Shaking hands with Steve Scott standing on the green of the 38th hole of the final match in the 1996 U.S. Amateur, Tiger Woods ascended into greatness with his third-straight U.S. Amateur victory. In a feature for the September 2nd issue of Sports Illustrated that year, Jaime Diaz captured a quote from Tiger referencing his second-round 66 in the 1996 Open Championship. Looking back now, there’s a freedom one can only hope Tiger will find again. “Something really clicked that day, like I had found a whole new style of play,” Woods said. “I finally understood the meaning of playing within myself. Ever since, the game has seemed a lot easier.”
That’s quite a bold statement for someone who, beginning five years earlier, held the top national amateur title in the country from the time he was 15 until he turned pro at the age of 20. Three consecutive USGA Junior titles followed by three consecutive USGA Amateurs. He was in the conversation among Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus as the greatest amateur player to ever live. It seems golf only got easier for the young superstar. We all know his record between 1996 and 2013. No need to lay it out. But something happened along the way.
On Memorial Day of this year, news broke that Tiger had been arrested on suspicion of Driving Under the Influence. A mugshot appeared not a half hour after his release from police custody in Jupiter, Florida. What followed was a statement on his website claiming full responsibility for his actions.
“There was no alcohol involved,” Woods wrote. “I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly.”
It would be easy to speculate as to why Tiger was found on the side of the road. He did have back surgery recently (his fourth back surgery), on top of multiple other surgeries and procedures over the years; he’s practically the bionic man at this point. But speculation about his habits doesn’t provide any context into the Tiger we are seeing now. For context, we need understand who Tiger is as a figure. And for that, we need to go back a little further.
In 1957, the Boston Celtics made a deal with the St. Louis Hawks to acquire the second-round draft pick, and ultimately, the man who would change the dynamic of basketball forever.
William (Bill) Felton Russell was a 6-foot 10-inch towering figure, and in a league full of slow white guys, he dominated down low and simply outpaced everyone else on the court. For his career, Russell averaged over 15 points per game, over 22 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists. Russell also won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics over the course of 13 seasons, two of which were as a Player/Coach (‘68 and ‘69). The numbers are astonishing and are the part of the story we still talk about today, but it’s not the most important part. Bill Russell was the first black superstar in the NBA.
In a story for Rhino Press, David Valerio writes this about Russell: “He was also 6-feet 10-inches, an athletic monster who blocked and dunked on players, actions previously unknown in the NBA. No one dunked. No one blocked. It was unheard of. Yet the arrival of Bill Russell signaled the start of a new era in league history; it signaled the arrival of black players into the NBA. Bill Russell was not the first black NBA player — such well-known names as Chuck Cooper, Harold Hunter, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton broke the race barrier first. But none of you know their names, because they weren’t superstars like Bill Russell was; they couldn’t lead teams to championships in addition to being named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Bill Russell was a star who helped change the face of the NBA forever, for Russell was not only the premier black NBA player, but he was also a black man who fought against racism in both its perceived and actual forms.”
Bill Russell wasn’t the first black athlete in his sport. But he was the first to ascend into superstardom. Sound familiar?
Tiger wasn’t the first black player to grace the PGA Tour; he was preceded by the likes of Calvin Peete (12 wins on the PGA Tour including the Harry Vardon and Byron Nelson Awards in 1984), Jim Thorpe (three wins on PGA Tour, 13 on the Champions Tour), Charlie Sifford (the first black player on the PGA Tour and won twice), and Lee Elder (the first black man to play in The Masters in 1975). What made Tiger different from his contemporaries is almost identical to what was different about Bill Russell. They finished paving a road others had started and seemed to do it on sheer willpower and work ethic.
Yes, for as long as we can remember, it was assumed that Tiger would be gunning for Nicklaus’ record, but it’s one thing for people to assume it’s going to happen and it actually happening. In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he tells the story of how he perceived what made Larry Bird so great to Celtics fans. “In the big scheme of things,” Simmons writes, “Number 33 [Bird] was an extremely tall and well-coordinated guy who did his job exceptionally well. That’s it. You can’t call him a superhero because he wasn’t saving lives or making the world a better place. At the same time, he possessed heroic qualities because everyone in New England bought into his invincibility.
