Sunday, June 19, 2011

While crowning the new Tiger, don't bury the old one just yet

Padraig Harrington suggested it, others agreed. Rory McIlroy might have a better chance of passing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories. Rory McIlroy, winner of one major. Rory McIlroy has the better chance and not Tiger Woods, winner of 14 majors.

There are a hundred reasons someone might believe it, although relatively few that make much sense. McIlroy's effort was awe-inspiring, because of the results and the ease with which he dominated. The winning score of -16 would catch your eye if it happened in an August tournament that no one cares about, one that doesn't even end on CBS because it drags on past the 7 p.m. hour and 60 Minutes must start on time. To do it in the U.S. Open is mind-boggling. Yet that score might not even be the most impressive aspect of McIlroy's performance. The when is just as important as the what. He did it two months after collapsing in the final round of the Masters, when he trudged around the course looking like a kid who'd been beaten up on the way to school.

How many sports equivalents can you think of that compare to McIlroy's rebound? It'd be like Buckner hitting three homers in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, or Nick Anderson burying 15 straight free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the 1995 NBA Finals. Athletes who collapse don't bounce back like this, at least not immediately. They can rebound in a year, maybe two, but rarely will it happen in the next big event and often it never happens at all. There's likely never been anyone who's ever dominated like McIlroy did just one major following his disastrous final round. I struggle to think of comparisons. In tennis, Jana Novotna blew the 1993 women's final at Wimbledon and cried on center court. She eventually won her Wimbledon title - five years later.

No, McIlroy stands alone, in more ways than one. But as people praise the kid from Northern Ireland and pronounce him to be the main threat to Jack's record, it's worth stepping back and looking at the guy who's still the dominant figure in golf - even if he's no longer it's dominant player.

With his physical injuries and mental maladies, Tiger Woods has never seemed so diminished, as McIlroy's youthful dominance reminds people of what Tiger once was while making them wonder if he'll ever be close to that again. But this isn't football, baseball or basketball, where athletes peak in their 20s or early 30s. This is golf - the sport where a 60-year-old could be within a par on the 72nd hole of winning a major.

The leg injuries make Tiger seem older than he is and they might ultimately end his career prematurely, along with his chase of Nicklaus. But the calendar says he is still 35, even if his body and our eyes say different.

He's 35. And he's won 14 majors. It seems like he hasn't won one in forever and it seems like he never will again. Think of the columns that run after every one of his major failures. He might not catch Nicklaus. He's losing time. He's blowing too many opportunities. Nicklaus is out of reach. The articles have been written since his dramatic U.S. Open victory in 2008.

But then think about this: If Tiger wins one of his next 11 majors - just one out of the next 11 - he'll be ahead of Nicklaus' career pace. Jack didn't win his 15th major until the 1978 British Open, when he was 38 years old. He didn't win 16 and 17 until he was 40. The last two and a half years Tiger's gone winless in the majors and to hear commentators - who dissect his swing with the intensity of Oliver Stone looking at the Zapruder film - you'd think he had the ugliest game outside of Charles Barkley. Terrible swing, he's lost it with the putter, no confidence. Yet since 2009, these are his finishes in the majors:

2009: T6, T6, Missed cut, 2.
2010: T4, T4, T23, T28.
2011: T4.

And that's with a bad swing and no game. What if he gets more comfortable with his swing and with his new life? Is it that difficult to picture him again reeling off victory after victory?

This drought is also nothing new for Tiger, even if the circumstances - crashes! women! sex! Perkins waitresses! rehab! golf clubs to the head! - are unlike anything else. He's played in nine majors without a victory. After his 1997 Masters triumph, he went 10 majors without a victory, before winning the 1999 PGA. Then, after steamrolling golf in 2000-2002, he went 10 more majors without a victory, before winning the 2005 Masters. During those dry spells, the same columns were written - he's lost his confidence, he's lost his swing, what's he doing, who's the next Tiger? But both times he figured it out. And when Tiger begins to win, when he does figure out the new swing that everyone thinks looks worse than the old one, the victories come in bunches - three majors in a year, four in two years. We've seen these struggles before, but we've also seen the turnaround. He's gone nine majors now without a victory. Maybe it will again be 10. But then?

The injuries, of course, provide a driver-sized asterisk to all of this. If he can hurt his knee while swinging under a tree at the Masters, what's going to happen the next time he takes one of his vicious cuts from a vicious lie? Health is the great unknown, as it is for any athlete. But we should know what will happen if he does stay upright.

And one more note on McIlroy's victory and how it compares to Tiger's 2000 romp at Pebble Beach. Was it more dominant? More impressive? It was certainly a lower score. Rory won by eight, a nearly unfathomable number. Yet Tiger nearly doubled that margin of victory, winning by 15. And this year, 38 players finished the U.S. Open at +2 or better. In 2000? One player - just one - did that.

Does it mean Tiger Woods will ever be that good again? Of course not. But chances are - whether it's this year or next, two majors from now or five - he'll again be great.


BStrong said...


Thanks again for meeting up with us in the City. I enjoyed reconnecting and discussing ol' TBC! Enjoyed getting your knowledge on how to get around and things to check out! We absolutely enjoyed it! We need to come back sometime when we have more time! Thanks again!


Shawn Fury said...

Great seeing you guys too. Next time you come, make sure you have proper identification this time or you won't be allowed anywhere.

BStrong said...

Haha, either that or I'll get an evil stare from a guy who looks like he'd be better off in Nathan's Hot Dog eating contest than checking ID's!