Ode to Jana, Part 3

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jana Novotna’s loss in the 1993 Wimbledon final is the most upset I’ve ever been on account of a sporting event.

Well, that’s not true. Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS will always hold a special place in that category, not to mention the 6th game of the World Series a week or so later.

But if we’re talking tennis, Novotna is the one. And that includes Monica Seles’s US and French Open finals after the, um, incident.

Yes, it’s not a stretch to say that Novotna’s first two Wimbledon finals were devastating for a certain class of tennis fan, more so even than Pat Cash brandishing that idiotic headband in triumph in 1985.

The American media? They saw it differently.

Athletes from the eastern bloc were, as a rule, either ignored or ridiculed by our fourth estate, at least until a whiff of defection came into focus, making them items of curiosity. But Novotna’s personality and style of play made her different, a story that could be sold even to a public as ignorant as ours.

Here was, first, an overachiever, a doubles specialist who didn’t know her place, threatening even the best in solo match ups. Then something of the opposite, as her natural talent became apparent, without the requisite number of wins, or at least wins in the right places. Before she sailed a bit too close to the sun—Graf on center court in London—and melted into a joke on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent

I haven’t figured out yet if Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame quip is on target, but I do know that the vast majority of those who fail when given a shot at greatness, at fame, at immortality, whatever you want to call it, would rather pass than face the test again, electing obscurity over the probability of additional humiliation.

The winners in life, in athletics or anything else, are different and Novotna was nothing if not a winner, record be damned. Four years later she found herself approaching the sun yet again, and unlike in 1993, this time facing an inferior athlete and even, arguably, an inferior tennis player. You may look askance, but it is true; if Jana Novotna and Martina Hingis played 100 times on grass—granted, away from the pestilence of cameras and spectators—Novotna would have won at least 80.

Alas, even Wimbledon bows to the dollar (um, pound sterling) and Hingis, for a short period, may have been as strong mentally as any tennis player not named Nadal or Henin. So Novotna fell again, albeit less spectacularly.

I hated her speech after that match. No tears this time, a sunny disposition all around, “hey, I performed my best, Martina was better. Happy to talk more later Bud, and yeah, excited about Cincinnati and the rest coming up this summer, where I can take on all these girls stuck on the baseline.”

It was a hoax, she was a poor actress, and to this observer, she was giving up, saying goodbye to the quest, and joining the rest of us schlubs in mediocrity.

*********************************************************************

I am 43 years old. For a period of about 10 years (6th grade through college or so) I probably read every word of every Sports Illustrated. (Unlike a friend, I didn’t cancel my subscription after they lionized Mickey Mantle upon his death.)

And while I’m betraying Gary Smith by saying this, the best thing I’ve ever read in that magazine was a short piece by… Tim Layden? SL Price? Someone like that. On Mike Powell, after he failed to dethrone Carl Lewis in their final Olympic long jump competition in… Barcelona? Atlanta? (yes, yes, this is all faux uncertainty on my part, but it’s more romantic this way, no?)

There is no need to recount it all here, but the point is that Powell approached the sun time and again, with abandon, only to fail, and fail, and fail once more (Tokyo? please…I don’t think there are 10 Americans who even know what the world championships are..)… and very quickly it was all over, there were no more chances, the door was closed…

Powell had 50 or 60 years to live, and he was taking his failure to his grave… And after his last jump, while crying and digging into the sand in Barcelanta, he knew it. He knew it all, one of the few souls alive who knew what his last thought on his last day would be… And SL Layden knew it too, and conveyed it to the reader in a way that made you pity Powell more than any man alive.

After the loss to Hingis in 1997, it was clear that Novotna would be taking it to her grave too, and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Out of options, I said goodbye to Jana and the rest of them, and left for Europe. Aside from leafing through a copy in an antiseptic waiting room in an antiseptic building in an antiseptic suburb of either Washington DC or New York City, I haven’t read a Sports Illustrated since…

Of course, Novotna won Wimbledon the next year. Fleet Street and its American cousin got their fairy tale, and the back page of every tabloid in every European and American city flashed the same picture of Jana and the Duchess of Kent.

As for me, my boycott was real; I remember seeing a highlight of Venus Williams berating the umpire during her (quarterfinal?) loss to the eventual winner, and I vaguely recall Novotna reveling in her third tete-a-tete with Bud, but that was about it…..

