June 17, 2008

Don't Look Now

Tiger takes the Trophy, but Sergio steals the show

Sergio Garcia's gamble from tree trouble at the 16th (left) wasn't enough to overtake Tiger Woods.

Sergio Garcia's gamble from tree trouble at the 16th (left) wasn't enough to overtake Tiger Woods.

In the last major of the last decade of the 20th century—the NASDAQ Nineties—it seemed fitting that there would be a controversy over money, and that the PGAChampionship at Medinah would ultimately wind up in the hands of the playing pro from Nike, Titleist, American Express, Rolex, Wheaties, All-Star Cafe, CBSSportsLine, Asahi Beverages and Electronic Arts.

For those of you who have been living on the moon, that's Tiger Woods and his endorsements, which guarantee him $30 million a year for a good while whether or not he makes a single cut.

Of course, the PGAalmost wound up in the hands of bubbling young Sergio Garcia, who, if he hasn't already, ought to be signing with Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey. Sergio could take that tree-trunk shot and the joyful reaction around the world to make his own fortune.

If the fast-approaching Ryder Cup is indeed golf's Olympics, as most of us believe, then the 19-year-old from Spain has invented a unique event—the Swing, Sprint and Hop. Not that Sergio could ever duplicate the shot, under any circumstances, much less in the heat of a major's final round. The shot almost won him the tournament over Tiger, and it did win him the hearts and minds of the golf public.

For the rest of the year, if anyone in golf talks about anything other than Garcia's 189-yard, open-face 6-iron with a 30-yard slice from a root-infested, tree-trunk lie at the 16th, then it will only be a member of the Forbes 4.

The Forbes 4 in these NASDAQ Nineties consists of Tiger, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara, the ringleader. All they need is Bill Gates for a nonplaying captain.

These are men who get paid for everything they eat, drink, wear, drive, swing and utter, because they know how to do only one thing in this life, which is play golf better than Joe Zilch.

Now they also want to be paid for breathing. Which is to say they want to get paid for representing their country in the Ryder Cup.

Think about that for a moment. For one week, every other year, they can have the honor of playing for the USA, but it's not enough. Every other golfer would gleefully pay out of his own pocket to have the opportunity, but this doesn't faze the Forbes 4.

Greed gives patriotism 2 a side. That's all you can say about it. Except it brings to my own weary mind a line from the old country song by Billy Joe Shaver: "Too much ain't enough."

It was amusing that even before the PGA, Tiger and Duval went vocal, calling the Ryder Cup an "exhibition." The PGAof America, which has always pre-sided over the Ryder Cup, tried to ignore this, and sent out CEO Jim Awtrey in the role of spin doctor.

"There's no controversy," Awtrey said. "We're all on the same page." Then Tiger adamantly called it an "exhibition" again, adding for humorous impact, "Is there a check for the winner?" This in turn made Jim Awtrey a spin doctor in need of a spin doctor.

What happened next was U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw slipping out of his frayed Gentle Ben robe and putting on his drill-sergeant face. Ben was hot about this mutiny, almost moved to tears of frustration. Among other things, Ungentle Ben said, "It burns the hell out of me. Whether some players like it or not, there are people who came before them who mean a hell of a lot to the game."

Crenshaw hung around to tell his players it was nothing personal, then agonized overnight before adding Tom Lehman and Steve Pate as the captain's picks to the 10 qualifiers:Tiger, Duval, O'Meara, Mickelson, Payne Stewart, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton, Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk and Jeff Maggert. The Americans will be heavy favorites again, even though they've managed to lose the last two Cups and Europe was one stroke away from winning three of this year's four majors. Team Europe no doubt was taking great delight in watching Team Money devour itself.

The fuzzy argument employed by the Forbes 4—the seed originally planted by O'Meara, playing Keefer on board the USS Caine—was that the PGAof America now makes millions out of the Ryder Cup, and the host club makes millions, so why shouldn't the players?

As somebody else put it, why should our guys play in a competition for the benefit of Jim Awtrey's annual bonus and a bunch of rich members at a country club outside Boston?

Well, what the exhibition crowd overlooks is that the PGAof America deserves to make some money after sustaining the Ryder Cup for more than 70 years. And that the host club deserves something for getting its premises trashed.

I might also add that as rich as most members of The Country Club might be in terms of blood that runs blue, there are probably scant few that Tiger Woods couldn't money-whip today within an inch of their wealthy wives—uh, lives.

Anyhow, that's my argument and I'm sticking to it.

But let's now talk for a moment about the end of the century. Although Tiger Woods shot three over par on the last seven holes and suddenly found himself in an inward struggle to win the last major of the grand old 20th, the dominant player in the game today did win it.

