A Year Of What-ifs In Golf Majors
Wednesday - August 26, 2009
Call 2009 the year of the what-should-have-been in golf. Four majors and four major disappointments. From The Masters to the PGA Championship, we were teased, delighted, encouraged but finally disappointed as every great story line fell short while those who give economic power to the sport’s engines sputtered along.
At Augusta, Kenny Perry entered Sunday in a tie with Argentinian Angel Cabrera. With Tiger out of the running and Phil Mickelson seven strokes back, all attention was on the affable 48-year-old tour favorite, who was searching for his first major. With three wins and eight top 10 finishes in 2008 plus a win in February at the FBR Open, Perry was suddenly the one to beat. A win would have supplanted Jack Nicklaus as the oldest player to win the Masters. It didn’t happen. On the back nine Cabrera seemed to hit the ball in every direction but straight yet somehow held off Perry and a hard-charging Mickelson. Cabrera won in extra holes, but all the talk was about the nice guy who finished second.
With Mickelson’s wife battling cancer and David Duval’s disappearance from the leader board a decade ago, no one could have imagined either making a run at the U.S. Open title. But they did. Viewers stuck to their TVs, fans packed the gallery and everyone with a media pass was ready to craft an inspirational tale when 2009 took over. With an eagle at 13, Phil was ready to take the top spot until he bogeyed 15 and 17 to once again miss victory. Duval entered five strokes behind leader Ricky Barnes, but just fell short even after birdies on 14, 15 and 16. Barnes blew up with a final round 76, allowing Lucas Glover to back into a title with a 3 over par 73.
At 59, Tom Watson was an amusing first round leader after shooting 65 at the 138th Open Championship. The Hall of Famer and eight-time major winner was the perfect subject for strolls down memory lane intent to hold our attention until the real players took over. But the unexpected happened. Tom kept playing great golf. He finished day two tied with Steve Marino and led outright after Saturday. For 71 holes Watson was the coolest man on the course. Walking with his hands folded behind his back, he looked nothing like a man ready to burst one of the game’s great records. Needing only a par to best Julius Boros’ age-defying record by 11 years, Watson nervously short stroked his final putt to hand the title to Steward Cink and turn a great story into a bland tale.
We all knew the numbers. Coming into the final round of the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods was a perfect 14 for 14 when entering the final round with the lead in a major. Tiger’s two stroke lead over Y.E. Yang and Padraig Harrington seemed safe - especially after Harrington suffered a second consecutive weekly blowup with an eight on the par 3 eighth. Yang, who didn’t begin playing golf until the age of 19, would surely fold under the pressure. He almost did. Yang bogied 16 and 17 before ending with a final birdie to wrap up the title by three strokes, becoming the biggest historical footnote in Asian golf since Tze-Chung Chen lost the 1985 U.S. Open after double hitting his chip shot.
Of the four, Tiger’s loss is most surprising and Watson’s most disappointing. But from the ashes of disappointment can emerge the flower of knowledge.
With Tiger’s defeat now, perhaps, casual fans and commentators can finally admit that perfection does not exist. Not even for the most dominant athlete of our time. Tiger has become a victim of his own success and has created a level of expectation that not even he can possibly live up to, each win the result of his immense talent and every loss the direct effect of his poor play. It is true that had Tiger made a few more putts, he would have won. It is equally true that had Yang made a few more putts, he would have buried Tiger. To say Tiger is never beaten, that he only beats himself with poor play, insults not only his competitors but Woods himself.
Golf is a game of mistakes. The winners are those who take advantage of the physical and mental errors. Woods has taken advantage of those miscues better than anyone, but he’s not unflappable, nor the only one with talent on tour. Only nine golfers finished under par at the PGA, and Yang shot 13 under on his final 49 holes.
If they replayed this major another 100 times, Tiger would win 90. But for four days, the 110th-ranked golfer was the world’s best.
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