When he steps onto the first tee today, Tiger Woods will be coming off some of the worst rounds of his career and a last place finish in a tournament that he was accustomed to winning. In golf, as in all sport, anyone can have a bad day. But for Tiger Woods, this was something different. You wonder if he even bothered to pick up the check for his winnings of $12,276. That’s almost wage an hour stuff for a man who was once a one-man sports and marketing conglomerate.
It might have been better for Woods if he had played worse than he did in the early rounds of that tournament and, thus, missed the cut and spared himself and fans the weekend scores of 85 and 74.
Eighty-five. All over the country, high handicappers were saying to their playing partners, You know, you hit ‘em pretty good today. Finished only two strokes over what Tiger shot. It recalled the famous old golf gag where one pro says to another, “I heard you shot an 85 out there, today, partner. How in the world did you shoot an 85?”
“Missed a four footer for an 84.”
There was nothing funny about Tiger’s 85 and he wasn’t smiling.
It is convenient, for the fan, to separate the careers of the great athletes into three phases. There is the young phenom, raw and gifted and exciting to watch for exuberance and the prodigious but undisciplined gifts. Think Bryce Harper, for instance. Then, there is the mature pro who is in total control of his game. Disciplined, smart, crafty, and artful so there is a cerebral pleasure in watching him practice his craft. Like LeBron James. And, then, there is the old pro, playing on guile and memory. The pitcher who once threw heat and now gets it done by moving the ball and knowing the hitters. The quarterback whose arm has gone soft but who can read coverages better than the coaches. You follow one of these athletes with a sense of melancholy hope. When Jack Nicklaus was contending for the Masters at 46, there could not have been anyone in the gallery or watching on television who did not want him to win. Johnny Miller’s mother probably cheered when Nicklaus rolled that 18 footer in on 16 for the birdie that pretty much did it.
The big time is tough and getting old makes it a lot tougher. A fan wants to see the great ones go out in style. Most don’t. But occasionally, Ted Williams hits it out of the park in his last at bat, with John Updike there, at Fenway, to immortalize it in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. Or Derek Jeter drives in the game-winning run in his last time at bat in Yankee Stadium.
But it doesn’t usually happen that way. In fact, this being life, it usually happens the other way.
Nicklaus’s win in the Masters put the period on his career. He played other tournaments but nobody remembers them. Professional golfers these days can, upon reaching 50, join something called the Champion’s Tour. Tournament golf with a senior citizens discount.
Hard, if not impossible, to imagine Tiger Woods on the Champions Tour. It’s nice for the players and the fans, but not the real deal.
And the deal doesn’t get any more real than the tournament this weekend – the U.S. Open. The Masters is more glamorous with its azaleas and dogwoods and the legend of Bobby Jones. But the course can be had. The Open (which the untutored mistakenly call “the British Open”) is a test of many things but one year Tiger won and almost never took his driver out of the bag. The U.S. Open, which is played on a different course every year, is designed to be so difficult that, as they say, “par is a good score.” The greens are so fast they might have been sprayed with WD-40. The fairways are cut narrow. The roughs have been allowed to grow up tall enough to hide snakes and, even, small animals.
Tiger Woods has won three U.S. Opens. One of those wins came at Pebble Beach in 2000 and the course was as difficult as human ingenuity and masochism could make it. So difficult that only one player in the field broke par and he made it look easy. Woods beat runner up, Ernie Els, by 15 strokes and came in 12 under par. He dominated, as they say in the trade.