Thursday, July 21, 2011

Did the British Open Lack Some Tiger?


Earlier this week, before all the Tiger Woods-Steve Williams crap hit the wall, myself and good buddy Ryan Wilson (a Tiger fan by his own admission) batted around the idea that the Open Championship might have been missing a little something, and that something could have been He Who Shall Not Be Named. Here is the convo, and after, go read some of Wilson's work over at CBS. It's good stuff.

Bacon: This week marked one of the most surprising, but fan-favorite wins in the last few years. A 42-year-old "regular joe" of a man, Darren Clarke, won the British Open in fairly spectacular fashion, holding off a young stud (Dustin Johnson), the biggest active name in golf (Phil Mickelson) and a kid that most hope is going to be America's answer to Rory McIlroy (Rickie Fowler). I think it was a great week for golf, and even noted that if someone lost in all of this, it's Tiger Woods, because it showed we don't necessarily need him for great drama. You're a huge Tiger guy ... am I completely off with this?

Wilson: I watched every minute of the British Open, from start to finish, and while I loved that Clarke won, I couldn't help thinking that there wasn't that one must-see player. McIlroy was that guy to start the week but he got outplayed in "his" weather by Rickie Fowler. And after a slow start, Dustin Johnson played some incredible golf right up until he drop-kicked his second shot on No. 14 out of bounds on Sunday. I felt like I'd seen that movie before. I don't say that to pile on DJ (I wanted him to win) but to point out that, for all intents and purposes, the tournament was over for him at that moment.

I never felt that way with Tiger, even though he had a knack for bogeying big holes on Sunday (and yet he always managed to stay within striking distance of the lead -- weird). Of course, we've been conditioned to believe that no deficit is insurmountable when Tiger's laser-focused on the job at hand. The problem is that Tiger's come-from-behind record is pretty horrible, and new Tiger is nowhere near the elite golfer old Tiger was. And you know what? Maybe I need to accept that it might be that way for a long time. I'll still watch golf and root for guys like Clarke, but it won't be nearly as exciting.

Bacon: First, can we all agree on what that Johnson shot was? Was it a drop-kick? A shank? Just a bad swing? Whatever it was, when you're laying up on a par-5 and that lay-up ends out of bounds, you probably need to find some head doctor, and stat.

Second, how strange is it that most media people (and fans of Tiger) are still scared to say his career could be done? I know I do it at times. We sit here and act like there still might be some fight left in him (And even now, I'm programmed to want to type, "and there still could be"), but what if there isn't? Trust me, we've seen careers derail faster than this (Swoosh II, David Duval, is one of them).

I'm sure with Tiger in the hunt at Royal St. George's, interest would have spiked, but I'm still forced to believe that the game has seemed to pass him by, and the drama at the British, after that dominant effort at Congressional by Mr. Perfect Weather, were two of the greatest majors since Woods was adding to his legacy.

Wilson: I have no earthly idea what Johnson was doing from the middle of the 14th fairway. And I don't know how he could have hit a worse shot. I joked that he would've been better off hitting a knockdown driver off the deck there after he striped his drive on the 15th. The thing is, I don't think he's a head case. Unlike old Phil or Sergio, DJ doesn't look dazed and confused after he shoots himself out of a tournament. In fact, it's hard to tell by looking at him whether he just aced a par 3 or blasted a ball so far out of bounds that they still haven't found it.

As for Tiger, I wonder if it's less about wondering if his run really is over, and more about what that means for golf going forward. Every few years the media identify the next crop of young golfers to unseat Woods and, well, we're still waiting. Remember Charles Howell III and David Gossett? Sergio came close in 1999 but imploded at the British in recent years. Guys like Rory and Rickie are great for the sport, but either too young or not consistent enough from week to week to be anywhere near the draw Tiger is. (By the way, why is Rory publicly bellyaching about the conditions at Royal St. George's? Never mind he's Irish, but that's something Jack or Tiger would never, ever do. That's "How to be a champion 101" stuff.)

Sorta related: I actually felt bad for Ernie Els at the British. He was paired with Rory and Rickie and we got to see firsthand what the changing of the guard looks like. I never thought I'd see the day where Els wouldn't be able to hang with anyone, much less two upstarts. But he looked out of sorts the first two rounds before, mercifully, he missed the cut.

So what does this mean going forward? No idea. I love DJ's game 99 percent of the time, and Fowler could be even better than McIlroy before it's all said and done. But we may have to readjust our expectations if Tiger really is on the downside of a phenomenal run.

Bacon: I agree with everything you said, so I might as well ask you one final question -- it isn't good for golf when different people win all these majors, and nobody is dominating, right? Or is it fun to watch the changing of the guard every six weeks?

Wilson: I think people like rivalries, contrived or otherwise. People love to hate the Steelers, the Lakers, the Yankees, and Duke because they perennially contend for championships. No one feels that way about, say, Butler. They've been to the last two NCAA title games, and lost twice to the big-time programs. It's not a perfect analogy, but I think it works for the Graeme McDowells and Louis Oosthuizens of the golf world. Yeah, it's a swell story that they won a major, but on the other hand, those victories aren't doing anything to grow the sport. That's not their fault, it's just the reality of what Tiger vs. the field have done for golf over the last 15 years or so.

(Tiger hasn't had one rival, but at various points he's gone up against David Duval, Els, Phil, Vijay and even Darren Clarke for a while there earlier this century. And it all made for compelling television. Clarke vs. Johnson was a nice story, but I guarantee you people didn't change their plans to make sure they caught that head-to-head matchup.)

Ideally, somebody would be able to fill the void left by Tiger, even if only partially. Instead, I'm guessing we see what you describe as "changing of the guard every six weeks." It's not right or wrong, it's just the current state of the game.

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