23 July 2006

Best Performance in a Major. Ever?

I know secondamericano's audience is minuscule. I'm betting that its sporting audience is even tinier. Still, I feel I have no choice but to attest to Tiger Woods' performance in the 2006 British Open , culminating today in a 2 shot victory over Chirs DiMarco, and giving Tiger 14 major championships.*

I watched my first major when I witnessed Nicklaus's most famous major victory - a 30 on the back 9 to win the Master's at age 46. Since then I've watched significant parts of just about every major played (that would be roughly 80 majors). And since 1997, when Tiger won his first Masters at the age of 21 by setting the tournament record and lapping the field, I've watched the vast majority of shots that Tiger has hit in a major (yes, all 4 days; I'm that pathetic).

This week he played at a level that I've never seen before. It wasn't like his wins at Augusta in 1997 and Pebble Beach in 2000 - when he was so utterly 'in the zone' that no one else was close. No, this was more impressive because Tiger didn't have to be in that zone. He simply put together a game plan that I don't think anyone has ever seen before: he hit one driver during the entire tournament. On hole after hole he was 20 to 50 yards behind his playing partner, hitting 4 irons into greens. But with that game plan he as capable of shooting 18 under (probably would have been 19 under if he'd needed it on the last hole).

In the 4 days of golf, he hit two slightly offt-target shots on the back 9 on Thursday, and had a couple of weak putts on the back 9 on Saturday. The rest was perfect. And golf is simply not a game of perfection. If you don't believe me, just watch some of the highlights from the rest of the field. Today, he shot the lowest round of the day, despite playing in the last group. He made Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, and certainly Sergio Garcia look like they didn't know how to play the game. They were not in his league, at all.

Overall it was the most impressive performance in a major championship that I've seen. And maybe it was even the best ever. My hunch is that Hogan played some majors back in his day that might compare, but I have no way to know. I also think it's clear now that Hogan is the only player to which we can compare Tiger. Again (well, it's an again if you've skipped down to the footnote), the media likes to talk about Nicklaus, because everyone knows him and they used to use his face for the TV promos, and he has the record of majors. Tiger is great in the way that Jack was great, and he's the best of his time like Jack was, but he doesn't really play like Jack. He's much more 'clinical' (the favoured word of the BBC announcers today). He is not content to try to overpower the golf course. He can do that, of course, but he figured out early on that if he wants to win 25 majors (and I think he does; he's not aiming just to eak by Jack's record) he has a better chance of he plays a systematic, thinking game. This week he did that to amazing effect, producing a performance that quickly exhuasts the sportscaster's stock of superlatives.

It's hard to even find analogies in other sports, since a single game effort is not a fair comparison (for a single game I recall Gretzsky's hat trick against Toronto in the 1993 Conference finals Game 7); what Tiger did took 4 days of 5 hours each. Perhaps one of Jordan's best finals series would be a good candidate. Perhaps a pitcher that throws multiple no-hitters in a World Series (I'm guessing that's never happened). Maybe the Dolphins perfect season (when was that, 1973?).

Sport is one of the few places in our world where we can be truly awed; where we can see something that we might actually want to name 'greatness'. Today I felt very lucky to catch a glimpse of it.

*Those in the MSM and everywhere else who say Tiger has 11 majors are, quite simply, wrong. Major championships simply must include, as they always have until a few years ago, amateur (British and US Amateur) and professional (Masters, US/British Opens, PGA championship) victories. Nicklaus had, not 18, but 20 majors, as he won the US Amateur twice before turning pro. Bobby Jones, the most important golfer of all time, won the 'grand slam' of his time by winning the US and British Amateur and the US and British Opens. Bobby Jones never turned pro, and for the longest time this was one of the crucial elements of golf tradition - it was a game to be played by professionals and amateurs. This asterisk would not have even been necessary a decade ago; and two decades ago, when Nicklaus won at Augusta, it was simply a given that it was his 20th major.

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