Szwaja's Sports Blog

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

There are times when I sit and think for a moment, "Why couldn't I have grown up in England?" In England I could have been a soccer fanatic, and nobody would be there to tell me I watch too much about sports. Nobody would be there to tell me I care more about sports than I do about finding a girlfriend. Nobody would be there to tell me, "Don't get so worked up about it, it's just a game."

While that would have been quite the experience, in the end, I realize that I'm a hell of a lucky sports fan. The Internet was invented just in time to allow me to follow my favorite professional football team, Tottenham Hotspur FC, in a way nobody could have imagined 40 years ago. So I got that going for me on that front. Meanwhile, Chicago has done me just fine. From birth to age 16, I got to watch the finest, most dominant athlete in the post-WWII era compete in the form of Michael Jordan. And now there's Tiger Woods.

Being a Jordan fan was easy and natural. He played for the Bulls, so I got to watch him play every night and was one of the few that actually got to see him play in person -- my crowning night as a Jordan fan came when I was in the Chicago Stadium rafters for Game 1 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, which marked the series the Bulls finally disposed of the Pistons.

Woods is different. Golf is a different sport. Fandom doesn't have geographic borders to fall back on in golf. I have a huge problem with fandom in golf actually, which I wrote an entire column on back when I wrote stuff like this for an actual newspaper in college. In short, I think golf fans are too nice. With the exception of the Ryder Cup to a certain extent, golf fans never root against certain players. Sure, you have your Phil Mickelson fans, but odds are they'll still stand and clap if, say, Kirk Triplett goes out and wins the tournament and Mickelson finishes tied for 6th. Whereas in a sport like NASCAR, fans will actually stand and hiss at Jeff Gordon if he wins. The old Blue Collar Comedy Tour joke comes to mind: "(Fill in the Blank) is like having tickets to a NASCAR race where you know Jeff Gordon is gonna die."

Me? I'm a Tiger fan. I could watch the guy hit fairway bunker shots for hours. Hell, I could probably be entertained by him ironing his golf slacks. Anyway, I have other golfers I like to watch, Chris DiMarco, Davis Love III, Frank Licklighter and Steve Stricker come to mind. In the last several years, Tiger has joined the elite Szwaja's top-five favorite athletes of all time list (in no real order): Jordan, Tiger, Agassi, Thomas and Sandberg.

For a while, the similarities between Tiger and MJ were uncanny in my eyes. Both have their signature manifestation of domination: the wagging tongue in Jordan's case and the post-drive twirl for Woods. Both have dominated to the point of obtaining their own Nike logos: the Jumpman for MJ and the TW combo for Tiger. Both understand the concept of drive and determination. Neither is content with being the best. They both know/knew that if they slacked for one second, they would immediately be second best, then third, then fourth and so on.

That last one is especially true in golf. Think of the flash in the pan players golf has seen: David Duval, Notah Begay (who never won a major but had one outstanding season) and Steve Elkington. ***EDIT*** I mentioned Seve Ballesteros before as a "flash in the pan." My good golf friend, and best friend, Hank informed me that Seve won five majors in eight years, which equals an outstanding career and hardly a flash in the pan. But, see that's all Seve and in him, those five. Tiger might just be reaching the peak of his career and he's got 12. Back to the orginal point, golfers who win come and go like beer bottles during rush week. Not Tiger, oh no.

I got to see much of Tiger's final round last Sunday at the PGA Championship in person. He entered the final day tied for the lead, and as usual, walked away with the hardware. And he did everything he normally does on Sunday's when he has the lead: make a few early birdies, drop 40-foot putts any normal pro couldn't and play steady, par-golf the rest of the way to win. It was, shall I say, Jordanesque.

But Tiger does something to his opponents Jordan never did. Tiger destroys the psyche of his opponents. They don't believe they can win. Luke Donald was tied for the lead going into Sunday. He shot a +2 74. US Open champ Geoff Olgilvy? No chance, crumbled like a muffin. One-time PGA Champ Shaun Micheel? Nice round but hardly a "Shaun ate his Wheaties this morning" round. Mike Weir, eh? I think he's still trying to blast his way out of all the fairway bunkers at Medinah. Phil said before his round he was ready to go low to challenge the leaders. Yeah right, he finished over par for the day as well.

Seriously, think back to when Jordan was at his highest, most intimidating self. First title: Magic and Worthy took the first game; they really believed they had a chance and they went down fighting. Second title: For most of that series, dare I say Portland dominated games and lost just because Jordan was too good? They believed they could win and were one bad fourth quarter away from taking that series to seven games. Third title: Again, one John Paxson three away from Game 7. Barkley and the Suns went down fighting. Fourth title: Kemp and Payton were over matched, but they took that Bulls team to their only Game 6 of those playoffs. Fifth and Sixth titles: Malone and Stockton never once went into any of those games thinking they were going to lose, and they played their asses off.

Then there was last Sunday. With the exception of Tiger and Adam Scott, who could have shot 59 and still not won, nobody showed up to play. None of those guys I mentioned above went into Sunday thinking, "I'm going to win and there's nothing anyone can do about it." Not even Donald, who played great golf Saturday, had all the momentum and sat atop the board tied with Tiger had those thoughts in mind. Look no further than his shirt for evidence. He wore a red shirt to prove he wasn't intimidated by Tiger. Reverse psychology at its finest, people. By wearing red, Donald showed everyone that he had Tiger on his mind. As a result, he was finished before they even started. He didn't need to think about taking down the great one. He needed to think about taking down the golf course.

If you're missing out on the growing legend that is Tiger Woods, you're missing out on the spectacle of an athlete that you'll probably never get the chance to see again. So, even if you can't stand the guy, respect and enjoy what he brings with him to course every time he plays. You're one of the lucky ones who's here to see it unfold.


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