Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It's time for Tiger vs. Lefty

Tiger Woods has accomplished just about everything in golf. He has won each major at least three times over. He’s been named the PGA Player of the Year 10 times and has been the Tour Money Leader nine times. If his performance at the Masters over the weekend is any indication—especially coming off a lengthy and tumultuous layoff—he is still well on his way to shattering Jack Nicklaus’s record for career majors and Sam Snead’s record for most PGA Tour wins. Tiger is only 34. He needs just four major championships to tie the record. Nicklaus won six majors after his 35th birthday and—no offense to “The Golden Bear”—Tiger is peerless when it comes to physical conditioning. Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Tiger is well on his way to becoming the greatest golfer of all-time if he’s not there already. As impressive as he has been and likely will continue to be, that level of success comes at a price. Namely, the price of not having a rival. Not that it’s his fault. Still, many media pundits have used Tiger’s lack of a rival as fuel for criticism. Some have used it as an indictment of his competition which, of course, mitigates his accomplishments. Others have argued that he has made golf boring by being too dominant. Whether those things are actually true doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters. The public “need” for a rivalry is deeply rooted. Rivalries transcend sports from a mere “game” to a compelling battle of ability and style. Michigan has Ohio State. The Yankees have the Red Sox. Jack Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer and, to a lesser extent, Gary Player. Jacob has the Man in Black. Tiger has nobody.

I don’t personally buy into the notion that Tiger needs a rival to validate his career or to transcend golf anymore than he already has. He is quite likely the most recognizable athlete in the world and has won more money than anyone in the history of the sport. If there is one thing that Tiger is doing just fine without, it’s a rival. Hell, judging from TV ratings, golf is doing just fine without a rival for Tiger. However, I think many people—and unfortunately many of these people are backed by the power of the press—need him to have a rival. While I’m sure it has been enjoyable for Tiger to dominate golf tournaments like he’s dunkin’ on a six foot rim, it has gotten pretty boring at times for fans and the media. That has led to a number of “jump the gun” scenarios in which Tiger’s long awaited rival had supposedly arrived. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Sing, David Duval and Sergio Garcia were all, at one time or another, given the “Tiger’s rival” treatment. Of course, we know how all that turned out. The aforementioned “rivals” have combined to win 11 major championships. Tiger has 14 all by himself. Despite everyone’s best efforts to create a rival for Tiger, he has just been too good to have one. That may have all changed on Sunday.

Of all of Tiger’s fake rivals, Phil Mickelson has always been the one most likely to be the real thing. He has been the most successful golfer in the world outside of Tiger over the past 15 years. Unfortunately, the lengthy major drought to start his career made it impossible for the golfing world to take him seriously as a legitimate rival to Tiger. By 2004, Lefty’s struggles at the major championships had become equal parts “running punchline” and “heartbreak”. It wasn’t that he played horribly at the majors; he was, in fact, consistently good. Entering the ’04 Masters, Lefty had finished second or third at a major a total of eight times without winning. He finally broke through at the ’04 Masters and then followed that up with a PGA Championship in ’05 and another Masters in ’06. Still, entering the ’10 Masters, the major count stood at 14-3 in favor of Tiger. That’s not exactly a record that screams “rivalry!”

Three events over the past year-and-a-half have combined to potentially change the rivalry landscape considerably for the first time in the Tiger Woods era:

1). Tiger was forced to miss eight months to rehab the ACL tear in his left knee.

Tiger hasn’t won a major championship since his return from knee surgery. Right now, the drought stands at five majors and counting without a victory including only his second “missed cut” as a professional. It is his second longest major drought in over ten years.

2). The revelation of Tiger’s freaktastic personal transgressions.

Returning from reconstructive knee surgery is difficult enough without added distractions. The scrutiny, embarrassment, and self-doubt that must come from having personal infidelities aired in front of six billion people just makes maintaining focus in arguably the most difficult sport in the world that much more challenging, if not impossible.

3).Lefty’s win at the Master’s on Sunday.

Mickelson’s win wasn’t so much impactful because of the fact that he won a major as it was the timing of the win. Tiger came to Augusta last weekend to reclaim his dominance. It can be debated whether that was a realistic goal or not considering the mental obstacles he was dealing with, but there is no question that he came to win. Instead, Phil Mickelson won and that may very well prove to be a shot across Tiger’s bow. Don’t get me wrong, Tiger’s game hasn’t exactly suffered. He has finished in the top-six in four of the last five majors—all post surgery. Also, don’t forget that he won the ’08 U.S. Open hobbling on one leg which put him more at a disadvantage than any event he has entered post rehab; including the Masters over the weekend. Nonetheless, this is an interesting time for both Tiger and Lefty. The gap between the two that was seemingly the size of the Pacific Ocean just a few years ago seems to be narrowing on both sides. Mickelson will never erase the gap—or come close to it—but he could close it enough to bring credibility to Tiger’s first—and likely only—rivalry.

