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.
The first golf tournament I ever saw in person was The Players Championship. This was sometime in the late '90s, I think. I was probably 12. Sorry, my records from that time are woefully incomplete. The point is, we went on a Saturday, and I have two very noteworthy recollections:
1. I saw Duffy Waldorf walking between holes, and yelled out, "Hi, Mr. Dalworf." He was nice about it. This is still the most embarrassing spoonerism of my life.
2. When I began stalking Tiger Woods, which was almost immediately, he was finishing up a hole. He putted out, gave his caddy the putter, took the driver, and made his way to the next hole. He came within five feet of me on the cart path, and to my eternal amazement, he was holding the driver straight out in front of him and bouncing a ball as he walked. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, and I became Tiger-obsessed.
That was, of course, before the iconic Nike commercial came out in 1999:
On Tuesday, golfer Sergio Garcia made a comment about inviting Tiger Woods over to serve him fried chicken. Woods responded the following day, via Twitter, noting that the comment "wasn't silly" and was "wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate " The story instantly became newsworthy, with much of the response coming down harshly on Garcia.
Grantland staff writers Wesley Morris and Rembert Browne spent Wednesday e-mailing back and forth about the incident, and then some.
Wesley: What did you think about the fried chicken remark?
Rem: I've been sitting with it all morning. The Sergio comment doesn't even make me mad or rile me up. Maybe it's me becoming numb to really, really tired insults. You?
It's rare in golf to see a gallery cheer for a bad shot, but it happens. The patrons of the game love to brag about the sport's unique decorum, but there are times when rooting interest takes over and fans can't help themselves. So it wasn't a huge surprise when the spectators at the 17th hole at the Players Championship — the famous island green — gave in to their secret enthusiasm when Sergio Garcia hit a first shot, and then a second, into the water. He was in the middle of a duel with Tiger Woods, and because both men are larger-than-life figures, and because they despise each other, the gallery was almost obliged to pick a side. It wasn't a difficult choice, and when Sergio lost the tournament on 17, the partisans roared for Tiger.
But here's something I don't think I've ever heard in golf before: sarcastic applause. As when Sergio finally put his tee shot on the green in his third attempt. The mocking roar that rose as the ball landed went a step beyond instinct and into something like cruelty. A choice had been made — Sergio was the bad guy, and it was OK to collectively cheer his failure. It was late in the day, and the fans, to steal a phrase from Tiger's post-match press conference, were "well influenced." You could hear isolated shouts of "get in the water!" ring out after Sergio's tee shots, and when he put another in the drink on 18, a fan with masterful comic timing waited until moments before his second shot to shout "water on the left!"
Their man was about to win the title, but the caustic aftermath showed that the drama went beyond Tiger vs. Sergio. This was love against hate.
In case you were busy asking, "yeah, but when is Spoiled Only-Child Day?" here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Tiger Woods won his second career Players Championship and his fourth PGA Tour event this year, finishing the tournament at 13-under. Woods benefited from Sergio Garcia's quadruple-bogey on TPC's iconic 17th hole. "I can't believe it," Tiger said after the tournament, "I thought for sure I was in trouble. You don't just stare down Sergio Garcia and live to tell the tale. I'm shocked that he made it easy for me. Shoooooocked." When told of Woods's comments, Garcia said, "Why? What's his problem, man? Guy has everything. He has a boat that holds other boats in it. He has a trophy case that is just all of the trophies he doesn't like melted down and turned into a trophy case. Why's he gotta come after me? What's he compensating for? What trouble has Tiger f-ing Woods ever had to deal with? Can we talk about that for a second? Can we talk about Tiger Woods's hypothetical personal troubles?" When told of Garcia's questions, Woods asked, "Wasn't he married to Greg Norman's daughter?" before winking provocatively at the press corps. When told of Tiger's wink, Sergio let out a frustrated scream. When told of Sergio's scream, Tiger let out a sarcastic chuckle. When told of Tiger's sarcastic chuckle, Sergio sighed. When told of Sergio's sigh, Tiger fist-pumped. When told of Tiger's fist pump, Sergio's lip began to quiver. When told of Sergio's lip quiver, Tiger didn't look up from his dinner of truffles and lobsters. When told of Tiger's feast, Sergio let one tear trickle down his cheek. When told of Sergio's tear, Tiger turned his laptop toward the reporter talking to him; the laptop had a really smug animated GIF playing on loop. When told of Tiger's GIF burn, Sergio asked, "Isn't that pronounced with a hard 'G,' like Garcia?" But it isn't, and when a reporter went to tell Tiger of Sergio's foolishness, he was too busy watching someone polishing his trophy case made of trophies to acknowledge the reporter's existence.
Even with Stephen Curry at less than full strength, the Golden State Warriors evened up their series with the San Antonio Spurs with a 97-87 overtime win. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was concerned after the game, saying, "Now that Curry is banged up, Mark Jackson discovered he's allowed to rest him. That sprained ankle cost us a massive competitive advantage in this series."
The great thing about the opening Thursday and Friday of the Masters is the existence of pure possibility. When you look at the leaderboard, you can ignore the unpleasant fact that someone named Marc Leishman is in the hunt with Dustin Johnson — one of golf's most boring humans and the darkness to Ben Crane's shimmering light — and let your mind run away with fantasies of what could happen over the weekend.
