In pro football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis and many other sports, the Noble Nobody — the accomplished athlete who is in the middle of his sport — has few chances, if any, for days of grandeur, for a week in which he is the central focus of his game and ends up holding a large trophy.
The 600th-best player in the NFL, the 400th-best baseball player, the 200th-best man in the NBA or the 100th-ranked tennis player in the world may have a miracle moment in a big postseason game or a great early-round upset at Wimbledon. But they don’t get to experience the pressure and the pleasure of a victory that is all theirs, one that requires them to survive the spotlight for days.
Golf does. And it does so regularly.
A sport known for its mean streak may show this unique generosity again at Congressional Country Club in the Quicken Loans National. Of the four 36-hole co-leaders, three have never won on the PGA Tour. This might be a joyful weekend for one of them: journeyman Ricky Barnes, the son of an NFL punter; or Marc Leishman, known for the photos of his jubilant gyrations when fellow Aussie Adam Scott won the Masters; or even 20-year-old Oliver Goss, playing in only his second pro event, who wasn’t allowed in the Congressional clubhouse this week because he didn’t have PGA Tour credentials.
Also in the top 10 are Morgan Hoffman, Fredrik Jacobson, Billy Horschel, Stewart Appleby, George McNeill and Hudson Swafford. The average world ranking of the top 10 leaders here is 241st; only co-leader Patrick Reed (No. 29) ranks higher than 64th.
Fans may have wanted a weekend leader board with some of the 16 major tournament winners in the field, such as Tiger Woods (74-75), Jason Dufner or Keegan Bradley, who all missed the cut. They may have hoped for a world top-10 star like Jason Day, who missed the cut, or Jordan Spieth, 20, who just made it.
Time to tee up some other type of fun. Unless a distinguished personage like Justin Rose, the ’13 U.S. Open winner and No. 10 in the world, jumps from 11th place to win, there’s a good chance this weekend will be a high point in the professional existence of a Noble Nobody, the kind of athlete who deserves a chance to spend a weekend on national TV but, except in golf, almost never has a prayer of it happening.
In golf, the gap between the 10 best players in the world and the 100th best is 1.52 strokes a round — or just six shots per tournament. Four days seems like a lot of golf, but in reality, it is just a small enough data sample to allow a huge range of players to win. To win Wimbledon over two weeks of matches, there are so many shots that talent almost inevitably prevails. Golf, with 72 holes of play, can be the opposite — similar to an “underdetermined system” in mathematics that can have no solution or an infinite number of solutions.
All it takes is a hot streak, a swing change, a few lucky bounces, a course that suits your style or hot putting — plus the guts to finish on Sunday evening — to win and join the list of Tour winners. Even in major championships the number of shock winners far exceeds any other sport.
For many years Washington has enjoyed these summer surprises. D.C. has often been an average Tour stop with decent but not wonderful fields. So “unknowns” often won. Except that sometimes those emerging players from the Kemper Open days at Congressional turned out to be stars like Greg Norman, Craig Stadler and Fred Couples.
This whole ’14 PGA Tour season has, so far, been the year of the unexpected winner. The Quicken Loans scoreboard is actually a typical experience. The average world ranking of the Tour’s winners this year, on the day they won, is 83rd, with only three ranked in the top 10, according to Associated Press statistics.
Is this too much of a feel-good thing? Do fans and the sport itself really want this many typical pros to be the star of the weekly show in roughly half a season: Ryan Moore, Chris Kirk, Scott Stallings, Russell Henley, John Senden, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch, Matt Jones, Jeung-Yul Noh and Brendon Todd.
As in the case of the Shark and the Walrus, it’s hard to know how much of a “somebody” anybody might become, especially with the confidence boost of a victory. Jimmy Walker may have been little-known when he won the season’s first event but not after he won two more times. Young Hideki Matsuyama, after winning the Memorial, was touted by Jack Nicklaus as a future superstar.
Reed, after a fine amateur career, has three wins since late last year. After winning at Doral in March, he proclaimed on TV that he had shown he was “one of the five best players in the world.” Then he went into a two-month slump. Laughter. Jinx. Well, he’s baaack.
One player isn’t back: Tiger. When Nicklaus was in a slump, he often claimed he was only a grip adjustment away from galactic domination. Reporters and foes ground their back teeth. Woods is Jack’s heir in (take your pick) either happy-talk gamesmanship or a deeper grasp of his game than we’ll ever have. Woods maintains that his avert-your-eyes play — wild drives, 3 for 16 on up-and-downs and timid putting — wasn’t bad at all. He is “really encouraged.” He only beat 12 players out of 120 because he “made so many little mistakes, things I know how to fix.” Back pain’s gone. Can’t wait for the Open.
Tiger is rustier than the Titanic’s rudder. He has no chance at Royal Liverpool in three weeks. Except that in golf, to a greater degree than any sport, you really, truly never know what comes next. The difference between The Best and The Rest is so small that it can flip-flop in a blink.
If you doubt it, come to Congressional. There’s a leader board that proves it.