Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Zinger of a Captain

First off, if you’re hoping to see the U.S. reclaim the Ryder Cup this week, I regret to inform you that the early signs aren’t promising.

Start with Sunday when high winds blew through Louisville, Kentucky, rearranging some of Valhalla’s outdoor furniture and even toppling a TV tower. (Unfortunately for the U.S. team, NBC’s Johnny Miller wasn’t in it at the time.)

It got worse on Monday when the European Team plane touched down on Kentucky tarmac.

On to Plan B.

Lately, Europe’s had to do little more than simply show up at the biennial matches to keep the Cup in its clutches. And now they’re getting cocky. Europe’s Captain Nick Faldo brought only seven of his players on that London-to-Louisville express.

Perhaps they’ll give the U.S. a couple of strokes a side, too. Maybe let our boys drive the cart for a couple of holes or buy them a Jungle Juice to put in their sippy cups at the turn.

Okay, so the Euros weren’t actually planning to play shorthanded; the other five managed to find their way to Valhalla on their own. But there’s no disputing that when it comes to the Ryder Cup, Mother England and her continental cousins have been America’s Daddy.

And there’s no reason to believe they’ll lose custody this year. Europe has proven to be the better team for the last 20 years, and now – if you believe the world rankings – they have better individual players from top to bottom, too, especially with Tiger Woods in absentia. In fact, the Europeans are probably more favored to win this Ryder Cup than they’ve ever been going into any of the previous 36.

Not only have they won the last two by a combined score of 37-19, Europe has won five of the last six and had possession of the Cup for 17 of the last 24 years. The last time one side dominated that dramatically, they had to change the rules to keep it interesting. After the U.S. won each competition from 1959 to 1977, the Great Britain & Ireland team was permitted to add the rest of Europe to better balance the two sides. From 1985 to 1993, the Cup see-sawed in symmetry: two wins for Europe, then a tie, then two wins for the U.S.

Since then, there’s been about as much balance as Shaquille O’Neal teeter-tottering an Olsen twin. The U.S. has won just once since 1993 and even that one (1999) necessitated the greatest Sunday singles rally in Ryder Cup history.

America’s ignominy sunk to new depths shortly after Paul Azinger was picked to lead the U.S. team after the most recent drubbing in 2006. The PGA of America granted the new captain’s wish of amending his team’s qualification criteria to allow him four picks instead of two plus an extra three weeks to make those decisions in hopes that he could field the hottest team possible.

The changes themselves make perfect sense; that Azinger felt the need to change the rules was to tacitly concede defeat under the previous system. Just as it was for GB&I in 1979. It’s a concession Azinger never would’ve made as a player.

In some ways, the presence of Azinger and Faldo as captains hearkens back to a simpler time in Ryder Cup history.

A time when the two sides hated each other’s guts.

Back when those two were in their Ryder Cup primes, most players stuck to their own tours with the exception of the major championships and a handful of others. In that case, it was a lack of familiarity which bred contempt. The two sides barely knew each other and what they did know they didn’t like.

What was especially annoying about the European players was how often they began winning, both individually in the majors and as a team in the Ryder Cup. For three full decades – the 1950s through the 1970s – only three players from Europe won a Grand Slam event: England’s Max Faulkner and Tony Jacklin (two) and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. That’s four majors out of a whopping 120 over the course of 30 years. Not surprisingly, the U.S. lost just one Ryder Cup during that time (1957).

But from 1983 through 1994, at least one European player won a major each year except 1986. Thus it’s also not surprising that Europe would assert its Ryder Cup dominance, led by Faldo, during that stretch. From that landmark triumph in 1985 which snapped a 28-year winless streak, Europe has gone 7-3-1.

As they were getting over that proverbial hump, the Europeans also managed to get under the skin of their American opponents with an in-your-face attitude borne out of all those decades of being biennially bludgeoned. It was during this time that Azinger cut his Ryder Cup bicuspids, playing in three straight from 1989 through 1993. There were years when it appeared some of those matches might come to blows, and Azinger often played a leading role in those melee-dramas.

Two of his assistant captains this week are men he played for, Raymond Floyd (1989) and Dave Stockton (1991). Floyd, with that legendary Death Stare, has never backed down from a fight; and Stockton was commander of the U.S. troops in the infamous War by the Shore at Kiawah Island when tension between the two teams was arguably at its height. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Azinger chose them as his lieutenants? (I’m giving you the Death Stare while you think about the answer.)

Azinger has a heavily infant infantry: six of his 12 players are Ryder Cup rookies, and he likes it that way. He’s embraced the role of underdog, colorfully noting earlier this year that the only experience a lot of U.S. players have is in getting their backsides beaten. That may explain why his rear infantry – the four captain’s picks – includes three first-timers (Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, and J.B. Holmes) and two (Mahan and Holmes) who have a little swagger and aren’t afraid to use it.

The PGA of America has put nearly every kind of personality in its captain’s chair in an attempt to reclaim the Cup. They’ve tried brash (Lanny Wadkins), defiant (Curtis Strange), emotional (Ben Crenshaw), contemplative (Tom Lehman), outspoken (Hal Sutton), and guys with big glasses (Tom Kite). Most of the time it hasn’t mattered who’s been at the helm. (Pep talks don’t usually work when you’re getting your hat handed to you as Sutton’s Stetson was handed his team four years ago in a nine-point loss at Oakland Hills.)

But it mattered in 1999 when that big believer in fate, Ben Crenshaw, had “a good feelin’ about this.” “This” was a four-point deficit his U.S. team had given itself going into the Sunday singles. You might recall how that story ended.

Azinger’s just as emotional but in a different way. Where Crenshaw would wait for fate to intervene, ‘Zinger would opt for storming destiny’s Bastille. You may remember that story, too. The Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 was the rallying point of the French Revolution, which kicked King Louis XVI of France off the throne and ended monarchy in that country as they’d known it. But not before a small town in an upstart nation could name itself in the king’s honor.

The town? Louisville, Kentucky.

