Everything would be his…

Most call it his best book, a few even the best on golf, but it still took me about 25 years to find Dan Jenkins’s The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. What an odd title, I never could quite make it out, and the fact that it was based on a Bobby Jones quote only further muddled the plot. I guess I assumed the book, if not the quote, was about a bunch of half-drunk Texans betting their mortgages on who could clear the local saloon with a one-iron.

And, of course, there is a section in there on that.

But the book, it turns out, is really nothing more than a reiteration of the same stories Jenkins has been telling for 50 years now, a compilation of his best, pre-1970, hits.

Regardless, it’s still worth reading, if only for the last 4 or 5 pages. He ends by describing the final afternoon of the 1960 US Open, a story I’ve read so many times I could tell it verbatim, and the sole tale Jenkins uses in the eulogy he published immediately after the death of Arnold Palmer.

Somehow though the version Jenkins recounts in Dogged is far and away the best, and in less than 500 words he better explains the man than any of the other tomes written about him.

Now I’m not going to waste time setting up that particular Open. If you don’t know about the pre-round banter in the grill room, Arnold subsequently driving the first green, the front nine 30, Hogan rinsing a wedge on 17, and a pudgy 20-year-old amateur named Jack something or other 3-putting away the championship, well, you know now.

Two things come across in the account in Dogged of that day.

First, you can stuff your Masters revisionism in a sack. The King was crowned on that front nine outside Denver, and defined, later, by his losses at Oakmont and Olympic. Arnold Palmer probably played more than a thousand tournaments, but only 3 or 4, all United States Open Championships, really mattered. And 1960 mattered most. Sometime late on that back nine out West, far from a certain course on the Georgia – South Carolina border, Jenkins recognized: Everything would be his now.

This point is muffed by most of the obits floating around, with many continuing to propel the myth that a limited invitation-only event, on a wholly unnatural made-for-TV course, held a couple of months too early in the season is an arbiter of anything.

More interestingly, in Dogged you learn what drove Arnold Palmer on the golf course. Late that afternoon the man had all but ascended Everest — similar to Tiger at, yes, Augusta in 1997. The world was about to be handed to him, he was about to recognize his life’s dream, and yet he remained fixated on an ultimately irrelevant putt that lipped out and cost him a 29 on the front nine.

And this is the crux of being a fan. The human beings in the arena are infinitely more interesting than the results of these silly events. Does anyone with any depth really care how Arnold, or anyone else for that matter, got or gets the clubface back to square? The carnival barkers on the Golf Channel, apparently, but they can stuff their fatwas on Tiger’s swing in a sack too.

Lee Trevino said he would have bet his mortgage there wasn’t a soul with greater love for the game than his own, until he got to know Arnold Palmer. Jack confirms this, sadly observing that Arnold became a bit lost, a few years ago, after his body finally gave way and golf, of any kind, fell out of reach.

Michael Bamberger, recovering from a misguided, or perhaps obligatory, Masters genuflection in Sports Illustrated’s Arnold obit, gets to the heart of the matter by recounting a tale of the once great man, well past his prime, shaking his putter with glee after a birdie brought him back into a friendly match with a 15 handicapper.

Now, the rank-and-file professional golfer, even those that make it to the top of the game, hang on to the bitter end. The senior tour, the corporate circuit, and the very nature of golf, make this possible in a way that’s out of reach for any other athlete.

There’s a different dynamic at play though for the best of the best. Their biographies are remarkably consistent, and they all end the same. The alpha loses a step, then another. And, the thought of being proven diminished is too heavy a burden. The clubs are hung up. When you were number 1, number 30 is an embarrassment. Heck, number 2 is. Jack liked to say that he had no interest in becoming a “ceremonial golfer.” The lure of the dollar might be the only thing that keeps Tiger from all but joining Mickey Wright in seclusion.

Not Arnold. He didn’t care if he was shooting 60 or 80. He was just trying to hit the ball on the center of the club and ram home a birdie.

Well, that’s the myth anyway. And even if there are less appealing sides to Arnold, as there are to any human being, there is no reason to think it doesn’t approximate the truth.

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.

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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.

79 and done…

While golf’s chattering class fixates on technical issues that no-one cares about, like the bounce on Tiger’s wedges, the definition of the ‘yips’, and now, how best to activate one’s glutes, it is much more interesting to look at Tiger’s demise in comparison to the other greats of the sport.

But before doing that, let’s first all accept that it’s over. If the history of this game has taught us anything, it’s that once the ability to score is gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t come back, regardless of the age, health, or desire of the participant. Tiger can spend the next 18 months doing nothing but chipping and driving – and for that matter can head back up to Isleworth and shoot 62 every week with Cookie and Arjun and the rest of that crowd – and it won’t make an iota of difference. This is crystal clear to everyone outside of his biggest sycophants – you know, Phil Knight, Steiny, everyone in the golf media not named Dan Jenkins – and arguments you hear otherwise are a distraction. Tiger may have a swan song – although it’s increasingly looking like the 2013 Players was just that – but he is not winning 19 professional majors, and even Sam Snead is sleeping safer now.