“He came through too many times for us. After a while, we started expecting him to come through, and when he still came through, that’s when we were hooked for good.”
What Simmons describes in his book about Larry Bird is the same thing we came to expect from Tiger essentially as soon as he slid on his first green jacket. Tiger was an invincible athlete who was also truly breaking the racial barrier in an elitist sport. Standing on the shoulders of Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe, and Lee Elder, Tiger climbed higher than any professional golfer ever had, much like Bill Russell. It didn’t matter the situation; Tiger always hit to shot that kept him in it, or he always sank the putt to extend a match or take the lead. What also came with that invincibility was isolation. Simmons goes on to write about Russell, “Maybe the city [Boston] would have accepted an African-American sports hero in the fifties and sixties — eventually it accepted many of them — but never someone as complex and stubborn as Russell.” Again, where Russell and Tiger are the same, people never really connected with Tiger as a persona, they were just in awe of his sheer dominance.
While Bill Russell was winning championships like older brothers win wrestling matches, he was also absorbing shots to his character and his abilities for no reason other than the color of his skin. David Valerio goes on to write in his piece, “While Russell was on tour with an exhibition team prior to the 1961-62 season, Russell and a teammate were denied service in a restaurant when their team was scheduled to play a game in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell and his team then refused to play in the city and flew back home, generating a large amount of controversy.” What followed that incident laid the groundwork for how Russell would be perceived the rest of his career, and to many, still is. Valerio continues, “In response to this, and other issues, Russell became resentful of the media and fans’ attentions, as he believed it all to be sarcastic and hollow. This resentment held over to his reactions with the local Boston fans. As a result of this, and many other events, Russell never particularly warmed to Boston, a city notorious for its racism, even as he continued on to win an exorbitant amount of championships for its team.”
As late as 1997, Fuzzy Zoeller made his infamous quote on Tiger’s achievements thus far: “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
That was a mere 20 years ago.
As we look back at Bill Russell’s career, it makes total sense that he isolated himself from the media. Why would he give them the time of day? They weren’t out there playing his game. They weren’t sweating on the practice court alone before anyone else showed up; it was just him. And his will to beat the hell out of everyone else. That’s it. Simmons claims he was complex, and I’m sure there are aspects of him that are, but it seems he just wanted to be left alone to play his game and beat everybody else that tried to join him. Had Dan Jenkins been covering basketball in Russell’s prime, he might have felt the need to write a (fake) interview with him for Sports Illustrated, because something tells me he wouldn’t have sat down with Jenko either. For many reasons, Russell spent essentially the entire 90s living a reclusive life in the Pacific Northwest.
As we sit and ponder over the next few days, and throw around comments about whether Tiger will ever play golf again, we need to also think about what Jack Nicklaus had to say about a man whom he refers to as a friend.
“I feel bad for Tiger. Tiger’s a friend. He’s been great for the game of golf. He needs our help. I wish him well.”
It’s easy to forget that Tiger Woods is not just a brand and not just a legendary golfer. He’s a person, a father, and a man who dominated a tour that until 1961 no black man had ever been allowed to even join. Like Russell, even well into the height of his career, when he was at the top of the mountain, he had to endure comments rooted in racism, even if they may not have been ill-intentioned. Tiger just wanted to play his game better than anyone who’d ever lived. All the other stuff was simply a by-product, and eventually, the by-product got in the way, making it harder to play within himself.
In a 2010 piece from Bleacher Report titled The Psychology Behind Greatness: Tiger Woods Imbalance, Vincent Heck writes, “The Tiger Woods we knew before could do no wrong. Now, to many, he’s an immoral, arrogant cheater who can’t be trusted.” Heck also goes on to cite Thomas G. Seabourne, Ph.D., from The Journal of Sports Psychology: “Learning to cope and deal with counter-productive tendencies that an athlete may experience is important. Their ability to do so will impact on their overall performance and may interfere or facilitate the athlete in striving for an optimal performance.”