Europe has ruled the Ryder Cup for a long time. But dynasties don’t last forever, and every dog has his day. Can Paul Azinger storm the Bastille with six rookies, no Tiger, and a three-Cup losing streak simply by the force of his personality? I don’t know for sure, but to quote America’s last winning captain on the eve of the Ryder Cup’s greatest rally:

I have a good feelin’ about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell ya.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seven Dirty Words, One Bad Leg

First off, in memory of the late, great George Carlin, the boone box presents:

The Seven Words You Can Never Say If You Sell Ads for the Networks Televising the Season’s Final Two Majors and Ryder Cup:

1. Tiger
2. Woods
3. Won’t
4. Play
5. In
6. The
7. Tournament

My guess is that anyone who makes money off the British Open, PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, and/or any other event Tiger Woods would’ve played this year probably uttered at least one of the seven words on Carlin’s original and infamous list when news came that Woods will spend the remainder of the season rebuilding and rehabbing his dangling left leg.

Still, the prospects of a Woods’ comeback are thought to be better than Carlin’s who died Sunday at 71 and didn’t believe much in the concept of resurrection. He had a legendary career in entertainment, during which he presided as high priest over the First Church of Scatology. Carlin was intellectually brilliant, belying both that zany façade and the fact that he dropped out of school at 14. In fact, he practically perfected the art of dropping out, doing so from school, the Air Force, traditional comedy, politics, and often sobriety.

He said more than once that the goal of his comedic commentary was to identify the line between being edgy and sacrilegious, then deliberately cross it. To borrow a line from one of Carlin’s favorite punching bags, Mission Accomplished. He consistently pushed people over that edge in the last 40 years since leaving the coat-and-tie comedy circuit for a grittier on-stage persona, which he said was who he really was. The buttoned-down Carlin, he discovered, was the impostor.

I would routinely laugh out loud for 10 minutes straight, then recoil when he went further than I could handle. I couldn’t disagree more with some of Carlin’s particular views on life and faith; but as someone who loves a well-turned phrase and a good laugh, I readily acknowledge his genius.

Carlin was every bit as profound as he was profane. His “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine from a 1972 album wasn’t only meant to offend our sensibilities; it challenged them, too. “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins,” Carlin once said. “It’s as simple as that.”

There could scarcely be words the sport of golf would like censored than the ones Tiger Woods posted on his web site last week, i.e. that he’d miss the rest of 2008. As Woods was having reconstructive surgery on his knee Tuesday, golf was still licking its wounds from having taken one on the chin.

It seems everyone, with the possible exception of those Clinton supporters vowing to support McCain – not because he’s white, mind you – is lamenting this suddenly Tiger-less summer. In the streets the children scream. The lovers cry and the poets dream. But not a word is spoken. The church bells all are broken. Even Don McLean rewrote the first verse of “American Pie” and was kind enough to e-mail it to us here at GMT:

A few short days ago
I can still remember how the great shots used to make us smile
And he knew if he had a chance
He could make his golf ball dance
And maybe we’d go crazy for awhile

But June 18th it made us shiver
When the paper was delivered
Bad news on the doorstep
He couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I sobbed
When I read about his leg that throbbed
The rest of his great season, robbed
The day that golf got jobbed

So bye, bye Tiger Woods in ‘08
Drive your Buick to the clinic
Get your left leg all straight
We good ol’ boys’ll chug your sports drink and wait
Singin’ almost worse than death is this fate
Least we’ve still got Roc Mediate

For us, being told the game’s best player and the world’s most famous athlete would miss the last three big events of the year (not to mention all the other ones) was like finding out Uncle Billy accidentally left the $8,000 folded up in Mr. Potter’s newspaper. After yelling at Mary and fixing Zuzu’s petals, we stormed off to Martini’s for a few belts.

Unfortunately, that’s about where our story stops. We’re still waiting for Clarence to jump into the water, then tell us that in spite of our momentary disappointment, we really have a Wonderful Life.

Maybe that will begin to happen this week if the retiring Annika Sorenstam can make her final planned appearance in the U.S. Women’s Open a victorious one and claim that championship for a record-tying fourth time. (To hear whether or not she’ll ever come out of retirement for the occasional tournament, click here for my conversation with her earlier this week.)

Maybe Royal Birkdale, while slightly less regal with Woods in absentia, will make Trevor Immelman a double major winner as it did Mark O’Meara the last time the Open Championship was there or give us another Rose-cheeked 17-year-old pitching in from all over the place, Justin time to thrill the locals.

Maybe at the PGA at Oakland Hills, someone will channel Ben Hogan and again bring that monster to its knees. The chances are better now that a knee will keep Woods from bringing a monster season to Oakland Hills.

And maybe, just maybe, come September, Clarence will pull some strings with his boss and allow the U.S. to keep the Ryder Cup on the left side of the Atlantic for the first time this millennium. Seeing as how the Europeans have won the last three Cups by a combined margin of 52 ½ to 31 ½, it may well take divine intervention.

For now, we stand teetering on the bridge outside Bedford Falls with both our lip and our dreams of seeing what Tiger will do next busted.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Leg to Stand On: Knee, Mediate Collateral Damage in Woods' Pyrrhic Victory

First off, congratulations to Tiger Woods for finally shedding the distinction of Best Golfer Without a U.S. Open Title Since I Began Writing This Column. Father’s Day weekend marked the second anniversary of Grant Me This.

Traditionally, one commemorates such milestones with specific gifts, e.g. gold for 50th, silver for 25th, calamine lotion for the 7th. To celebrate GMT’s 2nd, we spared no expense. Continuing a glorious tradition that dates back to last June, we got you another heaping helping of U.S. Open headlines:

Open Late: Woods, Mediate Extend Business Hours in 91-hole Classic

As if the first 71 holes weren’t thrilling enough, Tiger Woods’ absurdly pressure-packed and tournament-tying birdie on 18 Sunday put an exclamation point on a hair-graying weekend and an electrifying ellipse on the championship. Ignore the whipper-snappers who advocate following Sunday's round with sudden death – this event is eminently worthy of the USGA’s 18-hole Monday playoff format.

Lost at Sea: Oceanside Course Swallows Open’s 1st and 2nd Round Leaders

It’s already a great trivia question: who led the 2008 U.S. Open after the first two rounds? Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman, with matching 68s Thursday, and Friday’s frontrunner Stuart Appleby gave Black’s Beach – the shoreline beneath Torrey Pines – new meaning. Those three shot scores of 77, 79, and 80 in the rounds into which they took their leads.

