Is 14 > 18?

Some baseball player currently in Toronto — he hits 50 or so home runs a year and I couldn’t come up with his name if you gave me 100 guesses — recently complained that Major League Baseball neglects its current crop of stars in favor of lionizing its past. What kind of idiotic for profit organization, he was in effect saying, tells its customers the product they’re paying to see cannot possibly compare to its gilded age?

Well, golf — the Masters Tournament in particular — for one. Perhaps it’s a function of my age, but I no longer need to see the tournament commence with Arnold Palmer struggling to stand or Gary Player flexing in triumph after a drive a 15 handicapper might shrug at.

More disturbing though is the thought that media coverage in the lead up to every major golf tournament for at least the next seven years will center around… el Tigre. “Is he playing?” “Can he win?”

And, increasingly, “my god, how is he going to get through the rest of his life knowing that he threw away the chance to catch Jack Nicklaus?”

Implicit in all of this is the obvious understanding that 18 is greater than 14, ending any need for debate. Jack is the greatest, Babe Ruth and Cy Young rolled into one, his record being, the record. Worse, Tiger appears destined to be painted as the golf world’s Mickey Mantle, one whose appetites and insecurities kept him from surmounting Rushmore.

This is lazy thinking, touted even by those in and near the game that should know better — and that’s after putting aside the absurdity of trying to rank players from different eras, playing different opponents, with different equipment, on different courses, in what are, really, different games.

Yes, some events count more than others — “majors” certainly exist. This has always been thus, and is true for any game played. But the makeup of those tournaments has changed significantly over the years, and even among the now agreed upon “4” there is a distinct hierarchy.

For one thing, if you’re over the age of 50 there really only is one major. Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan repeatedly head-to-head, including at the Masters, has many more wins, and was a relevant player for a much greater period of time. Yet, he is never mentioned as an equal of Hogan’s, at best just a rival, and barely comes up in discussions of the greatest player. Why? Easy. He never won the US Open. And he took it to his grave.

Jack let his guard down once and after being asked for the thousandth time about Tiger muttered (to the astonishment, I’m sure, of the 25-year-old blogger set) that he went through much of his career not even knowing how many “majors” he’d won. Of course, he always knew his US Open record, and, for that matter, how many US Amateurs he’d won.

Bamberger’s book “Men in Green” recounts a recent conversation with Arnold, who laments that he lost his edge after winning the legendary 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, failing to win a thing of note thereafter. Um, Arnold, you went on to win 43 times, not to mention twice apiece at the Masters and British Open…

They may as well be Andy Williams Invitationals to the King. Even at 87, I’m sure he gets sick whenever the USGA returns to Oakmont, and must still lie awake at times brooding about the final nine on Olympic. Augusta? I doubt he’d even remember his double on 18 there that gave the 1961 edition to Player if he wasn’t asked about it every year by a media more interested in myth than history.

Now, you might think the Union Jack or Boer War crowd would have their hackles up at this point, but even that is questionable. Yes, the British Open is storied and even Hogan and Snead, openly contemptuous of the tournament, felt compelled to sail over there on their own dime as a nod to its history. And yes, Bobby Jones, and Hogan later, were feted with ticker tape in lower Manhattan after winning it, an honor inconceivable for a golfer today.

But the tournament was not a particularly competitive affair for much of the last century; the world wars made sure of that. Tom Watson’s British Open record, now revered, was dismissed as an interesting footnote until he proved capable on higher ground, and the authoritative Peter Alliss has marveled at the marketing genius behind the recent rebranding of the event, calling it more or less irrelevant until Arnold swooped over to St. Andrews in 1960. Still, the British remained plagued by a weakened field at least until Seve and his friends re-jiggered the golfing universe in the 1980s.

I’m too fatigued to take on the PGA today, but let’s just accept it lost its considerable relevance soon after bowing to television and dropping its match play format. It’s also instructive that I can’t remember the last time I watched more than a few holes of the event. Probably that year Payne Stewart embarrassed himself on national TV outside Chicago.

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

Now the Masters is… much more complicated. Of course it is as prestigious as any tournament in the world today, and it has been for some time. Certainly for anyone under, say 40, this article has a discordant feel to it. The pressure on the players to win at Augusta is undoubtedly as high as anywhere. Jordan Spieth’s second shot at 12 on Sunday proved that for those who can’t remember 1996, let alone 1986.

The question is, should it be?

Well, my answer to that should be obvious by now, but the details will have to wait until next time.

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