The point of Heck’s piece, at the time, was that prior to the Thanksgiving incident of 2009, Tiger had received virtually zero criticism on or off the course. Sure, a little poking here and there about his language when he duck-hooked a tee shot, but it was minimal. He was invincible inside the ropes. After his affairs came to light that all changed on a dime, and it’s been a rocky road ever since. Each injury and withdrawal drew more and more scrutiny, and the number of times his integrity has been called into question is equal only to the number of Fast and Furious movies we’ll have to endure over the next decade.
Some can say that he’s isolated himself, I may even be in this camp on occasion, but when you sit down and think about the surmounting pressure he’s received over the last decade, who can blame him? In a TIME interview with Lorne Rubenstein from 2014, you can see the shift in his mindset after having kids. Lorne asked, “How do you feel about the way the media have covered you?”
“There’s no accountability in what they say,” Tiger responded. “And what they say, it’s like it’s gospel, there’s no source behind it. Nothing like, yeah, I talked to X number of players, I talked to this player, this player, this player. It’s none of that.”
He would go on further in response to Rubenstein’s question about what’s written about him. “You don’t read what’s written about you? Was there a time when you did?” Rubenstein asked.
Tiger’s response, “Not really. And that has served me well. It has served me well. Like my Dad said when I was young, Were any of these guys there? If anybody has any kind of perspective on it, it would be the caddy. He saw the shot, he understood what the circumstances were. Other than that, there’s nobody else. So what’s their take on it? Who cares? They weren’t there. They didn’t see how difficult it was, what’s going on.”
Reading the TIME article, you get the sense Rubenstein’s question wasn’t just about what goes on inside the ropes. And even though Tiger’s response defaults to golf, you know it’s hinting at what goes on outside the ropes.
We don’t know what it’s like to be the most famous athlete in the world for one second, much less for nearly 20 years. We don’t know what it’s like to feel the pressure of representing an entire race in a sport that has a history of blatant prejudice. Bill Russell and Tiger Woods know what that’s like. As do many others in American sports, but I don’t, and you probably don’t either.
It’s impossible to know what is going through Tiger’s head, but thinking back to the 20-year-old Tiger who said, “Something really clicked that day, I felt like I had found a whole new style of play. I finally understood what it meant to play within myself,” here’s to hoping he can do that again. It might seem easy to an outsider, the Tiger we once knew is a larger than life figure, you’d think playing within that framework would come easy. But the Tiger we don’t know is the one he needs to play within, and that battlefield seems to be getting smaller by the day.
Fantasy Preview: 2018 Fort Worth Invitational
Under a new name, but a very familiar setting, the Fort Worth Championship gets underway this week. Colonial Country Club will host, and it’s an event that has attracted some big names to compete in the final stop of the Texas swing. The top two ranked Europeans, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose are in the field, as are Americans Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
Colonial is a tricky course with narrow tree-lined fairways that are imperative to hit. Distance off the tee holds no real advantage this week with approach play being pivotal. Approach shots will be made more difficult this week than usual by the greens at Colonial, which are some of the smallest on the PGA Tour. Last year, Kevin Kisner held off Spieth, Rahm, and O’Hair to post 10-under par and take the title by a one-stroke margin.
Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)
- Jordan Spieth 9/1
- Jon Rahm 14/1
- Justin Rose 18/1
- Webb Simpson 18/1
- Rickie Fowler 20/1
- Jimmy Walker 28/1
- Adam Scott 28/1
Last week, Jordan Spieth (9/1, DK Price $11,700) went off at the Byron Nelson as the prohibitive 5/1 favorite. Every man and his dog seemed to be on him, and after Spieth spoke to the media about how he felt he had a distinct advantage at a course where he is a member, it was really no surprise. Comments like this from Spieth at the Byron Nelson are not new. When the event was held at TPC Four Seasons, Spieth often made similar comments. The result? He flopped, just as he did last week at Trinity Forest. Spieth’s best finish at the Byron Nelson in his career is T-16. The reason for this, I believe, is the expectations he has put on himself at this event for years.