Rocco’s Modern Life: Mediate’s Motor Mouth, Mettle Make Journeyman Pro Golf’s Newest Cult Hero

NBC had a great shot of Woods giving daughter Sam a pacifier to keep her from being upset that he had to go accept his U.S. Open trophy Monday afternoon. I wondered if he’d been carrying a separate passy for Rocco, just in case. But Mediate knew when to quit talking to Tiger and bring someone else into the conversation, such as his caddie, a rules official, the walking scorer, wild animals. Rocco’s endeared himself to fellow players and galleries through the years with his high-octane personality. He’s always been the best interview on Tour; now he’s getting his due as a good player from an international audience. And last weekend’s performance guarantees the 45-year-old enough cash, playing perks, and endorsement potential to tide him over to his Champions Tour debut five years from now.

Hometown Boy Makes Nine: Unlucky 13th Dooms Mickelson’s Dreams of an Extra Special San Diego Padre’s Day

Phil Mickelson began the week hoping to win his first U.S. Open on the course he grew up playing and down the road from where he still lives; by Saturday, he was simply trying to get off the par five 13th in single digits. With Woods nursing that nasty knee, Mickelson made a healthy quad. And that one-legged snowman Saturday effectively ended any chance of catching the one-legged Tiger. That it happened on the same hole where Woods a few groups later would turn Torrey on its ear by jarring a 65-footer for eagle to get back onto the front page of the leaderboard couldn’t have been pleasant.

In fact, I don’t think Woods could have been more frustrating to Mickelson if he’d driven over to his house and done donuts in the front yard. Not only did Tiger win the championship Phil cherishes on the course he loves, it must’ve been a major party pooper for Mickelson to celebrate his 38th birthday by watching Woods win a third Open.

Knee Jerk? Goosen Calls Bluff, Suggests Woods Was Faking Injury

This was shocking, primarily because two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen does interviews about as often as Bill Belichick tells knock-knock jokes. There’s no secret video of Goosen’s controversial comments, but he’s quoted in the London Times as saying Woods would’ve withdrawn had he been truly injured.

Before you dismiss his remarks, know that Goosen is something of an expert in this area. You may recall in 2005 he pretended he was going to win the U.S. Open for the third time until he shot 81 in the final round at Pinehurst.

The day after Goosen honked, Woods announced not only hadn’t he feigned injury over the weekend, it was way worse than he’d let on. So bad, in fact, that he’ll miss the remainder of the 2008 season to have yet another surgery on his knee and rehab a pair of fractures for 2009.

Here’s what we learned Wednesday of the severity of Woods’ injury that we hadn’t known before, courtesy of a statement on his website plus a behind-the-scenes account by his extra set of eyes, instructor Hank Haney:

- Woods ruptured his ACL after last year’s British Open while running in Orlando. So that explains why he only won four of the five tournaments he played in the weeks following. And on that same limp ligament, he won five of the seven events he played worldwide this year.

- He sustained a double stress fracture in his left tibia from working too hard to come back from the April 15 surgery.

- When his doctor last month advised against playing at Torrey Pines, Woods said, “I’m playing the Open, and I’m going to win.”

- Just weeks before the tournament, Woods could barely make it from the kitchen table to the fridge.

- The first time he bent down to read a putt since the 72nd hole of the Masters in April was the first hole of the U.S. Open last Thursday.

This is gonna be the first sports movie script to be ratcheted down a notch to make it more believable.

If Goosen was quoted correctly – and honestly, have you ever known a British paper to take a comment out of context? – he owes Woods his most sincere and immediate apology in light of Wednesday’s injury update. Not that it will matter. Goosen can ask Stephen Ames and Rory Sabbatini how quickly Tiger forgives and forgets.

Single Leg: What Woods Wins Open On and How Much of the Grand Slam He Captures in 2008

On its face (in part because of the frequent expressions of agony on Woods’ face), this U.S. Open merited discussion as one of the finest ever the nanosecond it ended.

Great course? Check. When was the last time you heard both the USGA and the players give two thumbs up to an Open venue? The scorecard had it as the longest course in championship history by a few hundred yards, but USGA officials tinkered with tee boxes each day and weren’t afraid to play it shorter. The greens were bumpy and fast but fair. The rough got deeper the further from the fairway a player strayed, allowing those who were barely off line to have a go at the green at their own expense. In short, the cheapest daily rate course to ever welcome a major championship proved itself worthy. Torrey Pines will not be one-and-done as a U.S. Open host.

Perfect conditions? Ditto. The weather varied somewhat depending on when the marine layer burned off, but there was no rain or excessive wind to exacerbate the typically-tough Open setup.

Good golf? Yep. Low scores were out there, though tough to come by. Woods and Mediate tied at 1-under 283. Perfect for a U.S. Open. And those two matched par in the playoff, too.

Human interest? In spades. There was Phil Mickelson trying to prove you can go home again and win his first Open. There was Mediate’s bid to become the oldest winner in championship history and his consolation prize of a burgeoning fan base. And, of course, there was Woods. On a course he first played as a 10-year-old with his dad, returning from knee surgery two months prior, grimacing repeatedly before, during, and after impact.

We could tell he was in pain (save for Goosen and maybe Oliver Stone); we just didn’t know how much until Wednesday. Woods’ performance instantly ranks among the most mind-boggling and superhuman of all time. He may as well have had Kathy Bates hobbling him each morning before he hit the practice tee. Misery loves company, as the old saying goes, which explains why we couldn’t keep our eyes off of Woods all weekend.

Drama? Give me a break. What Woods did on holes 13 through 18 Saturday alone would qualify as most players’ career highlight reel. The eagle from off the back of 13 green will no doubt go down as one of the greatest moments in major championship history, but I’m not even sure it was his best shot on that hole! That approach out of the dead grass right of the fairway from 208 yards was a foot away from blowing the cup to smithereens before eventually settling onto the fringe 65 feet north.

The 72nd hole birdie was simply absurd. Normal people don’t make putts like that. A downhiller moving gently to the left and violently up and down on the afternoon poa annua – the ball bounced higher off the ground than Phil Mickelson at the Masters – before catching the last possible arc of the cup, circling the south rim, and dropping in. I watched it again today just to make sure it stayed in. (It did.)