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Ode to Jana, Part 2

Maybe five or ten years ago there was this disturbing trend of sappy films involving multiple love stories and ensemble casts, put out by pedestrian British directors. Perhaps they weren’t all British, but they felt that way.

If I watched any of these movies, it was out of necessity. On a transpacific flight, or held hostage by my significant other. I don’t remember them, other than the saccharine and forced witticisms.

But awhile back, my wife mentioned she’d seen a new entry in this genre and that the final scene was shot in Los Angeles. Julia Roberts was one of the characters and as the credits rolled, she sat in the back of a car and her driver pointed out…

Without another word, I knew the scene cold. Julia Roberts would, in her response to the driver, stop playing character x and instead play Julia Roberts. She wouldn’t be Julia Roberts, she’d be Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts. If you’re not following, I suppose the John Malkovich silliness would be approximate, but I prefer raising the last scene of Raging Bull: De Niro playing Jake LaMotta mimicking Brando playing Terry Malloy.

As an aside, De Niro sort of blows that scene. His acting is less than memorable. But from another optic, it might be as good as anything De Niro’s ever done on film and more scathing than any of the scandalous stuff Scorsese chooses to reveal about LaMotta in the movie. Remember, De Niro at the end is supposed to be LaMotta doing Brando. One assumes his deliberate, halting delivery is, well, deliberate, and a shot at LaMotta’s ability do do standup. Then again, I’ve never been on the De Niro train, so I’m content to go on living thinking he just butchered it.

Back to Julia Roberts; soon after finding out about this new movie, I called one of the few remaining survivors from those languid Saturday afternoons in Lewisburg. I had little hope; years of abusing cannabis had ravaged his memory, and the odds of him recalling anything other than, perhaps, the fisticuffs from those long ago days in that dorm room, were slim.

But he came through. My god, he came through. Before I said much more than Julia Roberts, his tone indicated he knew where I was going.

“Yes, yes. I saw it. Yes, the scene is… (he searched for the right word) cute… even touching. And yes, I know you’re going to want to take it somewhere.. deep… but… don’t watch it.”

“Don’t watch it?”

“She butchers it.”

“No… self awareness? No… ennui? No….,” I trailed off.

“She may as well be reading the line from a card.” pause. “It doesn’t convey what you need it to.” another pause… “I’m sorry.”

I hung up, not a little upset and confused.

What was I hoping it would convey?

Ode to Jana, Part 1

So, when I was in High School, Julia Roberts was the actress. And Pretty Woman was the movie.

A few years after it came out, in my first year of college, more than once but less than a dozen times, always late on a Saturday afternoon, someone would put that movie on in the hallway’s center triple – well equipped with a VCR and 13 inch television that could not receive channels – and a crowd would inevitably gather.

Now, since I happened to live in said triple, I got roped into this little ritual a time or two and, with me around, “watching the movie” meant nonstop commentary, lots of pausing and rewinding, and most importantly, arguments. Big ones. Arguments that, at times, stopped just short of fisticuffs. Arguments that ruined evenings, plans, and, even, friendships.

I wasn’t necessarily driving all, or even most, of these disputes, but my presence certainly meant that they were… quite different than what you might expect a group of 19 year old boys to be talking about while watching a fairy tale with the actress of the day playing a prostitute.

Whatever else we fought about, the biggest disagreement involved a line that Julia Roberts delivered while marching around the set somewhere in the middle of the movie. A unremarkable line on the page, but her delivery was nothing short of Sinatra-esque. With a very short phrase, she made the character and, I don’t think this is an exaggeration, possibly her career.

I haven’t watched more than 10 percent or so of her oeuvre, but I’m confident enough to proclaim Julia Roberts serviceable as an actor. She can read a line, play a part, make a gesture or two. But, as far as I can tell she’s shown no signs—other than this one line—of being a late 20th century Olivier.

So, the question on our minds was, how did she deliver that one particular line? How did she pull that off? Was she actually that good? Did she actually rehearse that line that particular way? Or was it a moment of inspiration, an ad-lib that came off perfectly? Or—and this was the argument that won the day—was it actually a flub that the director recognized as accidental greatness and decided to keep?