Switch to Colonial, and the difference is considerable. Spieth’s worst finish here is T-14. In his last three visits, he has finished second, first and second. While Spieth may believe that he should win the Byron Nelson whenever he tees it up there, the evidence suggests that his love affair is with Colonial. The statistic that truly emphasizes his prowess at Colonial, though, is his Strokes Gained-Total at the course. Since 2013, Spieth has a ridiculous Strokes Gained-Total of more than +55 on the course, almost double that of Kisner in second place.
Spieth’s long game all year has been consistently good. Over his previous 24 rounds, he ranks first in this field for Strokes Gained-Tee to Green, second for Ball Striking, and first for Strokes Gained-Total. On the other hand, his putting is awful at the moment. He had yet another dreadful performance on the greens at Trinity Forest, but he was also putting nowhere near his best coming into Colonial last year. In 2017, he had dropped strokes on the greens in his previous two events, missing the cut on both occasions, yet he finished seventh in Strokes Gained-Putting at Colonial on his way to a runner-up finish. His record is too good at this course for Spieth to be 9/1, and he can ignite his 2018 season in his home state this week.
Emiliano Grillo’s (50/1, DK Price $8,600) only missed cut in 2018 came at the team event in New Orleans, and he arrives this week at a course ideally suited to the Argentine’s game. Grillo performed well here in 2017, recording a top-25 finish. His form in 2018 leads me to believe he can improve on that this year.
As a second-shot golf course, Colonial sets up beautifully for the strengths of Grillo’s game. Over his previous 12 rounds, Grillo ranks first in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, second in Ball Striking, third in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green and eighth in Strokes Gained-Total. The Argentine also plays short golf courses excellently. Over his last 50 rounds, Grillo is ranked ninth for Strokes Gained-Total on courses measuring 7,200 yards or less. Colonial is right on that number, and Grillo looks undervalued to continue his consistent season on a course that suits him very well.
Another man enjoying a consistent 2018 is Adam Hadwin (66/1, DK Price $7,600), who has yet to miss a cut this season. The Canadian is enjoying an excellent run of form with five top-25 finishes from his last six stroke-play events. Hadwin is another man whose game is tailor made for Colonial. His accurate iron play and solid putting is a recipe for success here, and he has proven that by making the cut in all three of his starts at Colonial, finishing in the top-25 twice.
Hadwin is coming off his worst performance of 2018 at The Players Championship, but it was an anomaly you can chalk up to a rare poor week around the greens (he was seventh-to-last in Strokes Gained-Around the Green for the week). In his previous seven starts, Hadwin had a positive strokes gained total in this category each time. Over his last 24 rounds, Hadwin ranks seventh in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, 15th in Ball Striking, and ninth in Strokes Gained-Putting. He looks to have an excellent opportunity to improve on his solid record at Colonial this week.
Finally, as far as outsiders go, I like the look of Sean O’Hair (175/1, DK Price $7,100) at what is a juicy price. One of last year’s runners-up, his number is far too big this week. He has had some excellent performances so far in 2018. In fact, in his previous six starts, O’Hair has made five cuts and has notched three top-15 finishes, including his runner-up finish at the Valero Texas Open. The Texan has made three of his last four cuts at Colonial, and he looks to be an excellent pick on DraftKings at a low price.
- Jordan Spieth 9/1, DK Price $11,700
- Emiliano Grillo 50/1, DK Price $8.600
- Adam Hadwin 66/1, DK Price $7,600
- Sean O’Hair 175/1, DK Price $7,100
Pick three golfers to build the ultimate scramble team. Who you got?
It’s officially scramble season. Whether it’s a corporate outing or charity event, surely you’ve either been invited to play in or have already played in a scramble this year.
If you don’t know the rules of the scramble format, here’s how it works: All four golfers hit their drives, then the group elects the best shot. From there, all four golfers hit the shot, and the best of the bunch is chosen once again. The hole continues in this fashion until the golf ball is holed.
The best scramble players are those who hit the ball really far and/or stick it close with the irons and/or hole a lot of putts. The point is to make as many birdies and eagles as possible.