As impossibly clutch as the putt was, I’m still taken by what happened next. It’s the most unbridled reaction to a golf shot Tiger Woods has ever had. Ever. More than that uppercut in the 1996 U.S. Amateur against Steve Scott. More than after the other birdie he made to force a major playoff, the one against Bob May at the 2000 PGA. Yes, even more than the pitch-in from off the green at Augusta’s 16th in 2005. Watch it again here.

He reared back, pumped both fists three times, gathered himself, reared back for another fist pump, then turned to caddie Steve Williams and yelled so hard he partially doubled over. Wow. My goose pimples are bumpier than his putt right now. It’s the reason people watch when Tiger Woods plays and why they don’t when he doesn’t. He empties the tank every time he tees it up, and you feel rewarded when you invest your time into watching him play.

Now, his tank won’t be full until next year at the earliest. He expects a full recovery but not even he really knows how his body will respond to the rehab until he begins to hit balls again a few months from now. His year began and ended with victories at Torrey Pines. Perhaps he’ll be back in time to defend the first of those early next year. Until he’s back, the best we can do is bask in the single greatest act of on-field mental and physical toughness in sports history and hang on to that final headline Tiger wrote himself:


Saturday, May 31, 2008

City of Two Tales

First off, there are times it seems life, if you’ll pardon the Dickensian twist, is a city of two tales: those of the cautionary variety and the ones with fairies. Occasionally, the two collide.

Last week’s edition of GMT was the hardest to finish in the nearly two years I’ve been at this. And not because it took so long to find the video clip of that SNL scene featuring Phil Hartman as washed-up actor Johnny O’Connor. I was trying to wrap up the piece at my buddy Quile’s house outside Fort Worth last Wednesday when we saw the news that the five-year-old daughter of singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman had been struck by a car and killed earlier that day. As unspeakably awful as that tragedy was, we cried even harder when we learned it happened in the driveway of the family’s home in Franklin, Tennessee and that the driver was the girl’s older brother who was backing out to leave and didn’t see his little sister.

I rarely listen to Christian music, primarily because I haven’t heard very many artists like Chapman. Lyrically, his songs reflect a faith I know is authentic because it’s been authenticated by close friends of mine who are close to him. An example of Chapman putting his faith into action came several years ago when his wife, Mary Beth, and he, already with three kids of their own, adopted three young girls from China, the youngest of which being the one who died, and established an organization to assist others in the adoption of unwanted children around the world.)

Rather than using his music to propagate the pious party line of the religious right, Chapman’s offerings are often clever, frequently sweet, and genuinely deep. One of his most recent releases is all of the above. He wrote the song “Cinderella” after a particularly tedious attempt to put his two youngest girls to bed eventually gave way to the realization of how quickly time had turned his oldest child from a giggly girl into a soon-to-be-bride. You can listen to the song here if your upper lip is feeling particularly stiff.

As the dad of a princess-loving six-year-old – who’s currently in the next room playing make-believe with her best friend and making it difficult for me to concentrate on this column – I turned to mush the first time I heard the song a couple of months ago. I’m fully aware that my days as Anna Claire’s preferred dance partner are numbered. More than two years have zipped past since I penned this piece about her turning four.

When I thought about little Maria Chapman unintentionally helping inspire her dad to write “Cinderella” and then that her life’s clock struck midnight way too soon, it was virtually impossible to write anything coherent the rest of the night. I was a mess. Still am.

The most preposterous component of a fairy tale isn’t what happens in the middle. Heroes, conflict, villains, and derring-do are occasionally the stuff of real life, too. It’s the Happily Ever After in stories like Cinderella that appeals to us, primarily because we know there’s no such thing in our three dimensions. We love the idea that a life could be lived within the sanitary pages of a children’s book, but we’re at least unconsciously aware that in the real world Prince Charming occasionally clogs the toilet or a member of the royal family has a learning disability or the weeds keep returning no matter how many times you pull them up.

Golf’s three big winners Sunday experienced what some might describe as storybook endings. In Fort Worth, Phil Mickelson hoisted his approach on the 72nd hole over the trees and onto the green where he made a nine-footer to win. Phil the Thrill at his best.

A quick glance at the Mickelson family album might suggest his has been a fairy tale existence. It certainly seemed that way at the 1996 EDS Byron Nelson Championship. That was just a few years into his own career and a few months before Tiger turned pro, so Mickelson was still considered easily the best young player in the game and hadn’t yet begun fielding questions about why he hadn’t won a major.

As that tournament was drawing to a close, I was one of a handful of reporters gathered around a TV monitor in the media center watching ABC interview his then-fiancée, Amy, who looked, as she does now, strikingly attractive. With Phil nearing a Nelson victory, they asked Amy how she thought he was doing, to which she eloquently and appropriately replied, “I’m really impressed with his course management.” One salty scribe muttered to no one in particular, “That’s not fair.”

Yes, the handsome prince got the girl, their progeny look like Hummel figurines, and he’s currently sitting on three major championships and more money than Charles Barkley could lose in Vegas. And yes, a lot of people would gladly and quickly trade circumstances. But the fairy tale misses the misery of all those years he was labeled a choker. And the nasty and persistent rumors of myriad personal indiscretions (none of which have ever been substantiated). And that day in March 2003 when Amy had complications trying to give birth to their first boy, Evan, and both mother and son nearly died. A storybook life? In its own way perhaps. A fairy tale? Hardly.

Leta Lindley has spent the last 14 years becoming an overnight success. Sunday, in her 295th start on the LPGA Tour, she finally won for the first time, taking the Corning Classic in a playoff over Jeong Jang. A highly-touted All-America when she left the University of Arizona, Lindley nearly won the LPGA Championship in just her third year on Tour but lost a playoff that day and never came closer to victory until Sunday. There was no Happily Ever After in the voice of her husband/caddy Matt Plagmann when I spoke to him a couple of hours after their breakthrough. It was part vindication and part relief. “We’ve been at this for 14 years,” Plagmann said. “It’s about time.”