For all I know, someone at a make believe college like Middlebury has written a dissertation on this scene, and presumably even the Hollywood press isn’t so vacuous to have failed to raise it in one of her countless fluff profiles/interviews. But 25 or so years later I couldn’t care less what drove her on the set that moment, and I’m not even linking to the scene. It’s not what we’re here to debate…

Just Win, Baby…

“No, no. It’s totally on me. I’ve been a professional almost seven years now and it’s unconscionable that I thought I could get away with that. Let’s face it; I should have been disqualified. And I would have been had the USGA not caved a year or so ago after some other rules-related “fiasco” that’s already been forgotten by everyone. I just hope that I can someday regain the trust of my fellow competitors…”

If the string theory crowd is correct, somewhere in the universe a few weeks ago a statuesque overhyped golfer uttered words to that effect after being caught blatantly cheating in one of the four biggest female golf tournaments of the year.

Perhaps somewhere, but certainly not in North America in the 21st century.

No, here, the Honorable Justice Scalia has won, unequivocally. The majority rules, and any virtue that exists only does so to the extent the majority deems it to. Yes, this is our reality, albeit one with a twist.

The first is that the majority is not deciding anything. It’s more like a perverse minority, those demented enough to spend their energy railing away milliseconds after an “incident” on whatever social media platform matters most at that particular point in time. “He who tweets the first, with the most venom, wins” is our undisputed guiding principle. The pen remains mightier than the sword, true, but your pen damn well better beat others to the draw and avoid anything approaching nuance.

Now, uninformed and ankle-deep knee-jerk reactions certainly aren’t new. Radio and television were both more revolutionary than the Internet on this score. But there’s no longer any governor. Authority has abdicated, powerless to the whims of the idiocracy. Everything is now decided by instant referendum.

Sadly, the currency of our time is public perception and even a whiff of controversy is fatal; there is no entity—certainly no corporation, nor even ostensible nonprofit organization as you’ll see below—able or willing to stand up to it. Perversely, the megaphone that is the Internet has actually stifled speech. Not to mention thought.

But I digress.

Back to that blond golfer, the one on this planet in 2017. My opening was unfair; the “c” word is golf’s scarlet letter; it would take an ubermensch to be able to choke out such a statement in our space and time. In fact, as apologies goes, Lexi Thompson’s wasn’t the worst. The “I don’t know why; I didn’t mean to” she mumbled a few weeks later at least acknowledged reality. It certainly beats the “no, I don’t see it; it didn’t happen that way at all” variety, which the best golfer of our time likes to cling to when confronted.

Lexi’s reaction to this brouhaha though is the least interesting of everyone involved. Well, aside from the “hells yeah we’re all still pissed off about it!” emanating from her American cohorts. Angry about a competitor coming a hairs breath from winning after being caught redhanded? Don’t be naive…

Mike Whan, by most accounts the best thing to happen to the women’s tour since Jan Stephenson, also followed formula, barking about the impact of this tiny tempest on the LPGA “brand.”

Even the USGA’s Mike Davis, as principled an individual there is in the game, wasn’t immune. The “optics”—a star, in tears, the unfairness of it all—were too much. A not-for-profit organization that went 100 + years without a rule change instituted one in two weeks.

Frankly, the only interesting reactions to this entire episode came from two aging male golfers.

The 47 year-old went first.

Phil Mickelson’s nickname, on the face of it, seems harsh, particularly given his profile as an affable everyman. But it is not unfair; he does think—no, he knows—that he’s the smartest guy in the room. And he loves nothing more than showing it off.

Phil, understandably exacerbated by coverage of l’affair Lexi, came into Augusta ready to blow the cover off the myth; golf, that singular game of honor, so different from all others, has it’s own ball scuffing problem.

Any high school golfer can tell you that every foursome includes at least one player who’ll move his or her ball on the green to get an edge. Or, even more common, in the rough to improve a lie. I’m sure the percentage drops in college, but not by much.

What Phil wanted the world to know is that the problem persists at the highest level, and not just among the Fijians on tour.

Years earlier, Jack Nicklaus had been adorned by a similarly jealous set of peers with the same nickname as Phil. Well, minus the vulgarity that has steeped into the culture, but the point was the same. Jack was, and is, a know it all.

