Monday, June 02, 2008

It was inevitable, I suppose. After Tiger's win at The Masters, the golf rags were full of predictable nonsense, which is my euphemism for wildebeest droppings, horse hockey, bovine loaves, or whatever you want to call it.

Frankly, it's crap. What we're dealing with here is a case of blanket denial. I hate to say I-told-you-so, but for the last few years during the course of my work, I've been doing my best to explain that Tiger Woods is in a different category, a parallel dimension, another world. In fact, he might even be of a different species, but apparently there are still some who remain convinced that part of the reason Tiger has been so astonishingly successful is that everyone else has been sucking.

Like, he has no competition, man, not like Hogan and Nelson and Snead had. Nicklaus and Palmer and Player and Casper and Trevino all had each other to battle. Watson and Ballesteros and Norman and Price wrestled with Feherty and Faldo, and don't get us started because back then the ball was made of soap, and the hole was smaller, and the wind blew harder. And they had to play in the rain as well, with those heavy old umbrellas that didn't bust those gusts. Hardly anybody wore sunscreen, they told us that cigarettes had vitamins in them, nobody got enough fiber in their diet, and in a bunker you had to watch out for the invective-laced land mines that Tom Weiskopf (with-a-lower-case "f") would occasionally leave behind him.

But now? Well, Ernie Els is a big ol' doofus, Vijay Singh couldn't play the radio, Sergio Garcia is only 11 years old, and Mickelson is left-handed, so how good could he be? When Tiger's name appears anywhere near the top of the leaderboard, these overpaid, flaccid, cocktail weenies instantly soil themselves, scream for their mommies, and start making double bogeys. They play for far too much money, they're spoiled rotten, then they go to the Senior Tour and start all over again.

Okay, I feel better now. I just hope I haven't been responsible in some way for having led anyone to believe that any of the men against whom Tiger competes are less talented than those who teed off with Hogan, Palmer, or Nicklaus. This next line is probably going to piss a few people off, but hey, I'm an announcer, and it's what I do.

I have the greatest respect for all the men who paved the way for the great players of today, but none of them ever competed against anyone like Tiger Woods. If Jack Nicklaus had been as superior back in the 1960s as Tiger is right now, the pencil-squeezers of the day might have labeled Arnold Palmer and Gary Player as gutless wonders.

When I think back about the countless times I've watched Tiger at close quarters, hitting a previously inconceivable shot with an unfeasible club from an indescribable stance out of an unplayable lie to within a few feet of an unattainable flag, it strikes me that I may not have done a good enough job of describing the scene.

At times I've been standing right next to one of those second-echelon players as such a feat is performed, and I always wish I were allowed to hand over the microphone, abdicate my responsibility, and let a more qualified person describe it. In fact, last year at Firestone, with a beautiful economy of words, Ernie Els did just that. He turned to me and said, "F*#@ me! Did you see that?" If I had drooled on for 20 minutes trying to describe it, I would have conveyed less information.

For the record, today's second-tier players -- which is to say everyone except Tiger -- do not suck. There is no suckage in the pack of players who follow Tiger in what is a completely suck-free zone. Retief Goosen's nine-under-par total at Augusta was a fantastic score on an extremely difficult golf course. What we have here is a case of blanket denial. Yes, I know that no one is meant to be that much better than the rest, but Tiger is, and his 71 on Masters Sunday was the best round of golf I have ever seen him play. That might seem a strange thing to say, but consider this: Six of the world's best seven golfers were in the final three pairings, which was unusual to say the least. It seemed to me that it might have been the first time in the history of major championship golf that if any one of five of the six leading players had played well in the final round, the only people capable of beating him would have been one of the other six.

I know it's confusing, but the point is, if the odd man out played well, short of somebody doing a Tonya Harding, no one else could win. It was like watching Paula Jones compete in a two-inch foot race before she had her nose job. It was over before it began. In fact, I felt it was over after Tiger hit his second shot to the 15th in the first round.

He had hit his tee shot way too far left, and was badly blocked behind the pines on the left side. In the first round of The Masters, an ordinary mortal superstar lays up, a notion that never even crossed Tiger's mind. Instead, he hit a sweeping 50-yard hook from about 220 yards out to within 15 feet of the hole, which was a clear declaration of intent. It said, "I will win this tournament no matter what anyone else does." I believed him.

Teeing off in the final round, Tiger was tied; three holes later, he was three blows in front. All year, and perhaps all of his life, had been preparation for the start to that round. He had 15 holes left to play, but for the 31/2 hours it took, he had only one shot left to hit -- the next one.

I heard some people say they thought the last round was boring. I must have been watching something else. For me, it was like watching the perfect combination of animal and machine in an electrifying, lithe, sinuous stalk. But contrary to popular belief, Tiger didn't terrify his competition into timorous, quivering wrecks, or destroy their scorecards by some kind of subconscious emotional bullying. The golf course took care of that. Maybe I didn't do a good enough job of explaining how difficult the golf course was on Sunday. It was played at full length, with the holes cut in brutal positions, and at Augusta that means the tiniest error at any time, on any shot, equals big numbers.

With unbreakable focus, relentless resolve, and equal parts artistic impression and technical merit, "the man" quietly put himself in a place where, if "the others" wanted to catch him, they would have had to gamble on every shot they hit. Anyone who gambles on every shot at Augusta National loses, even if they're Tiger Woods, and Tiger Woods knew that.

I'll probably be accused of writing this piece out of a sycophantic need to be Tiger's friend. Well, that would be nice, but he and I are just acquaintances, and we have a professional relationship. We don't exchange e-mail, send each other flowers, and I don't have his cell number. Sometimes he's an asshole to the media, and sometimes I'm a media asshole.

He does his job and I do mine, part of which is to give an opinion of the way things are in golf. I'm smart enough to know what opinions are like, and that everyone has one, and I think Tiger plays a game with which no one else has ever been familiar. He doesn't just surprise people like Ernie Els; I think he even surprises himself.

So with that in mind, maybe it's time we gave ourselves a break for being surprised, and one for the boys who finish behind him, too. Those who try and fail when Tiger wins are superb players, every bit as talented and dedicated as the men who challenged Nicklaus in his day and Hogan in his. To suggest otherwise is asinine.

All of Tiger's rivals give it their best shot, and none of them does anything of which they should be ashamed. If any of them had gotten away with their gambling at Augusta, Tiger would have squeezed on his throttle until the competition was once again framed in his rear-view mirror a comfortable distance behind.

Everybody sit cross-legged in a circle now, link hands, gaze at the mother crystal, and say after me: "Nobody sucks. He is that good." (Repeat until everyone but you lapses into a coma, and then phone your bookmaker.)

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