Monday, July 19, 2010

On Tiger (and Joe)

Let me state the obvious first: Joe Posnanski is an outstanding writer, and one of the nicest people I've met in this business, and I would say I agree with him at least 87 percent of the time. But yesterday Posnanski wrote a curious piece about Tiger Woods--headline "Writing Off Tiger"--and for once, I find his logic specious. His point was essentially that Tiger thrives on being overestimated rather than underestimated...that he wins by intimidation...that he's nearly 35 years old and most golfers that age are on the downside of their careers. "The difference between good and great is a whisper," Joe writes.

It's true...something is missing from Tiger's game at this very moment, but this argument also presumes that Tiger can never recover, that the aura of invincibility that defined his career has been irrevocably spoiled. It's an argument based on the presumption that Tiger Woods is now nothing more than a very good golfer, that he fits within the statistical norm, that his career from here on out will match the arc of, say, Mark O'Meara or Vijay Singh or Padraig Harrington.

Here's what we know: Tiger needs to win four more major championships to match Jack Nicklaus' majors win total of eighteen. Joe writes that Jack Nicklaus won four major championships after the age of 35, but this is deceptive, since Nicklaus also won two majors at the age of 35, meaning that, if Tiger follows Jack's precise path from here on out, he'll wind up with twenty major championships.

So, just to reiterate: Tiger Woods has already won fourteen major championships. He's already 75 percent of the way to his goal. Even if he's not the player he once was, even if his skills are diminishing, he is still the greatest golfer of his generation. He still scares you. Most people, including his fellow tour players, will likely overestimate him for the rest of his career, even if he never wins another tournament. When Michael Jordan was playing in Washington, his body and his reputation crumbling around him, there was a sense that he could channel his former self at any moment, that on a given night, tongue wagging and shorts sagging, he could pour in fifty. Personally, I think Tiger Woods is nowhere near the Jordan-in-D.C. stage; I think he's in the Jordan-Playing-Minor-League-Baseball Stage. His downfall is largely mental. It may take him another year or two to regain his cerebral equilibrium, but I'll be shocked if he doesn't regain his physical form at some point. And once he wins a single major, than the Overestimation Factor falls right back in his favor, and he could easily win several more in succession.

Here's the other thing: Tiger is only the second great golfer in history (beside Gary Player) who actually resembles an athlete. He's strong, and he's conditioned--if anything, maybe he's been a little too conditioned the past few years--and that should buy him several additional productive seasons. As Joe points out, only two golfers spread out their championships over an exceptionally long period of time: One is Nicklaus, and there is little doubt that Tiger is in Nicklaus's class, in terms of ability. The other is Player, and Tiger is in Player's class, in terms of conditioning.

It's true, what Joe says: Tiger Woods is not a movie, and he's not a fairy tale. But he is the greatest golfer of his generation. He elevated a game into a sport. He is, we now know, a deeply flawed individual, and a perception of weakness can be a difficult hurdle to overcome when your career thrives on an aura of invincibility. But the fact that Tiger built that aura in the first place was the most miraculous sports story of the modern age. To presume that he can't build it again is to ignore that a whisper can pass in both directions.

(Photo: Alastair Grant/AP)

No comments: