On Monday mornings, I will sometimes get a call from my friend Fred, a former Merion caddie, now 79. This past Monday, the Monday before Rochester and after Akron, he was semi-fuming.
"Did you see the papers today?" he asked. Fred Anton reads papers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Harrisburg sheet. "Did you see the play Tiger's Firestone win is getting? Three inches in today's Inquirer! This is a monumental achievement!"
He's more correct than I can say. Shooting 61 en route to a seven-shot win?! For a fifth win this season?! Meaning 79 career wins at age 37?! Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods. That's the foursome for the ages since the end of World War II.
Yes, the game has changed radically in the Tiger Era. Distance now trumps accuracy, and ball height now trumps curve. But the professional golfer's main goal, to beat the field and take home the biggest check, has not changed, and the pro's responsibility is to figure out the most effective way to do that. Enter Tiger.
The point is, I believe Tiger when he says this 2013 campaign is a good year whether he wins the PGA Championship or not. (A press-tent question at Oak Hill: "If you don't come away here with a trophy, can it still remain a good year for you?" Tiger: "Yeah, I think so.") You're damn right, it's a good year. You ever make $8 million in a year?
Yes, he's trying to take pressure off himself in the year's final major, something he needs to do, because for a half-decade now he has not played weekend golf at majors the way he plays weekend golf in ordinary tournaments, and at the end of the day only one thing can explain that: the head. So he's smart to try to change his thinking. It's an act of self-protection.
But Fred's MMC (Monday morning caddie) comments got me wondering: why are we, the sports fan in general and the golf fan in particular, so ho-hum about Tiger's year and his assault on Sam Snead's record for Tour wins, 82?
Well, for one thing, he's done it, had these dominating multi-win seasons, so many times, there's no novelty in it. For another, he won at Firestone on Friday, with his 61. There was nothing left to say by Sunday night, let alone Monday morning. (He lapped the field. Again. Anything you want to add to that?) The Bridgestone win, like a lot of his wins, was against a small field, and the full-field, 72-hole events with a cut just feel like much grander occasions. Moreover, we (Tiger playing and everybody else) have so over-emphasized the majors it has come at the expense of the minors. (To me, his wins at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill — regular wins — are more memorable and meaningful than his wins at Doral and Firestone.)
But there are other things that would explain the three-inch write-ups. We tend to treat Tiger like a golfing robot. We are preconditioned to expect victory.
Also, over the course of his whole career, he's been the protagonist, but who has been his foil? Ernie, now and again. Vijay, now and again. Phil, now and again. The broad answer is nobody, really.
Really, there just hasn't been that much to hold on to, except the awesome spectacle of his golf, and we got used to that a long time ago. You never hear anybody talking about his Tour playoff record, which is 11-1. Eleven and one! One little footnote on his career is the story of a lifetime for any other player.
So now, starting Thursday, Tiger will again try, for the 18th time, to win his 15th major, at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill. Jack Nicklaus won five PGAs, in '63 at the Dallas Athletic Club, in '71 at PGA National, in '73 at Canterbury near Columbus, in '75 at Firestone and in '80 at Oak Hill. That's five of Jack's record 18 majors. As a list of courses, it is not one that stirs the blood. There were 40 or more club pros in those fields, good players who had no chance of beating Jack over 72 holes. There are 120 players in this week's field who are capable of beating Tiger over 72 holes. His task, really, is enormous. He knows it. Anytime he wins, it's an enormous achievement, even when we don't treat it as such.
We can all see the creases of life in Tiger. To me, he's a more interesting person in 2013 than he was in 2003. He's still trying to sell himself as a bland person, but he's not fooling anybody. He's not a bland person and he's not a bland athlete. Seventy-nine Tour wins, five of them this year, beating the world. You nailed it, Fred: that win Tiger had at Firestone is a monumental achievement, no matter what he does this week at Oak Hill. Jack's win at Firestone in '75 has followed him around ever since, and when you get right down to it, Woods last week and Jack 38 years ago pretty much did the same thing. They beat the assembled players.