"Holy shit," you might say, "it's shaping up for a Sunday duel between Sergio and Freddy Couples!"
And while that may not be the most likely outcome, nobody can prove you wrong. The future spreads out before you, like a beautiful par 5 just waiting to be eagled. Nothing is off the table. So let's do this. Let's allow our minds to roam over the wild terrain of potential and find the 10 best possible stories that could maybe almost possibly materialize at Augusta.
In case you were busy crashing Lark Voorhies's birthday party (and if so, kudos to you), here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Tiger Woods had a vintage weekend as he both reclaimed the no. 1 world ranking in golf and won his record eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. When asked if things could be any better than they are right now, Woods responded, "Um, yes. Yes, they could. You have no idea." When asked to elaborate, Woods responded, "No, I better not. I I better not."
The Miami Heat ran their win streak to 27 games after a 108-94 win over the Orlando Magic. Miami forward Chris Bosh was jubilant after the performance, saying, "Big things are happening in Miami. I'm hoping this will finally get the media to pay attention to us down here. These 27 straight wins should definitely get us the attention we deserve."
In case you were the one guy in the office who was actually working yesterday, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Break up the Crimson! Harvard mounted the biggest upset of the first day of the NCAA tournament, beating New Mexico, 68-62. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was near tears after the game, saying, "No one thought New Mexico could be beat. No one. But we took a ragtag bunch of kids with no futures, and we brought down Goliath. No one will hear 'Harvard' and think second-rate any longer. This changes everything."
Davidson's bid to upset Marquette fell just short as a late turnover doomed the Wildcats to a 59-58 defeat at the hands of the Golden Eagles. "Not hands — talons," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams after the game, who credited his team's victory to their "unnecessarily specific mascot name. The Wildcats never had a chance."
By now, you’ve seen the Facebook photos of Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn. In the Tiger meta-scandal, the release of these pictures is an important milestone. This is the moment when the narrative of Woods’s love life passed from our hands back into his.
In case you were busy trying to remember Della Reese's name (it's Della Reese), here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Despite an off night from LeBron James, his Miami Heat got their 18th consecutive win, 105-91, over the Indiana Pacers. After the game, diminutive Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who led his team with 26 points, said, "Finally, it's my Miami Heat." Chalmers beamed and pointed at himself with both thumbs until Heat forward Chris Bosh patronizingly patted him on the head, saying, "Sure it is, little buddy." Chalmers sulked away as both Bosh and Dwyane Wade laughed at his expense. "Why won't they let me have this?" Chalmers asked himself while crouched inside of his locker.
Indiana won a thriller in Ann Arbor to take home the Big Ten championship, beating the Michigan Wolverines, 72-71. Michigan point guard Trey Burke's potential game-winning layup hung on the rim, bouncing three times before falling out, costing him and his team a share of the Big Ten title in what might be his last regular season game as a member of the Wolverines. So in case you find yourself talking to Trey Burke at some point in the next 20 years, now you'll know exactly what he's replaying in his mind while he stares off into the distance with a glazed-over look in his eye.
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.
In case you were busy realizing that you waited way too long to make that Harlem Shake video, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
LeBron James powered the Miami Heat to their ninth consecutive win as they beat the Chicago Bulls, 86-67, at the United Center. The game was notable both for James's performance and a pair of scary moments. First, James pulled up limping after being fouled hard by Bulls guard Nate Robinson. Fortunately, he's not expected to miss any time. Scarier still, a large lighting fixture fell from the roof of the arena, narrowly missing a group of spectators. While rumors of a "phantom" haunting the arena were quickly dismissed, sabotage by a man envious of James's success is suspected. Early reports describe the suspect as a bald, 6-foot-6, 50-year-old African-American male wearing a mask over his face and six rings on his fingers. He is reported to have eluded capture using his superior footwork, and remains at large.
Every year, Forbes puts out a list of the 10 most disliked athletes in sports. Usually, that list is pretty much what you’d guess. A year ago, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and Plaxico Burress stood (or sulked) at the top. In this year’s version, released yesterday, the top three again didn’t provide much of a surprise: Lance Armstrong (cheater, Oprah interviewee, all-around dickhead), Manti Te’o (fake dead girlfriend embellisher), and Woods.
The surprise, at least to me, comes at no. 4. With an approval rating of just 21 percent, Jay Cutler is the most disliked athlete in America who’s never given a nationally televised mea culpa. Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t see anything regarding Cutler with clear eyes, and that the guy kind of seems like an asshole. But is he really more of an asshole now than he used to be?
Yesterday was the first round of the PGA's Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, and Phil Mickelson tore the course to pieces. It started with a bang: four straight birdies, two pars, and then three more birdies for a 29 on the front. When he birdied three of the next four holes, he needed just two more to go -12 on the day, which would put him dead on that legendary number ...
In official PGA events, a 59 has happened just five times. The most famous was David Duval's in 1999, when he looked poised to challenge Tiger Woods for control of the golf world and left a trail of scorched earth at the Bob Hope Classic. Most recently, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby did it in 2010 (Appleby's was on a par-70 course, making it just slightly less legendary). It's an exclusive club, and if you shoot 59, you're in the history books for good.