Friday, June 16, 2006

Exit Stage Left

It was supposed to be the story that would make any Hollywood producer weep. Tiger Woods, playing his first professional event since the Masters and the passing of his father would reclaim his title of greatest player in the universe at Winged Foot. He would shake off the rust and win his 11th major title for his dad on father’s day.

This aint Hollywood.

The New York state of mind dealt Tiger Woods another harsh blow, missing his first cut ever in a major since turning pro on Friday. After shooting an opening round of 76 Woods remained confident that he could turn things around. Instead Woods could only scramble to match yesterday’s score to finish with a 152, +12 and 3 strokes off the cut line. Tiger had been tied with Nicklaus for consecutive cuts in the majors; it’s going to be a long time before he challenges the mark again.

The reasons are obvious. Tiger spent more looking for his ball in the wild rough than he did hitting his shot. Woods hit 7 fairways in two days, a 25% accuracy rating. Most of the time he didn’t just miss it, he hit it into the next zip code. His irons were also pretty off, he hit a few laser darts but he also hit more shots into absolutely precarious positions more often than even the world’s greatest player could recover from. Then there was the flat stick. Woods could just not adjust to the slow Winged Foot greens. When you can’t drive, chip or putt, you’re going to struggle.

Obviously the death of his father had to have an impact on Tiger and how highly golf should be prioritized, but it was really the layoff that did him more than any personal hardship. Practicing in sunny Windermere, FL is simply not the same as a tough U.S. Open course with maniacal greens, rough and distance. No one can come into a major with that much time off and be on there A game.

Yet we decided to believe Tiger when he said he was ready. We ignored the obvious and continued to believe that Superman would once again show he was more machine than human. Well Tiger is human, maybe the greatest human golfer ever, but human nonetheless. He will recover from this setback, but the biggest question is: will golf recover?

This was destined to be the duel between Mickelson and Woods. The problem is in golf, rivalries are so difficult because they’re not 20 men in the field but over 150. The odds are not in the favor of both men being in position to win. Still if you had asked me who had a better chance of not being there, I would have said Phil. However, Lefty is in great shape. He shot a +3 over Friday, but is still just four off the lead with a weekend to go. More importantly the men in front of him are just the kind he wants to see. Only Jim Furky has a major to his name; some have even have notoriously blown majors as in Colin Montgomerie.

Certainly without Tiger the ratings will go down which is very unfortunate because many storylines still exist that seem very interesting.

Will Colin Montgomerie finally win a major? Monty has built a Hall of Fame career with his Order of Merit titles in Europe and his historic Ryder Cup dominance. Yet the fact remains he has never won on American soil. He’s had a few playoff losses to Ernie Els and last year had one of his best finishes in the British Open. Still, age is creeping in and Monty may not have many more chances. If he makes a run, he could very well become the fan favorite, even over Phil.

Will Phil make it three in a row? Okay, so Phil might not make a Mickleslam (His British Open record is pretty atrocious), but owning three championships at once is incredible. Jack Nicklaus never did it and Phil is in great position to do it. With the attention of the entire golf world, Mickelson could make a huge statement that he is serious about making a real golf rivalry. Heck, with as few tournaments as Tiger plays, Phil winning could even put Tiger’s number one ranking in jeopardy.

Is David Duval back? I must admit, it’s weird to even type it. Never has there been a bigger fall from grace in the history of sports than Duval’s fall after his British Open title. However, a 68 on Friday was the best round of the day. He is six strokes off the lead at +5, and with just a bit of confidence (and that hot putter) he could do the impossible. It would not be the story of the year, it’d be the story of the decade.

Will an unknown git’r’done? Steve Stricker is best known for his showdown against Singh in the 1998 PGA Championship, but that was 8 years ago. Since then, Stricker has been MIA in the PGA. Can he really come back in style with a major victory? What about Geoff Ogilvy, the Aussie with a lot of game but not a lot of experience? Then there’s Kenneth Ferrie, trying along with Monty to be the first European to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin since 1970. Then there’s Padraig Harrington, another European who has the game to win a major.
There is a lot of drama left at historic Winged Foot, but it’ll be a main attraction without it’s star act.

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