By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Images from ESPN.com and PGATour.com
Just days after finishing up the 2004 season’s second major, there remains an audible buzz of excitement in the world of golf. Stories are swirling like a tornado in the aftermath of Sunday’s US Open conclusion, where South African Retief Goosen held off ‘rock star’ Phil Mickelson’s bid to become the world’s best player to have ‘only’ won two majors.
The fact that Goosen won, or Mickelson didn’t, isn’t what’s on the minds of golf fans. Most people are continuing to wonder what’s happening with the game’s #1 ranked player, Tiger Woods (for how long?), and if there’s any merit to what his former swing coach, Butch Harmon, theorized about Tiger’s change in aggressive mentality. Then there’s the issue of whether the rise of Mickelson demonstrates a permanent power shift in professional golf, or if ‘Lefty’ will soon re-claim his position as the man who comes oh-so-close, but in the end will only be beloved for his tremendous attitude and tragic shortcomings when the pressure’s on.
The ‘new’ Tiger too tame?
Harmon started a storm of controversy when he said that Woods’ not-for-the-better change in attitude is best demonstrated by his post-round comments in recent tournaments – that instead of saying ‘I had a bad round’ and heading to the range to fix things like he did when he was smashing all competitors in 2000-2002, Tiger’s resorted to making excuses, like ‘I’m real close’ when talking about the coming-together of his golf game.
|Victory is sweet -- Retief Goosen deserved his second US Open victory with solid play and outstanding putting. Photo from ESPN.com.|
Harmon correctly pointed out that Woods is having extraordinary trouble keeping his ball in the fairway off the tee, even with irons and fairway woods – and that his short game is over burdened in trying to right the ship.
Harmon then said that Woods isn’t working on the right things, even though he admits he doesn’t know exactly what Tiger’s been working on (as no one seems to know, and Tiger’s not forthcoming with the answers, either).
Tiger was clearly bothered by Harmon’s comments – perhaps not on the course, but in his post-round interviews. Woods said, “I don’t know why he would say something like that,” but you’ve got to wonder why Tiger would be surprised that Harmon would wonder aloud what nearly everybody’s been thinking. Harmon’s never been one to mince words, and there’s no credibility issue here – since Harmon’s given much acclaim for creating the winning ‘machine’ that prior to July, 2002, won seven out of the previous eleven major championships.
Tiger’s tally since winning the US Open at Bethpage two years ago – oh for eight.
Sure, everybody points to a similar dry spell in Jack Nicklaus’s career, under hauntingly similar time frames. But Nicklaus wasn’t undergoing the same types of life changes Woods in experiencing, with the young man’s upcoming marriage (which he’s admitted that golf’s not as important as it once was), and then there’s the fairly public professional ‘divorce’ between Woods and Harmon showing some fresh wounds.
|Is Butch Harmon right? Has Tiger lost his aggressive attitude? Photo from ESPN.com.|
Meanwhile, NBC commentator Johnny Miller’s spared no criticism, calling several of Woods’ shots ‘brutal’ during the 2004 final round, and himself questioning whether Woods’ firm grasp of shot-making might be slipping, since he seems helpless to execute even basic tee shots on a regular basis.
Is this all a case of kicking someone when he’s down?
It’s obvious there are some problems with Tiger, and no matter how much he tries to deny them, or how many times golf commentators insist that Tiger’s still the best player in the game – well, the results show otherwise.
One can only admire what Tiger accomplished from the ’99 PGA Championship through the ’02 US Open, winning those seven majors and shattering several records in the process. Woods’ incredible short game will always keep him in the tournament, so to speak, but you also should see that several players seem to have passed him for title of ‘World’s Best Player.’ The names Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh immediately come to mind, and they very well might ascend to the top ranking very soon unless Woods’ performances in the 2004 British Open and PGA Championships shows marked improvement.
‘Mick’ The Rock Star
|For much of Sunday afternoon, Mickelson had the steely eyed look of a US Open Champion. Photo from ESPN.com.|
Somewhat of a refreshing distraction from Tiger’s troubles is Phil Mickelson’s sudden rise to super-stardom. Always a crowd favorite (even when not a major winner), Mickelson’s star power has reached a zenith that even the ever-popular Woods never achieved.
People love an underdog, and though it took Mickelson 47 tries to win his first major at this year’s Masters, people still see him as the ‘good guy’ who deserves to win every time out – and when he doesn’t there’s a wave of grief. It was tangible, the deflation of people’s emotions when Phil double-bogeyed the 17th hole on Sunday. At that time, they realized he wouldn’t be leaping with joy after holing another dramatic putt to defeat the oh-so-sedate, un-heroic but steady Retief Goosen.
Up to that point, the crowds thundered, even leaving Saturday’s playing partner Shigeki Maruyama to claim that the noise ‘hurt.’ The NBC announcers were also stumbling over each other trying to invent new adjectives to describe the New York fans’ depth of feeling towards the newfound idol. And through it all, Mickelson sheepishly smiled, nodded, high-fived the gallery and gallantly played the reluctant hero.