Jack has hid this well though in his years as an elder statesman. Phil seems to have made some progress here too, showing remarkable self control when given the opening to tee off on Ms. Thompson. But no, he held off, and he even avoided laughing, spitting, or winking when parroting the party line, “she should be given the trophy.”

Jack said he was “confused” by Lexi’s explanation, but was not quite able or willing to drop the hammer on a 22 year old. He showed no hesitation in raising Phil in unmasking the problem, dropping a bombshell of his own regarding the President’s Cup (as an aside, how the name of that unfortunate player hasn’t yet gotten out in this environment I’ll never know.) Jack’s tone was the most instructive part of the press conference; no longer “the aww shucks, I’m just grateful people still are interested in hearing me” old pro, Jack had reverted to total teacher mode. Al Gore would have been proud.

So where are we now?

The USGA rule change, on one level, appears sensible. Anything limiting the role of technology in sport is an unequivocal step in the right direction, and the HD revolution has brought an absurd degree of precision to golf’s first commandment — to play the ball where it lies. If there’s reason to doubt that the naked eye would pick up some subtle movement—one with no impact on the outcome of a stroke—by all means wave off the 300 lbs basement-dwelling Calvinists watching with the network phone numbers at the ready.

The Davis change though does nothing to address Whan’s problem, the brand problem. Those pesky “optics” that mar one’s q score. Under the new rule, officials are given considerable leeway in deeming whether or not to wave away evidence of a misstep, and one would expect considerable pressure to be put on said referees to let someone of Lexi’s status slide, evidence be damned.

And this gets at the most disturbing aspect of this entire incident.

Only those hopeless enough to watch the LPGA on a regular basis would know this, but not too long ago that tour was confronted with the exact same situation. A golfer blatantly mis-marked and replaced her ball. Like Lexi (and all those other high school, college, and PGA Tour golfers) either to avoid an indentation or a spike mark. Or, if you want to be kind, suffering from a similar brain cramp.

Like Lexi too, the referendum was held, and the verdict was immediate and unequivocal. But unlike Lexi, she was deemed guilty. Her fate was straight out of a Shirley Jackson novella. She quickly withdrew and is whispered about to this day.

Why the difference?

Well she’s not American, for one. She probably doesn’t speak much English. She’s not tall, or blonde. She wasn’t deemed a star at age 12. If you’ve seen a golf channel promo centered on Chella Choi, you’d be the first.

Of course golf isn’t supposed to be fair, and life has never been thus. But there was a sense that the rules, in this game, were the same for all. Well, as long as you’re not named Tiger. Count ‘em up at the end and see who wins.

Alas, not anymore. What power, you have, at your fingertips now… Isn’t it grand?

“You’re going to watch Lou Duva go crazy now….”

A 100 year old man with both his wits and legs was interviewed not that long ago in some magazine or other. The journalist, lacking originality, wasted most of his space trying to figure out the old man’s “secret.” Casting aside the answer—luck and genes—the reader instead was subjected to the usual platitudes on diet, physical activity, and the like.

The centenarian, however, had his own bit of advice.

“Accept change.”

Lou Duva didn’t quite make it to 100, but he lived long enough to witness his fair share of change, arguably none more dramatic than that which struck the labor of his life.

Now by the time Duva had come to prominence in the late 1980s boxing had already fallen from its early-to-mid 20th century heights. Families were no longer gathering around the radio to listen to Don Dunphy describing right crosses, and the public wasn’t filing into cinemas to watch heavyweights swing away at one another in some far off exotic locale. Whomever the Frank Sinatra equivalent of the time was, he certainly wasn’t demeaning himself by taking photos of boxers in a dimly lit arena in midtown Manhattan.

But in the late Reagan-Bush I years, boxing did still occupy a niche—more than a niche, in fact. Guys would put down two or three slices of soggy, delivery pizza after shelling out $50 to $100 for the privilege of watching the biggest of fights on 19 inch non-HD TV sets. The “lucky” fans would watch for free, on one of those ubiquitous “descrambler” boxes that, tragically, tended to fail at key moments.

As for those of us fast asleep by the opening bell, we’d be reduced to running for the porch at 6:00 am, hoping upon hope that the results would have made the local paper’s deadline.