What Mickelson did by winning the Masters over the weekend wasn’t just prove that he can beat a motivated, lurking Tiger Woods at a major. Trevor Immelman did that at the ’08 Masters and that didn’t exactly catapult him into a rivalry with Tiger let alone prove that he was capable of winning more than one tournament. Plus, Mickelson has already proven that he can ward of a contending Tiger at a major when he outplayed him on Saturday and Sunday to win the ’06 Masters. What Mickelson did do that was far more meaningful than winning one tournament or beating one player was add to an ever increasingly rival-worthy resume. Nobody knows how Tiger is going to perform in the face of a rehabilitated knee and a yet-to-be rehabilitated image. By his standards, though, he has played poorly in five consecutive majors. It would not be surprising to see his winning percentage at major championships drop from the ridiculous level it was previous to ’09. If that happens—even in the slightest— then prepare for the very real possibility of the Tiger vs. Lefty era.

It’s unfortunate that this all couldn’t have happened 12 years ago. Lefty’s run of “runner-up” finishes damaged his reputation considerably because while he was coming “oh so close”, Tiger was winning eight majors. The interesting thing is that this thing has been rivalry worthy even if few have actually realized it. Since 2004, Tiger holds just a 6-4 advantage in major championships over Mickelson. He holds a slight 16-13 advantage in top-tens at major championships. Tiger has 70 top-ten finishes on tour over that span to Lefty’s 55. There is no doubt that Tiger is the greatest golfer in the world. His career accomplishments trump not just any golfer on the PGA Tour today but just about any two golfers. Lefty certainly isn’t in the same ballpark as Tiger as far as career accomplishments. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to be.

The greatest rivalry in the history of golf is generally considered to be Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer. There were a few extracurriculars involved with Jack vs. Arnie that Tiger vs. Lefty simply can’t match. First, Arnold Palmer was the top golfer in the world when Jack Nicklaus came on the scene. Second, as a 22-year old baby face, Jack beat Arnie in an 18-hole playoff to win his first ever tournament at the 1962 U.S. Open. That gave Jack vs. Arnie an aura of intrigue that few rivalries could ever match. Jack knocked Arnie off the mountain top. Instead of engaging in an ultra-competitive rivalry right at the beginning, Lefty vs. Tiger—if it materializes—would begin some 18 years after Lefty turned pro and 13 years after Tiger turned pro. That’s not exactly as compelling as the immediate drama that the Nicklaus vs. Palmer rivalry produced. Fortunately, rivalries in sports are based on results as much as they are drama. Had Palmer not been the greatest golfer in the world in ’62 or had he not continued to be a force on the tour for the decade after Nicklaus’s breakthrough win at the ’62 Open, there would not have been a rivalry. While style is a bonus, rivalries are built on substance.

So, the question is, does Tiger vs. Lefty have substance, or at the very least, potential for substance? To answer that question, we need to strip away all of the extracurriculars that gave Jack vs. Arnie its initial “juice” and simply look at how competitive they were on the golf course. That should be a measuring stick for a potential Tiger vs. Lefty rivalry. In Palmer’s best seven-year stretch against Nicklaus, he trailed 7-3 in majors. In that same stretch, he trailed 19-17 in top-ten finishes at major championships. As it turns out, that isn’t so different from how Lefty has fared against Tiger over the last seven years. As I referenced earlier, Tiger holds a 6-4 advantage in majors and a 16-13 advantage in top-tens at majors. Although, it hasn’t really been acknowledged as such, Tiger and Lefty seem to already have a worthy rivalry.

Mickelson is nearly 40 and about to begin a stretch in his career that has historically been the end for elite golfers. If this thing is going to happen on a much larger scale, it needs to happen now. Fortunately, it would only take a solid 2-3 year stretch of Tiger vs. Lefty, if that, for this thing to go down as an iconic rivalry. If this thing heats up, experts will undoubtedly apply a little revisionist history to the past seven years to make this thing a nine or ten year battle.

Because Tiger has been so dominant, it’s not surprising that Mickelson isn’t necessarily thought of as a great golfer. The numbers tell a different story, though. Tiger and Lefty are on pace to have very similar careers to Jack and Arnie. Palmer was an iconic golfer but really doesn’t compare to Nicklaus’s accomplishments. The same can be said of Mickelson with respect to Tiger. Jack vs. Arnie took off because of the added appeal of a 22-year old jumpstart challenging “The King.” Without that, their rivalry would’ve been far less compelling. While Tiger and Lefty have been bereft of intrigue up to this point, the “juice” that it needs to take off might finally be here. With Tiger’s mental and physical ailments, Mickelson will have a chance of his own to knock off the king—albeit a younger one.

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