August 31, 2009

Warped Perspective

For all of the talk of the wrong guys winning in 2009, there hasn't been enough talk of the compelling tournaments they won

Lost in all the discussion of Tiger Woods' stunning losses of late is how 2009 has produced riveting theater.

Lost in all the discussion of Tiger Woods' stunning losses of late is how 2009 has produced riveting theater.

Here's what I don't get: Why are people disappointed that Heath Slocum won The Barclays instead of Tiger Woods? Isn't this the same whining we heard after all four major championships? And doesn't that complaint ignore the fact that all four majors -- as well as The Barclays -- were great tournaments? Isn't the point here that sports is not so much about the destination as it is the journey? A great event is not determined by the winner but rather by what went into the winning. That's why we are sports fans.

The easy way to write off 2009 is as the year of the almost. A 48-year-old Kenny Perry almost won the Masters. David Duval and Phil Mickelson almost won the U.S. Open. Tom Watson almost won the British Open. Tiger Woods almost won the PGA. And Woods, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker almost won The Barclays. But what a backwards way of looking at things. Those five tournaments were remarkable entertainment. Isn't that the best we can ask for?

If, at the beginning of the year, someone had come to you and said: "The storyline for the majors is going to include, Woods, Mickelson, Duval and Watson," tell me you wouldn't have signed up for that in a heartbeat. Anyone who says this PGA Tour season has been a disappointment because Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E Yang won the majors and Slocum the Barclays is, in the words of Dan Jenkins, a point-misser. This has been a great year for men's golf.

Here's one of the things I hope emerges from this season: A greater appreciation of Tiger Woods. Yes, he made late bogeys at the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA that cost him those tournaments. And yes, he missed a 7-foot birdie putt on the final green at Liberty National that could have gotten him into a playoff with Slocum at The Barclays. But instead of focusing on what he didn't do, let's use it to savor what he has accomplished.

Fifteen times Woods went into the final round of a major and on the first 14 of those occasions he came away with the victory. He did it so many times we lost sight of what an astonishing achievement that is, just as Woods does not get proper recognition for the six consecutive USGA national championships he won -- three U.S. Juniors and three U.S. Amateurs. Of all the records Tiger will set that is the one that will never be broken. Never ever.

We got so used to seeing Woods make the putt when he needs it that we are shocked when he misses, as he did at Liberty National. But to be reminded of the man's human vulnerability serves to better appreciate what he has accomplished. Golf is an extremely difficult game. It is a skill rented, never owned, and the lease can run out at the most unfortunate of moments. The Heath Slocum's of the world serve to better frame the masterpieces created by the Tiger Woods of the world.

While I'm dismissing those who complain about this year's crop of winners, let me also put to bed another group of whiners -- and Tiger is among them. Please, stop complaining about the golf course or the course set-up.

Are some courses better than others? Absolutely. Do I qualify as an expert on golf course architecture? Absolutely not. But I do know what I like. For example, I don't think you should be penalized for advancing the ball in a straight line in front of you. So I hated No. 12 at Rich Harvest Farms in the Solheim Cup because there are two trees in the middle of the fairway and four more overhanging the green.

And even though I have never set foot on Liberty National, I will come to its defense for this one simple reason: Everyone was playing the same golf course. If the greens were too small for the distance the course played, and if the layout had too many hump and bumps, those features were there for everyone. If they want to play the next Barclays on the miniature golf course in Central Park, go ahead as far as I am concerned -- as long as everyone has to negotiate the same windmill.

I was perhaps the only person who defended greenkeeper John Philp at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Virtually everyone whined that his set-up was too severe. Philp himself gave the best answer when told of the player complaints. "Hogan would have figured it out," he said. Amen, brother.

But since naysaying has become the undercurrent of this professional golf season, it became easy for folks to follow Tiger's lead and dump on Liberty National. Why bother? Just shut up, play the course and try to get the ball in the hole quicker than anyone else. Isn't that the purpose of the game?

OK, now were are on to the Deutsche Bank Championship, Step 2 of the PGA Tour FedEx Cup Playoffs. Let's save some time here. The success of the tournament will be determined not by the quality of the winner but rather by the quality of the competition that produced the winner.

The Barclays was a great tournament, as was the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA. None would have been made better by having Tiger Woods lift the trophy at the end. It's about the process, not the result. Enjoy the ride, even if the road leads you to Heath Slocum. Hey, the guy made a 20-footer to win the dang thing. What's wrong with that?