Johnny Miller said Mick was the greatest ‘love’ of fans since Arnold Palmer.
But he didn’t win. Would the ‘old’ Tiger Woods have double-bogeyed the 71st hole in a major championship after he’d just taken the lead? Not likely. Neither would Jack Nicklaus. The fans loved Mick anyway.
|Another crowd favorite, Fred Funk, made the trip around Shinnecock Hills with Phil Mickelson. The two players seemed to bask in the adulation of the fans. Photo from PGATour.com.|
Here’s not suggesting that Mickelson ‘choked’ -- far from it. He battled admirably and there was still a feeling of satisfaction, despite his taking home the second prize. And the fact that ‘Mick’ seems to have replaced Tiger as the game’s most adored player is a good thing for the sport – it shows that good guys can win, after all, even when failing to produce a preponderance of happy endings. People love a reluctant hero, and Phil fills that role perfectly.
Does it mean he’ll reel off a string of brilliant triumphs in the next two seasons, a la Tiger? Sorry folks, probably not.
But enjoy it while it lasts.
Duval’s Return – Cheers or Tissues?
Two other great players returned to the spotlight last week, one from an injury, the other… a sabbatical?
|Mickelson took the loss hard, but behaved like a true champion. Photo from ESPN.com.|
2003 US Open Champion Jim Furyk returned to professional golf, perhaps months ahead of schedule, played well and made the cut – holing out from a bunker on the par five 16th hole during Friday’s second round, scoring an eagle that allowed him to stay around for the weekend. It hardly mattered that he was fourteen-over the rest of the way, finishing in a tie for 48th – his courageous comeback and presence in America’s national championship was tremendous to see.
Then there’s the ‘other’ comeback-ee, David Duval. Duval, you might remember, ‘quit’ playing late last year in a season where he made only four cuts in twenty tournaments – just a season and a half removed from his British Open victory in July, 2001.
There were injury issues for David, but also a confessed lack of enthusiasm for playing competitive golf anymore. Duval said it stopped being ‘fun’ after the ’01 PGA Championship, and he’s been busy working on his personal life – getting married, becoming a father to his wife’s three kids, becoming a son again, etc…
He further claimed his realized moment of ‘wanting’ to compete again came while playing a solo round at Cherry Hills in his new hometown, Denver – so he called his wife and said he was going to New York the next week to play in the US Open.
All very emotional, the former world number one player ‘finding himself’ and heading back to the Tour – and was warmly embraced by fans, despite shooting 83-82 and beating only one player of those completing 36 holes. Duval said he ‘enjoyed’ himself thoroughly, but doesn’t know when he’ll play on Tour again.
|David Duval wasn't the only one having trouble finding his ball in the rough -- but he was one of the few who said he actually enjoyed it. Photo from ESPN.com.|
It’s great to see David Duval back again, but for his fans and professional golf in general, it’s hard to muster a great deal of sympathy for his prolonged absence. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to be asking for it, but he’s been extremely fortunate that the fruits from his talent and hard work allowed him to take a ‘break’ from his avocation and then just ‘decide’ he wanted to compete in the season’s most important event, even if his game wasn’t ready.
He says the media has no right to criticize athletes for what they do – and do not do. It’s true, the media’s been especially hard on Duval for many things – his unwillingness to share his personal life with the public, his injuries, his combatant attitude, his comments on the ‘meaning’ (or lack thereof) of the Ryder Cup… and the list goes on. All of it goes with being at the top of your sport/profession. Maybe it’s because the rest of us are trying to discover the secrets of greatness, maybe it’s our modern society’s tabloid mentality, and maybe we’re all just jealous.
Or maybe we just expected more from a great champion… even if we don’t have the ‘right’ to do so.
Whatever the reason, if Duval had handled his comeback with the class, style and determination of a great competitor like Jim Furyk, he’d probably be getting nothing but a series of handshakes and warm greetings from all involved, instead of a pile of dry tissues and some half-felt but polite ‘welcome back(s).’
But to say anything more might do further damage to Duval’s seemingly delicate psyche – he’s a mighty sensitive fellow, after all.
|The 2004 US Open lacked the dramatic ending of 1999's, but it was still a nice tribute to fathers everywhere. Photo of Payne Stewart by Larry Lambrecht.|
That being said, we all hope to see David Duval competing at the top level again – we missed him in that role. He’s been a mainstay on our national teams for nearly a decade now, and his smooth swing is nothing but pure poetry to the eye.
But don’t say you enjoyed yourself while finishing next to last, David – that’s something that most ‘human’ golfers have plenty of experience with… and it’s never fun. At all.
The 2004 US Open
Winner: Retief Goosen.
Winning score: 276.
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