With this in mind, inside GolfWRX Headquarters, we got to discussing who would be on the ultimate scramble team. Obviously, Tiger-Jack-Daly was brought up immediately, so there needed to be a caveat to make it more challenging.
Thus, the following hypothetical was born. We assigned each golfer below a dollar value, and said that we had to build a three player scramble team (plus yourself) for $8 or less.
Here are the answers from the content team here at GolfWRX:
Tiger Woods ($5): This is obvious. From a scramble standpoint, Tiger gives you everything you want: Long, accurate, and strategic off the tee (in his prime). Woods, sets the team up for optimal approach shots (he was pretty good at those too)…and of course, arguably the greatest pressure putter of all time.
David Duval ($2): I’m thinking of Double D’s machine-like approach play in his prime. Tour-leader in GIR in 1999, and 26th in driving accuracy that year, Duval ought to stick second shots when TW doesn’t and is an asset off the tee.
Corey Pavin ($1): A superb putter and dogged competitor, Pavin’s a great value at $1. Ryder Cup moxy. Plus, he’ll always give you a ball in the fairway off the tee (albeit a short one), much needed in scramble play.
Rory McIlroy ($4): I am willing to bet their are only a handful of par 5’s in the world that he can’t hit in in two shots. You need a guy who can flat out overpower a course and put you in short iron situations on every hole. His iron play is a thing of beauty, with a high trajectory that makes going after any sucker pin a possibility.
Jordan Spieth ($3): Was there a guy who putted from mid-range better than him just a couple years ago? If there was, he isn’t on this list. Scrambles need a guy who can drain everything on the green and after watching 3 putts to get the read, he won’t miss. His solid wedge game will also help us get up and down from those short yardages on the Par 4’s.
Corey Pavin ($1): Fear the STACHE!! The former Ryder Cup captain will keep the whole team playing their best and motivated to make birdies and eagles. If we have 228 yards to the flag we know he is pulling that 4 wood out and giving us a short putt for birdie. He will of course be our safety net, hitting the “safe shot,” allowing the rest of us to get aggressive!
Dustin Johnson ($4) – Bombmeister!!!
Lee Trevino ($2) — Funny as hell (and I speak Mexican).
Sergio Garcia ($1) – The greatest iron player (I speak Spanish, too).
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Lee Trevino ($2)
DJ is longer than I-10, Seve can dig it out of the woods, and Trevino can shape it into any pin.
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Jordan Spieth ($2)
Anthony Kim ($1)
Are all the old timers gonna be mad at me for taking young guys? Doesn’t matter. DJ has to be the best driver ever, as long as he’s hitting that butter cut. With Jordan, it’s hard to tell whether he’s better with his irons or with his putter — remember, we’re talking Jordan in his prime, not the guy who misses putts from 8 inches. Then, Anthony Kim has to be on the team in case the alcohol gets going since, you know, it’s a scramble; remember when he was out all night (allegedly) before the Presidents Cup and still won his match? I need that kind of ability on my squad. Plus AK will get us in the fairway when me, DJ and Spieth each inevitably hit it sideways.
Tiger Woods ($5)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Corey Pavin ($1)
Tiger is a no-brainer. Seve is maybe the most creative player ever and would enjoy playing HORSE with Tiger. Pavin is the only $1 player who wouldn’t be scared stiff to be paired with the first two.
Tiger Woods ($5): His Mind/Overall Game
Seve Ballesteros ($2): His creativity/fire in a team format/inside 100
Anthony Kim ($1): Team swagger/he’s streaky/will hit fairways under the gun.
A scramble requires 3 things: Power, Putting and Momentum. These 3 guys as a team complete the whole package. Tiger is a one man scramble team but will get himself in trouble, which is where Seve comes in. In the case where the momentum is going forward like a freight train, nobody rattles a cage into the zone better than AK. It’s the perfect team and the team I’d want out there if my life was on the line. I’d trust my kids with this team.
Who would you pick on your team, and why? See what GolfWRX Members are saying in the forums.
Is equipment really to blame for the distance problem in golf?
