Hey there, casual golf fans! Have you seen strange references to Tiger Woods and someone called Brandel Chamblee as you've browsed ESPN over the last two weeks? Are you kind of curious as to what it's all about, but would rather not chase a series of links down the Internet rabbit hole until you reach the origin? Would you like a self-proclaimed Grantland golf expert, armed with snark, a know-it-all demeanor, and the courage to call you an idiot in the very title, to give you the full breakdown?
Well you are in luck, my friend. Because I am me, and you are you, and this story has somewhat amazingly dragged its boring carcass across the sports world for two weeks without dying. So let's feed this monster one last time, and then, if possible, kill it.
If you're a golf tournament, and your name isn't the MastersBritishOpenU.S.OpenPGAChampionshipRyderCup well, you have a prestige problem. And by prestige problem, I mean that the average sports fan probably doesn't care about you. This is the nature of golf, and it's why Tiger Woods can dominate a PGA Tour season and still have talk radio pundits across the country wondering if he's "lost it."
There have been a few creative remedies to the prestige problem. The Players Championship tries the "fifth major" tag, and it has worked wonders. The Presidents Cup copied the Ryder Cup format, but replaced the Europeans with everyone from anywhere that isn't Europe. That hasn't taken off in quite the same way, but it's only been around for 20 years. The Accenture Match Play Championship combines everything we love about the Ryder Cup and March Madness into one event, and I personally believe it will become the next big thing in golf. But the FedEx Cup takes a simpler, age-old approach: Throw money at the problem. Like, $10 million worth, all to the winner.
Unfortunately, defining the FedEx Cup is not so simple, and will take some ’splainin’. (If you think that's part of the problem, you would be correct.) The basic point to understand is that it's a point-based playoff system held each August and September over four tournaments, with the goal of crowning a PGA Tour champion at the end. In theory, this should be more exciting than just going by the money list, which Woods clinched sometime in early January (an exaggeration, but only slightly). In practice, it hasn't been an easy sell.
Fifty-nine! On Friday, Jim Furyk became the sixth golfer in the history of the PGA Tour to join the 59 Club by shooting a 12-under 59 at Conway Farms. In the vacuum of golf scoring, where the only opponent is par and raw totals aren't adjusted in any way, it's a round that joins those five others as the greatest in tour history.
Of course, there are a number of factors that could distort scoring and make a 59 easier (or harder) to pull off, with differences in overall course difficulty and weather conditions standing out as obvious examples. A 59 is easier on a par-70 course (as Stuart Appleby's 59 in 2010 was) than it is on a par-72. Furyk's was on a par-71 course. It's also more impressive to shoot a 59 on a course where nobody else is within six shots of you than it is to shoot a 59 when there's, say, a couple 62s and three 63s around the clubhouse.
"I see you. How could I miss you with that shirt? At least tell me you got it for free."
— Jason Dufner, in the media room, to a reporter in the back trying to get his attention
By now, it was starting to feel like a two-horse race. Henrik Stenson had just dropped a shot on this very hole, and everyone else who mattered was in some stage of collapse. That left Dufner, who had never won a major, and Jim Furyk, whose lone win at the U.S. Open a decade ago had been eclipsed by his ensuing failures.
Earlier, there had been hints that the day would be filled with unpredictable surges from off the leaderboard. Graeme McDowell had done some scoring early on, posting eight birdies and showing that Rochester's Oak Hill course was receptive — as it had been on Thursday and Friday — and not stingy and mean like Saturday. Scott Piercy and Jason Day started scorching hot, going from even-par to 6-under and threatening to post early clubhouse numbers that would truly scare the leaders. Now they had faded — too few holes — and the nerves were starting to get to the real contenders. Lee Westwood was up to his old Sunday-at-the-majors choking act, en route to a 76. Rory McIlroy, everyone's sexy pick to steal the PGA from his morning position at 3-under, triple-bogeyed no. 5 and evaporated from the collective unconscious. Adam Scott was only even on the round, and that wouldn't cut the mustard, while Jonas Blixt, whoever he was, had started bogey-bogey and taken himself out of the conversation.
Every fan has his or her own rules for why they do or don't root for certain athletes. Sometimes those rules are as simple as "he plays for the team in the town where I grew up." Sometimes they're less simple — as a kid, Joe Montana was my favorite NFL quarterback because he won Super Bowls, but also because we wore the same jersey number (16, though I was playing soccer) and his name was attached to the greatest football video game of my generation. (You can have your Maddens and your Tecmo Bowls. I'll take my Sports Talk any day.) This is the logic of a 10-year-old boy, and thankfully it improves a little — though only a little — over time.
Take this weekend's competitors at the golf season's last major, the PGA Championship, for example. If you're not a big fan of the sport, you might see an unbroken line of monochromatic stiffs. And you wouldn't exactly be wrong. Yeah, OK, it's an international field. And yeah, OK, Tiger Woods. But mostly: relatively well-off white guys from two-parent homes who, if they have a colorful personality, keep it fairly well-hidden on and off the course. Some sports almost demand of their players an easily tapped reservoir of childhood misery and pain in order to summon up enough anger and intensity to play. Golf is not one of them. It favors patience, and, above all, privilege.