While Lindley was winning in Corning, Jay Haas was up the road in Rochester, New York grinding out an ugly victory at the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill, the very venue where in 1995 he could’ve kept the Ryder Cup in U.S. clutches. All he had to do was win his singles match against Philip Walton, the Irishman who became famous for his utter anonymity. But on the last hole, Haas popped up his tee shot, made bogey, lost the match, and watched with his teammates as Europe celebrated its reclamation of the Cup on American sod.

Revenge often makes for a compelling storyline. But how much revenge did Haas exact exactly? With respect to the Senior PGA – along with the U.S. Senior Open one of only two tournaments for players 50 and over that has genuine significance – you have to believe Haas would trade that individual honor in a New York minute for the crucial half point which eluded him and the U.S. 13 years ago. For the opportunity to relive those years and never hear how he single-handedly lost the Ryder Cup. That, by the way, isn’t true, but on your worst days it’d be hard not to believe. Sunday’s win for Haas was impressive on its own merits. But it neither can nor should be expected to magically make the disappointment of 1995 go away.

There is no Happily Ever After. Not in this life anyway. There is just our joy and sadness side by side, both of which in their own way help shape who we are. And there is today. So before it’s too late, grab your partner and dance.

She spins and she sways to whatever song plays without a care in the world

And I’m sittin’ here wearin’ the weight of the world on my shoulders

It’s been a long day and there’s still work to do

She’s pulling at me sayin’, “Dad, I need you

There’s a ball at the castle and I’ve been invited and I need to practice my dancin’

Oh, please, Daddy, please”

So I dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms

‘Cause I know somethin’ the prince never knew

Oh, I dance with Cinderella, I don’t wanna miss even one song

‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone

She says he’s a nice guy and I’d be impressed

She wants to know if I approve of her dress

She says, “Dad, the prom is just one week away and I need to practice my dancin’

Oh, please, Daddy, please”

So I dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms

‘Cause I know somethin’ the prince never knew

Oh, I dance with Cinderella, I don’t wanna miss even one song

‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone

She came home today with a ring on her hand

Just glowin’ and tellin’ us all they had planned

She says, “Dad, the wedding’s still six months away, but I need to practice my dancin’ Oh, please, Daddy, please”

So I dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms

‘Cause I know somethin’ the prince never knew

Oh, I dance with Cinderella, I don’t wanna miss even one song

‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone

“Cinderella” – Steven Curtis Chapman

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Goodbye to Golf's Molten Hot Lava Bomb

First off, in the words of (as Matt Foley called him) Bill Shakespeare, parting is indeed sweet sorrow. This week, two more major American cities said goodbye to gas prices which per gallon began with the number 3. The pumps in California these days read like an NFL defensive back’s 40 time.

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton bid farewell to any mathematical chance of winning a majority of delegates in the Democratic Party’s Presidential race. She long ago parted company with the reality that she wasn’t going to win. Hillary’s like the twisted offspring of Monty Python’s Black Knight (Obama has a majority of delegates? “It’s just a flesh wound!”) and Phil Hartman’s Johnny O’Connor in this SNL skit (Mathematically eliminated? “Don’t mince words! Tell me where I stand!”).

Wednesday, we lowered the curtain on season seven of American Idol, which ended with the relative Goliath of the two Davids, Cook, rocking the cradle of the baby-faced Archuleta and taking the title. (My six-year-old daughter didn’t want either one to lose, so she had me vote for both. Cook won by 12 million votes, so she’s off the hook.) The highlight of the show was a tie between a) Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr. impersonating the Pips behind a 1970s video of Gladys Knight; and b) the red sportcoat worn by judge Randy “Molten Hot Lava Bomb” Jackson which looked like something he snagged from the Captain Kangaroo estate sale.

Nearly 100 million people voted for the two Davids, only about 20 million fewer than the number who cast ballots for the most powerful office in the world in the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. In defense of the American people, they knew their Idol votes would actually matter. In fact, I can’t think of a good reason not to stage the general election in November the same way. Put the candidates’ numbers on the screen. Give people a few hours to call in their votes. Total them up and announce the winner the next night. You could even bring back past Presidents to do a few show tunes to fill the hour. Sure, it’d be easy for people to vote multiple times, but that only means they’re really passionate about their nominee. If you care enough to risk carpal tunnel syndrome dialing in four hundred times in 90 seconds, I say you deserve an extra vote or two.

Finally, we have the rest of this year to say goodbye to Annika Sorenstam. Sitting third all time with 72 wins and currently second on the money list, the LPGA legend announced she’ll retire at season’s end to, among other things, begin a family with fiancé Mike McGee whom she’ll marry next April.

We first heard of a talented, skinny Swede as she starred for the University of Arizona, winning the 1991 NCAAs and losing in the finals of the ’92 U.S. Amateur. After college, she won Rookie of the Year honors on the Ladies European Tour and LPGA in consecutive seasons. Annika’s first LPGA title was the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open, which she successfully defended the following year. She’d win 17 times over the next four years, but none of those were majors, prompting a particularly catty characterization by one of her peers that Sorenstam was the “Queen of the ShopRite Classic.” But over the next six years, Annika bagged enough biggies to max out her place in the Express Checkout line. She won at least one major each season from 2001-2006 to reach her current total of 10 while continuing to take home regular tournaments like they were on sale two-for-one. Along the way, Sorenstam kept finding herself on shorter and shorter lists of the best women players of all time, repeatedly reinventing herself as a player through an aggressive fitness regimen and as a public figure who evolved from painfully shy to poised and personable.

By the time I met her in March 2000, she was Annika 2.0, having already developed from teeny to toned in an attempt to keep up with Karrie Webb who’d overtaken her as the world’s best player in 1999. Sorenstam would undergo at least two more noticeable changes to her body over the next few years, bulking up through intense weight training then slimming back down to her current form a couple of years ago.

I think Annika always found it much easier to overhaul her physique than her public image. She had complete control over the former; the latter not so much. Naturally introverted, Annika felt compelled because of her eye-popping accomplishments to carry the LPGA banner wherever she went, including to places like the Colonial in Fort Worth where five years ago this week she competed in her first and only PGA Tour event. (She shot a highly respectable 71-75 to miss the cut by four.)