And middle-schoolers would debate the happenings the Monday after. Sure, whether or not Randal Cunningham got over the goal line or if there happened to be a less mobile quarterback in the history of the NFL than Phil Simms were more contentious arguments, but things got nearly as hot debating Hagler, Hearns, and all the rest…

Well, that level of cultural relevance is long gone now too, and it left for good during Lou Duva’s heyday.

This is not the time to debate the why—as ugly as the promotional scene was in this period, it would be foolish to place any significant portion of the blame on the Duvas and their Main Events. Greater guilt falls on Don King, the proliferating sanctioning bodies, Kim Duk Koo, Tyson, and cocaine. But that list too is unsatisfactory.

Regardless, with Duva’s death, it’s time to lament our loss.

*****************************

Presumably, someone already has written a book about the 1984 Olympic boxing team. Just as likely, it’s the wrong book. Yes, the team was stacked, and stories focusing on the rise of Pernell, Evander, and all the rest are interesting in their own right.

Much more compelling though is the fact that 1984 was the end. One might as well label it the last—to be fair the next to last, as 1988 certainly wasn’t chopped liver—USA Olympic boxing team. During his trip to Cuba, President Obama’s speechwriters were smart enough to have the President utter the name Teofilo Stevenson, the island’s Muhammad Ali. Tellingly, there was no mention of Felix Savon, his 1990s equivalent.

Among those celebrating USA boxing’s triumph in Los Angeles, no-one would have expected that such a fall for the sweet science loomed, least of all Duva. He went all in on that 1984 team, scooped up all of its talent, and dominated HBO and PPV boxing broadcasts for the next decade.

The final decade, that is.

Whether Duva went to his grave bitter about the fate of his sport, I do not know. I always viewed him as a bit of a buffoon, with little self-awareness. No, that’s not fair; Duva came across more as an educated blowhard, slavishly touting his client’s line. Of course, that was his job, but I’ve always had trouble stomaching an otherwise intelligent person obfuscating for a cause—sadly, a growth industry in our times. The best of the spinmeisters, whatever the industry, are those that give the audience a sense that they themselves are in on the game, a subtle acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all.

This in no way describes Duva; he didn’t do irony, sarcasm, or anything other than in-your-face aggression.

************************

After getting everything else wrong on St Patrick’s Day 1990, Jim Lampley got it right at the end; Lou Duva did, in fact, go “absolutely berserk” after Richard Steele counted out his fighter and awarded a TKO to Mexico’s Julio Cesar Chavez with two seconds to go in the final round. Duva did his fighter, 1984 gold medalist Meldrick Taylor, proud in the post fight interview too, barking away and refusing to budge an inch.

The America-Firsters of the era concurred with Duva wholeheartedly—a big day for them the following Monday in school cafeterias across the country, I can assure you of that—crowing with indignation while their Olympian was carted off to the hospital, dangerously short of blood.

For all I know Duva went on to help his guys financially and otherwise. Or perhaps he didn’t; Main Events seemed only slightly less carnivorous than its competitors. And I haven’t kept up; I stopped reading anything related to boxing long ago. I also can’t bring myself to read any of the obits done on the man, assuming any of note have been written.

But I will say this — like all great corner men, Duva took every blow. He was every bit in the ring with his guy and no sycophant when it mattered. Unlike the befuddled voices on HBO, Duva knew the score as the fight with Chavez unfolded. The uninformed criticized him for it, but his imploring advice to Meldrick before the 12th — “you NEED this round!” — thick with urgency, resonated. Six years after the Olympics, Meldrick was three minutes from delivering the greatest of victories, but I have no doubt, none at all, that Duva knew exactly how that fight was going to end.

In the immediate aftermath of that fight, all didn’t appear lost. Meldrick may have been defeated, but he showed greatness, and bigger nights were undoubtedly on the horizon. There was optimism and no reason to put Meldrick anywhere other than right next to his 1984 stablemates. Less than a year later he regained a title with an impressive win over a decent champion. The best was yet to come.

Except it wasn’t.