Normally I write a "top 10 contenders" post before each major, but after witnessing Tiger Woods's recent form, I decided it wasn't necessary. I'm convinced he's going to end his long drought and win this year's PGA Championship, "Glory's Last Shot," per the dramatic men on television. So rather than giving token lip service to nine other golfers, let's focus on the top dog. In my "Conversations With an Idiot" post Monday, I engaged in the stupid debate about whether Tiger was "back," and concluded that the answer was an unequivocal yes. Why? Because he's no. 1 in the world rankings, has won five tournaments in 2013 while nobody else has won more than two, leads the PGA Tour money list, and tied a course record at Bridgestone last weekend with a 61, which also tied his own personal best as a pro.
You may have heard that Tiger Woods shot a 61 on Friday at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, setting a course record and tying his best professional round ever. He went on to win the tournament by seven strokes over Henrik Stenson and Keegan Bradley, and will be the odds-on favorite to end his major drought with a victory at this week's PGA Championship. The Bridgestone win marked the latest success in an excellent year; by almost every measure, he's been the world's best golfer in 2013.
And yet throughout the sports media landscape, one question persists: Is he back?
This morning I was lucky enough to make a guest appearance on the fake podcast Conversations With an Idiot. We debated the hot-button issue, and the transcript is below. Please enjoy.
Phil Mickelson's stunning come-from-behind victory on Sunday in the Open Championship was as unlikely as it was impressive. Picking between crowning moments in Mickelson's lofty career was already difficult enough, but that final-round 66 — highlighted by that incredible run of four birdies over the final six holes — might qualify as the pinnacle of Lefty's run. For such an aggressive player to conquer a links course is one thing, but Muirfield? Just staggering.
Big words are getting thrown around with regard to this victory, too. "Best ever" is showing up an awful lot in stories about Mickelson's win. Best final round at a major ever? Best Mickelson final round ever? Best Mickelson performance ever? All are questions that would be really interesting to explore. If only there was a way to compare tournament performances across different courses and eras
Oh, right! There's the Z-score method, which I first wrote about after Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open victory in June 2011. Traditional scoring only measures performance versus par and awards a winner by virtue of having the best score, but since there are no adjustments for the quality of the course or the competition, finishing 15-under at one course doesn't translate into anything at a more difficult course.
For reasons that are hard to pin down, the golfing establishment — that stoic, humorless group of talking heads, beat writers, retired pros, and country club big shots — seems obsessed with projecting an image of nobility and tradition. Maybe it's the sport's slow pace, or the way players assume a burden of honor by keeping their own scores, or that golf costs a lot of money and attracts an audience well-schooled in venerating itself. Whatever the cause, it can be smothering. I've seen it keep plenty of young people away from the game, and it's a shame, because the old guard has got it backward. Golf is not stately and ponderous; it's elusive, and it's mischievous, like a fickle Olympian god trying to screw you over with an impossible riddle.
Golf, defined by two results from the past month:
1. At the U.S. Open, on an impossible course, an American star steals the spotlight. He has finished second at the tournament an unbelievable five times (a record), but this feels like the year when he finally breaks through. He attracts attention immediately by flying in just hours before his round because he attended his daughter's middle school graduation a day earlier, preparation be damned. Sunday will be Father's Day — how symbolic. He ends up holding the 54-hole lead. The swelling crowd is behind him to a fanatical degree. And then, late in the final round, he fades. An English golfer steals the win. The American finishes second. Again.
2. At the British Open one month later, on an impossible course, a British star steals the spotlight. He has finished in the top three at majors an unbelievable seven times (a record for non-winners), but this feels like the year when he finally breaks through. At age 40, entering the late stages of his career, he doesn't know how many more chances he'll have, but he's playing in his native country in front of a sympathetic gallery. He ends up holding the 54-hole lead. The swelling crowd is behind him to a fanatical degree. And then, late in the final round, he fades. The American star roars from behind and steals the win. The Briton finishes in the top three. Again.
It never seemed to make sense, why Phil Mickelson would travel to the United Kingdom each summer to lose two tournaments on courses he didn't especially like and admittedly didn't know how to play. Perhaps it was to see the sights of the realm? He's probably seen them by now. So … golf? Why?
In the past, American golfers who didn't jibe with links-style play would just stay stateside for the week. Rather than spend the annual, workmanlike fortnight barely or not even making cuts on the old sod, Mickelson would've been better off at home, practicing for the PGA Tour's loaded August schedule and enjoying his beloved Five Guys hamburgers. Seeing Phil Mickelson hoisting the Claret Jug would be like seeing Michael Jordan winning the pennant.
