny Miller likes to say Woods should have his 2000 triumph on a loop at his Florida compound.
Also worth pondering: Whether he can give up his excesses without giving up his rhythm, whether he can reorganize his ego without compromising his confidence (the cussing and the standoffishness continue), and whether he has the genuine humility required to rise from the ashes of a particularly dubious self-destruction. As Reilly says, “he’s the only person to set himself on fire by running over a fire hydrant.” It will all play out in a public sport whose grandest and most grueling stage happens to be the U.S. Open, right here in our backyard.
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The biggest battle in the snarl of Tiger’s colliding complications is Tiger versus himself – the killer instinct against the professed Buddhist peace – but he’s got some other antagonisms in the ether. A semi-scientific look at a handful of them follows:
Vs. Phil Mickelson
The greatest win of Phil Mickelson’s career – at the major that precedes this edition of the 110th U.S. Open – only widened the ravine between Woods and Lefty. Already the smiling foil to a growling Tiger on the course of public opinion, Mickelson, as he hugged his cancer-surviving wife on the 18th, transcended his sport and handed all women a win.
“[Mickelson] spent half the year flying his [cancer-stricken] mother and wife to doctors and treatments, and really couldn’t concentrate on golf, and he wins,” Reilly says, “and the guy who treats women like cattle, like they’re disposable, [doesn’t].”
Still, like a convict looking for a job, Mickelson owns an unwanted record: five second-place finishes at the U.S. Open. Only Julia Roberts’ Runaway Bride has been to the altar and left emptyhanded more often.
But as Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck observed, the Masters win elevated him “from a mere superstar into one of golf’s all-time greats… only the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have won more green jackets. Mickelson is the only player to have won four major championships since Woods turned pro in late 1996, ending any lingering debate as to who is the era’s second-best player.”
Mickelson has more fans than anyone in the game, and more trophies than all but a couple. But if he can’t close his Open wound, his viability as a true Tiger killer and on-course cred will remain imaginary and at risk, respectively.
It wasn’t the Wilt Chamberlainian appetite or an ego-driven arrogance that did Woods in. It was his cheapness. And that will cost him. Big.
“He didn’t have to be caught,” Reilly notes. “Most athletes worth a billion put [mistresses] in a beach cottage, give ’em 100 grand a year, and that keeps them quiet when the Enquirer asks, ‘Can we buy your sex voice mail?’ If all you’re getting is a Subway fricking sandwich, that’s [an attractive offer]. He didn’t give one girl $200 to move out of an apartment with her boyfriend. He was building up some bitter babes.”
The most bitter babe has recently ramped up her demands: The Chicago Tribune, among others, reports potential ex-to-be Elin wants $750 million, or roughly the same amount as Tonga and Samoa’s GDPs combined. The one-time Swedish model enjoys leverage for something more valuable, too, given her oh-so-slightly stronger case for custody of their two kids. And by ignoring confidentiality clauses, she’s reserving the right to tell her side of the saga.
The pending divorce will ultimately move many millions, but with sponsor showdowns, billions hang in the balance.
Global management consulting juggernaut Accenture quickly bounced Tiger from its roster as the mistresses mounted – “The road to high performance isn’t always paved” motto got a little slippery. PepsiCo-owned Gatorade put Tiger Focus on ice. Tag Heuer magazine ads – slogan: “What are you made of?” – and once-ubiquitous Tiger TV spots went the way of the wooden driver. But Electronic Arts (which creates Tiger’s eponymous video game) and Nike, which pays Woods a casual $30 million a year, reaffirmed their support.
In other words, Tiger will be fine, especially given the real story here: new opportunities. Take TigerText, a new smart phone app that allows users to set a time limit on how long a text they send will exist after it has been read. Time observed, “The message cannot be forwarded anywhere, stored anywhere or sold to any tabloid for an undisclosed sum.”
Vs. Jack Nicklaus
“Only two things can stop Tiger Woods from breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships,” prescient sports columnist Mark Purdy once wrote: “a bad back or a bad marriage.”
The debate over who can claim the mantle of best predator to ever hunt birdies and eagles – the Golden Bear or the Tiger – was most entertaining and intense as Woods dropped a course record 18-under on Augusta to win his first major. By the time he added four consecutive major titles in 2000-01 (completing the “Tiger Slam”) and 10 majors by age 30, the debate seemed academic.
Now, with Tiger pawing more mistresses than majors, the debate is again livelier than the Tap Room on tournament afternoons.
Debate over who is the more complete golf power, however, hiccupped with Tiger’s judgment, but nevertheless Woods is still king: Nicklaus has redefined the course design game as dramatically as he did the PGA Tour, and has somehow never missed a business trip, but its the Tiger Woods Foundation that can credibly claim it reaches 2 million kids through its learning centers and scholarship programs. Nicklaus’ Windex-clean record – one woman, 21 grandkids, a few margaritas, zero nicotine or even caffeine in decades – renders wider comparisons cautionary.
“He even kept an appointment after his grandson died,” Espn.com’s Wright Thompson writes in a profile selected for 2009’s Best American Sports Writing. “A devastated Jack believed a commitment should be honored.”
Vs. Pebble Beach
Woods’ victory here in 2000 – on the heels of an AT&T National Pro-Am win – is forever enshrined in golf lore. “It was like a Maserati off the line against 155 VW bugs,” Reilly says.
But for a famously beautiful ally he seems to get along with plenty well, he doesn’t know how to make Pebble happy, blowing off the AT&T annually and ripping Pebble’s poa annua greens for their tricky afternoon textures.
The Pebble Beach Company greenskeepers the Weekly talked to say his comments no longer bother them – and added that he doesn’t dare complain about them during the Open. But as Pebble’s greens only shrink and the course only stretches, their medium remains the same: poa annua. Will a blade of grass break Tiger’s back?
Vs. Barack Obama
Both Tiger and Obama, products of mixed ethnic heritage, obliterated racial barriers in their respective arenas. Tiger spoke at Obama’s inauguration celebration. Obama met with Woods at the White House when Tiger was in town to promote his D.C.-area benefit tournament.
And just this winter they shared a suddenly dubious Golf Digest cover in January that read “10 Tips Obama Can Take From Tiger,” including “Load it and let it go.” The piece also deployed a sidebar of Obama advice for Tiger. Cue the one-liners.
But there is a crucial thing either one could learn from the other’s example: How to seize real crisis as an opportunity for change. Tiger can still do more for women and his family. Obama can still stand up to Big Oil. Recapturing the audacity each famously rode to historic wins would be a perfect place to start.
SWING THROUGH | Info on arriving without the stress of parking.
USGA FREE SHUTTLE | 5am-two hours after play | Free | Exit 407 (Imjin Avenue) from Highway 101, follow signs to CSU Monterey Bay parking, | ADA accessible vehicles available
MONTEREY EXPRESS SHUTTLE | 6am-8:30pm, until 9pm Sat, 7pm Sun | Cannery Row at Prescott | $20/day includes free parking in garage
CARMEL SHUTTLE | 7am-7pm, until 5:30pm Sun | Carmel Plaza on Ocean Avenue | $20/day; $80/week
PACIFIC GROVE SHUTTLE | 6:30am-7:30pm | 584 Central Ave. (Chamber Visitor Center next to P.G. Museum of Natural History) | 20/day; $60/week (free/children under 12)