A year or so after winning that title, it was time for Meldrick to again step up in class. The opponent was “Terrible” Terry Norris, and there was a sense of foreboding that night. Maybe it was the odd trunks, the by this point in time out-of-place outdoor arena in Vegas, or Meldrick’s somewhat lackluster performances leading into the fight. Or maybe it was Norris—though never quite living up to the nickname, he was a dangerous fighter. Despite almost always being on the other side of whomever Duva was representing, I was, for whatever reason, scared.

Duva was too.

The same imploring tone was on display very early that night as he and George Benton pleaded with Meldrick to stay on top of Norris. Mark Kram’s take on the the Yank Durham – Joe Frazier relationship — bring the smoke or you’re a dead man! — exactly captured the feeling in Meldrick’s corner.

“Oh my… he’s NOT world class after all… Lord, we’ve raised him to be slaughtered…”

Benton may have determined that the inside was where Meldrick needed to live that night, but by the middle of the second round it was obvious he was going to die there too.

I’m sure a bit of Lou Duva died that night as well.

Boxing has been gone for more than 20 years, but Duva’s passing resurrects dormant memories… making apparent a void in my life that had been forgotten.

I never loved Lou Duva. I did love the time he occupied in my life. And I, like him, never could have imagined it’d be all over by the end of the millennium.

#Winning…

A few years back, perhaps two or three or ten, Rory McIlroy held off Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler to win his second PGA Championship in one of those muddled areas in the middle of the country. Research suggests it occurred in the center—although one cannot rule out the eastern or western half—of Kentucky.

The tournament, consistent with everything else this century, was immediately forgotten, but unlike most lost to time and space was resurrected recently on account of comments from both the winner and the primary loser.

Rory kicked things off, almost certainly with the knowledge that his words, mild for the playground, would be interpreted by the hypersensitive golf community as a direct shot at his competitors. Rory had the gall to claim that Phil’s joviality, and the bonhomie the Americans exhibited throughout the day, sparked in him a desperate urge to win, which of course he went on to do.

As for Phil, he took the familiar high road—during a recent podcast which, despite the hype, was memorable only for the new age nonsense he spewed about coffee—and said good for Rory, there’s nothing wrong with him, like all of us, deriving inspiration from whatever source necessary in order to play his best.

Those invested in the sport, as self-conscious as ever about its staying power, seized on the incident. While providing the requisite clicks and buzz, it also showed Rory, still heir to the throne, with an edge that even Tiger could admire. And the ever popular Phil again got to play the gracious loser, this time for the benefit of the next generation.

In retrospect, that particular PGA was striking for an altogether different reason, one almost entirely at odds from the conclusions being drawn from this recent dustup. In fact, the events that day directly contradict the image of a Tiger-esque Rory, hellbent on winning…

To refresh one’s memory, it got late early out there that Sunday at Valhalla. A Monday finish looked inevitable and the pooh-bahs of the PGA, having foolishly acquiesced to television’s request for a late afternoon start, were about to take it on the chin.

However, as golfers are wont to do when darkness descends, Rory, playing in the final group, picked it up a notch or three. As he arrived on the 18th tee Rory took no time hitting into the twosome ahead of him (Phil and Fowler) to save precious seconds. He then sprinted up to the ball and bunted a shot up the fairway, before eventually lagging a longish putt, in the dark, to the edge of the hole for a par and the win.

Let’s pause for a second here to consider the circumstances. On the 72nd hole of a major championship, nursing a one stroke lead, Rory rushed a drive, rushed the approach, and putted in the dark. That is, he flailed away like every other 14 handicapper “waved up” on an overcrowded public course in Kentucky that afternoon.

Except, Rory wasn’t even waved up. He barely asked for permission and hit while a visibly annoyed Mickelson was still barking at a rules official regarding the suitability of what was about to take place.

And most importantly for our purposes, Rory, without being able to see more than 3 feet in front of him on the green, elected to proceed with a 25 or so foot putt, the muffing of which could have cost him a major championship.

Now let’s not be naive. Professional golfers are independent contractors, aren’t paid by the hour, and are certainly not getting comped for spending an extra night in eastern, central, or even western Kentucky. Corporate commitments, family members, and assorted hangers-on were surely awaiting wherever it was that Rory was scheduled to fly to later that evening.

But these are also guys that have no trouble backing off just about any two-footer if, say, a bird should chirp at the wrong time.

So what was going on in Rory’s head during that “championship” Sunday?