Then Mickelson turned 43, suffered one of the most piercing losses of his well-pierced career, and popped over to Scotland — to win the Scottish and British Opens in consecutive weeks, the latter by a comfortable margin. They are his only two wins in the U.K., and what's most unusual is that he rarely looked out of his comfort zone. It makes you wonder why the owner of the best short game of his generation could never figure out links-style courses before.
There's a simple lesson behind Mickelson's great play of late: Getting rid of the driver isn't a bad idea! Especially on dry, fast courses where the balls rolls, and rolls, and rolls.
Today, 156 golfers from all over the world stepped on the first tee at Muirfield with hopes of winning the third major championship of the year. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they'll also be hoping to avoid what Steve Stricker did on the last day of the previous major. It was something that professional golfers rarely do, especially when there's a camera trained on them. On the second hole of the final round of the U.S. Open, Stricker hit an honest-to-god shank.
This was a surprise for a number of reasons. In a sport that's already vanilla, Stricker warrants nary a sprinkle. He's a steady player who doesn't hit the ball a long way or take a lot of Mickelsonian chances on the course. He was also hitting a shot, a layup, that, with its shared basketball terminology, suggests the kind of thing that should come easy for a pro.
Don't you hate those people who get all sentimental about the British Open, just because golf was born in Scotland and the windy, damp, overcast atmosphere of the year's third major harks back to that romantic era when shepherds tending their flocks would take a moment to hack away at the feather-filled leather balls buried in the thick fescue off the coastal sand dunes?
Then you came to the wrong place, because I'm one of those people, and the British Open is my favorite major. I'm about to get real corny on you, but there's something spiritually satisfying about the Open Championship that is missing everywhere else. There are philosophical differences between the three American majors (snooty, democratic, and inferiority complex, in that order), but the British Open is the only physically unique major. It's a departure from the manicured greenery of the States and a return to the rugged links golf of the sport's origin. This year's host course, Muirfield, overlooks the Firth of Forth and subjects the players to the harsh winds we've come to expect from these venues. A premium will be placed on low ball flight (thus avoiding the worst of the winds), straight drives (thus avoiding the miserably thick rough and treacherous pot bunkers), and the ability to stave off the one-hole disasters that can pierce your balloon of hope. Ernie Els won the last Open at Muirfield, in 2002, with a score of -6, but the scores of past winners show that if the weather is mild, negative double digits are on the table. But who goes into a British Open expecting mild weather?
Imagine a group of cyclists grouped together for a race up a steep mountain incline. They leave on the gun, and it becomes immediately clear that some of them aren't conditioned for this kind of strain. Their legs cramp, their chests pound, their bikes begin to wobble, and they pull off to collapse on the side of the road. Others continue, showing better form, but the problem is that the ascent never stops. If anything, the climb seems to become steeper, more painful. The amateur riders drop out for lack of experience. The former legends, past their peak, swallow their pride and quit. Some take calculated risks and waste valuable energy. Some hit a patch of oil or dirt and swerve into the ground. Some look at the mountain, and the size of the task unnerves them. They all falter.
Now imagine the climb has no end. Imagine the race continues until all but the last weary rider has resigned himself to the mountain, and you have a framework for understanding the 2013 U.S. Open.
It's June, which means two things. First, the U.S. Open. Hooray! Second, and exclusive to our tiny corner of the Internet, the second of Grantland's monthly golf power rankings. Smaller hooray! The U.S. Open — so named because anyone can qualify, from the lowliest American amateur to the highliest Tiger Woods — is truly the People's tournament. And I like to think that these are truly the People's power rankings (though Karl Marx does a pretty good job with his). It's a match made in People's heaven.
The good news is that the 2013 U.S. Open is shaping up to be a really compelling test of golfer vs. course. Here's why: Merion Golf Club is one of the shortest courses to host the tournament, and while it played tough in 1981 (just five golfers under par) and 1971 (no golfers under par), that was before the young guns changed the game. Players today can bomb their drives more than 300 yards without blinking, and it has the side effect of making older, shorter courses look like pitch-and-putts. At Merion, we're dealing with a situation where four (!) par-4 holes are reachable by driver for the longest players, and reporters are asking questions like, "Will someone shoot a 62?" Nobody gives the course any respect. It's been raining in Pennsylvania for the past week, meaning the fairways and greens will hold wayward shots, and the players' jobs will be made even easier. Then again, only two players (Tiger and Rory — who else?) have ever finished -10 or better for an entire U.S. Open, so let's not count out Merion quite yet. The USGA has a way of creating difficult holes from scratch; no Augusta Nationals here, thank you very much.
After the high drama of Sergio vs. Tiger last weekend, producing the best Players Championship ratings in more than a decade, we were probably due for something a bit less energetic. But as a fisherman would say, a calm surface can disguise a roiling storm below,* and despite a tranquil veneer, the golf world was alive and stirring this weekend.
*It's not clear that fishermen actually say this or that the phenomenon of subsurface storms is a real thing.
Here are five things that happened this weekend that might interest YOU, the Grantland reader: