By John Feinstein
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The next eight months will not be a lot of fun for Tiger Woods.
Until the Masters next April, he is going to be subjected to questions about his failure to win a major championship in 2009. Every time he turns on the Golf Channel -- which he does a lot -- he's going to see some kind of panel wondering if he's lost a little bit of his edge because of fatherhood and knee troubles. His swing and his putting stroke will be replayed in super slow motion about a zillion times.
All of it will be ridiculous.
What happened Sunday during the final round of the PGA Championship is something that has happened to every great athlete at some point in his career: Woods had a bad day at the wrong time. The difference is, it had never happened to him before, so watching Y.E. Yang storm past him was stunning.
What shouldn't be stunning is that it was someone such as Yang -- the 110th-ranked player in the world who was playing in the PGA Tour's qualifying school last December -- who should finally catch Woods from behind in a major. The guys who have come closest in the past to pulling off this sort of shocker were Bob May at the PGA Championship in 2000 and Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open last year.
Neither May nor Mediate, good players and good guys, is going to the Hall of Fame at any point unless they buy a ticket. Neither is Yang, who didn't even take up the game until he was 19 and played overseas until this year before deciding, at the age of 37, to take a shot at the big time.
May, Mediate and Yang can face Woods without fear. As Mediate said last year after his great battle with Woods at Torrey Pines: "He's Tiger Woods. I'm supposed to lose to him. No one expects me to beat him, so what have I got to lose?"
Exactly. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington all feel as if they have something to lose. When they're paired with Woods in a major or close to him on Sunday (which hasn't happened much through the years, has it?), that, at their best, they can beat him on a given Sunday. Except they don't. He handles the pressure better than they do. He walks away with the win, and they walk away shaking their heads.
One thing is now clear in assessing Woods's career: Those who say Jack Nicklaus faced higher-quality competition in his peak years are right. There just isn't an Arnold Palmer, a Gary Player, a Lee Trevino or a Tom Watson in this group. Just check the numbers on those four: 30 majors among them and several down-to-the-wire battles with Nicklaus that Nicklaus lost. That's one reason Nicklaus finished second in majors 19 times.
The best players of Woods's generation -- the aforementioned Mickelson, Singh, Els and Harrington -- have 12 majors among them (three apiece), and none has ever won a memorable duel with Woods at a major. There's no Watson at Turnberry (1977), no Trevino at Muirfield (1972). There just isn't.
That's no knock on Woods. You can only beat those who show up to play you, and his top challengers simply haven't shown up very often when major titles have been at stake. It looked for a while Sunday as if Harrington might hang with him but then he imploded. Els, as has become his habit since his knee surgery three years ago, got some TV time, but never seriously contended. Mickelson gets a pass this time because he is still dealing with the aftermath of his wife's breast cancer surgery. Singh, it says here, is done winning majors at the age of 46. Making the top 10? Sure. Winning? Don't think so.
Of course the pick here yesterday wasn't exactly Yang. Not when they teed it up, not even after he chipped in for eagle at 14. The three-putt at 17 was going to be the turning point, the moment when he woke up and realized the other guy was Tiger Woods and he wasn't.
Except that he hit a historically brilliant second shot at 18, made a birdie and left Woods to finish up with a meaningless par putt.
A lot of people are going to moan and groan about what might have been in the 2009 majors: Kenny Perry could have been the oldest man to win a major at the Masters until he tightened up the last two holes and lost to Angel Cabrera in a playoff. Mickelson was right there to break his U.S. Open jinx, tied for the lead with five holes to play but couldn't close the deal. Tom Watson was literally one decent bounce from one of the greatest moments in golf history at the British Open, and then Yang outdueled Woods at the PGA.
Instead of Perry, Mickelson, Watson and Woods -- three lock Hall of Famers (Watson's already there) and one possible if he could win a major (Perry) -- golf got Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Yang. Only Cabrera had won a major before. None of the four was ranked in the top 25 in the world (Yang is 110) before his victory.
Guess what? It's okay. Sometimes sports is about what-might-have-been moments. Certainly Watson's victory would have been uniquely remarkable, but the grace with which he handled his defeat is something we'll all remember and savor.
As for Yang and Woods, a different ending isn't such a bad thing. Woods on Sunday with a lead at a major had become predictable. This was different, something you couldn't take your eyes off because you really couldn't believe it was going to happen until it actually did.
Yang got it. When someone asked if he wanted a rematch with Woods someday, he shook his head and said, "No rematch, no redo."
Smart man. He knows that all the analysis and over-analysis of "what went wrong" with Woods this year will be massively overblown. The guy has won five times on tour this year and will probably win at least twice more. He will be player of the year again. Is he angry that he didn't win a major for the first time since 2004? You bet he is. You can bet that everyone who works for him is walking on eggshells right now.
But this is nothing more than a glitch. Nicklaus didn't win a major between 1967 and 1970 at the peak of his powers. Golf's a hard game, even for the greatest players of all time.
Years ago someone asked Ben Hogan what he considered a perfect round of golf.
"A perfect round of golf is an 18," he said. "I once dreamed I made 17 holes-in-one in a row and lipped out on 18. I woke up angry."
Even in their dreams, the immortals can't conquer golf. Woods comes about as close as you can possibly come. The fact that he's human every once in a while just makes the game that much more fun.