Thursday, August 14, 2014


               For years golf fans have speculated about the day when the sport would have to carry on without Tiger Woods to carry it. It seems that day has come, before most expected.

They played the PGA Championship last week—the fourth and last of the game’s annual “majors”—and Tiger wasn’t around for the weekend, having missed the 36-hole cut. His game, once a source of awe, has become an object of derision. “He’s not even limping properly,” quipped TV analyst David Feherty, as the sore-backed golfer hobbled off after yet another poor shot in the tournament.

Between 1997 and 2008 Woods won 14 majors.  After the last, at age 32, he was deemed a sure bet to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 in that august category. He hasn’t won one since in what should have been his most-productive years, and the line on his chart is pointing down.

If you follow this space you know that I’ve written about Tiger before. It’s hard not to because the arc of his career has been so spectacular. He was a golfing prodigy whose early deeds exceeded even inflated expectations; similarly, his decline has had elements of Greek tragedy.  I’ve never rooted for him because, from close up during my working-press days, I found him arrogant, mercenary and controlling, but it’s still hard to see him as he is today.

His initial successes only made the reversal more startling.  His first major victory—at the 1997 Masters-- was jarring, with a record-setting score and 12-stroke margin that caused the moss-backed custodians of Augusta National to lengthen and reconfigure their course to the point where comparing recent and past performances there have little relevance. Three years later he topped that by blowing away the U.S. Open field at venerable Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a performance that caused a collective shudder among his links foes. For the next several years no touring pro would tee up in a tournament in which he participated without feeling his shadow looming over him. Not even Nicklaus in his prime inspired such fear.

I’ve long held that a main reason for Woods’ dominance was the simple fact that he was a better athlete than any of his foes, and they knew it. Unlike sports that prize speed, strength and agility, golf is about rhythm and timing, and some unlikely looking types have excelled at it, but golfers still are jocks at heart and worship the traditional athletic virtues. I recall that when the powerful slugger Dick Allen was with the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s he broke every clubhouse rule, often showing up for games late, hung over or both, and disappearing between innings to cop smokes. No Sox teammate was heard to criticize him, however, tickled as all of them were to have him on their side.
           Tiger’s physical edge began to slip with knee surgeries in 2007 and ’08, the price he paid for the effort he put into his dynamic swing. Worse yet was the blow to his psyche that resulted from the 2009 revelations that he’d been a serial adulterer with a taste for bimbos that put Bill Clinton’s in the shade. That came out in the most-humiliating way, when the golfer wound up in a hospital emergency room with injuries suffered after backing his car into a fire hydrant while being chased from his home by his wrathful, golf-club-wielding wife.
             From a carefully honed image for discipline and rectitude, Woods became a long-running gag for the Internet and late-night-TV comedians. Sample joke: Did you hear that Tiger wrote a book called “My Favorite 18 Holes”? A lot of people returned it after they found out it was about golf.

That would have been tough for anyone to take, but especially for Tiger, a prototypical ducks-in-a-row kind of guy. Thanks to the mythmakers at Nike and IMG who’d packaged him from the time he turned pro, and abetted by Sports Illustrated, he’d been presented as someone with gifts that transcended sports. His father and mentor Earl described him for the magazine’s profile written when he was 21 as “The Chosen One.” Said dad: “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” If the golfer questioned that assessment he kept it to himself, as he did everything else that didn’t permit him to turn a buck.

Tiger scurried off for “sex-addiction treatment” after his fall from grace, and while he’s won some tournaments since his return-- five of them in 2013 alone-- he’s rarely been in the running in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, the only events he really cares about. This year he was sidelined for four months with back surgery to repair a pinched nerve. He returned (probably too soon) to play in the British Open, where he finished 69th, and in the PGA. Yesterday he pulled out of Ryder Cup consideration, saying he’d stay away from golf until his rehab was complete. Stay tuned.

Golfers can play at a high level well into their 40s (Nicklaus won his last major at age 46; Julius Boros won one at 48), so the 38-year-old Woods is by no means washed up by the calendar. Maybe he’ll regain his mojo and storm the heights again, maybe not.  

There’s a new phenom around in Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old winner of this year’s PGA and British Open, and two other majors before that. Nicklaus, who wants his record to stand forever, stuck a needle in the young man recently by saying there was no reason he couldn’t win “15 or 20” of the shiny baubles. TV ratings for the closely contested PGA Championship were better than they had been for years, so fans may be finding new reasons to watch.  Still, for a long time they’ll probably be doing it with an eye out for Tiger.

Friday, August 1, 2014


               NEWS: National Football League pre-season games are about to begin. Fans cringe.

               VIEWS: What’s the best thing that can happen to your favorite NFL team between now and the Sept. 4 start of the regular season? Nothing.

