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.
Tuesday night, I found myself with a group of fellow writers and assorted vagabonds at a Tucson Steakhouse called Lil Abner's. It was one of those rustic meat-and-potato joints with long wooden tables, no formal menu, and rusted barn relics hanging on the walls. (If it's any recommendation, John Daly used to park his bus out back during tournament week and spend every night inside.) Seven men sat at the table to my left. Two of them, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, were famous golfers from Northern Ireland. Four were civilians, agents and caddies. The seventh was a lesser-known quantity — a pudgy 25-year-old Irishman named Shane Lowry, whose claim to fame was winning the Irish Open in 2009, and who sneaked into the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship field because someone else sunk a putt at Pebble Beach two weeks ago. As the 64-seed, lowest in the field, his first-round opponent would be the best golfer in the world, a man with whom he was currently sharing dinner.
At the end of their meal, the seven wrote their names on slips of paper and placed them in an empty glass. When the waitress came by, she drew the names out one by one. They were playing roulette, and the last three names in the glass would be responsible for the bill. McDowell cheered loudly when his name was pulled. The waitress drew another slip. "Rorrrry," she read, the way you'd coo over a child. The cheers grew louder. "Shane?" she said next. Laughter and more cheers. Consternation from the civilians; none of the golfers would be paying. Two days later, at least one of them would have to lose.
It was a year that provided plenty of personalities, story lines, and moments, but the question is, which of those moments got their due and which did not? Could LeBron James actually be underrated? Could the Olympics? They just might be.
Underrated: LeBron James's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana
Everyone remembers the 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in an elimination game, and the ultra-efficient inside-out torching of the Thunder in the Finals. But Game 4 against the Pacers has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, which can happen, I guess, when a game kicks off one of the greatest 15-game stretches in the entire history of a sport. Miami felt like it was on the verge of a franchise-altering crisis going into Game 4, down 2-1 to a feisty Indiana team and missing Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade had shot 2-of-13 and snapped at Erik Spoelstra during a Game 3 blowout loss. It wasn't an elimination game, but in that moment it was hard to imagine Miami coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Pacers club that clearly didn't fear them.
And when Miami fell behind by 10 points in the first half of Game 4, looking a bit listless, it was tempting to start thinking about the consequences of a conference semifinals loss. Would they make a panic trade of one of the stars? Would they conclude James and Wade just couldn't coexist well enough to win a title? Would they fire Spoelstra before his extension — which was signed before the season — even kicked in?
Then LeBron and Wade went absolutely bananas, scoring 38 straight points for Miami in a second-half stretch for the ages. It wasn't just the production; it was the way it looked. Both were cutting actively off the ball and feeding each other for the sorts of semi-improv scores we all envisioned when they teamed up. Spoelstra began leaning on sets in which Miami cleared one side of the floor for LeBron and letting James go to work. He was dominant in those sets, which were rarely a major part of Miami's offense before, and they morphed into post-ups as the playoffs wore on — the post-ups for which Oklahoma City had no answer. It all just came together, at a startling speed. James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists, numbers that no other player has ever put up in a postseason game since the mid-1980s. He hit post-up shots, jumpers, graceful floaters over Roy Hibbert in the lane — shots he just didn't quite have down even two or three seasons before. It was masterful, and the Heat needed every bit of it. — Zach Lowe
The list of things I love about the Ryder Cup is so long that it could fill a (tedious) novel, and golf fans can probably guess most of them. But if I had to narrow that list down to one abstract thought well, I'd probably say that even though I enjoy competitive pressure and believe that I'd be a total gamer if destiny had made me a pro athlete instead of a human tree trunk, I know — I know — I'd fold like an accordion at the Ryder Cup.
It's just too intense. The innate pressure of golf, the way it punishes even a slight error, is compounded in the Ryder Cup by the responsibility each player has to his team, and country. I've been watching the event since I was young, and I associate those weekends with a feeling of nausea and dread. Disaster waits with every shot. Top players, like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The code of politeness between players is shelved for three days, replaced by cruel stare-downs and gamesmanship and cutting remarks. The captains obsess over strategies, broad and minute, then watch helplessly from golf carts as everything spins out of their control. The spectators, usually so staid and proper at golf tournaments, are boisterously singing, vicious, and drunk.
In short, it's the greatest damn event in sports. And the 2012 edition begins today.