Friday, September 18, 2009

Generation Gap: Youth stalking Tiger

In case you missed it, the PGA Tour now has a generation gap. It runs from the ages of 33 (Tiger Woods) to later this year when Phil Mickelson turns 39. The guys who fall in between will earn fortunes that most of us can only dream about, but they’ll never have the acclaim merited by their bank accounts.

Today, Tiger can look around him and smile. He has the knowledge that he can beat everyone of his peers (age wise). He can look ahead at those who are tumbling into their 40s and know that he has already beat them and fully understand that they have entered the land of diminishing returns.

What Tiger has to worry about is the absolute law of the jungle. As Jack Nicklaus stalked Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and as Tom Watson stalked Nicklaus and as Woods has stalked them, or at least their records, there are those who have him in their crosshairs. In the past, youth has always been served and there’s no reason to think it isn’t going to happen again.

Since Tiger started winning majors, we’ve been looking for a challenger for his crown and all we found were pretenders. In the name of Dumb and Dumber, we were looking in the absolutely wrong place. We looked first at Phil, then Ernie, then Retief and then Vijay. In retrospect we have to wonder why. If you were given those four names for Final Jeopardy, the question would be, “Name five professional golfers Tiger Woods dusts with regularity.”

The threat to Tiger’s crown is creeping up on him. The collision should come within the next three to five years. That will be about the time Tiger is recovering from his fifth knee surgery, will step back and take a look at his situation and figure out that he has a fortune he and those who will follow in clan Woods will never want for a mansion or a yacht. There will probably be three or four children tugging at his heartstrings when he leaves for another tournament. He’d climbed the highest mountains. He became the most recognized person in the world. There will be few if any mountains to climb. Don’t be surprised if he decides that enough is enough. Why risk having his legacy clouded even the slightest?

Then the fun starts. Last September, on a visit to Ireland, I spoke with Christy O’Connor, Jr. a longtime friend. Being one of the best golfers Ireland ever produced (he almost holed a 2-iron on the last hole of Ryder Cup match against Fred Couples at the Belfry to secure Europe’s first Ryder Cup in forever), I asked if the acclaim Padraig Harrington received in the Old Sod was as raucous as I imagined. “Sure it’s been great,” said Christy, “but nothing like it’s going to be Rory McIlroy.”

Trust me. This 19-year old shaggy-haired long hitter with a deft touch around the greens lacks only one facet that will make him a super star and that’s experience. It won’t take much when you consider that Tiger’s buddy, Mark O’Meara opined that Rory’s development is ahead of Tiger’s at a similar stage of their respective careers. That’s good enough for me. If it wasn’t, after McIlroy won at Dubai this year, Ernie Els averred that the kid will certainly be the number one golfer in the world in the near future.

Before the crown is given to Rory, players such as Camillo Villegas, Anthony Kim and Nick Watney may have something to say about it.

Today, we may have a generation gap that has not produced a serious contender for the crown. Today, Tiger knows he’d better not have another hiccup. The best thought he can have right now is that because there are four real contenders, they knock each other off in a chase for his records.

Earlier in Tiger’s career, a popular theory was that Tiger’s real competition had yet to play. You can’t say that anymore.
A heartwarming story was written at the Puerto Rico Open a PGA Tour event that ran opposite the WGC CA Championship. Michael Bradley an affable 42-year old pro from Florida won for the first time in 11 years.

The gap wasn’t because of a loss of game, or a lack of dedication. A seriously injured back made four rounds in four days a living hell. Most times when he tried, he was in such a state that making the cut was not unlike his chances of climbing Mount Everest. He did qualify for the Tour for the 2007 season and in one of his first tournaments, he broke his ankle and was out for the season. Thus his victory in Puerto Rico was truly a feel good story.

Bradley was automatically in the field for the Transitions Championship in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Sad news came across the wire on Wednesday afternoon. Bradley had withdrawn because of an undisclosed injury. Golf and life share one thing in common. Both are unfair.

Bartender, four bottles of water for the four contenders and a glass of well-aged wine for Tiger so that his body may follow in like kind. For me? It’s too late for the well-aged wine. Water is best served in its solid form, so just draw me a young, cold draft beer. That always brings a smile to a curmudgeon.

See you on the first tee,


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A chink in Tiger's armor?

I’ve got to admit that my curmudgeonly side got the best of me during final round coverage of The Barclays. When Tiger Woods hit his second shot into 18 a mere six feet – 10 inches from the hole, the entire CBS broadcast team went into rapture. I was waiting for David Feherty to tell Woods his putt was conceded and let’s go to the sudden death playoff, which of course Woods would win. Then they could fall all over each other trying to bore viewers with hyperbole over hyperbole.

Woods then proceeded to do the unthinkable. He missed. He didn’t even scare the cup. Then to add insult to injury, Heath Slocum won the event on the 72nd green by holing a 20-foot putt for the biggest win of his modest career. Then all they could talk about was how Slocum vaulted from 124th to third place in the FedEx Cup point standings.

Hey guys! No one and I mean no one cares. All the FedEx Cup has managed to do is extend interest in the Tour past the PGA Championship.

Heaven forbid, the CBS clan would hint at what has become one of the biggest, if not the biggest story of the year. Tiger Woods has become beatable. Where once conceding that putt would have been on everyone’s mind. It’s no longer the case. Missing the cut at Turnberry, putting like a rag doll in the final round of the PGA Championship and the Barclay’s debacle have become commonplace occurrences. He just doesn’t lose his touch for a hole or two; it’s now for a tournament at a time.

One could surmise that Tiger isn’t crazy about it either. His visible and I would imagine vocal emanations would reflect it.

In a way, this syndrome is reminiscent of what Tom Watson went through. Always a fearless putter, Watson would either make his birdie putt, or knock it seven feet past the hole. That was okay, because he knew he’d make the comebacker. Tiger has always been the same way.

The day came when Watson didn’t make the par putt. Then there was another and another and another. Although there were extenuating circumstances at the time which have since been remedied, it gave credence to my belief that there are just so many putts in a pair of hands and Watson had run through his supply. This may be the start of a similar syndrome for Tiger.

He may go on to win the last three playoff tournaments and people will forget his shortcomings, but he won’t. He’s the one person who knows, make that feels the seepage of the confidence that is the trademark of his putting stroke.

No doubt, he is licking his chops at the prospect of having Pebble Beach and St. Andrews on tap for the US and British Opens in 2010, but now there is a crack in his wall of invincibility.

His goal of 19 professional majors, once considered a tap in, is getting longer and the last thing Tiger needs is a tougher putt.

Bartender, I think we’ll pass this week. You do dispense fabulous swing oil, but that stuff can make a putting stroke, shall we say a tad jittery. Thanks anyway.

See you on the first tee,