               That’s right, nothing, because 90% of the news that will emerge from every team’s pre-season is bad.  I’m talking about injuries, of course. They’re inevitable when football is played and one only can hope that the mishaps his or her team suffers won’t queer its entire campaign, like a season-ending one to a starting quarterback or left tackle. That’ll happen to some, sure as the sun rises.

               So why does the world’s most-corporate sports league risk its most-valuable assets in contests that don’t count in the standings?  Partly because the boys need a bit of practice before the start of for-real hostilities, but certainly not the four-games’ worth that the schedule dictates. That’s a function of commerce, based on the premise that you can’t turn a buck if the store is closed. NFL teams soak their season-ticket holders full price for pre-season outings, and sell the games’ TV rights as well. For the guys in the owners’ boxes, that’s worth a torn ACL or two.

                The four-game slate dates from a time when salaries were lower and many players needed off-season jobs to supplement their incomes. Training camp and exhibition games were for getting into shape. Now, jocks are jocks 12 months a year and always are in good condition.  A dress rehearsal or two and they should be ready to go.

               The league knows this and has floated the idea of reducing the pre-season to two games while increasing the regular campaign to 18 games from 16. The players’ union says that would be swell if everyone’s salary were increased by 12.5% to compensate for the 12.5% increase in games that count. So far that’s been a no-sale, so the lunacy continues.

               In fact, most of the players who really will play during the regular season put in much less than four full games of pre-season work. Starters typically play just one or two series of downs in the first pre-season contest, about half of games two and three and little or none of game four, the rest of the action going to rookies and fringe vets. Still, any time they strap it on they can get hurt, and some will. That’s why we watch the pre-season through laced fingers.


               VIEWS: Good for him.

               Before I get to the whys, a bit of who. Mr. Mudiay is an 18-year-old native of Congo who came to these shores as a middle-schooler, settling with his family in the Dallas area. Providentially, he grew to 6-feet-5-inches tall and excelled in basketball, so much so that he was the nation’s No. 5-ranked college prospect at the end of last season. A likely one-and-doner, he was widely wooed nonetheless, finally deciding upon sitting at the feet of Larry Brown, the much-traveled coaching guru whose current stop is Southern Methodist U. There, he no doubt would learn more about the jab step and the cross-over dribble than about subjects whose names end in ology.

               But a funny thing happened to him on the way to academe. A pro team in China offered him a reported $1.2 million to join it for a year, and he said yes. At last sighting he was packing and learning to use chopsticks.

                Pro ball abroad is a path more young basketballers should follow if they get the chance. Sport is an iffy business, with disaster always around the corner, and it behooves the talented to seize whatever opportunities are open to them, while they’re there. For its own reasons the NBA has decreed that it won’t accept players under age 19 and at least a year out of high school. For their own reasons colleges have created a charade under which some of those kids pretend to be students and the schools pretend to educate them until the pros beckon. It stinks all around.

               Young Mudiay will have to pay taxes on his $1.2 mil, and, probably, a sizeable agent’s fee, but he should complete his year of foreign study with at least $700,000 in hand. Even after buying mama a house he’ll have about $500,000 for his own use, a nice start in life by any measure. If at some later date he yearns to learn, he can pay his own tuition, pick his own classes and shoot hoops only when the spirit moves him. That’s win-win-win by me.


               VIEWS: Whadidyah expect?

               With the 2014 baseball schedule almost two-thirds over it’s clear that the best rookie pitcher has been the Japanese Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and the best rookie position player the Cuban first-baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox. That result was pretty much predicted by the initial contracts each received—Tanaka’s for  $155 million over seven years and Abreu’s for $68 m over six—but the extent of their success still has been surprising.

               Tanaka, 25 years old, didn’t just handle Major League batters earlier this season, he handcuffed them, starting off 11-1 in the won-lost column with an ERA of 1.99. Then he fell victim to the elbow woes that are mowing down pitchers of all races and creeds. His availability for the remainder of the campaign is in doubt, but he did enough through June to warrant Rookie-of-the-Year consideration. He’s a helluva pitcher and we only can hope he’ll heal and again prosper.

               Based on Tanaka’s price tag the one for every-day-player Abreu, 27, now seems like a bargain, but it was questionable initially. He’d posted otherworldly numbers in his native country— in one season batting .435 with 30 home runs and 76 RBIs in 66 games—but the quality of the competition he faced there was below MLB level. Further, he’d gone almost a year without playing after his escape from the people’s republic, and was coping with sudden wealth and new choices in a quite-different land.

               The big fellow, however, hit with power from the outset in Chicago and currently leads the majors with 31 home runs. Just as impressively, the more Abreu sees of big-league pitching, the better he likes it; after hitting .254 in April and May he went .326 from June 1 through July 28. “The Sox thought they’d get a slugger but what they got was a real good hitter,” team broadcaster Steve Stone recently observed.          

               The success of the two underscores the growing internationalization of sports, including ones we used to claim as our own. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a whole new ball game out there.