Monday, August 21, 2006
Nothing like Tiger in the flesh
By Scoop Jackson Page 2
MEDINAH, Ill. -- Done a lot of things in my lifetime, but never this.
Seen MJ, Magic and Bird. Seen Sampras, Agassi and Federer. Seen Sweetness run. Seen Pedro pitch. Seen Jerry Rice ... in college. Seen Super Bowls, World Series and historic NCAA championships.
But in my lifetime, I had never seen Tiger Woods golf. Not in the flesh. Not until Sunday.
Now, to Jimmy Roberts, Rick Reilly, Ivan Maisel, Gene Wojciechowski, Tim Rosaforte or any other reporter who has covered golf for a living, this is nothing new. But to a kid whose heroes created art on concrete and an adult who came up covering games played on wood, seeing "the greatest individual athlete ever" not named Ali in living color, was one of those special things in life you want to say you did before your personal expiration date.
Tiger began his day on the putting green.
To call it an experience is somewhat an injustice. It's something different. Coming into Sunday, tied for the lead in a major, Tiger was going to be Tiger. Not the Tiger who missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Not the Tiger who finished 20th and 22nd (shooting 70 or above in seven of the eight rounds) during the Bay Hill Invitational and the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Not here. Not at the 88th PGA Championship.
I knew driving up to the course Rees Jones re-designed at Medinah Country Club, I was going to be more than a witness, more than a one-word Nike campaign slogan that explains what it's like to see greatness. See, seeing Tiger for the first time is a less-than-one-word encounter. No one word can describe it.
To know he was going to be wearing red. To know what that meant.
He came out an hour or so before his 1:50 p.m. CT tee time. He stood in front of the clubhouse, on the practice green, balls 74 inches below him. One after another, he began to hit them, 4-foot putts. Over and over, never stopping, never changing his motion, never missing. From one ball to the next, almost in a machinelike, assembly-line manner. Sometimes one-handed, sometimes both. But all from the same spot, same distance, finding his groove, finding his rhythm, sharpening his focus.
This was the introduction. Was something to see.
To see him shake Luke Donald's hand before they approached the tee box on No. 1. To see the look in Tiger's eyes, to see him look through someone.
A guy from Atlanta leaned over and said to me, "You notice how Luke came out in red and white, knowing he's going to be paired with Tiger, who we all know always wears red and black on Sundays? Trying to show Tiger he's not scared of him? Luke just messed up."
To see how the galleries grow and change colors when Tiger stalks the fairways. To see the "stampedes" he causes after he moves from one hole to the next. To hear the claps, the roars, the yells, the "stay downs!" as his shots approach the greens. To see him fall to his knees after missing a 35-foot chip on No. 2, only to get up-and-down on 6 and 8. To see an athlete stay focused to that degree for that long.
Memo to Luke Donald: Bad idea to wear red when paired with Tiger on a Sunday.
When you're watching Tiger at home in HD, there are things you miss. As HBO claims, you are not watching television. The same thing applies to Tiger. But what you see on TV is nothing like seeing it in the flesh.
His presence is something to behold. It cannot be captured through transmission, through a screen.
I covered Michael Jordan for years and felt the same "shift in the axis" when he played. Felt how there was an unexplained sense of earned entitlement, combined with a fear factor from the people going against him. But the difference between "$" and "New $" is that there was direct contact between Jordan and the people he put fear in. You could see how they were directly impacted by MJ's presence because, at some point, they were going to come face-to-face with him if they were on the court.
Tiger? I could look at Mike Weir, Sergio Garcia, Shaun Micheel, Chris DiMarco, Adam Scott and any other player in contention before 1:51 p.m. and see how Tiger -- without having direct contact or interaction with any of them -- had them shook, had them brainlocked on what he was going to do.
I have seen fighters before they got in the ring with Tyson in his prime, and it was nothing like what I saw in the faces of grown men walking -- excuse me, "pacing" -- the 7,500 yards of Medinah.