It’s true his behavior betrayed that of someone with a chip on the shoulder. It’s also true that Rory wouldn’t be the only professional Mickelson turned off with an over exuberant celebration after, say, a mediocre chip to 8 feet. The fact that Rory raised the Phil/Rickie thing years later suggests something that day struck a nerve.

But even if Rory was motivated by the sanctimony endemic to this side of the pond, he betrayed something darker than a desire to win early that evening. His act instead was reminiscent of a spoiled kid intent on taking his ball and going home.

***********************************************************************

But does the episode at Valhalla actually put Rory at odds with the true Tiger?

One might recall Tiger a decade earlier rushing off the premises after finishing late on Sunday at a PGA, despite the very real possibility that he’d wind up in a playoff on Monday. Phil, this time, did what was necessary to render extra holes moot, but the spectacle of Tiger potentially ceding a tournament to a rival by way of a premature departure was too good a story for even the obsequious pre-Thanksgiving 2009 golf media.

At his next appearance, the media indeed mustered the courage to challenge Tiger on his haste to flee the hinterlands of, in this case not Kentucky but metropolitan New York. Tiger mumbled something about the odds of Phil, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love, and Steve Elkington—all closers extraordinaire, evidently—blowing it in tandem being infinitesimal. The media quickly grunted their consent and that was that.

Tiger’s actions at Baltusrol were less perplexing to me at the time than the Rory incident years later. Getting to 80 PGA Tour wins with Tiger’s disposition required becoming a self-centered sore loser, and there was no way his ego could stomach bearing witness to a Phil coronation. To the extent that he was actually willing to risk the public relations tsunami that would have descended had he been AWOL for a major championship playoff.

Too cynical? Was it instead a corporate commitment, his harem, or something more substantial beckoning him back to Florida?

Frankly, it’s irrelevant and the point remains: winning was secondary to Tiger that day, as it was to Rory just a few turns around the sun later. There is no escaping that you, the loyal fan, more often than not want it more than even the most determined in the professional ranks.

Keep that in mind that next time you’re flooded with disappointment after your favorite player three putts from 20 feet to lose a major championship. Or chooses a 15 hour flight to Dubai and a guaranteed payday—mind you with 9 figures already in the bank—while nursing a career on the precipice after multiple back surgeries…

Dance with the one who brung ya…

The Golf Channel, or perhaps Hertz or Pennzoil or whatever equipment company was paying him at the time, ran a commercial awhile back in which Arnold Palmer urged us all to be true to our swing, while providing a reminder that his wasn’t exactly textbook. Stop worrying about how you look and go get it, the King commanded.

This may or may not be great advice for the hacker brigade, but one suspects it’s a rule to live by for those that have ascended to the major leagues of professional golf. And an absolute fatwa for the true elite in the game.

Pete Cowen, the best teacher no one knows, said as much in a recent Golf Digest interview:

“When a player has success, there’s always a voice that whispers they can be even better if they make this one change. It can be disastrous, but Louis (Oosthuizen) never heard that voice.”

World #1 Lydia Ko, unsatisfied with the 14 wins and 2 major championships her swing has brought her in the first 19 years of her life, apparently has heard said voice, however.

Per the Daily Mail, she made the following remark while discussing her work with her new coach, Gary Gilchrist:

‘I tried a few lessons with him (Gilchrist) and we ripped the swing apart. I think that was really important and it’s been good to see the changes we’ve made.’

Now, I’d like to blame the golf media’s elevation of the Faldo-Leadbetter (ironically Lydia’s last coach) partnership into myth for this scourge, but Cowen implies such swing changes are a siren to those seeking perfection, in a game in which it doesn’t exist.

At the end of the day, Lydia and Gilchrist certainly understand the swing and the game better than the arm chair quarterbacks on the Internet. And the quote itself may be a reach; Lydia later appears to walk back the drastic nature of the changes she is implementing.

Nevertheless, Lydia and co may do well to spend a moment mulling the wisdom of the Cowen interview. And perhaps keep in mind that for every Faldo-esque transformation — and it’s important to remember that the man had already won a British Open with that crappy swing of his and we’ll never know the counterfactual had he persisted with it — there are a dozen Ian Baker Finches out there stuck in limbo…