Golf never appealed to me as an entertaining watch. I played miniature golf, of course, and bought some crappy driver when I was a kid to hit some balls in my front yard, but I never visited a real course. Never saw the reason all the old people and executive-types spent four hours a day fishing golf balls out of a lake only to hit them right back in.
Then I saw this year’s U.S. Open. And I actually cared. Tiger was Tiger—always at the top of his game, even if he seemed in too much pain to really get there. He drove better, chipped better, and by far putted better than everyone else in the field. And he did it at a time when he downright shouldn’t have. The doctors told him for his kind of injury, the normal recovery period is three weeks on crutches and then rest. But for Tiger, “recovery period” does not exist. Winning exists—only winning.
His performance practically vaulted him into God-like status. Like if he were only walking on water, he would’ve been fine. People are comparing this to performances by Jack Youngblood and Ben Hogan (though in my opinion, Hogan’s is far more incredible. A Greyhound bus smashed directly into Hogan’s car, causing the steering wheel to land in the back and the engine flew into the driver’s seat. Luckily Hogan threw himself across his wife in the passenger’s seat to save her, and in the process, saved himself. Doctors said he’d never play again. He won the U.S. Open little more than a year later).
Then there was Rocco: the affable guy with an omnipresent smile that you never heard of but quickly became an overnight, and then mid-day sensation. He’s appearing in more media outlets than Tom Brady’s boot during the Super Bowl, but he’s far more interesting. It’s absolutely impossible to root against someone like that unless your heart is literally black because you’re dead.
At the U.S. Open, in Woods, golf fanatics finally found the athletic recognition for which they’ve been searching in his undoubtedly gutsy performance. Football fanatics actually look at him like an athlete. He’s taken his sport to another level entirely.
In Rocco’s case, golf fanatics found the lovable guy for which they’ve been searching in his genuine, optimistic personality. Football nuts look at him like a guy they’d like to have a beer with, not the stereotypical uptight, pretentious businessman who talks on his cell phone while putting. He’s taken his sport to another level (just not entirely).
All these things were shaping up to make golf the next thing. I was considering actually renting some clubs and making a trip the local course to find out what just how close the game can come to matching the hype.
Then the ACL revelation came, and along with it, the announcement of season-ending surgery for Woods. Now I’m left with a disappointment only matched when I had tickets to see the Chicago Bulls play an exhibition game against the 76ers (in Pittsburgh) and Jordan retired only shortly beforehand. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.
But it still sucks. Just when golf had reached a pinnacle, it now stands to recede into the background as a “sort-of” sport. No golfers will be athletes. Hell, they’ll probably go back to barely being considered “competitors” by casual fans. Mickelson will hit a shot in the bunker and hear, “A sand trap? That’s nothing. Tiger had one leg. All you have to do is equate for being a jackass and walking around with 15 extra pounds of beer gut.”
It’s a shame, really. Golf actually has a lot of redeeming qualities. The psychological aspects are incredibly intense and unmatched in other sports (save maybe technical free throws), the relaxed environment is definitely appropriate for summer days, and these guys really are the most skilled players in the entire world. Barely any of us, on our best days, could come within 50 strokes of the last place finisher if all he used was his putter.
But without the prospect of Woods in the event, without the constant demonstrations of unbeatable skill and will and determination and other attributes already mentioned thousands of times over in the most excessive, bombastic, even poetic languages, I don’t see as much of a reason to watch. The reason is simple: no one else is nearly as exciting. Rocco’s fun, but not exciting.
No guy in a red shirt will be draining 40-foot putts and acting like he just blew up a rocket headed for earth. Instead, whomever it is will politely tip his cap and deftly lift the ball from the hole (dirty?) and stroll to the next tee. Spectators will give a small applause and shift their focus. People watching TV will shift channels.
The U.S. Open showed me Golf and everything it could be—with Tiger in it. But without him, golf goes back to being, well, just golf. And that’s just not enough.