Clutch Tiger birdies 18
June 15: Both the crowd and Tiger Woods erupted in joy as Woods drained a birdie putt on 18 to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate.
But it doesn’t work that way for Tiger Woods, just as it didn’t work that way for Michael Jordan. It’s as if once you get to a certain level of excellence, a level so obvious that even the most iconoclastic curmudgeon can’t miss it, the rules get suspended; the hero gets a pass.
And so it was on Sunday at Torrey Pines that the crowd cheered lustily for Mediate, the 45-year-old, happy-go-lucky plodder, but they roared like the space shuttle at takeoff when Tiger dropped the birdie putt that sent this U.S. Open into an 18-hole overtime on Monday.
It wasn’t that the crowd didn’t love the idea of a guy named Rocco — especially a Rocco who’s not from New Jersey — winning the Open. They were in love with the idea. Who couldn’t be?
But Tiger is Tiger, one of the greatest performers anyone has ever seen — maybe the greatest. And even if you were pulling for Rocco, you couldn’t help yourself. When Woods hacked it from tee to bunker to the hay field and finally onto the green, you knew he was going to make that putt go in. And you knew you were going to cheer as if it were your only son winning the Little League World Series with a walk-off home run.
If you want a definition of true greatness — not the manufactured kind the talking heads are always throwing at us, but the pure and genuine article — that’s probably as close as you’ll ever get. True greatness is the greatness that makes you cheer for its possessor even when you want the other guy to win.
It’s not even about winning all the time. Most athletes or teams who win all the time have fans — lots of them. But they also have a bountiful supply of people who despise them. That’s part of the deal. With great success comes great criticism.
Look at the New York Yankees or Notre Dame. For all their legions of fans, they also have armies of enemies. When they lose, it is cause for celebration. Even when they’re awful, there are plenty of people who delight in their misfortune.
The last golfer who enjoyed the kind of near-universal approval that Tiger does was Arnold Palmer. And you could understand that. He was handsome and athletic and endowed with a charismatic personality. People loved his swashbuckling style and the way he played to the galleries. They loved him so much that they hated Jack Nicklaus when he started beating Arnie for no reason other than that the Golden Bear was beating their hero.
What’s strange about Tiger is that he has more Jack in him than Arnie. Like Nicklaus, he’s as personable as a cinderblock during a round. The only time Woods interacts with the crowd is to tell some miscreant to stop making noise. And he rarely talks to his opponent after the obligatory handshake and "Good luck" on the first tee.
But where Woods is different is in the passion he shows for the game. Jack never showed much emotion one way or the other. Oh, he had his moments when he dropped big putts at Augusta or another venue, but he didn’t throw clubs, didn’t spit epitaphs after bad shots, and never screamed like a banshee and pumped his fists after making a big shot.
108th U.S. Open
At Torrey Pines South Golf Course (San Diego)
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