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In just about every other sport, it’s simple. The hero ages, loses a step, fights an injury, struggles to hang on, and cries when he says goodbye. Jeter was the last to go through this, Peyton will be the next.

But golf… is different. Tom Watson more or less stopped winning at 34. Snead, an outlier, was a threat into his 50s. People like to fawn over the ’86 Masters, but Jack was done as a consistent winner more than six years before, in his late 30s. Arnold and Trevino just a bit later, in their early 40s. And then, most intriguingly, you have those that wake up one day and find they can no longer hit a golf ball during competition, the most prominent being Seve, but lesser players such as David Duval and Ian Baker Finch fit here too.

Jack Nicklaus, in a moment of rare insight – presumably all those legendary interviews he gave to Dave Anderson and Jenkins were off the record – once quipped that his biggest advantage over the field was that he didn’t drink. But it wasn’t a joke; alcohol certainly derailed, or at least suppressed, many a career, perhaps most notably Watson’s. Tiger may imbibe at times, but I sincerely doubt alcohol is his problem. If it is, his enablers have done a heroic job of hiding it.

Earl Woods – who predicted Tiger would stall at 14 majors, by the way – famously said that only a bad back or marriage would scuttle Tiger’s career.

You could say that both did in Jack, although everyone accepts that it was the appeal of family life that dulled his interest in competing. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate though; it seems to me that Jack was more interested in becoming a titan of industry – perhaps not dissimilar from Hogan – and being recognized as the smartest guy in the room, something he couldn’t do by winning a few additional Andy Williams San Diego Opens. I also think losing repeatedly to Watson and Trevino on the biggest stages in the 70s damaged his ego irreparably, but again, I wasn’t sitting in on all those annual Winter caucuses with the press in West Palm, so I don’t know.

But back to Tiger. It’s not his back (or knee, or achilles, or glutes, or anything else related to his body.) He’s recovered from his few serious injuries – let’s remember, five wins in 2013 – and the rest have always carried a whiff of self-protection or ego inflation. It is no secret why the fastest men in the world inevitably clutch at their hamstrings once beaten, and it’s hard to think of any golfer that didn’t have to deal with some type of back issue.

So that leaves Elin. And while I do think Tiger’s breakup is ultimately to blame for the turn his career has taken, it hasn’t unfolded in the manner Earl, or most, would have predicted.

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Jack once explained – maybe he is the best interview of all time – that Gladwell’s excellence theory doesn’t hold with putting, that a golfer inevitably becomes worse over time, irrespective of practice, because one needs to be sure in order to putt. And, of course, the aging process is synonymous with creeping doubt.

Callahan’s book, the best ever written on Tiger, makes two things clear. First, Tiger has been coddled from day one and as a result is permanently immature and insecure. We’re not talking as a competitor here, but as a human being. The ridiculous behavior he exhibits – the insufferable entitlement, the tipping, the big timing, the inability to take any joke, the mentality that made it ok to stiff the widows of Jackie Robinson and Payne Stewart – that riles up the Jenkins types so much, is a self-defense mechanism. Tiger, if nothing else, is the anti-Arnold, never comfortable in his own skin.

The second thing that comes out of Callahan’s book, and some of Diaz’s stuff, is that Tiger surprisingly is not a bad person. He loved his Dad. He respected his parents. And, he’s often felt the sting of loneliness.

The problem is that, for most, there really is only one way to become the best in the world at anything. Have you ever looked at Lance Armstrong? Or Justine Henin? Stacy Lewis? Really looked at them? While they were winning? These are not people you’d ever want to rely on for a favor. Don’t think you’d ever want to share an elevator or cab with them either.

In this vein, Tiger’s personal life wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t a distraction either. It gave him confidence, fed his ego, quieted his insecurity. And it was of a piece for a man who must have realized at a very young age, perhaps somewhere around the time of the first junior amateur, that if he was going to approach the expectations already hardening, that he would need to be ruthlessly selfish.

Thanksgiving evening 2009 upended Tiger’s world. Any certainty he had, about who he was, and how he lived, could only have been shattered. He was embarrassed and ridiculed on a level never seen before, for behavior, quite frankly, ignored or even lauded in earlier generations. Tiger, who had always played the victim card, now actually had a reason to feel under attack.

But more importantly, maybe, for the first time, Tiger recoiled at who he’d become. Maybe, with Elin gone and two kids to raise he decided the old way was unsustainable. Maybe he realized the pursuit of excellence was the problem, at least the way he was going about it. Maybe he came to understand that the right way to win is not the right way to live. And maybe now, like Seve well before his illness, he is discovering there is no other way to win, at least for him, and “it”, whatever “it” is, is not coming back. Ever.