I’m pretty sure Annika wouldn’t have complained if she’d never had to do an interview; but in the eight years I covered her on a regular basis, she never once turned me down, even after being offended by a remark I made in jest that she didn’t understand. (I know it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t get my humor, but stay with me.) She’s been a fierce competitor, but it always seemed to me that through the years Annika has derived more pleasure from trying to perfectly execute a golf shot than merely defeating an opponent.

Those opponents haven’t always liked Sorenstam for reasons I don’t entirely understand. I know for some, there was a junior high jealousy of the encomia heaped upon her during that amazing run in the middle part of this decade when she was the only reason many paid attention to women’s golf. But her peers have had no choice but to respect the record Annika has compiled in her 15 years on the LPGA Tour. Beyond the numbers, Sorenstam at her best convinced you that she’d done the impossible by mastering the game.

Determining supremacy in any sport is subjective, at best. As far as the LPGA goes, Kathy Whitworth has more career wins than Annika. Mickey Wright has more wins and, by all accounts, had a better swing. But if, unlike my daughter, I had only one vote, I’d give it to the one who did it under the most scrutiny. Give me Annika.

Do you disagree? Don’t mince words!

Welcome to the Cub

First off, a warning: if you’re going to let your kids play little league sports, prepare yourself for a weekly gut-ectomy. If you’re planning to coach your kids’ teams – run. Run very fast the other way, while you still can, and don’t look back.

The scrappy little Cubs (ages 9-11) of Wylie Little League took another one on the chin Tuesday night at the old ball orchard. Leading 10-7 going into the bottom of the sixth and final inning, we lost to the mighty Red Sox, 11-10. Joan Rivers’ chin hasn’t taken this much.

Last week, we dropped a 12-11 decision to the Rangers on a bang-bang play at the plate. Up by one, our first baseman took a throw from short and fired a bullet to the catcher, just ahead of the runner trying to score from third. The umpire waited, presumably checking to see if our catcher held onto the ball (which he did) and finally made the call.

SAFE! What?!?! Why would you look to see if the catcher has the ball, see that he does, then rule safe? Either the runner beat the throw (which in this case it didn’t appear he did) or he’s out, so long as the catcher hangs on. The Rangers, to their credit, scratched out another run and won by one.

This week, it was even worse. We led from the first inning and had that aforementioned 10-7 lead going to the top of the sixth. My oldest son, Andrew, led off with a walk and advanced to third on a pair of wild pitches, which also contributed to our next batter reaching first on a walk. First and third, nobody out, up 10-7 with both teams, coaches, umpires, and fans fully aware that if we scored three runs, the game would essentially be over because the most you can score in one inning is five. Another wild pitch, Andrew headed home. He beat the throw so easily that he didn’t even slide. No call from the umpire until Andrew began walking back to the dugout.

OUT! What?!?! I left the first base coaching box to ask about the call. He said Andrew missed home plate. Now there is scarcely a more prejudiced party in this matter than me. But having said that, Andrew didn’t miss the plate. He told me he stepped on it. The entire section of bleachers, which sit less than 20 feet from the plate, saw him step on it. Even the other team’s coaches told us later it was a bad call. But the ump ruled he was out. Instead of an 11-7 lead with a runner at second and no one out, it remained 10-7 with one out and the runner at second. Our next two batters struck out, setting the stage for the Red Sox comeback.

Still clinging to a 10-9 lead with a runner at third and two outs, our pitcher got ahead of the hitter 0-2. At that point, the ump’s strike zone shrunk to approximately the size of a small quark. A walk and a pair of run-scoring wild pitches later, we’d lost 11-10.

I told our team this week the same thing I said the week before: we’re not going to be a team that blames losses on the umpires. That’s the parents’ job. Even if the umps blew those calls, I reasoned, it only means they’re human (though for the life of me I can’t figure out where they find real people to spend 20 hours a week making $8.50 a game plus concession stand discount). My larger point is that I want our team to know that you can’t go through life blaming other people when things don’t go your way.

Which, after a mere 600-plus words, brings us to the PGA Tour’s newest Players Champion. Sergio Garcia’s playoff victory over Paul Goydos Sunday at TPC Sawgrass was by far the biggest moment of his career. Bigger than the British Amateur in 1998. Bigger than the runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA. More than all those Ryder Cups he’s helped keep on European soil.

It wasn’t just that Garcia won, it was how he did it. Yes, Goydos helped by bogeying three of his final five holes and splashing his approach at 17 on the first swing of the playoff. But Goydos, with those Lou Piniella looks and Lou Costello one-liners, would’ve won it in regulation had Garcia not held it together in extreme meteorological and course conditions and saved par with a clutch seven-footer at the 72nd hole. His perfectly placed tee shot in the playoff provided the punctuation mark to a signature victory.

Garcia’s has been a fascinating and occasionally troublesome metamorphosis from wunderkind to wonder-when? I’ll never forget how ancient a 23-year-old Tiger Woods appeared after tapping in at Medinah’s 18th to beat Garcia by one at the ’99 PGA. Sergio, with his no-look swings and scissor kicks, was the reason Woods looked so crusty.

For golf fans with Garcia, it was love at first swipe. We couldn’t get enough of that syrupy swing and insouciant spirit that dared to take on the world’s best. (Remember Garcia’s glare from the green back toward Tiger on the tee box after rolling in a birdie at 13 on that Chicago Sunday?)

We all thought back then that the 19-year-old Spaniard had scooped up from the ashes what the spotlight had seemingly burned out of Woods as he evolved from phenom to dominant number one, specifically that sheer love of the shot, the moment, the game. But while Sergio was turning cartwheels, a cold-blooded Tiger was busy winning majors and sucking the life out of the rest of the Tour. Apparently, that’s Tiger’s idea of fun. In fact, Woods won six of the next 10 after Medinah, the last of which fully juxtaposed his and Garcia’s character. While Woods was methodically navigating his way through nasty weather and an even nastier Bethpage Black at the 2002 U.S. Open, Garcia was waggling, flipping off fans, re-waggling, accusing USGA officials of giving Tiger preferential treatment in how they determined whether or not to postpone play because of rain, and re-re-waggling. Woods didn’t just beat Garcia head-to-head in Sunday’s final groupe 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage; his play and presence exposed a petulance that has so far defined Garcia’s career – at least until Sunday.

