Monday, June 16, 2008

Change of Heart

Pretty early in this blog's history to already have a complete reversal of opinion, don't you think? No matter, because after what I witnessed over the course of five days from Torrey Pines Golf Course reminded me why I was a Tiger Guy in the first place.

Let's start from where we should: the beginning. Thursday seemed like the start of a lackluster tournament for Tiger. Obviously still hurting from his recent arthroscopic knee surgery, I wondered if maybe he forced himself back into competition a bit too early. At certain points this week, it was tough to watch as he finished his swing over that tender left leg and quickly recoiled, grimacing from the pain.

Anyway, Thursday was very ho-hum. Sure, Eldrick was only a few back of the leaders and most certainly still in contention for his 14th major championship, but there was no evidence of that Tiger Magic that always seems to happen on a weekend when he is destined to take home the hardware.

Boy, did that change on Friday. Starting on the back nine and playing with hometown favorite Phil Mickelson, he once again had difficulty shaking off his early-Open malaise. He did manage to drop in an eagle at the par-5 13th though, a harbinger of the pyrotechnics to come. Moving to the front nine (his second nine of the day), he punched out from under a tree to 20 feet at No. 1 and drained the birdie putt. Suddenly, the show was commencing.

Tiger went on to shoot a lights-out 30 on his second nine Friday afternoon, putting him one back of 36-hole leader Stuart Appleby of Australia. The scene was set for a Saturday charge, and the best player in the world (and all time?) obliged the responsive galleries at Torrey Pines.

What followed was as spectacular a trio of golf shots as any of us will ever see, all in the last six holes, no less!

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying that the last thing I thought I'd be doing after this U.S. Open was detailing another exhilarating major victory for Mr. Woods. This was not because I doubted his ability to shrug off injury to defeat a world-class field yet again; rather, my doubt was born strictly of spite. I felt slighted that Tiger had dismissively and laughingly said in a TV interview that "no one watched hockey anymore."

Admittedly, I was sore at this offense because it's a refrain we hear too much in a sporting culture that has quickly become one of a "mainstream or bust" attitude. This weekend, though, I realized that you can't cast dispersions on someone if you don't like the environment in which they were brought up. My conclusion: Tiger wasn't raised in a household that enjoyed hockey, so he didn't become attached to it like I did. He cut his teeth in SoCal, not exactly a hotbed for the Canadian-born sport, even after Gretzky's arrival in Los Angeles in the late '80s. I'm sure if he met Sidney Crosby he would find a certain kinship of greatness, like he famously has found in Roger Federer.

Nonetheless, all thought of perceived slights was vaporized by the final round Sunday. I found my familiar comfort zone of pulling for Tiger no matter what, as I would love to see the most driven athlete of our time achieve his goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus' total of 18 professional majors.

I don't have to tell you what happened next. (That's what the Internet is for, right?) Tiger and Western PA-raised journeyman duffer Rocco Mediate memorably squared off in a showdown sure to be among the best in the annals of sport. The staredown was friendly, to be sure, with the affable Rocco bringing some welcome levity to a multitude of tense moments, both in Sunday's supposedly "final" round, and in today's 18-hole mano a mano playoff tussle. Oh wait, that's right; it actually went 19 holes...or 91 if you're counting every ball struck from Thursday morning to Monday afternoon.

Under a partial blanket of seaside clouds, Tiger Woods captured what he would later call, all things considered, his greatest championship in an already legendary career. No hyperbole here, just the facts. I happen to agree with his assessment, when you weigh all the challenges, internal (balky knee) and external (Mediate's very best charge plus the typically-testing US Open layout).

The 2008 US Open was all golf, and sports, can be. If it happened to rob some Monday workday productivity in the process, even better. Not that Tiger will ever know, but his performance forced me to get past my selfish grudge over an offhand comment and simply appreciate another transcendant moment authored by the king of mental toughness and singular focus. Just listen to none other than Tiger's late father, Earl Woods, tell it in this new Nike commercial that serendipitously and appropriately debuted this weekend.

Coming Tomorrow

An overview on the Pirates strange, mysterious, frustrating and somewhat rewarding weekend in Baltimore.

Until then, hit 'em straight folks.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I'm not normally an underdog guy because I respect the best at their best, but I was really pulling for Rocco. He will never have a chance at the Open again, and when Tiger hit the birdies on Sunday and Monday on No. 18 my heart sunk for him. I love Tiger, too. Heck, I drink his Gatorade just because he is on it.