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 fa├žade 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: