Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Is Tiger Woods A Contender At The U.S. Open?

Take a journey back in time with me for a moment, if you will. It’s Father’s Day 2008, and Tiger Woods is limping to the 72nd green at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The birdie putt he’s facing is one of the biggest of his life: if he makes it, he’ll force an 18 hole playoff with Rocco Mediate the next day; if he misses, he’ll go home empty handed, with his first ever blown 54 hole lead at a Major Championship.
The fact that Woods even had a birdie putt to force the playoff was incredible. Two days after the championship, Tiger revealed that he was having season ending knee surgery on a leg that was so screwed up that it forced him to play the entire tournament on basically one leg. That faulty knee had been plaguing him for months, and it had severely limited his ability to play in the weeks leading up to the Open, which sapped a significant about of match practice. Woods had also hit his drive on the 72nd hole into a bunker, and then fired his second shot into the rough. To force the playoff, he would need to hit a beautiful approach shot onto the green in a spot that would place him close enough to the hole to give him a realistic chance of sinking a birdie putt.
We all know what happened, of course. Woods knocked the ball to within 12 feet, and then dramatically rolled in his birdie putt, taking in the cheers from the fans around the 18th green as he busted out a classic Tiger fist pump.

The next day, Tiger defeated Mediate in the playoff, needing a 19th hole to finish him off. He captured his 14th major that day, and won the career Grand Slam for the third time, becoming only the second golfer (after Jack Nicklaus) to do so. At just 32, we would’ve believed any outcome for his career. 25 majors? Sure, why not? He’ll definitely pass Jack’s 18 majors, right? It seemed inconceivable that he wouldn’t.
It’s incredible how things have changed. Since then, there’s been the highly publicized divorce and affairs, a million different knee and back injuries, an embarrassing DUI photo, countless numbers of TV talking heads psycho-analyzing him on a daily basis, and perhaps most shockingly, no major championships.
We all wanted Woods to compete at Augusta back in April. Tiger was back, right? He’d competed well at some tournaments, by his own admission, he was as healthy as he’d been in years, and he’d been wildly successful at the Masters before. “He’ll be in contention on Sunday!” we all said. Or hoped.
I remember watching his entire first round, waiting for the old Tiger to appear. He never showed up. His drives were more than adequate that day, but a few poor iron shots, coupled with his below average putting, doomed him to a 1 over 73, seven shots behind the leader Jordan Spieth. To have a realistic chance to be a contender on the weekend, he’d need to shoot about 4 under on Friday. Instead, he went the other way, shooting a 3 over 75, putting him a +4 for the tournament, and 13 shots behind the eventual winner, Patrick Reed. Sure, it was impressive when Tiger shot a 3 under 69 on Sunday, but it came in a round that was about as pressure-free as you can get on a Sunday at Augusta, considering he didn’t have a chance in hell at winning at that point.
Obviously, winning a major, or even contending for one, is extremely difficult, but it used to not be that way for Tiger. From the ’99 PGA Championship to the ’02 U.S. Open, Woods won seven of the 11 majors, including his famous “Tiger Slam”, when he won four consecutive majors from the ’00 U.S. Open to the ’01 Masters. After missing out on all the majors during 2003 and 2004, Woods regained his form starting in 2005. From the ’05 Masters to the ’08 U.S. Open, Woods captured six of the 14 majors, and finished in the top four 6 other times. In the 46 majors he played in from the ’97 Masters until the ’08 U.S. Open, he won 14 majors, finished in the top five 25 times, landed in the top ten 29 times, and only missed the cut once.
I think it’s time we admit what Tiger is at this point: assuming he can stay healthy, he’s an average pro who will be able to occasionally compete at majors, as long as the course isn’t too difficult and the weather is comfortable and predictable. Other times, he’ll shoot three consecutive rounds at par or worse, like he did in this year’s Masters. Due to his multiple injuries, he’s lost the ability to physically overpower a golf course, but what I’d be more concerned about if I was hoping for another Tiger major victory is what appears to be his lack of competitive fire. Sure, it’s possible he was just happy to be out there playing in a major again, something he hadn’t done since 2015, but he was smiling when Tom Rinaldi interviewed him the clubhouse after his first round +1 at Augusta. And after his final round, he offered up this summation of his weekend: “Obviously, it didn't pan out. I didn't hit my irons good enough, I didn't make enough birdies, I made too many mistakes. But overall, it was fun to be able to compete again and play in the Masters.”
Fun to be able to compete? That sounds like something some no-name pro would say after he finished his first time at Augusta, not something you’d expect from arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Awesome, you competed and made the cut, but you also finished 16 shots back of the winner, and over par for the tournament. And you were playing your best golf in years coming into the tournament, and were even the betting favorite at one point coming into the weekend. I’m not saying you tear the clubhouse apart, but I expected a little more disappointment than that.
Then again, maybe he’s just worn down from it all. All the (justified) criticism of his personal life, the destruction of his body, the loss of his dominance at the thing he was better at than anyone else…. Maybe he’s just comfortable with being average. Maybe he’s just used to it.
His ‘08 U.S. Open triumph was many surgeries, multiple breakups, and an innumerable amount of “What’s Wrong With Tiger Woods?” articles and stories ago. Seriously, think about how long ago that was. When Tiger defeated Rocco in that playoff, George W. Bush was still the president, Nick Saban had won exactly zero SEC and national championships at Alabama, LeBron James was still two years away from joining the Heat, The Dark Knight was more than a month away from appearing in theaters, and “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne was the number 1 song in the country.
The guy that closed out tournaments with ease when he had a 54 hole lead, and the guy that caused opposing players to cower in fear as they saw his name climbing the leaderboard, isn’t coming back. The guy who chipped in a miracle birdie at 16 during the ’05 Masters won’t be making a reappearance. Neither will the Tiger who set the scoring record at Augusta during the ’97 Masters, nor the Tiger who won the ’00 U.S. Open by a record fifteen strokes.

I’m going into this U.S. Open weekend hoping Tiger magically regains his form, putts like the old Woods, and fist pumps his way to another major. It’d be the best story in sports this year, maybe even the decade, if the fallen former champion was able to climb the mountain again and capture his 15th major. That seems pretty improbable though, considering the difficulty of the course he’ll be facing this weekend. Shinnecock Hills is hosting its fourth U.S. Open, and the winning scores the previous three times were -4, even par, and -1. There’s not much margin for error here, and Woods won’t be able to make up some of the gaps in his putting by outdriving everyone, since he’s lost the ability to launch the ball off the tee further than everyone else by his own admission. I foresee another middle of the road finish for Tiger this weekend, and maybe even four consecutive rounds over par. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The NBA Finals Are Already Over

For the second year in a row, the Warriors are blowing Cleveland off the floor. This series is over, and frankly, it was over on Thursday night in Game 1 when LeBron threw up a 51-8-8, one of the best games of his career, and the Cavs still lost. They hung around tonight for most of the first three quarters, until Steph Curry went bonkers in the 4th quarter and started making shots from the parking lot.

LeBron knows he can’t beat this team. That’s why he came out after Game 1 and talked about how it was one of the most devastating losses of his career. He played out of his mind, and then had the rug pulled out from under him by the changed block/charge call, George Hill’s missed free throw, J.R. Smith’s boneheaded blunder, and their overall poor team effort in the overtime. They squandered a very winnable Game 1, and it completely changed what the series could’ve been. It reminded me of Game 1 of the ’95 Finals, when Orlando’s Nick Anderson went to the free throw line with under 15 seconds to play and Magic up by three. He missed both foul shots, but got the offensive rebound and was fouled again. He then, incredibly, missed both of those foul shots. Houston got the rebound, Kenny Smith hit a three to send it to overtime, a game the Rockets eventually won. Orlando was cooked after that, and despite some impressive Shaq games, they ended up getting swept. Cleveland’s loss on Thursday wasn’t quite that heartbreaking, but there was a feeling that this loss could linger and end up hovering above the whole series.
In terms of adjustments, as incredible as this sounds, Cleveland is going to need more from LeBron scoring-wise. Great, he almost had a triple double tonight. So what? They lost by 19 and got their doors blown off in the 4th quarter. LeBron had 13 assists tonight, but that's not all that impressive when you consider that he didn’t come off the floor until late in the 4th quarter (when the game was already decided), coupled with the fact that he literally decides every possession for his team. He either takes the shot, or passes to the guy who shoots. Some of those shots are going to eventually fall, and thus, the assist numbers. He's like Russell Westbrook in that respect. Does anyone think Westbrook is a phenomenal passer? No, they recognize that he literally has his hands on the ball all the time, and decides everything. Cleveland really needs LeBron looking for his own offense, putting his head down, and getting to the rim every single possession. With the Warriors missing Andre Iguodala, their best perimeter defender, LeBron should be able to get by everyone on the Golden State roster whenever he wants. And once he beats his primary defender, it’s not like he has to worry about anyone substantial waiting at the rim for him. Yes, this includes Javale McGee, who before tonight hadn’t been heard from in a basketball context all season besides on “Shaqtin’ A Fool”. On a night when really only Kevin Love (22 points) had it going, tonight needed to be a night where LeBron looked around and  realized that he needed to try and get 40. And I’m not knocking him here too much; he’s clearly outgunned in this series, but this passive all-around game he played tonight isn’t going to cut it if they want to even win a one game. Of course, maybe LeBron didn't take over because he was too tired to do so. He looked gassed, particularly when he went to the bench during timeouts in the second half. He's been forced to pick up his defensive effort in this series, because he'd become a complete defensive liability if he didn't, but add in the fact that he's playing almost every minute, and carrying such a heavy load on the offensive end, 29 points might be all he's able to muster on a nightly basis. 
Regardless, this backs up what I wrote during the last Rockets-Warriors series about Golden State, which is that we all like to talk ourselves into these NBA series involving them being in doubt because we want competitive basketball. Once Chris Paul got hurt, Houston was finished. And as soon as Cleveland advanced to the Finals, winning more than one game against this Golden State team would’ve been a miracle. Great teams aren’t a problem in the NBA; what can’t work is when every single series is over before they even start.