Winning the fifth most important stroke play tournament in all of golf may begin a new chapter in Garcia’s career, and it’s high time for a plot twist. The book on him so far tells the story of a precocious player with preternatural ability who achieved success early but struggled to consistently hang with the world’s best as his putter developed severe multiple personality disorder. His Dr. Jekyll stroke has been a regular on Thursdays through Saturdays and during foursomes and fourballs in Ryder Cups; but Garcia’s Mr. Hyde usually makes cameos in crunch time or whenever Tiger Woods was near. (It’s at the very least a coincidence that last week’s victory was also the first time Garcia had teed it up in a Players Championship or major that didn’t have Woods in the field.)

It hasn’t just been on the green that Sergio has shown multiple personalities. Often engaging and gregarious in the public eye – he came off especially cute in those Michelob commercials – Garcia’s been just as likely to be ornery. And that behavioral Jekyll and Hyde has been frequently triggered by the Heckle and Chide of a well-lubricated peanut gallery or media sharks who’ve smelled blood whenever Garcia’s let a big one get away. More often than not, he’s taken that bait, complaining about various and occasionally mysterious mistreatment he’s endured. (Telling the press “I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field” after last year’s playoff loss at the Open Championship was an instant classic). One of his recurring rants is that he’s been unfairly made the whipping boy of the same scribes who gladly take their pound of Garcia’s flesh in the stories they write for the next morning’s paper.

Seems like since that seminal moment at Medinah, Sergio’s smile has gradually devolved into a snarl. Until Sunday. We’ll see how, if at all, the biggest victory of his career changes Garcia, on the course and in the immediate aftermath of tournaments when the pressure and the press are at their most intense.

A word of advice, Sergio, from someone who believes there’s way more of you to love than dislike: lay off the press, and they’ll eventually let up on you. Especially if you keep winning big events and taking full responsibility for yourself when you don’t. In other words, grow up and start acting like my little leaguers.

Missing Tiger, Ratings Draggin'

First off, it’s been a rather quiet week in golf. Not a single major champion has been interviewed topless for a small-market morning television show. In a related story, John Daly earned his one-week chip from Exhibitionists Anonymous.

Second, hold de Mayo. On the eve of a national holiday, Mexico’s favorite daughter, Lorena Ochoa, came up short in her attempt to win Cinco straight. Ochoa opened the SemGroup Championship in Tulsa with 73-74 and, despite a T5 finish, never contended in an event Paula Creamer won in a playoff over Juli Inkster. Ochoa’s trusty caddie, Dave Brooker, told me his boss took the previous week off, even though she’d won a record-tying four straight LPGA tournaments, because she was exhausted, especially from the event in Mexico where he said she signed at least 2,000 autographs a day and couldn’t even practice because of all the “craziness.” All of Mexico would’ve gone loco had Ochoa won Sunday. They celebrated her efforts nonetheless by beginning their Cinco de Mayo festivities a few hours early. And many here north of the border lent their support. Gringo clubs and bars here in the U.S., bound by NAFTA to effusively promote Cinco de Mayo despite the fact that most Americans’ knowledge of Mexican heritage consists of what they can pronounce off the drive-thru menu at Taco Bell, sold approximately 400 billion bottles of Corona.

Third, if you think I’m going to crack wise over the tragedy at the Kentucky Derby Saturday, you’re sniffing glue. I’m still getting hate mail from Barbaro Neigh-tion after this piece I authored a couple of years ago. There would be no time to cobble together candlelight vigils for Eight Belles. The filly was put to death on the same Churchill Downs track where moments before she’d finished second in the Derby. A year ago as Michael Vick was being sent to jail for running a dog fighting ring, I cracked that it was unfair to compare that heinous activity to horse racing because at least dog fighting doesn’t make animal abuse a society event. And then I asked anyone to justify horse racing as a sport, given how the animals are treated, or mistreated depending on your point of view.

No one gave me a reasonable answer, so I sought out my most trusted horse source. She’s a former co-worker who comes from one of America’s great thoroughbred racing families and who herself is now a prominent owner. She’s also one of my favorite people and not at all someone who’d try to protect the racing fraternity if horses were being abused.

About the Eight Belles tragedy and ensuing controversy, she told me:

“I think horse racing needs to look in the mirror and figure out together how to make the sport safer. That includes not breeding unsound horses to unsound horses, looking at the safety of track surfaces, and the use of legal and illegal medications. PETA’s claims are sort of BS. That horse didn’t get hurt because the jock hit her too hard or the trainer trained her too hard. It was a freak thing. Unfortunately, something tragic had to happen to shake them up. You aren’t quoting me, are you?”

Of course not. Well, yes, but I’ll protect your identity, Hoarse Throat. It still seems to me that the animals are being subjected to unhealthy stress, but I defer for now to my friend who knows way more about it than I do and cares more about the creatures than the cash.

Now, professional golf has its own problems. Fortunately, players being lethally injected on the course isn’t one of them. When golfers come up lame, they have procedures done or take time off or both. But when that golfer is Tiger Woods and a scoped knee-plus-rehab scratches him from this week’s PLAYERS Championship (or however they’re capitalizing it this year), it euthanizes – at least to some degree – the excitement surrounding the most important tournament owned and operated by the PGA Tour.

The Tour has always had status envy since breaking ranks from the PGA of America 40 years ago. The four most important events in golf – really five, if you count the Ryder Cup – are run by other organizations, leaving the league that runs professional tournament golf in the U.S. for most of the 10-month season continually alone in the on-deck circle during the Grand Slam. That’s why the Tour has pumped so many resources into making The PLAYERS not only its signature event but one that can at least come up in the same conversation with the four majors.

It’s tough to imagine Commissioner Tim Finchem and his coterie of executives doing anything more or better than what they’ve done with The PLAYERS. The date was moved from March to May in hopes of filling that two month gap between The Masters and U.S. Open with another big event. The golf course has morphed from comical to classic. The Brady Bunch-era pro shop was razed and raised in its place was a sprawling castle – the Tim Mahal – which was unveiled for last year’s tournament. And as a bonus, a bona fide star in Phil Mickelson won the 2007 edition to christen those most recent changes.