It’s 2018, we’re more than a quarter of the way through Major Season, and there are 58 players on the PGA Tour averaging over 300 yards off the tee. Trey Mullinax is leading the PGA Tour through the Wells Fargo Championship with an average driving distance of 320 yards. Much discussion has been had about the difficulty such averages are placing on the golf courses across the country. Sewn into the fabric of the distance discussion are suggestions by current and past giants of the game to roll back the golf ball.
In a single segment on an episode of Live From The Masters, Brandel Chamblee said, “There’s a correlation from when the ProV1 was introduced and driving distance spiked,” followed a few minutes later by this: “The equipment isn’t the source of the distance, it’s the athletes.”
So which is it? Does it have to be one or the other? Is there a problem at all?
Several things of interest happened on the PGA Tour in the early 2000s, most of which were entirely driven by the single most dominant athlete of the last 30. First, we saw Tiger Woods win four consecutive majors, the first and only person to do that in the modern era of what are now considered the majors. Second, that same athlete drew enough eyeballs so that Tim Finchem could exponentially increase the prize money golfers were playing for each week. Third, but often the most overlooked, Tiger Woods ushered in fitness to the mainstream of golf. Tiger took what Gary Player and Greg Norman had preached their whole careers and amped it up like he did everything else.
In 1980, Dan Pohl was the longest player on the PGA Tour. He averaged 274 yards off the tee with a 5-foot, 11-inch and 175-pound frame. By 2000, the average distance for all players on the PGA Tour was 274 yards. The leader of the pack that year was John Daly, who was the only man to average over 300 yards. Tiger Woods came in right behind him at 298 yards.
Analysis of the driving distance stats on the PGA Tour since 1980 show a few important statistics: Over the last 38 seasons, the average driving distance for all players on the PGA Tour has increased an average of 1.1 yards per year. When depicted on a graph, it looks like this:
The disparity between the shortest and the longest hitter on the PGA Tour has increased 0.53 yards per year, which means the longest hitters are increasing the gap between themselves and the shortest hitters. The disparity chart fluctuates considerably more than the average distance chart, but the increase from 1980 to 2018 is staggering.
In 1980, there was 35.6 yards between Dan Pohl (longest) and Michael Brannan (shortest – driving distance 238.7 yards). In 2018, the difference between Trey Mullinax and Ken Duke is 55.9 yards. Another point to consider is that in 1980, Michael Brannan was 25. Ken Duke is currently 49 years of age.
The question has not been, “Is there a distance problem?” It’s been, “How do we solve the distance problem?” The data is clear that distance has increased — not so much at an exponential rate, but at a consistent clip over the last four decades — and also that equipment is only a fraction of the equation.
Jack Nicklaus was over-the-hill in 1986 when he won the Masters. It came completely out of nowhere. Players in past decades didn’t hit their prime until they were in their early thirties, and then it was gone by their early forties. Today, it’s routine for players to continue playing until they are over 50 on the PGA Tour. In 2017, Steve Stricker joined the PGA Tour Champions. In 2016, he averaged 278 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour. With that number, he’d have topped the charts in 1980 by nearly four yards.
If equipment was the only reason distance had increased, then the disparity between the longest and shortest hitters would have decreased. If it was all equipment, then Ken Duke should be averaging something more like 280 yards instead of 266.
There are several things at play. First and foremost, golfers are simply better athletes these days. That’s not to say that the players of yesteryear weren’t good athletes, but the best athletes on the planet forty years ago didn’t play golf; they played football and basketball and baseball. Equipment definitely helped those super athletes hit the ball straighter, but the power is organic.
The other thing to consider is that the total tournament purse for the 1980 Tour Championship was $440,000 ($1,370,833 in today’s dollars). The winner’s share for an opposite-field event, such as the one played in Puerto Rico this year, is over $1 million. Along with the fitness era, Tiger Woods ushered in the era of huge paydays for golfers. This year, the U.S. Open prize purse will be $12 milion with $2.1 million of that going to the winner. If you’re a super athlete with the skills to be a golfer, it makes good business sense to go into golf these days. That wasn’t the case four decades ago.
Sure, equipment has something to do with the distance boom, but the core of the increase is about the athletes themselves. Let’s start giving credit where credit is due.
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