But to see Tiger know this and ignore it was unbelievable. To watch him lock in, mentally, attack the course, attack the game, attack himself. To watch how the way he studies the course is a thing of beauty. How he bends down before every putt, long or short. How his club always stays in his right hand, while his left elbow bends and tucks itself on his thigh, and his eyes very slightly squint, sun or no sun. To watch the time he takes, to saturate in his patience. To watch how much longer he takes studying his shots, the greens, than all of the other players.
My friend, Lionel, who took the drive out to Medinah with me for his first Tiger experience as well, said, "Isn't it strange how he's the player who needs to spend the least amount of time studying the greens, but he's not. It's like they're in a rush and he's in a controlled pace."
To watch him walk. Just that. To watch Tiger walk when he's playing this game, dominating this game, is unlike anything. It's something you don't see as much as you feel.
To hear him say Saturday, when asked what he thought he needed to shoot Sunday to win, "I'll take a 65 right now. " Then he went out and shot a 68, yet still won by five strokes. And if he'd needed 65, he probably could've shot 65.
If you can do it, go watch Tiger in person.
To hear the screams of "Luuuuke! Luuuke!" that were so common for the first six holes, decrease quickly as Tiger distanced himself. To hear the responses to the leaderboard changes every time Tiger's new score went up. To hear the the way the ball came off his driver on 10.
I had been told by friends of mine who have seen Tiger play that to truly appreciate him, you have to see him play in person because you have to hear his shots off the tee. I've been told that only John Daly can create that sound. But John's is just loud, not loud and beautiful.
Standing behind a tree and a four-deep row of spectators on an ascending hill, I heard it. Softer than a gun, but still like something released from a barrel. Like a crack without the snap and pop. The oooohhhh's followed. Not even knowing it was him on the tee, the sound was something I had never heard before, but I still knew immediately what it was.
As Tiger walked past the roars and stares of amazement, I wondered whether he did that just to mess with everybody. If he pulls that "big boy" 460-cc SasQuatch driver out of his bag and hits that megablast just to mess with all of the other players' heads. To show off. To let them know the tournament is over.
It was the sound that clapped and chromed the day. The sound that put it to rest.
Or so I thought.
Because on 11, I saw him take an 8-iron of of his bag, while resting in the rough, and hit a shot that if you weren't there, would not have made any sense. From where he was to where the ball landed (10 feet from the cup), it made someone behind me mention the shot on 16 in the 2005 Masters.
And that person claimed he had been there.
But this was the shot I thanked God for allowing me to see. It was the one that would be insanely seared in my membrane, the one I told my sons about when I got home, the one I'll tell their kids about 20 years from now, the one that made me realize the true difference between a live experience and a plasma one.
The one that made me realize what I'd been missing these past 10 years.
I watched him as he walked across the bridge, alone, tipping his cap to the cheers behind him, on his way to the 13th fairway. Five holes from a 12th major. Five holes from being in second place alone on the all-time list of major champions.
Six away from Jack. Six from history.
I watched him play with the tape wrapped around the middle finger of his right hand. I watched him discuss his next shot with caddie Steve Williams after the only shot that led him to a bogey on 17. I watched his father race through his mind.
I watched, and I thought: So this is it? This is why thousands upon thousands upon 50,000 people come out every major to see him. This is what they come to watch, to hear. The person his father once said "will do more than any man in history to change the course of humanity." The person who is on pace to turn his pops into a prophet.
This was it. The experience. The something different.
I left before it was over, didn't see his final shot disappear in the hole on 18, didn't see the fisted yell after he pocketed the ball out of the cup, didn't see him kiss the sky.
But you all saw Tiger lift the trophy, you saw him kiss it, you saw him kneel on one knee behind it. You all saw Tiger Woods win another major.
I saw something different.
I saw what Earl Woods saw. I saw what Earl Woods meant.
Because unless you were at Medinah or until you see him play in person, live and unfiltered, live and uncut -- until you can spend three to four hours watching him, studying him, experiencing him -- you have no idea how dominating, important and imposing the will of Tiger Woods truly is. You have no idea what you're missing.
One dimension doesn't do his aura justice. You need all three.
As the great Ernie Banks said in the Sunday Chicago Tribune of his Woods experience: "When he's on the course, it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
I seen it Sunday. Ernie ain't never lied.
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.