That was appropriate, I think. Harry Vardon, the dominant player of his time, won the last major of the 19th century, the British Open. You could argue that Willie Smith did by winning the U.S. Open three months later, but was the four-year-old U.S. Open a major in 1899? Doubt it. More likely, it was considered a weekend off for hired help.

So Tiger andVardon. That's one thing. Another is that this century ends with foreign players achieving the prominence they enjoyed back around 1910, like in the dwindling days of the Great Triumvirate—Vardon, Taylor and Braid.

Stunningly, foreign players won virtually half of the majors contested in the 1990s. It wound up 21-19 for the Americans only because Tiger held off Sergio.

Maybe you can appreciate this global emergence only if you're reminded of how the USA had been dominating things.

The U.S. won the majors 29-11 in the 1980s. That's when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were carrying the ball, and when Seve Ballesteros was becoming a Brit in the minds of English and Scottish journalists.

Americans won the majors 34-6 in the 1970s, largely because of Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Foreign players had little going for them but Gary Player.

In the 1960s, it was 31-9 for the U.S., with Arnold Palmer at quarterback and Nicklaus unleashing himself, while Player was getting a little help from Roberto De Vicenzo, Bob Charles, Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson.

The only reason it wasn't more of a landslide for America in the 1950s, when the USA swept the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA—the score was 31-9 again—was because nobody but Ben Hogan took the trouble to go over and win the British Open.

Led by Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, America was 23-3 in the war-torn 1940s. Before that, Gene Sarazen got some assists from Denny Shute and others to give the USAa 31-9 edge in the 1930s. And before that, we had Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen to thank for the 27-13 total in the Roaring Twenties.

That leaves only the period of 1910-'19 when America first gained balance. Counting the Western Open as a major, which it certainly was, the U.S. wound up winning half of the 24 events, as John J. McDermott at the 1911 U.S. Open became the first native-born American to capture a major.

Alas, what Tiger accomplished by winning that memorable duel with Sergio demands one other historic footnote.

At 23, Tiger has five majors, the same as Jack Nicklaus had at the same age. Yeah, you count the U.S. Amateur after a guy has won a professional major. Nicklaus had two Amateurs, a U.S. Open, Masters and PGAby then. Tiger has three Amateurs, a Masters and the PGA.

This thought was not lost on Tiger, even before it looked as if he could play left-handed and beat the leader board that confronted him before the final 18, when he was tied with lefty Mike Weir—the last lurker of the 20th century.

The thinking had been that the PGA was going to be one of the most difficult majors for Tiger to win, because of its U.S. Open-wannabe setup of tight fairways and punishing rough. But when rain softened Medinah No. 3's under-belly and made Tiger's length an even bigger plus over its 7,401 yards, this was one he had to win.

The PGA didn't turn into a drama until Sergio birdied the 13th, which had a lot to do with Tiger over-puring his own tee shot moments later and gouging his way to a double-bogey 5. Still steaming, Tiger pushed his drive at the reachable par-5 14th, leaving himself in deep rough and forcing a layup that led to a par. Then came an impulsive second at the difficult 16th and another bogey.

His tee shot at 17 put him in more deep rough so near the pin that another gunch chip left him with a left-to-right eight-footer for par to hold the lead.

That Tiger collected himself and squeezed this putt into the cup was surely testimony to why he is who he is. And it also explained the hug for Butch Harmon, who had worked with Tiger on loosening the grip pressure on his left hand, which in coach-speak allowed him "to release the blade, particularly on left-to-right putts like the one he had at 17." Or, in other words, loosening grip pressure on the hand also loosens grip pressure on the throat.

Still, the biggest moment of the tournament belonged to Sergio. No American giant of the game would have even attempted that shot. Not Hogan, Nicklaus, Jones. Never. The ball was cradled in roots, almost up against the tree trunk. His view was of trees far left of the green. Smart money said chip out, make no worse than 5.

"I felt like I could do it," he said, "so I gave myself a chance."

A chance to do what, ruin a major body part? The mind shudders to think of what might have happened:

  1. The ball hits the root and slams back into Sergio's knee, turning him into a lifetime sweater salesman.

  2. The ball hits the root and bounds back into Sergio's forehead, turning him into Jean Van de Velde.

  3. The clubhead hits a root beneath the ball and breaks Sergio's hand, turning him into the youngest player to not quite play in a Ryder Cup. But the answer is none of the above. He swings, closes his eyes, hits the ball, spins out of the way, then dashes across the fairway and leaps up in time to see that the ball has stopped on the green.

It was the shot of the championship, perhaps of the decade—maybe of the whole century.

And he didn't charge a dime for it.