But just as the first big event of 2008 was ending, Tiger Woods put The PLAYERS in its place. Two days after a second-place showing at The Masters, Woods announced he’d had his left knee surgically repaired and wouldn’t play again until the U.S. Open. Woods would never verbally diss The PLAYERS, but he doesn’t have to. The surgeon’s knife cut through any confusion.

Knowing the knee needed repair, Woods planned the procedure at such a time that he wouldn’t miss the two tournaments that mean the most to him. That meant The PLAYERS would be cut along with his left leg. Kneed I say more?

I don’t think Woods has specific disdain for this event or the TPC Sawgrass, but neither do I believe the course is one of his particular faves. More than anything, I get the feeling that Woods – who is not only the world’s best player but also the most powerful athlete in all of sports – enjoys reminding the Tour, in both subtle and strong ways, that he’s the man.

The 2007 Mercedes-Benz Championship kicking off the inaugural FedEx Cup season? Sorry, you guys go on and get started. The first-ever PGA Tour playoff? Too tired. From what? Winning majors run by other governing bodies. The 2008 Mercedes-Benz, now on the heels of an offseason expanded in part to placate Woods? Nope, still chillin’ with the fam. And now the surgically-repaired schedule that has him conspicuously absent from the Tour’s biggest week of the year.

You hate to beat a dead horse, but it’s bad enough when the Tour’s stud thoroughbred doesn’t win or place. It’s even worse when he doesn’t show.

Monday, April 28, 2008

When Benny Met Boo

This column appeared originally in "Grant Me This" on

First off, for those of you in metropolitan New York who wanted to see the final round of the Verizon Heritage but instead got invocation-to-benediction coverage of the Papal Mass at Yankee Stadium, you didn't miss much. Boo Weekley won the tournament for the second straight year, albeit in more somnolent style than last when he pitched in on the final two holes to win by one. Sunday, Weekley won by three, and it wasn't even that close.

For those of you everywhere else who may've hoped for the Pope but were stuck watching golf, here's a quick recap: decked out in the traditional but sassy white and tan number that said -- as Cal Naughton, Jr. in "Talladega Nights" suggested would be the case if Jesus wore a tuxedo t-shirt -- "I want to be formal, but I'm here to party," His Holiness encouraged the 60,000 in attendance to obey the teachings of the church while condemning a variety of social ills, such as Yankee Stadium's $10 beers and Hank Steinbrenner.

News cycles always make for strange bedfellows, but the confluence of Joseph Alois "Pope Benedict XVI" Ratzinger, the Bavarian-born pontiff, and Thomas Brent "Boo" Weekley -- the snuff-dipping, syllable-elongating golfer from the Florida panhandle -- has set a new standard by which all future news-making tandems must be measured. And while it's a tradition unlike any other that Masters winners often receive a congratulatory phone call from the U.S. President, a new rite of spring was born Sunday when Benedict buzzed Boo Weekley after the Verizon Heritage. GMT has obtained an exclusive transcript of that conversation and now proudly presents:

When Benny Met Boo (That's Boo on the left)
Pope: "Greetings, my son."

Boo: "Wussup there, Your Pope-ness, sir! Mighty nice-a-ya to call. I didn't even know you's a golf fan."

Pope: "Oh, yes, all my life. In fact, I'm in a Tuesday twilight league back home. Someone told me it's a ritual here in America for heads of state and other leaders to call the winners of sporting events to congratulate them on their conquests. Plus, I have free nights and weekends, so I thought, you know, 'When in Rome.'"

Boo: "Yessir, go on."

Pope: "That's it. 'When in Rome.' It's just a figure of speech."

Boo: "I ain't never heared it."

Pope: "Yes, well, good playing today. You should be proud. Just not too proud."

Boo: "Aw, 'tweren't nuttin'. Last year was a heckuva lot more nerve wrackin' with Ernie Els on my tail. I's frettin' more than a one-legged man in a butt-kickin' contest!"

Pope: "I beg your pardon?"

Boo: "That was just one-a them thar figgers a-speech you's talkin' about. Kinda like 'That dog'll hunt.'"

Pope: "Ah, yes! I know that one! I believe that's one of Brother Foxworthy's favorites! I love that Blue Collar Comedy Tour! We were all listening in the Popemobile on the way to Yankee Stadium! While we're on the subject, perhaps you could explain this 'Larry the Cable Guy.'"

Boo: "I reckon I cain't help you on that one. All my friends is rednecks, and ain't-a one of 'em thinks he's funny. One of them unsolved mysteries, I s'pose, like when sumbuddy sees the Virgin Mary in a messa hash browns at the Waffle House."

Pope: "Good, I thought it was just me. Say, I caught some of the tournament during Mass today. Don't tell anyone, but I had them pipe the telecast onto the Jumbotron while everyone was looking up on stage. That pitch in for birdie on 11 was a miracle! Tell me, did you say a Hail Mary before you hit that shot?"

Boo: "Hail, no! I just hit and hoped and shor 'nuff the dang thing went in!"

Pope: "Not a praying man, eh? Does that mean you're not partial to people of the cloth?"

Boo: "Naw, they's fine, but those cloth britches I used to wear ga' me a big ol' rash down thar where the sun don't shine. That's why I wore them camouflage rain drawers for a-whall. I could send you some, if'n ya want."

Pope: "Too late! I bought a pair at the PGA Tour Store in the airport the other day. As a matter of fact, I had them on under my robe this afternoon. Comfy! Listen, my child, I've enjoyed our visit, but I need to go. We're flying out to Hollywood in a few minutes to meet with the producers of American Idol. They've asked me to give them my blessing on next week's theme: The music of Bobby McFerrin. Is there anything I can pray for you before I say goodbye?"

Boo: "Well, spring turkey season just ended back home. D'ya thank the Big Guy upsteers might let it go a fur piece longer?"

Pope: "I'm sorry, my son. I can't condone the killing of another living thing merely for sport."

Boo: "A-ight then, how 'bout if you let me bag a Tiger at the U.S. Open?"

Pope: "Now that dog'll hunt!"

Boo: "A-men, brutha!"

Pope: "That's 'Father,' my son."

Boo: "Just a figger of speech!"

Pope: "Sorry. I ain't never heared it."