Commentary

Can't anybody here play this game?

If the Open showed us anything, it's that golf without the old Tiger needs fixing

Originally Published: June 21, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Some fast-forward thoughts this week regarding the slow-motion catastrophe of the U.S. Open, concerning a Johnson caught in fate's wringer, terrible golf and gruesome trousers, and the Platonic ideal of Tiger Woods and the very nature of failure itself.

First, congratulations to Graeme McDowell, a likable stranger who convention and history and the sports pages will tell you won the U.S. Open. Common sense, however, says that this is not so. He simply managed to lose it more slowly than those around him. Still, that's the considerable Sunday job description, isn't it?

[+] EnlargeGraeme McDowell
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesWhat can we make of Graeme McDowell's win? So far, about as much as we made of Ed Furgol's win right after the 1954 Open.

So we can look forward to hearing a great deal more from this affable young man in the years ahead -- unless, of course, we never hear from him again.

That's always been the Truth of Tournament Golf, that it throws up as many cardigan-wearing one-timers and aberrations and oddities as it does Historic Rivalries or Marquee Titans of the Game. (If you doubt this, Ed Furgol will appear in a vision at the foot of your bed tonight, clutching his press clippings and the trophy from the Rubber City Open.) Ten years from now -- maybe -- we'll all know how good a golfer McDowell really is.

The same is true for poor Dustin Johnson, a decent kid with a big swing who got pantsed by nerves and ambition and the universe while everyone he ever has known or ever will know watched it happen.

That a teevee commentator described this as "shocking" was itself the only reasonable cause for shock Sunday. Has he never watched a major golf tournament before? "The Unraveling Youngster and his Tragi-Comic Collapse" is a stock turn in every sporting melodrama. That Johnson was exposed so early was the only update on this old classic.

It looked very briefly as if Ernie Els might then take the wheel, might win the whole shebang; but whatever it is that Mr. Els has lacked off and on in this regard for long stretches of his career, he lacked it again Sunday. As gifted as he is, as fluid and beautiful his swing, there's a reason he hasn't won more majors. Neither of us knows what it is.

[+] EnlargeErnie Els
AP Photo/Eric RisbergSometimes Ernie Els has "it"; sometimes he doesn't. Guess what time it is here.

So, too, Phil Mickelson, who looked as if he had pulled his slacks out of the costume locker at a community theater production of "Damn Yankees." A fan favorite, and as good a golfer as he can be, Mickelson often seems unable to summon the assassin within when it's most necessary to do so. Instead, we get that wet and rueful smile. To paraphrase A.J. Liebling, Mickelson's legacy may be that he's as good as a golfer can be without being a hell of a golfer.

Of the top 10 finishers at Pebble Beach, in fact, only Matt Kuchar -- that's K-u-c-h-a-r -- managed to break par on the final day, shooting a 68.

At least part of the trouble with golf as we find it in 2010 is that it's being played at the highest level by young men who grew up watching Tiger Woods on television. Or playing him on their Xbox or PlayStation. ("A 275-yard carry over water into the wind? I'll take a little off the 4-iron.") It's also being played on courses designed or adapted or lengthened or ruined to thwart Tiger Woods. With equipment meant to make everyone hit like Tiger Woods. By people who can't beat Tiger Woods.

In fact, for more than a decade, golf at every level has deformed itself entirely around the Idea of Tiger Woods.

So until Tiger Woods retires, everyone in golf -- including Tiger Woods -- is doomed to be a footnote to the Idea of Tiger Woods in the Age of Tiger Woods.

Weird, huh?

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesThe song says, "You'll never walk alone." But Tiger does.

The mainstream narrative that Tiger only ever competes against himself and the golf course is over. Now he's competing against everybody from the League of Decency to Matt K-u-c-h-a-r to the photo department at TMZ. And as he struggles, so will golf struggle.

Because if ever there was going to be a moment when a rival overtook a weakened Tiger Woods, stepped into the vacuum of his absence and kicked him while he's down, this is it. Instead, we get Sunday. (On a day when Woods walked the course with no more swagger than a man carrying the shovel with which to dig his own grave, no contemporary could rise to finish him.)

That no meaningful rivalry ever grew up organically isn't Tiger's fault. Or Nike's fault or the PGA Tour's or the USGA's. It's a quirk of timing. Not every Jack gets a Jill -- or an Arnie, in this case -- or even a Lee or a Tom or a Gary. Mr. Nicklaus was lucky enough to sharpen himself against the greats of a great age. Woods has suffered from history's failure to deliver any opponent but his own libido. He's been too successful.

And golf will remain poorer for it until the prevailing narrative changes or he leaves the game.

In the meantime, Graeme McDowell's career began in earnest Sunday night. Dustin Johnson's career began Monday morning.

We welcome you both. Welcome you into our duffer consciousness and into our hacker imaginations. We welcome you to golf -- a world, just like the wider one, in which failure is itself the state of grace.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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