August 25, 2008

The Same But Different

Reflections on Beijing and golf's changing world

I am sorry to see the beijing olympics come and go. I could order a highlight DVD of Michael Phelps' record-smashing swims, but that won't keep the Olympic spirit as alive as when the Summer Games ended 40 years ago. Back then I could go across the street and watch Ricky, one of the older kids in my neighborhood, do his Bob Seagren imitation by pole vaulting with a taped-up bamboo pole into a pit of pine straw. He broke no records--and, fortunately, no bones--but his backyard vaults made golf seem mighty meek by comparison.

The Olympics offered a helpful primer in how golf is similar and apart from the sports already in the quadrennial mix.'

If the International Golf Federation gets its wish, golf will be an Olympic sport in 2016. IGF officials were in China last week to see and and be seen. Whether the lobbying succeeds or not, golf is more Olympics-like than ever, a global game with fresh faces making their mark. The latest is Danny Lee, the 18-year-old South Korean native who lives in New Zealand. With a remarkable putting display on the greens of Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2, Lee became the youngest player to win the U.S. Amateur Sunday. His historic victory is another example of how the old Scotsgame is awash in a tide of talent from all over, athletes who don't want to run hard, swim fast or jump high but instead are motivated to tackle golf's unique set of skills and put in the long hours to master them.

Tiger Woods has done wonders in convincing skeptics that golfers are athletes and turning more athletes into golfers. Golf in the Olympics might accelerate these developments and would expose the sport to more people. In the meantime this Olympics offered a helpful primer in how golf is similar and apart from the sports already in the quadrennial mix.

Usain Bolt, the 6-foot-5 Jamaican sprinter who swept the 100- and 200-meter races in world-record times, reminded me of Gary Player's forecast that golf will increasingly attract taller, stronger individuals in greater numbers. Michael Johnson, who had owned the 200-meter world record since 1996, noted that runners as tall as Bolt would routinely have been steered toward longer distances because his height would have been seen as a negative coming out of the blocks. Bolt is a bit scrunched up at the start but more than makes up for it as he hits his long stride. His performances were stunning, much as many of Woods' have been.

"How fast can the human being go before there's no more going fast?" fellow sprinter Kim Collins marveled to The New York Times. Bolt's 9.69-second time in the 100 clearly wasn't his peak, because in the track equivalent of playing the 72nd hole with a wedge and putter while holding an eight-shot lead, he showboated casually at the tape.

With Phelps it was a case of an athlete targeting a long-existing mark (Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics) and surpassing it, completing a compressed version of Woods' climb toward Jack Nicklaus' 18 professional major championships. Phelps set seven world records, the same number as Spitz in 1972, but according to an analysis in The Wall Street Journal, he won his races by an average of 0.67 percent, compared to Spitz's 1.58 percent winning margin.

World records fell like dominos, the swimmers assisted by drag-reducing Speedo LZR swimsuits and a wider and deeper pool that kept the water smoother, the runners by a Mondotrack surface that seems to have gotten even more sprinter-friendly since Johnson called the 1996 iteration a "magic carpet."

Golf records last longer, for a few reasons. In many sports, as the Olympics proved, technology is an unfettered enabler. But in golf, advances in instruction, talent and implements are offset both by course toughening and the sport's inherent nature. Sixty-three remains the single-round record in a major, first set a long time ago: Johnny Miller (1973 U.S. Open), Bruce Crampton (1975 PGA), Mark Hayes (1977 British Open) and Nick Price (1986 Masters). Thirteen of the 20 rounds of 60 shot on the PGA Tour have occurred since 1990, but only three 59s have ever been shot. The hole is still only 4¼ inches in diameter, and golf remains much like the biathlon--two sports in one.

Golf is still settled on the greens, the right putt at the right time. Despite significant advances in technique, turf and technology to keep a putterhead from twisting, the challenge hasn't changed. The PGA Tour scoring average dropped from 71.72 in 1987 to 70.86 in 2007, an improvement of .860 of a shot, but the tour putting average per green in regulation improved only .017 of a stroke, from 1.805 putts per GIR in 1987 to 1.788 last season. There hasn't been a sports drink invented yet to keep a golfer from spitting cotton at crunch time, no wicking fabric to eliminate sweaty palms.

Phelps says he looks forward to playing some golf to wind down from his Olympic feats. Practice your putting, Michael.